Posted on 6 December 2021
In the preceding articles, we discussed the technologies and innovations that may allow us to drastically extend human lifespan, perhaps indefinitely. Just as with any great technological leap, the ability to slow or reverse the ageing process will bring many new challenges. In this article we will explore some of those challenges, but first, let’s make one thing clear: this is not a discussion on whether we should stall scientific progress for fear of the repercussions. At best, this strategy does little to delay the development of new technologies, but delays important planning and lawmaking, thereby ensuring that society is poorly prepared when said technologies inevitably explode into our lives anyway. At worst, it means that the technologies in question can only be worked on in parts of the world where science is poorly regulated, which is a bad thing for obvious reasons. Instead, I’m going to discuss some of the most common concerns people have when it comes the prospect of lifespan extension, and the extent to which that concern is justified.
According to the WHO, around half of the world’s population cannot obtain essential health services. Won’t the existence of longevity therapies just widen the gap between rich and poor, allowing the wealthy to live forever while the rest of us are unable to afford these treatments? It is a concerning possibility, but one that most advocates of anti-ageing research consider unlikely – these therapies, they argue, will be free.
The economic cost of ageing is enormous: a recent study argued that slowing ageing by enough to extend lifespan by just one year in the United States would be worth $37.6 trillion. In other words, unless longevity treatments are horrendously expensive, the economic cost of failing to provide them for free will be too great to ignore. A more likely problem is that some developing countries will simply lack the wealth and infrastructure to provide these treatments to their populations. Hopefully by the time longevity escape velocity is achieved, this will be less of a problem than it is currently, but it’s certainly something we shouldn’t be ignoring.
We should remember that many technologies do take time to become accessible outside of a group of wealthier early adopters, but can still have equalising effects when they do reach a wider population. The internet, for example, has massively reduced the barrier when it comes to accessing high quality education, knowledge and opportunities. Information that was previously exclusive to higher education is now available to anyone with internet access, which is around 60% of the global population, and that number will eventually reach 100%.
Whether or not the Earth’s population grows or declines depends on two factors: the birth rate and the death rate. If the former exceeds the latter, then the population will increase and vice versa. It is true that increasing human life expectancy will reduce the death rate and will therefore favour population growth, but this has to be put in context. While it might be hard to believe given that the global population is still growing, we are actually going to be facing an underpopulation crisis by the end of this century. That’s because global fertility rate has massively declined in the last 70 years, and will continue to do until it falls below the ‘replacement level’. Replacement level is the level of fertility at which a population exactly replaces itself from one generation to the next, and usually has a value of 2.1 or more depending on infant mortality.
If the current trends continue, researchers predict that population growth will slow until around 2064, at which point population will begin to shrink. By 2100, the populations of countries such as China, Japan and Italy will be roughly half what they are today. This is a problem not necessarily because of the decrease in population per se, but because of the age distribution that results from a dramatic drop in birth rate. By the time people who were born during periods of high birth rate become elderly and in need of medical/social care, they greatly outnumber the population that is able to provide that care. This problem is already being felt by many developed countries, and it’s going to get worse.
There are only two ways in which we can prevent this situation. The first is by encouraging higher birth rates, which is unlikely to be attempted and is equally unlikely to work. The second is to slow the ageing process: if we can make the body of an 80 year-old behave like that of a 30 year-old, then the aforementioned age distribution problem won’t matter because the ‘elderly’ won’t need much medical care.
Of course, extending life expectancy indefinitely will result in a continually rising population, no matter how low the birth rate is. The point is that we are going to face population problems no matter what we do, so why not pick the option that will allow us to live longer lives free of debilitating diseases?
This is a subjective question for which there is no definitive answer. Some argue that our actions throughout life would have less meaning if there were no ‘time limit’ to our existence. I certainly don’t share this view, and I don’t think you will find many people agreeing that increases in human life expectancy this century have robbed our lives of meaning. On the contrary, ageing, disease and death are life’s greatest robbers of meaning, both from ourselves and from those that we leave behind. At most, I will admit that experiencing health problems might make you appreciate good health more. Congratulations, you get to live out the rest of your life with heart disease, but at least you can reminisce about how healthy you used to be!
Extending human lifespan indefinitely would theoretically allow dictators and tyrants to rule forever. In practice, lifespan extension is unlikely to lead to eternal dictatorship because when a tyrant does die due to old age (as opposed to unnatural causes), this rarely results in an end to the dictatorship itself. At best, the dictator will be replaced by a less tyrannical successor. At worst, their death will be followed by violent upheaval that ends in a worse regime than what came before. The idea that the inhabitants of autocracies around the world just need to wait for their leader to die so that they can implement a democratic system is obviously rather unrealistic.
Even if the death of a dictator from old age does sometimes accelerate the progression of a country from autocracy to democracy, the scale of suffering caused by ageing is arguably greater than what any tyrant can cause. The World loses 60 million people a year, and most of them die slow deaths from age related diseases after suffering many years of declining health.
Substrate is morally irrelevant. Whether somebody is implemented on silicon or biological tissue, if it does not affect functionality or consciousness, is of no moral significance. Carbon-chauvinism is objectionable on the same grounds as racism.-Nick Bostrom, Ethical Principals in the Creation of Artificial Minds
The problems discussed above all have an almost reassuring element of familiarity to them. Inequality, overpopulation, tyrannical regimes – humanity has faced and continues to face these challenges. Should we achieve lifespan extension through digital means, however, then we will be entering a world of unknown unknowns which could be fraught with danger.
By ‘uploading’ our minds or by filling our brains with artificial neurons, we will be changing the ‘substrate’ of our consciousnesses. This alone shouldn’t change who we are – if you are the product of the all of the electrical connections in your central nervous system and its interactions with your body and your environment, then an exact replica of those connections and interactions cannot fail to produce anything other than you. However, the fusion of biology and technology will allow us to enhance the immense complexity of the neural networks in our brains with the immense computational speed of its new substrate. Becoming digital entities would also completely change the way we processed and acquired new information. Our biological brains must learn by slowly rewiring themselves, requiring repetitive action and feedback to slowly change the strength of the relevant synapses – and when we wish to teach a skill to someone else, they must go through the same painstaking process we did. As digital entities, we should be able to simply transfer the necessary rewiring directly from one ‘brain’ to another. We would be able to ‘download’ skills, memories, even personalities.
What would such an existence be like to experience? Would we still consider ourselves human and continue to care about human things? Would we still have hobbies, ambitions, hopes and fears, appreciation for art and music, desire to explore the unknown? Until someone does actually upload their mind, we can’t possibly know the answer to these questions.
There’s also another problem when it comes to a digital existence, which is that in order to retain any semblance of the human experience, simply replicating the human brain in a computer won’t be enough. The brain needs sensory input – an environment to exist in – or it will have nothing to process, and so we must either retain the ability to interface with the real world or with a perfect artificial replica. Would humans even choose to continue existing in the real world over a virtual world of their choosing?
Short of having a global totalitarian state, we can’t completely halt technological progress, nor should we. While the uncertainties they bring can be scary, almost all new technologies do more good than harm in the long run, especially if proper precautions are taken to mitigate the dangers. Imagine if you went back in time and explained hydrogen bombs and genetic engineering to the people of 1900. Many of them would probably think it preferable for technological progress to stop, rather than to take the existential risks of nuclear war or the creation of bioweapons. Yet here we are in 2021, and I doubt that many people today would choose to roll technology back to what it was 120 years ago.
Compared to the hydrogen bomb, I’d argue that the risks of increasing human lifespan are slim. They are there, however, and the longer we dismiss lifespan extension as the stuff of science fiction, the less prepared we will be for the risks when they do arrive. So let’s try to live forever, but let’s do it smartly, and let’s at least start thinking about the legal, social and moral implications.
World Bank and WHO: Half the world lacks access to essential health services, 100 million still pushed into extreme poverty because of health expenses: https://www.who.int/news/item/13-12-2017-world-bank-and-who-half-the-world-lacks-access-to-essential-health-services-100-million-still-pushed-into-extreme-poverty-because-of-health-expenses
Fertility rate: 'Jaw-dropping' global crash in children being born: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-53409521
The economic value of targeting aging: https://www.nature.com/articles/s43587-021-00080-0