Wishful Thinking about Human Lifespans

Healthbolt.net highlight some gee-whiz about how scientific research means we will soon all live up to a thousand years. Aubrey de Grey, “the spokesperson for the anti-aging movement,” is quoted as saying, “Whether they realise it or not, barring accidents and suicide, most people now 40 years or younger can expect to live for centuries.” Healthbolt author Sara adds a tongue-in-cheek piece about the consequences.

One commenter writes “Having nanomachines, and the genetic knowledge needed, nearly indefinite lifespans are possible. […] since other technology is also advancing exponentially, interplanetary travel, and colonization will easily handle the population issue.”

Hmmm, what biases might be operating in thinking about this issue? Wishful thinking, maybe?

My take: Somebody has to call BS on this. Significant improvements in life span, yes, but most people in their 30s now living centuries? Pure hype, even if we charitably assume that the quote ignores people who aren’t rich Westerners.

We already have the ability to wipe out diseases like malaria and make sure no one ever dies of starvation. This hasn’t happened, because in going from a scientific possibility to an economic and social reality, lots of things intervene. People should think about these factors if you don’t want your predictions to get wildly out of sync with reality.

Even taking it to be hypothetically true, wouldn’t there be terrible social and political implications? Death and old age have traditionally meant that one generation of leaders gets replaced by another. Over time, cognitive dissonance and consistency bias will fossilise people in their beliefs and habits – a problem exacerbated by longer lives. I admire people who say they would do good, humane things with the extra time, but where’s the scientific or historical evidence that people generally will do this?

Yes, nanotechnology means that in theory any disease can be cured. That “in theory” is a huge caveat, and means that it won’t be feasible for you or me in practice. When computers came along, in theory all sorts of problems were gone forever. We were told that offices would soon be “paperless“. Not only did they not solve every work problem, but along came bugs, crashes, viruses, spam and the other ills.

Nuclear reactors in theory gave us electricity too cheap to meter. Advances in agriculture in theory wiped out starvation. The invention of the “ultimate weapon” (whether crossbow, machine gun or nuclear bomb) in theory ended all wars, because war would become so insanely destructive that no reasonable leader would start one. There’s a systematic difference here between how a technology looks before it arrives, and how it affects life once we have it. Hence the need to reign in expectations for something revolutionary like nanotechnology or lifespan research.

I’d love to live a centuries-long life but wishful thinking shouldn’t shape our views on what’s actually possible.

(The above adapted from my comments posted on Healthbolt.net).

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