Aging, Health and the Long Term

February 16th, 2008 | By Glen Hiemstra | Posted in Science & Tech | 4 Comments

One of the great thinkers on the future is Ray Kurzweil, author of The Age of Spiritual Machines, and The Singularity is Near. A couple of years ago at a meeting of the World Future Society I heard Ray speak, and after the talk during Q&A, a 90-year old man in the audience asked, “How much longer will I need to live, in order to live forever?” It sounds like a crazy question, but Ray had argued that given the current rate of advance in biotech, nanotech and medical IT, it is logical to assume that at some time in the relatively near future the human life span (which has more than tripled in a few hundred years) will begin to increase one year for every year that goes by; in other words, life extension into the infinite future. In aswering the man’s question Ray said, it looked like to him about ten years – that if you could hang on for ten more years, then life would begin to extend another year on an annual basis.

Now, this seems too optimistic to me, and if it is indeed a probable future is not likely to be real for some 25 to 100 years. Never-the-less, when we consider the current societal impacts of aging, and then ponder a world in which 100, 120, 150 years old might be common, then we imagine a new world.

A leader in the study of the potential of nanotechnology, Ray was recently interviewed on the future of human health. You can access the audio and the transcript here at Living on Earth. In the interview, Ray discussed among other things the prospect of nanomachines integrating with biology and becoming part of us:

Ah, if you talk to a human in 2035- biological human- they’re going to have a lot of non-biological thinking going on inside their brain- it’s going to be a hybrid of biological and non-biological thinking. And the non-biological thinking will expand because of this law of accelerating returns not because it’s self-replicating, because that’s just the nature of our technology- it doubles in capability every year. But in my view it is still human thinking. It’s an expansion of our civilization, which has always been a human-machine civilization.

Glen Hiemstra is a futurist speaker, consultant, blogger, internet TV show host and founder of Futurist.com. To arrange for a speech contact Futurist.com.

4 Comments

  1. matthew welter
    Mar 30, 2008

    I think what Kurzweil says about aging is right. Infact if it doesn”t
    we well go extinct. The largest growing group are those in their 80″s
    and it goes down from there. the least productive people are growing
    the most while the most productive are growing the least. It will on
    only a matter of time before production will not be able to support
    billions of a graying population with a smaller and smaller populated
    youth. technology won”t save us because each group rolling into
    their 80″s will become smaller, and those between 20 to 50 will be
    so small that reproduction will collapse.
    We can only count on a society that doesn”t age. Not only will it
    sustain humans but it will freeze are population to an acceptable
    limit.
    Were living more of our live”s in virtual world, which means we”ll
    problably live all our lives there in the future. I see us moving
    undergroud when that happens stripped to our essentials, needing
    only material and energy to support our brain. Living only in our mind.

  2. John Feeney
    Feb 20, 2008

    Yeah, this is potentially a gigantic looming policy issue.

    But I tend to agree that Kurzweil’s predictions are too “optimistic.” In part, that’s because I suspect serious ecological problems will interfere with economies and prevent his predictions from coming to fruition as soon as one might think.

    But then, ironically, if they do come to fruition, they’ll create the obvious huge ecological problem you guys point to. I agree the only solution would seem to be a drastic restriction of births.

    There are folks who would say the solution is colonization of other planets. But I suspect the life extension advances are likely to come much sooner than the possibility of large scale migration to other planets.

    There is even the problem that, given the math of exponential growth, we would fill up the known universe much sooner than one might imagine. Perhaps that realization is why we don’t don’t have hard evidence of other more advanced civilizations all around us?

  3. Glen Hiemstra
    Feb 20, 2008

    We will have to dig further to see what Kurzweil thinks of the social implication. You numbers are eye opening. The only way it works is really drastic reduction in births, perhaps even a kind of Children of Men (the movie), plot line. And could such a world be viable? My favorite read on this possible future is Bruce Sterling’s novel, Holy Fire. Check it out.

  4. Bill Harris
    Feb 20, 2008

    Glen, interesting post. I’m curious: what does Kurzweil see as the policy ramifications of such a development?

    Out of curiosity, I did a simple simulation of the earth’s population given an average lifespan of 75 years and a birth rate fraction (that number which, when multiplied by population gives current births) of 0.03633 (combined, that gives a doubling time of about 30 years), and I got an estimated 60B people in a century. When I raised the lifespan to a million years (very few die, much like Kurzweil’s prediction), we ended up with 223B people, almost 4 times as many as in the base model and about 37 times as many as we have today.

    My numbers are admittedly crude, and they don’t account for any naturally (or not naturally) imposed limits to growth, but the principle (and the general impact if we no longer die) seems sound: if such a thing were to come to pass, how would we feed / cloth / house everyone? How would we resolve major disputes in a world where there was even less separation to give cooling-off time? Would we choose to limit births (infinite lives and a finite world might mean zero births)? If we did, how would we replace the new ideas we often get from new generations?

    Or did I misunderstand something?