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Biotech Science

Do You Want to Live Forever? 1334

Jamie McCarthy writes "In 1918, Gunnery Sergeant Daniel Daly inspired his weary men to attack by yelling, 'come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?' But how would the world change if we could? This month's Technology Review introduces us to the computer scientist, and self-taught biologist, Aubrey de Grey, who thinks immortality could be within our grasp by 2030. Thinking like an engineer, he's broken aging down into seven specific problems, like cell atrophy and mitochondrial mutation, which he believes can all, in principle, be solved. And he has good reason to think those seven are the only 'bugs' standing in the way of a thousand-year lifespan. De Grey is clearly both a genius and a little nuts, but I'm not sure in what proportion..."
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Do You Want to Live Forever?

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  • Worse than that (Score:4, Interesting)

    by SuperKendall ( 25149 ) * on Wednesday January 19, 2005 @02:08PM (#11410195)
    If much of these projected technologies come to be, then Social Security will fail long before 2031. That projection relies on an increase in lifespan of only seven years in the next seven decades!! Image what happens when the baby boomers come to use Social security in 2018, and then suddenly people stop dying nearly so fast as they do now...

    Yet in the recent Social Security article, many Slashdot readers would seemingly choose to ignore advances like those outlined in the article, quite odd for a supposedly technological nerd oriented forum. I guess we can expect them all to post and tell us why this article is complete bunk and we'll be dying in 100 years at about the same age as now.

    I think I shall label them with the new term "politically-motivated luddite".
  • by peter303 ( 12292 ) on Wednesday January 19, 2005 @02:11PM (#11410244)
    Nearly every week there is some "new study" published that contradicts a previous one. Theories of aging 10-20 years ago are pretty different than those of today. So I'd venture at least half of his seven claims would be either wrong or insignificant 20 years from now.

    I am optimistic that someday medicine will have a better understanding, but not today.
  • by Antony-Kyre ( 807195 ) on Wednesday January 19, 2005 @02:12PM (#11410262)
    acquire enough wisdom. But the question is, are you someone who believes in reincarnation, the afterlife, etc.?
  • Re:Fixing aging (Score:2, Interesting)

    by ibn_khaldun ( 814417 ) on Wednesday January 19, 2005 @02:14PM (#11410288)
    Italy, one of the most Catholic countries in Europe (proximity effects...) also has the lowest birth rate. Which suggests either that Italians do not have the love life they are so famous for (or at the very least, self-promote), or else they've found other ways around the birth problem.
  • by Saige ( 53303 ) <evil.angela@gm[ ].com ['ail' in gap]> on Wednesday January 19, 2005 @02:17PM (#11410343) Journal
    Actually, I've thought there's an even better way change the system should such lifespan increases happen.

    Plan on 'career segments' of like 50 years for a person. You go to school, start working, work for around 50 years to build up money, then do a short-term retirement, say 20 years. Some time to indulge yourself in activities for fun, such as traveling the world, or focusing on a hobby you want to become good at.

    Spend the last 5 years or so back in school for another, new career - or getting your recently found 'hobby' to a point that it can support you. Then work for another 50 years at this new thing.

    If we end up living hundreds of years plus, we're not going to be able to work year after year for hundres of years. We'd need a break.

    Besides, such things might really help with bringing ideas and concepts from one area to another, as the former programmer enters a career in microbiology, or the guy who's worked as a plumber and a carpenter takes up architecture.
  • Fatal Accidents (Score:2, Interesting)

    by hode ( 771261 ) on Wednesday January 19, 2005 @02:18PM (#11410366)
    I read somewhere once that the average human has a fatal accident once every 300 something years. So unless we're all wearing personal force fields by 2030, we won't be surviving to 1000 years of age anyway.
  • by coyote-san ( 38515 ) on Wednesday January 19, 2005 @02:27PM (#11410493)
    The problem isn't that life expectancy could be raised to 1000 years or more.

    The problem is that it would only be available to relatively few people. People who could afford multimillion dollar fees (which might exist solely to keep out the riffraff) or people with key political connections.

    Working slaves can forget about it. Banks can always repossess a multimillion dollar house, but what do you do here when somebody declares bankruptcy after treatment?

    The bottom line is that assets and power will quickly become (even more) concentrated in the top 1% or so of the population. Imagine what the average working person could do with a second lifetime where they own their own home from the beginning -- but they would start with much more real world experience and street smarts. Now imagine the same thing with people will millions of dollars in assets and dozens of lifetimes of experience.

    The result would not be unlike the Go'uld in Stargate. The "immortals" might even put on the cloak of divinity. A few hundred years ago monarchs claimed they ruled by divine right, but they died just like us. How hard would it be for people with a centuries-long lifetime to manipulate society so the emphemerals believe that the immortals are graced by god. How long would it take for the emphemerals to forget that these medical treatments even forget or that everyone naturally dies within a century or so.
  • Death Becomes Her (Score:3, Interesting)

    by buckeyeguy ( 525140 ) on Wednesday January 19, 2005 @02:31PM (#11410567) Homepage Journal
    I am reminded of the movie Death Becomes Her [imdb.com], in which the vanity aspects of eternal life turn ugly real fast. Fall down the stairs, break your neck? No problem! But that humpback won't look so good in an evening dress.
  • by Rei ( 128717 ) on Wednesday January 19, 2005 @02:34PM (#11410601) Homepage
    Wouldn't happen.

    We don't *need* to work as much as we do; even hunter-gatherers generally only "work" what would be less than half time by a modern standpoint. But we do it anyways.

    Why? Because want "stuff". We want to give our friends and family "stuff". We want to go "places" and go to see "things". To fill our wants, we work.

    What if everyone was content to live in a little hut with almost no posessions, and focus our technological efforts purely on what was needed to keep agricultural production and basic medicine going and the tech base needed to support it? Our work hours would be tiny on average. But we don't want that life. We want the "you work, and you get stuff" life. And so it would be if we were immortal.

    Sure, people would take a lot more long leaves. And a lot more career changes. But 20 years? They'd miss all the neat "stuff" they could have gotten.
  • Re:Not really... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by koreth ( 409849 ) on Wednesday January 19, 2005 @02:44PM (#11410727)
    Only for some 70-year-olds. Even today, there are plenty of them who are happy and engaged in the world. My parents are getting close to 70 and my mom is learning to use a computer, Dad loves his TiVo, and thanks to the big retirement nest egg they saved up over the years and the part-time business they run, they're both enjoying traveling all over the world.

    Even leaving that aside, though, people are changing too. In my opinion, people growing up in first-world countries today (in the last 20 years, really) will be less susceptible to that particular symptom of aging than their ancestors because they're used to things changing all the time. The rate of change will continue to increase if you believe Vernor Vinge [caltech.edu], but "things are changing faster than they did when I was young" is a different kettle of fish than "things were about the same when I was 15 and when I was 5, so why can't they stay that way forever?"

    You can choose to greet change by cowering in fear and retreating into a hole or meeting it head-on and treating it as an opportunity. I believe today's kids are more likely to do the latter than previous generations were.

    And even leaving that aside, you can bet that the perspective of a 70-year-old who hasn't even reached the average age of the population yet will be a bit different than one who's reaching the tail end of the actuarial tables.

  • I've met this guy! (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 19, 2005 @02:57PM (#11410923)
    A couple of months ago when i started at Cambridge i met him at the fresher's fair. He was sitting on his own at this stall next to the Hot Air Balloon society or something, with a stand covered in pictures of himself and "DO YOU WANT TO LIVE FOREVER" slogans. I spoke to him to see if he really was nuts. He is. Trust me.

    He'd be a lot more believable if he didnt present his ideas in such a crackpot way. Or, y'know, if he just..shaved. All i got out of him was a few mumblings about his new world order -- not quite his words, but thats what he sounds like when he describes it -- and a cheap leaflet thrust at me.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 19, 2005 @02:58PM (#11410928)
    Can you imagine the state of civil rights if the people running the country in the 1950s were still alive and well?

    Yeah... they would be a hell of a lot better. (Assuming you mean the US.)

    Remember, it was the people who were in power during the 1950s who brought you the end of institutionalized segregation, the end of poll taxes and literacy tests, the Civil Rights Act of 1957, reading of Miranda rights, the racial integration of the military, the first low-cost housing projects...

    Compare this to the baby boomers. They were into folk music, love, and brotherhood as teens in the 1960s. But now that they're in power, what do we get? The Patriot Act. The DMCA. The Sonny Bono copyright term extension. The disenfranchisement of thousands of African Americans.

    Sure, the 1950s-1960s had a lot of problems. But at least people were working sensibly to improve things.
  • by DocSavage64109 ( 799754 ) on Wednesday January 19, 2005 @02:58PM (#11410929)
    I'm sure you already know, but sports are just a form of population control -- much like religion. It keeps the working masses entertained so they can't contemplate how sucky their lives are, which would lead to riots and revolt.

    All of this would be obvious to you if you've ever played civilization.
  • Re:Fixing aging (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Bill Walker ( 835082 ) on Wednesday January 19, 2005 @02:59PM (#11410938)
    Of course, once you get an immortality jab at 60, your time horizon for society to invent internal youth goes up 500-fold.
  • by TheWizardOfCheese ( 256968 ) on Wednesday January 19, 2005 @03:21PM (#11411226)
    Daly was arguably the greatest marine of all time and the man behind the famous quote.

    I have no argument with that, provided you mean the greatest US marine. The greatest marine of all time was the guy who licked the Carthaginians at Ecnomus.

    The quote is famous but not original. I don't know when this exhortation was first made; no doubt the Romans were saying this in their day and for all I know the ancient Sumerians were too.

    However, I do know how Frederick Hohenzollern ("The Great") addressed his men after the breakdown of his attack at Kolin: "You rogues! Would you live forever?" According to tradition, the reply called out from the ranks was "we thought for thirteen pennies a day we had done enough."
  • by maynard ( 3337 ) <j@maynard@gelinas.gmail@com> on Wednesday January 19, 2005 @03:27PM (#11411301) Journal
    Living things have elvolved to grow their organs from small or large by multiplying cells in a certain pattern. I'm not sure that cell replacement can adequately maintain that pattern.

    Interesting counterpoint:

    From Eurekalert [eurekalert.org]: University of Manchester makes made-to-measure skin and bones a reality using inkjet printers [eurekalert.org]

    Made-to-measure skin and bones, which could be used to treat burn victims or patients who have suffered severe disfigurements, may soon be a reality using inkjets which can print human cells.


    Professor Brian Derby, Head of the Ink-Jet Printing of Human Cells Project research team, said: "It is difficult for a surgeon to reconstruct any complex disfiguring of the face using CT scans, but with this technology we are able to build a fragment which will fit exactly. We can place cells in any designed position in order to grow tissue or bone."

    This breakthrough overcomes problems currently faced by scientists who are unable to grow large tissues and have limited control over the shape or size the tissue will grow to. It also allows more than one type of cell to be printed at once, which opens up the possibility of being able to create bone grafts.


    Using the printers, they are able create 3-dimensional structures, known as 'tissue scaffolds'. The shape of the scaffold determines the shape of the tissue as it grows. The structures are created by printing very thin layers of a material repeatedly on top of each other until the structure is built. Each layer is just 10 microns thick (1,000 layers equals 1cm in thickness).


    Professor Derby believes the potential for this technology is huge: "You could print the scaffolding to create an organ in a day," he says.

  • by Doc Ruby ( 173196 ) on Wednesday January 19, 2005 @03:48PM (#11411586) Homepage Journal
    I'm inspired by the vast expense and coordination required for frauds like "Social Security Privitazation" to barely make enough sense in public that they can be accepted by even the rabid sheep who graze in the Great Plains. Educating specifics like "Social Security isn't broken" is too hard, and unnecessary. We geeks are all on the Great Work of democratizing communications, like cheap/universal email/WWW/VoIP/P2P, that let people talk among ourselves. The centralized corporate media is essential to the perpetual propaganda pump that keeps Americans (and humans in general) delusional regarding our own welfare. So we each do our little parts, and we help people hear from one another their different misgivings with their own slaughter, and soon enough the flock is resonating with either greed or fear, and high-tailing it to another pasture. To resolve the metaphor, bad news travels fast, when people can speak and hear. We geeks just need to help keep the people chatting with one another, rather than sitting in front of Fox News every day.
  • by BenEnglishAtHome ( 449670 ) on Wednesday January 19, 2005 @04:05PM (#11411804)
    I don't see it in the highest-rated comments and, with the volume of posts, this might be a dupe so I apologize in advance if that's the case, but...

    Immortals also die.

    Just because your body will never naturally die doesn't mean you'll live forever. There are diseases that act in means outside what we're discussing. There's suicide. There's murder. And (I don't remember where I read it; if someone has a cite, I'd be grateful) actuarial science shows that the rate at which people die in accidents is sufficiently high that even if we never got sick or old we'd still manage to off ourselves by doing something stupid sometime before our 500th birthdays. On average.

    People would still die. As individuals, we're just too stupid to live forever, no matter how sturdy our bodies are.
  • Re:Not really... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Kethinov ( 636034 ) on Wednesday January 19, 2005 @04:22PM (#11412021) Homepage Journal
    I wish I could agree with you, I really do. But far too often I see this kind of mental hypocrisy run amuck in older people. In their youth they're vibrant and easily accepting of new ideas. But as they age they become set in their ways, intolerant, and bigoted. This has nothing to do with technology and everything to do with the psychology of an aging human mind.

    For example, the mother of one of my friends is extremely uptight. Most people I know who've been in contact with her were either swiftly banned from her house, or have to walk on eggshells all day long whilst around her. The interesting aspect of her personality is that she used to be the opposite. Her husband, who for all intents and purposes has to be the most laid back guy I know, describes her behavior in a quote I will never forget. "She acts like the people we hated when we were young."

    This kind of mental deterioration seems to be within all of us; as we get older, we become the thing we hate. We've been extending the lifespan of our bodies steadily over the last several hundred years, but when will we learn to expand the lifespans of our minds?
  • Ask around (Score:3, Interesting)

    by SuperKendall ( 25149 ) * on Wednesday January 19, 2005 @04:27PM (#11412073)
    SS is not a "safety net" for people who for some unimaginable reason stop making money to support themselves. SS is basically a retirement fund that you pay into your whole life; if you've ever gotten a paycheck in your life, you would see that line where it says "social security tax". This is money you pay into the system in order to be guaranteed money when you can't make it. SS has nothing to do with welfare, other than the fact that republicans want to get rid of it. If you don't expect to get old, you're in for a rude awakening. You can't, however, expect the conditions that lead you into poverty (and hence welfare) at a young age.

    Ask around how many younger workers today think they are getting that money.

    To claim it's a savings program where what you pay in you get back is simply false to most peoplel indeed, false in reality.

    The reality is that the money I pay in today is going to people getting SS today - thus a saftey net. My hypothetical money I may get out later from the program comes from other people paying into the system at that time - but because there may not be enough people they are talking about how taxes will have to go up 20% or benefits slashed to make up the difference.

    If Social Security were really a "Savings Account" none of that would be needed because money people put in the system would be there for them later (although at a horrific rate of return). But the fact that is does not really work that way means that to claim it is a "savings account" is a very dangerous notion because you will come to incorrect conclusions about what can happen to the program.

    Later on when two people are paying into social security for ever single person withdrawing funds - that is the point when something has to give, and you will see it's not like a bank account at all.
  • It'll be fine (Score:3, Interesting)

    by delmoi ( 26744 ) on Wednesday January 19, 2005 @05:23PM (#11412671) Homepage
    There are more people alive then dead. Think about that for a moment. There are more people living, today, then have ever lived and died in total in all the generations of human beings.

    Woman, after they reach menopause won't be able to have any more children, so people probably won't have much longer child-bearing ages then they do now. (although culture might adapt to have children raised by their 'young' and healthy grandparents or something, rather then young and inexperianced 30somethings).

    But as studies have shown wealth usualy means people produce less children (I guess rich people have more intresting things to do with their time). Since life-extension will probably be expensive only rich, low-fertility people will be able to afford it.

    I think it will also make people lazy, as they have will have infinite time to acomplish things they'll spend much less time working.
  • by Pfhorrest ( 545131 ) on Wednesday January 19, 2005 @06:05PM (#11413176) Homepage Journal
    You are fortunate enough to have a job that pays well enough that you *could* work it part-time, if allowed.

    I don't consider myself wealthy at all, but most of my family and peers think I make a lot for my age group, and I'm still making barely half of what I'd need to survive working a half-time job. I'm essentially working full time just to barely break even. I don't live an extravagent lifestyle either - I rent a room in a house, and spend the rest of my money on groceries and gas.

    I have the skills needed for a higher-paying job, but cannot find one because the labor market is saturated.

    Perhaps the solution to both our problems is the same. If the employers of people like you would let you work your job half-time, that would free up your free time, and free up job opportunities for people like me.

    On a related note, I have often noticed that I am far more efficient when working short hours than long ones. If I know I'm coming in for a two-hour job on something, I come in, get to it, and get it done. If I'm settling in for an eight hour day, I feel more concerned with not running out of things to do before the day is over. If paid more, I could afford work less, and still get just as much work done, more efficiently. Everybody wins.

    I think perhaps mandating a shorter work-week and a higher minimum wage could in fact increase efficiency for businesses and increase free time for individuals, many of which would then be spent doing hobbies (increasing the creativity and individual productivity of the populace), and probably spending more money on service-oriented businesses (movies, dining out, etc), stimulating the whole economy and improving lifestyle in one fell swoop.
  • "immortality" rant (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 19, 2005 @06:32PM (#11413496)

    Maybe I've overreacting, but it's a pet peeve of mine when people talk about "living forever" or having "immortality", but then they start talking about all these things that can make you live 1000 years or 10,000 years. I hate to tell you this, but longevity and immortality are separate things. Please, use the appropriate term.

    The worst part is, I'm really not sure if some of these people grasp the difference! All of these techniques (like repairing the DNA or growing new organs) only multiply your expected lifespan by some factor. You can't multiply two finite numbers and get an infinite one. This seems so obvious that it pisses me off when supposedly-intelligent people, like people who have computer science degrees, start saying crap like this.

    The fact is, everything in the universe will eventually die out. It's just the simple laws of thermodynamics. It's heat death. Existence in physical form is a dead-end street. You can extend the length of the dead-end street, but you can't change it into something other than a dead-end street.

    If thermodynamics doesn't do it for you, think about probability. Consider the strong law of large numbers. What does it tell us? Well, one thing it tells us is that if there is a finite chance (however tiny) of a certain outcome every time you some particular thing, then that outcome will eventually happen. It is impossible for that outcome not to happen; the only variable is how long it will be before it does. So, since we live in a universe where there is random variation, and theoretically any particular can teleport from point A to point B (even if the probability of this is astronomically low), any system that you build has a chance of failure at any time. So this means any system you build will eventually fail.

    Bottom line is, immortality is not something that can be achieved within the physical universe. I would hope scientists, of all people, would be smart enough to see this. If you want to believe in immortality, go to church or something. At a church, there may be some things that are questionable logically, but at least you are not going down a path that can basically be mathematically proven to be wrong! Or, if you don't believe there is any supernatural element to anything, then be realistic and give up on immortality, because it isn't possible!

  • by Ephol ( 314856 ) on Wednesday January 19, 2005 @06:56PM (#11413734)
    Is anyone else reminded of the short story in Vonnegut's Welcome to the Monkey House on this topic? I think of it everytime I see something like this in the news and it freaks me out a little.

    Basically, the story takes place in a time when people never really HAVE to die, as long as they keep taking some kind of pill or medicine. Extended families all have to live in the same apartment, sleeping in sleeping bags all over the floors because there are so many of them, and everyone is constantly trying to kiss the butt of the eldest family member who owns everything for a spot in their will. Every little thing results in a threat to be removed from the will and left with nothing, but every year the eldest person finds a reason to keep taking the pills instead of letting themselves die. Anyway, it's Vonnegut, so whackiness ensues, etc etc. I see this as eerily close to what would happen (basically), but still one of our smallest problems in such a situation.
  • by fbform ( 723771 ) on Wednesday January 19, 2005 @08:17PM (#11414525)
    I think what he meant was the time taken for the old mode of thinking to fade away and be replaced by the new thing, whatever that may be. That is largely true - some people simply refuse to change their belief / philosophy because "I've thought this all my life and now I'm too old to change". Eg: Arthur Eddington attacking [usd.edu] the concept of white dwarfs and black holes steadfastly until his death, and slowing down the public support for the new ideas of stellar life. (Read the end of the second paragraph)

    I'm inclined to believe that someone respectable loudly advocating an old hypothesis is particularly damaging to any change in the philosophy of that field.

    On the other hand, I'm reminded of a quote: "Old people are slaves to tradition. Young people are slaves to change.".

  • by thelizman ( 304517 ) <hammerattack AT yahoo DOT com> on Wednesday January 19, 2005 @08:22PM (#11414572) Homepage
    One of my favorite authors, Wil McCarthy, writes a series of books which concentrate mainly on a few technologies, one of which is the 'fax gate', or just 'fax'. Similiar to today's fax machines, the point is to accept an item as input, and transmit data about it to another point for reproduction. Unlike today's faxes, the faxes of Wil McCarthy's world consist of a print plate filled with nano scale assemblers which 'dissolve' you on one end and store your substance in a buffer, then transmit a highly detailed pattern of you to another fax gate elsewhere where the assemblers use mass from the previous entrants to reconstruct you to every last detail, even preserving quantum states so you're still alive an conscience.

    An unintended consequence is that people who've stepped into a fax plate exist only as data, and data can be manipulated. Software can (and does, in his fiction), fix damage, remove disease, and undoes genetically programmed death. The upshot of all this is that everyone has the perfectly toned bodies of 20 year old athletes, and the worst that happens in death is that you lose a few hours of memories for ever. As long as a fax gate is nearby (and they're as common as telephones in McCarthy's future), the damage would have to be pretty extensive to cause actual death, otherwise your body can simpley be tossed into the nearest fax, and a repaired you will be spit out almost immediately. You're immorbid, incapable of natural death, and with backups made everytime you step through a gate, you're theoretically immortal.

    Of course, with the notion to tamper comes the required self improvement. Soldiers would elect to have carbon nanofibres woven into their skeleton, and protective diamond plates inserted around major organs. Slashdot weenies, tired of receiving wedgies, could order up a buff exterior and pump up their enemies. Women could go blonde for a day, or enlarge their boobs for that special date, then shrink them down when they become a nuisance. You can even, with enough mass in the buffers, make copies of yourself.

    Is this possible? Depends on who you ask. Some nanologists poo poo the notion of nanoassemblers citing electronic forces on the atomic level as inhibiting the movement of little claws. Others poo poo the poo pooers by pointing out that individual atoms have already been manipulated in the lab.

    The overall issue of immorbidity raises new questions. If we are incapable of death ourselves, do we lose our concept of it, and therefore our fear of it? Or how about, what if someone chooses to die. Their immorbid and highly improved bodies won't allow it. And what happens when you reach the physiologicallimit of your own memory capacity? Do you download it into a flash disk, or just dump them forever. And with people living for centuries, what do you do with all the bored, unemployable, and resource draining people who will overpopulate the planet in a society where production of basic goods is so efficient that there are absolutely no environmental pressures or population controls? Well...besides colonize space (which didn't work so well in McCarthy's books).
  • Re:The Selfish Gene (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Teancum ( 67324 ) <robert_horning AT netzero DOT net> on Thursday January 20, 2005 @07:34PM (#11425983) Homepage Journal
    You think this isn't happening anyway? As far as cultural norms are concerned, the minimum age to start a family, particularly for women, has gone up from age 14-15 to 21-25 even now. And it is not that unusual to see a woman begin her family at age 30 anymore...even be encouraged to do so in fact.

    In most places in America, even have sex at all with people younger than 16 can land you in jail very quickly. I'm not familiar with laws outside the USA, but there are some similar laws in Europe as well.

    If people lived to be 200+ years old, and in good shape, with women able to become pregnent at age 60+ (with low probability of birth defects), I think you might find the age women start families to go up even more.

    BTW, if you think I've full of it, I don't think 1850 is really that long ago, in terms of # of generations ago that would affect human DNA. And it was very common in 1850 for 15 year old girls to get married... mostly because they had to if they were going to have any kids before they died. There is some evidence of 10 year old girls getting "married" with prehistoric groups.

Fear is the greatest salesman. -- Robert Klein