What if we didn’t know how much time we have left to live?
An absurd question you might say, since indeed none of us really KNOW for certain how much time we have left. But most of us have an idea – an expectation – based on our current age, our genetics, current state of health, our life-style, and essentially all the factors insurance companies consider in their actuarial tables.
Our personal expectations for how long we’ll live influence our life style. If we expect (hope!) to live to be 95, we probably live differently than if we don’t expect to live past 80, or if we don’t really care. Most of us don’t think about it. This expectation (or intention, or lack of attention) will drive such decisions as how a we eat, exercise, and a wide variety of our daily choices, as well as long term choices.
A Thought Experiment. If we accept that HOW LONG we EXPECT to live influences HOW we live, I’d like to explore a couple of alternative possibilities.I’d like to consider:
First, how a reasonable expectation of a life-span of 200 years might change how we might think and live. This is no wild flight of fancy. Many believe this to be but a generation or two away. Even more important than life span – 200 years in this case – I’ll consider an amazing “health span” – that 150 of those 200 years can be with the energy and vitality of a healthy 25-35 year old. This is also considered achievable, within a few decades.
And then, as the second part of my thought experiment, I will consider how it might change us if somehow we know we only had another 200 or so days to live – six months, more or less. And lets assume that we are healthy and alert for that entire time. I’ll post that discussion separately as a follow-up to this post.
I’ll start with 200 years. This is a variation on the perennial dream of immortality. Two hundred years is not immortality, but is way beyond the realistic expectation for us today, and its even harder to imagine 150 years of youthful energy. But we’re being told that these possibilities are very conceivable for our grand children or great-grand children. And immortality itself is even part of today’s discussion.
A number of medical researchers are considering aging as a disease, and can be treated, like other diseases that used to be just the inevitable way we die, They believe they are in sight of cures for such perennial killers as cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, infectious diseases. Biologists and medical researchers are finding molecules and exploring various therapies that will slow down cellular deterioration and facilitate cellular and DNA repair. Nanotechnology experts are developing a bionic immune system composed of millions of nano-robots, which could be injected into and inhabit our bodies, open blocked blood vessels, fight viruses and bacteria, eliminate cancerous cells, and even reverse aging processes.
Yuval Harare, the author of such widely read and respected books as Sapiens and Homo Deus says that “serious scholars suggest that by 2050, some humans will become a-mortal – not immortal, because they could still die of an accident, but a-mortal, meaning that in the absence of fatal trauma their lives could be extended indefinitely.” He and many other serious scientists** are convinced that immunotherapies, genetic engineering and nano-technology that are currently being developed will put biological diseases and old age into the dustbin of history along with the plague, polio, small pox, and tuberculosis. He and others predict that within a few generations, lifespans of 200 years are very conceivable, and that includes much extended “health spans” – maintaining the health and vitality we experience in our 20s and 30s.
The dream of much longer and healthier life spans or even immortality goes back thousands of years. Recall how men envied the immortal gods in ancient Greece, how Ponce de Leon searched for the fountain of youth, and Mary Shelley conceived 200 years ago the story of Dr Frankenstein’s immortality fantasy-gone-wrong from his efforts to develop a cyborg-like immortal creature. Yuval Harari in his book Homo Deus points to immortality as one of humanity’s three great dreams of becoming god-like (the other two: omnipotence, and eternal happiness.)
The prospect of greatly extending life is an exciting prospect, will dramatically reduce suffering and premature death, and could enhance the quality of life for those who achieve it. But after the exciting first-blush response to these coming developments, there are a lot of fascinating implications and questions…
Living 200 years – what might that look like?
For the sake of discussion, in this thought experiment I’ll assume that the first 25 years of life will remain more or less as they are now – essentially childhood, education, and becoming an adult. I’ll also assume that there may be a limit to what life extending bio-engineering can accomplish, that our biological selves will eventually wind down and begin to deteriorate, and that our lives will conclude with 25 or so years of decline into old age and eventually death (even though some are convinced that even the “disease” of aging will be conquered.) My thought experiment would mean around 150 years or so of us at our biological best, as opposed to the 30 or so years most of us consider ourselves lucky to get now.
Consider these picture below, of Antonin Kovar rom Jan Langer’s series of “before and after” centenarians in Czechoslovakia . Antonin was a Czech band leader.
Now consider this possibility.
In this new world, this would be Antonin at 125 years old. He would still have the physical strength, vitality, and mental capacities of a young man. In his first career as a band leader, he grew as a musician and leader, learned about making a living through music and now wants to explore applying his experience in the music industry. Or perhaps after succeeding as a band leader, he chooses to explore his gift for numbers and their relationships, and has spent years at university and was recently awarded a PhD in mathematics; now he would like to go into theoretical physics. Or perhaps he always wanted to be in the military, or in athletics and sports, or go into politics. All those are still possibilities for him at 125 years old, with many more decades of life with the drive, energy, and good health of a young man.
Or consider BEDRISKA KOHLEROVA another one of Jan Langer’s centenarians, here at her wedding – and later at 103 years old.
Now consider this possibility:
Here might be Bedriska again, a hundred years older, at her third wedding, still young, beautiful and supple, already with great grandchildren who look a lot like her now, and a couple of happy fulfilling marriages and families behind her. Perhaps she has a successful career in business behind her. Now she is ready to embark on a new adventure with a new partner, perhaps to have children again, or – Hey! she’s done enough of that – now she wants to explore other opportunities. She’s seen and learned a lot – been inspired by her children, grand- and great grand-children and is excited to see what more she can do over the next 50 or so years, with a new partner – perhaps become a doctor, or a mountaineer, or an astronaut. She’s grown and developed herself over 100 years of adulthood, and there’s so much she still wants to do!
I think you get the point.
So here is MY list of …
…the Top Ten Advantages of living 200 years
1. So much to learn! Languages, Music, History – So much more time and energy to learn and explore so much more. Academically, experientially – those things most of us consider only possible in our teens, or twenties – we can try for over a century – and to each new area that we explore, we’ll bring several life-times of other knowledge, experience and wisdom
2. Lots of Adventures. Whether it be mountains to climb, places to see, or becoming an astronaut – again, the things we normally associate only with being in our 20s or 30s are open to us for well over a century.
3. Multiple Careers – go to BUD/S when you’re 70. We can spend 50 years as a doctor and still have time to become – an actor, or lawyer, a scientist, a Navy SEAL.
4. Family Flexibility. Women’s child bearing years will be greatly extended – allowing women more freedom in balancing career and family. Also, with that much time and energy, a man or woman may choose to have several successive happy marriages and families.
5. Self – Optimization –become Awesome! A lot more time to become “all you can be” whether in physical or mental realms, in sports or whatever one’s passion might be.
6. Climb Everest with your great-grand children Lots more opportunities to share youthful adventures across generations. Grand parents and great grandparents will be able to participate as physical equals with those several generations younger.
7. Make a bigger difference in your pursuits. For those who have a cause – the environment, helping the poor, increasing health in the developing world, exploring the universe, or improving the education system in our own country – one has a lot more time and energy to make a lasting positive impact.
8. Reduced suffering from illness and age Resolving the problems of disease and aging will certainly reduce mental and physical suffering that come with those disabilities.
9. More fun, joy, insight, wisdom – for those who love life – more is better!
10. We get to see what happens! People like me are really curious about how advances in info-tech and bio-tech will change humanity. I would love to be around to see the good, the bad, the ugly.
Concerns and/or Challenges:
But obviously there would be challenges. Such an extended lifespan would create dilemmas, only some of which we can imagine. Obviously our planet could not sustain such a lifespan for all of its currently nearly 8 billion inhabitants – and my going-in assumption is that for quite a while, such an extended lifespan will only be available to a relative few. Just as today, access to life extending medicines, medical procedures, and life-style enhancements are only slowly getting to much of the world; it is therefore fair to assume that the cutting edge changes that are coming will initially only be available to those with means. Limitations will be culture, location, resources, time, as well as the discipline and hard work that will be part of that commitment. It will be decades and generations before such therapies will be widely available, by which time much in our world will have to have evolved – if we survive that long
Also, there will be decades of experimentation with genetic engineering, rejuvenation therapies, and other key components to life extension, to see what works and what the biological and sociological limitations and unexpected consequences may be. These experiments have been ongoing for some time in the continuously expanding fields of life-extension and life-enhancement therapies, diets, exercise science, mental training and development. Likewise, the role of Artificial Intelligence integrating with human intelligence and biology, the integration of computers with human biology to create cyborg-like super-humans is also part of this equation, the results of which cannot be fully foreseen.
There are lots of things to consider – challenges and concerns. Here is MY list of….
…the Top Ten CONCERNS/CHALLENGES regarding living 200 years :
1. All of human culture will be disrupted – So much of how we live, our cultural norms and governmental practices are based on the assumption of a human life span of more-or-less 75-90 years with 40-45 years of productive work life. Our whole concept of retirement, social security, medicare, marriage and family, education, human fulfillment, vacations etc will be disrupted and will have to adjust and evolve.
2. It won’t be easy. People will have to commit to the hard work of longevity. Life extension will require a commitment to significant changes in life-style and medical protocols in order to optimize the body’s ability to overcome natural wear and tear. People will have to proactively support the body/mind team’s efforts to overcome infection and disease, aging and other disabilities. Medical protocols and rejuvenation therapies won’t be easy. Just as it does now, living longer and better in the future will require sacrifice of some short term pleasures, and commitment.
3. More time for dissipation and boredom. A huge percentage of people in today’s affluent societies are at a loss as to what to do with the time they have. So they dissipate it in trivial pursuits, numbing themselves with drugs and alcohol, excessive amounts of sedentary time watching TV, or silliness on social media. Indeed many are bored without a sense of purpose or meaning. Truly, it appears that most people are unsure what to do with the time they have now.
4. No sense of urgency. Procrastinator’s dream! Two hundred years is a long time to put off until tomorrow what one might, or should, do today. So much more time to procrastinate and put off those things one should do, but may not really want to.
5. Longevity will not only be for good people. Clever and resourceful people with bad intentions, or personal agendas for self-aggrandizement at the expense of others will also have more time. A toxic political leader, a truly nefarious CEO or Foundation president will have that much more time to carry out a self-centered agenda. And when such people get into power, their influence can remain entrenched longer
6. Billions of irrelevant people? In his book 21 lessons for the 21st century Yuval Harari believes that one of our main challenges in the near future will be managing billions of people who are no longer needed to make society function. Info- and bio-tech, robotics and AI are on their way to making large portions of the human race irrelevant to economic wealth and sustainability. There will be no productive employment available for those without the specific skills that only humans can do – skill sets which are becoming narrower and narrower. And if we extend life? There may be that many more people without the skills to allow them to do productive work that is needed by their communities. So what do we do with billions of people without the skills to contribute to their economy?
7. A new class structure? – the same bio-tech and bio-engineering that will permit us to extend our lives will also enable us to dramatically enhance our capabilities – both physical and intellectual. In 21 Lessons, Harari shares his concern that those who have the means will not only be able to buy status symbols with their wealth (as most do now,) but soon will also be able to pay for significantly enhanced and extended health, to include upgraded physical and cognitive abilities. This could lead to a new biological caste structure led by those elites who have enhanced themselves biologically and intellectually. And they will likely have significant power and influence over the billions who may not have access to such possibilities.
8. Holding on to life too dearly? Risk aversion? If we have invested the resources into our extended lifespan and have the expectation of living 200 years, will some become even more risk averse, when it won’t be cancer or disease, but trauma or accidents that kill people before their time? Fear and anxiety surrounding a potential traumatic accident, because there is so much more to lose?
9. More time to be unhappy. There is an epidemic of anxiety and depression in today’s affluent world, which has led to an epidemic of drug use to ease the pain of living. This is reflected in the dramatic increase in rates of suicides – in fact more people are dying from suicide and drug overdoses than are dying from violence or war. It appears that many people not only don’t want to live longer, they don’t want to live now.
10. Length of life or Quality of life? Dr Peter Attia another prominent voice in this discussion insists that as we discuss increasing life span, our primary focus should be on health span and quality of life. His concern is that if we don’t focus on improving quality of life as we increase longevity, longevity is not necessarily a good deal. He is one of many using the term “healthspan” as opposed to life span, since good health is a key aspect of quality of life. I see an analogy to the excitement of wining the lottery – without adequate attention to whether and how it might improve the quality of our lives. There is an old Chinese saying: He who lives every day of his life, lives a long life. Could the focus on longevity distract us from focussing on quality of life?
I think the dramatic changes will come gradually over the next few decades – which in evolutionary time is the equivalent of a split second. We will quickly become accustomed to new developments that are almost inconceivable to us today – like we have accustomed ourselves to smart phones which 15 years ago were nearly inconceivable to most of us. In just a few decades, many researchers believe that there will be a growing cadre of people for whom the dream of living for centuries will be realistic and realizable.
Science Fiction writers (See Void Star by Zachary Mason) are already creating dystopian visions of how these developments may turn out, as are social scientists, historians, and philosophers (Homo Deus, and 21 Lessons by Yuval Harari.) But the genie is out of the bottle. The train has left the station. It is happening. We are moving in this direction.
My next post will look at a more familiar and immediate topic: How should we think about having only 200 days to live – assuming we are healthy and completely alert?
**For those interested in learning more about the growing field of longevity and immortality studies, and what those on the cutting edge of this research are doing to increase their own life and health spans – here are a few places to check out:
- Joe Rogan’s interview with David Sinclair
- Dr Peter Attia
- Go on-line and explore the amazing work of Machio Kaku, Ray Kurzweil, Aubrey de Grey, Yuval Harari.