Economics, Environment, Technology

Wouldn’t it be Great if We All Lived to 120?


The possibility of immortality has long occupied the human mind. The great religions of the world have been founded on a promise of eternal salvation from the ultimate reality—if only to deny it.  In Homo Deus, the avowedly atheist Yuval Harari proposes a different solution: that scientific advances will delay death until well into our second century. But will extra life be extra great?

Here, the ‘For’ side argues that a privileged caste would greatly enjoy an extra thirty-plus years of life, provided that the quality of that extra time was sufficiently rewarding.  The ‘Against’ side suggests that we would be better served trying to come to terms with the reality of Death rather than in trying to delay its inevitable arrival. 

Yes. A Longer, Stimulating Third Age is
a Prospect to be Relished

Yuval Harari’s seminal book ‘Homo Deus’.  holds out the real possibility that, thanks in part to technological advance,  and in part to the increasing maturity of human-kind, people born in the early part of the 22nd Century can expect to live as long as 120 years.

Is this a good thing?

It will certainly seem so if you’re approaching your 119th birthday! But, seriously, who amongst us does not crave immortality at some level, however elemental. 

Each of us would each surely embrace long-life—if that life was a worthwhile one, an extension to life-span that promises us an active, productive and stimulating Third Age.

If, on the other hand, longer life involves effective enslavement by machines that condemn us to a life of idleness or manages our every move using all-powerful life algorithms, we might well prefer a shorter, but happier and more productive existence.

And what of the limits to growth posited by longer life-spans? This call is not entirely in our hands. The present generation of humans is in danger of testing the Limits to Growth of our civilisation in ways that threaten our very existence. How could our planet cope with, say two billion inhabitants living for an extra twenty years each on average?

The present system of financial provision in retirement through pensions is stretched to its limits already. Healthcare services cannot cope with the annual flu epidemic, let alone the possibility that the most intensive users of those services will live for twenty plus years than they do already. How is assisted housing to be provided for a population of advanced elderly people?

It seems like these several circles can be squared only if there is an unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity among the new aged.

To this end, Harari foresees the emergence of an ‘unseen class’ of the new aged who will not participate actively in society, but will instead live a life of somnolence and dependency, following the instructions (‘suggestions’ as Microsoft or Google might call them) of powerful machine algorithms that know us better than we know ourselves. Sounds like a lonely, dependent way to finish life to me.

It would be great if some people lived to 120, but not everyone will be able to do so. It’s a bit like being able to afford a decent pension, or proper VHI cover. Our world is an unequal place and each of us is heavily dependent on the accident that is where we are born for our quality of life. It would be great if some people lived to be 120. The question is whom, and how they will be selected.

Sounds like the ultimate question for late capitalism to answer.

No, really!


No. Just Because We Could Doesn’t Mean We Should

We get too soon old, and too late smart.

German Proverb

When Ming the Mollusk was “captured” at the ripe old age of 507, nobody bothered to enquire about its quality of life.  And why would they?  Hidden within the ridges of its shell were the genetic secrets to longevity.

As a late bloomer I can understand why some might find the prospect of a prolonged middle age rather tantalising.  On the wrinkled face of it, a 40-year increase in life expectancy whispers the promise of redemption from past error, and a second chance to make a glorious hames of it.

Who among us (who can verily detect the erosion of their telomeres with every sideways glance in a reflective surface) would not be tempted by the ability to arrest senescence—even if it meant 102 years of tax returns? 

Like so many things done in the name of innovation, what’s possible doesn’t always sit comfortably with what’s necessary. Or indeed, with what’s wise. 

The social, economic and environmental implications of a 33% increase in human longevity pose challenges that are not so much over-looked as they are ignored by those at the frontiers of life extension research.  Why spoil the high of hubris when the IPO might guarantee 1,000 years of the good life? 

With life expectancy in the United States edging, like real income and government regulation, downward, it’s only a matter of time before some basement biohacker launches a mail-order CRISPR kit and the world faces the promise—and the curse—of Longer Telomeres in About an HourTM.   

This may sound like science fiction. But considering the private capital flowing into life extension research, and the numbers of rich and famous already flocking to Puerto Rico for stem cell injections (groovier joints and bouncier prostates, anyone?), the time has come for public debates on the ethics of anti-ageing technology. 

How might society change if humans were engineered to age like naked mole rats (whose primary cause of death seems to be misadventure)?

Who will ultimately benefit from greater quantity of life?

Is death a problem to be solved? Or would the world’s finest talents be put to better use exploring why we ought not be afraid of it?

These are not questions Ming and the naked mole rats can ever provide answers to.