"Radical life extension" means different things to different people, whether engineering a healthy life span of 150 years, 500 years or 1000 or more. I think that we can all agree that it implies a far longer healthy life span than can currently be attained, or even attained in the near future. Radical life extension implies the need for radical improvements in medicine, biogerontology and our understanding of the biochemical, genetic mechanisms of aging.
Radical life extension is not unbelieveable, or obviously unattainable, however. We can conceive of a car, lovingly maintained and supplied with ample spare parts, lasting for a century or more. It would require a great deal of effort, but it is not impossible. Similarly, we can suggest general methodologies by which the healthy human life span could be greatly extended. You can always buy a new car, but you can't buy a new self.
Bootstrapping, the title of this little piece, is one of the assumptions taken for granted in most discussions about healthy life extension. This assumption been examined ad nauseum in past decades of transhumanism and life extensionist writing, and so is mostly skipped over or referred to in passing in more modern pieces.
(See Closing in on the Cure for Death by Aubrey de Grey at the Longevity Meme for an example of this in action).
We need to give this bootstrapping idea more prominence again. A lot of newcomers are finding their way to healthy life extension in these times of advancing medical science. They need to be shown the dream that motivates us. The promise of longer, healthier lives is in the air, and bootstrapping explains how we can realistically work towards living to see the medical technologies of radical life extension. (Whatever they may turn out to be; the smart money is currently betting on medical nanotechnology, or nanomedicine, expected to arrive somewhere in the middle part of the 21st century).
The future is bright - if research is allowed to continue unimpeded by restrictive legislation - but we have to face up to the fact that scientists don't currently know how to greatly extend the healthy human life span. The best we can do right now is to live a healthy life in the hopes of becoming a centenarian. Calorie restriction (eating fewer calories, while still obtaining the necessary nutrients) has been shown to extend healthy life span, but it does not appear to be able to give you more than 20 extra years at most. Of course, your years will be very healthy, but many of us feel that dying at the end of it rather defeats the point! Why be satisfied by 20 extra years when we could be working to do better than that?
This is where the bootstrapping takes starts to take off, in theory at least. The extra healthy life we gain for ourselves through a healthy lifestyle and calorie restriction can be used to support, fund and advocate research to extend the healthy human lifespan. At the moment, this means:
- participating in the fight against cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer's
- supporting the Methuselah Mouse Prize
- pushing for more funding for aging and real anti-aging research
- fighting political attempts to ban medical research
- supporting research into stem cells, therapeutic cloning and regenerative medicine
In my opinion, the next wave of medical technologies that will prolong healthy lifespan will be based on regenerative medicine. If we, as a society, can successfully fund and support regenerative medicine, we will probably be able to cure most age-related damage to our bodies two decades from now. We will be able to repair diseases, replace injured tissue, and grow new organs for transplant from our own stem cells as needed. This is not pie in the sky science: the first steps have already been demonstrated in labs around the world. Regenerative medicine and stem cell medicine represents a first crucial level of control over the material and processes of our bodies.
If regenerative medicine can give us 30 extra years of healthy life, then we will have time to develop working medical nanotechnology - it will be 2050 already! While regenerative medicine is largely a matter of manipulating existing proteins, genes and cellular mechanisms to heal, nanomedicine promises to use tiny machines to do all that far more efficiently and with greater degrees of control and effectiveness.
Beyond nanomedicine...well, nanomedicine will give us many healthy years to think about what comes next.
This, in a nutshell, is the bootstrapping process: extending healthy life span faster than we age. It's a realistic goal for modern science. Not an easy goal, but a realistic one. It will take a great deal of funding and time, far more than is currently being applied to medicine and the science of aging. This is why we advocate and speak up: even us younger folk only have a few decades in which to make sure that the right fields of science take off. This is why we have research prizes, life extension organizations, advocates and debates. We are being presented with - literally - the chance of a lifetime, and we must rise to meet the challenge!