When Death is Optional

Many people believe that medical control over aging will be stunningly expensive, and thus indefinite extension of healthy life will only be available to a wealthy elite. This is far from the case. If you look at the SENS approach to repair therapies, treatments when realized will be mass-produced infusions of cells, proteins, and drugs. Everyone will get the same treatments because everyone ages due to the same underlying cellular and molecular damage. You'll need one round of treatments every ten to twenty years, and they will be given by a bored clinical assistant. No great attention will be needed by highly trained and expensive medical staff, as all of the complexity will be baked into the manufacturing process. Today's closest analogs are the comparatively new mass-produced biologics used to treat autoimmune conditions, and even in the wildly dysfunctional US medical system these cost less than ten thousand dollars for a treatment.

Rejuvenation won't cost millions, or even hundreds of thousands. It will likely cost less than many people spend on overpriced coffee over the course of two decades of life, and should fall far below that level. When the entire population is the marketplace for competing developers, costs will eventually plummet to those seen for decades-old generic drugs and similar items produced in factory settings: just a handful of dollars per dose. The poorest half of the world will gain access at that point, just as today they have access to drugs that were far beyond their reach when initially developed.

Nonetheless, many people believe that longevity enhancing therapies will only be available for the wealthy, and that this will be an important dynamic in the future. Inequality is something of a cultural fixation at the moment, and it is manufactured as a fantasy where it doesn't exist in reality. This is just another facet of the truth that most people don't really understand economics, either in the sense of predicting likely future changes, or in the sense of what is actually taking place in the world today:

The attitude now towards disease and old age and death is that they are basically technical problems. It is a huge revolution in human thinking. Throughout history, old age and death were always treated as metaphysical problems, as something that the gods decreed, as something fundamental to what defines humans, what defines the human condition and reality. Even a few years ago, very few doctors or scientists would seriously say that they are trying to overcome old age and death. They would say no, I am trying to overcome this particular disease, whether it's tuberculosis or cancer or Alzheimers. Defeating disease and death, this is nonsense, this is science fiction.

But, the new attitude is to treat old age and death as technical problems, no different in essence than any other disease. It's like cancer, it's like Alzheimers, it's like tuberculosis. Maybe we still don't know all the mechanisms and all the remedies, but in principle, people always die due to technical reasons, not metaphysical reasons. In the middle ages, you had an image of how does a person die? Suddenly, the Angel of Death appears, and touches you on the shoulder and says, "Come. Your time has come." And you say, "No, no, no. Give me some more time." And Death said, "No, you have to come." And that's it, that is how you die.

We don't think like that today. People never die because the Angel of Death comes, they die because their heart stops pumping, or because an artery is clogged, or because cancerous cells are spreading in the liver or somewhere. These are all technical problems, and in essence, they should have some technical solution. And this way of thinking is now becoming very dominant in scientific circles, and also among the ultra-rich who have come to understand that, wait a minute, something is happening here. For the first time in history, if I'm rich enough, maybe I don't have to die.

Death is optional. And if you think about it from the viewpoint of the poor, it looks terrible, because throughout history, death was the great equalizer. The big consolation of the poor throughout history was that okay, these rich people, they have it good, but they're going to die just like me. But think about the world, say, in 50 years, 100 years, where the poor people continue to die, but the rich people, in addition to all the other things they get, also get an exemption from death. That's going to bring a lot of anger.

And again, I don't want to give a prediction, 20 years, 50 years, 100 years, but what you do see is it's a bit like the boy who cried wolf, that, yes, you cry wolf once, twice, three times, and maybe people say yes, 50 years ago, they already predicted that computers will replace humans, and it didn't happen. But the thing is that with every generation, it is becoming closer, and predictions such as these fuel the process.

The same thing will happen with these promises to overcome death. My guess, which is only a guess, is that the people who live today, and who count on the ability to live forever, or to overcome death in 50 years, 60 years, are going to be hugely disappointed. It's one thing to accept that I'm going to die. It's another thing to think that you can cheat death and then die eventually. It's much harder. While they are in for a very big disappointment, in their efforts to defeat death, they will achieve great things. They will make it easier for the next generation to do it, and somewhere along the line, it will turn from science fiction to science, and the wolf will come.

Link: http://edge.org/conversation/yuval_noah_harari-daniel_kahneman-death-is-optional


Other than the obvious, there's extraordinarily little substance to anything Harari says. Who even pays this guy? Why? For doing what? Saying that the agricultural lifestyle is more difficult than the hunter-gatherer? (Noble Savage Fantasy 101) Describing Kurzweil's extremely wishful techno-shamanism as a growing religion, when the majority of people involved in actually producing this stuff know better than to take everything he says seriously?

There's some royal monkey crap involving how how medical advances only trickled down in the 20th century because people had value back then and how produced bodies and minds will replace them now. This defies basic logic; if people lose value because mass producing absolutely anything is possible, then it's simple to mass-produce longevity treatments.

It's only when he starts talking about the Angel of Death that it becomes clear who he's really rooting for.

Posted by: Slicer at March 5th, 2015 11:23 AM

I do think that rejuvenation therapies will be expensive for some years (maybe too many years for me to survive--without cryonics), but not for the reasons posted here (complexity of the process, requiring highly trained and expensive medical staff, etc.). Simply, these therapies, like any other therapy today, will be patented, and so, the company that sells a certain therapy can sell it at any price they want, because they have a monopoly. If it were a drug for the common cold, people simply would not buy it if it were expensive. But, for a life-threatening disease like aging, people will pay as much as they can, so it will only be available to wealthy people until the patent expires or other company can find an alternative therapy for the same kind of damage (but this also will take time). So yes, I think they will be expensive for some years.

Also, I think that, after some time, governments will realize that it's cheaper to cure aging than to pay non-working old people. And thus they will act on this issue and will do something to low the price of rejuvenation therapies. But I think that probably that "some time" will be long. We have plenty of evidence that politicians/voters aren't that smart on science-related topics. That's why, for example, here in Europe we import GMO because cultivation is prohibited, even when this has a big economic impact in EU's farmers and there is no scientific reason whatsoever to oppose to GMO cultivation. They can simply continue on the proaging trance for some more years or think that patents is how companies must do business and nothing can be done about that.

And inequality is not a fantasy at all. It's very real and it's growing in some countries and also globaly in the world: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gini_coefficient#US_income_Gini_indices_over_time

Posted by: Antonio at March 6th, 2015 5:18 AM

Some of this guy's predictions seem a bit lazy. I think he is fairly obviously avoiding getting his hopes up, or avoiding thinking about death, by predicting that life extension technologies are 50-60 years in the future (after his own expected death) rather than 20-40 years when he could still be alive.

Admittedly no one really knows how long things will take.

Posted by: Jim at March 7th, 2015 12:21 PM

I am one that hopes to live long enough so anti-aging science can make me live longer and then possibly forever. Anti-aging science is progressing in leaps and bounds. Even today I read about the GDF-13 protein (Google it) that declines with age but when isolated and injected in rats, it repairs their heart muscles and other muscles to that of a young rat. Human clinical trials will be started in a few years. Other treatments like resveratrol, and caloric restriction with proper nutrition has extended lifespans. Save your money though, because many new treatments that are just coming out may be offered beyond U.S. borders because of all the red tape, FDA restrictions and high costs to introduce a drug or treatment in the U.S.. Right now American citizens needing life saving surgeries are traveling abroad to countries like India for treatments not offered in the U.S. Sadly the U.S scientists come up with the discoveries and the rest of the world does the therapies because of all the hoops and money the U.S. scientists have to go through just to get approval. Every one knows that a pill that costs $2.OO in the U.S. costs 2 cents overseas.

Posted by: David Johnson at March 8th, 2015 10:09 PM
Comment Submission

Post a comment; thoughtful, considered opinions are valued. New comments can be edited for a few minutes following submission. Comments incorporating ad hominem attacks, advertising, and other forms of inappropriate behavior are likely to be deleted.

Note that there is a comment feed for those who like to keep up with conversations.