As Aubrey de Grey notes in this policy-focused interview, advocates for the significant extension of healthy human life spans through rejuvenation research after the SENS model are not exactly faced with high-quality opposition. Much of the time, we might as well be talking to a recording, one that continually repeats the same tired, well-refuted objections. The opposition doesn't engage with any of our arguments, its members just say the same things over and again. In some ways that makes this easy. In others ways that makes this hard: a very large number of people are out there repeating variants on the few broken record objections to living longer in youthful health and vigor. That crowd seems to soak up any amount of rational argument in favor of an end to aging with little apparent change in the short term. Nonetheless, our community of researchers, advocates, and investors has clearly made considerable progress over the past twenty years. Attitudes are changing, alongside progress towards the clinic for the first rejuvenation therapies. It is still a battle at every step of the way, but one that we are slowly winning.
Erich: I'll ask you a question here,s inspired by a piece authored by political scientists Francis Fukuyama, a member of George W. Bush's Council on Bioethics between 2001 and 2004. He's getting at this idea that in his mind and maybe in the minds of some other people, if life extension technologies are limited: A. Who gets them? B. Is it possible that, in a world where some people have access to these technologies and others do not, there might become a two-tier hierarchy between the haves and have nots?
Aubrey: Yeah this is one of the standard objections or concerns that are raised about these things, and they've been raised since the dawn of time. I've been answering them since the dawn of time. To be honest, I'm getting frustrated that people - and I'm not talking about people like you, I know you have to ask these questions - but that people like Fukuyama continue to insist on repeating these concerns despite the fact that they have never actually provided any kind of rebuttal to the rebuttals that I provide.
They never say, "Oh no, this answer to my concern is actually not going to work." They just repeat the concern, which of course is intellectually dishonest. The actual answer is very simple. There is no chance whatsoever that we will actually have this divide. The reason there is no chance is because in contrast to medicine that we have today, high-tech medicine for the elderly, that costs a lot and really is limited by ability to pay - in contrast to that medicine, the medicine we're talking about will actually work. In other words, it will genuinely keep people truly youthful and able-bodied for as long as they live, and that will be a lot longer.
And that means that those medicines, unlike today's medicines, will pay for themselves. This is because they will allow the people who get the medicines to continue to contribute wealth to society. Now that, of course, is over and above all the other savings we will have. For example, kids will be more productive since they will no longer have to look after their sick parents, and so on. But the fact is that any way you do the arithmetic, even if you make pessimistic presumptions as to what the therapies will actually cost to deliver, and of course, those numbers will inevitably come down over time anyway, it is still perfectly clear that it will be economically suicidal for any country not to make these therapies available to everybody who is old enough to need them.
Erich: For our last question, what are some of the general shifts you'd like to see politically in order to make the national climate more receptive to technologies such as the ones you're pioneering?
Aubrey: I honestly don't think that that's quite the right question. I don't think that we need changes to government and so on with regard to new technologies. I think what we need is a little bit of long-term anticipation because the fact is that we're going to get these technologies one way or another. It's just a question of how soon. But the second question is how ready we will be to implement them and to disseminate them and generally to introduce them in a smooth manner. We all know that the industrial revolution was a bit turbulent, and that was kind of like it was bound to be that way. We suddenly had these new machines, and we suddenly had a lot of people without jobs. Nobody really saw it coming; they couldn't have seen it coming.
But this we can see coming because we've got all this work going on at the laboratory, and it's publicized, a lot. That means, that there will come a point when we get these therapies, and people will have seen them coming. In particular, it means that it will come at a point much sooner, maybe even five years from now, as little as that. Then, results in the laboratory, just on life, are sufficiently impressive that the general public begins to believe that, yes, this whole "rejuvenation thing," this whole "longevity escape velocity" thing really is probably going to happen soon.
Now, at that point, it doesn't really matter who's right and who's wrong and who's optimistic and who's pessimistic. What matters is: it's going to be complete pandemonium. Everyone's going to change how they make their life choices, how they spend their money and so on because of the change that will have occurred in how long they expect to live. And it's governments that have been putting their heads in the sand right up until that point, not listening to people like me who are telling them it's coming. It's going to be much more chaotic and turbulent than it will be if governments starting today start to pay attention to the wave that is coming and to how it's going to roll out.