Longevity escape velocity


Thinking about the future of medical technology makes my head spin. The idea of human engineering is so alien to our sensibilities that it is usually brushed aside and relegated to science fiction. Maybe this is why it is so jarring when a scientist pokes his/her head out and suggests some of these ideas may actually intersect with our future reality.

Aubrey de Grey (who looks a bit like Methusaleh himself) claims you and I may live past 1000 years. Ridiculous eh? Maybe not. Let me swerve around and come back to the core argument.

We’ve all heard of Moore’s Law. Processor speeds double about once every 18 months. The same exponential growth marks other technological yardsticks that rely on incremental rather than fundamental improvements. For example, the Human Genome Project (draft) was 25% complete in year 9 and 100% complete in year 10. This was no surprise to the project leads, who recognized the exponentially-improving nature the underlying technology.

What about our ability to repair damage done by aging? Could those improvements be exponential as well? de Grey sees aging retardation as a problem in cellular engineering — repairing mitochondrial damage (are any of my medically-inclined friends better informed here?). The key question is this: “Is there a Moore’s Law for cellular repair?”

If so relatively modest increases in medium-term life extension technology will compound into biblical life expectancies for our generation … and perhaps even Sam. The ability to extend life by two years in 2020 will allow the recipients to benefit from an additional two years of current technological improvements in .. say .. 2060. That life extension will subsequently buy another round of technological improvement. It comes down to this: If the rate of cellular-repair technological change permanently exceeds the biological rate of aging at any point in our lives, we live forever — de Gray calls this rate the “Longevity Escape Velocity.”

Paging Shelly Kagan…



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