“Your body is like a car.” These words echoed from the Future Talks stage at this year’s Heartland Festival, organised in part by this magazine’s editorial staff. They were spoken by British gerontologist Aubrey de Grey. During his speech, he presented his interpretation of ageing to the audience: damage that constantly builds up in the body, which can be fixed exactly like you’d fix damage to your car.
“A car can start to rust and eventually this will make the doors fall off. Ageing follows the same principle. It’s not a phenomenon of biology, but of physics. And medicine is a bunch of technology that can keep the machine going by fixing it up in ways that the body is not doing by itself.”
According to de Grey, the biomedical technologies and forms of treatment that can repair the body in this way are not only possible, but so close within reach, he’s convinced the first human who will live to be 1000 has already been born.
In line with de Grey’s vision, many so-called transhumanistic projects are similarly applying new technology and medical knowledge to approach the issue of ageing, with the goal of expanding and eliminating the limits of our human physical and mental capacity. While some researchers are working on cryopreservation, which involves deep-freezing deceased people and awakening them for a prolonged, healthy life in 50, 100 or even 1000 years, others are taking an entirely different approach and developing so-called mind uploading techniques, which map an individual’s neural networks and make it possible to upload their brainwaves to a server so they can spend an eternal afterlife in the “cloud”. However, according to Professor de Grey, what stands in the way of these attempts to combat ageing is that we’re mired in a so-called “pro-ageing trance”, where we accept ageing as an inevitable part of life. We interviewed Aubrey de Grey on his research and his thoughts on ageing, death and transhumanism.
Viewed over time, the average human lifespan has risen, which might lead you to believe that we’re generally living a lot longer. According to the National Center for Health Statistics in the US, the expected average lifespan for an American male, for example, has risen from about 45 years in 1907 to 66 years in 1957 and 75 years in 2007, standing today at around 78 years. Although the increased lifespan over the past 10 years is correlated with the reduction in many common causes of death, such as cardiovascular disease, homicide and influenza, the increase in average lifespan from 1907 to 2007 is largely due to a significant drop in the rate of infant mortality. The problem is that when you evaluate trends in average expected lifespan and include figures for child mortality and other causes of premature death, it drastically lowers the expected lifespan, which can cause the misconception that prior generations typically died at a younger age. This is, however, not the case. In contrast, the maximum human lifespan has remained around the same level over the last 2,000 years. For example, the Greek philosopher Socrates died in 399 B.C. at the ripe old age of 70 – not much younger than a typical American male today. Professor de Grey believes we’re nearing a breakthrough in our quest to increase the human lifespan:
“We’ve already been able to increase the expected lifespan. But we haven’t managed to progress beyond the maximum limit for a human’s potential lifespan and we’re coming very close to hitting a wall, where we won’t be able to continue to increase the expected lifespan in the same way we’ve been able to do for the last 100 years. At least, not if we continue to do the things we’ve been doing.”
Aubrey de Grey was originally trained in Computer Science, but in 2000 after many years of self-study and work in the field of gerontology (the study of ageing), he earned a Ph.D. in Biology at Cambridge University. Today, he’s the Managing Editor of the journal Rejuvenation Research and a co-founder of the SENS Research Foundation, an American non-profit organisation whose mission is combating ageing. His work is primarily based on rejecting the false distinction between ageing and age-related diseases that he feels existing research has propagated:
“There’s no biological basis for any distinction between so-called “diseases” of old age, like Alzheimer’s, and ageing as such. Now if you get that wrong, then you get over-optimistic about trying to cure these diseases while getting the misguided impression that ageing in itself is completely off-limits from medicine. And this is not true.”
He adds that ageing needs to be understood as an ongoing build-up of damage to bodily tissues that happens as a side effect of the metabolic processes that keep us alive. While the body can repair some of this damage on its own and tolerate a certain amount of harm, over time this accumulation causes disease and eventually death for elderly people. So far, the existing science has approached this issue by trying to prevent the damage from ever occurring or attempting to treat the diseases that occur as a result of excess accumulated damage. Professor de Grey is however critical of both these approaches. In his book Ending Aging (2008), he presents the idea that we should instead fight ageing by periodically repairing the damage that is constantly building up in the human body before turning into disease. With respect to this, he believes he’s discovered a simple maxim that makes it easier for us to fight ageing: namely, that it’s not necessary to understand the complex metabolic processes that cause age-related damage in the body. We just need to understand and deal with the damage itself. In this vein, Professor de Grey feels that ageing can be specifically broken down into seven different categories of molecular and cellular damage. Scientists at the SENS Research Foundation are working diligently to develop regenerative biomedical treatments to repair these types of damage.
It’s now been ten years since Aubrey de Grey wrote Ending Aging and eight years since he founded the SENS Research Foundation, so I decided to ask him how far he’s come in developing these therapies. He responds that even though small leaps in progress are made all the time, it can be difficult to show concrete results from the research. He points out that stem cell therapy, for example, is already a viable method to treat the type of damage that relates to cell loss, but explains it’s more difficult to find solutions right now for other types of damage — which is exactly the reason the SENS Research Foundation exists. He elaborates:
“We’ve made great progress in developing methods to repair the different forms of damage. But the problem is that while we may be able to repair some kinds of damage, we won’t really be able to combat ageing if we aren’t able to fix all the different kinds of damage.”
According to Professor de Grey, the SENS Research Foundation isn’t alone in fighting this battle as a small industry of new start-ups has begun to flourish and thrust ageing issues into the spotlight, attracting the interest of well-known philanthropists and investors worldwide. For example, the SENS Research Foundation counts among its investors the American entrepreneur Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and shareholder and board member of Facebook. The co-founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, have also invested in de Grey’s research. Through his fellowship in the think tank Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, Professor de Grey is also affiliated with the Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom while American futurist Ray Kurzweil, known for his predications about the speed of technological developments, has publicly expressed support for the fight against ageing.
Still, Aubrey de Grey’s work has been met with criticism, in particular from established academic circles. In 2005, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) offered an award of USD 20,000 in the prestigious journal Technology Review to any molecular biologist who could prove that de Grey’s research was so flawed it merited no attention or scientific debate. However, the judges of the contest concluded that none of the proposals submitted disproved Professor de Grey’s assertions. The professor points out in his defence that the biggest challenge in the fight against ageing is the pro-ageing trance, he maintains we are living in.
According to Professor de Grey, the pro-ageing trance is a psychological strategy we’ve adopted to come to grips with ageing as a fundamental existential condition. It’s based on the belief that ageing and death aren’t just inevitable but are in fact a cherished part of a natural or religious process that we shouldn’t tamper with.
“People have a resistance to re-engaging seriously in a battle against ageing that they have already made their peace with. That is the main challenge: that people continue to see ageing as unavoidable.”
De Grey was astonished by the widespread acceptance of ageing, which motivated him to become involved in ageing research:
“I discovered that hardly anyone was trying to defeat ageing and I was completely horrified: I never thought that anyone could disagree that ageing is the world’s most important problem, causing the most suffering in the world.”
And Professor de Grey isn’t the only one who considers the widespread acceptance of ageing to be an issue. This attitude has particularly been challenged by a rising number of transhumanists, who share the belief that we humans should use technological and scientific breakthroughs to expand our physical and mental abilities. During the last American election, science fiction author Zoltan Istvan announced his intention to run for President on a “Transhumanist Party” platform. Istvan shares de Grey’s view that we wrongly accept death as something that’s inevitable. He alludes to this in the 2016 film The Future of Work and Death:
“We live in a culture of death. We need to overturn that culture of death into a culture of indefinite life and having the choice to live and die. The prospects of living indefinitely are too promising to not go after at full speed.”
Among the technologies transhumanists are counting on to fulfil their vision of eternal life is cryopreservation, which is used to deep-freeze a human body and brain immediately after death in case the individual can be brought back to life in the future. While the technology to deep freeze a body already exists, the science to reanimate a corpse is not yet in place. This hasn’t prevented people from being deep frozen in the hope of being reborn in the future, when the technology exists to resurrect them and cure their illness or cause of death. The first human to be cryopreserved was Dr. James Bedford back in 1967, and today there are several thousand people who have signed up to be frozen after death, including Aubrey de Grey and transhumanists like Ray Kurzweil, Peter Thiel and Nick Bostrom. De Grey sees cryopreservation as a way to buy time until the scientists at SENS have developed treatments that can counteract and reverse ageing. He elaborates:
“People seem to think of death as a binary thing – that you go from being alive to being dead instantaneously. But this is nonsense. Death is rather a process and if you can arrest that process by applying cryopreservation shortly after someone stops breathing, then they might still be within reach of current—or especially future—medicine.”
In a completely different approach to death, scientists are working on digitally mapping the brain’s neural network in order to upload the data to a server so deceased individuals can potentially experience an eternal digital afterlife in the “cloud” once their bodies have passed away. While brain researchers have mapped the neural network of a roundworm, which has but 302 neurons and around 7,000 pathways, they’ve yet to map the entire network of a human brain, which in comparison has about 86 billion neurons and 100 billion synapses. But it’s not from a lack of trying. For example, the National Institute of Health (NIH) in the US has been running a project to map the human brain since 2009 and the technology for brain scanning has made huge strides. De Grey also sees some potential in mind uploading:
“I can certainly imagine a scenario where mind uploading might become useful – especially if our work at SENS goes too slowly. I would personally be happy with using it. I prefer my life to be saved that way rather than not being saved at all.”
In spite of his enthusiasm for life-prolonging technologies like cryopreservation and mind uploading, Professor de Gray is wary of being labelled as a “transhumanist”. When I probe deeper and ask if he identifies with this philosophy, he distances himself from it and it’s clear the term is imbued with complex connotations:
“The concept of transhumanism is a perfectly harmless one; it’s just openness to new technologies that can greatly alter and improve the human condition. But the word “transhumanism” itself is damaging because it turns people off and makes them think that we are trying to create some hybrid species that will destroy us. So, I prefer to emphasise how normal what we do is. It’s simply medical research that dares to aim a little bit higher.”
It’s clear that Aubrey de Grey is used to criticism—and just as used to responding to it. He points out that the goal of his work is essentially to keep people healthy and that a radically prolonged life would just be an added bonus:
“I am often asked why we would even want to be 1000 years old and I think it’s a stupid question. All that matters is that no one likes being sick, having the prospect of becoming sick or seeing other people get sick. That’s why I’m not working on longevity, but on keeping people healthy. The longevity aspect is purely a side effect of this and should not be a distraction. It’s a good thing.”
But could we really live forever one day? According to de Grey, it’s not improbable that in the near future we’ll see the development of the first biomedical anti-ageing treatments that could supply us with so many extra years of life that new and improved therapies can be developed, faster than our bodies age. The professor calls this the longevity escape velocity—the speed at which new treatments need to be developed in order to keep us alive indefinitely. I ask him when he believes we’ll reach the point where technology truly can provide us with more extra years of life than we can manage to spend:
“I think that we have at least a 50 percent chance of getting the first therapies within 20 years and an 80 percent chance of getting there within 50 years. This means that young generations born today have a good chance of benefiting hugely from the first therapies. And if the therapies work as well, as I think they’re going to, giving us 30 years of additional life, then that will easily bring us to a point where technology will give us new therapies quicker than people are ageing.”
Even though Professor de Grey believes these treatments will be available in the next 20-50 years, he acknowledges that it might never happen:
“There is at least a 10 percent chance that we won’t get there at all. This relies not only on the science itself, but also on the research not being held back by lack of funding.”
In particular, a shortage of funding for his own project is something he mentions several times in the course of our interview. He attributes this to the fact that many people raise questions about whether we even should want to be 1000 years old and whether only a few privileged individuals would be able to afford SENS’ treatments. Another concern he often encounters is that if we could potentially live indefinitely and make our own decisions about when we want to die, would it then become an existential dilemma? De Gray sighs in frustration as he recalls many of the critical questions he’s been asked that he feels were based on an erroneous assumption that they couldn’t be answered or were by their very nature not open to debate. For example, he’s often asked about the risk of overpopulation on Earth due to climate change and a shortage of resources. Would a radically prolonged lifespan for humans mean that it would be necessary to regulate how many children people could have? In response, he answers without hesitation:
A consequence of a prolonged life might be that you have to choose between keeping healthy or having kids. But even if we have to decide between living longer or having kids, then that’s a choice people have to make. And we have a moral obligation to give people that choice.”
Aubrey de Grey has no doubts that his research will change how we regulate and organise both society and our private lives. Nonetheless, he doesn’t feel this should prevent us from taking up the fight against ageing or waking up from the pro-ageing trance he believes we’ve unconsciously fallen into.