The unavoidable truth about avoiding death

8 March 2016
3 min read

The idea of living forever (avoiding death) is one which has been a fascination of societies for centuries. In the 1800s, the average life expectancy was just 35 years, but today’s average American man can expect to live to 75, and woman 80.

Life expectancy has more than doubled – could it do so again and what if it did?

Regenerative medicine has been practised for decades. Procedures such as knee and hip replacements effectively replace worn out body parts. Transplant surgery does the same, as does the treatment (and cure) of many cancers.

Regenerative medicine today however is fast approaching an inflection point. A point where we will be able to significantly increase longevity through advances in genetics, improved diagnostics and nanotechnology. Genetic engineering will make it possible to grow body parts from a person’s own stem cells, effectively creating a ‘spare parts’ store for our bodies.

Silicon Valley is taking it a step further. Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal, wants to live to 120. He is one of a growing number of tech billionaires who want to solve one of society’s most wicked problems yet: ageing. He and a number of other Silicon Valley masterminds want to use technology to upgrade the human body, the most complex piece of machinery yet, through mechanisms such as reprogramming a person’s DNA; using ‘nanobots’ to repair our bodies from the inside out; and ‘downloading’ the content of someone’s brain so that it can stay alive long after the body which it occupies has expired.

Although all of this may sound far-fetched, so did the advent of the TV and laptop when only radios and calculators were in use. But unlike the TV and laptop, the impact of indefinite longevity is a subject we have largely avoided, in much the same manner as we avoid discussing our own death.

If living to 120 is made possible in the near future, what might we be doing and what impact would this have on the world around us?

As is the pastime of many from the older generation, complaining about the generation gap will take on amusing nuances:

“Back in my day we used to actually talk to each other via social media; we could like each other’s comments… now we’re all merely wandering around mute faced with wristbands that read our micro-expressions. This generation doesn’t understand hard work because the robots are doing all the lifting and thinking for us. They aren’t in touch with themselves and have to look at their wrist to tell them how they’re feeling.”

Avoiding deathIn addition, technological developments will mean that many traditional labour and automated tasks have been replaced, allowing people to focus their collective minds on solving some of the world’s most wicked problems such as poverty. We would have time to develop a cognizance that has only been experienced by a few.

But there is a flip side. Worryingly, our taxation system would come under extreme pressure, having not been geared toward supporting a very large aged and retired population of ‘baby boomers’. If we don’t have the taxation revenue, we won’t be able to build the infrastructure needed to support the population. The mathematics simply do not add up.

Likewise, our health systems are not designed to cater for large chronic disease cohorts. Our current infrastructure (road networks, agriculture, power, water etc.) is already struggling with current populations and urbanisation, having been based on standard assumptions for birth and death rates. These would quite literally ‘break’ if there is a significant increase in longevity.

In many ways, living ‘forever’ may sound appealing, but in the ageing conundrum, are we simply birthing a plethora of even more wicked infrastructure, healthcare and technology problems for the next generation of engineering service providers to solve?

As a community and society, we don’t like having discussions about death and dying. We avoid and ignore the topic until it’s too late. Is the same true of longevity? Quite clearly, where longevity is concerned, it is no longer a question of “could we” but “should we”. With death fast becoming something we can avoid, asking whether we should will be unavoidable.

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John McGuire
Written by
John McGuire

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