Living Longer…and Doing a Whole Lot More Than That

By | April 21, 2009

The following are outtakes from my essay [work in progress] responding to this particular article:

“Living Longer: Planning for Longer Life-Spans,” by Marvin Cetron and Owen Davies. Originally published as “Extended Life-Span,” in The Futurist, April 1998, pp. 17-23.

You’re wondering why I’m responding to such an old article. Well, there are two reasons, one tied in with the theme of my comments on Steely Dan’s song, IGY. The future that never was. The other is more mundane. I stumbled onto it in an old file.

Here we go.

Cetron and Davies discussed [in the article] the 1995 discovery that melatonin acted to slow down aging in mice. It seemed at the time to be the key to solving the mystery of aging.

There were at that point 50 distinct theories of aging. Clearly, researchers hadn’t dug deep enough. Metatonin wasn’t it. This article does not mention the chromosomes’ telemaraes. Clearly their effect on aging hadn’t been discovered by 1998 or Cetron and Davies would’ve mentioned it.

Yet they riffed on all this excitement on melatonin, speculating on all the changes they were expecting in society that would grow out of life extension. Here’s a brief summary of how they thought things would go:

Their analysis dealt almost exclusively with the impact that growing average life spans were already having on the American and world economy. Cetron and Davies pointed out that our current retirement systems, including pensions and Social Security, were in 1998 (and are today) becoming rapidly obsolete. We’re living much longer now than the old “65 and you retire” paradigm established by Bismarck in Germany in the 1880s when very few workers lived that long.

As you’d imagine, their scenario for how extremely long lives would hit our current system is catastrophic. No company could support the enormous numbers of retirees for decades under such a system, neither could personal savings, neither could government programs. All would be crushed financially under the enormous strain.

[At this point I'll draw out in the full essay some of the very different conclusions on our potential future based on Kurzweil's and others' work on the idea of the Singularity.]

Here is where we get to the nub of my contention that projecting trends based on what effects life extension alone may do to present-day American society simply is no longer enough.

It is misleading to tell people if you do this, that and the other thing, you may survive (barely) in an economy dominated by a bunch of healthy, skilled, very experienced old people.

It is misleading to assure them that we will still have an economy with Social Security, pensions, companies, even money, because with the trends I detailed above, we can project to a time when we won’t have any of these things, and make a very good argument for this possibility.

Instead, if my trends hold true, we will be living in an extraordinarily rich information environment worked by superbly crafted robots that do all of the physical labor far better than we can with the enormous riches of invention and production that only a Midas could envision.

Life extension advances will not be hermetically sealed. Any “technosphere” that can produce life-extension technology can also produce, and will produce, all of the other things I’ve noted in this essay. How? By technological synergy and convergence:

Genetics (curing what ails us, and doing so much more)

Robotics (building whatever we desire on command)

Nanotechnology (doing all of the above at smaller and smaller scale, with the kind of precision that will seem magical to us today)

Information (like the physical side, growing more and more precise, and also far more voluminous)

Computers (directing all of these processes)

Two (of many) results of synergy and convergence of technology trends:

1. Replicators (think Star Trek)

2. Cell repair mechanisms (fixing what ails us cell by cell, so not only do we enjoy a greatly expanded life span, but the elderly no longer are elderly. All are young again as every mistake is fixed)

The lesson here for futurists is simple: Never, ever project your future along one linear cause and effect axis. There will be many changes and they will interweave and interact in many interesting ways. The mistake about melatonin wasn’t that big a deal. But the single-minded, single-strand projection based on it was.

  • Will Brown

    You said:

    “It is misleading to assure them that we will still have an economy with Social Security, pensions, companies, even money, because with the trends I detailed above, we can project to a time when we won�t have any of these things, and make a very good argument for this possibility.”

    You had me nodding along in agreement right up ’till you got to the “even money” bit. While refined metals and intricately designed paper-based currency might well vanish from future human social structures, the function that money performs in human interaction will remain for at least as far into potential human development as we can plausably foresee as of yet. If you want to make the argument that money vanishes due to technologic advancement then you will need to devise some (at least as) equally effective alternative mechanism that fulfills the numerous functions that money currently provides for human transactional processes (not least of which are remote valuation, asset inventory and projected demand assertation and cross-cultural communication/translation amongst others). I don’t doubt that alternatives are possible, but remain unconvinced that greater practicality and efficieny will result.

    I look forward to reading your essay.

  • Leslie Kirschner

    The biggest problem I have with a huge percentage of future projections that I hear and read is that they hold everything except the subject they are discussing constant, as if no other changes will occur. That’s why future-predicting in general has such a poor record. Of course, it’s hard to factor in all of the variables, but we need to try when we think about these things….

  • Sally Morem

    Leslie “they hold everything except the subject they are discussing constant, as if no other changes will occur.”

    Exactly. And a number of the greatest SF writers have also made this same mistake. This is how 50s SF writers managed to depict future space-based societies with spaceships, space stations run by vacuum tube computers. :O

  • Sally Morem

    Will: “…the function that money performs in human interaction will remain for at least as far into potential human development as we can plausably foresee as of yet.”

    I do think that at a certain point coinage and paper money will vanish. This will occur (I think) when replication tech is widespread. Money at that point may take the form of software directing the replicators to build specific things.

    But, as we near Kurzweil’s technological Singularity, (again, I think) even that kind of “money” will be superceded as that kind of software become ubiquitous in whatever future version of the Internet comes to pass.

    Bear in mind that money serves us as a means of managing countless numbers of scarcities. As you recall from Economics 101, money is a store of value, a measure of value and a medium of exchange.

    It would be too much to get into here, but I think that all of these will be rendered unnecessary by the unimaginable abundance in all aspects of life made possible by the Singularity.

    But then again there may be some need for some very highly esoteric accounting system in the Singularity.

    I’m guessing, not.

  • Brian

    Money can be viewed as a measure of value in terms of human time. You buy gold your paying for the time to mine including all the costs that were incurred along the way.

    I don’t see a functional world where people don’t need some measure for the value of their time/labor.

  • Will Brown

    Sally; Brian’s post at 01:19PM offers an excellent illustration of the societal value of “money” beyond the straight-forward exchange facilitation. Further to that, I can’t conceive of a human social structure that doesn’t require some mechanism for assertaining as well as broadcasting a localized valuation for something in a universally recognised classification model (x=z$/unit, where $ = some mutually recognised adjustable measure of value). No matter how much “stuff” we may ultimately be able to “freely create” via future technology, there will remain a cost/value ratio to be determined that will be at least somewhat unique to our individual circumstance of the given moment. “Money” is the historically recognised mechanism humans use to do so (along with much else people frequently fail to consider) and there will almost certainly be some market for exchange between individuals – if not larger groupings – that will ensure that “money” will continue as a widespread practice between people into the plausably predictable future.

    Here is a plausable futuristic scenario for you to consider: If your backyard nuclear battery needs to be refueled, do you A) use your replicator to make radioactive fuel for your unit (thus making your replicator itself radioactive – and unusable for any other purpose thereafter) or B) use your replicator to replicate itself and then make replacement fuel (making your replicator unavailable during the process and permanently tying up the materials used for the replica) or C) buy some nuclear fuel from someone else (which transaction will require some analog of “money” if not the historically recognisable artifact itself)?

    Hint: google “nuclear battery” for yourself to determine just how plausable this scenario is.

    Money is the mechanism we use to make this and a million-and-one other ordinary judgement valuations every day. Just because we may someday (soon, I hope) be able to make all we want for ourselves doesn’t automatically mean that doing so will be our first or even thirty-first best choice. Individual circumstance both varies and fluctuates over time; money is the mechanism we use to adjust our capabilities as these variations in circumstance requires – either directly or as a valuation mechanism between potential response options.

    This is not my first consideration of this problem; ask Phil :) .

  • Mike

    Isn’t this why Star Trek used “credits”? A tracking of contributions vs withdrawals?