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.