Tuesday, September 6, 2011

110 Billion Deathless People

Damien: On Sunday, I raised the question “Must the end of death (except by accident or overwhelming infection or war) necessarily produce a vast population growth spurt?” It’s still not clear to me what the answer is, but the consensus of serious thinkers who’ve addressed this question appears to agree with me that it won’t be a major issue “for a long time—especially if many of the very long lived women are past their reproductive years.”

An interesting paper we’ll return to was published last year by the Russian husband and wife team Leonid A. Gavrilov and Natalia S. Gavrilova. Their paper, “Demographic consequences of defeating aging,” (presented at the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence Conference, Queens' College, Cambridge, England, September, 2009), asks: “Is it possible to have a sustainable population dynamics in a future hypothetical non-aging society?” They show that in advanced societies, it’s the decline of populations that is the urgent issue, and even radical life extension for those past 60 will not bring us grief.

My point is that while men keep building new spermatozoa throughout their lives (and there are reports of men in their 90s become fathers), women have all their ova from before birth. Many eggs are pruned away by natural processes even before birth. They are obliterated at an extraordinary rate in the run-up to menarche. Then, around age 50 or so, menopause shuts down the female reproductive system as the last eggs vanish.

So if women are physiologically infertile after age 50 or 60, their indefinitely prolonged youthful life could not lead to additional babies from them. Unless radical steps are taken to implant a blastocyst into a medically prepared, hormonally rejigged uterus. This is not the kind of choice most women are eager to make, even if rejuvenation fixes routine cellular decay. It might become a choice after you’ve been alive for a century or two, and yearn to have another baby gurgling in the cot, but it seems unlikely to be widely adopted immediately by unaging but sterile women. (Just my guess; I might be wrong, and I’m biased because I have no kids of my own and don’t want any. Not yet, anyway.)

Now, this is an interesting consequence that I think is often overlooked in a too-simple calculation. I have the impression that a lot of people doing quick&dirty calcs on the impact of immortality treat it like compounding interest. But in compound interest, every existing dollar in your account contributes to future growth. That’s precisely not the case with an ageless future population of the kind I’m describing.

Let’s take the most extreme situation as a thought experiment. Suppose when Homo sapiens emerged, somewhere around 120,000 years ago, or more recently, repair and superior immunity mechanisms had evolved to complement intelligence. Imagine, then, that nobody had died, or aged beyond early adulthood, since then. Estimates of how many people have ever lived vary between 60 and perhaps 110 billion. Seven thousand million of those are now alive. So we might have lived in a world with perhaps 5 billion fertile men and woman and children yet to become fertile, plus 105 billion unaging people who do not themselves add to the increase in human numbers.

That is, the number of kids added to the Earth’s ecological load would be pretty much exactly the same as now. It’s just that there’d be 110 billion of us, rather than 7 billion. Nearly 16 times as many as now. Well, that’s a lot, but it’s not infinitely many. Still, is that even feasible, or would the world have collapsed long ago in a nightmare of resource wars, desperate crowding, and ecological despoliation?

Well, maybe not. If you’d lived for 100,000 years as a healthy 25-year old, would you necessarily be stuck digging insects out of a tree with a twig, or knapping stone? Hunter gatherers in the past century or two who entered advanced technological societies did not, by and large, remain aloof. Granted, for many it was a dreadful culture shock that destroyed their existing societies and languages, but that would not have happened in a deathless human world. Admittedly, known “primitive” cultures had truly atrocious murder rates, and maybe that would have persisted for a long time—but if so, that would have slowed the supposedly ruinous growth of human numbers. Meanwhile, we know that aggregations of people, especially cities of a certain size, tend to be the creative core of humanity. My guess is that we’d long ago have solved all the soluble problems of feeding, clothing, educating and amusing the world in as close to a Utopian way as we’ll ever manage.

If that’s true, it will come about in the same way during the next century or the next thousand years—once each of us has a realistic expectation of living indefinitely, healthy but increasingly wise with experience. And understanding, with slowly dawning horror, that it doesn’t make much sense to crap in your own nest, one you expect to live in for millennia.

The real test will be whether old minds in the new bottles of unaging flesh will retain the flexibility and joyous, infectious curiosity of youth, or will grow ever more in-turned, alienated, jaded and perhaps bitter and murderous. (“Get off my lawn, you kids!”) But long before that, I think, we’ll develop ways to tweak our own drives, to expand and edit our memories, to remain young at heart even as our bodies remain young in every other organ as well.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Extreme Longevity

Damien: On a listserv of gerontology experts dedicated to studying extreme longevity (super-centenarians in particular, those who survive past the age of 110), this point was recently made:

In 1965, there are 5+ workers for every retiree. Today, there are 3.3
workers for every retiree.

The number of workers per retiree will drastically fall once all baby
boomers have retired. So, if we want a society in which longevity
increases and we want to maintain the same standard of living, then it
logically follows that a fundamental shift will need to happen.

This outcome, though, is obviously dependent on many other factors as well. For a start, some countries (Australia, for example) don't treat the aged pension as a right but as a safety net, like insurance, so if you're wealthy enough not to absolutely need it, you don't get it. That seems equable enough to me (I’m ineligible for an Aussie pension myself), but I can hear most people in the USA squealing with indignation if this fix were suggested. “We paid for it, and we want our entitlement!” Yes, true enough—but then you pay for your health insurance, too, and if you’re lucky enough not to get ill your contribution is shared among the less fortunate. And if you do fall sick, or suffer a bad accident, you’re surely glad you paid all those years.

In any event, people are living longer, way beyond the five or six years after retirement that used to be the norm when Social Security was introduced. But simply raising the age of retirement year after year, as healthy lifespan is increased by medical intervention, isn’t going to help, even though people will remain fit for longer. People can't compete with machines, especially smart machines. I discussed this impending crunch years ago in my book The Spike.

Barbara: The problem of fewer young workers to support a growing mass of old people implies that there is too much work to be done and not enough people to do the work. George Friedman addresses this in The Next Hundred Years, pointing out that this is already a problem in some European countries, such as Germany.  Thomas Bock was at my nephew’s wedding about a month ago and talked of research he and his students are doing on holistic optimization of buildings. This got me thinking about how nice it would be if my home could take care of cleaning itself, cleaning me, obtaining and preparing food, dispensing my medications. Based on my observations while taking care of my mother, my impression is that one of the main reasons old people end up in nursing homes is that they can’t handle some of the more important aspects of life, such as cleaning the house, cooking meals, caring for clothing, driving to the store for groceries. Not so very long ago, that list might have included growing or hunting food.

For most people, the cost of hiring a housekeeper, cook, nurse, driver, etc. is prohibitively expensive. Despite the relatively high unemployment numbers, there is a shortage of people willing to do housework at affordable rates. There are “undocumented” people who would love to have the jobs, but it’s a criminal offence to hire them (Friedman writes that in a few years, the U.S. will be begging people from Mexico to come here and work). So the only reasonable choice for most people is to go to a nursing home or assisted living facility.

If old people could retrofit their homes, or move to new apartments that do the cooking, cleaning, and shopping for them, then some of the people now working in nursing or assisted living homes would be out of work. Which is the second potential problem Damien mentioned: fewer jobs.

The first problem, fewer young people to support a growing population of old people, could be solved by machines to do most of the work. But this leads to the second problem: if machines do most of the work, there aren’t any jobs to go around. Note that Damien is not talking about stupid machines like vacuum cleaners that have to be pushed around by humans, or even robotic vacuum cleaners that run themselves and tuck themselves away out of sight when they’re done. He’s talking about machines that can practice law, cut your hair in the exact style you want, produce a perfect steak from an assortment of chemicals, compose music that will precisely fit your mood.

In a world where no one has a job (as we understand the concept), the problem of too few young people for each old person disappears. Which is not to say that too many old people would be a problem in the first place if the old people were healthy and able to work, rather than falling apart.

Most of the people I know run their own businesses and enjoy going to work each day. Many of them do not want to retire. They might have an “exit strategy” for the business they’re running right now, but in most cases, the last thing they plan to do is sit around letting young people support them. No, they want to start another business, or learn new skills.

President Obama will address the public on September 8 to talk about creating jobs. This is understandable, given the prevalent belief that a person must have a routine job, working for someone else or some large organization, in order to make a living. I used to think the same thing when I was young. In my mid-20s, when I was “between jobs,” fretting about being unemployed, my then-boyfriend said (not an exact quote, but this is the way I remember it), “You don’t need a job. You need a way to earn money. That’s two different things. There are ways to earn money other than getting a job.”

He listed a few of the possibilities: I had enough stuff lying around to open a second-hand shop; I had a degree in mathematics, so I could tutor students who were having trouble with math. I don’t remember any of his other suggestions, and I never ended up doing any of the things he suggested. But his confident statement that I did not need a job in order to earn money turned on a little light bulb in my mind and has made all the difference in my life. Thank you, Kim Marshall.

The Other Postmortal

Damien: I keep seeing doom&gloom about how overpopulation will very quickly ruin a longevous world. A couple of days after our basically optimistic Post Mortal Syndrome showed up on Amazon, I see a sort of populist science-is-so-evil thriller has just been published by Penguin, with the annoyingly similar title The Postmortal. The story starts in 2019 with a miracle cure that is restricted to a few countries. We haven't read the book yet, but the blurbs posted on Amazon are entirely predictable. Here are a few (with the blurbers’ names removed):

“The narrative comes to us through John's blog entries and collections of news bytes and pundit commentary. Through his sixty years as a 29-year-old, he experiences all the love, pain, grief, and terror of a standard lifetime and is still in good enough shape to kick some ass at the end....”

“Drew Magary's haunting first novel imagines a postmodern dystopia that would seem far-fetched if it didn't seem so possible. The Postmortal will make you regret ever wondering, even secretly, what it would be like to live forever.”

“A darkly comic, totally gonzo, and effectively frightening population- bomb dystopia in the spirit of Logan's Run, Soylent Green, and the best episodes of The Twilight Zone.”

"A startling leap forward. The Postmortal is dark, funny, and terrifying. This book draws such a vivid, convincing picture of immortality that it, quite literally, made me want to die."

Reading about extended life made this guy want to die? Look, I know it’s a harsh thing to say, but… hey, sir, if you feel that strongly about it, go right ahead, it's your choice. And p.s., you can already expect to live about twice as long as most human beings in history.

Note the droning repetition of fear and terror whenever people talk about extending healthy life. You’d swear they were discussing having their arms and legs hacked off. Somehow we are expected to just know in our bones that living a long time, with good health, is a dreadful punishment rather than a blessing.

But wait--It’s understandable why people think this way (or rather, react that way without thinking), because aging and death are such dreadful inevitable prospects that we need to console ourselves by treating them as desirable, rather than the vile accidents of evolution that they really are.

Meanwhile, there's a question embedded here that needs careful assessment and a clear answer. Must the end of death (except by accident or overwhelming infection or war) necessarily produce a vast population growth spurt?

My back of the envelope calculations suggest otherwise, or at least not for a long time--especially if many of the very long lived women are past their reproductive years. (Assuming it costs a lot for the initial treatments, and that longevity doesn’t also renew fertility. That seems a safe assumption; all of a woman’s eggs are present when she is a fetus, and they perish at an astounding rate until she reaches menopause, and then they are all gone.) But I'm hoping to see some numbers on this topic from the mathematically sophisticated.

Note the first blurb cited above:

“Through his sixty years as a 29-year-old, he experiences all the love, pain, grief, and terror of a standard lifetime”

Well, maybe by 2080 and beyond there would be some serious extra population bulge—if we assume every couple keeps having a kid every three or even 10 or 20 years, and then keeps doing so forever. But would they? Would you? Nowadays we don't all have 10 kids in a lifetime, as people used to when many of their children died young.

On the other hand, Barbara (whose only child is now a lovely, self-confident young woman who married recently) does sometimes express her yearning for the joy of another baby. That won’t happen without a drastic medical breakthrough, but suppose we could remain the age we are now, forever—

Barbara: I’ve started reading “the other” Postmortal on my Kindle. Only a few pages in, I find it well-written and engaging. It will be interesting to see if the author’s portrayal of long-term health is truly as grim as the reviews suggest. I would not want to be stuck at my 29-year-old level of knowledge and wisdom, but to have the knowledge and experience of 60 years together with a healthy body? I can’t imagine how anyone not suffering from MΓΌnchausen Syndrome could prefer arthritic to smoothly functioning joints, or clogged arteries to clear ones, or a lethargic to a responsive immune system. Maybe reading Postmortal will change my mind, and I will from that time forth be thankful for the lack of proper ligaments in my knees and the inefficiency of lungs scarred by pneumonia.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Staying Healthy for a Long, Long Time

Barbara: Professor Michael Rose at UC Irvine has written a provocative article for the latest issue of Cryonics Magazine.

He writes:

 I am not going to argue against cyberimmortality or cryo-immortality here.  After 
all, the value of back-up plans is self-evident.  Instead, what I am going to offer is an informal introduction to a third possibility.  This  possibility is one in which aging is stopped, and then repair and refurbishment are used to achieve immortality by the simple expedient of not dying in the first place.

Yeah, I always liked that Woody Allen quote about not wanting to achieve immortality through great works, but rather by not dying. A belief in physical immortality, or even living for, say, 200 years, might seem delusional. Rose would have thought so, as recently as three years ago, but no longer.

He became interested in the cessation of aging that occurs in animals toward the end of their life spans. Humans, he claims, stop aging at around age 100 (although other experts dispute this). Unfortunately, by the time they're that old, most people are in a pretty rotten condition. So Rose wondered if one might be able to halt the aging process at a younger age. Experiments with populations of fruit flies indicate that this is possible. In the last 30 years, Rose and his team have bred flies for longevity by choosing eggs only from the longest lived individuals--and his population of flies now live four times as long as ordinary wild flies.

Damien: So what's going on here? Rose used to believe that aging was the result of a trade-off between genes that promote health and vigor in youth but turn out to have bad consequences in later years. This notion was first advanced by evolutionary biologist George Williams more than half a century ago, but Professor Rose gave it the name used today: Antagonistic Pleiotropy. What's new and surprising, then, is that Rose no longer thinks Antagonistic Pleiotropy is a sufficient explanation for his robust ancient flies.

If he's right, changes in nutrition and lifestyle might allow people right now to maintain our current state of health indefinitely. That is, there'd be no clock relentlessly ticking away your fated lifespan, no necessary cumulative damage that dooms you to death. Mind you, Rose is not talking about rejuvenation. If you're 70, you'll stay that way--but you'll be the healthiest 70 year old it's possible to be, indefinitely. Rejuvenation might eventually be possible, using technology we don't yet possess (nanomachines in the bloodstream, say, to repair or remove damaged cells and keep organs as clean and fresh as an adolescent's), but we're nowhere near that yet. But Rose argues that we do already know how to halt aging. His company Genescient (co-founded by Dr. Cristina Rizza and physics professor and science fiction writer Gregory Benford) is making nutraceuticals (StemCell 100) designed with that in mind. Sooner or later, we'll know if it works.

Barbara: Rose's blog, Michael Rose's 55 is devoted to the possibilities of stopping the aging process of humans while we're still in good enough shape to enjoy life.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Are Intelligent People Cold and Unemotional? And Is Science Fatally Dangerous Or Even Wicked?

Barbara : My husband Damien and I didn't think so. One of the reasons we wrote Post Mortal Syndrome was to show that greater intelligence can lead to a higher level of empathy and respect for other people.

We've tried to do an impossible thing: create a thriller meant for us ordinary folks without special training in biology or neuroscience--with the extra value that we depict scientific developments, and deep changes in the way people view life and the defeat of death, in a positive light.

Barbara: All the techno-thrillers we could think of involve scientific experiments that go horrible wrong. We thought it would be refreshing to see a thriller where experiments go wonderfully right.

Damien: But there are plenty of scares, love tangles, and danger along the way, and more than one heartbreaking ethical dilemma. That's how it is, here in the 21st century. Nothing's ever simple. Especially using science to find a cure for aging and death. Oh, and with an intelligence boost thrown in for free. But only if our characters have enough common sense and, well, character, to follow through on what they learn along the way.


So here's the plug:

Our near-future science fiction novel Post Mortal Syndrome is now available in trade paperback print.

An earlier version was serialized on the website of the Australian popular science magazine COSMOS, and got some 100,000 hits. We've now tuned that version up a bit, and we hope you'll click on the link above and take a closer look. And come back here for some more chatting about life, death, and the meaning of
caring and intelligence at a time when wonderful possibilities stand ready to be opened, yet too many people seem determined to shut those doors in your face.