Ethical Technophile: Curing Death

David Moyer

David Moyer covers emerging technology and ethics. A freelance journalist, he has worked for several clients in a writing and consulting capacity. He graduated from the University of North Texas with degrees in Political Science and Religious Studies. In his spare time he enjoys reading, coffee, and passionate debate.

Ethical Technophile: Curing Death 1

What would you do for a chance at immortality? Would you want to be immortal? Don’t just give the quick answer. Think about the question for a moment. How would immortality change the face of humanity?

Admittedly, the concept of immortality is something that is hard for most people to really ponder as anything other than an abstract, so lets re-frame the question.

What would you be willing to do to slow your own physical aging? What would you do to live to 120? If you lived to 120, what would you do to live to 170? 200? 500?

With the sequencing of the human genome, radical life extension is beginning to move from the realm of science fiction to an attainable reality. In May 2013, National Geographic magazine’s cover story proclaimed “This Baby Will Live to be 120.” There were multiple reasons for their prediction, but one of the main ones was the sequencing of the human genome.

Still not convinced? Consider the case of Calico – not the cat, the company. If you haven’t heard of this small startup, chances are you will in the coming years. Calico CEO Arthur Levinson has stated that the company’s goal is to tackle aging and illness. A goal that broad and vague would get 99.9 percent of startups laughed out of any pitch meeting, but Calico is not a normal startup. First off, Calico is funded by Google, which is reportedly pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into it. Art Levinson is a heavy hitter in life extension technology, in addition to being chairman of Apple’s board of directors.

Calico is the brainchild of Google founder Larry Page and Google Ventures’ Bill Maris, who pitched investors on the idea by asking them a simple question: If you met a genie and had one wish, could change your life in one way, wouldn’t you ask to live forever?

While money by itself doesn’t guarantee the success of any project, some of the names associated with Calico have even life-extension skeptics taking notice.

Hal Barron, chief medical officer at Roche, will leave that company to oversee research and development at Calico. David Botstein, a Princeton Geneticist whose molecular mapping framework was used in sequencing the human genome, will become Calico’s Chief Scientific Officer.

Six months after its founding, Calico has announced that its first project will be to sequence whole human genomes of healthy 100-year-olds. The goal is to develop a deeper understanding of genetics and the aging process. Another Calico hire, Dr. Cynthia Kenyon, discovered that people don’t just “wear out” like a car. Instead, aging is subject to control by the genes, specifically hormones. With gene therapy, Kenyon’s team managed to double the lifespan of rats, mice and worms.

But a philosophical and ethical question underlies all of these advances: Do humans want to live forever?

A recent Pew Research poll seems to indicate that many have deep concerns with life extension. When asked if they would undergo medical treatments to slow the aging process and live to be 120 or more, 56 percent of those asked said “no.”

Additionally, when asked how long they would like to live, 83 percent of people chose an age under 100. In fact, only 4 percent of those surveyed said they would want to live to be older than 120.

These responses would seem to be at odds with the massive growth of geriatric medicine. As the population of America ages, it seems they simultaneously fear both living longer (and thus aging) and dying. A large part of the reason for this might be that it’s simply hard for us to conceive of a radically different aging process.

In a society that has a poor track record when it comes to the elderly, living another 20 or 30 “elderly” years might seem like more of a burden than a gift. However, science is changing the aging process at a very fundamental level. The baby boomers, faced with the possibility of living 30+ years after their retirement, are changing how aging is viewed in society.

Already, millennials are feeling the effects on the marketplace as more and more baby boomers choose not to retire, a choice that continues to cause massive shifts in the job market. If the human lifespan was extended another 30-40 years, what ramifications would that have on society overall?

Is it a question we can even begin to answer beforehand?

As genomics, geriatrics and life extension begin to address the biological question of aging, are we prepared to face the ethical and philosophical questions that will arise?

What would you do for a chance at immortality?

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