Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Aubrey de Grey and Ramez Naam featured in Atlantic Monthly (May 2005) on "The Coming Death Shortage"

The Atlantic Monthly | May 2005 | The Coming Death Shortage | Charles C. Mann
Three years ago a multi-institutional scientific team led by Aubrey de Grey, a theoretical geneticist at Cambridge University, argued in a widely noted paper that the first steps toward "engineered negligible senescence"—a rough-and-ready version of immortality—would have "a good chance of success in mice within ten years." The same techniques, De Grey says, should be ready for human beings a decade or so later. "In ten years we'll have a pill that will give you twenty years," says Leonard Guarente, a professor of biology at MIT. "And then there'll be another pill after that. The first hundred-and-fifty-year-old may have already been born."...

(A)s Ramez Naam points out in More Than Human, which surveys the prospects for "biological enhancement," drugs inevitably fall in price as their patents expire. But the same does not necessarily hold true for medical procedures: heart bypass operations are still costly, decades after their invention....

(T)here will be "furious" political pressure to avert the worst inequities. For instance, government might mandate that insurance cover longevity treatments. In fact, it is hard to imagine any democratic government foolhardy enough not to guarantee access to those treatments, especially when the old are increasing in number and political clout....Ultimately, Goldman suggests, the government would probably end up paying outright for longevity treatments: an enormous new entitlement program. How could it be otherwise? Older voters would want it because it is in their interest; younger ones would want it because they, too, will age....

The result would be a tripartite society: the very old and very rich on top, beta-testing each new treatment on themselves; a mass of the ordinary old, forced by insurance into supremely healthy habits, kept alive by medical entitlement; and the diminishingly influential young....

Given that today nobody knows precisely how to engineer major increases in the human lifespan, contemplating these issues may seem premature. Yet so many scientists believe that some of the new research will pay off, and that lifespans will stretch like taffy, that it would be shortsighted not to consider the consequences. And the potential changes are so enormous and hard to grasp that they can't be understood and planned for at the last minute. "By definition," says Aubrey de Grey, the Cambridge geneticist, "you live with longevity for a very long time."
Excellent article, if a little alarmist. Considers many of the social ramification that enthusiasts usually don't.