The other side of the coin

An interesting graph showing the life expectation for different ages at different periods in the last 100 years. Notice how life expectation has increased for all ages, although most increase is for life expectation at birth, thanks to purified water, better food and (third) advances in medicine. Also notice that in these graph there is an expectation of a levelling out of the life expectation increase, something that a few futurologists disagree. Graph credit: David Roper

I read an interesting interview to a "catastrophist", David Woo, whose job is to look at trends that can lead to a catastrophe, like climate change. In this interview David presents his view on a potential catastrophe resulting from a progressively increased life span.

Clearly, at least at first glance, living longer, in good health, is not bad at all! Life is good!  However, looking at the overall social implication, as David does, raises issus on sustainability of the health care system, of the pension system and of increased population.

You may want to read the article and see for yourself.

However, the reason I am posting this news is not because of possible downsize in an increasing life span but because of the reason David identifies for this increase: technology.

Many forecasters are predicting a levelling out of the life span increase, in the range of 85-90 years of age. Some scientists are also pointing out that there seem to be a sort of thresholds around 114 years old where life is no longer going on (although a few exceptions exist).

Here comes the interesting point. Kurzweil, Woo and a few others claim that these expectation of a ceiling to human life span are going to be proved false as technology progresses and they mention 2 main areas of tech evolution that will break the age ceiling: genomics and 3D printing.

As more studies are made on the mechanics of ageing a few glimpse on genome based ageing mechanisms are discovered, like a shortening of telomeres that seems to be caused by statistical reasons and that scientists believe can be fixed, leading to a longer time of good health and productive life.

The second area of technology advances, 3D printing, is going to provide a fix to degraded organs without having to use transplant as is the case today. With transplant you need to fight rejection and the drugs you have to take create problems in your immune system making you more like to succumb to infections.

With organ made available using your own cells and 3D printed you can get your own organ, brand new and as good, or even better, than the original.

Research is progressing rapidly, skin printing is already mainstream, bone 3D printing is a reality and kidney 3D printing is being done in the labs so far in animal experiments. There is no real reason why we should not be able to print a heart or a liver. The only organ that seems impossible, at least for many decades to come, is the brain.

Lengthening the average human life span will likely be a mainstream effort in the next decade and it would be interesting to see the interplay of technological, societal, economical and ethical aspects.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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