"It's a repair and maintenance approach to extending the functional life span of a human body. It's just like maintaining the functional life span of a classic car, or a house. We know -- because people do it -- that there is no limit to how long you can do that. Once you have a sufficiently comprehensive panel of interventions to get rid of damage and maintain these things, then, they can last indefinitely. The only reason we don't see that in the human body now is that the panel of interventions we have available to us today is not sufficiently comprehensive."
~ Aubrey de Grey, molecular biologist and author of End of Aging
Aubrey de Grey is 44 years old, going on 1,000. He says old age is optional and why any rational being would choose it, is nuts. But others think de Grey is the one who’s “nuts”. Even so, no one has been able to show that de Grey does not have plausible scientific theory on his side. His well-thought argument that some people alive today could live in a robust and youthful state for 1,000 years is theoretically possible. Possible maybe, but will it happen?
There are people with a lot of money who are betting that it can happen—if the cause gets enough funding. In fact, they’re willing to support the “mad” scientist in his ambitious goal to end ageing for mankind. De Grey, whose original academic field is in computer science and artificial intelligence, has become the darling of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who believe changing the world is just something you do. Peter Thiel, for example, the co-founder and former CEO of PayPal has already dropped $3.5 million on de Grey's Methuselah Foundation.
"I thought he had this rare combination—a serious thinker who had enough courage to break with the crowd," Thiel says. "A lot of people who are not conventional are not serious. But the real breakthroughs in science are made by serious thinkers who are willing to work on research areas that people think are too controversial or too implausible."
Back in 2005, the MIT Technology Review offered $20,000 to any molecular biologist who could demonstrate that de Grey's plan for treating aging as a disease—and curing it—was "so wrong that it was unworthy of learned debate."
The judges for the MIT Technology Review challenge prize were accomplished, respected, and highly intelligent scientists including Rodney Brooks, then director of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory; Nathan Myhrvold, former chief technology officer of Microsoft; and J. Craig Venter, who shares credit for first sequencing the human genome. What they found was that no one could punch any serious holes in de Grey’s unconventional ideas.
"In our judgment none of the 'refutations' succeeded," Myhrvold noted. "It was a bit ironic because they were mostly the work of established scientists in mainstream gerontology who sought to brand de Grey as 'unscientific”, but the supposed refutations were themselves unscientific.
"The 'refutations' were either ad hominem attacks on de Grey, or arguments that his ideas would never work (which might be right, but that is what experiments are for), or arguments that portions of de Grey's work rested on other people's ideas. None of these refute the possibility that he is at least partially correct.” Continues Myhrvold.
"This is not to say that the MIT group endorsed de Grey or thinks he has proven his case. He hasn't, but admits that upfront. All of science rests on ideas that were either unproven hypotheses or crazy speculations at one point. . . . The sad reality is that most crazy speculations fail. . . . We do not know today how to be forever young for 1,000 years, and I am deeply skeptical that we will figure it out in time for me!"
Even so, there is some reason to hope. There is plenty of precedence for “crazy” ideas changing the face of the planet. Here’s a classic example: On Oct. 9, 1903, the New York Times wrote, "the flying machine which will really fly might be evolved by the combined and continuous efforts of mathematicians and mechanicians in from one million to ten million years."
But it wasn’t ten million years later. In fact, on that very SAME DAY, on Kill Devil Hill, N.C., a bicycle mechanic named Orville Wright wrote in his diary, "We unpacked rest of goods for new machine."
One man’s version of crazy is another man’s version of “all in a day’s work.” But even if de Grey can conquer ageing, is it madness to want to live forever. Some people look forward to dying. But de Grey says that’s only because we all believe getting old and frail is inevitable—something he refers to as the “pro-aging trance” society is currently “trapped” in.
De Grey's version of the future is where everyone can stay perpetually healthy and young through a combination of innovative longevity sciences, and he believes it will be more affordable alternative to caring for elderly, frail bodies. He has nothing against old people, he just thinks people should have the option to avoid ageing and death if they want to. There could be other benefits, as well. He says people would welcome eternity if they understood the benefits.
"If we want to hit the high points, number one is, there will not be any frail elderly people. Which means we won't be spending all this unbelievable amount of money keeping all those frail elderly people alive for like one extra year the way we do at the moment. That money will be available to spend on important things like, well, obviously, providing the health care to keep us that way, but that won't be anything like so expensive. Secondly, just doing the things we can't afford now, giving people proper education and not just when they're kids, but also proper adult education and retraining and so on.
"Another thing that's going to have to change completely is retirement. For the moment, when you retire, you retire forever. We're sorry for old people because they're going downhill. There will be no real moral or sociological requirement to do that. Sure, there is going to be a need for Social Security as a safety net just as there is now. But retirement will be a periodic thing. You'll be a journalist for 40 years or whatever and then you'll be sick of it and you'll retire on your savings or on a state pension, depending on what the system is. So after 20 years, golf will have lost its novelty value, and you'll want to do something else with your life. You'll get more retraining and education, and go and be a rock star for 40 years, and then retire again and so on."
For anyone who has ever felt that there’s not enough time to “do it all” in one lifetime; de Grey’s vision of the future is certainly intriguing.
Posted by Rebecca Sato
Related Galaxy posts:
Enhancing Evolution: Do Humans have a Moral and Ethical Duty to Improve the Human Race?
End of Aging -The Next Great Paradigm Shift?
Can Humans Live to 1,000? Some Experts Claim We Can — Others Want to Prevent That
The Story of a Biologist & the Extension of the Human Life Span