The Immortalist: Aubrey De Grey on Aging -Can He Keep Us Young?

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November 06, 2007

The Immortalist: Aubrey De Grey on Aging -Can He Keep Us Young?

Aging_2 "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



To be or not to be, that is the question. Can humanity live longer, as Mr. Aubrey De Grey has suggested? They claim, in the scientific community that what he proposes is not out of the scope of science and that there is sound theory behind his words. My question is. Would I want to live "forever"? I would love to live to see my one thousandth birthday, but it would probably blind people in the near-by vicinity. A small nuke would be kinder. Flash burns from candle wax. You know. Unless you like waxing. OUCH! Future so bright I gotta wear shades.

The concept of living for a long time seems like a great thing for some, unfortunately, most people would not like the idea of living a life of drudgery for a thousand years. Stuck in a low paid, unskilled, boring and unfulfilled job would be like warmed over. Stuck in a community that is crime ridden, or addicted to and alcoholism, and in an abusive relationship for one thousand years. Welcome to my personal hell on earth, and it is not heaven on Earth.

All people would like to have a life that is fulfilling and that would be a joy to extend. Aubrey talks of the joy of doing so many things that one would want to accomplish in their life time, and can do it over and over again, or do the things that they only dreamt of doing. In the world that we live in today, what of the child that can not have enough to eat and dies of malnutrition? What of the child that dies because of a stray bullet or a war that has been waging for several generations?

In this society our lives are determined by our social status. The poor live is desperate conditions and die early. The working class live in more tolerable conditions, from the lower paid to the higher paid, lives a little longer but dies of over work, overstress and over consumption.

Work you like a government mule.

The rich, with its abundant wealth, have the ability to buy the good health that they are looking for, and the long sought after fountain of youth. As in Ponce DE Leon, the search for eternal youth is still an unfulfilled desire. In the search for immortality, is humanity searching for the betterment of all of humankind, or is the search for the eternal youth only for those who can afford to live longer?

I do believe that the ability for living longer is possible, for all of humanity, but it can not be done when the basic needs of people is dependant on ones inability to feed, cloth, and house oneself and ones kin.

When so many can not feed themselves why would you want to live forever? I have an empty bowl today, and I will have an empty bowl tomorrow.

Kristianna, I thought your comments were wise and insightful. But I do really like de Grey's theory that prevention can be as cheap or even cheaper than treatment. Society pours so much money into treating our ailments, whereas de Grey believes we could potentially use technology to prevent ailments and aging in the first place. It's a fascinating topic, full of interesting questions like the ones you posed. But the truth is that even if de Grey were to give up on his passion- it wouldn't feed the starving children of the world- we'd just have one less dreamer around.

I agree with both of you, Kristianna & Rebecca - and will keep dreaming of a world where we can live longer to fulfill our dreams and to see the world get rid of famine, disease, crime and war.

Two things to consider if people live for 1000 years:

First, the world is already way overpopulated with humans. If people lived to be 1000 we would only compound that problem.

Second, if people lived that long, human evolution would be virtually stopped. Is that what we want, or is there new human potentials that will only appear through continued evolution of our species?

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