Live long and prosper

Ray Kurzweil has published a new book, Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever. Ray is certainly a provocateur. Many of us in the Futuring and Innovation Center group saw him at the World Future Society meeting in Washington, DC, a few months ago. He firmly believes that if you can manage to hang in there another 20 years you may become immortal.

Kurzweil is a very bright guy with several breakthrough inventions and successful products in electronics. An authority in biology and medicine he is not. But he makes the argument that the rate of scientific advance on all fronts is so great that we are on a curve of exponential change. He has developed a lot of measures in the electronics field to make the case in that area. He insists that the synergy of science and technology in the next couple of decades will bring about enough progress to arrest death.

I’m not sure Kurzweil’s vision will come true, at least in the time frame he predicts, but I find it interesting that disucssing immortality has taken on a certain amount of respectability. It wasn’t that way a decade ago. Just a week or so ago I happenend to read an article about a conference in India where a respected Indian oncologist said the goal of medicine is immortality.

From time to time in my career with the ACS I have found myself asking, "After we cure cancer, then what?" Sure, there’s a whole list of other diseases and infirmaties to conquer, but what’s the logical outcome of all of this? Nobody has been asking, but Kurzweil and others are putting the question on the table.

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  1. If you look at the rate of progress in electronics (Kurzweil’s area of expertise, and I grant you, he’s good at it) you see that processor rates double every however-many-years it is, memory capacity doubles at this slightly different rate, etc.

    If you look at mankind’s progress in longevity, you’ll see that as far as anyone can tell, the very oldest human beings have ALWAYS lived to be about 110. The number of human beings reaching that age may have increased (although as a percentage of total human population that’s not as clear) but the ceiling remains right around 110.

    Electronics won’t make us immortal, and I betcha medical science won’t, either. My money’s on BOTH electronics and medical science making my maximum 110 years more comfortable.

  2. You’re certainly right that there’s no strong evidence that it’s possible to stretch human lifespan beyond some limit like 110 years. Then the question worth asking is: if 110 is the limit, why? Why not 90 or 150? You’d think that the processes involved are not impenetrable.

    I’m just suggesting that after the American Cancer Society eliminates cancer, the American Heart Association eliminates heart attack and stroke, the Alzheimer’s Assn. eliminates that, etc., etc., there will be a robust NPO—maybe the American Immortality Society?—out there raising money and setting goals.

  3. You might be interested in the novel HOLY FIRE by Bruce Sterling ( Sterling posits a future society that is obsessed with increasing longevity and encourages development of longevity treatments by maintaining extreme levels of health surveillance on everyone. Citizens who choose experimental treatments that seem to work are rewarded with rank and privilege, and those whose treatments (or other behaviors) cause their health to deteriorate lose rank and privilege.

    The part you might find particularly worth thinking about is how the young are marginalized by the increasing ranks of powerful and privileged seniors who don’t die off in a dignified span of time but go right on consolidating their power, decade after decade.

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