The idea in a nutshell : Life expectancy has been approached as an unmovable ceiling for most of time to this point. Some are approaching the same topic differently. An increasing number of people believe that life expectancy is just a technology problem. I believe we will start by extending life expectancy substantially ( in my lifetime ) and eventually, download our brains in to a computer.

Technology helps with a lot of things – but only tangentially helps life expectancy

We accept the concept of technology as a thread through almost every moment of our lives. We wake with an electronic alarm, check our phone, boil a kettle and so on throughout the day. Some of us even close the night off with a pill which sends us to sleep. To this point, however, most people haven’t considered the length of their lives as a technology problem.

Life expectancy rises by about 3 hours for each day you’re awake. That’s 44 days a year. Historically, improvements in the area have come from better diets, a focus on the major killers like heart attacks and smoking. Medicine, of course is built on science and helps extend life. It seems likely that imminent changes in technology will help us extend our lives.

Things which mean you may well live a lot longer :

Now, a number of factors are combining which are likely to extend our lives by a great many more years :

  • Artificial intelligence in diagnosis : Cancers and other ailments are being diagnosed with pattern matching algorithms. In many cases, the software is doing it more accurately than experienced doctors.
  • Genomic profiling : It took many years to sequence the first human genome. The cost to sequence a new one is now less than $1000 and continues to decline. Genomic profiling is being used to establish certainty around the nature of the disease being suffered in rare diseases which were previously mistreated. A slew of medicines, which target disease in people with a specific genomic profile raise both the accuracy and efficacy of the treatment.
  • Improved reporting : Medical systems are being linked. From diagnosis to results, patients are being tracked. The result is a feedback loop which will improve how well treatments work over time and each step in the process contributes.
  • Additional drugs : Metformin and other drugs are undergoing human trials to prove medically their positive effects on life expectancy. Some believe Metformin alone will extend the number of quality years each person talking it has by 40%. Importantly, it is not just the quantity of years which is being extended. The quality is influenced positively too.

Practical examples of these principals in real life

This BBC piece highlights the speed with which artificial intelligence accurately recognises cancer cells. Reading these articles, I’m always impressed by the ‘program’ or ‘script’ which successfully performs the task. It’s easy to anthropomorphise the computers involved and imagine them as a helpful doctor in a white coat. The truth is more revealing. This cancer diagnosis software is one of many operating around the world. Each gets better over time. Lessons learned in each data set are shared. The science never goes backwards and improves in efficacy exponentially by being part of an experience network. Cancer diagnosis is only one way in which AI is being used to improve health.

Metformin is a drug which has been used by diabetics for over 50 years. It now appears, form tests on worms, that it may extend ( quality ) human life by up to 40%.

Metformin costs less than 25 cents per day to take and has few medical downsides. Human tests are underway and should be completed within the decade. I take it myself every evening.

Several countries around the world are already working through the process of sequencing 100,000 human genomes ( each. ) The result will not only lower the cost of performing a single, incremental, genomic sequencing but will provide a map of the common DNA structures associated with each disease. Soon, it will be uncommon to be diagnosed a drug which does not work for your specific genomic structure. What you are prescribed will be more effective and you are likely to live longer as a result.

How will people react to longer lives ?

In discussing these issues with friends, I’ve been amazed at the responses I’ve had. By far the most frequent is that people feel they don’t want to live longer. Do you ?

For those who do decide they want to be around, there are some significant and confronting issues to consider, many of which relate to their financial lives. Longer lives will require ( for most ) longer working lives.

In any case, using our parents’ models of life – 20 years studying, 40 years working, 20 years retired is unlikely to be an effective strategy. We will have to consider our investment portfolio, particularly as it pertains to our Super.

We may have to ( or want to ) retrain in a different field at some point in our lives. Some may consider the question of marriage for a few decades more to be too long and might contract for a shorter period. Issues like the prison term for crimes receiving ‘life’ may have to be reconsidered. Penalties for taking another person’s life may also have to be increased – since the magnitude of the offense has increased. At the shallower end of the pool lies consideration of our effect on the environment and investment in the relationships we have if we are to live a great deal longer. The thought will elicit different reactions in each individual which considers it.

Would you like to live ‘indefinitely’ ?

More challenging still, for many, might be the concept of living indefinitely. The most promising areas of research in to general artificial intelligence are in the area of replicating the construct of a human brain in a computer. Such is the investment in the area and military / commercial imperative to succeed, it seems likely that before success is obtained ( and a general intelligence created ) we will be able to download a human brain to its electronic equivalent. Some people ( notably Kurtsweil who famously suggested this would be possible by 2025 ) call this The Singularity. Whatever the name and assuming a reliable power supply, at the point the feat is achieved, an individual downloaded would live ‘forever’.

What decisions about the job you’re doing, the people you spend your time with and what you do with your money would you make, if you were living only 50 years longer ?