Today’s NY Times published an opinion piece by the columnist Charles Blow that discussed the prospects for radical increases in human lifespan and possible implications for society (1). This was partly driven by the recent online publication of a report (2) from the Pew Foundation that surveyed American’s attitudes toward old age and the possible radical extension of life. Interestingly most people did not express interest in living much beyond 90 or so, what would be considered a ripe old age, but nothing exceptional. In his article Mr. Blow briefly mentioned some of the economic, ethical and societal problems associated with advanced old age. Many of the on-line comments appended to the Blow article expressed concern about increasing the number of frail, sickly elderly people.
In my view this column and most of the comments have it all wrong. They visualize increasing numbers of decrepit elders acting as a drain on society. They fail to anticipate the accelerating wave of ‘human enhancement’ technology that will allow people to live far longer but also to be healthier, stronger and smarter in their advanced years than most middle-aged humans are today. Gene therapy, stem cell technology, advanced neuropharmacology, physical and mental prostheses, all of these are converging to allow a re-engineering of the human organism. Clearly there are key issues about who will be able to access these advances and what impact they will have on our economy and society. Will it be only the very rich or will many people be able to enjoy the benefits of human enhancement? What will be the effects on our economy and our social structures? By the way, the finding of the Pew Foundation that most people do not want to live much beyond current lifespans will likely go out the window as people start to see smart, vigorous, sexually active 120 year-olds!
To me the most worrisome prospect is that advances in human enhancement will be arriving on the scene just as another technological wave is cresting. Ever-smarter and more capable machines (think IBM’s Watson coupled with a very sophisticated robot) will be doing more and more of the work of the economy. Thus we may see large numbers of very healthy, vigorous people who make no contribution to the production of goods or services. How will society deal with this?
These interesting themes regarding ageing, technology and the economy will be developed at length in future blogs on this site.