FREEDOM AND SAFETY
How long do you think you’ll live? You probably have some idea, and no doubt, you can easily imagine a maximum limit. We humans tend to make it to 70, 80, or 90. The oldest person on record, Jeanne Calment, lived to 122. But is that it? Will we ever live even longer lives?
Peter Diamandis, cofounder and executive chairman of Singularity University and founder and executive chairman of XPRIZE, believes radically extended life is by no means impossible. Thanks to rapidly advancing biotechnology, he thinks human lifespan may grow dramatically this century.
"When I was in medical school, I set a 700-year lifespan for myself, which is a ridiculous number because if you can live that long you can live as long as you want," Diamandis told Popular Mechanics at the 2013 Breakthrough Awards.
In an onstage Q&A at Singularity University’s Global Summit this week, Diamandis elaborated on his medical school target in response to a question from the audience.
He said humans aren’t the longest-lived animals. Other species have multi-hundred-year lifespans. Last year, a study “dating” Greenland sharks found they can live roughly 400 years. Though the technique isn’t perfectly precise, they estimated one shark to be about 392. Its approximate birthday was 1624.
Diamandis said he asked himself: If these animals can live centuries—why can’t I?
There are a few reasons we die, according to Diamandis. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, humans would hit puberty at age 13, have kids, and then help their kids grow up. By their late twenties, they’d have grandkids. In a world of scarce resources, the older, non-reproducing generations were competing for food with their grandchildren, lowering the likelihood they’d pass on their genes. Longer life, therefore, wasn’t an advantageous biological trait.
“And the other thing was after you gave birth—and the oldest births back then were mid-to-late 20s to early-to-mid 30s—a disease that would kill you after 35 was never selected against,” Diamandis said. “And so again there was never a selection pressure to keep you alive longer.”
Now, modern biology has deepened our understanding of the aging process, and biotechnology is beginning to apply these learnings to spot disease earlier and even regenerate the body. Diamandis highlighted two key areas that are making progress today.
First, he thinks replenishing the body’s population of stem cells is one way we’ll stay healthier for longer. Stem cells are a key bodily repair mechanism. Because they haven’t yet specialized into a particular cell type, like a muscle cell or blood cell, they can become anything and replace damaged cells throughout the body. We have lots when we’re younger, but as we age the supply shrinks, and the remaining cells are themselves increasingly damaged.
Another approach, one he’s pursuing with the health company he cofounded, Human Longevity, is to combine a comprehensive snapshot of a person’s genetics with other key health information to determine their risk profile for various diseases.
“We’re going to look at your genome and all of your body’s systems and identify what’s likely to kill you and find it before it does. So stopping you from dying is the first bit,” Diamandis said. “And the second [bit] is replenishing your stem cell population so that you have a restored regenerative engine throughout your life.”
Another questioner asked if Diamandis expects to live centuries in the same body, as opposed to uploading his consciousness to a computer as some futurists have suggested is possible.
“Honestly, I don’t think about it,” he said.
He is working with companies pursuing nanotechnology and systems that link the brain directly to computers (brain-machine interfaces). Is the time horizon on these technologies 20 years? 30 years? He isn’t sure. But technologies that are much closer today can be a bridge to even more advanced methods and techniques.
Add another 30 or 40 years and who knows?