While rummaging through an old file folder stuffed in a box, I stumbled upon a copy of Marvin Cetron and Owen Davies’ article on extended lifespans, originally published in The Futurist in April 1998. I was simply astounded at how dated their scenarios seemed after a mere 11 years. You may be wondering why I’m responding to such an old article. Two reasons: I’d like to address the reason why this kind of thinking, “The future that never was and never could be,” seems to crop up so often in science fiction and futurism. And I’d like to suggest some fixes.
Cetron and Davies discussed at some length the discovery made by medical researchers that melatonin acted to slow down aging in mice. It seemed at the time to be the key to solving the mystery of aging. This really rocked the world of medicine in 1995. It seemed to cut through all the noise. There were at that point some 50 distinct theories on why we age. If melatonin proved to be the key to finding a technological fountain of youth, a lot of conceptual clutter could be cleared out of the medical profession.
For instance, earlier researchers found that when rats are placed on severely restrictive diets (just above starvation level), they live almost twice as long as rats fed a normal diet. By 1995, doctors thought this might prove to be the result of some subtle effect starvation has on melatonin levels. Aging affects every aspect of our body, and it seemed nearly impossible to tell which changes were causes and which were effects.
All research on mice and rats seemed merely to show how to slow down aging in those animals. But, they told researchers little about why rats, mice and humans age in the first place, and what factors in the treatments that cause slowdown in aging actually caused the change, not to mention how they do so.
Diet, exercise, vitamin pills, meditation, and so on turn out to have only temporary meliorative effects on aging. Every one of these treatments was essentially an attempt to keep an old engine running with bailing wire and Scotch tape. Partially effective in the short term, but in the long run, proving to be full-fledged failures. None of us it seems, at least as of 1995, would ever “get out alive.” Death would eventually claim us all.
We seemed no closer to an answer to the riddle than when W. Donner Denkla promoted his “death clock” theory of aging. He believed that a hormone worked by shutting down energy production processes in the cells. He found that by removing the pituitary glands from rats their rate of aging slowed down dramatically, and in some cases aging seemed to reverse, at least for awhile. Near the end of their comparatively long lives, the rats (up till then quite healthy) suddenly collapsed and died.
The authors said that as of 1995, Denkla’s explanation appeared simplistic. Preventing any of the destructive changes in the body will stave off further decay, at least for a time. Okay. Fine. But why? Simply because those changes were somehow prevented from weakening the body, which prevented cascading further destruction. But again, why? Why would the pituitary, the source of growth hormone cause such havoc. And why, even after removing it, would the body still die after enjoying a longer than normal lifespan?
The authors correctly label Denkla’s “death hormone” as a secondary effect of a much deeper cause. And the starvation treatment of rats didn’t bring us any closer to answers.
Cetron and Davies believed the root cause had finally been identified: the lack of melatonin in the adult body. They further believed that the answer lay in how melatonin worked in the body. Melatonin floods our organs when we are young, and drops sharply when we hit our teens. It restrains sexual maturation till then. Is it the Never Never Land “won’t grow up” hormone? It helps us sleep (levels rise at night); it helps protect us from disease; it may govern aging itself. But perhaps, melatonin levels might be governed by an even deeper cause.
The pineal gland produces melatonin. When young glands were transplanted into old mice, those mice that survived the operation lived the equivalent of the human life span of 125 years. But the mice still aged, even though much more slowly than normal. They then died quite abruptly, in a manner similar to that described in Oliver Wendell Holmes’s poem, “The One Hoss Shay.” This fact suggested that there was indeed a still deeper cause of aging, something that all the studies of hormone levels, healthy or unhealthy lifestyle, and the activities of glands were glossing over. Whatever was going wrong, we can logically assume that it underlies every single symptom detected in the aging body.
Clearly, researchers hadn’t dug deep enough. Cetron and Davies were wrong. Metatonin wasn’t it. Their article didn’t mention anything about the telomeres, regions of repetitive nucleotides at the end of chromosomes that protect them from unraveling during cell division. When they get too short, cells no longer divide. After 50 divisions, the cell reaches the Hayflick limit. A major article on this discovery appeared in Scientific American in 1998, the very year Cetron and Davies wrote their article. I’m surprised they didn’t mention it.
The problems with Cetron and Davies’ article would be simple to fix if their assertions about the effects of melatonin had been updated to account for the telomeres. But that’s the least of their problems. They riffed on all this excitement over melatonin, speculating on all the changes they were expecting in society in response to the development of some serious life extension technologies. And here’s the key problem: They did so in a linear fashion.
It didn’t help when they said future generations would have to devise new mechanisms for allocating society’s resources. I knew when I read that line —as pure a representative statement of belief in zero-sum social games as can be found anywhere—that Cetron and Davies were missing an even bigger trend: The massive enlargement of the set known to us today as “natural resources.”
In order to show the real problem with linear projections, let’s say researchers discovered that the ultimate cause of all apparent causes of aging, and all the dreadful effects we experience, is so basic it can no longer be questioned. Perhaps it’s telomeres or something even deeper. Let’s say the cause has been demonstrated fully. Let’s say all medical researchers are satisfied that they’ve found the answer. Let’s state further that fixing the problem will prove to be relatively simple as treatment would merely consist of a basic mechanical process. In order to make the following argument more realistic, we’ll stipulate that at this time we can’t do it. We don’t have the technology. (Sorry, Six Million Dollar Man.) But, let’s agree for argument’s sake that we can lay down a convincing scenario for precisely how, in a comparatively short period of time, medical science will develop the technology to fix the problem of aging and will begin doing so soon. Exactly what kinds of changes are we in for at the individual and the societal level as a result of reaching such a medical milestone?
Cetron and Davies’ analysis is concerned almost exclusively with extending the analysis of the demographic impact that a growing average life span is already having on American and world economics. They pointed out that America’s retirement system, including pensions and Social Security, was becoming rapidly obsolete in 1998. This trend certainly holds true today. We’re living much longer now than our great grandparents did as Bismarck established the old “65 and Retire” paradigm in Germany way back in the 1880s when very few workers lived that long.
As you’d imagine, the scenario presented by Cetron and Davies on how successful life extension technology would impact our current system is catastrophic. No company could support the enormous numbers of retirees as projected for decades under such a system, neither could personal savings, nor could government programs. All would be crushed financially under the enormous strain of a rapidly growing older population.
Cetron and Davies begin by making observations familiar to anyone who has read Kurzweil’s, The Singularity Is Near. That solving the entire aging mystery all at once is neither necessary for real progress to take place nor is it likely to happen. That those interested in achieving a very long life may well work to postpone aging as much as possible while science marches on.
That they would then live long enough to witness another breakthrough that permits them to live long enough to witness another, and so on.
When science finally achieves the final breakthrough for what would be (from our perspective now) effective immortality, they would be alive, ready to take advantage of it. This attempt, growing more and more widespread in the general population, to defer death through temporary, but increasingly effective medical “scaffoldings,” would have its own profound impact on demographics, and hence, the economy as a whole. Naturally, the authors include their predictions of drastic changes in these and other institutions, but in my opinion, these postulated changes are not nearly drastic enough, considering the enormous promise of the emerging technology. First, let’s see what Cetron and Davies suggest may happen:
Cetron and Davies bet that governments would pass laws telling the oldsters they could no longer work more than, say, 20 hours per week. One of my favorite solutions proposed in a science fiction story was: “You take the treatment; you leave the planet.”
3. Even after all those attempts to micromanage the problem, there would be more people and fewer jobs over time. The authors (correctly, in my opinion) predicted that health care services would not pick up the slack as blue collar jobs are mechanized out of existence. With all those oldsters successfully treated for aging, illnesses caused by aging (almost all of them the ones we know of as the most debilitating and expensive to treat) will disappear. We may also assume that if medical science is advanced enough to cure what ails the elderly, they will also be able to cure the middle aged, the young adults, children and babies. All those doctors, nurses, orderlies, pharmacists, insurance companies, etc., etc., who make their livings from treating and managing all those diseases, and financing the same, will be out of jobs as soon as they completed the job. All those government agencies that run health care (or think they do) will be gutted. The few remaining doctors and nurses will treat things like broken bones and other injuries due to accidents and foul play. That’s it.
4. Education will be key. The few remaining jobs will only go to the highest intellects and the best educated of us. The scramble for schooling will be intense. Life-long learning will be a real and quite arduous activity. The authors urge people to take jobs that give them a chance to broaden their skills in order to stay in demand as change sweeps through the world economy. Or to create their own job by starting their own business. Or to do both and more. Multiple streams of income will be vital; they’ll provide a financial buffer for families facing layoffs. They also urge people to save as much money as possible while working as long as possible. They urged blue collar workers to train for jobs in the white collar world. As automation sweeps through manufacturing, factory jobs will disappear. People should also consider moving in together. Multiple generation families under one roof will provide another financial cushion.
These are all examples of sound advice, at least for now. However, as I said above, if you ignore other vital trends, you are liable to wind up pouring a lot of wasted energy into prepping for changes that won’t affect the social order all that much while being blindsided by changes that turn everything upside-down.
The same trends that are driving advances in medical technologies (which are indeed leading to life extension) are also driving the changes in manufacturing, which the authors allude to, but don’t really dwell on much. These trends are also shaking up white collar work even more rapidly than almost anyone had anticipated. The vast numbers of layoffs in white collar companies are not entirely due to outsourcing to India, or corrupt practices in the boardroom or government offices, or recession-era cutbacks. They are also due to the fact that those jobs are no longer needed. Nobody is willing to pay an enormous army of (literal) paper-pushers to micro-manage private and public institutions any more.
Are you old enough to remember the Broadway musical “How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying?” Do you remember the depiction of the mail room? How many of those jobs were lost to e-mail? And the steno pool? This room was filled with women who worked as stenographers and typists for various executives, called in by the execs when needed. The steno pool died years ago.
Other dinosaurs of post-war white collar work now extinct were the switchboard operators, the secretaries (except for a relatively few who screen calls and visitors for top executives), the accountants who did nothing but “run numbers” with pencil and paper, over and over again until all the sums tallied. All replaced by computer software and cell phones. Even that old standby, the receptionist, is disappearing as offices outsource or decentralize the workplace through telecommuting.
Computers have changed everything in the office since I started working after college in the mid-Seventies. And they will continue to shake things up even more through the upcoming Teens and Twenties. Part of these changes will involve the massive loss of rote work in the office.
A small town hospital near where I live is in the process of computerizing everything. No more paper charts for doctors and nurses to handle. No more additional forms to fill out. All paperwork will be completed during the initial intake registration interview. No more handwritten prescriptions. No more filling of forms by employees for endless numbers of insurance companies and government bureaucrats. No more requests to the patient for the same information over and over again by different hospital employees. This will all be automated.
This hospital’s estimated savings in administrative costs are astounding. Their estimated avoidance of dangerous medical mistakes is gratifying. Multiply these savings in one small hospital by thousands of hospitals nation-wide. You’ll get an idea of how strong the economic push is for information automation. But, this process also means a drastic cut in the number of people that this hospital (and soon, all others) will need to employ to handle the dreaded health care paper monster.
The automation of white collar work is but a small indicator in the trend I’m talking about here. Expert systems are becoming more expert, easing the workload of human experts. CAD CAM designs are making fewer and fewer needed designers far more proficient. Aircraft design used to require rooms filled with engineers and graphic artists drafting drawings to spec. Now this is all done by a few engineers working on computers.
Librarians are being (in part) replaced by search engines of enormous power on the Internet. It’s only a matter of time before tens of thousands of libraries, including eventually the Library of Congress itself, move their entire collections online.
We watch the business news and read of publishing companies imploding as books, newspapers, and magazines go online. Consider all the people who used to work at white collar jobs at those “information factories.” The only ones surviving the growing publishing technology tsunami will be those who work online, helping to provide content for billions of web pages.
Comparatively simple robots are already replacing humans in many of the grungy and dangerous jobs. Bomb and WMD sniffers, rescue robots, even lawn mowers. Robots of all shapes and sizes, built to spec for their work, will take over more and more of such jobs.
By now, you’re probably wondering where the relatively few jobs will be that the authors were talking about. As these trends turn upward past the “knee in the curve,” as technological development accelerates, these jobs will simply vanish, and with them, the economy as we’ve known it.
Here is where we get to the nub of my contention that projecting linear trends based on what effects future radical life extension alone would have on present-day American society simply is not good enough, certainly not for the well thought out, detailed prognostications we need from professional futurists in order to think through some serious questions on our rocketing, accelerating, technological civilization. We need the kind of robust future scenarios that deal with developments in a wide range of fields and social sectors. We need to see how these developments may fit together, spurring each other on. In short, we need better predictions in order to plan our own lives. Unfortunately, we’re not getting them.
It is misleading to tell people that if you scrimp and save, refuse to retire early, educate yourself for jobs that are quickly vanishing, do this, do that, and do those other things, you may, just may, survive (barely) in an economy dominated by a bunch of healthy, skilled, very experienced old people you can’t possibly compete against.
Why? Why is this misleading? Because this simply will not happen. Yes, I know a number of bad science fiction stories have posited the war between the generations in response to shrinking societal wealth, but as I mentioned above, there is simply no way aging will be cured while nothing else changes. These scenarios are structured in this way by writers in order to give their woebegone protagonists sad, dreary lives that they struggle against in vain. They do this, presumably, to amuse their readers.
It is misleading to assure people that they will continue to enjoy the privilege of living in a society with Social Security, pensions, companies, even money, in a society that has the technological wherewithal to defeat death. Any “technosphere” that’s advanced enough to produce a radical life- extension technological revolution must also be capable of generating technological revolutions of comparable power in all other aspects of life— and will do precisely that.
The trends we are already experiencing in such fields as genetics, manufacturing automation, computer hardware and software, robotics, and finally nanotechnology and artificial intelligence will continue due to popular demand, barring a large disaster. As we track these trends, we foresee them converging in very interesting ways. We can project a wide range of scenarios to a time when we won’t have or need many of the traditional societal institutions we now believe to be indispensible.
We simply cannot tacitly assume that the society we live in today will continue to bump along for 20, 30, 40, 50 years with but a few minor technological upgrades. This isn’t realistic. This isn’t what the trend lines are telling us.
Proponents of the existence of accelerating technology are telling us we will be living in an extraordinarily rich information environment worked by superbly crafted robots that do all of the physical labor far better than we can with the enormous riches of invention and production that only a Midas could envision. And life-extension technologies will play an integral role. They won’t be hermetically sealed away from those other technological developments.
It’s time to replace the linear concept of “this will happen, which will cause this to happen, which will cause this to happen…” with the non-linear concepts of technological synergy and convergence. Synergy occurs when two or more trends catalyze and amplify the effects of one another. 2 + 2 =
16. Convergence occurs when once separate technologies draw closer to one another, integrate, and produce wholly new and largely unanticipated technological offspring.
Ray Kurzweil sees three great strands of technological development beginning to intertwine: Genetics (teaching us what living systems really are). Robotics (doing our work for us). And, nanotechnology (doing work at smaller and smaller scale that cannot be done now, with the kind of precision that will seem magical to us today).
Alongside these hardware technologies, we see our deluge of information, simultaneously mushrooming in size while growing more and more precise and tracking and modeling every digital system imaginable. A virtuous cycle of growth reshapes computers with incessant demands for more and more memory and more, more, more speed, to handle more, more, more, more information, while computers in turn amplify the power and utility of existing information, changing its vast quantity into high quality. Both processes feed on one another.
We see the same symbiotic mutual catalytic activity occur between information and the Internet. As the web sites multiply and the information load triggers constant upgrades in servers and bandwidth, the Internet is becoming the ultimate decentralized distribution system for information of all kinds while the utility of information itself is improved thereby.
There will be an enormous number of extraordinarily powerful offspring technologies growing out of the synergy and convergence of the above technologies, along with life extension. Here are a few:
Nanotech replicators (think Star Trek, building whatever we desire).
Cell repair mechanisms (fixing what ails us cell by cell, so we not only gain a greatly expanded life span, but also an enormously long, healthy, robust youthspan. The elderly cease to be elderly. We all grow young again.)
Recycling systems (nanotechnology assembling and disassembling processes permitting us to reuse everything, and I do mean everything. Resources become essentially infinite. No more pollution.)
Nanobot enforcers (with the power to stop all forms of intentional and unintentional release of dangerous hacked nanotech into the environment.)
Once we think of life extension technology as an integral part of a much more widespread technological revolution, we find Cetron and Davies’ simplistic prognostications to be, well, simplistic in the extreme.
The lesson here for futurists is simple: Never, ever project your future along one linear cause and effect axis. It’s a guaranteed failure. There will be many mutations and adaptations as cultural evolution accelerates. The various chains of causes and effects will interweave and interact in many interesting ways.
Cetron and Davies’ mistaken notions about melatonin weren’t that big a deal. But the single-minded, single-strand projection of economic doom and gloom based on it was.
A linear future will never happen.
“Living Longer: Planning for Longer Life-Spans,” by Marvin Cetron and Owen Davies. Originally published as “Extended Life-Span,” in The Futurist, April 1998, pp. 17-23.
Turning Back the Strands of Time, by Kristin Leutwyler, Scientific American, February 2, 1998
“The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology,” by Ray Kurzweil. New York: Penguin, 2006.
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