Anders Sandberg Ph.D. is a Swedish neuroscientist and futurist. He occupies the roles of James Martin research fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, and research associate at the Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. In his talk at the July 23, 2007 Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies event entitled “Securing the Longevity Dividend,” Dr. Sandberg brought up four possible scenarios surrounding the public reaction to the emergence of radical life extension.
The following transcript of Anders Sandberg’s July 23, 2007 talk “Policy Scenarios for the Longevity Dividend” has been corrected and approved by the speaker. Audio is also available, courtesy of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.
Policy Scenarios for the Longevity Dividend
The purpose of this is to talk a little bit about scenario planning. I guess a lot of you are somewhat familiar with scenario planning, because it has been almost a little fad over the last few years. How many of you are familiar with scanio planning? How many feel completely unfamiliar with the horrible thing? Actually, we should not be too unfamiliar with it, because we actually do it all the time.
A typical human thinking process when considering what decision to make consists of bringing up small scenarios. We hardly ever notice that we create these images of the future in our minds, and then we make very quick judgments about whether this is a good future or a bad one.
If it is sufficiently good we tend to choose it. If it is sufficiently bad we immediately reject it, then we move around between these micro-scenarios. This is terribly embarrassing, of course, if you are a philosopher or an artificial intelligence researcher, because this is not how you are supposed to think. Unfortunately, this is how most often we do think. That is the great benefit and also danger of scenario planning, because scenarios are something we can accept quite readily. They are stories about possible futures, and that also means we can be somewhat uncritical in accepting them, so I want to add that caveat before starting.
The basic principle consists in bringing together a diverse group–hopefully they know a lot of different aspects of the field–then have them together brainstorm factors, influences and effects surrounding the question we need answered or the decision we need to make. From that we can find driving forces. The real big uncertainties, we cannot really tell today which way it is going to go, but we can at least say, “These one are going to be quite important.” Then we can look at different combinations of these ones and try out scenarios. What happens if these driving factors coexist? What happens if those factors happen? The result is, hopefully, scenarios.
They are fun to do. Of course, the greatest benefit is not really the output, the report that ends up on somebody’s desk, but actually the process among the people doing it. That is why I actually think this should be regarded as very preliminary. I really wanted to extend this to be a much more proper, larger and broader scenario planning exercise about the effects of introducing life extension into society. One of the fun things about having a group interacting and doing scenarios is that different groups reach different attractor states. Different issues become salient, and that is very useful, because we can both find these attractors that represent areas of public concern; but also, of course, we can find the uncertainty if several different groups come to exactly the same conclusion independently. Then it is probably a pretty solid one, or one that our cultural biases attract us to, anyway.
There are lots of interesting problems surrounding scenario planning, but I think it’s a pretty useful tool for looking at these broad questions. The issue we were doing as an exercise with the the British Transhumanist Association was the question, suppose we had the introduction of life extension technologies over the next 20 years–what would the effects be? How would society respond to that?
Here we can see some of the people collected in Conway Hall. We started out by having a general brainstorming session. I liberally sprinkled the table with research reports, papers and the various documents that might serve as inspiration. And then we started writing down factors on little post-it notes and attached them to the wall. Then comes the fun part, of course, starting to cluster them together. Quite soon you start to realize that these post-it notes go together, and gradually you get a kind of big concept map.
The problem is, of course, that even a very short session like this produces a tremendously complex system. This is just, I would say, about a fifth of the entire map. A lot of the concerns might prove completely irrelevant. For example, there was a very fun discussion about art in the future and how that might be affected by the changing public perspective concerning lifespan. If artists live for a very long time they might start to produce a different kind of art. Another issue was gender issues. Are people going to become post-sexual, or what are we going to see? We have to disregard that for our exercise, but there are at least a dozen good papers just in these ideas. We started looking for driving forces and discussing which they were.
1. Speed of progress
Looking at our different clusters, the main driving forces we ended up with was the speed of progress. Exactly how quickly are we going to get to life extension? What kind of intervention is it going to be? Is it going to be a pill, or an elixir in a bottle, or a combination of gene therapy and exercise regimen, or is it going to be something completely different? Different kinds of interventions are going to have different kinds of effects on, for example, the cost. In general, and this applies to all enhancement technologies, if you can bottle it as a pill the price is mainly going to be set by intellectual property rules. If it is a gadget, the prices tend to fall down exponentially, unless you have the need for some kind of broad network to run it. On the other hand the price for services fall much more slowly. So, if you need to go to an enhancement spa every five years to rejuvenate yourself, it’s going to be pretty expensive.
2. Psychological and sociological effects
Then we have an enormous area of psychological and sociological effects. Here they are bundled here together as one driving factor because they are rather hard to distinguish from each other. There’s also the issue of social myopia, of thinking, “Well aging’s not that bad.” Some people try to do the sour grapes approach, others try to find something good in it. Then of course we have institutions that promote certain aspects of aging, certain forms of age-ism, and so on.
3. Belief that it is possible
Here we have a very important driving factor, that is the belief that it is possible to extend life, which is not that widespread. People are in general very interested in life extension, but they don’t quite believe in it. I think this is very much the same situation as cloning before Dolly. I remember myself two weeks before the cloning of the sheep Dolly actually saying in a public forum, “Oh, cloning of mammals is years away.” It’s good to know that I’m a conservative guy that is sometimes wrong about the future. Life extension might come unexpectedly, and that’s not necessarily just a good thing, because some people might panic. On the other hand, if people don’t believe it’s possible, they won’t fund it.
4. Research environment
The research environment is another interesting area. How many biogerontologists would come out of the closet and say they want to slow or stop aging? It might be bad for your career, it might be embarrassing, or it might be a good thing. It all seems to depend on the local environment, the context, and so on. But of course if a lot of biogerontologists are not willing to do that, then others might think, no one seems to be talking about it, so let’s keep quiet about it. And this is where the media and scientific community influences what gets published and sets the limits of what is regarded as possible research.
Then of course we have interesting issues of research finance and how do you pay for it. Would the Methuselah Foundation be a key player? Would there be other players? It’s possible to come up with a lot of interesting ways of funding research. Even more interesting to think about, how do we fund the treatments? Would it go under public health care systems? Would it be private? Would there be charities? Could you get a life extension mortgage? If I’m going to be healthy for a long time, my future value is going to increase, and my insurance company might be very happy about that.
Then, of course, you have a lot of groups that might dislike it, a lot of groups that might like it, and some of them don’t know yet what side they’re going to be on. Some are going to be very confused about it. We have some interesting international issues also, because obviously the technologies are going to be developed in rich countries first. But it seems for example that certain enhancement drugs for cognition might be a pretty easy way of exporting some form of enhancement to poorer countries, because they are easier to package and export than proper schooling. It might turn out that some aspects of life extension might have similar effects.
We might also see interesting aspects of international competition. The United States is demographically younger than Europe, so Europe has a strong incentive to try to do life extension. On the other hand, the United States might be more likely to start. And then Europe will say, “If the Americans are doing it, they’re doing it for the wrong reason, but we should do it too.” Then there is an additional argument. If the Chinese are doing it, we really must do it, because we don’t want to be the Western suburb of Shanghai.
This is perhaps not a driving factor, but something we should think about, which is crisis. A promising drug trial suddenly goes horribly wrong, how does the field react? It is important to remember that on one of the first trials on the railroad, it ran over the communications minister of Britain. Railroads are still around and are extremely popular, perhaps because of that. A few years later, the Hindenburg burnt down, and that was the end of the zeppelin era. Some technologies can handle an early disaster because they are regarded as something useful and promising. Others we can do without. We don’t need zepplins, and maybe we don’t need life extension in some people’s minds. So an early disaster might spell instant doom, or at least a long hiatus in developing it.
The final one, a technological singularity, is a general issue that there are other technologies that might get there first. If a superintelligent artificial intelligence emerges before life extension becomes significant, the life extension part doesn’t really matter. On the other hand, it’s pretty hard to make estimates of this kind of thing. If development of life extension is very slow, it is more likely that other technologies come in and change the rules of the game. We should always be aware that different technologies are competing.
For instance, in the future I don’t think we are going to be wearing computers like they were saying ten years ago, because there are going to be cell phones. This is already a wearable computer that everyone has got. That little wearable computer is probably going to delay the introduction of brain-computer interface. In the early ’90s, everybody was talking about the future of expanding the mind with implants, but it’s horrible to go to the hospital and get something implanted into your brain when you can almost as well get information on a handheld device or embedded in your glasses. So you have a competition between different technologies, though I think life extension, it’s rather hard to compete with. You’d better invent something extremely good to compete with life extension.
If we bundle together our driving factors, it seems like we have two main groups. The speed of progress is one main driver. The other one is the belief that it is possible, because that is closely linked to the sociology of it and how much funding it is likely to get. The standard method is making a matrix and drawing these factors to a high or low end. One possibility is that people don’t really think that life extension is very possible and the progress is very slow. We call that one “that sinking feeling.” Then there is the possibility that people don’t think it’s working, and suddenly it’s there, and society has to deal with a Dolly situation. We have life extension that looks like it could work well in humans and we have it surprisingly fast. That’s the “tipping point” situation. Then we have the interesting situation where you have slow progress but people really think we are going to get there. That’s the “hype” scenario. Finally, we have reasonably fast progress and people actually seem to like it. That’s “Star Trek,” we couldn’t come up with a better name. In many ways that’s the nicest scenario.
In the sinking feeling situation, early results are encouraging, a lot of nice nematode worms are living a bit longer. But then it turns out that translating that to mammals is rather messy because the mammalian systems are complex and it’s not just seven deadly things, it’s 10 plus or minus 23–a lot of weird little extra factors. So people try different interventions, but they may not work, they may have side effects, so researchers are dealing with enormous messiness and complexity. Funding agencies are getting more and more impatient until they decide it looks like they could be investing somewhere else. Researchers say, “If only we could get more funding…” but that’s what all researchers say. If a researcher does not end his speech with “And that’s why we need more funding,” there is something wrong with him.
Of course, society has other problems to deal with. Even completely normal biological progress is giving enough ethical stuff to give the practical ethicists busy, and the demographic change is already happening. Given that we don’t have a practice of life extension, but we have enough trouble with people living a long time we already have an aging wave hitting us and we don’t really know what to do. In general, people have a very negative view of technologies they don’t have any kind of experience with. That’s why the rapid computerization of society in the ’90s familiarized people with the concept that a PC really isn’t all that dangerous, and the internet is just a lot of pieces connected.
Meanwhile, genetic engineering, the day you get your own genetics kits so you can edit your own potted flowers, I think people will warm up considerably to various genetically modified organisms.
Here is another scenario: the tipping point. Let’s assume that Aubrey is completely right about the SENS approach and gradually he’s checking off the seven sources of aging. Each of them are pretty useless in itself. We can fix mitochondrial damage but it does not have that much effect on aging. There are some interesting demonstrations, some researchers are talking about it, the transhumanists are of course always cheering things on. Things are looking good if you really understand the field, but not that many people really understand the field.
Then one day in, let’s say 2020, somebody puts together a research project and actually gets a very life extended mouse. Now you get a very quick announcement, and immediately a bunch of politicians denounce it–it’s useless, wasteful, and bad for the human spirit. Then another group says this is great, the best thing since sliced bread. So you get this sensation, surprise, worry scenario. That in turn tends to create a rather polarized opinion.
The first area where you get a lot of mess around this is in financial markets. If you are an insurance company that has been quietly betting on people not living that long, and suddenly it seems likely that they are going to live a lot longer. Even if you have done your homework and actually kept tabs, it might be that you still underestimate this relatively rapid surprise.
Meanwhile, various people may be sitting on patents for various technologies that might be involved. That immediately leads to interesting intellectual property problems, because if I happen to own a patent for an essential little part of the process that very well might extend human lifespan, it’s worth a fortune. But I might actually get cheated from that because the government might decide this is too important, and set a price on it. Everybody is going to hire lawyers and lobbyists, and the politicians are going to get their offices crammed all the time in this situation.
Over time, in this scenario, you actually get reduced polarization, as people actually get it in practice. How do we handle life extension? Is it doping? In general it is true that while any life extension therapy in humans is going to take a very long time, but that is why animal models will be very important in convincing people. The rapidness of this event does not necessarily have to be overnight. It could be that over the span of five years, think tanks start to report and the hype gradually grows.
The hype scenario is also rather interesting. Here we have some early, rather impressive success. It might be something similar to the previous scenario. Celebrities endorse it, by 2020 President Clinton III of the United Stantes declares a war on aging, and immediately Europe joins in, and you get an aging race. This is not only good from a longevity dividend point-of-view. You can actually see it in a geopolitical and strategic point-of-view. It can be a tremendous economical and military advantage.
So, people are starting various longevity projects and preventative medicine gets merged together with longevity treatments. You get interesting partnerships between industry, academia and health care, and you get longevity studies as a discipline. Every campus should have one. If it seems that we are going to get life extension, people are going to invest accordingly.
The problem in this scenario is that progress is much slower than it seems. But once you get institutions in place whose purpose is to produce a bit of hype because they get more investment, they are going to continue this. That scandal in 2025 about the Methuselah Prize winner actually having fudged his data, and those nasty rumors about India and China doing quite unethical experiments in remote areas, and The Economist is predicting the end of the life extension bubble any time now. So this is not necessarily a good scenario, but I think a lot of us in the room, because we are enthusiasts and early adopters can make a pretty good living as lobbyists.
Here is perhaps the nice one, because we have a congruence between advancement in life extension as well as public perception of it. So, you have a steady stream of demonstrations that make people realize that there is something to this. Gradually we get treatments that might be useful for certain conditions. Eventually we get close to seeing something that works well.
Here we get an uncertainty based on technology, because it might take a very complex and expensive technology to actually achieve full life extension. One interesting thing is of course, how can the markets handle it? One way is by longevity and mortality bonds. The mortality bond already exists as a financial instrument to handle the risks involved in uncertainties in mortality. There is talk about longevity bonds already, but so far they have not taken off. In this scenario, they eventually take off, and they act as a bit of a signal as to how much the market actually thinks we are approaching the goals.
Also a problem is that demographic change is already on the way, so people have to experiment with different institutions. It is going to be costly; how do we actually pay for it? Since people are realizing that life extension is pretty likely, the de-evaluation of the elderly is not going to be quite as trendy. You are perhaps going to get official campaigns against ageism. Some people are going to work hard to stamp it out, just like with racism and sexism. So this one is a pretty complex and interesting scenario.
In general, what did we learn from this? I think the most important thing is that we need a way of managing appropriate expectations. We need some kind of good metrics. One way is to look at how long mice live. Another one, which is very crude, is to look at how much money biogerontologists get. I think it would be very interesting to look at longevity bonds and, in general, information markets to keep track of it. We need to put a lot of information from lots of different disciplines together to get something here.
We have a lot of uncertainty here. One thing we need to think about is what kind of interventions we need. Maybe we should already be working hard on methods of automating medicine, because that is one way of getting not just life extension down in price but a lot of other aspects of medicine. Reproduction is going to be very interesting, because that is already the main driver behind the uncertainty about future demographics. We don’t really understand what makes people change their reproductive habits very well today.
Overall, I think the important conclusion we can take away is that we can get rid of the assumption that people are going to live to a certain age like 70 and automatically become elderly and infirm. It is surprising how often our institutions are completely based on the assumption that people are living for a certain span of time, and people who are 70 years-old are of a particular kind.
To conclude, this weekend I was over at CERN worshiping a bit at the beautiful Large Hadron Collider. It’s coming real soon now. CERN was started to get European researchers to work together so they would not be fighting with each other–it was never a problem, because it was the administrators that we were fighting, anyway–and pool their limited resources. But it also had a lot of interesting, surprising spin-offs, including the world wide web. Even if CERN never produced anything worthwhile in the area of particle physics, I think the worldwide web has paid for CERN several times over. And I think we should be aware that any kind of longevity dividend project of any kind is going to have a lot of very unexpected spin-offs. That was not the motivation in itself for doing it. Doing a project just to get spin-offs is pretty silly. But I think we should be ready to recognize that a lot of these spin-offs from new technologies are going to be disruptive and interesting their own right. Thank you.
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