It used to be the case that money that lives on the Internet was a realm of speculative fiction. Science fiction writers wrote about it in the 80´s, cryptographers and anarchists tried to give birth to it in the 90´s, but none of them got very far. There were some attempts, but they all had a central point of failure, that was shut down when the system was used for money laundering. Then an anonymous guy released an attempt that worked, but only people who live in their parents basements paid any attention to it. This changed in 2017, when everyone suddenly figured out that this is a real thing that will affect how we will live. At that point, the people who took it seriously when most people laughed at it had a major windfall.
This is what we refer to as a black swan. If you spend your whole life seeing white swans, encountering a black swan is a groundbreaking event that changes your mental image of the world around you. Cryptocurrency was a black swan, in the sense that nobody properly anticipated this would turn into a genuine thing. We’ve now seen a dramatic impact, in the form of a demographic of wealthy anonymous young millionaires, an underground drug market that operates through mail, kidnappings where ransom is demanded anonymously, digital blackmail through malicious file encryption and authoritarian regimes that fund their operations by hacking exchanges. Cryptocurrency caused significant social upheaval, but we might also think of it as a form of creative destruction. Wealth is redistributed from those who are good at following rules and those who are naive, towards those who are ruthless, innovative and tech-savvy. In this sense, it prepares us for an era ahead of us, that is likely to prove to be even more ruthless.
I´m the kind of guy who pays attention when eccentric people come up with radical ideas that challenge the status quo. Nine out of ten times they´re nonsense. The one time they´re onto something makes enduring the other nine of them worth your time. Aubrey de Grey is an eccentric man. His enormous beard, the fact that he doesn´t have a cell phone, underpants or a driver´s license, the fact that he doesn´t believe in monogamy, all of these are dead giveaways. He is the best candidate however for the kind of eccentric who is onto something.
As a useful heuristic, one of the reasons he´s an eccentric worth paying attention to is because it´s clear that he´s simply ridiculously intelligent. This can be deduced from his other accomplishments. Aubrey de Grey is the kind of eccentric who solves a sixty year old math problem in his free time, unrelated to the fields he has specialized himself in (gerontology and computer science). That´s the kind of eccentric worth paying attention to. You´ll find numerous eccentrics on the Internet, who spend their time arguing that Siri was elected to be the next pope, that Hitler fled to Argentina, or that humans descend from hybrids between pigs and monkeys. Those don´t tend to solve sixty year old math problems in their spare time. De Grey is the kind of eccentric who is misunderstood because he is simply ahead of his time.
It would be cliché to compare Aubrey de Grey to Galileo. A better candidate would be Charles Babbage, the inventor of the analytical machine, a 19th century equivalent of a computer. It took a century before the world genuinely began to recognize the visionary nature of Babbage´s accomplishments. Today the world moves faster, Aubrey de Grey took about fifteen years to start being acknowledged as having merit. Another comparison with some merit would be to compare de Grey´s work to Lynn Margulis, the inventor of the endosymbiotic theory of the origin of the mitochondria. Her ideas did not fit into the Neodarwinian consensus at that time, in which the origin of life´s complexity was entirely reduced to natural selection, with no real room for the concept of symbiotic relationships between different organisms leading to positive sum outcomes. Aubrey de Grey is the archetype of the misunderstood eccentric genius.
The next black swan is imminent
So, rather than focusing on Aubrey de Grey´s persona, what is it that he is proposing? In the late 90´s he proposed the idea that aging as we know it is fundamentally a disease that can be cured. This has long been an extreme fringe point of few, held by a few radical optimists in California. Most mainstream scientists don´t dare to approach this suggestion, because aging is a multi-factorial phenomenon, ultimately caused by human metabolism. Since human metabolism is extremely complex, we´re not capable of preventing it from causing damage to the body. We might be able to slightly slow down the damage with antioxidants like vitamin C and resveratrol, but the idea that metabolism itself can simply be fixed is not a common opinion. De Grey however suggested that rather than improving human metabolism to cause less damage to our body, we could instead simply identify what kind of damage occurs to our body and go out and fix the damage itself on a regular basis. We would accept that we don´t know how the damage comes about, but we would simply fix the things that break down over time As a result, with hard work we would eventually bring about practical negligent senescence, first in simple organisms, then in humans. This means that you could eventually end up a thousand years old, with a body that still looks as if you were thirty.
As time goes by, de Grey´s proposal increasingly moves from the realm of science-fiction into reality. It´s easy to come up with all sorts of arguments against it, but they´re becoming increasingly hard to sustain. Let us consider for example, the fact that damage to our cells eventually causes those cells to give rise to cancer. However, have you ever considered that the overwhelming majority of cancers occur in the elderly? The reason for this is because a healthy well-functioning immune system tends to nip most cancers in the bud. As we age our thymus starts to shrink, we stop producing new immune cells of certain types and eventually this means that a mutated cell in our body that misbehaves is not removed. Any rejuvenation therapy that removes the problems in our immune system would thus have the side-effect of dramatically reducing our risk of cancer.
De Grey proposes there are essentially seven types of damage we´re dealing with as we grow older. These types are shown above. When de Grey proposed this model, there were no real solutions to any of these seven types of damage. Mostly, we spent our time trying to treat the symptoms of these forms of damage. If your arteries stiffen, you need to start exercising more to delay the reaper by a few years, if the dopaminergic neurons in your brain start dying we can raise your dopamine levels to suppress your Parkinson´s symptoms, etcetera. The progress we´ve seen in medical science has been very incremental and focused primarily on treating the symptoms of aging, because the process of aging itself is so universal and intrinsic to our lives that we don´t think of it as a disease.
If it were possible however to treat any of these categories, serious progress might be made on curing aging. It turned out a few years ago, that this was in fact possible. The first great success we´ve seen, has been in the removal of cells that refuse to die. Importantly, it became clear from this accomplishment that the different forms of damage reinforce each other. If your roof is damaged and water starts falling onto your wooden floor, your floor is eventually damaged too. Similarly, the presence of death-resistant senescent cells causes those cells to produce inflammatory signals, that tell your other cells to stop dividing into fresh young new cells that keep your organs well-functioning. Remove those death-resistant cells and it turns out that many of your young cells that stopped replicating begin to replicate again, thereby revitalizing organs throughout your body, from the fat in your cheeks, to the hair on your head and the neurons in your brain. When this became clear, Aubrey de Grey became convinced that genuinely delaying the onset aging is actually somewhat easier than he initially anticipated. We will see significant results that can be applied to human patients to dramatically delay the aging process within the next few years.
The societal implication of the black swan
This has all sorts of societal repercussions, for which nobody has really adequately prepared us. We´re used to talking about being unprepared for things going worse than we expected. Here we´re dealing with a case where things start to look as if they will start going much better than we initially expected. Within a year or ten we might reach a situation where we will expect that most of our retirees will live to be 120 year old. How will society adjust to that new reality? The political repercussions would be enormous. However, the ethical repercussions are already enormous today. My own father is in poor health, suffering reduced kidney function due to poor lifestyle choices that have accumulated over the years. It is easier to make peace with that fact, if the effect it has is to shorten one´s life expectancy by a few years. With the situation we´re looking at now however, living to see 2030 might mean living to see the broad application of therapies that make living to see 2050 trivial.
The therapies that will be used on a broad scale in 2030 are already here today, they´re however still in an experimental stage. Fisetin is a substance found in strawberries that kills the death-resistant cells in your body, thereby radically rejuvenating the bodies of mice, in experiments where it is given in large amounts. It similarly rejuvenates the kidneys. For forty dollars you have enough Fisetin in home to administer a rejuvenating dose to someone equivalent to the dose given to humans in clinical trials. I know my father´s state of mind and I know he would in all likelihood be unwilling to give it a shot and will instead resort to vague measures he´ll relapse on that merely kick the can down the hall for another year or two at best. If someone´s resignation and fear of novelty means two less years spent watching TV, you respect someone´s choices. If the difference ends up meaning not visiting the moons of Jupiter, then how do you make peace with that prospect? Do you pour it down someone´s coffee when they´re not looking? Do you tie them to their bed and force it down their throat? I have no answer.
The finite length of old age is tolerable if old age is all that lies ahead. But you and me increasingly appear to be viable candidates to be one of the generations that will see the phenomenon of old age reversed. We win sports championships in our twenties, we have children in our thirties, we run government departments in our sixties, then we make peace with our ultimate predicament in our seventies. What if that comes to an end? What happens when eighty year olds can climb the Mt. Everest, make scientific breakthroughs or play in rock bands? The nature of existence begins to change and a prospect we could once make peace with gradually becomes intolerable, an inhumanity imposed by nature on par with the worst evils mankind has born witness to.
I do not consider nature itself to be evil or cruel. What we refer to as evil are good things damaged through subjection to disorder. I believe nature strives for minimal suffering with the means available to it, as it struggles in a material realm subject to the laws of physics. As it grows more complex, its ability to eliminate suffering increases. In the more complex animals, pain signals that serve to enhance survival are ameliorated by opioids released to allow us to struggle through injuries. Predators evolve that prey on weak and sickly animals, the womb spontaneously aborts most embryos with severe chromosomal abnormalities. Hunger causes pain at first, but then the animal becomes placid and at peace, to the degree that human beings induce hunger in their own bodies to put their minds at ease.
Nature strives towards maximal hedonic output with the means available to it, we are its latest creation devoted to said purpose. It gave birth to an organism with destructive as well as creative powers without precedent. It can explore the depths of the ocean, turn forests into piles of ashes, insert a flagpole into the dust of the moon. Whether we are an extension of nature or a malicious outgrowth at odds with the totality of the creation depends upon the choices we make. The ships we crash on the bottom of the ocean can give birth to coral reefs, with ropes in the sea we create fields of seaweed filled to the brim with fish of all different shapes and sizes. We introduced camels into the Australian desert, the African hippopotamus dwells in the rivers of the Amazon forest, the Redwood tree of the American west coast grows in Europe for the first time in millions of years. We are creator as well as destroyer, we rescue branches of the tree of life that were about to descend into oblivion and introduce life where it has never been seen before.
When nature gave birth to man it gave birth to an organism that seems destined to bring an end to the greatest form of suffering around today, the process of aging. Nature was limited in its creative potential by the fact that it was subject to the force of entropy. Whatever it built had to last long enough to reproduce, after which nothing that might occur to its productions genuinely mattered any longer. Its organisms thus succumbed to accumulating damage, a fact that inherently limited human potential. As we all live longer, the entropy we endure becomes a growing burden, a problem that dramatically reduces hedonic potential. Aging is a waste, in the sense that it prohibits us from living out our lives to their fullest possible extent. As human life expectancy increases, more opportunities open up for us.
The economic implications of the black swan
To make a long story short, I’m proposing that the process of aging as we’ve been familiar with since time immemorial is about to come to an end. Although life expectancy has steadily risen throughout the industrial era, most of us are underestimating how fast these upcoming changes are going to take place. It’s going to happen so fast, that the impact it will have on how we live out our lives and structure our societies and economies will inevitably be disruptive. Overall it should be a positive development, but it’s hard to avoid the impression that the impact we’ll see on the economic structure of society will be enormous.
If you remember where companies like Google, Yahoo and Amazon were twenty years ago, I think you have a pretty good image of where the rejuvenation industry is today. Before I’m recorded as stating that throwing some money at rejuvenation companies is guaranteed to make you rich, I have to point out another issue first, which is that industries like these tend to have numerous new entrants with sky-high valuations that end up failing, because everyone begins throwing money at these companies. This doesn’t take away the simple fact however, that some of these companies are going to figure out how to introduce these new technologies to the general population. These companies will be the pharmaceutical giants of tomorrow’s dystopian cyberpunk future.
Biotechnology, artificial intelligence and space exploration are the last big economic frontiers. Because of the manner in which our society is structured, you’re generally not allowed to invest in these companies before their initial public offering, unless you’re a very wealthy person. The governments “protects” you against predatory investments, but I lost track of the number of advertisements I see on the Internet, where dumb people are told that regular housewives can earn 4000 euro overnight with a 250 dollar deposit, by using a tradebot on a Forex site. In practice, the existing regulations mean that the poorest 90% of our Western population is protected from perhaps 60% of all investment scams, but also excluded from 99% of worthwhile investment opportunities. Because I’m not an accredited investor, I’m excluded from most genuinely worthwhile investment opportunities.
There are opportunities for you and me. Unity Biotechnology is one of the big candidates who might win the race to introduce practical applications of the new discoveries we’ve seen in recent years. However, how am I supposed to judge the odds in regards to whether Unity ends up being the big one, or some other contestant in the race jumps through the regulatory hoops and pulls it off? There’s a good chance I’m just not allowed to bet on the horse that ends up winning the race, all because I’m a regular young man with a regular job. Instead, the dumb masses are de facto encouraged to throw their money into speculative cryptocurrency projects that never end up going anywhere.
Limits to growth don’t mean limits to novelty
Something few people seem to consider is the fact that there are options ahead of us beyond the singularity and a collapse back to Flintstone level social complexity. As the barbarians dismantled the smoldering ruins of the Western Roman empire, the Hagia Sophia was constructed in Byzantium. In the real world, new things come into existence in some places, while other places struggle to hold onto the things they inherited. Sometimes people become most inventive and creative during a time of crisis. War and destruction can be the best inspiration for creativity.
It’s perfectly possible that an artificial intelligence network located in the mountains of rural Scandinavia will send exploration probes towards Alpha Centauri, while illiterate human beings in Italy struggle to feed their own children and witness the return of malaria to their doorsteps. Too often, people use limits of growth as an excuse to stop thinking about the implications of novelty. America today is a nation where some elderly people live out a nomadic existence in their car to work at Amazon during the summer, while other elderly Americans are having stem cells injected into their brains to reverse Parkinson’s disease. We’re not witnessing the bell curve move, we’re witnessing the tail ends of the bell curve expand: A growing number of people now have to live with less, while a small number of people will get to experience living with things that never before existed.
I’ve seen it argued for years that the struggle to design good batteries for electronic vehicles would ensure that these vehicles will never move beyond the stage of tinker-toys funded by subsidies and enjoyable to a small minority of the population. Today it’s quite difficult to keep arguing this point. It’s probably never going to be viable to build passenger airplanes that work on electricity, but it’s now quite clear that a transition to a battery-electric vehicle fleet can be accomplished. Those who erred on the side of pessimism were wrong, those who erred on the side of innovation were shown to be right.
In a similar manner, the people grasping at straws to convince themselves that practical rejuvenation of human beings will remain a pipe dream are simply deluding themselves. There will be hurdles that will be easy to tackle and hurdles that will be more difficult to overcome, but with the hurdles we’ve tackled so far we can extend a human life by decades. Importantly, the accomplishments made don’t just extend old age: These accomplishments will keep people youthful for longer.
Perhaps equally important to note is the fact that rejuvenation doesn’t have to exacarbate inequality. Rejuvenation can reduce inequality. If today’s eighty year olds have tons of savings that would allow them to fly to a clinic in Singapore and inject stem cells into their brain, then that’s the kind of money they won’t pass onto their children and won’t use to prop up a stock market bubble. The elderly are going to exchange wealth for youth, not by defiling pretty young interns, but by paying to repair the damaged parts of their own bodies. Just as with personal computers, cell phones and most other technologies, the early adapters will be faced with high prices to gain access to such novel technology.
I think the case of Jeanne Calment was a fraud that slipped into the records, but I’m confident that at some point in the next decade we’ll witness someone who will live beyond her record. The technology is here today and it’s now merely a matter of properly implementing it.