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article imageOp-Ed: Aubrey de Grey explains the future of immortality Special

By Alexander Baron     Jun 23, 2011 in World
Cambridge - An interview with Aubrey de Grey, founder of the SENS Foundation and organiser of a forthcoming conference on life extension.
Aubrey de Grey has been called one of the great minds of our age; he certainly plays a mean game of Othello. I first met Aubrey at the MindSports Olympiad many years ago when in between organising the Othello tournaments and coaching young boys and girls he also found time to coach someone who was – well, young at heart if not in body.
I can honestly say he is one of the nicest blokes I have ever met; the fact that he wants us all to live ultra-long and active lives is living proof of that. From August 31-September 4 he is organising the fifth SENS Foundation Conference at Cambridge, England. The acronym stands for Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence, and Aubrey is quite rightly regarded as one of the leading authorities in this field. Here he talks about his work, his book Ending Aging, and the prospects for extending our lifespans in the immediate future.
AB: I’ve watched your video; I’ve seen something very similar before; is this an update of a previous one?
ADG: Well, I give roughly 50 talks per year, so yes, I'm not surprised you've seen something similar.
AB: First, a personal question; you are now approaching fifty; I am even older. Is it too late for you, and more importantly, is it too late for me to live to a thousand?
ADG: I have no idea, though I would say I have maybe a 50% chance. (You don't say how much older than me you are, so I can't comment.) All I know is that the sooner we develop these therapies, the better my chances. But my motivation is actually very largely independent of that. I focus on the fact that every day that I bring the defeat of aging forward, I'll have saved 100,000 lives (that's the number of people who die every day at present from causes that young adults rarely die of). That's pretty good motivation, whether or not I'm one of the people in question.
AB: Your speech is very impressive but it is basically a game plan without much in the way of practicalities, although I haven’t read your book yet. What do you propose in real terms to do in the way of maintenance of the human organism? Nano-technology?
ADG: You answer your own question, of course: I would not be able to recite my book in an hour, nor even a day. I generally include a brief interlude of hard-core science in my longer talks, but I only have time to discuss one of the seven strands, and even that only very superficially. The book, on the other hand, has maybe 10,000 words on each of the seven strands; if you want specifics, read the book, it's all there. (And it's still adequately comprehensive, even though it came out long enough ago that you have no excuse whatsoever for not having read it.) And you're quite correct: if it were not for all that detail, I would not have any right to make timeframe predictions - even the highly speculative ones that I do make. But the detail does exist, so I do have that right.
AB: There were two well known people who were great advocates of life extension: Linus Pauling and Roy Walford; they are now both dead. Some people would interpret that as a bad omen; Pauling’s régime of massive doses of Vitamins, in particular Vitamin C, has come in for some criticism, but Walford’s Calorific restriction and undernutrition without malnutrition seems a better shot. Do you think either of these has a place in gerontology?
ADG: A place, yes - just like a lot of other seekers after medical intervention in aging. Leonardo da Vinci, similarly, has a place in aviation. Seeing early failures as bad omens is just as dumb in gerontology as it was in aviation.
AB: What about drinking beer, is that not such a good idea?
ADG: Whether it's beer, potato chips or anything else we consume, the key thing to keep in mind is that generalisation is futile. Every person is different. Read all you like about what to eat and what not to eat, but ultimately the #1 rule for health is the same as it's always been: listen to your body. If you're getting a beer belly, you need to drink less. If you're not, you don't. Same for everything else. There are some good rules of thumb, of course, like eating a varied diet with plenty of fruit and veg, but they are only rules of thumb.
AB: Are you au fait with the work of Dr Alfred Bartlett? His lecture Arithmetic, Population And Energy sounds a dire warning for Mankind. If our leaders had your vision and that of José Luis Cordeiro, things wouldn’t be so bad, but David Cameron and his gang are more interested in reducing the deficit, and the leaders of other countries don’t appear to have anything better to offer. How is the world going to cope with a population of 10 billion, 15 billion or more without people living to 150+ especially when it’s being run by the likes of Call Me Dave?
ADG: Sigh. First of all, scientists and technologists ARE our leaders (once they transition from “crackpot” to “visionary”, which takes time but will happen way before these technologies arrive). Politicians follow public opinion far more than they lead it. Second (and no, I haven't read the Bartlett piece and I'm not familiar with his work), there are plenty of ways to keep population down even if we don't let old people get sick - we could kill every other baby, for example. I hope you see my point: old people are people too. If we reject ageism, we are, inescapably, morally obliged to do our best to keep them healthy just as we do for the young, both by applying existing medicine and by developing medicine that does not yet exist. When I point this out, I rather rarely get people saying “OK, fair enough, I guess I'm ageist after all”. Think about it. Then think why you didn't already think about it, since what I just said was so very obvious.
AB: Professor Bartlett in particular warns against the Cornucopians, but there are other voices too, especially after Deepwater Horizon, the dying bees, continued deforestation. Is life extension a high priority when considered alongside all that and more? And do you think we can solve all Man’s problems in the next fifty or so years when we can’t solve quite minor things like homelessness in America, the Arab-Israel conflict, or any of the civil wars that are raging in places like Somalia?
ADG: Technology is easy compared with politics! But as I alluded to above, the dismissive tone of your question disguises (thinly) a terror of actually taking seriously the work that is being done, and of acknowledging the lack of dependence of the morality of trying to solve these problems on confidence of success within a given timeframe. Even if we felt we only had a 10% chance of defeating aging within the next 100 years if we try, but only 5% if we sit back and let it happen by accident, exactly what will our descendants think of our decision to take the latter course? Ultimately, it's irresponsible and cowardly to conflate the desirability issue with the feasibility issue and to use one's pessimism about one as an excuse not to critique the evidentiary basis of one's pessimism about the other. I spend quite a lot of my time embarrassing people into ceasing to do that.
AB: You said a while back that you needed a billion dollars for your mission. Do you think that unrealistic?
ADG: Do you mean, is it unrealistic to seek such funding, or to succeed with so little funding? For the former: of course not. Most of our funding comes from people who could deliver much (in some cases all) of that themselves, as one individual, if they just knew it would probably work - and the more progress we make, the closer they are to that view (and the more they're giving us already). For the latter: great question. The only reason it's so cheap is because it's not for the whole mission, only for demonstrating proof of concept in mice (within the next decade). I focus on that because I know that when we can thoroughly rejuvenate mice that are already middle-aged before receiving any treatment, and get them to live two years longer than otherwise as a result, all my grandee colleagues in biogerontology will be willing to go on camera and concede that yes indeed, regenerative medicine can really work against aging, and it's only a matter of time before we defeat human aging. At that point, my job will be done: public opinion hence public policy (funding) will be converted, and the science will proceed.
AB: I don’t want to get metaphysical but do you think there is an intelligence behind the Universe – not a consciousness, I don’t mean God – but is there some sort of force driving Man and possibly other civilisations towards evolving into something else, literally trans-human?
ADG: I have absolutely no idea what your question even means, let alone what the answer might be.
AB: How much interest have you had from governments?
ADG: Tacit/covert. They know they have a problem of people getting older and still getting sick. They want solutions. They are very keen to run with real solutions just as soon as they can persuade themselves that those solutions really are real. Watch this space.
AB: Most people who seek to achieve immortality of sorts do so through their children and descendants, which is I believe one of the things evolution intends us to do. What are your thoughts on that from both an academic and a personal perspective?
ADG: From an academic perspective, well no: evolution has built us to fight tooth and nail against the dying of the light. Why do you think we have a fight or flight response, which persists after we've had kids? Of course we also fight to have kids and to protect them, but that's really just a backup plan. From a personal perspective, I would say that one key thing that evolution has specifically driven humanity to do is to develop technology - to alter nature, and indeed to manipulate evolution, for its own benefit.
AB: And finally, do you still have time to play Othello?
ADG: No. I last played in a tournament over five years ago, I think. I do get time to go punting though, but that's only because it's photogenic enough that film crews take me out on the river and I can call it work.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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