x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Long life gets radical

Google has announced the establishment of a spin-off startup, Calico, which will conduct research on ageing and life extension

According to the UN, life expectancy in the UAE is 78.7 years. Consider that for a moment: it represents a remarkable triumph of medical science, nutrition and public safety over the disease, poverty and misadventure that once brought most human lives to an end much sooner.

Good statistics on historic life expectancy in the UAE are hard to come by, but at the beginning of the Victorian period in the UK, average life expectancy was around 38 years, and there’s no reason to believe it would have been higher in the Emirates.

In short, we’ve come a long way. But there are some scientists who believe that we’re on the verge of advances in life expectancy that will make those achieved in the last 150 years look inconsequential. And now, the tech giant Google is adding its heft to the trend that is the pursuit of radical life extension. This month, the search company announced the establishment of a spin-off start-up, Calico, which will conduct research on ageing and life extension.

So what, exactly, is Calico’s plan? Details were in short supply, but given the Google CEO Larry Page’s doctrine of taking “moonshots” and aiming for “10 times better”, we can be sure that Calico won’t be tinkering around the edges. No, they’ll be bringing the vision and ingenuity that helped create the driverless car and Google Glass to the objective of helping us all live longer.

All very well. But how much longer can we really live? According to some scientists in the field, a lot longer. The best-known of the bunch is Aubrey De Grey of the SENS Research Foundation, who claims that the first human to live to 1,000 is probably already alive. De Grey argues that ageing is a disease just like any other; one that kills hundreds of thousands every day, and one we accept only because we have been conditioned by history to believe that ageing and death are immutable facts of nature. But they’re not, he says: ageing is really just the accumulation of cellular damage over time, and the science that could allow us to stop or reverse that damage already exists.

But even if we can engineer a 1,000-year lifespan, should we? Critics of De Grey and the radical life extension movement, including the British neurobiologist Colin Blakemore, say that De Grey is not only propounding a highly optimistic view of anti-ageing science, but is also overlooking the many problematic aspects of a 1,000-year lifespan. What will happen to the world’s population – already tipped to hit 10 billion by 2050 –if many of us live for centuries? And anyway, say the critics, isn’t it death that lends life its meaning? A 1,000-year lifespan, they argue, will so radically disrupt our sense of ourselves and the shape of our lives that it only render less purposeful and less happy.

Fine, says De Grey; so when you’re 80 and suffering from heart disease, you’ll be turning down the latest treatments, then?

Whatever your position, the radical life extension movement is not going away: Google’s vast cash reserves and technical expertise will see to that. How will it end? Let’s reconvene in 2913 and discuss.

• For more trends, go to www.thenational.ae/trends

David Mattin is the lead strategist at trendwatching.com