Editor’s Note: In this set of short stories originally published by our allies at the Life Extension Advocacy Foundation (LEAF), Nicola Bagalà illustrates through convincing scenarios of possible futures why we should take seriously research and activism into rejuvenation biotechnology. It may make the difference between our own survival and flourishing into the indefinite future, or the painful suffering and demise that currently accompany old age.
~ Gennady Stolyarov II, Chairman, United States Transhumanist Party, July 30, 2018
Today, I would like to tell you two short stories describing what your far future might look like, depending on the choices that you—though not only you—will make in the near future. Feel free to leave a comment to let others know which one you’d rather have as your real future.
Story 1: A day in 2140
The blinds in your bedroom slowly whirr open, as a gentle melody gradually fills the environment. Ferdinand—your AI assistant, to whom you decided to give a far less extravagant name than most other people do—informs you that it’s 7:30, your bath is ready, and so will be your usual breakfast once you’re done in the bathroom. Getting up that early is never too easy, but your morning walk in the park is always worth it, because it puts you in a good mood.
As you enter the bathroom, you step into the health scanner, and, after a few seconds, a couple of charts and several biomarkers show up on the display—the final report says that you’re a perfectly healthy 137-year-old whose biological age is about 26. It’d be enough by itself, but you think the charts and the data look cool; Ferdinand knows that.
You’ve got one of those awesome bathrooms with HyperReal WallScreens—well, nearly everyone does anyway—so today you’re taking your bath in the rainforest. As you enjoy your hydromassage, you’re listening to the latest news; your heart almost skips a beat when you hear that the Stephen Hawking Deep Space Telescope, the one that NASA and the African Space Agency sent pretty much to the edge of the solar system, has finally confirmed earlier observations: JSS “Jessie” 431 c, an exoplanet 95 light-years away, harbors multicellular life. They’d been chasing “Jessie” for a while, and now the chase is over; it’s an unprecedented discovery, and while it took surprisingly long to finally get this data, this is a world-changing breakthrough, and it leaves you yelling and splashing around in joy embarrassingly loudly. As you quickly get out of the tub, you imagine that all the geeks at work won’t be talking about anything else.
Your breakfast, freshly out of your molecular assembler, is as delicious and tailored to your specific nutritional needs as Ferdinand got you used to, but you’re too hyped today to spend too much time eating. Ferdinand casts a virtual, disapproving glance at you as you quickly gobble your food up and leave the flat. Your usual walk is cancelled as well, you think as you get into the elevator, because you’re too eager to discuss the news at work. As Ferdinand leaves room for Alice—the building’s AI janitor—you look through the glass walls of the cabin, gaining inspiration from the several other elegant skyscrapers towering over your beautiful city. After a quick descent from the 87th floor, you’re finally on the ground and ready for the commute to work—a quick trip of about 400 kilometers, which, when you were in your 20s for real, would’ve been anything but quick.
At the time, the world was so very different, you think to yourself. Take work, for example: your life depended on it, in pretty much the literal sense of the word. Nowadays, although the word “work” stuck, it is just something you really enjoy doing and you’re good at, and people look back at the whole “having to earn a living” idea in pretty much the same way as they looked at hunter-gatherer tribes when you were a child. It’s unnerving to think that you could’ve missed all of this by a hair’s breadth; when you were in your early 20s, the social movement for the development of rejuvenation biotechnologies really started to pick up, and therapies eventually followed suit. If it hadn’t—and that might well have been—right now you’d be six feet under, just like your poor grandma. She’d have loved the world today, your father always says.
Anyway, there’s no time to get melancholic now; another great day awaits you.
Story 2: A day in 2078
If this story had the same year as the previous one, it’d be very short: you’re dead, and you’ve long been such. The end. However, that’s not how it’s titled, so it is going to be a little longer than that. Whether that’s better or not, I’ll leave up to you to decide.
You wake up in your hospital bed to the beeping coming from multiple monitors and sensors, which by now have become your most consistent companions. It’s not even morning: you fell asleep in the middle of the afternoon, and now that you think about it, some of your family was there with you. Probably, as you fell asleep, they decided it was best to let you rest.
Not that you’re that much awake, anyway. You feel barely conscious, and most of what you can feel is either pain or tiredness. Up until a month or two ago, you could still sort of manage with some difficulty, although with the help of your caregiver or your children, but then everything changed. You’ve been waking up in the same hospital bed ever since you passed out that day, and one of the first things you heard when you woke up right after they brought you in was that, at 92 years old, you’re lucky to be still alive.
You’d like to know what time it is, but you can’t quite make out the clock on the wall nor any of the screens around you. You could ask the computer in the room, if you had any breath left, but you don’t. If nothing else, it probably has alerted the doctors that you’re awake, and maybe someone will turn up soon. Spending energy to push the damn button doesn’t seem worth it, what’s the point, anyway, you wonder—today might well be your last day, and given the outlook, it’d be as good a day to go as any.
That’s too bad, though, you think, saddened. You’d really have wanted to see your great-grandkids grow up, and all in all, the world has surprised you, turning out much better than you expected. Not perfect, granted, but you’re genuinely curious to know how things will change in the coming decades, with all these advancements in technology and science—and the overall political situation looks okay, too. Well, looks like you’ll be taking your curiosity to the grave with you, because these advancements didn’t happen quite everywhere in science, nor did the bureaucrats do much to make them happen. Tough luck.
Bitterly, you think this was at least a little bit your fault too. You didn’t do much to make them happen either. When you were in your early thirties, there was a lot of talk about rejuvenation biotechnology, and the talk intensified somewhat by your late thirties, but the whole thing never really saw the light of day. Oh, you tell yourself, it’ll happen eventually, but not any time soon. It certainly didn’t happen in time to spare yourself what you’re going through right now—thankfully, it’s almost over.
Back in the day, you were in the “unsure” camp, tending to “best not to mess with nature.” In hindsight, you’re not so sure you actually agreed with that view; possibly, you only said so because so many other people said the same and you didn’t feel like being one of those fruitcakes who wanted to change everything, or something like that—what the heck, that was 60 years ago and the memories are foggy. You do remember, though, that when you saw your own parents go through an ordeal very similar to yours, some thirty years ago, the thought that you might have misjudged the “fruitcakes” crossed your mind, but it was already too late.
Unfortunately, by then, populist discourse appealing to the cycle of life, a bunch of other, supposedly more important issues, and “the future of our children” had won over the crowd, and rejuvenation research had taken a back seat, making way for better services for the elderly instead; they’re not bad, but maybe, if a choice was available between better machines to take you to the toilet and drugs that kept you able to walk there on your own, the latter might have been preferable.
The future for your great-grandchildren is similarly rosy, as they get to watch their own parents and grandparents turn into almost-vegetables and then die, not to mention the financial burden—not just on individual families, but the world as well. With so many old and dependent people, and fewer and fewer young people, the economy doesn’t look so okay. The way they’re going about this is by offering financial incentives for families with kids, which, coming from the very same people who opposed rejuvenation for fear of overpopulation among other things, is quite ironic.
Maybe, you tell yourself, you should’ve listened. Maybe you should have taken the whole issue more seriously and helped the early advocates somehow, rather than having dismissed the idea of rejuvenation. Maybe, if you had helped, and if others had too, it’ll have happened in time to save you, or at least your children—they’re in their sixties and seventies now, and if rejuvenation didn’t happen in the past sixty years, despite the initial wave of enthusiasm, you can bet that it isn’t going to happen in the next twenty years when nearly nobody cares.
You turn your head slightly towards the door. Nothing. No one’s coming, but then again, you’ve only been awake for ten minutes tops, and the doctors have got plenty of other geriatric patients in this wing. Your eyelids are becoming heavy again, and as you won’t accomplish much by staying awake anyway, you decide to let them go down. Who knows if they’ll open again.
Both of these stories are fictional, though the first one contains more fiction than the second, because it describes a future that might or might not come to be. The first story is perhaps overly optimistic and even a tad too Star Trek-ish for your taste, but it’s just my happy story—you are free to replace it with whatever positive future you’d like to see. It’s just a possible scenario, and for all we know, the future might be nothing like that and more like a dystopia. It’s hard to tell for a fact.
However, the second story contains much more reality than the first, because it’s pretty much what it means to be in your 90s these days; depending on a number of factors, even being in your 70s and 80s can be not much better, even if you’re not bedridden. Unless we do something about it today, a story similar to this will be our story—your story—too, just like stories of infectious diseases killing millions would’ve still been very much current even today if we hadn’t done anything to change those stories before they could unfold.
I’ve already chosen my favorite version of the story a long time ago. The question is, which one is yours?
About Nicola Bagalà
Nicola Bagalà has been an enthusiastic supporter and advocate of rejuvenation science since 2011. Although his preferred approach to treating age related diseases is Aubrey de Grey’s suggested SENS platform, he is very interested in any other potential approach as well. In 2015, he launched the blog Rejuvenaction to advocate for rejuvenation and to answer common concerns that generally come with the prospect of vastly extended healthy lifespans. Originally a mathematician graduated from Helsinki University, his scientific interests range from cosmology to AI, from drawing and writing to music, and he always complains he doesn’t have enough time to dedicate to all of them which is one of the reasons he’s into life extension. He’s also a computer programmer and web developer. All the years spent learning about the science of rejuvenation have sparked his interest in biology, in which he’s planning to get a university degree.