Society directs technology, and new technology then shapes society. It is a relationship that has existed since humans first started inventing new technology. Inventions such as the printing press, iPhone, and the internet have had profound impacts on society, but an emerging technology that investors are pouring billions of dollars toward developing, will more likely than not cause the greatest societal change in history--the cure for aging.
The quest for immortality is one of the oldest human goals, and legends of magical elixirs that grant immortality have been a mainstay in literature for thousands of years. Nearly all cultures carry mythological tales of immortals who cannot die. It seems a far-reaching, seemingly impossible goal until now.
For the first time, the idea of defeating the aging process has moved from speculative science fiction to potential reality. In the last 25 years, a growing group of scientists has begun to approach aging as an engineering problem to be solved and not a collection of illnesses that each need to be treated separately. They are tackling the underlying causes of aging and searching for ways to cure each one. The goal is to allow humans to age perpetually while retaining their youthful minds and bodies. To age without the current weakening that accompanies old age. Imagine being able to live hundreds of years in your twenty-year-old body.
According to Aubrey de Grey, a biogerontologist, "the first person to live a thousand years has already been born." In the last 150 years, the average life expectancy of humans has more than doubled, and according to De Grey, scientists are on the verge of potentially extending life expectancy to infinity. It seems far-fetched, but organizations such as the Methuselah Society, a non-profit dedicated to solving aging, have narrowed age-related problems into seven distinct engineering problems. Billions of dollars are being spent to solve all seven problems, and great progress has already been made in every category.
Some species of animals observed in the wild live for hundreds of years, and some plant species are known to live for thousands of years, so they know it is possible to dramatically extend life, but the mechanics of solving it for humans are not simple. Scientists theorize the solution to human aging will be a combination of genetic manipulation and cellular therapy. It may even be narrowed down to a type of nanotech medicine that can direct the genetic code to reorganize and cells to regenerate. Many exciting breakthroughs have already occurred, and some futurists think we are only 10-20 years from a breakthrough that will extend human life spans many hundreds of years.
The idea of an infinite life span does not mean humans will be immortal. It means they will be "amortal." Immortal beings are immune to death from aging or physical harm, but amortal beings are only immune to the effects of aging and disease. They will still be able to die to catastrophic damage to their bodies.
The idea of having the ability to create amortal beings raises a plethora of moral, ethical, and social questions. Who will be the first people to receive immortality? If it is a very expensive procedure, will it only be available to the wealthy and privileged? Individuals of certain countries? It could create a new category of divisiveness in society, a new type of have and have nots.
And, of course, the question of overpopulation must be answered. As of 2022, there are more than 7.8 billion people on earth, with an average increase of approximately eighty million a year. If on average, 120 million people die each year, just a small decrease in deaths will rapidly accelerate the rate of population growth in the world.
The wide availability of amortality, giving individuals seemingly unlimited time to learn and grow and accomplish any goal, contains a hidden danger, best described by Parkinson's Law, which describes that any task will automatically fill the time allotted to it. And it follows that unlimited time may cause procrastination on an epic timeline. Near limitless time may lull some individuals into putting their ambitions off perpetually. They will fall into the trap of thinking tomorrow will always be available. The reality is that accidents would still happen, and the odds are that given enough time, every individual would eventually die.
Death is one of the things that makes life valuable, and if it occurs much less, life may become less valuable. Amortality has the promise of delivering eternity, but it will not come without a dark and challenging downside that society will have to come to terms with to overcome.