Home / Blog / The many faces of Digital Transformation – Societal Scenarios XI

The many faces of Digital Transformation – Societal Scenarios XI

The graph shows the number of years a 10 year old boy could expect to live (actual age would be 10+expected years left to live). The reason for plotting data on 10 years old is to take out early death that were particularly important until 50 years ago. Image credit: Our World in Data

Healthy life extension

The dream of eternal youth goes back as far as we can see into the past. In reality, most of homo sapiens sapiens life span has been below 30 years. There have been exception of course and if we consider the early death in infancy and remove that from the statistics the average life span was around 40 years old. It is only in the last centuries that the average life expectancy has started to grow, thanks mostly to purified water (medicine had on average a very limited impact on the increase of life span).

In the last 60 years, however, the life span in developed countries has started to increase, thanks to medicine (with antibiotics getting most credit). Advanced medicine, like transplant, can indeed prolong life but it is usually effective on a single individual with limited impact on overall statistics.

One should also notice the “healthy” qualification. Actually, life tended to be healthier in the years preceding death in the past (either you were healthy and you lived or else you died). Today the advance of medicine can prolong life but in many cases the quality of life is not good, elderly often complain of what is the point of living longer if the life quality is low. 

The digital transformation may change this situation. By mirroring atoms in bits, harvesting data from people and from the environment, it becomes possible to shift from a medicine focused on cure to a proactive medicine focussed on healthy living. 

This shift to proactive medicine should be able to impact a much larger population (the larger the community the more effective the data analytics) and hence result in a broader life span increase.

The use of Digital Twins in healthcare will become more and more common in this decade (most likely by the end of the decade if one looks for a wide-spread adoption). A person’s digital twin will include data on that person’s genome, mirror and keep track of several physiological parameters -including heart, lungs, metabolisms…, and keep track of activities, habits, interactions -both with positive and negative impact on health and will monitor that person environment. All these data generate knowledge on that person health and health risk supporting a proactive approach to healthcare.  More than that. The ensemble of digital twins of a community can be analysed for early detection of epidemics, dangerous factors as well as to gauge the response to drugs/prescription/environmental factors leading to further intervention.

The effectiveness of the effort to increase the life span is uncertain. A few claim for the possibility to extend life up to 140 years, other push this to 200, not to mention the very few that believe immortality is in the realm of scientific possibility.

Based on what is known so far on the genome, on the impact of telomere in preserving the genome duplication accuracy and to data on eldest people it would seem that 120 is already are very challenging target. Beyond that some form of rejuvenation would need to be needed and in spite of several experiments (on animals) there is no real scientific proof of a method that could be applied to humans and deliver.

However notice that even extending the average life span from 80 to 100 years would already have a tremendous impact on society (beyond the obvious impact on single individuals). Our economics and our infrastructures have been designed with a life span around 70 years. The extension to 80 is already putting a strain on current infrastructures, processes and economy.

  • It is about retirement age:
    if one retires at the same age when life expectancy was 70 there will be 10 years more to be sustained once life span is 80;
  • increasing retirement age keeps jobs frozen, not available to the you’re generation;
  • increasing retirement age may have impact on the activities performed, many may no longer be practical for an elderly person;
  • increasing the life work span makes re-training mandatory, possibly new education models with school attendance becoming the norm every 10 years should be considered.

It is about an ageing population:

  • values and needs are different from younger ages, yet government is likely to be steered in its decision by the elderly;
  • communications paradigm change as age progresses and it may become more and more difficult to have trans-generation communications;

it is about who has access to longer life span:

  • reacher countries are likely to have elderly population and because of value differences they may oppose younger countries (or more likely the other way around)
  • within a single country some part of the population (city dwellers, reacher upper class) would be more likely to have an extended life span and to influence job allocation (top positions) and money flow…

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.