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The many faces of Digital Transformation – Societal Scenarios XXII

Many causes of aging have been identified although some of these may be observed as result of aging, not as a cause. Image credit: Paula Martinez and Maria A. Blasco – Heart-Breaking Telomeres AHA Journal

Radical Life Extension

The Human life span has increased considerably if one looks back in time. Just 200 years ago life expectation was at least 20 years shorter than today. However, if one looks at the maximum age recorded (it gets more and more difficult to have an accurate reporting as one goes back in time) the figures are not that different. Somewhere between 110 and 120 seems to be the maximum human life span ever achieved. To achieve that range one has to be very lucky but it seems that no luck is able to break that barrier.

Whilst medical science and societal care makes possible to more and more people to “get lucky”, i.e. to live a longer and healthier life span within that thresholds. To move beyond, a radical new approach needs to be created. This is what“radical life extension” is looking for. There are basically 4 approaches under consideration:

  • new drugs that can rewind the clock of ageing
  • In Vitro Fertilisation and selection of best egg/sperm combination from a life span viewpoint
  • genome hacking
  • virtual life

New Drugs

A number of animal studies on the cause of ageing and trials on the use of medication (rapamycin and metformin) to slow down and even reverse the effect of ageing have led to significant life span increase in animals like mice and fruit-flies  up to 30% (this might result in a human life expansion beyond the 120 years barrier, but still not much over that range).

Moving to humans may not be straightforward. There are many factors limiting the life span of a living being and they enter into play at different stages. As an example, alterations due to casual factors play a bigger and bigger role as the life span increases. Hence, extending the life span of a fruit-fly is measured in weeks (a few weeks actually) or the one of mice (lifespan 1 to 2 years) does not call into play factors that become important after decades of life…
Important to notice that any life extension induced by drugs is not passed on to offsprings (inherited).

IVF and selection

The possible increase of IVF use and the screening of embryos can enhance the chance of a longer lifespan since it is possible to select those mix of genes that favour finger lifespan. The adoption of new technologies  like creation of stem cells (and then eggs) from red blood cells can further increase the chance since normal IVF starts from some 10-15 eggs max whilst the use of stem cells to produce eggs can extend the selection to thousands of embryos.

This approach can result in an inherited extension of the life span. Actually, some scientists are looking into creating many generations of embryos before the final implant to further increase the desired trait.

This is and area that is fraught with ethical issues and there is no consensus on its adoption. Being still at an hypothetical stage there is also no proof that it can work as expected. One of the unknown is that it is not clear what would happen once the 120 years old thresholds is passed. There might be other factors that we cannot know at this time coming into play with unchartered effects.

Genome Hacking

Technically scientists have the tools to manufacture genes, change a genome and most important change the activation rules. CRISPR/Cas9 and CRISPR/Cas13 are just the first tools and the availability of artificial intelligence algorithms, machine learning and a growing data base of genomes is going to make, at least in principle, possible to design a genome based on the desired phenotype, in this case a phenotype with a longer life time.

Ethical and societal issues are even bigger than with the IVF and embryo selection.

Virtual Life

All the previous 3 approaches are/will be possible thanks to massive processing power availability as well as huge amount of data. However, none of them is a direct consequence, nor require, a digital transformation, although the whole healthcare sector is expected to undergo a DT in this decade.

The progressive availability of personal digital twins, ever more sophisticated might lead by decade end to an accurate replica of a person (including feelings, experiences, relationship) in the cyberspace. The digital twin at that point can be considered a mirror of the physical person but unlike the physical person it is not subject to ageing, if one choose so. This would be a case of digital transformation applied to a person (there are several other facets in a digital transformation of a person, not addressed in this context).

There are already first signs/attempts of prolonging a person’s life in the cyberspace. This extension is to the benefit of relatives, friends … even of companies but clearly is not to the benefit of the person (although one person might feel better knowing that his passing away will not imply a total disappearance. Whether in the future a software might become sentient is a fully open question.

Societal considerations

All the above approaches rise significant ethical and societal questions, most of these are so new that have not been considered so far. It is easy to predict that several more will surface as radical life extension becomes a concrete possibility.

There are also other issues that would emerge if and when a radical life extension becomes possible (hence not on the way this is achieved but because it is achieved):

  • Who could have access to radical life extension? Is that part of a global human right or is it just for those who can afford it? FDA has recently recognised ageing as a disease, no longer as a natural process.
  • What are the implication of the shift towards a much “older” Society?
  • How will life be re-organised as the usual phases of learning – working – enjoying the twilight will no longer work (learning will have to flank the entire life, when will people retire?, …)
  • Will the possibility of extending life overcome any other considerations (keep on living may shadow any other value and lead to harsh conflicts). Would it give rise to a strong “end justifies means”?
  • Older age is often synonym for conservatism. Would life extension stifle change and lead to stasis?
  • The whole planet has evolved in a state of dynamic equilibrium (i.e. any change leads to a feedback that returns the planet into an equilibrium state). How would radical extended life of a species be counteracted to return the Planet to an equilibrium state?

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 New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. 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.