Who wants to live forever?

Who wants to live forever?

For years one of my most popular blog posts has been about extending our lives, perhaps indefinitely. So I decided to do a bit of a deep dive: what are the prospects for immortality? Where is the science at? And who is driving it?

To find out, and to read my predictions for the future of life extension, download the full report below.

What did you tell me?

I started this research by putting a poll in the field to ask you how you felt about immortality. Working with Opinium Research, I surveyed a representative cross section of 2001 adults in the UK in July 2021. What you told me was fascinating…and a little scary.

One of the first questions was about whether people even want to live forever, and it turns out that most people don’t. The full data is in the report, but this graphic shows that the largest proportion of people (22%) just want to live to their natural age. Just 15% of Brits actually want to live forever.

Another question we asked was about the activities and changes people are undertaking in order to extend their lives. Lots of people have stopped smoking and about 45% of us say we’re taking regular exercise. But with two thirds of us overweight and a quarter obese, we probably need to do more. See the full data on our life changes – including the switch to a plant-based diet – in the report. The regional differences are particularly interesting.

Where things got really scary is when we asked people which life-extension technologies they would be comfortable with. 16% of people said they would want their brain transplanted into a robot body, and 20% would be comfortable with blood transfusions from younger people. The difference between men and women on this question was really marked.

Five Predictions for the Future of Life Extension

In this edited excerpt from the report, I give my five predictions for the future of life extension. To read the full predictions, and the context in which they were made, be sure to read the full report.

1.We will find ways to extend human life…but not forever

We will eke out small extensions in healthy life in the next thirty years through new understanding of the ways our bodies decline with age. These will primarily be therapeutic treatments in later life in addition to the preventative treatments and supplements that wealthy people in later life already consume. By 2050, I suspect the average lifespan for those in wealthy countries would have exceeded 92 for men and 95 for women but for issues attached to climate change and inequality. 

However, there will be no biological options for extreme life extension beyond 120, even for the wealthiest individuals. And any digital uploads of consciousness will be incredibly flawed, incapable of replicating the human experience. 

2. Rising lifespan inequality

Inequality in global life expectancy is likely to worsen. Climate change will increase mortality rates in areas poorly equipped to compensate for higher temperatures, water levels, and crop impacts. In those countries with state healthcare, the cost of novel treatments for an ageing population is likely to be incredibly high – especially since the tax base of working age people is likely to start to shrink in the second half of the century. The state may have to be very selective about what it pays for. For those in countries with insurance based healthcare systems, the challenges may be even greater, as premiums rise further in line with potential lifespans.

The result will be an increase in the margin between highest and lowest life expectancies, both between countries, and between individuals within countries. Already in the UK, this gap is almost 10 years. By 2050 I suspect it will have widened to 12 or even 15.

3. The age race

Motivated by their ageing populations, countries around the world will invest in healthier, longer lives. Expect more campaigns on processed food, higher taxes on alcohol, and exhortations to exercise – even if capital investment in facilities is lacking. That costs real money that will likely be in short supply for governments in the near future, without radical changes in policy. These campaigns combined with trends towards plant-based food, alcohol abstinence, and a continuing focus on body image, will start to tackle levels of obesity by 2050. But our efforts might be put to shame by those in other countries who leapfrog our food culture by a generation, just as they have with technology.

4. The health crunch

As the NHS approaches 100 in 2048, so might many more people. Unless we can address issues of obesity and inactivity, costs will spiral. In the 60 years following the founding of the NHS, spending rose more than 13 times when adjusted for inflation, from £11.4bn to £152.9bn. This works out at an average annual increase of 3.9%. Following this trend out to 2048, we would see NHS spending rise almost three-fold to nearly £450bn, before any special provisions, such as the additional £60bn allocated to address COVID-19 in 2020/21.

To pay for our longer lives, we will almost certainly have to work longer. The state retirement age in the UK is rising to 67 in 2028 and by 2050, I predict it will be over 70 – maybe even rising towards 75. Though this is unlikely to address issues with poverty in old age

5. Digital Ghosts

While I don’t expect we will be able to recreate human consciousness in a machine by 2050, this won’t stop people from trying. By this time there will have been many experiments of differing levels of sophistication and ethics. We will have many ‘ghosts in the machine’ – digital personalities which though not fully conscious, can sometimes present a believable facsimile of a dead person. Continuing where the trend for resurrecting dead celebrities for posthumous albums and holographic concerts left off, we will find ourselves interacting frequently with the digital echoes of the long dead.

This raises all sorts of issues, around rights (who says if you can be digitally resurrected), laws (who is responsible if your digital ghost goes rogue and starts slandering people?), and costs – not least in carbon. All those extended lives will require an awful lot of storage, processing power and bandwidth, and that means energy and heat.

Tom Cheesewright