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Discussing "The Science of Radical Life Extension" with TED Books author David Ewing Duncan

Continuing with our series of TED Book Chats.... How long do you want to live, and why?

For the next two weeks, we'll be discussing David Ewing Duncan's new eBook, "When I'm 164", on the science of radical life extension. Duncan surveys the increasingly legitimate science — from genetics and regeneration to machine solutions — and considers the pluses and minuses of living to age 164, or beyond. We'll look at everything from the impact of extended life on cities, services, and the cost of living as well as what happens to love, curiosity, and general health.

The book is available for Kindle, Nook, and iOS devices (which have a great new custom TED Books app):

Kindle copy: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008XB16ME/
iOS app: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/ted-books/id511071050?mt=8

The New York Times also published an excerpt this week, you can read it here: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/26/sunday-review/how-long-do-you-want-to-live.html

Finally, author David Ewing Duncan will be joining us for a live Q&A at 4pm EDT on September 11th!

Looking forward to our discussion!

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    Sep 1 2012: I would love to stay alive as long as I could be healthy and independent naturally.
    So far the drug companies accept death-side effects of drugs as a norm- this is not acceptable. We will need these in addition to the advancements in genetics

    As we grow older and the people of our generation die off, we feel more isolated.
    That's what I have observed of Grandparents and my Parents generation.
    Most of them are ready to go when it happens but they don't wish to cut it short.

    I think we are putting too much emphasis on 'this life' and not exploring the next - that's the real ride!
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    . . 100+

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    Aug 31 2012: This is a great question; the obvious answer: it is not the length but how much good you can do with it, and how good you feel and how good you make others feel.
    And it is a trick question ;-)....because no matter how old you are the only time you live is always only now:)
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    Sep 8 2012: The longer we live, the less happily we live.
    If we live forever, we will be happy never.
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      Sep 11 2012: I would argue a slight variation on your theme. If one is unhappy extending their life may only be an opportunity for more unhappiness. On the other hand it may give them the opportunity to explore their bliss and find a great sense of satisfaction and happiness.

      I love my life, but it wasn't always this way. If my life ended at say 18 years I might have only known melancholy, frustration and disappointment - never having the opportunity to explore different aspects of myself, traveling the world, trying new things, inventing, trying out new careers. If I could do this for another 120 years for me it would be a great blessing.

      So while I see the point you're making, I would be inclined to say it can go either way. If you're happy more time would be a gift. If you're unhappy more time might be a curse... or it might be an opportunity to learn to be happy.
      • Sep 11 2012: I agree with Sean - The longer you live the more chances you have to discover things that can make you happy. I know I am more happy now than I was 20 years ago.
    • Sep 11 2012: I am 27 years old now, almost 28... The older i get the more i appreciate myself. The more knowledge and experience i acquire the more self love and confidence i have. Just like sean up until 18 my life was OK but I was fat, no confidence and missed out on so much that my peers were experiencing socially. In the past 10 years that has radically changed, and i only feel like i am really starting to understand myself. I have a feeling in 20 years i will feel the same, still learning loving and growing... I think it's important to keep a positive attitude in life and then living forever will be great, at least for me it will be
      • Sep 11 2012: It can change anytime, Kyle. Around the next corner may be the experience that changes it for you. For me it was cancer diagnosed 3 mos post partum that made me see life can be very nasty! Still, another experience may be coming that will give me my positive outlook back!
        • Sep 11 2012: Jessica, sorry to hear about that... Cancer is bad, i have two people close to me who have it... ovarian and spinal... I think what radical life extension is about it having the OPTION to live as long as you want in a healthy state. Just as someone can beat cancer, at the same time i could be a healthy 125yr old and get hit by a bus... To me life extension is about living as long as you can as healthy as possible...
          As for cancer i know several people with promising procedures including stem cells and nano-technology... soon we will be able to treat all disease...
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          Sep 11 2012: Jessica, you have an excellent perspective. I'm very sorry to hear about your diagnosis. I'm overjoyed to hear however that it wasn't during your pregnancy. I have a friend who did experience an aggressive form of lymphoma during her pregnancy, and only by a series of miraculous scientific and medical feats did her daughter come through without harm, and very minimal mutagenic complications to herself. She is one of the most amazing people I've ever met.

          All of that said, I've always been conflicted by the nature of these "life challenges." On the one hand I pity the untested, unchallenged life. The life that will face no great challenges probably isn't a person with a lot of depth of character. It seems like the most interesting, empathic, daring, and accomplished people I've met have faced great challenges in their life.

          That said, however, I would never wish these dramatic, painful and life changing experiences on anyone. So I think this is where my conflict comes in. How should we process these experiences; as an opportunity, or as victims of a tragedy, or both, or maybe as something completely different?

          What do you think Jessica?
  • Sep 7 2012: Fascinating obsession of mankind to live forever.
    I am positive nobody has really thought seriously of what it would be like to live forever. Forever.
    This obsession is driven by fear of death. No acceptance of our mortality.
    It is a matter of quality over quantity for me.
  • Aug 31 2012: I simply want to live long enough to have no regrets.
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    Aug 31 2012: In a human centric universe to live forever would drive me crazy if not possibly insane unless i could fly between stars and feel the cosmic breeze on my skin and play spin the top with Qassars,don a El Matador's hat and tease a supermassive blackhole with a cape made out of a redshifted galaxy,maybe even mosey on over to the other side and take a peek,what good could i possibly achieve?
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    Sep 11 2012: We're down to the last few minutes! Thanks again to David for joining our conversation, and I hope you all live long, happy and productive lives. :)
  • Sep 11 2012: I've heard a lot of people discuss the idea of boredom as a reason not to live indefinitely. Seems to me that boredom, like any other mental state, has a physiological counterpart. In other words, boredom exists as a state or spectrum of states in the brain. It should, therefore, be treatable. And it's a big universe out there. Boredom seems unlikely to me.
  • Sep 11 2012: Mr Duncan -

    What thoughts do you have on how your argument relates to euthanasia? Is wanting to live longer just the same thing as wanting to choose when you die?


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    Sep 11 2012: Hi David, thanks for your reply. I'm curious though. At one point I, like you, was unnerved by the idea of having my consciousness only existing in a machine or, even existing simultaneously in a machine and in my corporeal form. But at some point I thought about it and realized that it didn't bother me anymore. I'm not sure exactly when that was, but I think it corresponded to reading the book of short stories: "Godlike Machines" while cramped in a boat for two days floating down the Mekong River.

    So my question to you is, what exactly (or not exactly) do you think bothers you most about having your consciousness in a machine?
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      Sep 11 2012: First, on a practical level, I have covered neuroscience as a reporter for years, and it's hard to find many mainstream or even edgy neuroscientists that believe this will happen anytime soon, if ever. We could be taling centuries. John Donoghue of Brown, who is on the leading edge of using brain implants to convert thought into operating machines, has told me that even if scientists are able to map every detail of every synapse in the brain, they may never duplicate an individual's consciousness. But even if it works, I have three problems. One is that I like the sensations of being corporeal (I might get over this, but I doubt it); the second is that unless my machine-home can defend my mind, I'm vulnerable to all sorts of natural and "real" disasters that might harm me; the third is that I don't fully trust a machine capable of hosting my mind to allow me to be me - there is a sort of Matrix/Terminator scenario that even Ray Kurzweil (a huge advocate of downloading one's mind) confesses he thinks is a serious worry.
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        Sep 11 2012: Thank you for your thoughts David!
  • Sep 11 2012: Mr. Duncan - I've come into this conversation very late, so forgive me if this has already been covered or rendered irrelevant by something else you've said. My question is this: Considering that dealing with loss of loved ones is often a lifelong process even under current life expectancies, what do you think the psychological effects of loss will be for those who live long enough to live indefinitely? For instance, imagine that a loved one dies only a month, a day, an hour before some radical life extension breakthrough is announced. For those who have lost loved ones and suddenly find themselves with the very real possibility of an indefinite lifespan, won't some sort of "survivor's guilt" come into play, but on a mass societal level? If so, how will this be addressed? If not, why not?
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      Sep 11 2012: Interesting - I'm sure this will happen. It already does in families where one member dies of, say, cancer at a radically early age, and siblings and parents survive. I suspect there will be full employment for psychiatrists specializing in the impacts of radical life extension for all sorts of issues.
      • Sep 11 2012: My thoughts exactly. I suppose if physicists ever figure out some sort of viable time travel, the idea of resurrecting the dead will become a hot topic for this very reason -- but that's an entirely different and far more speculative topic with its own issues. Thanks for taking the time out to answer my question. :)
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    Sep 11 2012: Mr Duncan, I was curious if you think Aubrey De Grey is right... that the first person to live to 1000 has already been born? (if my memory is correct, it may not be)
  • Sep 11 2012: Goodness. There will have to be a lot more developments before we can live so long. Having been diagnosed with cancer in my 30s has changed my mind about wanting to live for a long time. The longer you live, the more opportunity there is to experience shocking tragedies in yourself, or those you love. I realize there is also more time to have wonderful experiences, but the unexpected tragedies would build up and can take years to recover from, interfering with the ability to have positive experiences.
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      Sep 11 2012: Most people have been asking about the technologies of life extension, but more than half the book is about the implication of this tech should it succeed - I have asked hundreds of people to tell me why they would want to live to age 150, or not, and unexpected tragedies is high on the list of those who have reservations about living to 150. Other reasons include the cost of living so long, boredom, and the impact on the planet with so many people not dying. (Pluses include having more time to do things, space travel, seeing what happens in the future, and more). I would love for people to buy the book and check out all of the upsides and downsides!
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    Sep 11 2012: Do you think there's anything different about how we view this now, vs. how we viewed it several generations ago? Have our thoughts on life expectancy changed as it's lengthened, or are we mostly still the same as we've always been?
  • Sep 11 2012: Mr. Duncan - I'm interested in stem cell research, and you mention it in your article. Do you think we're eventually going to be able to use stem cell regeneration to replace our own worn-out body parts as they fail? I'm imagining medical science that works like taking your car to the shop.
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      Sep 11 2012: More and more scientists are saying that stem cells will one day be used to provide fresh cells to repair tissue damaged from disease, accidents, or aging, though in most cases this is many years away. However, scientists like Anthony Atala at Wake Forest have successfully grown human bladders and urethas that have worked in humans - though he cautions that these are simpler to "build" than a heart or liver; others say something as complex as the human brain will be very hard to repair. One huge boost in stem cell tech came just 5 years ago with the invention of "Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells" (biologists have such clunky names for things) - these are stem cells that are made using any cells in a person's body. IPS cells can then be used to make any cell in the body - which are perfect genetic match with the donor. IPS cells still need some serious work to be used for regeneration or transplantation, but the potential is there.
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    Sep 11 2012: Thanks David! I'm curious, since you mentioned participating in all those tests... what are your thoughts on the value/ethics of using genetic testing to predict future health? Have you seen the movie Gattaca? ;)
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      Sep 11 2012: I wrote a book about this - Experimental Man! I was first tested for my DNA proclivities in 2001 for a Wired story, and since then I've had over 24,000 genetics traits identified. (Check http://www.experimentalman.com for details). So far, all of this genetic info has not told me much, since the science is still young. But I have learned a few important genetic risk factors - and more are coming in as gene markers are validated and interpreted. One's genetics will become increasingly important in predicting and diagnosing disease, though it's important to note that Gattaca was wrong - genes are not necessarily you're destiny. The role of the environment is also crucial.
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        Sep 11 2012: Excellent! Though, from what I remember, I think that may have been the moral of Gattaca, as well... that one can always defy the odds and live a life beyond what the tests predict. Still, it's hard to imagine society NOT turning in some way into that dystopia of genetic pre-determination... what parent, presented with all the numbers, wouldn't want to give their children every possible advantage?

        Anyhow! Sorry for the digression, apparently that movie made an impression on me. :)
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    Sep 11 2012: Do you ever study old photos? Did physical aging look any different 100 years ago than it does today?

    Would a 60 year old in 1912 have looked as old as an 80 year old today?
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      Sep 11 2012: I asked my 81 year-old dad this, and he thinks people did look older at an earlier age when he was young. In my family we have many pix from the late 19th century, etc., and some of the people look old and worn out even in their 30s and 40s, though most looked their age - my family, though, tends to live a long time, so we may be different. An interesting question!
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        Sep 11 2012: I'd imagine it would be difficult to put together, but I'd love to see a table of photos comparing people at various ages 100 years ago and now. Has anyone done this?
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    Sep 11 2012: I think there are many good points of discussion here already, so I'll just focus my time on the question "How long do you want to live, and why?"

    For me, I'd like to have several phases to my life extension. First I'd like to try living in my organic form for another 50 to 60 years - perhaps with increased faculties, or small augmentations. There is a lot of experiences that the current normal life span has that I think I'd really like to experience. Such as having and raising children.

    Then I'd like the opportunity to transfer my consciousness to a machine, perhaps with a mechanical extension that allows me to venture into parts of the planet and solar system that are impractical and too dangerous for organic forms to go.

    This is getting away from the original question, but after that - maybe a 1,000 years of exploring these axises of experience - I'd like to opportunity to experience time differently, on the scale of 10s, or 100s of thousands of years.

    Then... I don't know what. I find it difficult to fathom what type of thoughts and desires one might have at that point, after experiencing so many things. It may be the case that the infinite complexity of the universe is enough to explore until the universe ends, or it may be the case that there is not infinite complexity and I've explored and experienced everything and there is nothing more to do, and thus end the journey there? Who can say.

    Fascinating question!
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      Sep 11 2012: Thanks, Sean! A very well thought out plan. Personally, I find the idea of downloading my brain into a machine to be unappealing - like you, I like the experience of being a corporeal being. However, you have suggested the one reason I might consider this - space travel! I want to go!
  • Sep 11 2012: Hi David, I saw your article in the NYT a few weeks ago. Did most people really die around age 50 in 1900? Or was the average skewed by a higher percentage of infant/early childhood deaths? Did adults expect to live to about 50, or was it assumed that you'd make it closer to 60 or 70 once you reached adulthood? Thanks.
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      Sep 11 2012: Infant mortality was much higher in 1900 and before, so this definitely dragged down the average. But even if you lived to 10 years old your life expectancy in 1900 was 58 years old - if you lived to 20, it was 62 (both for white males - slightly higher for women). Stats still work this way today - the longer the live, th longer your life expectancy (up to a certain point!) So we have added some years overall. What's really dramatic is how many more people are surviving to live a longer time. here is a chart of life expectancies since 1850: http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0005140.html
  • Sep 11 2012: Mr. Duncan - off topic slightly, but did Arjen Lucassen on his latest album, 'Lost in the New Real' take the title of 'When I'm a Hundred Sixty-Four" from you? Or purely coincidence? Just curious, it's a funny chance any way you look at it. This popped up on my Facebook feed as the track came on.
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    Sep 11 2012: Another question from your book: I'd never heard of Dr. Kenyon's work with the DAF-2 age-regulating gene. How far has she gone with testing? Do you think they'll try testing on humans any time soon? What an ethical challenge!
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      Sep 11 2012: Cynthia Kenyon is a pioneer in teasing out the genetic behind lifespan in animals, especially a tiny worm called c. elegans (Latin name). In the 90s and early 00s she extended these little critter's lifespan by 10x normal - leading a lot of mainstream biologists to wonder if there are aging pathways hardwired into evolution. It hasn't proven as easy with more complex "critters" like humans, but many believe that upping lifespan through a pill that impacts proteins might one day be possible.
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    Sep 11 2012: Hi all, we're about to get started with our live chat with author David Ewing Duncan!

    David, welcome to TED Conversations, and thank you for sharing your busy time with us! I loved "When I'm 164", what a great overview of such a thought-provoking field. You raise such interesting questions... can we radically extend our lifespans? Should we? What would the world look like if humans lived twice as long as they do today?

    I have many questions, but I'll start with the basics: How did you get started researching extreme aging, and how long have you been working on it? Was this a professional or personal interest?

    Thank you, looking forward to the next hour!
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      Sep 11 2012: Hi Aja, thanks for organizing this! We already have some great and thoughtful comments below. Thanks for everyone who took the time!

      To answer your question, I approach this issue as a journalist and communicator who has spent years reporting on amazing life science tech, and asking the question: what are the implication of new discoveries? In this case, it struck me that the biomedical enterprise is producing what one scientist called a "side" effect of extending lifespan. What does that mean to individuals, and for society?
  • Sep 4 2012: I don't want live any longer than is necessary. "necessary" is hard to define, but ar this time I feel useful but tired. Someday the tired will outpace the useful and you can take me to that nice death palace in " Solent Green."

    My mom is the only person I know who wants to live forever.
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    Sep 4 2012: Are we even genetically designed to live long in terms of how to cope with that mentally? Mid-life crisis and depression are HUGE because we don't know how to deal with life-spans that only recently went up from 35 to 75.
  • Sep 4 2012: Humans have been engineering their environment and their capabilities with tools for 10's of thousands of years. It is a distinguishing feature of homo sapiens. We gained the knowledge necessary to engineer ourselves only 50 years ago (Watson & Crick) and the technology to do so maybe 20 years ago. Given the deep-seated fear of death that comes with the conscious ability to anticipate it and the inherent drive of life to sustain itself, there is no reason to believe that we will not put that knowledge and ability to use to extend human life spans.
    There are many moral, ethical, and environmental implications of this reality. Perhaps chief among them is the potential for accelerated resource depletion, as mentioned previously, a scenario with dire consequences. Peering further down the road, given increased competition for resources, there is a very real possibility that humans could speciate between enhanced and naturals in less than a millenium, particularly if the current trend of wealth disparity continues. Speciation would no doubt be accelerated if enhanced humans have significanlty expanded life spans that allow for more off-spring and the opportunity to multiply current material advantages for future generations.
    It is easy to imagine doomsday scenarios; we are predisposed to fear the unknown. The challenge is to imagine and elucidate a positive future where these capabilities are used to alleviate suffering, restore a verdant planet, and allow us to reach the highest expression of what it means to be human.Just think how you would live if you knew you were going to live to be 150 or more. And it may be that the full extrapolation of human life extension means having a body may be optional or even intermittent. Envisioning such possibilities is a good use of the intellectual stimulation provided by doomsday scenarios.
    Personally, it seems like I'm a slow learner. I could make good use of a life span of 150 years or so. All men die; not all men truly live.
  • Sep 2 2012: A couple of answers to this question that occurred to me over the years:
    1. When I can't brush my teeth by myself any more it's time to go. and
    2. I'd prefer to die before I run out of money. I doubt that my retirement investments + social security payments would keep up with the cost of living, never mind high-tech life extending interventions.
    In general I wonder: How would retirement laws and benefits change? For example, would Social Security or pension payments end after 25 years? Would people just not retire unless forced by ill health? Would people of all ages, instead of thinking in terms of retiring after a long stint in the workforce, take a year off here and there to recharge, re-think priorities, or just coast for a while?
    • Jon Ho

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      Sep 2 2012: You hit the nail with no 1. With no 2 though... Social Security? Pension Payments? You seriously have bought into this Ponzi scheme the government forced onto the masses, haven't you! Pssst: I heard it will run out in 2037, which will make you what, around 90? ;)

      What if, through the magic of gene splicing, you can be young forever, and keep working for money? There will come a day when you will feel so tired, that life has stagnated into an unchanging drudgery, that everything is the same every single day, that death is the only means to escape the monotone.

      And then, at the exact moment you die, you will realize: Life is Beautiful. Without death, you will not recognize this simple precept. ;)
      • Sep 2 2012: Well I myself have 401K's and I have a very clear idea of how little SS payments are compared to the cost of living. I *never* expected SS to provide sufficient retirement income, but I paid for my parents, aunts, and uncle's benefits and did so gladly. They freely gave me everything I needed until I was able to provide for myself. I'm not interested in seeing the US morph into a third-world type economy where people can starve to death on the streets while being ignored by fellow citizens - hey! wait a minute! That's happened. Perhaps my opinions are informed by the years I spent nursing in the homes of people from every point on the US socio-economic scale.

        You sound as if you've never been on the end of the income scale that many former middle class US and EU residents have joined in the past few years. There are millions living "paycheck to paycheck." I know a fair number of people who work 40 hours/week or more and still have no benefits - no health insurance, no retirement savings, no vacation or sick time. Some of them are working for one employer, but as a part-time employee in more than one department. Some are working more than one part-time job and some are government contract short-term employees.

        Here in the US even a middle-class income can't provide for the cost of a chronic illness - another fact I've learned through personal experience with multiple sclerosis, bipolar disorder, and multiple food allergies in my family.