On this episode of Lifespan News, Ryan O’Shea talks about Elon Musk’s views on longevity and our reactions to these sorts of concerns.
Elon Musk has been named Time Magazine’s person of the year for 2021, and he has made a habit of finding success in heavily regulated, capital-intensive industries – finance, automotive, energy, and space. And now, with Neuralink, he’s adding healthcare to the list. Musk is always looking ahead, and has big plans for the future – both for himself, and more importantly, for humanity. But does Musk want to live to realize that long term vision for humanity’s future? The answer is possibly “No.” Musk raised some eyebrows recently when discussing the idea of increasing human lifespans, and the media did what they often do. But Musk’s comments are going to require some unpacking. So let’s see what he actually said, and compare it to his past commentary on the subject, in this episode of Lifespan News!
Recent headlines have latched on to Elon Musk’s words in the most sensationalized and clickbait way possible, with Futurism saying “Elon Musk Says That Immortality Tech Would Be Very Dangerous” and Business Insider going even further with “Elon Musk Thinks You Should Die”. But is this actually what he said?
The exchange in question took place on December 6 at the Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council Summit during a virtual interview between Musk and the Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern. Here are his words, direct from him. – “I’m not aware of any secret technology to combat aging. And I don’t know that we should really try to live for a super long time. I think it is important for us to die because most of the times, people don’t change their mind, they just die, and so if they live forever, then we might become a very ossified society where new ideas cannot succeed.”
This is not the first time that Musk has addressed longevity and life extension science, and it does seem like his views on the subject are slowly evolving. For example, here’s what he said in 2013 at a Los Angeles World Affairs Council event:
Musk: I think the thing that would most profoundly affect people would be to be able to recode genetics, which is obviously a dodgy situation. We’re close to saturation on lifespan. It’s sort of pretty much leveled out. So even if you solve any one particular disease you maybe slightly improve life expectancy but not a lot. You kind of have a genetic programming – any given species – for a certain lifespan. Like you cannot make a fruit fly live for 10 years no matter what you do. No amount of healthy living, vitamins, anything.
Interviewer: Ray Kurzweil’s fruit flies live for 20 years.
Musk: That would be a truly astounding achievement. It’s a really tricky subject that’s fraught with all sorts of moral issues, but that’s the thing that would most affect people’s lives. But it’s certainly a double edged sword.
Here he doesn’t seem to think that extreme life extension is even possible through means such as diet, exercise, or even curing diseases, given what he sees as limits of biology that cannot be overcome in this way. However, he sees potential to bypass those biological limits with gene editing technology, though he understands that this is a controversial topic and many will oppose this type of work.
He expressed a similar sentiment during a 2015 conversation with Tim Urbran of Wait But Why, saying “The whole system is collapsing. You don’t see someone who’s 90 years old and it’s like, they can run super fast but their eyesight is bad. The whole system is shutting down. In order to change that in a serious way, you need to reprogram the genetics or replace every cell in the body.”
Tim Urban then put some pressure on Musk, questioning him more about the importance of overcoming aging. Here’s their exchange:
Urban: Well…but isn’t this important enough to try? Is this something you’d ever turn your attention to?
Elon: The thing is that all the geneticists have agreed not to reprogram human DNA. So you have to fight not a technical battle but a moral battle.
Urban: You’re fighting a lot of battles. You could set up your own thing. The geneticists who are interested—you bring them here. You create a laboratory, and you could change everything.
Elon: You know, I call it the Hitler Problem. Hitler was all about creating the Übermensch and genetic purity, and it’s like—how do you avoid the Hitler Problem? I don’t know.
Urban: I think there’s a way. You’ve said before about Henry Ford that he always just found a way around any obstacle, and you do the same thing, you always find a way. And I just think that that’s as important and ambitious a mission as your other things, and I think it’s worth fighting for a way, somehow, around moral issues, around other things.
Elon: I mean I do think there’s…in order to fundamentally solve a lot of these issues, we are going to have to reprogram our DNA. That’s the only way to do it.
Urban: And deep down, DNA is just a physical material.
Elon: It’s software.
So, again, it’s clear to this point that Elon Musk does believe that it’s possible for humans to significantly extend our lifespan through gene editing, but that we won’t achieve noteworthy effects from traditional methods. But here’s the thing – research into and making use of those traditional methods of life extension – things like healthy diet, exercise, and disease prevention, are still very important. Because the years, or months, that someone extends their lifespan through those methods could buy them enough time to access those gene editing technologies, or any other technological development, that could remove aging as a threat to their life. This is how someone could reach longevity escape velocity.
To put it another way, the choices you’re making in your life today, even if they only enable you to live one year longer than you otherwise would have, could result in you reaching the point at which aging is overcome, and you could actually realize decades, if not more, of healthy additional life as a result of implementing those traditional, less effective, life extension strategies.
Elon Musk would probably agree with this, but just may not feel that it’s of much importance to him personally. Also in 2015, during a Vanity Fair event with journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin, Musk revealed how long he’d like to live:
Sorkin: Do you think about genetics and longevity and trying to sort of avoid- your friend Larry Page is investing in a business hoping to end death.
Musk: I’m not actually a huge proponent of longevity. I mean I do think that having a good life for longer is better. You’d want to address the things that happen to you when you’re older, like dementia and so forth. Those are pretty important, but I’m not sure it’s actually – that I want to do that, get into the genetics thing, but I do think it’s going to fundamentally change humanity, along with AI.
Sorkin: You don’t want to live forever so that you can actually get to Mars?
Musk: No, I definitely don’t want to live forever.
Sorkin: How many years do you want to live?
Musk: I don’t know, a hundred good ones.
Sorkin: A hundred good ones or a hundred more good ones? You’re 44?
Musk: I mean I think a hundred good ones in total is probably fine. Maybe a bit longer.
In 2021, during the Everyday Astronaut tour of Starbase, Musk, who is known for optimistic timelines, seemed to suggest that he didn’t see himself living much beyond a typical human lifespan of today.
“I’ll be long dead before Mars is self-sustaining. But hopefully the momentum is strong in that direction by the time I die. Hopefully which probably isn’t soon, but you never know.”
So Musk expects to live a fairly normal lifespan, and perhaps hopes to die around age 100, which would be the year 2071. But what does this imply about future decisions he makes? Well, in 2020, he said this.
I think there’s going to be a lot of breakthroughs on the radical front, particularly around synthetic RNA. You can basically do anything with the synthetic RNA/DNA. It’s like a computer program, so I mean I think with effort that’s not too crazy you could probably stop aging, reverse it if you want. You can turn someone into a freaking butterfly if you want with the right DNA sequence.
Now here is where it gets interesting – Elon Musk appears to be saying that using gene editing, it would not be particularly difficult to stop and even reverse aging. He feels that this is technically possible, and knows that there are extremely intelligent people working on it. He must foresee some possibility that these age reversal technologies are developed while he’s still alive, but he’s already made clear that he doesn’t want to live forever and isn’t really interested in longevity. So what happens when these technologies are developed? Does Elon Musk not make use of them, and instead choose to age and die while those around him are rejuvenated and continue to innovate?
I find it very hard to believe that Musk will choose to not make use of this technology, but here’s the thing – if he truly doesn’t want to use it, that’s totally fine. The answer to the question “How long should people live?” is “As long as they want to.” Now Elon Musk clearly doesn’t seem to want to die anytime soon, but if he’s right, and as he approaches age 100 he begins to question whether or not he wants to continue living, I fully support whatever he decides.
However, I also think it’s very likely that he’ll change his mind, and here’s why. Let’s return to the original quote that we started with:
I think it is important for us to die because most of the times, people don’t change their mind, they just die, and so if they live forever, then we might become a very ossified society where new ideas cannot succeed.
Musk has a fear that more people living longer could stifle innovation and stagnate our culture, but even if it is the case that a 90 year old of today is more stuck in their ways than a 30 year old, who is to say that rejuvenating the body and brain of that 90 year old back to the body and brain of a 30 year old wouldn’t also give them the neuroplasticity and mental outlook of a biologically younger person? After all – at this point they ARE that biologically younger person. I think this is quite possible, and I find it hard to accept that someone who believes we can turn a human into a butterfly struggles to also see that it’s possible to make it so that chronological age doesn’t affect the human brain in the way that he fears it will. And it’s even possible that the technology he is developing at Neuralink could be a part of the solution to the very issue he’s describing here.
So, moving beyond his fears of society-wide ossification, we can address the other concern he brought up – the moral concerns of gene editing and life extension. I think it’s important to point out here that I don’t know of Musk saying, at any point, that he personally has moral qualms or concerns about this technology – only that he understands that others do, and that it’s highly controversial.
Now, Musk has stepped into his fair share of controversy in the past, but he’s also human, and certainly the misrepresentations, and public opinions, and negative headlines have some impact as they would on anyone. And I also think he deeply cares about ushering in a positive future for humanity, and he does take the concerns the people raise seriously.
For these reasons, and regardless of how much I personally want him to, I don’t expect Musk to get deeply involved with the longevity movement. I also expect him to not be a barrier to it. And, afterall, Musk already doesn’t have much bandwidth remaining. He’s working on making humanity a spacefaring, multi-planetary species, limiting the risk of AI by making sure humans coexist alongside it, addressing climate change and energy through technology, limiting the impact of traffic, and reimagining the monetary system through blockchain technology. He’s doing a ton of work, possibly more than anyone else, towards building the future that will be important to have in place once life extension technology goes mainstream. I don’t expect him to personally take on longevity as well, though I’d love for him to financially support the development of this technology.
So, what will the future hold for Elon Musk? I’m not sure. But if I had to guess his concerns about the moral questions and the stagnation of society will subside as time goes on, and I’d wager that as Elon Musk approaches age 100, he might be far less interested in dying than he seems to be today. This might end up being true for a lot of people.
What do you think? Will Elon Musk eventually take longevity seriously, or is he right to be concerned about this? Let us know in the comments below!
Make sure to subscribe, because we have a lot more content like this coming soon. I’m Ryan O’Shea, and we’ll see you next time on Lifespan News!