In the course of the last century, science fiction has been a harbinger of things to come. From the automatic sliding doors of Star Trek to visual communication, cyberspace, and even the moon landing, many of our present technological achievements were dreamed up in the futuristic visions of science fiction authors of the 1960s and 70s. Indeed, the fantastical world of science fiction, while not intended to be prophetic, has ended up acting as a blueprint for our modern world.
We have learned from science fiction not only the possibilities of technology, however, but also its irreconcilable dangers. Readers of the genre will recognize the many stories warning us of the hazards of space travel, mind enhancement, and artificial intelligence. These fictional accounts cautioned that if we were not careful, our freedom to transform the world around us would transmogrify into a self-enforced slavery.
Nonetheless, while many of us remembered that these were just stories, intended as speculations about a possible future—in other words, they were fiction before science—through them, we became used to the idea that any advanced technology was inherently dangerous and its use always suspect. Moreover, it became a commonplace idea that technologies whose aim was to change or transform the human being—whether genetic, biological or reconstructive—would lead to a future worthy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Paradoxically, science fiction became the torchbearer of the dystopian consequences of unhindered technological progress and showed us a world in which, instead of an optimistic balance between progress and responsibility, an excessive use of technology would lead to our replacement by a host of loving, graceful machines.
Furthermore, the extension of life through scientific means was, until the last few decades, another mainstay motif of science fiction stories and was portrayed as a pretty perilous idea. In many of these stories, the desire for longevity or immortality was often presented as a false goal or as part of a cautionary tale against the narcissistic wish to meddle with nature. In some cases, such as Borges’ “The Immortal”, the struldbrugs in “Gulliver’s Travels” or Moorcock’s “Dancers at the End of Time”, a longer life brought with it the loss of motivation and meaning, as boredom and stagnation became the bulwarks of an ageless society.
In others, overpopulation was to be the deciding factor in the undesirability of longevity, as in Richard Wilson’s “The Eight Billion”, in which this number is described as the population of New York alone following the discovery of a means to extend human life indefinitely. Others still, such as Roger Zelazny’s “The Immortal” and Richard Morgan’s “Altered Carbon”, worried that rejuvenation, if it ever came about, would only be available to the rich, further segregating society into those who could afford to live free of the ravages of aging and those who could not.
Without a doubt, these warnings raise important concerns regarding social inequality and resource management in a world where humans can greatly exceed their expected lifespan. Curiously, similar arguments about an untenable population explosion, a loss of meaning, boredom, and inequality are also the primary objections put forth by those who oppose the scientific pursuit of longevity today. Nevertheless, as important as these are to consider, they might be more suitable for the above-mentioned fictional accounts than to the modest scientific work presently underway.
Certainly, the interest in life extension has taken an enormous leap forward in the last two decades, both in the efforts carried out by scientists across the globe to understand and mitigate the causes of aging itself, and in the explosion of stories and debates on the subject, particularly in the news, public media, podcasts, and television shows.
Today’s search for a longer life is very different to that described by the science fiction of the last century, however. Instead of a common societal effort to cheat death, or a heroic quest to find the fountain of youth, current scientific attempts to treat aging are based on the much more long-term and human-scale work of understanding what aging is to begin with, how it occurs in living organisms, and whether it is possible to prevent or reduce the damages associated with it. To the dismay of some, the focus of aging research is much less grandiose than our former stories might have anticipated, and the spotlight is not on a desire to live forever but on a humanitarian effort to reduce suffering by eradicating age-related diseases.
Nevertheless, the exponential rise in the number of news stories written about longevity indicates that the science fiction of the 20th century has become the science fact of the 21st. In the last few years, we have seen articles on the science of longevity published in every major newspaper, including the New York Times, the Guardian, the Globe and Mail, and Le Monde, to name but a few.
This has been complemented by a parallel upsurge in newscasts and interviews with leading researchers as well as attracting the interest of major investors, including the likes of Google, Larry Ellison, and Jim Mellon along with Silicon Valley startups such as Unity Biotechnology. A simple Google search for news containing stories about human longevity shows the stark difference in interest between the year 2000 (0 results!), and 2018, where more than 800 news stories have already been released, and that is only in the last two months!
The biology of aging has emerged as a real science with the potential to change the way we see health and lifespan in the coming years. The distant dreams of science fiction of the last half-century have become a present reality in which the rapid advances of science and technology offer us, for the first time in human history, the real possibility to undo the damages caused by aging.
Once again, however, we should tread carefully when equating the fictional speculations of our storytellers with that of the scientific pursuit of understanding the mechanisms of aging. It is high time we begin putting the science before the fiction. The day has come to wake up from the dreams of the past and take an active role in building a present in which a life free of aging and unnecessary suffering is not only possible but is pursued as a solution to a real problem that, today, concerns each one of us.