The launch last week of Google’s Calico – California Life Company – is an important step in the battle against ageing. But we still don’t know whether it is a head-on charge against death itself, or an incremental approach, tackling individual diseases with Big Data. The distinction is, well, a matter of life and death.
Aubrey de Grey is Chief Science Officer of SENS, which stands for Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence. He thinks that by repairing seven types of molecular and cellular damage to the body which are caused by our basic metabolic processes, we can halt the ageing process entirely. He thinks that given adequate funding, we could achieve “longevity escape velocity” within a few years, so that we would add a year to our life spans every year, and therefore some people alive today could live to be 1,000 or more. His reaction to the Calico announcement was to paraphrase Churchill’s words about the tide of war turning: it is not the end, but it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
The presence of Ray Kurzweil as Google’s Head of Engineering, and as Larry Page’s muse, gives credence to this sort of visionary hope. But there is another possibility, which is that Calico will take the sort of Big Data techniques currently being applied to the fight against cancer and deploy them against diseases such as influenza and pneumonia, and perhaps dementia and heart disease. This would be hugely important work and should be enormously beneficial, but it would disappoint de Grey and would probably not get us to longevity escape velocity any time soon.
There is another set of technologies which could provide an end-run in this game. The development of brain preservation techniques such as cryonics and brain plastination could enable us to preserve the minds of people as they die, ready for revival when life extension techniques (or even uploading) are perfected. Experts in this area think that with adequate funding, brain preservation could be available within five years. Of course they might be wrong, but with 150,000 people dying every day, surely it’s worth a shot.