Arun Venugopal: It's The Takeaway. I'm, Arun Venugopal in for Melissa Harris-Perry. How do you feel every year when your birthday rolls around? Is it an exciting milestone, or are you getting to the point where you'd prefer not to tell anyone how old you're turning? Well, luckily for you, if you're in the second camp, there's never been a better time to defy aging. Retinol creams, Botox, or just regular sunscreen can all be used to prevent wrinkles and keep you looking as ageless as Paul Rudd.
That's just what's on the outside. Since the 1900s, the average human life expectancy has more than doubled globally, but why stop there? There's a growing field of scientific research dedicated to staving off both the physical and mental changes that tend to accompany older age.
According to The New Statesman, this anti-aging industry, also referred to as the immortality industry, will be worth $610 billion by 2025. If we do extend life beyond the balance of present-day medicine, what would that mean for humanity and for the planet? To learn more, Melissa Harris-Perry spoke with Thomas Fink, founder and director of the London Institute for Mathematical Sciences about his understanding of anti-aging and immortality, and the surprising math and physics behind it.
Thomas Fink: Most species will die not by natural causes. They'll die just because they don't have enough food or they get killed by another animal. We're somewhat unusual. Somebody said, "If we did not die from natural causes, the average lifespan today would be about 2000 years on average." After that point, you get hit by a bus or whatever. The question is not making us live forever, but putting our consciousness, embedding it into some digital form, but can we get rid of aging or be more practically, can we slow it down?
Melissa Harris-Perry: In practical terms, does this mean that we would live longer lives or lives of similar length, but where we would experience more of some of the benefits of youth, feeling less physical pain, more mental alertness, that sort of thing?
Thomas Fink: Practically, instead of talking about immortality or even living for thousands of years, let's ask ourselves, what would life look like if we doubled the average lifespan? It's not that crazy, in the fact, right, you go back a couple of hundred years, something like that, the lifespan was half of what it is now. Then, people say, "Well, yes, but maybe it would be a crappy life. Like, the first 100 years are cool, the second hundred years you're decrepit and it's no fun." It's important to remind ourselves just how mysterious aging is. Could we slow down aging? Could we create longer lives in which we're in a healthier, potent state for longer?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Help me to understand what this looks like in a practical way.
Thomas Fink: Look, essentially, every species has this sort of terminal sell-by date. You live up to this point and then you're just not going to make it past that. For humans, it's about a hundred. It's very rare for people to live beyond that. The question is, well, where does this come from? The proposition that some people have made, and I wanted to demonstrate this mathematically, is that perhaps immortality is the natural state evolved life. Later on, there was a bolt-on which said there's an evolutionary advantage to having a forced termination process inside life. The question then is, can you show that when you start with the basic ingredients of evolution, there is an advantage to saying, "You know what, we're going to improve the next model by saying, "This thing has to die.""
When I talk about starting from evolution, we get an advantage to aging. What I mean is the three key ingredients of Darwinian's theory, mutation, inheritance, and selection. Start from that and then, sure, you get an advantage. The idea of immortality or slowing down aging is pretty heretical. It's like, "Oh, you're working on slowing down aging. Great. Also, UFOs or what's the deal?"
The reason I got interested in the mathematical side of aging is that I know it seems it could seem strange to outsiders, but it's very much got the ingredients of a physics problem, of a mathematical-physics problem, because these are very simple ingredients. Inheritance, mutation, selection. Mutation just means that there's a random mistake. You were planning to do X. Now, it's got one little amino acid or nucleic acid changed.
Inheritance says the next generation has what you've got. They have what you've got plus the mutation, it's a little bit different. Selection is just survival of the fittest. It says that, "Hey, offspring more suited to the environment are more likely to live and have their own children." Three basic ingredients. Can you play with those in a mathematical way to show that aging doesn't have to be the accumulation of mistakes? There could be an alternative, specifically that it gives an evolutionary advantage. When you introduce aging, like a 'you have to die' command that the population can adapt more easily, more readily to a changing environment. For me, this was a fantastic challenge.
It's one that you can put down in simple mathematical terms. I mean, that was a challenge, "How do you do that?"
Melissa Harris-Perry: Who's working on this?
Thomas Fink: I got interested in this problem, the theoretical side of this problem, because, my Institute has worked with a biotech company called bit.bio, and they look at something called cell programming, that you can basically rewrite the identity of a cell. This got the Nobel prize in 2012 or thereabouts by Shinya Yamanaka. One of the crazy things that they noticed afterward is that these cells, when you sent them back to the blank slate, to the Tabula rasa, and told them to become a different type of cell, these cells went back to-- seemed to lose all marks of age.
They went back to a virgin state. No aging. This just seemed extremely odd. We still don't fully understand it. Recently, a group was set up called Altos, a multi-billion dollar company. I went to their launch last week outside Cambridge University. Altos is throwing huge amounts of money at this problem.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It has been pretty awesome for us to live into our eighties instead of simply into our forties, hasn't necessarily been great for the host planet [laughs]. I'm wondering about the ways that we imagine longer-lived humans affecting the world that we interact with.
Thomas Fink: We will need to innovate our way out of the problem, which is to say, we need to get life off of the earth. We need to populate space. Certainly, the knock-on effects of living for a very long time in terms of our ecosystem are difficult to predict, but I think just assume we'll get off of earth, because that's going to be necessary for so many different reasons.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I have to say, it's not a lot of times when the answer is, "Oh, yes, we'll double the lifespan. We'll move into space." I think maybe I want to be a theoretical physicist. This is big fun [chuckles].
Thomas Fink: Well, thank you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Thomas Fink, physicist at the London Institute for Mathematical Sciences. Thank you for your time.
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