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Even If We Conquer Death – Should We?




“Nothing can be said to be certain, except Death and Taxes” – Benjamin Franklin, 1789

As we head into the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR), there is the possibility that only one of those will remain a certainty.

While taxes may morph from employee-contribution-for-state-resources, to a nominal amount on the gains of technology, to a Universal Basic Income (UBI) – death may yet be conquered.

An increasing number of futurists believe that death is a disease; and like any disease it can be cured. Perhaps the most prominent of these is Ray Kurzweil, Google’s chief futurist, with a prediction accuracy rate of 86% (115 of 147 since the 1990s). Kurzweil believes by 2029, we will see signs of living forever when we reach ‘Longevity Escape Velocity’ – the point at which every year we live, we extend our lifespan by at least another year.

The oldest verified living person, Chiyo Miyako, died at 117 years old in July. However, the number of centenarians is up 44% from 2000 to 2014. Improvements in vaccines, antibiotics, hygiene and sanitation are all contributing factors to increasing survival to advanced ages.

READ MORE: You Only Live Twice

Coupled with affordable healthcare, food abundance, and a decrease in non-natural death causes (war, measles, diabetes), global life expectancy increased from 65.3 years in 1990 to 71.5 years in 2013.

The cost of sequencing the genome has decreased exponentially from approximately $150 million (2013) to under $1,000 (2015), a reduction of 150,000x. Once quantum computers become mainstream, the cost to sequence an individual genome could be cheaper than flushing the toilet! This could lead to mass customized medicines, further decreasing human mortality rate.

Additionally, the introduction of CRISPr allows scientists to cut out and replace living DNA; effectively eradicating almost all diseases and rewriting the genetic code that governs life expectancy.

And we haven’t even included advancements in nano-tech, AI to determine genetic diffusions, R&D into reversing aging, 3D printing organs, or human augmentation to the point of ‘the singularity’.

With life expectancy of, say 200, versus today’s 75, there are a number of considerations. Many challenge the conventional paradigms we currently deem normal. Questions of increased retirement, education systems, second, third or even fourth careers, children and life-savings, are obvious short-term issues to address.

At a micro level, which individual wouldn’t want to spend just another year with a sick loved one? However, at a macro level, this would be far from ideal. Arguably, the greatest issue we face is resource constraints caused – not by over-population per se (the United Nations projects a world population of 9.7 billion by 2050) – but by the number of consumers and the scale/nature of that consumption.

Across Africa, the median age is 19.4 years with a total population of approximately 1.3 billion, however, the average age of the continental leadership is 65 years old. Already Africa has a history of dictatorships, and with leaders living longer, will we have more authoritarian rule?

With an increasingly aging active workforce, what is the future of jobs? Especially coupled with the replacement of labor with 4IR technologies (robotics, AI, automated plants) and youth unemployment upwards of 50%. From a capitalist perspective, efficiency gains and profit maximization will drive business decisions. However, are we further creating a situation whereby the Gini gap increases while the rich, aging, experienced reap the benefits of longevity? Are we sitting atop a socio-economic time bomb with increasing inequality?

Advances in technology will definitely drive the upward age of longevity toward the 200 mark. However, there are a number of considerations – both moral and social – that we have not begun to think about, as a species. Ultimately, the question is no longer if death (like taxes) is inevitable, but rather: even if we can conquer death – should we?

 By Craig Wing, a partner at FutureWorld International, driving innovation and futures thinking across organizations globally. He is a thought-leader on 4IR, future of work and corporate culture.