Every now and then, an obscure concept is so brilliantly encapsulated in a compact yet sublime term that it leaves the audience inspired enough to evangelize it.
I have felt that way ever since I heard the words 'Actuarial Escape Velocity'.
For some background, please refer to an older article from early 2006, 'Are You Prepared to Live to 100?". Notice the historical uptrend in human life expectancy, and the accelerating rate of increases. For more, do also read the article "Are You Acceleration Aware?".
In analyzing the rate at which life expectancy is increasing in the wealthiest nations, we see that US life expectancy is now increasing by 0.2 years, every year. Notably, the death rates from heart disease and cancer have been dropping by a rapid 2-4% each year, and these two leading causes of death are quickly falling off, despite rising obesity and a worsening American diet over the same period. Just a few decades ago, the rate on increase in life expectancy was slower than 0.2 years per year. In the 19th century, even the wealthiest societies were adding well under 0.1 years per year. But how quickly can the rate of increase continue to rise, and does it eventually saturate as each unit of gain becomes increasingly harder to achieve?
Two of the leading thinkers in the field of life extension, Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey, believe that by the 2020s, human life expectancy will increase by more than one year every year (in 2002 Kurzweil predicted that this would happen as soon as 2013, but this is just another example of him consistently overestimating the rate of change). This means that death will approach the average person at a slower rate than the rate of technology-driven lifespan increases. It does not mean all death suddenly stops, but it does mean than those who are not close to death do have a possibility of indefinite lifespan after AEV is reached. David Gobel, founder of the Methuselah Foundation, has termed this as Actuarial Escape Velocity (AEV), essentially comparing the rate of lifespan extension to the speed at which a spacecraft can surpass the gravitiational pull of the planet it launches from, breaking free of the gravitational force. Thus, life expectancy is currently, as of 2007 data, rising at 20% of Actuarial Escape Velocity.
I remain unconvinced that such improvements will be reached as soon as Ray Kurzeil and Aubrey de Grey predict. I will be convinced after we clearly achieve 50% of AEV in developed countries, where six months are added to life expectancy every year. It is possible that the interval between 50% and 100% of AEV comprises less than a decade, but I'll re-evaluate my assumptions when 50% is achieved.
Serious research efforts are underway. The Methuselah Mouse Prize will award a large grant to researchers that can demonstrate substantial increases in the lifespan of a mouse (more from The Economist). Once credible gains can be demonstrated, funding for the research will increase by orders of magnitude.
The enormous market demand for lifespan extension technologies is not in dispute. There are currently 95,000 individuals in the world with a net worth greater than $30 million, including 1125 billionaires. Accelerating Economic Growth is already growing the ranks of the ultrawealthy at a scorching pace. If only some percentage of these individuals are willing to pay a large portion of their wealth in order to receive a decade or two more of healthy life, particularly since money can be earned back in the new lease on life, then such treatment already has a market opportunity in the hundreds of billions of dollars. The reduction in the economic costs of disease, funerals, etc. are an added bonus. Market demand, however, cannot always supercede the will of nature.
This is only the second article on life extension that I have written on The Futurist, out of 154 total articles written to date. While I certainly think aging will be slowed down to the extent that many of us will surpass the century mark, it will take much more for me to join the ranks of those who believe aging can be truly reversed. To track progress in this field, keep one eye on the rate of decline in cancer and heart disease deaths, and another eye on the Methuselah Mouse Prize. That such metrics are even advancing on a yearly basis is already remarkable, but monitoring anything more than these two measures, at this time, would be premature.
So let's find out what the group prediction is, with a poll. Keep in mind that most people are biased towards believing this date will fall within their own lifetimes (poll closed 7/1/2012) :