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The man who wants to live forever

About the authors
James Wilsdon is head of science and innovation at the think-tank Demos and co-author of The Public Value of Science (2005, available free from Demos).
Paul Miller is an associate of the think-tank Demos . He is co-editor (with James Wilsdon) of Better humans: the politics of human enhancement and life extension (Demos, 2006)

It's a bright October morning when Aubrey de Grey meets us at Cambridge station. The leaves are falling in the wind and mounting up in small piles on the station forecourt. De Grey is standing by his battered red racing bike, wearing scruffy white trainers, a fleece sweatshirt and jeans. His beard makes him easy to spot – a swirling mass of brown, red and grey hair reaching well below his chest.

As we walk through the station car park, he asks us about Demos – what it's like, how it's funded, what else we're working on. He didn't get the email we'd sent earlier that morning as he tends to get up late and work through the night. "At least it means that I'm awake at the right time when I go to conferences in America", he says. He tells us that in 2005 he gave thirty-three invited talks abroad.

Paul Miller is an associate and James Wilsdon is head of science and innovation at the think-tank Demos. They are the editors of Better humans: the politics of human enhancement and life extension, a new collection of essays published by Demos, in association with the Wellcome Trust, on 8 February 2006.

Also by James Wilsdon in openDemocracy, "Small talk: new ways of democratising science and technology" (September 2005 )

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After a short walk, he locks his bike up outside a pub and marches inside. The barman gives a nod of recognition. "I've done loads of interviews here", he tells us, "usually at this table." He jokes with journalists that he will buy them a pint if they ask him a question he hasn't heard before.

What he has said at this table in this pub (as well as in journals and at conferences around the world) has caused no end of controversy. De Grey's claim is that radical increases in human life expectancy will be possible within the next twenty to thirty years. "As medicine becomes more powerful", he says, "we will inevitably be able to address ageing just as effectively as we address many diseases today. I think the first person to live to 1,000 might be 60 already."

The basis for such a confident prediction is a project that he calls Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (Sens). It makes Sens to put it into practice, he jokes. The Sens project, which he directs, has identified seven causes of ageing – seven types of molecular or cellular damage – each of which "is potentially fixable by technology that already exists or is in active development."

De Grey argues that society is caught in a "pro-ageing trance" which leads most of us to defend "the indefinite perpetuation of what it is in fact humanity's primary duty to eliminate as soon as possible". His forthright views, and the endearing zeal with which he expresses them, have attracted increasing amounts of attention, not only in scientific journals but also in the mainstream media. In the past year, he has been interviewed by several British broadsheet newspapers, and he recently featured in a 60 Minutes special on longevity on the US network CBS. In a profile of de Grey for the magazine Technology Review, Sherwin Nuland, clinical professor of surgery at the Yale School of Medicine, concluded that "his stature has become such that he is a factor to be dealt with in any serious discussion of the topic."

A prophet without honour?

Within the scientific community, he is regarded with a mix of interest and scepticism. Is he a pioneer or a crank? Naïve or prophetic in his claims that we will soon be able to live for hundreds of years? Nuland's now infamous profile in Technology Review implied that there were major flaws in de Grey's scientific theories, but seemed more concerned that he might pose a threat to society. Noting that "the most likeable of eccentrics are sometimes the most dangerous", Nuland concluded that:

"his clarion call to action is the message neither of a madman nor a bad man, but of a brilliant, beneficent man of goodwill, who wants only for civilisation to fulfil the highest hopes he has for its future. It is a good thing that his grand design will almost certainly not succeed. Were it otherwise, he would surely destroy us in attempting to preserve us."

In the firestorm that followed the Technology Review piece, things got personal. One editorial comment – likening him to a troll – still reverberates in internet discussions.

"Do you care what people say about you?" we ask. "Yes. Deeply", is his instant reply. "I take it very seriously." Yet de Grey says that he's moved beyond the stages of being ignored or laughed at and is now being actively opposed. He seems quite relaxed about this progression.

We talk about Eric Drexler, the US scientist who coined the term nanotechnology, but is now shunned by the field that he helped to create. Back in 1995, the BBC screened an edition of the Horizon programme where a buoyant Drexler comes across as an optimistic proponent of nanotechnology and the age of molecular manufacturing. Roll on ten years and he has become a bitter figure, marginalised by the mainstream nanoscience community, and a veteran of long-running battles with US science funders who have refused to back his vision.

Is de Grey worried that he may suffer the same fate as Drexler within his own field of biogerontology? "I have a massive advantage", he says, "I'm integrated into the mainstream of gerontology. I rose very rapidly to become considered an intellectual equal of the leading people in the field. I go to all the international events and everyone knows I'm not a fool. In person, there's always a degree of cordiality and respect, even though there's ostensibly a much more caustic debate about my work in print."

He admits there are risks in being labelled a "transhumanist". "The sort of people who have been at the forefront of talking about life extension have also been talking about things that people are much more comfortable dismissing – like nanotechnology and cryonics. There's been a feeling that they're not quite one of us." He says he started out deeply sceptical about transhumanism as an idea but has warmed to it over the years. He recently signed up with the Arizona-based company Alcor to be cryonically frozen – presumably as a backup if the technology for life extension doesn't come along quite as soon as he hopes.

We ask him whether he sees himself as a campaigner. "Crusader", he says with a smile. "I just want to save lives. I see no difference between preventing someone's death through medicine and preventing death through defeating ageing. It's just not a distinction." He certainly doesn't fit the mould of a traditional science communicator. He couldn't be further from the model of Robert Winston or Simon Singh, explaining science to the masses. It's difficult, for example, to imagine him wearing a dinner jacket and delivering the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. He relishes debating and talking about the social and political implications of his science. In many ways he's an advocate of what Demos calls "upstream public engagement", of sparking a wider debate about the potential implications of scientific and technological change, before those changes are locked into immovable trajectories.

And he's very good at answering questions. He speaks quickly but in perfectly formed paragraphs, uncluttered by ums and errs.

Who wants to live forever?

During the 1994 Miss America competition, the host asked Miss Alabama: "If you could live forever, would you want to, and why?" Miss Alabama answered "I would not live forever, because we should not live forever, because if we were supposed to live forever, then we would live forever, but we cannot live forever, which is why I would not live forever."

The question that de Grey has to field most regularly is "do people really want to live much longer lives?" Miss Alabama's answer reflects the confused, but instinctive response that many of us have to the idea of radically extended lifespans. Bill McKibben – a more articulate "deathist", as the transhumanists deride their critics – expresses it simply: "I like this planet, I like this body with all its limitations, up to and including the fact that it's going to die."

De Grey isn't convinced. As far as he's concerned, this is another symptom of the pro-ageing trance: "It's a coping strategy. Ageing isn't much fun, getting decrepit and senile. You have to find some way of putting it out of your mind. But we're talking about the extension of healthy life, not just extending old age. Psychologically it's terribly difficult for people to take on board that this is something worth fighting for."

He thinks people will eventually come round to his way of thinking, arguing that the media's fascination with his theories tells you something about the pent-up demand for longer, youthful lives. And he argues that there are similarities to the way people dress to impress, use make-up, or resort to cosmetic surgery to make themselves attractive. As he says: "Looking younger when you're older is no different to looking prettier when you're young."

Unsurprisingly, some have expressed ethical concerns about what de Grey is proposing. "People say ‘aren't you playing God by using technology to make people live longer?' The obvious answer is that, if that's the case, so was inventing the wheel. We are people who have the ability to improve our world if there's anything we don't like about it. God made us that way." de Grey plays down the level of resistance he's faced from religious groups in particular: "We're not talking about immortality here. If God still wants you to die you will, whether that's because of ageing or because you get hit by a truck. It's all the same to God. I've never – not once – had someone religious challenge that."

The secret to longer life

Each year, de Grey tells us over another beer, journalists traipse to the house of the oldest woman in the world on her birthday to ask her the secret to her long life. Each year, she comes up with a different answer. De Grey's favourite is that it was because she gave up smoking when she was 111.

For de Grey, the secret to longer life lies in the research lab. His predictions centre on work that is now getting underway on mice. Once the landmark point of "robust mouse rejuvenation" is reached, politicians and the public will no longer be able to ignore his claims. This will be achieved when mice that would have a normal lifespan of three years can be given therapies two-thirds of the way through their life that allow them to live until they are five. Funding of around £50 million a year for the next ten years is what's required to get us there, and de Grey expects it would take a further fifteen years for scientists to be able to transfer the therapies successfully from mice to humans.

Once mice have shown what could be achieved, "it's impossible to imagine public funding not coming. There's no way that government will be able to walk away from it. It would make them unelectable." De Grey likens the task of developing technologies for life extension to the Wright brothers' pioneering flying machines or the Apollo programme to send a man to the moon. "There's a fundamental difference between the creativity required to do science and the creativity involved in developing technology. You take the problems apart, divide them into manageable chunks and solve them."

Where does he think this funding might come from? "Public funding tends to be low risk, low gain. And technology funding from venture capital is too short term. What we need is funding that is ambitious and long term. That tends to come when national pride is at stake or when seriously rich people think it's cool."

It's the latter – an elite band of Silicon Valley millionaires and wealthy philanthropists – who are funding much of the research into life extension at the moment. We ask him whether people are right to be suspicious about the motivations of wealthy funders? Shouldn't there be more democratic oversight of such research? He shrugs his shoulders: "What's the point in being wealthy if you can't make a difference? I'm not worried if it only comes from that kind of source in the beginning. When we can show that it will work for mice, public funding will come."

At the moment, mainstream science funding eludes de Grey. But he's not too worried about it. "Because of my position as a theoretician, I can piss anybody off and not worry about the repercussions for my next grant application." Politics too remains a foreign world to him. "Politicians work with the art of the possible and they are still being told by people they trust that Aubrey de Grey is a complete fruitcake."

This is why he spends his time talking to journalists, even though as he says, "it's exhausting". De Grey's aim is to "lower the activation energy", so that the move from fruitcake to mainstream for his brand of biogerontology happens more quickly. "I'm doing what comes naturally to me; just playing to my strengths. I think I'm good at enthusing people and I think I'm a good scientist. I'm not a politician or a social scientist and I'm no good at not pissing people off."

But though he admits there aren't any votes in it yet, de Grey is convinced that politicians and policy-makers should think about life extension now rather than later. "Most policymakers get interested in therapies when they're at the human trial stage. That's wrong. They need to think about these things when we're at the mice stage, if not before. Life extension could go from zero to infinity faster than the web. It will have a massive impact on the way that people live and plan their lives. Just think about how tricky it's going to be to retain people in vital but risky jobs – like the fire service or the army. Everybody's going to be doing their best to live long enough to live forever."

A public conversation

We shake hands outside the pub and Aubrey unlocks his bike, spins it around and heads off through Cambridge's narrow streets. Sitting on the train back to London, we admit that we are more impressed than we expected to be. De Grey's media persona, reflected in the growing canon of articles about him, fails to do justice to the subtleties of his position, and the strategic flair with which he is influencing a debate that may, just may, turn out to be one of the defining issues of our time. He is acutely aware of what he's doing. And whether scientists agree with him or not, there's no doubt that he is playing an important role. As biogerontologist Jay Olshansky says: "I am a big fan of Aubrey. We need him. I disagree with some of his conclusions, but in science that's OK. That's what advances the field."

Science isn't a clean, logical endeavour pursued by individuals who interact only through peer-reviewed journals. It's a messy mixture of experimentation, argument and debate. And when it meets politics it becomes messier still. It is every scientist's responsibility to shape and be shaped by what society wants from science, to listen to the public and to take its concerns seriously. Whatever one may feel about his theories, this is something that Aubrey de Grey is doing in a quite unique and valuable way.

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