I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A few questions about living longer

I watched a show on Discovery the other night about prolonging human life. The show laid out a semi-plausible scenario by which a middle aged person today might possibly survive for the next thousand years. Some of the technology is almost certainly heading our way in the next few decades, such as growing new organs from stem cells. Other bits, such as being able to move a human personality from cloned body to cloned body, are most likely pure fantasy.

Watching the show, I had two questions:

1. Who's paying for all this? Let's suppose that we can grow new hearts, lungs, and livers that are genetically perfect matches that have no risk of rejection. This certainly can't come cheap. Today, the technical difficulties of organ transplants presents a serious obstacle to them being more widespread. The difficulty of finding a suitable donor, plus the dangers of rejection, make organ transplants a tough call even if you're wealthy. Due to the risks, the people who need them most probably wait until they are too sick for the transplant to really help them. But, if people in their forties and fifties, in relatively good health save for early heart disease, can have a new heart grown for them that will genetically be part of thier body, I imagine the demand would jump tremendously.

Some costs would probably fall. You wouldn't need extensive follow up treatment with anti-rejection drugs, for instance. But, other costs would almost definitely rise. Until they build a robot capable of the job, the number of surgeons capable of performing a heart transplant is probably going to be fairly small. The way to attract more surgeons into the field would be to increase salaries. Increasing salaries means increasing costs.

Insurance companies will almost certainly be mandated by law to cover these expenses, which means that the cost is going to get passed on to everyone. Is there a point where the cost of paying for all potential life saving treatments begins to hurt everyone's standard of living? If my current insurance costs tripled, could I still afford a mortgage?

2. Let's magically wave our hands and say that everything will be paid for without pain. Advances in robotics and computing are rapid enough that human surgeons become a thing of the past and we now have armies of robo-surgeons operating 24/7, paying for themselves after a hundred surguries, and driving the cost of open heart surgury down to about what it costs to have a tooth filled. It's not impossible--look at the cost curve for laser eye surgury, once several thousand dollars an eye, now a few hundred.

Now, people can keep swapping out thier major organs, and life expectancy sky-rockets. People start living healthy lives to 110, 120, 130. Are people going to still expect to retire at 65? Are we going to raise the retirement age to 100? How many careers can support someone for 75 years or more? You might think you're sitting pretty as a heart surgeon, then, boom, along comes a robot that does your job better. Maybe you work for a major coporation like Wachovia. Your jobs safe until... what's that? Wachovia was sold to Wells Fargo? Never mind.

If I keep writing, will novels I'm writing then be better, or is there a point where any artist would be doomed to become a parody of himself? Would it be routine for people to start new careers at fifty, sixty, or eighty? What's the job market going to look like when eighty year olds are suddenly as hungry for entry level positions at twenty year olds?

I don't want to be overly negative. Obviously, there are huge upsides to living longer. On a personal level, I'd love to be able to spend the extra decades in good health with my loved ones. On a social level, maybe politicians who are fifty, sixty, and seventy years old might think about the consequences of thier policies fifty years from now if they thought they'd actually be around to experience the effects.

It could happen. You never know.

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