Big Think Interview with Aubrey de Grey
Aubrey de Grey, PhD, is Chairman and Chief Science Officer of the Methuselah Foundation. The core of his research is the identification of all forms of cellular and molecular damage whose accumulation contributes to human aging, and the design of interventions to remove, repair, replace, or render harmless all such damage so as to arrest or even reverse the biological aging process. He has published extensively on these and other areas of gerontology in the scientific literature, and is also Editor-in-Chief of the high-impact journal Rejuvenation Research, the only peer-reviewed academic journal focusing on intervention in aging.
Question: How old were you when you learned people don’t live forever?
Aubrey de Grey: I really don’t know how old I was when I became aware of aging and death. Certainly, it was in early childhood. The realization of that is so long ago that I can’t identify it, and the realization that other people were not terribly bothered about it was the thing that came much later.
Question: When did you focus your career on defeating aging?
Aubrey de Grey: I was around 29, 30 when I decided to switch fields from my original field of artificial intelligence into working in biomedical gerontology, and it was a result of the discovery that biologists by in large were not terribly interested in doing anything about aging which was an enormous shock to me.
Question: How old are you and how long do you expect to live?
Aubrey de Grey: I’m currently 46 and how long I live is of course a very difficult question, how I expect to live, because it depends whether therapies that I think we’re going to develop to combat aging come along soon enough for me. The reason it’s a complicated question is because theses therapies are bona fide rejuvenation therapies; therapies that will actually take us back to a lower biological age than what we are when the therapies are initiated, so that means we’ll be buying time progressively, and as the therapies improve, we’ll be able to buy more and more time. So there’s a very strong concept of a cusp where if we make it then we really make it, and if we don’t, really don’t, so in other words, the probability distribution shall we say of how long I expect to live is bimodal. If I don’t make the cut, then I expect to live not much longer than the current original longevity, so perhaps I’ll live to 90, 95. I’m doing pretty well in terms of my own aging at the moment, so I’ll probably live more than 80 but that sort of number, and if I do make the cut, there’s no answer because I could live indefinitely.
Question: Will this cusp come soon?
Aubrey de Grey: I think that there’s a 50/50 chance that it will come in around 25 years which will be just about in time for me.
Question: What we you doing personally to retard aging?
Aubrey de Grey: The things that I do to extend my life are actually very minimal. I really look after the problems associated with the risk of death at an early age, so you know I wear a seat belt even in the back seat. I don’t accept seminar invitations to dangerous countries; things like that. I don’t do anything much in terms of standard health things like supplements and you know getting a lot of exercise for example, and the main reason I don’t is because I’m doing very well already. The thing about the human body is we understand it extraordinarily poorly, and therefore, the worst thing we could possibly is over generalize to try to say you know we should just do the things that seem to work for everybody. The best way to live a long time these days is simply to pay attention to your body and do what works, so if you’re unlucky, if you’ve drawn some short straws genetically or whatever so that you’re developing some aspects of aging at an unusually rapid rate or even at an average rate; then yes there things we can do marginally improve that, to marginally to delay those things, but if you’re doing exceptionally well already, then it makes sense to follow the maxim that if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, and that’s basically what I do; I stick to what works.
Question: So you eat normally?
Aubrey de Grey: I eat normally. I don’t take any supplements. I only take whatever exercise seems appropriate for me, and I do that because it works for me. I don’t put on any weight. My body composition is very good. My blood numbers are extremely good in every way, so it would not make sense for me to try to make what’s already very good even better because we’re risking making it worse through things we don’t know.
Question: What does it mean to die of natural causes?
Aubrey de Grey: The phrase natural causes is a very strange one really. Ultimately what it means is someone who dies of natural causes, they die of aging in a way that has not been given an additional name, so when someone dies of cardiovascular disease for example from a heart attack or a stroke, they die of aging just the same as someone does who died of natural causes. It’s just that the last stage of what they die of is given a separate name, a particular disease for example, so really it’s just a matter of terminology the difference between dying of natural causes and dying of some other specifically named thing that doesn’t really often affect young adults.
Question: Is Alzheimer’s something that we would all get if we lived long enough?
Aubrey de Grey: All of the major diseases of old age; the ones that predominantly effect people of an older age are things that we would all get if we didn’t get one of the others; if we didn’t die of something else first, so this applies to Alzheimer’s disease; it applies to cardiovascular disease; it applies to most cancers; it applies to Type 2 diabetes – all the things that are the major killers of people in old age are things that result from the gradual accumulation, lifelong accumulation of precursors of those diseases. And those precursors continue to accumulate as inevitable side effects of normal living of normal metabolism, so that means that inevitably we’re gonna get them once we live long enough just as long as we don’t die of something else first.
Question: What are the biggest barriers to defeating again?
Aubrey de Grey: The barriers to defeating aging are not easily definable in terms of diseases. Really because the diseases of old age; the things that kill us in the final stages of our life are the consequences of lifelong accumulation of damage. The cause and effect relationships are very complex, so there are a number of different things that accumulate throughout life, and they each affect all of the eventual causes of death to some extent. So we can say that for example the accumulation of mutations is the main thing that causes cancer. But there are other things that exacerbate the rate of progression of cancer that minimize our ability to fight against cancer; for example the decline of the immune system which doesn’t have anything to do with mutations, so you know there’s a great deal of complexity in the causal relationships there.
Question: Is there a realistic route to defeating cancer one and for all?
Aubrey de Grey: I think that cancer is by the far the hardest part of aging to fix. It is of course a part of aging for the reasons I just gave. It’s part of the later stages of aging in that it results from the accumulation of a constellation of mutations; all of which happen independently of each other, and it is very, very hard because it has natural selection on its side so to speak, so every cell in a cancer is a furnace of genetic ingenuities so of speak, trying to evade what the body throws at it. But I think, yes, I think that we have a respectable chance of truly defeating cancer. I just think that we have to give cancer the respect it deserves and understand that the way we’re gonna do it is something really rather elaborate. The proposal that I’ve put forward involve controlling the ability of self to divide indefinitely in a manner that also has big, bad side effects on our ability to maintain certain of our tissues, in particular the blood and the gut and the skin, but I have identified that it’s going to be reasonably realistic to compensate for those side effects using stem cell therapy, and that’s why I think that this approach is the most promising for defeating cancer.
Question: What is the time frame for this?
Aubrey de Grey: The most difficult components of the grand plan that I’ve put together for combating aging are really very difficult, and I think that it might take 25 years for us to put them all in place. Now any technology whether it’s biomedical or anything that’s that far off of course the time frames are extremely speculative, so I would put that 25 year mark as my 50/50 estimate. I think we have a 50/50 chance of getting there in that time frame, but I fully accept that we might get unlucky; we might hit a bunch of unforeseen problems, and it might takes us a 100 years. I’d say there’s at least a 10 percent chance of that, but you know 50 percent is quite good enough to be worth fighting for.
Question: Are lab animals teaching us how to defeat cancer?
Aubrey de Grey: It’s always very, very important to pay close attention to similarities and the differences between the laboratory animal and a human, so there are papers in top scientific journals all the time talking about improvements and understanding of aging in model organisms and of course improvements in actually exploiting that understanding by causing those animals to live longer, and those scientific breakthroughs get an awful lot of attention in the mainstream media as well and so they should. But in order to understand how they relate to the potential to extend human life, we have to look at the details a lot. Cancer is a fine example; mice get cancer; we get cancer. Bingo, it sounds good doesn’t it? It sounds like we can learn an awful lot about how to treat cancer in humans by looking at what works against cancer in mice; turns out to be very much not the case. We really have to look at the details of what’s going on, so you can make mice that are more like humans than normal in the way in which the way they get cancer, but you have to make genetic changes to them for them. And if you just study normal mice in terms of cancer, you can get easily misled, and that has certainly happened a lot.
Question: Where do find the most resistance to your ideas about immortality?
Aubrey de Grey: There are two types of resistance that I encounter, and they’re very different from each other. In the wider world, I encounter knee-jerk resistance about the desirability of postponing aging, and this arises principally from the way that it’s portrayed in the media. In the media, there’s a tendency to try to make everyone feel, if you like, comfortable with what they’re hearing or what they’re reading, and the whole prospect of postponing aging doesn’t make people feel comfortable because they’re worried that it won’t be in time for them, so there’s a tendency in the media to try and portray this a little bit as entertainment, as science fiction and to be a bit tongue-in-cheek about it. And the way that tends to be done is by emphasizing the longevity aspect and using words like immortality in the title of articles; things like that. Whereas in fact, of course that’s the wrong emphasis; the emphasis ought to be on health because I don’t work on getting people to live a long time for the sake of living a long time. I work on keeping people healthy, and the only difference between what we do in my foundation and what the rest of the medical profession does is that we think we’ve got a respectable chance in the next few decades of keeping people healthy so well that they will actually maintain the mortality rate; the risk of death per year that young adults have which means of course as a completely adventitious side benefit they will live on average a great deal longer than people live today, but that’s a side benefit; that’s a key thing. I work on keeping people healthy not on keeping people alive.
Within the medical professional, especially within the biologists profession, I encounter resistance mainly from gerontologists; people who call themselves gerontologists and feel that they are studying aging, and the reason I do is because the types of science, the types of medical intervention that I think are going to work against aging are ones that have not been developed within gerontology. They come under the general heading of regenerative medicine, and they’ve been developed and they are being developed mainly for the purposes of addressing other specific diseases and other conditions rather than aging. The people who work in regenerative medicine are very interested in the applicability of their work to aging, but the people who work in aging conversely are not very educated about what’s being done in regenerative medicine, and so they’re over pessimistic about what’s going to happen. And that’s why they tend to have over pessimistic reactions to what I say
Question: Where do you find the most support for your work?
Aubrey de Grey: Well, there are certain communities that seem to be particularly supportive and particularly active in their support, and actually it’s not all that easy to explain why. There are three communities that particularly are over represented among the supportive of this work. I’d say professionals, libertarians and Canadians; I just don’t get it, but that’s how it is, and you know as far as I’m concerned that’s great, but actually support is of course broadening all the time. In the scientific word, the support is broadening as we make progress in I guess mutual education and getting people who study aging and people who study regenerative medicine to talk to each other and to get a feel for the nature of the problems that are being worked on and the nature of the solutions that are emerging.
Question: How would radical life extension affect the world economy?
Aubrey de Grey: There are an awful lot of things that we don’t know at this point about what the world would like in a post-aging scenario where we no longer had aging, but one thing we can say pretty confidentially is that the economic benefits would be enormous and would vastly outweigh any economic turbulence that might arrive. The fundamental reason we can that is because aging is not just miserable; it’s also really, really expensive. The average person in the industrialized world, as long as they live over the age of about 60; they actually have more money spent on their medical care in the last year of their life than in the whole of the rest of their life put together, and that’s irrespective of how old they are when they die, and that’s just because they’re in a bad way during that last year. So we’re saving all that money by doing this, and of course, we’re spending some of that money by actually administering this preventative maintenance medicine sort to speak; this rejuvenation medicine that I’m talking about, but a fraction of it because prevention is better than cure—that’s just how it is. And of course that’s an underestimate of the situation because once people are maintaining youthful adult health however old they are; then of course they’re not just not consuming medical they’re also contributing wealth to the economy whether by staying in the workforce or by more indirect means, so the economic benefits will be absolutely immense.
Question: Wouldn’t we simply be delaying these expensive diseases?
Aubrey de Grey: So it’s really important to understand the concept of what I call longevity escape velocity here. When we postpone aging using techniques that slow down the rate of accumulation of these lifelong side effects of metabolism and thereby postpone the age at which pathology emerges and progresses; then we still have a period of life at the end where things are bad. And indeed that period may even be extended. But those aren’t the sorts of therapies that I’m working on. I’m working on therapies that actually reverse aging; that repair the various accumulating types of molecular and cellular damage, and therefore, we’re in a situation where we can postpone the onset of pathology. Now what that means is that we’re constantly buying time to actually postpone it more and more. As time goes on, the problem of postponing the onset of pathology becomes intrinsically harder because certain things that we still haven’t worked out how to fix are accumulating, and the reason we haven’t worked out how to fix them is because they’re intrinsically harder to fix, but set against that is our ability to improve the comprehensives of our technologies by simply doing more research and figuring out how to fix increasingly more difficult things. And my view is that by the time that we get to a point of even 30 years of postponement of aging the addition of 30 healthy years to the lives of people who are, let’s say, 60 when we start we will be there. We will be at the point where technology is moving forward easily fast enough to stay one step ahead of the problem indefinitely, so absolutely there will not be a period that will reach at the end of life where we still have this frailty and everything. We will simply live until we succumb to the sorts of things that young people succumb to today which of course predominantly are very rapid causes of death rather than chronic gradual ones.
Question: Would we be in danger of overpopulation issues?
Aubrey de Grey: One of the biggest things that comes up when we talk about sociological consequences of defeating aging is the possibility of overpopulation. Certainly it’s clear that if we were to develop these therapies and they were to be used worldwide then the overall global death rate would come down very sharply very quickly, and therefore, of course, the overall birth rate would have to come down too in order for us to avoid a population spike. Now the question then is how bad is that as a scenario; could we do it; would we do it and so on. Now I actually think that there’s lots of evidence to suggest that we won’t have a problem; that actually the birth rate will naturally come down fast enough that they’re won’t be a problem because for example it’s very likely that women who are currently in the industrialized world delaying the birth of their first child until their mid 30s or whatever will simply delay it more for the same reasons that they’re delaying that long already. They’ll delay it more when they can, in other words we when don’t have menopause anymore which is one of things that we’re going to have as a result of all of this, and that makes an enormous difference to the birth rate. Another thing that we need to bear in mind is that it’s actually not for us to decide, to anticipate what’s going to happen. What we should remember is that we already have a problem; we have a problem of 100,000 people dying every day and dying miserably as well from the problem of aging, so it’s our absolutely clear moral obligation to develop these therapies as soon as possible and give humanity of the future the option to use these therapies, and if they find that it’s really miserable having not very many children around and they prefer actually to have aging the way it’s always been; then that’s their choice. But if we don’t develop these therapies, then we’re imposing that choice on them and condemning them to an unnecessarily early and unnecessarily miserable death on the basis of our choices and that’s morally unacceptable.
Question: Should today’s health care debate include an anti-again discussion?
Aubrey de Grey: I think it’s absolutely essential that today’s health care debate should be looking at the prospect of combating aging and indeed the long term prospect of combating aging really thoroughly the way that I describe and the way that our research is moving towards. At the moment there is some effort on Capital Hill trying to make that happen, but the effort is far too marginal at the moment. It needs to be amplified enormously.
Question: Could expensive anti-aging treatments further stratify society?
Aubrey de Grey: I think that the chance of an increased or indeed even a maintained inequality in society with regard to access to medical treatments is very, very low indeed in the developed world and also actually in the, if you like, the second world so China and India for example which are going to be in the developed world by the time we’re talking about in a couple decades. The reason I think it’s extraordinarily unlikely is simply because being old and frail is really expensive for society. We spend an incredible amount of money on keeping people alive in a frail state for an extra couple of years after they get into that state, so it will be far better once we have the technology to spend a little bit of money stopping them from getting into that state in the first place and thereby preventing need to spend all this money on their medical care when they’re in a bad way. That of course is just one aspect of how economically important it will be to use these therapies on everybody.
Another aspect is that people who are healthy are in a position to carry on contributing wealth to society whether in the workforce or more indirectly as well as not consuming wealth by consuming medical care, so all in all it would be economically utterly suicidal for any nation that can afford it not to make this therapy available, free at the point of delivery to anybody, and that applies irrespective of the society’s idea to taxation or whatever. We can just look at basic education today. We can see that even in a real tax-averse society like the U.S.A. basic education is free for everybody. It’s free for everybody because it’s an absolutely important necessary investment in the nation’s future.
Question: Will extended life spans make people avoid risky jobs and activities?
Aubrey de Grey: I think there’s going to be a great deal of change in society with regard to priorities and with regard to attitudes to risk when we enter a post aging world and even when we enter a phase before that where a post aging world is widely anticipated. What’s gonna I happen, I think, is that some people are simply going to avoid doing risky things. You know it’s gonna be pretty hard to recruit people into the armed forces for example, and that’s in a lot of people’s eyes rather a good thing. However, it’s also going to be important to have people do risky things, and the way I think we’re going to address that problem is by making those things less risky by throwing more money at the problem sort to speak, more effort at the problem. A fine example actually probably bigger than the ones you just mentioned is infectious diseases. A lot of infectious diseases of course are dangerous to young adults; same as for anybody else, and therefore, they’ll be dangerous for chronologically old but biologically young adults, and you know we just don’t spend enough money on developing vaccines against infectious diseases. And the reason we don’t is really stupid; it’s just that vaccines are very profitable you know, and the only reason that’s enough reason not to work on them is because we don’t really care very much about the risk of death through infectious diseases in the developed world, and the reason we don’t care very much is because a very small minority of people actually die of them compared to number of people who die of aging. When death from aging is taken out of the equation of courses that’s no longer true, and I feel that we will rather rapidly ramp our efforts to ensure that we don’t die of infectious diseases either, and the same applies to risky jobs; same applies to road accidents. I think we’ll be driving much, much safer cars that have lots of features that ensure safety even in the context of severe human error; you know lots of things like that.
Question: Will those in an ageless society have a moral responsibility to keep living?
Aubrey de Grey: Well, I don’t think people have moral responsibility to continue living, but I do think that it’s natural for us to view suicide the way that we view it today. When a young adult feels that life is no longer worth living and they wanted to commit suicide, we think they have a problem; we think that it’s appropriate to help them. We’re very pleased that organizations like The Samaritans exist. Now I think that, that applies to people of any age who are healthy. At the moment, it’s reasonable that people as they’re getting older and sicker and generally more incapable, they can begin to effectively lose the will to live, and it’s reasonably appropriate that we should effectively let them do that because there’s nothing more we can do. It’s sort of part of palliative care in a way, but if we have the technology to keep people as healthy as they were in young adulthood and yet they still lose the will to will to live, then I think it would be appropriate for us to regard as psychological problem just as we do for people who are chronologically young adults today and to help them to see what options and opportunities life still has to offer them.
Question: What would be the impact of human immortality on religion?
Aubrey de Grey: Well, of course, the impact of so-called immortality on religion depends on whether you use the word immortality. And I have a lot of problems with the use of the word immortality to describe what I do because it’s taken by religion. Immortality means inability to die; it means inability to actually be killed by anything, and I don’t work on that. I work on stopping people from getting sick. I do not work on stopping people from being hit by trucks. So the question then comes what is the impact of postponing aging on religion, and there I think it’s very clear that the postponement of aging is not merely compatible with scripture it’s actually mandated by scripture because the fact is aging causes a hell of a lot of suffering. And scripture is very clear that suffering is something that it’s good to try to combat and bad not to try to combat, so you know we have a duty, a religious duty as well as moral duty to actually develop these therapies. People are still gonna die. If God wants you dead, he can hit you with a thunder bolt however healthy you are, so there’s no impact on distorting God’s will or anything. There’s no impact on like doing things that are unnatural. The fact is it’s unnatural for the human race not to try to improve their environment. If it was it’s unnatural to try to defeat aging, then it must be unnatural to invented fire and the wheel and all and vaccines and so on, and nobody seems to think that, that was a sin.
Question: What key breakthroughs need to happen to achieve longevity escape velocity?
Aubrey de Grey: The big news is that there are no massive breakthroughs. There are no fundamental gaps in what we need to do. There are only lots of little gaps, so what I do when I describe what we need to have developed in order to defeat aging I divide all of the various problems of aging into seven major categories, and I describe the ways in which we’ll address those categories. And the good news is that we can describe each of those solutions to these problems in a lot of detail already in terms of what we’ve already got in place and the things that we need to refine; the things that we need to take forward, so I would have to give you a long list of little things that we would have to do. There are no fundamental breakthroughs.
Question: Can you name a few?
Aubrey de Grey: OK. So for example one thing that we need to do is improve the safety and efficacy of gene therapy. We need to figure out better ways to get DNA into a higher proportion of ourselves than we can already. Now you may think, well that is actually a fundamental breakthrough, but actually it’s not. The only reason why it looks fundamental right now is because we don’t like to do clinical trials on things that don’t work very well. We’re actually really good at gene therapy already in life, so we’re getting pretty close. Another example is the identification of enzymes that can break down things, molecular garbage that accumulates in the body; things that cause cardiovascular disease and macular degeneration and watching other things like that. We’re already finding those enzymes. We’ve got to figure out good ways to make those enzymes work in mammalian cells but they nearly work already, so again, it’s relatively small advances.
Question: Is resveratrol an important anti-aging discovery?
Aubrey de Grey: Resveratrol is a very interesting compound, and it’s role in the what’s called the “French Paradox” which is the fact that the French have a reasonably higher life expectancy even though they are ostensibly don’t eat the right diet. It’s really the French Paradox is still very controversial. It appears that resveratrol is actually far too weak a compound in terms of its metabolic effects to have any real role in this, so we don’t know really what’s going on there. However, the mechanism whereby resveratrol or things like it might have an affect is now reasonably well accepted; namely that it seems to be a mimic of calorie restriction, so it’s been known for 70 or 80 years that if you take rodents, and indeed now it’s known for lots of other species, and you feed them less than they would like then they live longer than they otherwise would. And this is not just a matter of avoiding obesity; there’s something more than that going on. So what’s been found is that certain chemicals including resveratrol, as long as their concentration is high enough, can actually trick the body into thinking it’s not getting as many calories as it would like even when it actually is. And this of course is the sort of thing that we would very much like to identify in order to allow people to benefit from calorie restriction without having the attendant hunger and general loss of quality of life that most people would experience in the hunger situation.
Now it remains to be seen whether calorie restriction itself let alone these mimics of calorie restriction can actually extend human life, and I’m actually somewhat on the pessimistic end of the spectrum there. I think that yes it will work but only a little bit, much less than well than it worked in shorter lived organisms - the various circumstantial data and also various strong arguments from evolutionary biology that suggest that. But I could be wrong—so I’m very pleased that people are working hard on this and are trying to develop molecules that will indeed trick the body into thinking it’s on calorie restriction, and indeed the people who identified resveratrol first as a mimic of calorie restriction have moved on to identifying analogs which are much, much more potent and whose affects may indeed be appropriate for this.
Question: What are your recommendations for people that want to live longer?
Aubrey de Grey: My general recommendation for getting people to live as long as they can in the context of what’s available already today is; 1.) pay attention to our body. Identify what’s going wrong; what you can feel is going wrong if you actually can pay attention. 2.) just do the obvious things that you know you’re mother told you – don’t smoke, don’t get overweight; you know get a balanced diet and 3.) in so far as you find that there are things that are going wrong, read literature. Don’t come to me because I don’t work on things we can do already; go to the many people, many very expert people out there who do but over generalize; don’t do something just because it’s supposed to be good for most people. Identify what’s wrong with you and what’s right with you, and of course, the more detailed the tests you can get to identify how you’re aging; you know what’s going on in your blood for example the better. You don’t necessarily have to do that every year; even doing it once will give you a thousand times more information than you could without the tests.
Question: Are you worried about climate change or other disasters ending humanity before we defeat aging?
Aubrey de Grey: I think actually humanity’s attitude to big problems like climate change or, you know, world peace, things like that, are likely to benefit a great deal from progress in combating aging. Of course, we might get unlucky. You know we might be overwhelmed in some way by climate change or indeed by the next world war before we make decisive progress against aging or indeed before we get into a state of realizing that decisive progress is coming. But so long as we just hold off for a little while, I think that actually the situation will be the other way around. I think that progress in combating aging will really change humanity’s attitude to itself; humanity’s attitude to its ability to make decisive humanitarian progress in the long term because the fact is we’ve been trying to defeat aging for an awfully long time; ever since civilization emerged really, and we haven’t got very far, and it has, if you like, ground us down. It’s made us fatalists. It’s made us – it lowered our expectations about our own abilities. That’s all going to change when we make decisive progress against aging. It’s going to empower humanity and allow us to raise our sights and believe that we can actually address other hard problems.
I think at that the moment with climate change we have a very clear example of this. There’s clearly one problem above all that that’s the efforts to improve how we treat the climate facing and that is apathy. People just don’t want to get involved and active, and that’s because either they think, “well there’s nothing we can do; it’s all going to go to hell in hand basket anyway,” or they think, “well technology will come along and save us sometime in the future at the last moment; therefore, we don’t need to worry about doing anything now.” And of course sometimes both of those answers are correct, but sometimes we’re in that little gray area in the middle where in the middle where we can make a difference, and maybe that little gray area is not so little, and I think it’s very important for humanity in general to understand that they need to do what they can to improve the chances of success and the chances of making a big impact. It’s as I said not just climate change; it’s true for world peace; it’s true for all manner of things.
Question: What keeps you up at night?
Aubrey de Grey: I’m not a worrier actually. I figure I’ve got an extraordinarily privileged life. I’ve been able to get into a position of making a very substantial difference to the world’s biggest problem, and you know as a scientist as someone who likes working on hard problems you can’t get much better than that, so I’m pretty content with my life.
Question: Are you worried about dying?
Aubrey de Grey: I don’t really think about my personal fate except in so far I don’t want to anytime soon because I want to carry on making a big difference to the world and also because I’m enjoying my life, but my own life span, my own mortality, doesn’t really figure in my calculations. I mainly think about the effect that I’m having on the world in general, and that’s really for mathematical reasons because, let’s face it, the therapies that I’m working to hasten are gonna happen sometime anyway. What I’m doing is getting them to happen sooner, and if we ask how much difference am I personally making, then you know even in extraordinarily optimistic scenario I’m certainly not making more than 10 years difference to the date at which these therapies are going to emerge, so that means that I’m not making more than 10 or 15 percent difference to my probability of making the cut right.
Now it’s very easy to get worked up about 10 or 15 percent, and I could say the same if I were thinking about my wife for example or my mother or whatever, but if I’m thinking about people in general, then I can think about the fact that 100,000 a day are dying in a horrible way from the thing called aging. And if I were to bring forward the defeat of aging even by one day, that would be 30 World Trade Centers of lives that I’m saving, and it’s very easy to get worked up about that.
Question: What’s the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome in your work?
Aubrey de Grey: I’ve been extremely lucky when it’s come to encountering and overcoming obstacles in my work. When I was working in artificial intelligence, I was essentially learning how to do research, and I could easily have become disillusioned if I had long periods of lack of progress which most researchers do in their formative years when they’re doing their PhDs and so on. I was very lucky that I was able to make modest breakthroughs sufficiently frequently to keep my spirits up sort of speak and to give myself the sort of intellectual resilience that one needs in order to work on really hard problems. Once I’ve got into working on the biology of aging, I’ve been facing both scientific problems and of course political and other problems in persuading people that my work is worthwhile, but again, I’ve been able to make steady progress in both areas. So I really haven’t had big obstacles, big if you like psychological barriers to keeping going and maintaining my morale.
Question: What’s the worst career advice you’ve ever received?
Aubrey de Grey: The worst piece of career advice that I’ve been given probably is advice not to get my hopes up. Some people say well you know if you aim really high and you try to let’s say get a particularly high flying job then you’re gonna probably fail, and you’re gonna be disappointed, and it’s gonna like set you back and you’re not gonna do so well. That’s never been me. I’ve always been the sort of person where if I aim high and something goes wrong and I don’t succeed on one particular task or one particular ambition then it doesn’t bother me in the slightest. I learn from it; I move on; I try again. I’ve never had more problem of that sort, so I figure that may be true for some people, but it sure as hell as never been true for me.
Question: What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received?
Aubrey de Grey: I think actually the things that have helped me most in my career have not been so much advice. They’ve been things that happened in very formative ages. First of all I was brought up by my mother as a single parent, and she gave me an enormous really strong desire to learn; desire to understand the world, and specifically, she gave me a very strong desire; I don’t know how she did this, but a very strong desire to understand myself. So I became a scientist largely through introspection; largely through realizing at a relatively young age, maybe even nine or ten that somehow what I wanted to do with my life was to make a difference to the world, and it was easy to move there into an understanding that being a scientist was the most effective way to do that; you know that sort of thing. So it all really came from an early age; so early I can’t really call it advice.
Question: Describe an ethical dilemma you’ve faced in your life.
Aubrey de Grey: I’m not really a philosopher; I’m not really an ethicist, and it’s in particular I always get rather irritated when people suggest that there are ethical dilemmas associated with combating aging. I feel there are certainly plenty of psychological dilemmas – you know religious, economic and so on, but when it comes to the moral obligation or the moral issues plus or minus with regard to combating aging, I always feel that the issues are completely unequivocal, and really for me that’s been true throughout my life. I guess the best example I can use where it was a little bit of certainty was with regard to my views about whether God exists; you know whether I should be religious or not. On that really my decision was not to make a decision, so way back in my teens when this sort of thing is on people’s minds I guess I came to the conclusion that well okay what’s the difference; how would I run my life differently; how would I behave differently if I were religious versus if I were not religious, and I realized that there was no difference at all; that I already had decided that what I wanted to do with my life was to benefit humanity, to make a difference to the quality of life of people in general, and I realized that that’s fundamentally what scripture tells you to do in pretty much all religions. So I thought well okay why does it matter and therefore I have not in my view wasted my time trying to come to a decision on that.
Question: So you’re agnostic?
Aubrey de Grey: So I guess the best way to describe my own view is I’m agnostic.
Recorded on: October 2, 2009
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