Avoid Aging Through Technology with Aubrey de Grey

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TSP 161 | Defeating Biological AgingEpisode Summary:

The Laws of Physics is the number one cause of aging. This means that it doesn’t matter if the subject is biologically alive or not, everything is subject to aging caused mainly by the damage that occurs through the normal operation of a subject through a natural course of time. As Aubrey de Grey would put it, if we can fix a car or an air plane when its parts are damaged and defective, we can do so too with the human body. But the human is different from a machine so defeating biological aging, while it is possible with today’s technology and as it progresses, will not happen overnight.

Today’s guest on The Successful Pitch is Aubrey de Grey, who is the Founder of SENS, Sens.org. His whole research and philosophy is we can stop aging by figuring out how to repair and rebuild the cells in our body, much like a car or an airplane gets replaced with new engines. He has a very controversial premise that we could live to be as long as a thousand years, but it won’t happen overnight. He’s given a TED Talk that has over 3 million views, and he is a speaker around the world talking about how we can deal with aging and then the implications that it may or may not have on overpopulation. He’s got some great insights on whether you should choose to freeze your body or not, and about changing people’s whole thought process of, “Will I be bored if I was to live longer than a certain age?” Find out what he has to say.

Listen To The Episode Here

Avoid Aging Through Technology with Aubrey de Grey

I’m honored to have Aubrey de Grey, who’s a British gerontologist who’s drawn a roadmap to defeat biological aging. As an English biomedical gerontologist, he claims that humans can live for a thousand years. Through his foundation, he’s drawn a roadmap to defeat this biological aging that we all simply take for granted as a given. He first authored research that claimed the indefinite postponement of aging may be within sight back in 2002. In fact, he’s given a TED Talk on this. It’s got over 3 million views. I’ve watched it myself. I’ve had the honor and privilege of sitting next to him at a lunch, and he’s captivating and fascinating. In the fifteen years since, his reputation among the scientists has moved from being one of somewhat of a ridicule to being one of the most powerful and respected in the industry. In 2009, he formed the public non-profit SENS, which stands for Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence, and has enlisted millions in support from a handful of billionaires and entrepreneurs including Peter Thiel, Jason Hope, and Michael Greve. Welcome to the show, Aubrey.

Thanks for having me.

You are certainly someone who is disruptive. In the startup world, that’s what everyone is looking for. Let’s start with your own background. I’d love to ask my guests their own story of origin. Take us back to when you were growing up in England and how you first thought of your interest in whether it was biology or aging in general.

My original interest in aging did not begin when I was a kid. The reason it didn’t was because I didn’t think there was any disagreement about it. I went through my first 25 or more years of life assuming that everybody understood that aging is the world’s most important problem, and that people in biology and in medical research would be working as hard as possible to try to fix it. I only became aware that that wasn’t true when I met and married a biologist who’s a lot older than me. She was already a full professor in San Diego, and through her, I met a lot of other biologists. I discovered that none of them thought that aging was particularly important or particularly interesting, and I was completely gobsmacked by this. I had no idea that that could possibly be the case. After a couple of years of gradually coming to terms with it, I came to the conclusion that I had to switch fields. I was previously working in artificial intelligence per se, which is another area where I felt that there was a serious problem for humanity. It’s the problem of having to spend so much of one’s time doing stuff that one wouldn’t do unless one was being paid for it, but we need more automation to fix that. That was clearly only the world’s second most important problem. I was in a fortunate position where I was able to switch fields easily to construct a whole new career for myself in my spare time.

Are there some similarities in what you’re doing with artificial intelligence with your initial interest in anti-aging? I don’t know if anti-aging is even the right term. Is artificial intelligence helping in your research?

In the early stages after I switched fields, it definitely helped a lot. What I was able to do was approach the problem of aging in a way that benefited from my own background. It was a very different background from what everybody else in the field had. All the people had been biologists all their lives. I was able to be more of an engineer, to think in terms of putting two and two together in different ways than what typical career biologists would do. A number of the ideas I put forward in the first few years of my entry into gerontology were things that were well-received. The career biologists were saying, “This guy is from a completely different area and he’s come in and he happens to have the ideas that we ought to have had. He must be very smart,” so I rose to a level of quite general respect very quickly indeed in gerontology. Then after five years or so in the field, I started to become a serious troublemaker, and things changed a bit, but here we are.

Let’s talk about how you got approached to do your TED Talk and tell us that story and why you think so many people have watched it.

I got approached because I was asked to speak in 2003 at a TED-like conference called PopTech, which happens every year in Camden, Maine up in the extreme northeast. Chris Anderson, the guy who runs TED, was there. He was scouting for speakers and he saw my talk and he thought, “This guy could be good,” so that’s how I ended up speaking at TED. It was the combination of a rather rapid sequence over a period of only a year or two of moving from being known only by people who would call themselves futurists through to speaking as increasingly mainstream thing. The reason why it’s been so popular is because everybody wants to know about aging and about whether we’re going to fix it. The problem is that they still also want to maintain some emotional distance from the question, not think about it except as entertainment.

Let’s talk about some of the challenges that people have. When we were talking at lunch, you said you come up with something where you would just say to someone, “What if I could give you an extra ten years, would you be interested then?,” which seems to be a little bit more of a bite-sized concept versus living to be a thousand.

It’s difficult to square the circle for me, because you’re absolutely right that when one talks about modest postponement of aging, one gets a very different reception than if one talks about indefinite postponement. However, I have two difficulties that I have to grapple with if I attempt that. The first one is that there are lots of other people out there talking about modest postponement of aging. I need to get people to listen to me and understand that what I’m proposing is more realistic and has greater potential than what other people are suggesting. The other problem I have is that as a scientist, I have trouble not telling the truth. If I know perfectly well that the technologies that we’re working on do have the potential to deliver indefinite postponement of aging, I cannot go on stage or on camera and say, “This will give us ten years,” and if someone said, “Why wouldn’t it give us a hundred years?,” because I’ve waved my hand.

Have you had to learn or craft your storytelling skills to get people to understand the science?

[Tweet “If you can’t explain it clearly, you don’t understand it.”]

I have. The thing about anything in science or technology is, I think Francis Crick was the person who said this best, he said, “If you can’t explain your work to a waitress or to a non-specialist, then you don’t understand it yourself.” I certainly haven’t found it all that difficult. I have increasingly refined the way in which I tell the story, the way in which I introduce the ideas just by trial and error, but by and large, making it simple enough to be comprehensible to non-specialists has not been too difficult.

Tell us how your organization SENS started.

The first organization that we began was the Methuselah Foundation. That was the organization, 501(c)(3) public charity, that I founded together with a guy named Dave Gobel back in 2003. Back then, I was pretty much unknown. That was a couple of years before my TED Talk. We had no money, so we couldn’t fund research. What we could do was get the word out, to raise the profile of this whole field. The way we did it was by creating this organization that administered a prize. We would say, “If you can beat the world record for mouse longevity, then we will give you some money.” Of course the amount of money that we were able to give would depend on how much money people gave us to increase the prize pot. This worked rather well, and we were able to bring in millions of dollars over the first couple of years in which we ran this thing.

Around 2005 or so, we started to use some of that money to fund research, because we had structured the prize in such a way that there was no way we would need to give it all out, whatever happened in terms of breaking the world record. We got to a point around 2007 to 2008, where we would do these two activities. We were running these prizes, and also we were doing quite a bit of research. We wanted people to give us money for each of those things, and it worked, but we were not bringing very much money in terms of growing the rate of growth. We were not accelerating. This was a source of great surprise to us, because we had in 2006 brought in one very high profile and very large donor in the form of Peter Thiel, who founded PayPal and was an early investor in Facebook. Around 2007 or 2008, he was riding high in other ventures as well. He had a hedge fund that was outperforming absolutely everybody else.

When I brought him on board, my take was that my fundraising job is done. A billionaire will be lining up. Of course it didn’t happen. Eventually around 2008, we decided that the main thing that we were doing wrong was we were giving schizophrenic messaging. We felt that we had to be quite glitzy and populist and superficial while we’re selling the prize, because the idea was to get people interested who didn’t want to know about science and they were just enthused. At the same time, we had to be the opposite. We have to be very staid and serious when we were talking about science that we were funding and getting people convinced that we were funding the correct science.In the end, a solution, which was a bit drastic, but everybody concluded in hindsight that it had been the right thing to do, was to split the foundation in two. We created SENS Research Foundation as an offshoot from the Methuselah Foundation. Both organizations very much still exist and we obviously have identical missions and we talk to each other a lot, but no overlap of personnel. I am the Chief Science Officer of SENS Research Foundation, but I only have an advisory role at Methuselah.

That’s such a valuable takeaway for everybody, because when you are pitching to get someone to join your team, pitching to get hired, or pitching to get your startup funded, if you have schizophrenic messaging, you confuse people. I find, more often than not, that the confused mind just says no without asking for clarification, because people are sometimes embarrassed to ask, “I don’t understand this.” Regarding aging as if I am a fifth grader or a waiter that you’re speaking to, what would you say is the number one cause that causes our bodies to age as we spend more time on the planet?

The number one cause of aging is the law of physics. In other words, aging is not something that is specific to living organism. It is fundamentally the same process in a living organism as it is in any simple inanimate man-made machine like a car or an airplane. It’s just a fact of physics that any machine with moving parts, whether or not it’s alive, is going to do itself damage as a consequence of its normal operation. That damage is going to start to be self-inflicted right from the beginning when the machine is created, and it is going to carry on accumulating throughout the lifetime of the machine. Any machine is set up to tolerate a certain amount of damage without a significant impact in performance, but only a certain amount. Eventually the amount of damage accumulates beyond that threshold, and the machine stops working so well, and eventually it stops working at all.

TSP 161 | Defeating Biological Aging

Defeating Biological Aging: Any machine is set up to tolerate a certain amount of damage without a significant impact in performance, but only a certain amount.

I love that. Your car can get in an accident and still be fixed. You might need new tires, and after a certain mileage, you might need a new engine. In the case of a human, we might need a new heart or this new technology, the stem cells, that might help us fix what’s decaying. Is that accurate?

That is accurate. That means when we want to drill down to the question of how we go about keeping people healthy in old age, we just have to characterize what damage the body is doing to itself in the course of its normal operation, and figure out ways to repair each of those types of damage. Of course the human body is much more complicated than a car or an airplane or any simple man-made machine, and therefore the types of damage are also many and varied. That’s why we haven’t been able to do it yet. The question then is how complicated it is and how hard is it. The central message of SENS, which I first put forward in 2000, is that the damage is complicated, but it’s manageable. We can essentially describe the taxonomy of damage, where all the various types of damage fall into seven major categories, and for each category, there is a generic approach to implementing this repair.

You have this wonderful way of phrasing adding on chunks of time. Your prediction of four digits comes from the second phase, where you say if you’re 60 and you get this therapy that makes you biologically 30. Then by the time you’re biologically 60 again, you’re chronologically 90. Can you expand on that a little bit? Because that whole premise is easier for us to digest in chunks like that and it’s fascinating.

It is very much very often oversimplified and sensationalized and that is one of the big messaging problems that I’ve always had. The therapies that we are working on are therapies that will repair damage in the body fairly well, but they will certainly not be 100% comprehensive and perfect. In other words, they will fix most of the damage that the body does to itself, but there will be bits of difficult damage that the body is still accumulating because the therapies just don’t work on them. That means that if we implement this therapy, it doesn’t matter how often we apply them, we could be applying them every year to the same people and eliminating most of the damage each year. Nevertheless, after the age of 90, the person is still going to be biologically 60 rather than 30, because the difficult damage that the therapy doesn’t work on will have accumulated so that it’s overall load is as much as a regular 60-year old today would have when the difficult damage and the easy damage added together.

That means that by the time this person who gets the therapy at age 60 is chronologically 90, we had better have improved therapies, because the first therapy won’t work anymore. The good news of course is that 30 years is a very long time in technology, including medical technology, which means that the chances are vanishingly low that we will not have made such an improvement enough to be able to ensure that this person will not be biologically 60 for the third time until they are chronologically 150 or whatever. However, what it means is that when people don’t put any of that detail into a description of what I say, then the way it comes over is that I say people alive today have a good chance of living to a thousand. People think that what I’m saying is that within the next couple of decades, we will have the therapies that will allow them to live to a thousand, which in fact I’m not saying that at all. I’m saying that we will simply stay one step ahead of the problem as time goes on.

It’s a huge distinction. Let me ask you another question. How do you see this being implemented? Would it only be the billionaires and people like that who can afford to have these therapies, not the entire population will be extending their lifetime until it gets to a tipping point?

I’m absolutely certain that these therapies will be available to everybody who is old enough to need them almost instantly after they become available to anybody. The reason I’m sure of that is because we will see them coming. The difference between this technology and technologies that have come into existence in the past is that those technologies have come into existence suddenly. Nobody saw them coming. Society hasn’t prepared to make the most of them and we have to get there incrementally by the technology being progressively improved and made cheaper and some of trickle-down effect. Whereas here, everything is happening in the limelight and in the public eye right from the beginning when things are not even being tested in clinical trials yet.

First of all, in the expert biology of aging community and then from there, people in the general public will be increasingly aware of the timeframe of how close we’re getting to having these therapies and how much impact those therapies will have. That of course will alter the extent to which the public advocates for access to these things. It will determine what they vote for. It will determine what the economics are all about. By the time the therapy arrives, all of the chaos and the debate about how to make sure these things are universally available will have already occurred. All the required front loaded investment and infrastructure and training of medical personnel and so on that would be needed in order to make these things available to everybody will have been done.

This is a personal question that somebody else might have as well. What are your thoughts on these people who think, “I’m going to freeze myself, and so 20 or 30 years or more from now when they figured out how to solve whatever my disease is,” do you think that’s viable?

It’s becoming viable. Cryonics, the idea of taking someone who has just been declared legally dead and arresting the process of subsequent decay by cooling with liquid nitrogen temperatures makes perfect sense in principle, because certainly at liquid nitrogen temperatures, no further decay occurs. The difficulty is number one, the person, once they’ve been declared legally dead, they’re fairly sick. You don’t get declared legally dead easily. Secondly, there is a lot of additional damage that is done to the body in the process of solidifying them, getting them down to liquid nitrogen temperatures. There used to be a huge problem of ice crystal formation, which causes huge damage at the molecular and cellular level inside biological tissues. That problem has been solved. We now have elaborate cocktails of cryoprotectants that allow the biological tissue to solidify as a glass rather than as a crystal, which eliminates that problem entirely.

However, those cryoprotectants are very mildly toxic, and that’s bad enough because you have to use very high concentrations of them. We have a completely different problem that’s not a chemical problem, namely cracking. Thermal stresses occurring and causing the fractures. We need to solve better those problems; however, great progress has been made in that area as well. In fact, a company that’s been out from SENS Research Foundation which is being run by the person who used to be our chief operating officer is leading a completely new way of essentially completely avoiding that problem. The reason that has been able to become a company rather than just some long-term charity like the cryonics companies is that they want to sell organ preservation. If you can cryo‑freeze a kidney or a heart or liver or whatever, then you can have whole banks of these things and you can completely solve the problem that we have today of thousands and thousands of people dying because they are on a waiting list, because there’s no one sufficiently immune‑compatible to them that has donated the organ they need. That’s moving forward. As of today, it’s not clear whether anybody who has been cryo-freezed out will ever be able to be woken up, but getting close.

What a fascinating answer because you are one of the most knowledgeable people I’ve ever encountered on this topic, anticipating the problems and already knowing what the solutions are that are coming. It’s also a great example of how fast technology is changing to adapt to fixing these kinds of problems not only around being frozen but also aging. Let’s use an easy example, like “I don’t want to have to wait in line in Las Vegas for an hour to get a cab from the airport to my hotel or standing in the rain in New York.” Now, Uber solves that problem. Or Amazon is going to say, “We can have your products delivered to you with a drone.” “That sounds great. I don’t have to leave my house or get it instantly,” but then the drone problem becomes a problem because suddenly the FAA gets involved. In China, they don’t have the same regulations, so they’re able to do it there before here.

In this particular case, because we’ve never even considered this a problem that could ever be solved, you’re starting to say, “No, aging is solvable. We could live to be a thousand,” then a whole lot of other resistance, once the disbelief gets addressed, comes up. What about overpopulation? Will that restrict the number of kids people have? It just creates a whole another set of objections. Normally you think when you solve a problem, everyone’s like, “Let’s embrace it,” and off and running, but what I see here is that you have double challenges. First, you’ve got to get people to believe it’s possible and then the second part is do we even want it. How do you address this concern of overpopulation?

[Tweet “What if the problems of aging were solved?”]

Let me step back a couple of steps and address the more general question first. You’re absolutely right that when people are confronted with arguments that they think might be correct to do with the feasibility of bringing aging under medical control, they do very rapidly switch as they start to have questions about the desirability of bringing aging under medical control. The problem here is that those two things are very closely intertwined. They don’t sound as though they should be intertwined, but in people’s head, they are. Largely because they don’t want to get their hopes up, people will tend to have extremely violent knee-jerk reaction against either the feasibility or the desirability, basically because they’ve already got an opinion about the other. They will say, “I can’t be bothered to think seriously about whether there will be overpopulation or whether that problem is a serious one because I don’t believe you when you say you could do this.” Similarly, the same people will say, “I don’t want to think about whether there’s any truth in your approach to doing this, because it would be a bad idea anyway.” I spend a lot of my time trying to force people to address these two questions separately from each other. It turns out to be very difficult to do that.

Since you ask about overpopulation, let me just tell you my standard answer, and my answer comes in three parts. We probably are not going to have this problem at all because number one, as people’s status get more prosperous and women got more opportunities in life, it seems that almost universally, women choose to have fewer children in the first place and they choose to have them later. Of course when we don’t have aging, we also won’t have menopause, so women can have children a great deal later if they want to. That’s the first thing. In addition to that, the reason why we’re probably not going to have another population problem is because other technologies are coming along which are going to increase the carrying capacity of the planet far more rapidly than the population of the planet could possibly increase, even if we didn’t have a reduction in fertility. I’m talking about things like renewable energy and artificial meat and desalination and such like. These things are going to reduce the average amount that somebody creates pollution, and therefore they will increase the number of people that the planet can sustain with an acceptable level of environmental impact.

That’s all answer number one. Answers number two and three are not only answers to the other population concern, but answer to all of the other concerns that you might have about whether this is a good idea, whether we might create problems as a side effect of solving the problem we have today. The first of those is sense of proportion. The question is how bad, even in the worst case scenario, could the problems be that we might create? How bad is the problem of overpopulation, even if we didn’t have these advantages I’m talking about, that we therefore ended up having to choose. Choice number one would be having fewer children than we would like and choice number two would be having people carry on and dying of Alzheimer’s disease and all the other things we currently die of. You have to make an honest and sincere case that having fewer children than what we’d like is even worse than everyone getting these diseases of old age. Nobody has ever had the guts to come out and tell me that that’s what they’re genuinely think.

The reason I say this is a generic objection to these concerns is because it applies equally. If your concern is not overpopulation but rather inequality of access or dictators living forever or boredom or whatever.

On top of all that, even if you are not completely convinced that the problem of aging is worse than any of the problems that might replace it could be, there’s also the question of the entitlement to make the choice. If we say, “Overpopulating, let’s not go there. Let’s not develop these therapies,” what’s going to happen is the therapy would be developed at some time, but the development will be delayed. That means that there will be an entire cohort of humanity which would have had access to these therapies if we had gone on and developed them quickly as we could, but which will not have access and will have to suffer an unnecessarily early and painful death just like their forefathers did.

The question is do we have the right to condemn those people to that situation? I say that it’s bleeding obvious that we don’t have that right, but they have the right to choose based on the information available to them. For example, whether or not we have developed those technologies that will revert overpopulation, they have the right to choose whether or how to use these therapies, rather than us making that choice for them.

You hit on one word that jumped out at me, which is boredom. Part of the knee-jerk reaction to living past a certain age is we see people in their 90s and for the few exceptions of the Norman Lear’s and Betty White’s of the world, it doesn’t look like it’s a very happy existence. They’re in a lot of pain and their life is very small, etc. There are other obviously exceptions, I just gave two. If people frame their world around, “I’m going to work until I’m this age, 65, and then I’m going to have maybe another 20 or 30 years to retire and enjoy my life and not have to work and travel and do whatever else I want, so I need to have enough money to last me that long.” If you upend that whole premise, they’re like, “I’ve got to keep working? Or I can’t possibly save enough money to live past that age. What if I get bored after I’ve traveled everywhere?” That boredom factor/running out of money factor is a whole another psychological thing that pushes people’s buttons. I just love that you brought it up. Someone like you obviously would never get bored. What advice do you have for people when someone was honest enough to say, “I’m not sure I want to live a long time, because what if I get bored?” What would you say to them?

There are a couple of ways to answer that question. The first one is my sense of proportion again. One of my friends and colleague, Brian Kennedy, was onstage with me at a debate and somebody asked him this basic question. He said, “If I’ve got the choice between getting Alzheimer’s at age 80 or being bored at 850, I don’t think I was going to choose.” The sense of proportion argument is fairly strong in this regard. I can address the question head on and say yes, there is a problem of people being bored, and we have that problem today. The question is what do we do about it? Of course the answer is we look at who is bored and who is not bored and we identify what the distinguishing characteristics are. The overwhelming distinguishing characteristic is education. The better educated somebody is, the more equipped they are to make the most of what life has to offer. This means therefore that there will be increasing value in investing in not only kid, but of course adult education and retraining and so on, so that people have the opportunity to seek out novelty and do more with their lives and be more inspired however long they live.

TSP 161 | Defeating Biological Aging

Defeating Biological Aging: The better educated somebody is, the more equipped they are to make the most of what life has to offer.

How can people follow what you’re doing? This podcast is heard in over 60 countries. My intent and what I would love to have happen is somebody will hear this, send it to somebody else, who can then say, “I want to donate to what you’re doing with this amazing non-profit.” Tell people how to find you and follow you.

The easiest thing to do is go to Sens.org. Our website has absolutely everything you can imagine. It’s got huge amounts of information about the science that we perform, both written for a specialist audience and for a completely lay audience, depending on what you want. We talk about all the other stuff we do. It’s got lists of where I’m going to be speaking, and it has a nice big friendly donate button on the front page.

Aubrey, I can’t thank you enough for spending your incredibly valuable time with me and the audience of The Successful Pitch. I hope and intend to do my part to get your message out, because what you’re doing is not just revolutionary, but has a huge philanthropic and life-changing message that if we can just keep our minds open and curious enough to follow someone with your sense of integrity and bravery, I want to be part of supporting that vision.

I’m very grateful. You certainly have skills that we could use. We definitely need people who can tell our story in their own way and persuasive ways and bring a greater audience in, and the more we can do that, the better.


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