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the ethics of life-extension and other technologies

Suppose that within the next 25 years life-extension technologies develop to the point where they can be mass-marketed. (I mention life-extension because the consequences are easier to see, but I think that the same can be said for things like information technology, finance, etc). For simplicity of the argument, let's assume that the technology we are talking is based on biotechnology (e.g. Telomerase-based), not micro- or nanotechnology, or any other possibility such as "virtualization" of a human being into a computer environment.

Furthermore, suppose that this particular technology that we're talking about, that can be mass marketed at a relatively cheap price and has no major side-effects. Suppose that the technology both rejuvenates you and adds, say, 25 years to your life, and it can also be used to cure degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's. These would be the perfect conditions for a technology like this. Realistically, more than one will not be present. To simplify this argument even more, let's ignore the social, legal and economic consequences such a shift would create. (Holy Fire, by Bruce Sterling explores the impact of this technology in a "developed" society.)

So, who gets it?

"First World" countries would be the first in the list. Europe, the US, Japan, all have ageing populations that would benefit greatly from this. Many people would also be quite happy to extend their life for the simple reason that even longer lifespans can be achieved down the road, which can then help wait until Immortality comes knocking.

But what about the rest of the world? In "Developing" countries in particular, birth rates are high: the more children you have, the more likely it is that many of them will survive, and they can help support you. With high birth-rates, and very young populations, the introduction of such a technology in poor countries would create chaos. Massive social unrest would explode across the world. Not a good idea. Then, what? Would these countries and their people be denied the chance to extend their lives, simply to avoid them becoming miserable and, for example, attacking the rich countries?

Every day it seems that the future presented by H.G. Wells in The Time Machine becomes more and more likely: a large underclass that work like slaves supporting the rich, and the rich living in constant terror of the poor...

Categories: personal
Posted by diego on July 20 2002 at 8:24 PM

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