Want to extend your lifespan? Pin your hopes on tech

Artificial intelligence, 3D printing, robots, big data and quantum computing are playing a tremendous role in humankind’s ongoing search for longevity.
Rabelani Dagada
By Rabelani Dagada, Professor, University of Johannesburg
Johannesburg, 06 Sept 2021

If you are reading this article, you have survived a few epidemics, and so far, you are still standing despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

If you live in Africa, and depending on what part of the continent, you have survived malaria, dysentery, ebola, cholera, polio, and/or HIV/AIDS. The outbreak of SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) around 2002/3 caused thousands of sicknesses and deaths in more than 20 countries.

The most common epidemic that many Africans above five have survived is child mortality. The reason African countries have a disproportionate high rate of mortality is stunting caused by malnutrition, especially among children under five, relative to other continents.

Food security has been steadily improving in Africa. Deaths caused by HIV/AIDS and child mortality have been declining steadily in Africa. According to a report published by the African Development Bank in September 2011, titled Africa in 50 Years’ Time: The Road Towards Inclusive Growth”, there has been a massive decline in Africa’s child mortality rate and deaths caused by HIV/AIDS-related diseases.

In his book*, veteran radio journalist Bruce Whitfield asserts that things are looking much better, even in South Africa, with regards to the child mortality rate and HIV/AIDS-related deaths.

“Infant mortality rates have more than halved in South Africa between 2002 and 2019, from an estimated 56.5 death per 1 000 live births 18 years ago, to 22.1 in 2019,” he writes. “The mortality rate for children under five years of age has also declined markedly: this is attributable to the better distribution of anti-retrovirals and the fact that households have better access to food, thanks in no small part to social grants. In 2002, 79 children out of every 1 000 died before the age of five. That number is now down to 28.5 − a remarkable achievement, though the figure is significantly higher than more developed economies.”

With regards to adult life expectancy, Whitfield notes: “A boy born in South Africa today can expect to live an average of 61.5 years; a girl, 67.7 years. The average life expectancy of a South African in 2002 was 55, but that increased to 65 in 2019.”

Live long and prosper

Improved use of technology will play a crucial role in driving economic development in Africa and improving the quality of lives. The truth is that technology will play a fundamental role globally to cure various diseases and extend the lifespan of human beings by a few decades**.

Some top universities and research institutes have been busy conducting studies on longevity. These include California Life Company (mostly known as Calico), Buck Institute for Research in Aging, Human Longevity (also known as Health Nucleus), Insilico Medicine, Unit Biotechnology, Samumed and National Institute on Aging. Studies conducted by these institutions have led to anti-aging pharmacy and anti-aging technologies.

We in Africa should not be bystanders in the quest for attaining humanity’s long quality of life.

The rich are pumping lots of money into biotechnology and longevity research. These include billionaires Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, Bill Maris and the late Paul Allen. You cannot take your wealth to the grave and thus it would be good to enjoy it by adding three to four decades to the normal lifespan.

Aging, low birth rates, declining populations in China, East Asia and Europe are threatening the continued existence of some sovereign states, and the success of longevity research can provide a solution.

The determination shown by the rich to combat aging and eliminate dying is an old endeavour. However, recently advanced technologies are making longevity a reality.

Like most previous inventions, the benefits of longevity will be enjoyed by the rich at the beginning, but later on, anti-aging pharmacy and anti-aging technologies will become democratised and demonetised – this simply means the masses will also enjoy the benefits.

The first drug that was produced out of longevity studies was a treatment for hair loss – that’s a bit too late for me though.

Artificial intelligence, 3D printing, robots, big data and quantum computing are playing a tremendous role in shortening the time of researching, producing, conducting clinical trials, mass producing, and taking new medication to market.

The integration of technology in medical inventions has reduced the whole process from a 10-year period to around one year, and the expenditure from billions of US dollars to few millions.

A crucial benefit of longevity studies is that they will lead to inventions of drugs to successfully treat diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s, fibrosis, cancer, arthritis, cardiac hypertrophy, Parkinson’s, ALS, aging, and many others.

Of course, aging is not a disease, but it is a major cause of many diseases. Even if all the diseases were to be eliminated, aging would cause death and thus it has to be slowed down.

During the next 12 years, scientists will find breakthroughs to extend the human lifespan up to 155 years, and later on much longer. Of course, this should be a good quality of life in terms of health.

We in Africa should not be bystanders in the quest for attaining humanity’s long quality of life. Africa is the only region that possesses half of the world’s arable land and this will attract massive agricultural investments.

African food production will feed the whole world and the World Bank predicts Africa’s agriculture and agribusiness markets are destined to top $1 trillion in 2030. Several technologies will be deployed to boost agricultural output in Africa: geographical information systems, nanotechnology, biotechnology and mobile technology***.

But still, governments, multilateral organisations and other stakeholders should do everything possible to eliminate preventable diseases and avoidable causes of unnatural death like wars, road carnage, violence, etc. This way, Africa would have contributed to human longevity.

In whatever way each of us can, let us support scientists as they work towards ending aging forever and employing technology to make death optional.

Death may also have to wait. I suppose we can pin our hopes on technology to make these options a reality.

* Whitfield, B (2020). The upside of down: How chaos and uncertainty breed opportunity in South Africa. Johannesburg: Macmillan

** Diamandis, PH & Kotler, S (2020). The future is faster than you think: How converging technologies are transforming business, industries, and our lives. New York: Simon & Schuster

*** Dagada, R (2021). Digital commerce governance in the era of fourth industrial revolution in South Africa. Pretoria: UNISA Press