I had a great conversation today with my friend Will Nathan about investing for the long term. And I don’t mean the long term like retirement, I mean the very long term in the sense of hundreds of years. Enough time for countries to rise and fall, and entirely novel technologies to take over the world. At the risk of sounding Kurzwelian, I want to discuss the potential for radical change in our future that might warrant such an extended investment horizon.
Over the past 25 years, nobody will argue that we have seen an incredible explosion in information and communications technology. Consider the iPhone that so many of us have in our pockets – more storage, more processing power, and exponentially faster connectivity than almost any computer that existed in 1985. Consider that the internet hardly existed outside the government in 1985, yet now the answer to any conceivable question is available within 0.27 seconds on Google. Consider all the ways that cheap, widely available microprocessors and wireless connectivity has changed business, our inter-personal lives, and even politics (witness Twitter-fueled revolutions in Iran, Tunisia, and Egypt in just the past year). The rate of change and progress is mind boggling. Today’s world was inconceivable just 25 years ago.
It is my belief that over the next 25 years, we will see that same type of transformative change in medicine, genetics, and biology. Synthetic organs, genetically tailored therapies, cognitive enhancement through drugs or implanted technology, and more may be as widespread and seemingly “normal” as that iPhone in your pocket. Diseases like Alzheimer’s, cancer, heart disease and more may be cured. Life expectancy could increase by 25% or more. In 50 years, it’s not totally inconceivable that some type of immortality or near-immortality may be within the grasp of the rich.
On the surface, it sounds like a bright future. However, I think the concept of “immortality” or greatly increased life expectancy has the potential to radically restructure our society and break down a lot of things we take for granted. Consider how much about society is predicated on the fact that humans live approximately 80 years. When people stop dying, the world population will explode overnight. The birthrate will increase as people remain fertile longer. Where will we put all the people? Will our food supply be able to handle it? Our water? Our cities? Our hospitals? What happens to the traditional concept of retirement at 65 if you suddenly have to support yourself for another 65 years after that? Consider the implications for our social programs and our economy.
Let’s take another example and consider the extrapolation of cognitive enhancers like Adderall and modafinil. Consider that one day, it’s very likely that humans might never forget anything, or anything that we do forget could be instantly accessible through some sort of neural internet link. Sounds great right? Take a few more seconds and consider the societal implications. What would it be like if “time heals all wounds” didn’t hold true anymore – if you could remember every word of that vicious fight with your wife like it was yesterday? If the pain of a family member’s death never faded? If every participant in every business deal could remember everything that was ever promised? If consumers remembered all the different ways they’d been advertised to? The implications are far broader than just having an encyclopedic knowledge of art history at cocktail parties. Perfect human memories would remake society dramatically.
It’s coming sooner than you think
This isn’t speculation. The timeframe may be a guess, but I don’t think anyone will deny that one day the science will arrive. It’s not just about remaking your own body – as our race begins to transcend biology, it’s going to radically alter our interpersonal relationships, our governments and institutions, and society as we know it.