Immortality—Who Will Get It, and Who Won't?

The coming fight over revolutionary biotech

Posted Nov 12, 2017

Creative Commons license
Source: Creative Commons license

It’s no secret that staggering advancements in medicine, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence are creating new possibilities for humanity. As Israeli scholar Yuval Noah Harari points out in his bestselling book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, technological breakthroughs will soon be redefining what it means to be human, making it possible to conquer disease, enhance our bodies and minds in numerous ways, and even design babies with precise characteristics—intelligence, physical appearance, and psychological traits—considered desirable by parents or powerful institutions.

Whether you find these possibilities fascinating or creepy, many of them will likely be part of the new human reality in the not-too-distant future. Such developments raise numerous ethical questions, of course, but there is one question that is immediately relevant to all of us: When this technology becomes available, who will have access to it?  

Indeed, the gravity of this question is even greater than it may first appear. As Harari points out, humanity might soon be crossing a threshold that could make even the conquest of death possible for our children or grandchildren. “In the 21st century humans are likely to make a serious bid for immortality,” he writes. “[M]ore and more individuals, organizations, corporations, and governments are taking very seriously the quest for immortality, happiness, and godlike powers.”

Thus, if you think inequality today is a serious problem (and polls show most of us do) just wait until the medical breakthroughs of tomorrow become part of the equation. Harari understandably worries about the creation of a “superhuman caste” as these technologies are unleashed. If costly genetic technologies allow some—but not all—to shield themselves and their children from cancer, heart disease, and other chronic conditions that have plagued all of humanity, rich and poor, for millennia, the term “haves and have nots” will take on a whole new meaning.

And while this all seems somewhat futuristic, it is not an issue that should be kicked down the road for tomorrow, because it is directly relevant today. How we see access to health care—whether it is a public resource to which we all have a right or a private benefit that is contingent on one's economic means—will determine to a large degree how advances in biotechnology shape the culture going forward.

From a humanistic standpoint, the idea of a future society in which the rich, but only the rich, have access to health care that guarantees their babies will be born via genetic engineering for physical health, high intelligence, psychological stability, and even a pleasing demeanor, seems unimaginable, a dystopian nightmare. If nothing else, it shows the fallacy of classical libertarianism in modern society, where the advancement of technology and the need for complex institutions make an eat-what-you-kill approach to economic and social organization totally unworkable.

Wealth disparity is a serious problem, and technology has brought us to a juncture where it could get much worse. As economist Paul Krugman has pointed out, we already live in a society where "smart poor kids are less likely than dumb rich kids to get a degree." Although we don’t like to think so, social mobility is much more restricted in the United States than in most countries that guarantee health care and other social services to their citizens.

Yet today’s inequality will seem rather quaint compared to the injustice that tomorrow’s technologies could bring if public policy doesn’t ensure fair distribution and access. If optimal health, and perhaps even immortality, become readily available for some—the "superhuman caste," as Harari calls them—while others languish with the imperfect biological realities that have defined the human condition for millennia, all bets will be off for how society responds.

David Niose on Twitter: @ahadave

Photo: Via Pixabay, Creative Commons license