Wired has posted an excellent interview with biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey. The discussion covers a lot of ground, including recent advancements in the field, the NewOrgan Prize, funding issues, the media and insights into Aubrey's personal life. Here are some highlights:
Wired.com: So you’ve obviously put a lot of effort into messaging. Yet, you say your ideas are often misconstrued and misrepresented.
de Grey: I’ve found it frustrating the media, especially, are pretty much fixated on the longevity aspects and not on the health aspects. It wouldn’t annoy me so much if it was not so overdone. But even the most highbrow write-ups, like one in The Economist a couple of years ago for example, every single one has the word “immortality” or “living forever” in the title of the article. It does wind me up a little bit.
Wired.com: Why do you suppose they do that?
de Grey: Sells papers. You don’t have to ask me, you’re the journalist.
Wired.com: Press also helps get funding, no?
de Grey: No, rather the opposite. It makes it sound like entertainment. It sounds like science fiction and not real science. It really actively detracts from my ability to get funding.
Wired.com: You’ve said that when these treatments become a reality, they should be free and available to all.
de Grey: It’s not a matter of should. I’m not making a political opinion here. I’m saying it’s inevitable they will be.
Wired.com: Right. Governments would minimize the costs of taking care of the elderly by investing money up front.
de Grey: Right. The developing world is more fragile, but certainly within the industrialized world — and that of course will include China and India at that point — I think we can be absolutely certain the ability to pay will not be an issue.
Wired.com: Do you think people who engage in risk-heavy behavior — say, smoking — should be given rejuvenation treatments regardless?
de Grey: Absolutely. But the reason I can say that so confidently is simply because risks like smoking or overeating will simply not be so risky anymore. It’s possible those therapies will need to be applied somewhat more frequently to such people than to other people. But still we’re talking there about something that’s happening to everybody. So it’s something that won’t be the subject of insurance, it will be something preventative that will be provided routinely.
Wired.com: It’s difficult to imagine a time where people who have more money won’t have access first.
de Grey: Oh yeah. The question is what will the interval be. Remember, these are going to be experimental treatments. If I was Bill Gates I wouldn’t want to be first, right? There are going to be risks. Things are going to go wrong early on. And as far as I’m concerned, the more goes wrong the better, in the sense I sure as fuck don’t want all of these treatments to be made restricted to only people in clinical trials until Phase III is over.
You’ve had what you consider huge breakthroughs in hotels in California, a pub in Italy, a hotel in Dresden. How does being away from home and hanging out in pubs inform your thinking?
de Grey: It is important both in terms of how I think and also especially in terms of how I actually do my work; how I actually get the idea out and so on. I’ve given a talk on How To Be a Successful Heretic. It’s a 10-point plan. And one of them is “Be everywhere (a pint is worth 1,000 words).” You know, beer just works for me. I’m just lucky that way.
Wired.com: What do you mean?
de Grey: It just helps me to think. I just communicate well in the context of alcohol, somehow as well as thinking. Also, it’s a bit of a role model thing. As I mentioned, the Methuselah Foundation had a bit of a problem with looking a bit too much like a fan club. But one could go too far the other way. I think having a bit of a personality cult around what I do works well. I have to obviously give a positive impression at many levels. I have to know my stuff, but you don’t do that in superficial interviews. You do that in the literature.
So I think it is important to show I enjoy my life. [Jason] Pontin in Technology Review tried to basically say I was this very circumscribed individual, and I looked as though I wasn’t enjoying my life, drinking too much beer. Outrageous. That pissed me off a lot. [laughs]
Wired.com: That you drink too much beer?
de Grey: Yeah, I mean how would they know how much is too much?
Wired.com: Yeah, especially since you’re basically a 30-year-old on the inside.
de Grey: Quite. It works. I drink exactly the right amount of beer evidently. [laughs] It’s ridiculous, really. Yet, I have to show I’m enjoying my life. It’s public knowledge I am polyamorous as well. That’s something that goes down not so well with some of my more politically sensitive friends and colleagues. But it goes quite well with some other people. [laughs]