All over the world, teams of scientists, medical researchers and technologists are working to make ultra-long lifespans an everyday reality. The first person who will live to 150 has probably already been born – and revolutionary combinations of digital technology and gene therapy could make living for ever a realistic possibility before 2050.
The promise of endless, healthy life clearly has great allure. But it will have a big impact on the close physical and emotional human relationships that make our lives feel worthwhile, revolutionising the dynamics of friendship, dating and marriage.
An 80-year study conducted by Harvard University reveals that long-term relationships slow down the physical ageing process. People who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 had the lowest rates of physical deterioration at 80.
‘The thing that was most surprising was that it protected health and not just wellbeing and mood. People’s bodies broke down later if they had more satisfying, warmer, closer relationships,’ says Dr Robert Waldinger, director of the study.
With research proving that happy, fulfilling relationships will be a vital ingredient in our search for eternal life, we will need to rethink how we effectively build them for a life that may never end.
Consequently, we are looking at a future in which marriage will no longer be ’til death us do part, when a robot might be our best friend and when we will have virtual love affairs with people we never meet.
The rise of the disposable marriage
When we live to 150, marriage, long-term commitment and having children will be something that no-one under 50 even thinks about. The first 50 years of our lives will be a prolonged and hedonistic adolescence in a world of short-term jobs and relationships.
Already, Millennials are putting off settling down until much later than their Baby Boomer parents and their attitudes to marriage are shifting seismically. The number of people getting married fell across all OECD countries except three between 1995 and 2014, the same year as the number of Americans who described their status as ‘single’ reached a significant milestone, exceeding 50% for the first time.
Yu Wang, co-founder and CEO of Chinese dating app TanTan, is already catering for changing attitudes to settling down in his country. ‘In China, things are completely different from a decade ago,’ he says. ‘In large cities, people get married much later in life. Young people are more independent and ambitious now. They will not succumb to their parents’ pressure to get married and have kids. More and more people are trying to live happily on their own first, and will not be settled before they meet someone they really love and want to spend the rest of their lives with.’
In order to optimise relationships that span up to 150 years rather than 75, society will need to rethink the conventions and ideals that have been created around much shorter lifespans. Marriage is a key example. With the idea of ’til death us do part becoming an even more heavily weighted commitment than it is now, it will need to be rethought.
Biological anthropologist Dr Helen Fisher has written numerous books on the nature of human relationships. She believes that although we will always pair up to raise children, the idea of marriages for ever is unrealistic for most people and will be even more so for future generations.
‘It was only when our ancestors settled down on the farm that they had to remain together for life. I’m not convinced that we’re really built to remain together for life, whether it’s 40 years, 80 years or 120 years.'
‘We’re going to continue to see people falling in love, and forming pair-bonds and having babies, but a large number of people, after the babies go to school, will divorce and fall in love again, and eventually remarry and start the whole child-rearing cycle again.’
Fisher suggests that disposable marriages with a legally limited shelf life may be the way forward. It’s a concept that Millennials agree with, according to a study by USA Network, which found that nearly 53% of Millennials thought marriage contracts that could be renewed or dissolved after a finite time were a good idea. Nearly 40% said they believed the ’til death us do part vow should be abolished.
The combination of multiple partnerships, improved health and longer lives could also lead to considerable changes in people’s approach to child-rearing. ‘Even now, a woman in her early 40s can easily raise a baby,’ says Fisher. ‘If we’re going to live a lot longer, then it’ll also be interesting to see whether a woman’s reproductive cycle is extendable. It’s my guess that both men and women, if they do live to 150, will at some point move out of their reproductive years, and perhaps then have 50 to 100 more years to live, without having children.’
The alternative to living later years child-free, mirroring current cycles, will be that we raise two or three waves of children, creating complicated, overlapping webs of children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. ‘If people live so long and reproductive health is extended, we’ll continue to make pair-bonds and continue to reproduce, resulting in multiple partners with whom we have multiple sets of offspring,’ says Fisher.
My virtual long-distance lover
In a future of indefinite living where there is no hurry to pair up and settle down, advances in virtual reality technology will signal an explosion of long-distance love affairs with people we have never met – and perhaps never meet – in person.
Our lifestyles are already becoming increasingly global and globe-trotting. A 2016 survey by GlobeScan revealed that, for the first time in 15 years of tracking by the organisation, nearly one in two people (49%) see themselves more as global citizens than citizens of their country. This tallies with UN reports of a 41% increase in international migrants between 2000 and 2015.
Perhaps because of this global identity and interconnectivity, people are stretching the boundaries of their search for love further. A 2016 study by the National Center for Marriage and Family Research estimated that 40% of US adults in dating relationships are now what demographers call LATS (Living Apart Together). They maintain relationships while living mostly in different cities, or even countries.
The development over the next two decades of virtual reality technology that includes elements of touch and smell will add entirely new possibilities to the concept of the long-distance love affair.
A man in London and a woman in Melbourne will be able to meet, go on dates, enjoy crazy nights out and go on holidays with each other – from the comfort of their own sofas. Building understanding and emotional intimacy over months, or even years, they may finally decide to meet face to face to enjoy real physical intimacy – or break up without ever meeting in real life.
Facebook is just one Silicon Valley company looking for new ways to use virtual reality (VR) to bring people together across continents. Its Spaces platform enables users to chat with 3D avatars of friends in a virtual environment.
‘VR is a technology that gives us something no other technology has before – a magical feeling of presence, the sense that we’re really there together even when we’re apart,’ said head of social VR Rachel Franklin when she announced the app.
TanTan is considering virtual dating as one future scenario, according to CEO Yu Wang. ‘I think virtual reality dates will become real,’ he says. ‘Now we are used to text messages, phone calls and video chats. All these media were made as attempts to simulate real talks face to face and to let people feel that the ones you need to communicate with are not that far away. VR will be able to do that so much better.’
My best friend is a robot
Ultra-longevity is likely, at least at first, to be a prize that only the rich can afford. Those elite few are likely to find themselves lonely and fearful of forming intimate relationships and close friendships with those who cannot fund life-extending technologies and treatments – because they will continue to grow old and die much faster.
In fact, the only ‘friends’ who will be able to guarantee to stay the course will be the range of increasingly intuitive and intelligent AI devices and robots that will have become an intrinsic part of people’s lives.
A team of researchers from Tsinghua University in Beijing found that 61% of people who tried emotionally engaging chatbots preferred them to an emotionally neutral version. Robotics company Emotech aims to capitalise on this with Olly, an AI assistant designed to understand and mirror human emotions.
‘When thinking about relationships with friends, or even pets, there is bonding,’ explains Chelsea Chen, co-founder of Emotech. ‘These bonds aid better, more comfortable communication. We are trying to mimic this to change the relationship between human beings and technology.’
Olly is the first iteration of AI machines that learn over the years to become a closer and more empathetic ‘friend’ than a living, breathing person could ever hope to be.
‘Olly will remember your preferences,’ says Chen. ‘The more you spend time with Olly, the more Olly will know you. Plus, he won’t reject you. You can’t hurt his feelings like a human being.’
By 2050, the descendants of AI ‘friends’ such as Olly will become a reliable presence in the ultra-long lives of their owners. The machine we are paired up with as a child will grow, learn and develop alongside us over the years, changing from play pal to professional aide, confidant and therapist, and finally to the ultra-attentive personal nurse who cares for us through our twilight years.
ElliQ has been specifically designed as a companion for older people who struggle with technology, live far from friends and relatives or have memory problems.
‘These days, the silver generation is quite independent and active, with the vast majority of older adults preferring to age in their own homes,’ says Dor Skuler, co-founder of Intuition Robotics. ‘At the same time, they are often lonely and isolated, considering that family members often live far away, and many don’t see friends more than once or twice a week. Artificially intelligent technology that can plug them into the online entertainment, education and communication that younger generations use instinctively could alleviate this isolation.’
Emotech’s Chen believes that Olly and his later iterations will be the perfect end-of-life carers. ‘Unlike a human, Olly never gets bored, upset or irritated if you tell him the same thing again and again,’ she says. ‘For an elderly person with a failing memory, he is a perfect friend.’
Like Olly, ElliQ is also programmed to get to know its user, his or her moods and tone of voice, and to adapt its own personality and suggestions. According to Skuler, this is significantly strengthening the robot-user bond.
‘While we clearly designed ElliQ to be a helpful device and not a friend, users are bonding with ElliQ, with most calling ElliQ her and not it. They compliment her on a job well done, appreciate viewing pictures together and enjoy spending time together,’ he says.
When considering this increasing sense of companionship, combined with the intimate knowledge of our personalities, behaviour and actions held by these machines, it is not a huge leap to think that robots could take on the persona and memories of people from beyond the grave.
This future scenario is explored in the new Hollywood film, Marjorie Prime. The title character’s dead husband is resurrected in AI form and the boundaries between the human and robot versions become blurred.
Chen says Emotech is interested in exploring this with Olly and his future iterations: ‘Human life is limited,’ she says. ‘Your Olly could communicate with your father’s Olly, who had grown up with him and has so many memories of him and of the family. This is a valuable thing. Olly may not take on the persona of your father, but it could play you music he liked to listen to when he was reading, for example.’
The prospect of living longer due to technological and biological optimisation brings with it a fresh set of questions about our future relationships. With studies showing that a sense of togetherness keeps us healthy as we age, it is important to focus on how we will find and maintain love and friendship in a future of vastly expanded lifespans.
With ultra-longevity will come a redefinition of relationship conventions. ’Til death us do part will be replaced by ’til time us do part, and the idea of raising one family will be replaced by multiple overlapping family units or decades of child-free leisure.
Technology, which can act as a barrier and a conduit for human connectivity and interactivity, will offer new solutions that will enable us to stay happy and healthy together, as well as apart. This will include innovations such as virtual environments that accurately mirror proximity and enable intimacy across continents, as well as robots with personalities that know us better than anyone else in our lives and can share every one of our memories from birth to death.