The World’s Biggest Problem

A conversation with Aubrey de Grey

A big challenge with meeting great people is not to bore them, at least not to death. This time I had a plan. I asked Aubrey to choose one of his favorite songs so I could play it for him on the saxophone.

When asked for the background story Aubrey told me that he and his wife don’t get nearly enough “us” time. But every Sunday, if they happen to be in Cambridge simultaneously, they will go to the local pub to spend some quality time together while listening to live jazz. This tradition goes back as far as the couple’s relationship, close to 3 decades, and means something to them.

Mildly said, Aubrey is a pretty unique character. You would have to say 6 words to call the very tall, extremely thin, heavily bearded 52 years old Englishman by his full name. We met at his remote cabin in the woods on a Sunday noon where he warmly greeted me wearing a big excited smile but no T-shirt and holding a glass of whisky in his hand. Aubrey’s wife is almost 20 years older than him while his youngest girlfriend is younger than him by a similar gap. Oh, did I mention that his field of research is human immortality?

We did not skip the traditional embarrassing selfie.

Since our conversation did not have any theme in particular I will 1) Tell you about the overall impression and experience I had with Aubrey and 2) Write down a few of the questions that were the most interesting in the discussion.

To get a sense of the person and some context, or just for some high quality general knowledge, it’s a good idea to listen to his famous Ted talk.

Here are the main things that stand out about Aubrey, assuming that one is blindfolded.

Sharpness: Aubrey is one of the sharpest people I have met. He is super quick yet accurate and precise. He creates the best analogies and examples out of thin air and supports everything he says with facts and data. You would lose him multiple times in a conversation. While listening to the recording of our conversation, dozens subtleties and connections that I completely missed the first time around came to life. The same feeling that you get when watching a complex movie for the second time. Only way more embarrassing because a movie can’t think you are stupid.

His Answers: Throw at him any question related to his research and he will instantaneously provide a convincing, well structured, eloquent, compelling and deeply logical, to a scientific paper standards, answer. This is a strong indication to the amount of time and thoroughness that he spends thinking about these stuff.

Mission Driven: Aubrey wakes up every morning with a single purpose in mind. Getting us closer to solving the problem of aging. Here is a partial list of evidence to his infinite dedication:

  • He calls it “The World’s Biggest Problem”. You can argue or claim that it’s a marketing stunt, but Aubrey’s lifestyle is based on this being a fact.
  • The thing that bothers him the most in his life is the lack of funding for this research. It is the last obstacle that prevents us from making rapid progress.
  • Save for just enough money to buy the cabin we spent the afternoon in, Aubrey donated all of his mother’s will — $16.5 million— to the SENS foundation which he co-founded.
  • He has a detailed strategy as to how to address any of the obstacles that separate us from a aging-less society.

Child’s Spirit: Aubrey is 100% genuine and real and skips all the bullshit. He is excited and energetic as a little kid. The only indication to his age is his looks, but that would probably put you off by a decade as well. Coming to think about it, he must be his own test subject.

Since people are too lazy to read these days, here is the painfully shortened version of the questions that came up. As always, the first question was suggested by the previously featured Dan Ariely. Thanks!

Q: How would solving the problem of aging affect human behavior?
A: The problem of aging is the world’s worse problem, a problem that hunts us since the dawn of time. By solving it we will become more optimistic and less fatalistic about really hard yet solvable problems, consequently allowing humanity to achieve great feats.

Q: Will having all the time in the world to live make us more lazy and less ambitious?
A: The short answer: “Yea, that’s bullshit”.
The analogy: Bring yourself to the first time you got laid. Were you thinking, “Oh my god, I have to take this person into bed right now because I only got 60 years to live”?

Q: What’s the one thing that bothers you the most?
A: Funding. 20 years ago we neither had a plan nor the people to execute it. This is not the case anymore. There is a detailed plan and great people that are dedicated to it, making the funding problem a real stranglehold. A mere tenfold increase of the yearly budget, from $5M to $50M ,will enable us to work on all the high priority areas and progress will likely to be 3 times faster than what it is now. Aubrey calls this situation the world’s biggest tragedy.

Q: Why do some many people believe that aging is too difficult to solve, or simply ignore it completely?
A: People don’t want to get their hopes up. Once we make our peace with a terrible thing that is going to happen to us we strongly tend to leave it behind us.

Q: Is the fact that your wife is much older than you a part of the reason why you do what you do?
A: No, for a mathematical reason. Most of us are either too old or young enough to make it into a world with no-aging. The difference that I make doesn’t mean more than 10% chance for any specific individual to making the cut. Conversely, there is a huge humanitarian motivation to do this. Every day that I bring forward the defeat of aging is equivalent to saving a 100,000 lives and preventing a lot of aging related misery. It is very easy to get out of bed for that.

Q: Why didn’t you donate all your mothers will to this cause?
A: Just like leisure and sleep, I took just enough for myself as to stay energized and happy to do my work best in the long term.

Q: What would you be doing if aging was already solved?
A: Look around and find the one problem that I can make the most difference to.

Q: What is the best advice you ever got?
A: The important things that people think about you are not the things they tell you but the things they don’t tell you. Said by his godfather when Aubrey was 11 years old.

Q: Anything specific that I should write about?
A: Tell people that I’m not that alien with alien shaped beard but just a regular guy who thinks he can make a difference to the world. I’m a practical guy and I don’t want to see people suffer and I would like to do my best to fix it. Also tell them that they can make a difference by believing that this problem is solvable or making a donation.

Aging is the root cause for 100,000 deaths that happen every day and the majority of all human suffering. It really sucks. But humanity occasionally achieves great things. The biggest missing piece to having none of this:

…and way more of this:

…is the belief and support of people like you and I.