An actuarial take on Netflix’s Altered Carbon and life extension technology

Netflix’s new series Altered Carbon is set more than 300 years in the future. In between the science fiction action and special effects, the series also touches on some of the thorny ethical and legal issues related to life extension technologies.

Today, a burgeoning longevity science industry—backed by significant venture capital and other funding—is actively working on solving the problem of senescence, whether by preventing aging or reversing its effects. Some of these researchers are making rather startling claims in the media about how near we may be to achieving radical increases in life expectancy and increased quality of life during our later years. These claims make for good headlines, but it can be difficult to gauge how realistic they are. Justifications for these statements often tend to rely on faith in anticipated (often unspecified) technological advancements or on optimistically extending a graph of historical changes in life expectancy to reach “actuarial escape velocity”— the point at which life expectancy is increasing by more than one year per year.

Changes in life expectancy are complex and generally occur because of multiple underlying factors. To date, most of the observed increases in life expectancy stem from decreases in mortality at various demographic points below the maximum observed age rather than extensions of maximum lifetime itself. Under that paradigm, there are diminishing returns to increased life expectancy.

Life extension technologies would require a reengineering of many financial and insurance products on a grand scale. In this paper, Milliman’s Hans Leida discusses what actuaries and others are to make of these extraordinary claims and visions of the future.

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