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Science May Make Eternal Life Sentences a Reality (VIDEO)

04/11/2014 09:19 pm ET | Updated Jun 11, 2014

We all fantasize about living forever, and soon that might be possible.

Life extension, part of the dizzying field of longevity science, is quickly leaving the realm of sci-fi and just becoming sci -- one of the hottest new fields of study.

While some researchers are looking for the fountain of youth, others are thinking that life extension will change the way we punish criminals. Philosophers and engineers are now exploring the possibility of making a life sentence in prison last hundreds -- and theoretically thousands -- of years.

We discussed the topic of life extension and punishment on The Lip TV, highlighting different voices in the debate and exploring the implications of longevity research.

"Some crimes are so bad they require a really long period of punishment, and a lot of people seem to get out of that punishment by dying," says Dr. Rebecca Roache, the philosopher leading a life-extension program at Oxford University. "Why not make prison sentences for particularly odious criminals worse by extending their lives?"

But would extending the life span of criminals be a better or worse punishment?

Answers vary depending on whom you ask. As Dr. Roache points out, a large number of people on death row appeal to have their sentences reduced to life imprisonment. "That suggests that a quick stint in prison followed by death is seen as a worse fate than a long prison sentence, and so if you extend the life of a prisoner to give them a longer sentence, you might end up giving them a more lenient punishment."

Crazy, right? The survival instinct could make life extension a blessing, not a curse. Gotta love the irony of punishment.

But is radical life extension for prisoners even fair? What sorts of crimes deserve indefinite sentences? And do people deserve to be punished forever?

Here the issue gets even trickier. We're no longer just talking about policy; we're talking metaphysics. If the purpose of punishment is to reform a criminal, then we recognize that people do change. Indeed, we have to believe on some level that they can change in order for the concept of reformation to work.

"Even if your body makes it to 1,000 years, the thinking goes, that body is actually inhabited by a succession of persons over time rather than a single continuous person," explains Roache. The inmate you punish at 40 might be a totally different person when he turns 200. "And that means you are effectively punishing one person for a crime committed by someone else."

So there's some serious philosophy at work here.

But as it turns out, we might not even need life extension to give prisoners the extreme sentences we feel they deserve.

Psychoactive drugs that distort the perception of time, for example, are a compelling alternative. Give someone a time-dilation pill, and a week in jail could feel like a thousand years. Talk about efficiency.

Punishment hacks like this could address the skyrocketing costs of corrections in America ($74 billion spent on corrections on 2.4 million prisoners). But there's a divide in the community about whether time dilation would really get the job done.

As Roache explains, retributivists (who believe the point of prisons is to punish) tend to think that it should be an unpleasant experience. Consequentialists (who are more concerned with the results of punishment) focus on reformation and social costs.

So broadly speaking, a retributivist would consider time dilation a brilliant solution to punishment, assuming that a sentence that feels like a hundred years fits the crime. A consequentialist would question whether the perceived punishment effectively reforms the prisoner and helps lower the chance of recidivism.

Of course, every case is different. Nuances abound. But attitudes toward futuristic punishment turn on what you think the point of punishment fundamentally is.

Either way, life (and time) extension is a riveting field. I have no doubt it will have a profound social and policy impact far beyond beauty and longevity. It will also be a major conversation in the Department of Corrections and in philosophy departments around the world.

One thing's for sure: Prison won't look the same in 20 years. If the numbers are any indication, it can't.

Tell me how you feel about life extension and join the conversation here on HuffPost and on The Lip TV.

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