The human race has long dreamt of overcoming its biological limits and living longer. What if we could cheat the inexorable approach of ageing and physical decline and escape our own mortality?
“The quest to live forever, or to live for great expanses of time, has always been part of the human spirit,” Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Emory Center for Ethics, told Time magazine.
There now appears to be a reason to be optimistic. “In the past century, science and medicine have extended life expectancy, and longevity researchers (not to mention Silicon Valley types) are pushing for a life that lasts at least a couple of decades more,” says the magazine.
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But can we really live forever and, if so, would we want to?
Here are some ways that might help us one day achieve that aim:
Along with medical advances, scientists have continually looked at ageing as if it were a disease that needed to be cured.
“From enhancing certain proteins which protect cells from ageing to extending telomeres – fragments of DNA which cap both ends of each chromosome and protect against the wear and tear of natural ageing – scientists have tried to halt the ageing process,” says the Daily Express.
Big tech entrepreneurs, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, have become increasingly interested in seeking the secrets of eternal life – or at least a significantly longer one.
Bezos is believed to have poured millions of dollars into Altos Labs, a project exploring gene “reprogramming”, a process in which “mature, specialised cells are coaxed into becoming immature stem cells which can become almost any other kind of cell”, The Times said.
This would allow cells to be “rejuvenated” and repaired, hopefully leading to cures for ageing ailments, and ultimately prolonging human life.
The venture, which is also thought to be backed by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, has recently made a high-profile hire, bringing in Hal Barron, the former chief scientific officer for GlaxoSmithKline, to be its chief executive.
It also enjoys a host of Nobel prize winners as advisers and board members, including Dr Shinya Yamanaka, winner of the 2012 Nobel prize in physiology or medicine, and Jennifer Doudna, who shared the 2020 chemistry prize.
Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan are also looking to drop some serious cash on advancing human health over the next decade as part of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI). The initiative has a mission of curing, preventing or managing all disease by the end of the century.
The pair plan on spending $3.4bn on “developing new research, institutes and technologies that can help its mission”, according to the Daily Mail. This includes $600m to $900m on a biomedical imaging institute at the CZI, as well as a billion given to the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, which develops technologies that treat disease.
One expert at the forefront of the movement is Martine Rothblatt, the founder of a biotech firm called United Therapeutics, which is seeking to grow new organs from people’s DNA. “Clearly, it is possible, through technology, to make death optional,” Rothblatt told the New Yorker.
Another expert, Joon Yun, told Nautilus Magazine: “I essentially made a wager to myself that ageing is a code... that could be cracked and hacked.”
In 2014, Yun created the Race Against Time Foundation and Palo Alto Prize, which will award $1m (£739,000) to a team of scientists that can demonstrate the capacity to mitigate ageing by, among other things, extending the life of a mammal by 50%.
Perhaps the best-known option in the pursuit of immortality is cryonics. This involves freezing people in liquid nitrogen in the hope that they might one day be safely defrosted and revived.
The process is based “entirely on the hope that future scientific advances will be able to make use of these bodies and severed heads to achieve life after revival,” says Vice. “Nothing close to a proof of concept exists so far.”
This hasn’t stopped companies from trying it out. The most significant of these companies, the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, has pioneered an approach where the brain is removed before death and treated with both a cryoprotective agent and a chemical fixative.
According to Kenneth Hayworth, a neuroscientist at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, this is proof that brain preservation is “technically possible,” but he says significant research is still needed.
“The way that I think these people will be revived is that their minds will be uploaded into synthetic brains and bodies,” he told Vice.
HowStuffWorks predicts: “Flesh and blood aren’t ideal materials for longevity, so we’ll turn to materials that are a bit more durable.”
The Singularity and Transhumanism
Other experts envision a world in which computers serve as back-ups for our brains and silicone parts take the place of frail limbs.
AI author Ray Kurzweil claims that by 2045 an event known as “the singularity” will occur. Humans will become one with machines.
The technological singularity, as it’s called, is the moment when artificial intelligence takes off into ‘artificial superintelligence’ and becomes exponentially more intelligent more quickly. As self-improvement becomes more efficient, it gets quicker at improvement until the machine becomes infinitely more intelligent infinitely quickly.
At this point, human evolution would be forced to correlate with that of AI for fear of being left behind.
“In my lifetime, the singularity will happen,” Alison Lowndes, head of AI developer relations at the technology company Nvidia, told Metro.
The author and journalist Will Self told the newspaper: “We’re already in a state of transhumanism. Technology happens to humans rather than humans playing in a part of it.”
Indeed the body can already be augmented with machinery, either internally or externally, and the first microchips have been inserted into a workforce.
But the “tricky bit is surviving until the technology becomes widely available”, says The Sun. “Most people on middle-class incomes and reasonable working-class incomes can probably afford this in the 2060s. So anyone 90 or under by 2060.”
Is there a natural limit to human life span?
Not everybody is convinced we will be able to go on indefinitely. Many researchers believe there is a limit on how many years a human being can physically live.
Joanna Masel, a professor at the University of Arizona, said: “Ageing is mathematically inevitable. Like, seriously inevitable.” Masel’s research suggests that by solving the problem of ageing, other problems will become worse.
“You’ll always either be stuck with slow, old cells that push you closer to the grave, or incredibly powerful cancer cells that do the exact same thing,” said the New York Post.
A study published in Nature Communications in May suggested that there is an “absolute limit” on the human life span of about 120-150 years.
Using mathematical modelling, researchers from Singapore-based company Gero found that at around this limit “the human body would totally lose its ability to recover from stresses like illness and injury”, ultimately resulting in death, said Live Science.
That means that even if you have managed to avoid serious threats to your life, such as heart disease or being hit by a car – eventually your body would reach a level of frailty where it was unable to recover even from everyday stressors.
But it’s not all bad news. The researchers argue that if ways were found to increase “resiliency” in old age, then not only could our life spans be increased, but more crucially, our health span could be expanded too.
“Measuring something is the first step before producing an intervention,” study co-author Peter Fedichev told Scientific American. The next step now is to find ways to “intercept the loss of resilience”.
But do we want to live forever?
In a Pew Center for Research 2013 survey on radical life extension in the US, 56% of adults said they wouldn’t want to live a minimum of 120 years, which is considered the upper limit of the human lifespan.
Likewise, roughly two-thirds of adults in a 2016 poll on human enhancement said they wouldn’t want a brain chip implant to improve their cognitive abilities (66%) or synthetic blood to augment their physical abilities (63%).
“What you see when you actually look at people at the end of life, to a large degree, is a sense of a life well lived and a time for that life to transition itself,” says Wolpe. “Younger people have a harder time with that, but older people don’t.”
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