Can the 21st Century produce a time when advances in medicine and technology can succeed in making mankind reverse ageing and live forever?
Throughout history, human beings have always been inquisitive about death and the life thereafter; philosophers on their part, have continued to ask questions bordering on what the experience would be, whether it will be extended or infinitely reversed to engender immortality.
Religion too has not been left out in these permutations with its faith-centric view on eternity while technological advancements in almost every facet of human life, has made man question whether the cure to death can be discovered, especially with notable entrepreneurs and billionaires spending billions of dollars on scientific researches in Silicon Valley, all in a bid to solve the ‘problem of death’.
The biological fact about the gradual disintegration of body tissues which culminate in death is not lost on the Silicon Valley elite, but with their seemingly limitless resources, there is a growing belief that they can buy longevity and are entitled to more time on earth than most.
In the past few years, several billionaires have invested billions on science and technology start-ups whose research are exclusively in the field of combating and reversing the ageing process.
Aubrey de Grey is a biomedical gerontologist and chief science officer of SENS Research Foundation, a Mountain View, California outfit that studies regenerative medicines that might cure diseases associated with old age.
De Grey’s startup reflects the rush of Big Tech money into this arena as the U.S. population ages. Baby boomers are retiring, and the Census Bureau estimates that older people will outnumber children by 2035.
In 2012, Google launched Calico, a research and development bio-tech company, in a bid to solve the challenges of aging and associated illnesses. Two years later, Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, started the $3 billion Chan-Zuckerberg Science Program, whose lofty goals include supporting the science and technology that will make it possible to cure, prevent or manage all diseases by the end of the 21st Century.
Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos and PayPal co-founder, Peter Thielm, are not left out in this venture as they joined the crusade against ‘death’ by investing in Unity Biotechnology, launched in 2016, with the aim of developing therapies for age-related ailments.
Could the cure for ageing be imminent, kept secret until it’s fine-tuned in a Silicon Valley research lab? Or are these billionaires just spending their money profligately? Are they on the verge of defeating and defying death and aging?
In August 2018, scientists and researchers at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom announced that ‘key aspects of human cell aging can be reversed by new compounds.’
This is the latest in the series of discoveries towards understanding the genetic make-up of the human body which may, one day, make us immortal.
As the longevity entrepreneur Arram Sabeti told The New Yorker: “The proposition that we can live forever is obvious. It doesn’t violate the laws of physics, so we can achieve it.”
The most ironic aspect to this trend is the fact that the majority of people who are the public face of research into life extension and the pursuit of immortality are men.
But there are notable exceptions, with the Nobel Prize-winning research of Elizabeth Blackburn in 2009, beaming a new light towards the way scientists approach the question. Blackburn emphasized the importance of telomeres (protein caps on chromosomes) which may be the secret to understanding aging.
Professor Blackburn’s new book on telomeres couldn’t be clearer.
“Does our research show that by maintaining your telomeres you will live into your hundreds? No. Everyone’s cells become old and eventually we die,” it says.
However, there are reasons to believe humankind may have the luxury of various options in the not-too-distant future.
First, life expectancy has risen geometrically in the past few decades with many people living longer than the ancestors of yore.
Second, the rate of advances in medicine is accelerating and this can be seen in the advent of the bioengineering field which enables surgeons to perform hitherto-impossible operations without causing the death of the patient.
Third, new technologies such as artificial intelligence, are bringing to life the idea of ‘transhumanism’ where humans won’t be pegged by the limitations of flesh and blood.
Those who work in this field are now talking about lifespans of 130, 150 and even 200 years. The gerontologist de Grey has stated that the ‘the first person to live to 1,000 has already been born.’
In his 2015 book Homo Deus, historian Yuval Noah Harari also wrote: ‘In the 21st century, humans are likely to make a serious bid for immortality.’
But there’s a reason that science is slow. Most researchers are of the opinion that trying to get to the bottom of why human life expires after a set number of years may harbor unforeseen and disastrous consequences. For instance, one experimental strategy, which deploys the enzyme telomerase to renew old cells, might encourage premalignant cells to turn cancerous.
“People look at aging as something that is very simple,” says Michael Fossel, a former professor of the Biology of Aging at Grand Valley State University in Michigan.
“They pick their favorite parameter, and then they push it. Can we reverse ageing in people in clinical trials? Nobody knows yet.”
Another perspective to consider in the quest for immortality is slightly more nuanced than just saying, ‘soon, we’ll be able to live forever’, though.
Really, you just need to live long enough for the technology to get good enough. British futurologist, Ian Pearson, told The Sun he ‘reckoned you have to make it to 2050.’ As he put it, “If you’re under 40 reading this article, you’re probably not going to die.”
This implies that you have a higher chance of making it to 2050 if you are wealthy, as shown by a study carried out at the University of Washington which discovered a life expectancy variation of 20-plus years between wealthy regions in central Colorado and poor counties with Indian reservations in South Dakota.
The intended (or unintended) consequence of this is the redistribution of death akin to the redistribution of wealth in the hands of a very wealthy few. This could lead to previously-unforeseen adverse socio-economic implications.
The less divisive route is to upload your mind or essence to the cloud which is a favourite theme in many science-fiction books and movies but this also comes fraught with ethical questions and implications.
David Chalmers, the Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist, says the biggest question it raises is your very survival. If you upload your brain, you are making a digital copy of your mind. Can this be conscious in the same way as you are? Or are you creating a sort of digital zombie?
Maybe a caste or pyramidal system of immortality could be entrenched, which is not an exactly ridiculous notion considering how the wealthy reinforces barrier systems by living in closed-off neighbourhoods.
Will the rich and better-off be enjoying costly, ‘authentic’ flesh-based immortality while the 99 percent have to upload or die?
The argument can also be articulated another way. We may witness a world where the cost of immortality crashes and it is so commonplace and ubiquitous, everyone can upload their essence and become a ‘Terminator’ version of themselves.
Virtual immortality could finally deliver the eternal paradise that religion has always promised.
Perhaps, it takes the promise of immortality to inspire the self-absorbed to invest in expensive research like the current bid to reverse the ageing process. If so, we may all one day witness death-defiance as a means to a worthy end.
But men who hope to live forever might pause on their eternal journey to consider the frightening void at invincibility’s core which seems to be where the world (or Silicon Valley) is headed at the moment.
Additional notes from Financial Times