Can futurism, technology, and biology be used together to conquer physical death?
The Holy Grail. Humanity’s oldest quest. Immortality.
Is it possible?
The question has been out there for as long as humans have been conscious and could conceptualize and dream of an afterlife. But perhaps this question — the one regarding the possibility of everlasting physical life — has finally been answered. Maybe there is a new question to ask: are we on the cusp of finally attaining it?
Could it actually be possible, that in as little as a generation or two, humans will be living for as long as they want within a virtual reality of their own making? Or, that our biological lifespans will have increased three or even four-fold? That our children’s children will be born largely free of the diseases that have plagued humanity for centuries through a process called genetic engineering? Or, that humans will have nanotechnologies pairing fluidly with our own organic tissues, and that microscopic nanobots will be able to sweep in and maintain our cell health or, say, unclog our arteries?
As difficult as it may be for some to believe or even comprehend, a growing number of scientists and futurists believe these things are not only possible, but right around the corner.
From a technological standpoint, we humans are at a cross-road. Many of the futuristic advances that pioneer writers of science fiction introduced in the past (and continue to write about today) are now a reality and already making their first forays into the marketplace; advances that include artificial intelligence, bio-engineering, digital consciousness, and virtual reality, to name but a few.
Traditionally, portrayals of what our society will look like in the distant future have elicited varying emotions ranging from fear and skepticism to curiosity and desire. But that future is not so distant any more, and it is important that we humans participate in the discussion of how we want to handle these leaps from science-fiction to science fact in the 21st century.
To put things in to perspective, not so many years ago we would have considered it impossible for cars to navigate roads absent of human assistance, or that humans could even control their cars with their thoughts, but today these innovations are on the verge of becoming available to the public. Similar technology, for example, is allowing amputees to move their prosthetic with brain waves connected to electronic circuitry.
In recent years, perhaps as a direct result of the exponential rate at which technology is progressing, the notion of digital immortality has more and more become prevalent for those would be life-extenders and eternity-seekers. A convergence of sorts is at hand, in which various levels of technology and medical science are being used to formulate data hierarchies aimed at lengthening human life and broadening the human consciousness.
In the last 120 years or so the average human lifespan has doubled (the average lifespan in 1900, for instance, was around 40). Evolutionary speaking, that is a remarkable improvement in such a short period of time. This increase in lifespan came about largely through improvements in living conditions and standards, as well as medical advancements which decreased mortality related to bacterial and viral infections. Scientists, though, still have had difficulty eradicating the plethora of diseases associated with the aging process itself, in part because that process is so complex.
But this too is changing, and as technology and science continues to improve at a rapid rate, we are transforming the way we grow old. Speculations regarding longevity are beginning to change, and the notion of increasing dramatically human lifespan is no longer relegated to quack science.
Generally speaking, thoughts on the aging process can be separated into two camps: In the first camp, there are some, like Bennett Foddy, an Oxford philosopher interested in improving the quality of life as we age, who believe that 120 years, give or take a few decades, may be the maximum we humans can expect to live. These individuals assert, though, that the quality of those 120 years could be improved rapidly through advances in medicine and a better understanding of how the aging process works in the human body, such that certain of the tell-tale signs of aging (e.g., muscle deterioration, dementia, and loss of brain function) can be significantly reduced, which would improve the quality of life as we near death. Just visualize individuals who are moving about and active up to that point when they simply drop dead, give or take a few hyper-accelerated years of aging.
Amazingly, one life-prolonging medication is already undergoing testing on human subjects: metformin. Metformin is a drug initially developed to help people with diabetes, but studies on roundworms seem to indicate that the medication can improve oxygen flow at the cellular level, thus decreasing the rate at which cells need to replicate. This disruption of the cellular replication process can have big implications for the extension of human life.
“I have been doing research into aging for 25 years and the idea that we would be talking about a clinical trial in humans for an anti-aging drug would have been thought inconceivable,” says aging expert Professor Gordon Lithgow.
And this is hardly the only example. A simple search online reveals that many proposals, studies, and potential medications, all geared toward slowing the aging process’s inexorable march toward death.
It is doubtful whether drugs alone can extend life indefinitely. To go further we humans will have to reprogram our genes like we reprogram computers. This re-positioning of genes would work remarkably like an anti-virus program, essentially taking whatever negative mutations that have occurred and re-sequencing our genetic material to express itself as it did when we were younger.
A recent effort by the Shnookler-Reis lab has succeeded in doing this very thing. They extended the life of a c. Elegans worm by ten times its natural lifespan by means of adjusting the expression of certain genes.
What this essentially means is that genes which typically express themselves after a certain age – say, after menopause, for instance – and accelerate processes by which muscles deteriorate and/or bones become fragile, or the efficacy of our brains’ ability to store new memories, are suppressed, so that these developments are retarded, resulting in an overall lengthening of youth.
And now, let’s consider 2045, an initiative spearheaded by Russian entrepreneur Dmitri Itskov. The main goals of the 2045 initiative are as follows (as viewed on their website): The creation and realization of a new strategy for the development of humanity which meets global civilization challenges; the creation of optimal conditions promoting the spiritual enlightenment of humanity; and the realization of a new futuristic reality based on 5 principles: high spirituality, high culture, high ethics, high science and high technologies.
The main science mega-project of the 2045 Initiative aims to create technologies enabling the transfer of a individual’s personality to a more advanced non-biological carrier, and extending life, including to the point of immortality. We devote particular attention to enabling the fullest possible dialogue between the world’s major spiritual traditions, science and society.
These individuals—called trans-humanists—plan to upload the brain and all its complexity into a computer, instantaneously providing for the existence of our consciousness into perpetuity.
Pretty lofty goals, huh? Well, before you chuckle, please realize that the people involved in this project are serious. Very serious. And many of them have a lot of special letters attached to their surnames.
In fact, as the name 2045 suggests, the founders hope to have the ability to download the human brain and its related functions into a virtual reality by the year 2045! Like I said, this really is something right out of a science-fiction novel.
But here’s the thing: it is also very exciting. The very idea that around the world there are thousands of projects, varying in size and scale, where scientists, entrepreneurs, and government and private entities are seeking to alter and expand life as we know it through vast improvements in medicine, genetic engineering, and computer technology, is, to put it simply, amazingly futuristic.
Could anyone have imagined this, even going back ten or fifteen years? Few, perhaps, but not many.
Ultimately, it appears we humans are racing toward a great evolutionary and socio-cultural leap in the next 50-100 years. It seems clear to me, when observing all these developments and new trends, that humans are doing something extraordinary; nothing less than taking control over certain aspects of the evolutionary process. Or at the very least, participating more actively in it. Whether nature has something to say about this participation (will it reject it or welcome it, I wonder) in the end is something about which we will have to wait and see.
What would you do with Immortality?
Okay, so that’s it. You’ve seen the blueprint. Through a combination of techniques, including life-prolonging medications, bio-engineering, and finally, a digitally reformatted connectome (the human brain), humans are on a pathway toward immortality.
Or, at least an approximation to it.
But, then again, given past attempts and ultimate failures throughout history to extend physical life indefinitely, perhaps all this speculation and planning is just the current mode or iteration of Frankenstein, or the Philosopher’s Stone, or Fedorov and the desire to raise the dead, or, well, you take your pick…
One final question, though, and perhaps the most essential one: What would we do with this newfound immortality? What would you do? How would you function as a demigod? Would you view immortality as a gift, or in the end come to consider it a curse?
Difficult, I know. We humans have been searching for it for so long, it is hard to think of what it would be like once we attained it.
If I had to guess: we’ll be too busy solving a host of other problems our as yet pea-sized consciousness doesn’t have the ability to fathom. And in that sense, we will just be taking the next shaky step down the evolutionary path of human development.