Opinion: Fantasy Becoming Reality: Immortality

Editor’s Note: This is the final installment of a five part series about the technologies of yesterday’s science fiction becoming the reality of tomorrow.  The first installment on flying cars can be viewed here, the second installment on invisibility cloaks can be viewed here, the third installment on teleportation can be viewed here, and the fourth installment on time travel can be viewed here.

In the popular early 2000s television show Lost, Richard Alpert was given the gift of immortality for his service to the fictional island. Could science yield us the same gift one day?

An average of three months is added to life expectancy every year. The 2010 U.S. Census data found that there were just over 53,000 centenarians (people who live to at least 100). Consider that in 1950, there were only 2,300. Life expectancy is obviously trending upwards and, in this day of incredible and increasingly exponential technological advancement, science is certainly on our side in the quest to delay death.

Biomedical gerontologist Aubrey De Grey famously stated a couple of years ago that the first person to live to 150 is alive today and that the first person to live to 1000 could be born within the next two decades. To support such bold claims, De Grey created what he called “the seven deadly things”—seven physiological occurrences that contribute to aging and death. These include mutations in chromosomes (which can cause cancer), mutations in mitochondria, “junk” (molecules that our cells can’t break down) that builds up inside and outside our cells (a phenomenon that leads to neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s Disease), the death of cells that can only be replaced very slowly if at all (like brain cells), having too many abnormal cells that secrete harmful proteins (associated with Diabetes), and abnormalities within proteins that hold cells together to form tissues (which can cause arteriosclerosis).

If we can develop therapies to combat these elements, then it would certainly be possible to extend the average human lifespan. De Grey thinks that a time will come in which individuals go to their doctor for regular “maintenance” involving gene therapies, stem cell therapies, and immune system stimulation. Such preventative maintenance would allow us to repair molecular and cellular damage before it causes diseases. Now until we develop the technological capabilities to perform the regular upkeep described by Dr. De Grey, his theory is just that—a theory, but we could be close to putting it to the test.  

Many people are familiar with stem cells and their ability to become any one of the 220 different types of cells in the human body as well as reproduce themselves many times over. Researchers are currently attempting to figure out how to activate the necessary genes within stem cells that would allow them to differentiate, or change into the specific type of cell they wish to create (Perhaps the evolution of quantum computers, which I discussed briefly here, could aid us in this mission). Scientists at the Berkeley Stem Cell Center are currently working on turning stem cells into the specific neurons lost in those suffering from Parkinson’s disease. The head researcher estimates that human clinical trials could begin in five years. Stem cell treatments could cure everything from cancer, to heart disease, to diabetes, to brain damage, and even blindness and deafness! The key word here is cure. As opposed to many conventional treatments that simply aim to alleviate the symptoms of these diseases, stem cells have the ability to completely eliminate a disease in what could be as simple as a one-time injection.

Let’s say De Grey is right. If we were able to extend our lifespan to 150, then our generation would have about 125 years left to live! It’s very conceivable that within these 125 years continued technological advancement would extend our lifespans even beyond 150. And so on and so forth the cycle would continue until perhaps we reach a point where technology will yield us the ability to live to unthinkable ages.

Dr. Ray Kurzweil, who was recently ranked as the #8 entrepreneur in the U.S. by Forbes Magazine, sees a future in which the marriage between humans and the technology we created will allow us to become immortal. In an interview with the New York Times he predicted that 15 years from now, we will add more than a year every year to our life expectancies. In the year 2030, he sees the utilization of tiny nanobots that coexist in our body and act to repair damaged cells thus effectively eliminating disease. Progress has already been made in the field of biological nanotechnology. Researchers at MIT have developed nanoparticles that successfully destroyed late stage ovarian cancer in mice. Additionally, scientists at the University of London have also successfully battled cancer in mice using nanotechnology.

You may hear the word cyborg and think “robot”, but believe it or not, cyborgs walk amongst us daily. Cyborgs are just entities possessing both organic and mechanical characteristics. People who use hearing aids, have artificial limbs, or even an artificial pacemaker in their heart, are technically cyborgs. As Dr. Kurzweil describes, it may get to the point one day when all of us become cyborgs, replacing our natural, aging organs with artificial ones that have no limit on their lifespan and merging our bodies with technology to forego the inevitable death of purely biological beings. Essentially, aging and disease would be eradicated. With this in mind, Dr. Kurzweil boldly claimed that anyone alive in the year 2050 could be close to immortal.

You may think that even if we do develop means to combat aging that it would only be available to the rich elite. Well, initially, this would be the case as the technology would be very expensive. But, just like with any good, as the technology used to administer or produce age-combating treatments and technology continues to improve, companies would be able to these things cheaper, which would make these available to the general public. It’s simple economics. For reference, when Motorola created the first commercially available cell phone in 1983 (which weighed a whopping 2.5 pounds) it cost consumers $3,995!

In conclusion, my main objective in authoring this five part series was to highlight the incredible nature of the human species. To think about how far we have come in the 200,000 years of our existence is mind-boggling. Ultimately, all of this achievement can be contributed to the intelligence of our species. We’re in an amazing position today because everyday we’re the most recent humans to grace the earth. The future becomes our present with each passing day. We’re on the frontier of everything that our intelligence will continue to generate. I truly believe the future holds unfathomable possibilities that will again be a product of our inventiveness and innovative minds, which will continue to spawn new and better technologies. I encourage all of you to open up your mind to the possibilities that lie ahead. I think doing so inspires us to appreciate the human species, our consciousness and our unparalleled intelligence. Like Dr. Kurzweil stated, “it is the nature of human beings to change who we are.”

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