Life is perhaps the greatest natural disaster our species has ever faced. By current estimates, around 56 million people succumb to its end each year, that’s almost 2 people each second and around 3.9 billion during an [average] lifetime. Life is a relatively indiscriminate killer, and whilst many have been able to extend their fight, not one of our species has been able to escape its grasp.
Human ingenuity has driven a radical extension of our lifespan. From the Bronze Age, through to the early 20th century, human life expectancy at birth was around 25-35 years. Huge technological and scientific advance has taken that figure to around 70 years today, with most in the richer economies expecting to survive until they join the octogenarian club.
The philosopher Stephen Cave notes, “All living things seek to perpetuate themselves into the future, but humans seek to perpetuate themselves forever. This seeking – this will to immortality – is the foundation of human achievement; it is the wellspring of religion, the muse of philosophy, the architect of our cities and the impulse behind the arts…” he adds that, “..the sheer universality of immortality narratives, the fact that they seem to be central to every culture, suggests that the root is in human nature itself. Indeed, it is deep in the nature that we share with all living things; the urge simply to live on….” (Immortality, 2013)
Unlike the vast majority of living creatures we are, as far as we know, the only species able to contemplate our own death. Whilst many advanced animals are able to communicate some sense of past and future, we have been able to evolve to a point where our own mortality is known to us. As the Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges notes [quoted by Cave] “Other creatures blindly struggle on, knowing only life until their moment comes. Except for man, all creatures are immortal, for they are ignorant of death…”
This deep-rooted will to live, in combination with our vivid knowledge of what is to come has driven us to fight diseases, improve our health, nutrition, safety, security and even- in recent time- probe the very code that created us, our DNA for clues as to how we could- perhaps- live forever. Unlike any other time in human history however, we have reached a critical tipping-point in this quest. Humanity now has the possibility of significantly extending our lifespan, perhaps even into perpetuity. So will humans ever live forever?
In this exclusive interview series, we speak to Prof. Jack Szostak (Nobel Prize winning Geneticist), Dmitry Itskov (billionaire founder of the 2045 Initiative), Aubrey de Grey (Chief Science Officer of the SENS Research Foundation), Prof. Ezekiel Emanuel (Bioethicist and Fellow at the Centre for American Progress) and Prof. George Church (Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School). We discuss the fundamental essence of life itself, why we die, research into extending lifespans, and whether we will ever overcome our mortality.
George Church is Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and Director of PersonalGenomes.org, which provides the world’s only open-access information on human Genomic, Environmental & Trait data (GET). His 1984 Harvard PhD included the first methods for direct genome sequencing, molecular multiplexing & barcoding. These led to the first genome sequence (pathogen, Helicobacter pylori) in 1994 . His innovations have contributed to nearly all “next generation” genome sequencing methods and companies (CGI, Life, Illumina, nanopore). This plus chip-based DNA synthesis and stem cell engineering resulted in founding additional application-based companies spanning fields of medical diagnostics (Knome, Alacris, AbVitro, Pathogenica) & synthetic biology / therapeutics ( Joule, Gen9, Editas, Egenesis, enEvolv,WarpDrive ).
He is director of NIH Center for Excellence in Genomic Science. His honors include election to NAS & NAE & Franklin Bower Laureate for Achievement in Science. He has co-authored 370 papers, 60 patents & one book (Regenesis).
Ezekiel J. Emanuel is the Vice Provost for Global Initiatives, the Diane v.S. Levy and Robert M. Levy University Professor, and Chair of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Dr. Emanuel was the founding chair of the Department of Bioethics at the National Institutes of Health and held that position until August of 2011. Until January 2011, he served as a Special Advisor on Health Policy to the Director of the Office of Management and Budget and National Economic Council. He is a breast oncologist and author.
Aubrey de Grey, British researcher on aging, claims he has drawn a roadmap to defeat biological aging. He provocatively proposes that the first human beings who will live to 1,000 years old have already been born. Dr. de Grey is the biomedical gerontologist who researched the idea for and founded SENS Research Foundation. He received his BA in Computer Science and Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Cambridge in 1985 and 2000, respectively. Dr. de Grey is Editor-in-Chief of Rejuvenation Research, is a Fellow of both the Gerontological Society of America and the American Aging Association, and sits on the editorial and scientific advisory boards of numerous journals and organizations
Dmitry Itskov is and Entrepreneur and Founder of the 2045 Initiative and President of the international Global Future 2045 congress After co-founding his first internet start-up in 1999, his partner and he evolved their internet business into an online media company in 2000, diversifying over the following years into online games and publishing, media, IT and PR projects. They incorporated these businesses as a holding in 2005, naming it New Media Stars.
In 2010, he commissioned a survey among scientists and spiritual masters on the topic of creating an artificial human body and transferring human consciousness into it. As a result, assisted by leading Russian specialists in neural interfaces, artificial organs and cybernetic systems, he formulated his Avatar project, which later received the support of HH the Dalai Lama in March 2012. In 2011 he launched the non-profit organization Russia 2045, simultaneously publishing an open letter to Russia’s President Medvedev requesting support for this new technology mega-project. He next expanded the organization to the international 2045 Initiative and organized the first international Global Future 2045 congress, which was held in February 2012 in Moscow. In the summer of 2012, he publicly appealed to Forbes-list billionaires: “Today you have the unique chance to change this situation, and at the same time to bring invaluable benefit to your country and the entire world, and write your name in world history, by supporting the creation of the immortality industry.”
Early in his research career, Dr. Szostak made important contributions to the field of genetics. These included construction of the first yeast artificial chromosome and furthering our understanding of the function of telomeres, work for which he shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009. By the 1990s, however, Szostak had redirected his research to understanding how life on earth may have first emerged. He began his studies in this area by attempting to construct an RNA molecule that could self-replicate. His lab now focuses on developing a simple artificial cell that can grow and evolve in response to a changing environment.
Szostak received his B.S. in biology from McGill University and his PhD in biochemistry from Cornell University. Currently, he is a Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and an Investigator at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.
Q: What is “life” and what does it mean to feel alive?
[Professor Jack Szostak] My colleague Jerry Joyce once chaired a NASA committee that defined life in a practical sense, as a self-sustaining chemical system with the potential for Darwinian evolution (the hallmark of biology). That’s a perfectly adequate operational definition that is appropriate for research into the origins of life. Obviously it has nothing to do with consciousness, or even the experience of being alive. It also excludes forms of life we don’t yet understand such as the potential for conscious computers.
Q: Why do we age and die?
[Prof George Church] Many organisms have a pattern of temporal change and senescence that is reproducible and predictable for the species and gender — clearly with a huge genetic component. For example, the longevity of rats is 3.8 years while their ‘cousins‘ the mole-rats live up to 30 years (genomics.senescence.info). These timings are probably optimized to fit with the ecology patterns of the species — predation, litter size, environmental variation, food abundance, etc. Even single-cell microbes (like yeast) can have sexual stages and/or asymmetric cell divisions with predictable number of divisions between birth and death.
[Aubrey de Grey] Aging is a side-effect of being a machine with moving parts. All such machines, whether living or not, inherently create entropy in their structure. Living organisms have immensely sophisticated systems for exporting that entropy, but those systems are generally not 100% comprehensive, so aging still happens. Aging can equivalently be viewed as the accumulation of damage. We get sick when the damage becomes too abundant for the body to keep operating at full function, and we die when it becomes too abundant to allow any function…
[Professor Jack Szostak] The real mystery is not why organisms as complicated as us age and die, but why there is a kind of immortality through the germ line! There clearly is some way that all the damaging aspects of life that feed into ageing are overcome in the germ line. If you look at a lot of microbes, bacteria… they just keep on dividing forever… Ageing is quite complicated. There are many different aspects that contribute to it, but how it’s overcome in the germ line is pretty interesting.
What’s also surprising perhaps, is that simple organisms like Yeast do have a kind of ageing and mortality. You have a large mother cell, and a small daughter cell. If you pick out the mother cells under a microscope, after a certain number of divisions they stop being able to divide, whereas on the daughter cell lineage they keep going forever.
There are a lot of complicated aspects to ageing, and they’re not well understood.
Q: Why are we living longer?
[Ezekiel J. Emanuel] We got rid of a lot of infectious diseases and deaths in kids under 5 through the 1960’s and 1970’s. Since then, we’ve been able to extend life among the over 60’s, reducing cardiac mortality and premature deaths from stroke, cancers and so on.
Q: Is ageing inevitable?
[Aubrey de Grey] It’s inevitable for complex animals. Some simple animals avoid aging by exporting absolutely all the entropy they create, but that’s because they don’t contain any material that stays in place unrecycled. Basically, if an animal has any organs that rely for their function on being built out of long-lived cells (like our brains, for example), it’s going to age.
Q: What is the optimum human lifespan?
[Ezekiel J. Emanuel] We’re biologically created to survive, that’s inherent in who we are
I don’t know that we know the optimum human lifespan. A lot of people spend time pondering this and given what we know (now) the maximal seems to be around 120 years.
From a personal standpoint, what do you want?! You want no or very limited physical disabilities as you age, you want your mind to keep working and not to have Alzheimer’s, dementia and so forth. Those are the minimal mental and physical requirements of ageing rather than the length of time.
I’m a little concerned that we’re investing so much money in trying to extend lifespan. People evaluate a health system or country by life-expectancy and I think that’s the wrong measure. I think a slightly different, but more important measure, is what per cent of the population gets past say, 75.
You have a bell shaped curve with life expectancy, so even if the average is- say- 80, some people are not going to make it to 75. What we really want is a system that brings everyone up to 75, rather than helping the 85 year old get to 95. We’re moving people up the bottom of the curve, not extending it; it’s a subtle but hugely important difference.
We need to move away from average life expectancy and towards proportion of population that live past a given age. That’s a much more important number, and encompasses the people that health systems are currently failing. This will also reduce socio-economic disparities whereby lower class people are not living as long as others, and in many cases having their lifespan reversed.
Q: Why are we fearful of ageing and death?
[Prof George Church] This goes back to the notion of ‘supporting survival of offspring’. Ancestors of all current organisms that had stronger ‘urges’ to live and support their clan, consequently left behind more and healthier offspring — and these tended to inherit the desire to live too. For humans, in particular, we have both genetic and cultural evolution reinforcing such drives.
[Aubrey de Grey] Aging is feared fir just the same reason that all ill-health is feared. We have had to live with its inevitability since the dawn of civilisation, but the result has just been that we have developed tricks to put our fear to the back of our minds. Of course the problem today is that aging is no longer so inevitable, because we’re within striking distance of developing therapies that can remove the damage that the body doesn’t already have systems to remove.
[Dmitry Itskov] For many people, death means losing everything: family, friends, familiar surroundings and more. And, most importantly, no one has no idea what will happen with her or his personality after death. Will it disappear forever according to the materialistic approach? Or does heaven or hell await it, according to religious dogma?
The renowned psychologist and author, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross describes the different stages of awareness during the death process, which she based on examining people with fatal diagnoses. Her research vividly shows that most people are not ready to die without prior mental preparation.
Subconsciously, people have always wanted to live long and happy lives, even longing for immortality. That is why, perhaps, seeking immortality has always been present in the world folklore. It is interesting that seeking technological immortality is becoming mainstream in society only now.
I am convinced that aging and death today does not make any sense from a philosophical, spiritual or scientific point of view. Humanity is dynamically changing and no longer need these constants anymore: aging, death, limited lifetimes and the need to hurry up to achieve lifetime accomplishments. Our civilization has sufficient knowledge, right now, to move into a new era of enlightened immortal neohumanity.
Q: How has human ageing changed over the past century?
[Aubrey de Grey] Nothing has really changed, except that there are more people suffering the ill-health of old age because fewer people are dying young. The overwhelming majority of work to address that ill-health is still making the original error of presuming that the diseases of old age can be “cured” in the same way that an infection can. Gerontologists have been saying for at least 100 years that that’s misguided, but still hardly anyone is listening. Mostly that’s because until SENS, the alternative approaches that gerontologists were putting forward were no better.
Q: What is the significance of longevity research?
[Prof George Church] We have now characterized dozens of genes which extend lifespans of fruit flies, roundworms and rodents by 1.2 to 5 fold. These include the biochemistry of caloric regulation and the length of ‘telomeres‘ protecting the ends of chromosomes. Some of these genetic variants have been combined to observe synergies. Most combinations have not yet been tested in large mammals. Part of the challenge is the time required of the assay is long. A promising alternative (that I favor) is aging reversal research. Instead of readout times of years, these results can occur in weeks. An dramatic example is ‘heterochronic parabiosis’ in which and old and young mouse have their circulatory systems sutured together. Rejuvenation assays on vasculature, nerves, skeletal and cardiac muscles is observed in the old mouse. Despite modest funding, the pace of discovery and engineering on many fronts of rejuvenation research is accelerating and moving toward pre-clinical trials.
[Aubrey de Grey] There’s no such thing as longevity research per se. SENS Research Foundation doesn’t work on longevity: we work on health. All medicine has a side-effect of extending life, and this medicine will have a rather bigger side-effect of that form than anything that has come before, but it’s still a side-effect.
Having said that: the significance of our research can be quantified in terms of the disease and disability burden that this medicine will remove. Roughly 2/3 of all deaths worldwide, and about 90% of all deaths in the industrialised world, are due to aging. Moreover, because the ill-health of old age tends to last a long time before it kills you, at least 80% of the world’s ill-health is caused by aging.
[Ezekiel J. Emanuel] Think about the people who are politically and socially powerful. They happen to be people who tend to be in the upper income group, and people who are wanting to live longer.
Also, this is exciting science! The people who are making choices at the top have good intentions, but they are focussed on the issues of extending life rather than preventing premature deaths and giving people a full and complete life cycle.
Q: What would be the impact to humanity of not undertaking longevity research?
[Dmitry Itskov] In order for civilization to maintain stability, it has to constantly develop. In the past, different technological and humanitarian projects which helped to provide balance.
In my opinion, today’s project of the controlled evolution of humans will enable true balance of the civilization and prevent its destruction. On one hand, immortality as a central technological part of the project helps fuel breakthroughs in various fields of science. On the other hand, it is a “super-idea” capable of uniting people. Humanity has experienced crises of values and needs spiritual growth. In our view, it is not only the invention of immortality, but the realization of a complex approach to the physical and spiritual evolution of man. For us, it is also the realization of a scientific and technological revolution.
Multiple research papers describe global risks and reasons why our civilization may face partial or total extinction. These include nuclear threats, natural disasters, anthropogenic threats, technological risks and many more. As far as I am concerned, this particular project of corporeal and spiritual evolution may pull us out of the crisis we are in, and become the most interesting, promising, captivating project of both the present and future.
Q: What are the approaches (and feasibility) of slowing down [and ending] the ageing process?
[Prof George Church] As described above, I feel that rejuvenation research is more promising technically than slowing down aging — as well as more attractive in terms of quality of life and economic burden of our current earth demographics. Think of the impact of getting many current retirees happily back into the workforce! One of the challenges of rejuvenation is the perceived tradeoff between encouraging stem cell replicating and potentially cancer-associated proliferation. But these are separable. Cancer is probably better treated as a preventable disease than our current emphasis on detection and curing tumors already well along in darwinian diversification. Many animals and humans have known causes for their genetically lower cancer risks and these can be combined with each other and combined with new strategies not found in nature.
The topic of ‘overcoming our biology’ is often a euphemism for silicon versions of ourselves. We are certainly already inorganic/organic hybrids (augmented by cell phones and jets), but it merits noting that bio-brains are over 10,000-fold more energy efficient and more compact than electronic brains — and biotech is progressing exponentially faster than electronics.
[Aubrey de Grey] Slowing down aging, strictly defined, involves tweaking the way the body works so that it creates damage more slowly. There is really no feasible approach to doing that to an appreciable degree in humans. Reversing aging, on the other hand, is much more feasible, because it involves repairing the damage that the body has already done to itself. That’s what SENS is all about. It entails a panel of interventions, each going after a particular type of damage.
Truly ending aging will take more than SENS, because SENS will not be 100% comprehensive – at first. First-generation SENS therapies will probably but us a few decades of extra life. But because they are rejuvenation therapies, the beneficiaries will be those in middle age or older. That means that by the time they get to be biologically middle-aged again, we’ll have improved the therapies so that they can be re-rejuvenated, and so on.
[Professor Jack Szostak] I think it would be foolish to say it’s not possible to overcome our limitations. When a scientist says something is not solvable, they’re usually proved wrong, sometimes rather quickly. Ageing looks like a hard problem now, but we know a number of the things that contribute to it. From my early work on telomeres and much subsequent research, we know that telomere erosion in stem cells is one of many contributing factors. There are various aspects of mitochondrial biology and energy metabolism that are important and damage DNA. There are a lot of people working on these things, and I think they will be understood soon. However, overcoming these problems is harder than understanding them, it would be foolish though, to think they will never be overcome.
Even if we’re aiming for immortality, just having a healthy lifespan of 120 or 150 would be pretty amazing right? The consequences of that alone would be enormous to humanity.
Q: What is the role of technology in the future of humanity?
[Dmitry Itskov] Our Avatar project is a completely new approach to developing technologies. Until now, mankind has created technologies that were meant to be extensions of the human body such as a car, a train, a plane for fast movement, a mobile phone for communication at a distance, a video camera for recording an image, a warm house to have shelter from bad weather and so on. We suggest focusing on the development of the human body. Can we make the body faster and stronger, invulnerable to disease and high and low temperature, pressure and radiation? Can we make the human body immortal?
Being a futurologist and transhumanist, I believe that further human evolution will be associated primarily with the transition from a mortal, biological body to an immortal, artificial body. We may evolve from having one body to having multiple; from having a vulnerable biological body to having a cybernetic body; to having a nano-robotic body that can be controlled by thought to change its shape, and then, perhaps, to a hologram-like body consisting of light.
Perhaps, these evolutionary changes seem fantastic and shocking, but I think that it is an inevitable reality. I believe that my mission is to make this a reality, and not only high-tech, but also a harmonious, humane and a spiritual one. I want it to be based on spiritual values that have been developed by mankind for thousands of years; values such as love and compassion for people.
Q: What is the potential of synthetic biology and genetic engineering for the future of humanity?
[Prof George Church] As Moore’s law for miniaturizing electronic components approaches molecular (nanometer) scales, we find that synthetic biology is already there ,making atomically-precise, inexpensive replicative manufacturing and real-time circuit hardware optimization. Biological engineering has the huge advantage over other branches of engineering in that it builds on ‘devices‘ optimized over billions of years and billions of cubic kilometers. Evolution can also be harnessed today in the lab to design and test trillions of prototypes (rather than the single prototype pipeline common in other engineering fields).
Q: Will we ever separate the biological part of our-selves from the mind?
[Prof George Church] I think that our ‘mind’ is already a hybrid of biological, cultural, and electronic components and will continue to evolve faster than the minds and bodies of our pre-civilization ancestors. Rather than embracing ‘separate‘ or ‘homogenous’, I think that the trend is toward integration and diversification.
Q: What are the social, ethical, cultural, environmental and economic challenges to extend (and end) ageing?
[Prof George Church] A reasonable concern is over-population, but the trends observed are toward cities and smaller families with 1.2 children rather than agrarian average of 7.5 children per couple. If we can eliminate poverty-associated diseases like malaria, TB, HIV via inexpensive, safe gene-therapies/gene-drives and if the food/energy yields increase, harnessing deserts, decreasing dependence on meat and travel, then the carrying capacity of the earth would need to be reassessed. Another concern is reduction of creativity or innovation. I would submit that there exist some 80 year olds who are much more creative than some 30 year olds. Furthermore, if we have the ability to rejuvenate body and mind, we probably can also engineer greater creativity than ever before — indeed we may face the problem of too much creativity.
On the question of inequality, I feel that key technologies are becoming more democratic and more ubiquitous rather than less, for example, vaccines, cell phones and some bio costs are decreasing faster than any previous technology. Inequality of access to certain technologies matters less than others — for example, we don’t all need to have the same number of cars per person but if excessive consumption of cars diminishes the basic health of others, then we have a problem worthy of fixing.
Concepts of open consent and data sharing, like any cultural or technological innovation, are being tested and optimized in the marketplace of ideas to see if the benefits to the individual and to society outweigh the problems.
[Aubrey de Grey] There aren’t any. In a nutshell: the chances are very low that we will in fact create significant problems as a result of solving the biggest problem we have today, i.e. aging – even if we did, the chances are very low that those problems would be anywhere near so severe as aging is – even if it were, that’s not for us to say: we have a duty to develop these therapies so that humanity of the future has the choice whether to use them or not…
[Professor Jack Szostak] Research into the origins of life is one of the last areas where religious fundamentalists point to the supernatural as being an explanation. I think it would be nice to convincingly show that there are perfectly natural explanations, and that the emergence of life from chemistry is perfectly natural and understandable- no magic required. That may gradually change how people think about things, but I realise that’s ridiculously optimistic… however, one can dream… It may take many generations for a naturalistic understanding of the origins of life to filter throughout society in a meaningful way.
Whilst research into the origin of life doesn’t raise ethical questions, there are questions around the creation of living systems in the lab and whether something bad could come from that. At this time, the stuff we’re trying to design is so dependent on a lab environment, that it’s not really an issue… Where it’s more of an issue is the increasingly ability to redesign existing living systems, and many people are concerned about the potential dangers. People feel that certain experiments simply shouldn’t be done, regardless of their scientific merit or justification, for example – the creation of super-pathogens.
In terms of what we can do now, a lot of questions have been brought into focus by the recent and very powerful CRISPR technologies that allow genome editing with unprecedented ease. A lot of things that were theoretical before, are now practical. Most scientists broadly agree this is not the right time to start doing germ line engineering and putting in modifications that will be inherited. It’s hard to know if this moratorium will be respected, or how long it will last. There are a lot of reasons why germ line modifications are not a good idea… but there will be people who say, hey… why not, maybe we can do something good.
Many talk of inequality being created by research into genetics. If we start to influence things like ageing by germ line modifications, that creates future generations that have potential enhancements,.. What more people will be motivated to do is extend their own individual lives through things like stem-cell modifications which are not heritable. That’s just like any other aspect of medicine… How many people can afford the top-line cardiovascular or cancer therapies? How you deal with that is a huge issue.
[Dmitry Itskov] There are multiple challenges that not only require not only comprehensive analysis, but also an intelligent approach and discussions on multiple levels involving various experts.
For example, in terms of the accessibility of technologies for immortality: will they be available only to the elites and the military? Our 2045 Initiative was created with a goal of making immortality available to the masses and to put avatar technologies to the service of humanitarian interests of the society, and to prevent military application.
In order to make this a reality, we need to make these technologies a priority in the development of civilization. We need to establish a foundational plan on an international level. This would include, but is not limited to, global political parties and R&D centers. We must formulate future strategies (for 50-100-200 year timeframes) for transhuman medicine, colonization of space, introduction of avatar technologies and anthropomorphic robotics, as well as many other technologies currently perceived as science fiction.
If we turn immortality into a megatrend and create social demand for it, then development of these technologies will be unstoppable. One way or another, people will start investing in such research. They will form corporations and will demand deployment of such technologies from their governments as well as at the level of the United Nations.
In terms of the overpopulation problem: where would we all live if everyone is immortal? Many scientists indicate that this problem is one of the future. The Avatar project, contrary to the above thesis, will expand human habitat by making artificial bodies suitable for harsh environments, previously considered uninhabitable by humans, including space.
Another question worthy of discussion is the statement that death is necessary for humans for their spiritual development. Some experts claim that death itself is a motivation for personal and spiritual development but I don’t think it works in modern society. Most people are focused on consumerism rather than spirituality regardless of their inevitable death. People start thinking about death when it’s too late to change things. Also, the psyche of a person later in life is not as open to change and their health may already be declining.
The fear of death should not be the motivation. Instead of death, why not be motivated by bold and ambitious plans for the creation of a new world where there is now death and aging, where we can live in multiple bodies, travel into space freely and even create new personal realities for ourselves.
Unquestionably, any undertaking is risky. What is perceived as risk today, I predict will become negligible in the future.
Q: Who are the key stakeholders in anti-ageing research?
[Aubrey de Grey] There are many scientists, most of whom would actually not think of themselves as gerontologists, whose work is of paramount importance to getting aging under control as quickly as possible. They need funding, so philanthropists, investors and the government are all vital too. Philanthropists are particularly vital at present, because the research is mostly at too early a stage to excite investors and the world’s misguidedness about aging means that there aren’t any votes in declaring a war on it.
Q: What are the significant areas of science shaping our understanding of life and longevity?
[Professor Jack Szostak] The sciences are not independent, they feed into each other. All the advances in neuroscience depend on different contributions from physics, chemistry, computation and more. They work together and have a synergistic effect and let us ask questions we simply could not ask before. 30 years ago, when I was looking to change fields, I was seriously considering neuroscience. At the time, the technology was so primitive! At that time the only way of mapping functions onto brain regions was to look at cognitive deficits caused by stroke. Now we have advanced versions of fMRI, opto-genetics and other new technologies that have come from the combination of chemistry, physics and computer science.
[Dmitry Itskov] We are focused on cybernetic technologies for life extension, which includes a spectrum of scientific disciplines from robotics and nanotechnologies to neuroprosthetics and neurointerfaces, to studies of the brain and consciousness.
The main focus of our research and development is: 1) the creation of an artificial body on par with a natural body in terms of capabilities and 2) transfer of consciousness into an artificial body.
We believe that the shift toward a fully artificial body will go through the stages of a partial replacement of the natural brain by way of introducing neuro-prosthetic chips and so called “neuro-dust.” These are artificial neural networks that will pick up functions of biological neural tissues as they necrotize. Also, researchers talk about the possibility of transferring the whole consciousness onto an artificial substrate at once. Russian astrophysicist Alexander Panov introduced a theory that assumes the possibility of the transfer of consciousness onto an inorganic substrate via quantum teleportation. If this is true, then consciousness is not just a product of computation that takes place in our brains, but is something bigger. I believe in this theory and think that in the future, studies of consciousness will reveal more significance than just the research of the brain.
As for the artificial body, our goal is to create alive and developing synthetic organisms capable of living in extreme cold or heat, high or low pressures and radiation. In essence, a body that does not age nor die.
Q: What are the big questions about life that are yet unanswered?
[Ezekiel J. Emanuel] The biggest question about life that will always remain unanswered relates to it’s purpose. What is the meaning of life?
What does it mean for us to live a meaningful life. This isn’t going to be answered by science- though it will help. It’s a philosophical existential question, and a scary one for many people.
We have substituted living well for living long, and we need to have more of a discussion about living well.
Q: What would a life be like, where ageing is eliminated?
[Prof George Church] It depends on how we do it. Assuming it is not immortality, but merely decoupling biological from chronological age, we might become better stewards of our planet, more forward looking, more creative, and have higher motivation and more resources to colonize nearby planets and stars — at a minimum to evade loss of all life to an asteroid which is too big to deflect.
[Aubrey de Grey] That world is at least a few decades away, and far too many other things will have happened in a few decades for it to be remotely productive to predict what that world would be like. But we don’t need to predict everything: we just need to focus on the fact that a post-aging world will have far less sickness.
[Ezekiel J. Emanuel] A world without ageing? Horrid!
If you go to countries with a lot of old people, you tend not to find a lot of young people. You end up with a place like Japan with a lot of old people and no baby carriages and prams right? That’s not a very exciting world.
Youth and young-kids bring new possibilities. As they get corrupt, they become like us… But youth has creativity, it has possibility, it has the will to change. All the data shows that as we get older, we lose our creativity..
We’ve been very successful at extending youth, we’ve got rid of the vast majority of childhood diseases. In the USA, we have a disproportionately high number of youth deaths by violence and suicide, and now it’s up in the 50’s and 60’s where the death rate picks up. We need to improve the quality of the life of young people, and their education and possibilities. The decline in social mobility and equality of opportunity is a huge problem; we need to boost that and focus on not just extending the life of kids, but enhancing the quality of their life.
Imagine an aristocracy of all the advantages of life; education, biological, genetic and wealth? It would be a total disaster!
[Professor Jack Szostak] There are consequences to ending ageing that are trivially easy to foresee, and many we couldn’t possibly imagine. The changes in medicine happening now are already having huge social effects.
Studies around the origin of life, ageing and so forth are going on now and will be figured out in coming decades. The thing that will engage people for much longer however, is the science of the mind, how the brain works, how we think. These seem like harder questions that are important, engage a lot of people, and will take a lot longer to figure out.
[Dmitry Itskov] Avatar technologies will define a new vector of humanity’s development, oriented toward the evolution of humans in body as well as consciousness. Nothing will be the same, as both humanity and the environment will change. Artificial body is the environmentalist’s dream, as we will stop harming the environment, wasting resources and remodeling it to suit our needs. The whole planet may possibly become a natural reserve.
Avatar technologies will liberate people from the limitations of the biological body and will end physical and psychological suffering related to diseases and death. Immortality will offer limitless opportunity for exploration and self-development. Humans with artificial bodies will be able to inhabit space with its endless Earth-like planets, so that there is no threat of overpopulation.
Today, however, the age of technological singularity when humanity becomes immortal seems unpredictable. But in our Evolution 2045 political party program, we offered a vision of a new society and civilization. In this future society, an immortal avatar body would be as common as a car or a TV and a phone and the “smart grid” will be ubiquitous. For example, climate control technologies will enable humans to control outside temperature and weather; “smart home” systems will be implemented and will enable intelligent control of biomes and interactions with the environment, and trips to space will be as common as transatlantic flights now. And finally, immortal mankind will be able to leave its Earth’s cradle and expand further to populate our solar system, as K.E. Tsyolkovsky envisioned.
Whether this, or a less optimistic scenario unfolds, is totally up to us.
To many readers, the goal of immortality may feel easy to dismiss; perhaps somewhat of a moon-shot, however that is exactly what’s intended.
“We choose to go to the moon,” said John. F. Kennedy at Rice Stadium, Houston in 1962 “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills…” he continued, “we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun–almost as hot as it is here today–and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out–then we must be bold.”
In truth, there was absolutely no guarantee; perhaps [in reality] very little chance that this goal would be accomplished, and even if it wasn’t; the Apollo Programme spun-out a pipeline of thousands of innovations that have revolutionised our world including the microchip, CAT scans, MRI machines, water purification technology, fly by wire, hundreds of materials and more. There are very few aspects of our lives in fact, that haven’t been touched by the science of these space missions. Immortality is just such a moon-shot. The reality is that it’s unlikely [within our lifetimes, or even our next generation] that we will achieve anything close to it… however… on the road-map towards this goal, we must eliminate many of humanity’s greatest scourges including cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, infectious diseases, brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s and dementia and hundreds more. We will need to delve deep into the fundamental science of our own origins, and in the process learn who we are. Even if we never live forever, these innovations will uplift the lives of- potentially- hundreds of millions, and change our outlook of our own species.
That we seek immortality at all is also an interesting aspect of humanity. “The question of man’s immortality is answered by his nature,” wrote R. A. Holland, “…his nature is his destiny. The rock crumbles because it is dust; water evaporates because it is vapour. Wherein does man differ from rock and water and other perishing things that he should be imperishable? The things that perish we call phenomena. They are, as their name indicates, mere appearings [sic], dissolving views. Their being is a ceasing. They are and are not in the same moment… the most immovable rocks are in molecular motion; the air is a perpetual vagrant; animal organisms are but shifting eddies of forces that pass in and out; the light on the landscape now was never there before, and is gone in a twinkling; the old earth is new every day.” Holland posited that nature itself was in a contradictory state of limbo, always dead, yet always alive. “Thus..” he states, “death itself, unsupported by life that never dies, is swallowed up in contradiction. Life there must be, eternal life ; other wise there were no death, nothing to die.” (Immortality, The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 1885).
It may seem difficult to comprehend a state of existence between living and death, in perpetuity; but the simplest examples are our thoughts themselves. Not perhaps, the idle thoughts passing through our minds on a day to day basis, but rather the persistent conceptions of our own existence. Our entire universe, and our place within it, is conceived within our minds; a truly astonishing feat. We are able to conceive close to anything we wish, apart from one thing – our own non-existence. Our immortality within our own universe is therefore guaranteed by virtue our inability to conceive a universe in which we do not exist.
Interestingly, we are now at the stage of human endeavour where the philosophical and physical cross. Scenarios (such as immortality) which half a century ago would have been considered mere thought experiments are on the verge of being manifest into our culture. This raises a pertinent question…
“…despite the astonishing things that humans are capable of doing,” notes Yuval Noah Harari, “we remain unsure of our goals and we seem to be as discontented as ever. We have advanced from canoes to galleys to steamships to space shuttles – but nobody knows where we’re going. We are more powerful than ever before, but have very little idea what to do with all that power. Worse still, humans seem to be more irresponsible than ever. Self-made gods with only the laws of physics to keep us company, we are accountable to no one. We are consequently wreaking havoc on our fellow animals and on the surrounding ecosystem, seeking little more than our own comfort and amusement, yet never finding satisfaction.” (Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind)
We are a species emerging from adolescence, into a powerful adulthood, and thus need to consider the type of world we want our future to exist in and, perhaps more importantly, what we as a collective species want as our role in that world. The selfishness of teenage man must now be replaced with a cognitive maturity to allow us to manage the extraordinary journey that lies ahead.
After all, as Harari allows me to conclude, “Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don’t know what they want?”