Can mankind live forever?
“Clearly, it is possible, through technology, to make death optional”. These are the words of Martine Rothblatt, founder of biotech firm United Therapeutics. This opinion is echoed throughout Silicon Valley and high-tech hubs across the globe, with advances in technology leading some experts to believe that immortality is within our reach.
Josh Bocanegra, CEO of ‘human augmentation’ start-up Humai, predicts that his company will be able to resurrect the first human by 2045. Dr Ian Pearson, a renowned futurist who allegedly boasts an 85% accuracy rate, predicts that humans will achieve immortality using AI and genetic engineering by 2050. It’s a popular sentiment, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that Google has put some of its top minds and financial clout behind projects aimed at extending human life.
Google-backed Calico Labs is on a mission is to harness advanced technologies to increase our understanding of the biology that controls lifespan. A quick search shows that Google is not alone in this pursuit. At this stage, it’s unclear if investment in immortality is a vain endeavour of the rich and the powerful, or whether there’s a genuine desire to benefit humanity and further science.
Previously, I’ve written about how technology is being deployed to safeguard the planet and protect the environment against future degradation. In a similar mould, I wanted to take a look at the technologies that humans are hoping will hold the key to eternal life.
The most commonly known and long-established ‘technique’ in the pursuit of immortality is cryonics, a process that involves freezing people in liquid nitrogen. It’s a crude method and there is no actual scientific evidence to support the concept. The idea stems from the hope that the subject might one day be safely ‘defrosted’ and revived when technology and medicine have advanced to the point that it is possible to do so.
Along with medical advances, extending human life has also been attempted by studying ageing as if it were a disease that could to be cured. Biomedical technology refers to ‘the application of engineering and technology principles to the domain of living or biological systems’. This school of thought implies that ageing is a code that can be cracked and hacked to ultimately extend life.
Developments in 3D bioprinting are showing signs of real potential. This is essentially the use of additive manufacturing technology to print organs which could replace those that no longer work. In theory, developments in 3D bioprinting could lead to an unlimited supply of organs and tissue that could significantly increase a human’s lifespan.
The problem with both cryonics and biomedical techniques is that the technology does not address the fundamental barrier of mortality. The maximum human lifespan is believed to be approximately 125 years. The human body is, like all living things, subject to degradation and eventually expiration. Cryonics can preserve human tissue and biomedical technology can extend the natural life of human organs, but not indefinitely. To truly exceed our mortal restrictions, the human species must transcend bodily limitations. This fact has led some experts to turn their attention to solutions based on artificial intelligence (AI) and consciousness.
AI has been creating a buzz in the world of tech and telecoms for the past few years now, and at Babel we’ve seen AI incorporated into the operations, processes and technologies of many of our clients. Its application to the pursuit of eternal life, however, is lesser known, and while highly innovative, is also ethically dubious.
Earlier this year, Sam Altman, a Silicon Valley tech billionaire, paid £7,000 to tech start-up Nectome on the promise that one day the entire contents of his brain will be uploaded to a computer so that it is preserved forever. Nectome aims to chemically freeze human brains in order to preserve the neurons and synapses, theoretically also preserving the memories stored there for centuries – maybe even a millennia – until its contents can be uploaded. The concept, pioneered by two MIT AI researchers, has already been awarded the Brain Preservation Foundation prize for preserving every synaptic structure in a rabbit brain.
How this technology could be applied remains unclear. The concept of using AI to extend life has been touched upon in recent popular culture. HBO’s Westworld depicts a world where advances in AI could lead to android bodies for humans to live in after their bodies fail and cease to function. In an episode of Netflix’s Black Mirror, consciousness is uploaded into virtual reality (VR) worlds so that people can live on after death in the cloud.
Some experts predict an occurrence known as ‘the singularity’ or ‘technological singularity’. This is the moment when AI becomes ‘artificial superintelligence’, triggering a process whereby the machine becomes exponentially more intelligent more quickly. In theory, the machine can become infinitely more intelligent infinitely quickly, at which point human evolution would be forced to correlate with that of AI for fear of being left behind. AI author Ray Kurzweil claims that this will happen by 2045. Humans will become one with machines.
Whether through cryonics, biomedical technology, AI or singularity, mankind is striving to find a way to cheat death. And considering how rapidly we’re developing technology – and wielding it to our advantage – it would be little surprise if we did.