The answer may surprise you…
On April 17th, 2017 a woman by the name of Emma Morano passed away at her home in Verbania, Italy. She was 117 years old, and had held the title as the oldest person alive. As of today, only four people in the history of the world are on record as having lived longer. Yet; despite this extraordinary feat, there are some who would consider her unlucky. One of those people is Google’s Chief Futuristic, Ray Kurzweil. The reason I know that he would consider her unlucky, is because a few months ago I stumbled upon this article on Business Insider:
Google's chief futurist Ray Kurzweil thinks we could start living forever by 2029
Ray Kurzweil, Google's chief futurist, laid out what he thinks the next few decades will look like in an interview with…
In the article, Ray is cited as saying that he believes medical advancements will lead us to a point where the technologies available in 2029 will add one additional year every year to our life expectancy. In other words, technological advancements will begin to offset life-threatening health conditions. He goes on further to explain that we will reach a moment called “The singularity” in 2045, a moment in which the advent of artificial super intelligence will trigger explosive technological growth, allowing us to solve problems previously thought to be impossible (like cheating death).
I know most of you reading this right now are inclined to brush off this hand-wavy nonsense; and if I’m being honest, I felt the same way when I first heard about this topic. After all, there is a pretty big gap between 117 years and eternity. However, if there is one thing I’ve learned it’s that it isn’t wise to bet against technological advancement. So in light of that reasoning, I decided to take a somewhat-deep dive into the topic of whether or not humans will one day be able to live forever. My research led me to break down the question from 2 perspectives and I am dedicating a blog post to each one:
Post 1: Can we physically live forever?
Post 2: Can technology preserve an accurate representation of an individual forever, aka is digital immortality feasible?
The following paragraphs summarize what I discovered.
Please note that this post is intended to be a scientific analysis of this question, not a philosophical or moral one. In other words, I am focusing on the question of if we CAN do this not if we SHOULD do this or what would happen if we did. However, I may consider writing a third post focused on these aspects of the discussion.
Can Humans Physically Live Forever?
I hate to be morbid, but in order to have this discussion we need to start by analyzing what ends lives in the first place. The following visual gives a clear breakdown of the top causes of death:
From the graphic, it’s clear that the main causes of death fall into either one of two distinct categories: Internal factors or External factors. Now granted; even external factors (such as a gun shot) ultimately lead to an internal issue that triggers death, but for the purposes of this post we are going to separate the two. We are also going to make a second assumption, which is that we cannot eliminate external causes of death. Taking these two assumptions in hand, we can now hone in on the leading cause of death: serious health conditions. If we could eliminate these conditions then humans in our theoretical world would be able to live forever, barring any external factors.
There’s also one other wrinkle to this discussion which is the affect that age plays in all of this. Old age is not an actual cause of death in and of itself; but rather, a simple way of saying that someone has died from an ailment associated with aging. I want to show you another diagram that shouldn’t seem too surprising to you. It is a breakdown of causes of death by age:
The visual tells a pretty clear story; as humans age, the odds of suffering from a serious health ailment increases dramatically. Again, this shouldn’t seem earth shattering, but it is important that we all understand the dynamics at play here.
So to review, we have a pretty good understanding of what actually causes death in most cases. There is a group of health conditions responsible for the majority of deaths, and there is a direct correlation between a person’s age and the chances that one of these health conditions will arise. Therefore, if we wanted to live forever it seems that there could be two different solutions. Either a) find a cure to each health condition OR b) stop our bodies from aging.
Current State of Research
Overall, we have continued to make strides in terms of treatments and cures for the most serious health conditions. For instance, had you acquired any type of cancer a century ago it would have been a death sentence. Contrast that with today’s medical advancements which allow millions of individuals to either become cancer-free or continue living with cancer for years or even decades after their initial diagnosis. With that being said, any cancer diagnosis is still an extremely serious matter and almost always has life or death implications involved with it. But will this always be the case?
Consider the fact that less than 200 years ago, most people died from infections that someone today could beat with $20 worth of antibiotics from Walgreens.
That’s right, less than 2 centuries ago, a simple infection carried the same implications that a cancer diagnosis carries today. Thanks to medical advances, better nutrition and an overall improvement in public health this is no longer the case. However, it would be foolish to consider today’s killers as easy to defeat as the ones of old. In order to have the same success we will need to make exponential leaps in medical technology that have never been done before. Currently, we are making advances at a rate that looks much more linear than it does exponential, and based on the information and technology available today, I don’t foresee us completely defeating these conditions in the near future.
What About Anti-Aging?
I think most people are well-aware of the work being done to combat serious health conditions, but what about combating aging itself? This is the second solution I referred to, and a path that some groups are seriously pursuing. One of the groups looking to combat aging is a company out of south San Francisco by the name Calico (short for California Life Company). You need to realize that Calico is not some tiny startup working out of a garage; rather, Calico is a subsidiary of Alphabet, aka the parent company of Google. With support from Alphabet and AbbVie, Calico has amassed over $1.5 billion (yes you read that right) in funding to pursue research on aging. Why pour so much money into research in this field? Consider what Felipe Sierra, a director at the National Institute on Aging, had to say in an interview with MIT Technology Review:
“I think we have failed in our effort to attack chronic disease when we attack them one by one,” Sierra says. “And the reason is that they have one major risk factor, which is the biology of aging.”
What Felipe is hinting at is that maybe we have been approaching the solution to death all wrong. Rather than dispersing our resources by trying to tackle chronic diseases on an individual basis, maybe we should be allocating more resources in search of a silver bullet that may be able to help people avoid chronic diseases all-together. That’s the angle Calico is trying to take, but it is definitely a long-term play. Rather than trying to come up with immediate solutions, Calico is working from the ground up by taking a research-heavy approach to understanding the basic biology of aging before moving further.
Cynthia Kenyon, Vice President of Aging Research at Calico, gave a TED talk a few years ago that highlighted the early research that is guiding their approach. The basic premise of the talk is that they have discovered a genetic mutation that can double the lifespan of a type of worm. The experiment has also worked to a degree with flies and mice. In theory, if we can gain a deeper understanding of why these genetic mutations works at a biological level, we could one day work towards anti-aging solutions for humans.
Unfortunately, Calico is still in the early stages of it’s research. The company is also extremely secretive so it is difficult to gauge how much progress they have made since their inception in 2013. I made an attempt to reach out to Calico directly, but I was unable to arrange an interview with anyone at the company. Suffice it to say, Calico has not made any major new breakthroughs, or at least not publicly. There are other players in the space as well, such as Jeff Bezos backed Unity Biotechnology. Unity is currently focused on “selectively eliminating senescent cells”. Their initial experiments have demonstrated that selectively eliminating senescent cells in animal models can reverse or prevent a wide range of diseases. But similar to Calico, much of Unity’s work is still in the research or pre-clinical stages.
Alas, we seem to have hit another dead-end (no pun intended) in our search for solutions to death. After hours of research, it would appear that the answer to my question “Can We Physically Live Forever?” remains a firm No as of today.
If you’re still with me, you may be annoyed that I led you through this entire overview just to bring you to a conclusion that you could have made on your own. However, I have one last section that will make this post worth your time. While we have been framing this question from the current state of technology, we have been ignoring the giant elephant standing in the room… Super Intelligence.
The Super Intelligent Elephant in the Room
If you ask humans alone to solve the “challenge” of death, than it is unlikely that it will be solved in the lifetime of anyone reading this article. But what if we weren’t limited to just our own abilities? That is where the idea of Super intelligence becomes extremely intriguing in the context of this topic. For those of you that aren’t familiar with Super intelligence, here is a very basic overview of Super intelligence as paraphrased from Wikipedia. Artificial intelligence is a type of intelligence exhibited by machines, in which machines can perform cognitive functions that are generally associated with human minds, such as “learning” and “problem solving”. Super intelligence is the point at which machines can perform cognitive functions at a level beyond what any human is capable of doing. This is especially powerful when you consider the fact that machines are much faster than the human mind and have modularity, meaning their size and computational capacity can be increased.
If we were to reach super intelligence, then the rate at which we could solve problems and discover new technologies would increase exponentially. Medical and biological discoveries that would have taken decades to find could be discovered in months. Based on historical trends, it wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that exponential advances in the medical field (specifically biotechnology) would be accompanied by exponential advances in life expectancy. Do you see how super intelligence completely changes the paradigm?
I can say with confidence that as of today we do not possess the capability to allow a human to physically live forever. However, I think over the next 1–3 decades the answer to this question will change. Forever may be unrealistic, but I would like to start with a bold prediction:
Prediction #1: I predict that the average human born today will live for AT LEAST twice as long as Emma Morano lived. That’s 234 years for those of you keeping track.
You can go ahead and write me off as crazy, but consider my reasoning. In his book Zero to One, Peter Thiel states that in order to build for the future you have to believe in secrets. In other words, to move society forward, one must believe that there are major discoveries that haven’t been uncovered yet. The invention of the transistor was an example of going from Zero to One, and it’s also the key invention that is allowing you to read this story on whatever device is in front of you. Let’s take a look at the circumstances that allowed the transistor to be invented:
- A company with a lot of extra cash (AT&T) opens up a R&D laboratory known as Bell Labs.
- The lab brings together the brightest minds in the world and backs it with billions of dollars in funding.
- Initially the lab is very research-oriented with no clearly defined goals in mind.
- Over the next few decades Bell labs spits out a number of inventions, most notably the transistor, that fundamentally shape the future of our society in a way no one previously thought was possible.
Sound familiar? I’d argue that these circumstances have a very strong correlation with the circumstances surrounding the topic discussed in this post. Which leads me to my second prediction:
Prediction #2: In the coming decades we will see a Zero to One invention come out of the field of Biotechnology that rivals the impact of the transistor. This invention will have the potential to exponentially increase the maximum lifespan of human beings.
Ancient stories speak of a ‘Fountain of Youth’, which restores the youth of anyone who drinks or bathes in its waters. To find this spring would mean immortality for its discoverer, yet no one in the history of the world has been able to find it. So is the Fountain of Youth impossible to find…or has it just not been created yet?
On that note I would like to conclude the first post in this series. Keep an eye out for my second blog post in which I analyze this question from a different perspective: digital immortality.
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