“Designer Immortality” — TEDXMelbourne

This article is based on the script I wrote for my TEDxMelbourne talk late last year:

What if I told you that there was a disease out there that was killing over 120,000 Australians every year?

That’s like a Qantas flight from Melbourne to Sydney crashing to the ground every single day. And all the while, another 100,000 people around the world suffer the same fate every day.

You’d be terrified, right? And be outraged that we aren’t working hard enough to find a cure?

Well that disease is the ageing process itself. Ageing leads to Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and cancer which account for over two-thirds of all deaths around the world. But in the foreseeable future, we may be able to treat the ageing process just as we treat common diseases today.

My name is Peter Xing. I work in Tech and Innovation and I’m an advocate for healthy life extension research. I identify and help drive a global movement called Transhumanism.

Transhumanism is about transcending the limitations of our human biology with technology. We want to apply science and technology so that we can achieve greater intelligence, live healthier and longer, and achieve greater happiness through well-being. And today, I’m going to talk about some the latest science and technology breakthroughs in extending of our healthy human lifespans

When people normally think about ageing, we think it’s something that just happens — you’re born, you grow up, you might have some kids and you grow old and pass away like everyone else. But when we look at ageing from a scientific perspective, it’s a biological process that follows the laws of physics like everything else.

Our atoms make up molecules and those molecules make up cells. Stem cells are the building blocks of life and contain the genetic and mechanical blueprint for everything in our bodies.

About 300 million cells in our bodies die and are replaced every minute — these are new cells for your hair, your skin, your brain and your heart.

The way these cells are created is through replication. The cells in our body replicate themselves over and over again, kind of like a photocopying machine. Which is fine. Until it isn’t.

Imagine photocopying a document and then using that copy to make another copy. And another. And another. Over time, after millions and millions of copies, things just lose fidelity — and it’s the same with our cells.

Eventually, the quality of the copies becomes so bad that the cells cease to function. Our body stops regenerating. We grow old. And we die.

To stop this process, we ideally need to prevent poor copies from being made in the first place. Or if we can’t do that, we need to remove the bad copies once they’re created, to stop them multiplying and throwing everything out of whack.

In the last few years there have been some incredible developments in how we tackle this, so I’m just going to take you through some recent promising examples in healthy life extension research.

The first is looking at removing senescent cells. Senescent cells are ones that have replicated themselves so many times that, and from a biological perspective, they’re pretty much ‘done’. Even though they’re no longer useful for the body, they stay floating around in there, and as we age, the number and proportion of them grow.

This becomes problematic because eventually, the cells start harming the tissue around them. A build up of senescent cells has been linked to many diseases that accompany old age including diabetes and kidney failure. It seems that the more senescent cells we have floating around inside us, the more susceptible we are to these diseases.

So killing them off sounds like a pretty good idea, right?

In 2017, Scientists in the Netherlands genetically engineered mice so that the researchers could destroy their senescent cells at will.

What they found, was that older mice without senescent cells were more active. Their hearts and kidneys worked better, and they were less prone to cancer.

Overall, they lived up to 30 percent longer and in better health than average mice.

Subsequent studies have shown similar results, with reductions in senescent cells correlating to better overall health and even the regrowth of hair.

Not surprisingly, there are now a number of companies looking at treatments for ageing that involve directly targeting senescent cells, with the first human trials starting imminently.

A second area is looking at a coenzyme called NAD+.

NAD+ is found within our bodies specifically designed for the clean-up tasks associated with cell replication.

You see, cell replication is dirty work. Every time it happens cell parts need to be destroyed, cleaned up, and rebuilt, which gets pretty messy. This happens millions of times every second.

As we age, the replication process becomes messier and less effective, as cell parts become crumpled, bunched up, or are no longer produced in the quantities we need.

One such ‘underproduced’ part is NAD+, a substance that helps our cells look after themselves.

At age 50, we have only about half as much NAD+ in our bodies as we do at age 20.

Low amounts of it are linked to a whole bunch of diseases from skin cancer to Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease, and multiple sclerosis.

In 2016, trials in Australia and the US, again on mice, showed that by lifting NAD+ levels, they were able to boost the multiplication of skin, brain, and muscle stem cells.

The mice who received NAD+ top ups were rejuvenated and had a higher ability to repair their DNA.

This even got NASA interested, and they’re now looking to NAD+ as a way to minimize the DNA damage astronauts would be exposed to from cosmic radiation on Mars missions.

Beyond senescent cells and NAD+, there are other promising studies being done at this very moment with drugs like Metformin, which are taken by diabetics, and Rapamycin. Both drugs are showing 30–40% increases in healthy lifespan of, again, mice but are now going through human clinical trials.

It seems at this at this rate, it’s the mice that will be living forever.

We’ve also seen the application of stem cells used to regenerate damaged tissue — with scientists now being able to create personalised stem cells from your fat cells to regenerate any human tissue damaged by the ageing process. So it other words, in the near future, we might be able to exchange our waist lines for more life lines.

There’s also developments in our ability to grow organs in the lab — with scientists recently being able to grow lungs of pigs in a lab and transplant it into an actual pig. So great news for all the smokers out there, but for now it’s limited to pigs.

And there’s CRISPR — the latest breakthrough in gene editing — which now acts like a cut and paste tool for our DNA. This would be like having a digital copy of the document that we were photocopying, and and having the ability to edit that document before printing it out. China is already the first country to test it on humans, with the latest producing twins who are potentially immune from HIV, and also have a modified gene that has proven to make mice smarter in past experiments.

Just like in the movie, GATTACA, we could soon be ordering designer babies Made in China, free of any genetic disorders and modified to live longer, healthier and with optional upgrades such as better looks, greater intellect and desirable social skills. We could end up having Louis Vuitton babies, with proprietary designs for a premium market.

There’s a raft of other technologies, all showing promise to extend the healthy human lifespan. The goal is to reach what many describe as “longevity escape velocity” — a point in time when for every year you age, science and technology gives you back a year or more.

So in the meantime, the message is don’t die from anything stupid.

We see technologies being developed to mitigate the risk of dumb ways to die, such as autonomous vehicles to reduce the rate of death on our roads.

There’s also technologies representing the next generation of devices which integrate with our bodies, monitoring us to ensure we are in a healthy state. It could be as simple as a FitBit, or as integral part of your body as a pacemaker.

We currently see prosthetics and cochlear implants as helping the disabled — and now you see in the paraolympics that the athletes with prosthetics actually have an advantage over the traditional olympic athletes.

Cochlear implants used to be able to help people with hearing disabilities hear 60% of conversations, and then 70%. And now it’s able to help the disabled hear just as well as ordinary people. But the next generation of cochlear implants will enable us to take phone calls, to hear conversations on the other side of the room, to do real time translation in a foreign country, and to augment our reality with intelligence such as recognizing the voice of a person and identifying their name, or hear the spectrum that dogs and dolphins can hear. And we haven’t even gone into what smart devices could do to enhance and augment our vision.

Even more far fetched is the idea that we can one day map and connect to the signals in our brain and create a real-time extension of this in the cloud, effectively uploading our mind and achieving digital immortality.

From the technologies we have today, We are already transhuman. But back on to our mortality.

Fifty thousand years ago most humans died very young.

As we learned how to use the resources around us to treat ourselves, life expectancy got better and better.

Today, humans are living longer and healthier lives than ever before. But this has an unforeseen consequence. We spend an ever-increasing part of our lives being sick and in need of care. But we also have to witness the same happening to our loved ones as they age.

The most effective way to treat a disease is to prevent it.

It saves many more lives if you stop a million people from smoking, than coming up with better chemotherapies. But the point is, why not put a halt to the cause of all disease: the process of ageing.

However, what would a world without aging could look like? Will we just Netflix & Chill into an indefinite future?

If you imagine a world without disease where you and your loved ones could live in good health for another 100 or 200 years, how would this change us?

In the novel and Netflix adaptation called Altered Carbon, we see the dark side of what happens when relationships continue indefinitely and become one-sided, where the lover forever chases after a loved one who no longer loves them back.

Another theme of Altered Carbon is that only the rich are able to afford effective immortality, having these regular backups in the cloud via satellites, leaving the rest of society settling for suboptimal forms of existence.

And what about for our careers? If we could work for 150 years, how much time would we spend figuring out what we’re good at? How much more time would we spend learning?

Would the intense feeling of pressure and stress many of us are feeling right now go away? or get worse?

Would we take better care of our planet if we knew we would be around longer? Or would we consider reaching for the stars and exploring the unknown, transferring our minds from one solar system to another in our digital immortality?

The way to see it is that as a society, just as life went from single cell organisms to multicellular organisms, we are now becoming a metaintelligence by using technology to connect us. That may be the future of life as we know it.

But as it stands today, without advancements in science and technology, there are 100,000 people dying every single day from age-related diseases. That’s roughly one person every second.

Without advancements in science and technology, we would normally live only about 30,000 days. Leading researchers have said we could have a 50/50 chance of being the last generation to ever die involuntarily. I can’t think of any greater purpose than to improve those chances for the future.

Thank you very much.