As a child, Jeanne Calment sold coloured pencils to Vincent van Gogh. By the time of her death in 1997, aged 122, a lifetime of profound medical advancements had irreversibly reshaped modern medicine.
Jeanne Calment had witnessed the inception of vaccines, X-rays, aspirin, blood transfusions, pacemakers, DNA structure, organ transplants, modern psychiatry, and cloning. As advances in modern science improve treatment methods, and as new technology is brought to market, longevity escape velocity will soon be a technical feasibility. At present, five years of research is required to increase our life expectancy by one year, but soon we will reach the tipping point where this ratio is reversed. A fantastic and infinite future awaits humanity: soon we will face the choice of when, or if, we want to die…swansongs need not apply.
“All my possessions for a moment of time”
For the vast majority of human history, if you lived to see your fourth decade, the Gods had favoured you. At the turn of the 19th century, advances in science and technology (think the industrial revolution) dramatically increased life expectancy. In 1840, life expectancy at birth in Sweden was 45 years for women; today it’s 83 years. That linear trend has continued for the past two centuries, with life expectancy increasing by three months with each passing year. If the trend continues true to form, by the end of this century the average life expectancy will be 100 years. But it will not continue, it will instead escalate exponentially as revolutionary new medical breakthroughs accelerate. In the not too distant future, we will not merely slowdown or halt ageing, but reverse it, increasing our lifespan by centuries or even millennia.
Beyond the elimination of disease, a radical new approach to longevity is required to reach and sustain longevity escape velocity. Immortality goes beyond merely slowing down the ageing process, and involves reversing it by renewing or replacing parts of the body. There will be no gold star regenerative treatment to defeat death, but instead a conclusive cocktail combination consisting of stem cell therapy, 3D bioprinting, telomere lengthening, and CRISPR. Google and friends have recognised that indefinite lifespans are a scientific probability, and are tackling life’s greatest mystery by harnessing advanced technologies to increase understanding of the biology that controls our lifespan. Already in nature, there exists multiple proof-of-concepts of indefinite lifespans in some unicellular and multicellular organisms which exhibit negligible senescence. Organisms that exhibit negligible senescence do not suffer from measurable decreases in reproductive capability or functional decline with age. Life has evolved to live rather than die, which is self-evident through the likes of stem cells, germinal cells and bacteria which can reproduce indefinitely if given the necessary inputs and nutrition to sustain procreation. These organisms are the living proof that death and decay are avoidable consequences of life.
The Singularity is Near
Like church and state, immortality can be separated into two distinct categories, the second of which transcends our physical selves. Not without goliath technical challenges, and profound ethical, spiritual and philosophical questions; digital immortality involves creating a synthetic replica of the brain, to which human consciousness is transferred. This extensive process requires the complete mapping and modelling of the human brain, and the manufacture of a synthetic imitation which emulates the innately human sensations of passion, creativity and motivation.
With the continued exponential forward march of Moore’s Law, the move to construct carbon copies of ourselves is already underway. The first brain-to-computer interface was the cochlear implant, which was developed in 1961 by medical researcher, Dr. William F. House. The cochlear implant electronically stimulates the cochlear nerve to restore a sense of sound to the hard of hearing. Recent advancements in brain-to-computer interfaces now allow patients with Locked-in Syndrome to communicate with the outside world, while individuals with tetraplegia are able to reach for and grasp objects using a robotic arm controlled directly by their brain. Neural engineering is making significant strides toward modelling the brain by recording neural signals and then decoding them by computer. Developing technologies to restore or replace some of the brain’s biological functions begins with our ability to understand it. Soon, our disembodied minds will soon inhabit the digital domain, surpassing our biological mortal beings as they are gradually discarded in favour of more reliable artificial ones.
Journey to the Red Planet
The journey to infinity goes far beyond immortality on earth. We stake our claim on “a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena”, and the survival of our species is dependent on our courage to venture to other celestial bodies. Scientific evidence suggests that life first emerged over 3.8 billion years ago with single-celled prokaryotic cells, and has been plagued forever after by numerous mass extinction events. Whether the next mass extinction event is of our own making, or by the hands of our maker, we have a moral imperative to journey to far off worlds if we believe ourselves worthy of eternal life.
The formation of a Plymouth Rock settlement on the red planet, followed by additional outposts in nearby intergalactic space, will guarantee the continued existence of humanity. From the ancient Egyptians and the Roman Empire, to the Aztecs in South America and the Song dynasty in China; as a society we grow when we challenge ourselves, while we stagnate and perish when we do not. Today, we stand on the edge of a precipitous cliff, a turning point where we must challenge ourselves by voyaging into the distant unknown. Our voyage to Mars will serve a purpose far loftier than humanity’s own life-insurance policy, taken out with the expectation of a catastrophic mass extinction event. An expedition to Mars will seek to answer fundamental questions of existence and mysteries of the universe that have afflicted man for hundreds of thousands of years. The intellectual capacity gained from undertaking such a complex mission to Mars will far outweigh its costs in the form of trickle-down scientific benefits that will have profound knock-on effects for humanity. From GPS, to artificial limbs and anti-icing systems, from solar energy to water purification, the societal benefits that resulted from our early expeditions to space have had a far reaching impact on humankind, and our uncertain journey to immortality.
For billions of years, our evolutionary progression has been a byproduct of chance mutations in the hereditary material of life, our DNA. I believe we have reached an evolutionary plateau, where our own cognizant and deliberate decisions are more powerful than natural selection. Looking to the future, it is only natural to make a conscious decision to bypass natural selection and augment ourselves with the technology of our own making. For many, the finite and fleeting nature of life gives it sincere significance and purpose, but we should not exclude others searching for the elixir of eternal life.