Is Immortality Achievable?
The quest for immortality has been pursued since the earliest civilizations. In 1852, an Assyriologist called Hormuzd Rassam discovered in Nineveh, Iraq, 12 tablets depicting the first written poem ever found. It’s called Epic of Gilgamesh and it was written between 2100 and 1200 BC. In the poem Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, after seeing his dearest friend die, becomes aware of his own mortality and starts an unsuccessful quest to overcome death. Many years later, we still haven’t overcome death. Yet, according to some, this is about to change.
Why do we want to live forever?
Before diving deep into how we may soon become immortal, it’s interesting to understand why humanity is so interested in immortality. Why have we sought for so many centuries to extend our lifespan?
The most immediate answer might be that many people are afraid of dying. This “fear of death” has a simple explanation: we are afraid of something we don’t know. Nobody ever came back from death to tell us what we will have to face. The fear of the unknown might also be enhanced by the possibility that death will very likely annihilate our person.
But there may be other reasons why people would want to live longer. Love for life or interest in what will come next may move people to try to extend their life. We are at the dawn of a digital revolution that will dramatically change the world we live in. Many of us wish to see what society will be like in 100 or 1000 years!
What makes us mortal?
Clearly, we are mortal because we die. Our heart stops beating and all our cells, deprived of oxygen, slowly die. It can be because of an accident or an untreatable disease (including old age). Whatever the cause, no human being has ever managed to live longer than 122 years.
According to a recent study, the human body has an “absolute limit” that is between 120 and 150 years. Around this age, our system would no longer have the ability to recover from stresses like illness and injury, resulting in imminent death. Nevertheless, this study is not trying to prove that immortality is impossible. In fact, according to the researchers, we could extend human life by increasing the body’s resistance and preventing diseases.
How can we achieve immortality?
Immortality is the capability to live forever. It could be achieved in different ways. For example, by creating a body that doesn’t age and is resistant to diseases. Or by replacing the weakest body parts with technological components. We could also create a digital copy of our brains. Our physical body would perish… But isn’t it a fair price to pay for immortality?
Let’s have a look at these possibilities in more detail, with their respective pros and cons.
Biological immortality happens when an organism is not affected by cellular senescence. Its cells don’t age: they can therefore divide infinitely, keeping the organism’s system healthy and alive. In nature, there are some animals that can live significantly longer than human beings. One example is the so-called “immortal jellyfish”. This jellyfish could potentially live forever. Its cells do age but, at the same time, they can rejuvenate themselves when needed.
Is biological immortality possible for human beings? Human bodies are extremely complex. Our stem cells have to specialize to be able to achieve all different tasks needed to make our bodies work. When specializing, they lose their ability to divide indefinitely. They can still divide, for a limited number of times, and then they die. To achieve human biological immortality, we have to find a way to reverse this mechanism of aging and death built inside our cells.
Additionally, even if we manage to control aging, we could be killed by external causes. For example accidents, catastrophic changes in the environment and diseases could still be deadly.
If we want to make sure that external causes will have a hard time killing us, cybernetic immortality could be an option. The human body is built by a series of systems: muscular system, respiratory system, digestive system, nervous system etc. These systems interact with each other, creating a sophisticated organisation. The idea behind cybernetic immortality is that our “organisation” can survive a partial, or even a complete, change of the material from which it is built.
Practical applications of electronic devices blended with human bodies may still be in their early days. Yet their potential is impressive. An example of this is Neil Harbisson, a Spanish-British-Irish artist, considered the world’s first cyborg. A software implanted in his brain, connected to an antenna hovering above his head, allows him to “hear” visible and invisible wavelengths of light. Born color blind, he is now capable of experiencing colors beyond normal human perception.
Another way to achieve cybernetic immortality is through mind uploading. This is the (so far hypothetical) process of transferring the mental structure and consciousness of a person to an external computer. This mind could then connect to a robotic avatar, controlling it as its body. Once the old avatar is damaged or updated, the consciousness could easily disconnect and then connect to a new and better one. Achieving, finally, a sort of immortality.
How far are we from being able to upload someone’s brain?
Human brains are extremely complex and our knowledge has not advanced enough yet to be able to recreate them digitally. Yet, some researchers have been able to upload the brain of a smaller organism: a worm. The project is called OpenWorm and it could be our path to immortality. After mapping the worm’s complete nervous system, they simulated it digitally into a software that they attached to a Lego robot. The robot started moving and responding to its environment just like a worm would, without any human intervention. While the results of this project are absolutely astonishing, we should keep in mind that the worm’s nervous system is formed by only 302 cells. Human brains have about 86 billions of neurons, connected through trillions of synapsis.
Once we are able to upload our brain to the cloud, we would probably have the option to live in a virtual world. A sort of real life and bodiless Matrix. If you had the chance to live forever in your favorite videogame, would you take it?
When will we become immortal?
According to Dr. Ian Pearson, a UK renowned futurologist, the answer is soon. As he claimed in an interview to The Sun, around 2045 we will manage to develop the first technologies that enable us to upload our brains and connect them to machines. Around roughly 2050, rich people will be the first to achieve immortality, spending millions on these new technologies. But it won’t take long before even middle and low income people will be able to afford this digital immortality. Following Dr. Pearson’s prediction, before the end of the century humans won’t die anymore.
How come we’re now so close to achieving immortality? As Dr. Person explains: “There are quite a lot of people interested in living forever. There always has been, but the difference now is tech is improving so quickly, lots of people believe they can actually do it.”
Dr. Ian Pearson is not the only one claiming that immortality is at hand. Several futurist and transhumanist experts are positive that we will soon manage to overcome death. When? Once we reach technological singularity, a hypothetical point in time at which technological growth becomes uncontrollable and irreversible.
Ray Kurzweil, noted American inventor and futurist, envisages the achievement of immortality in his book The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (2005). He wrote: “As they gain traction in the 2030s, nanobots in the bloodstream will destroy pathogens, remove debris, rid our bodies of clots, clogs and tumors, correct DNA errors and actually reverse the aging process. I believe we will reach a point around 2029 when medical technologies will add one additional year every year to your life expectancy.”
As the rate of progress of medical technology accelerates, the years will pile up for decades, centuries, and beyond. This will allow us to achieve immortality and out-run our own death, one year at a time. Technology has indeed advanced exponentially in the last few decades. Artificial intelligence, 3D bioprinting and gene editing are revolutionizing the healthcare systems. Perhaps immortality is really just around the corner.
Will cryonics make us immortal?
Many connect biostasis to immortality. If you can stop your biological processes until medical technology can treat you, you temporarily postpone death. If you do it every time you are about to die, you would reach a sort of “interrupted immortality”.
Additionally, there are high chances that the future society that will revive you, will have achieved immortality already. Therefore, there is a chance that people who chose cryopreservation could achieve immortality.
However, biostasis’ main goal is to save lives, not to achieve immortality. At Tomorrow Biostasis, we offer a service that allows you to possibly treat your illness in the future and live a longer life. We are focusing on developing an innovative life-saving technology. Immortality might be an incredible side effect but it is certainly not our primary concern.
We are living at a time where technological advancements could possibly make us achieve immortality. If Dr. Ian Pearson is right, our generation will soon be immortal.
Imagine a world without the inevitability of death. Everyone will be able to decide how long to live. With biostasis, we want to make this possibility available for everybody. Whoever wants to live longer should have a chance to do it.