Silicon Valley, hedge fund manager Joon Yun is currently offering a prize of $1m to those who manage to crack “the code of life”. The reward is awaiting anyone who manages to extend the human lifespan beyond its known maximum of 122 years. Biotech companies such as Google based Calico, aka ‘California Life Company’, are spending long hours getting their heads round how to reverse-engineer the human genome. Cynthia Kenyon, molecular biologist, sent her fellow evolutionary biologists back to the drawing board when she developed a drug that pushed a worm’s lifespan six times past its average. In less than two years since they’ve been established, they have had considerable progress interfering with the ageing process. There is reason for optimism.
‘Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona aims to preserve one’s body at sub-zero temperatures until future medical technology can restore the person to full functioning’
In the meantime, psychologist James Bedford celebrates almost 50 years since he’s been lying refrigerated at -120 degrees Celsius, awaiting resurrection. He was the first man to undergo ‘cryonic suspension’. Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona aims to preserve one’s body at sub-zero temperatures until future medical technology can restore the person to full functioning. Or, more specifically, until nano-technology evolves to the point that they can restore individual cells and molecules. The rationale is that adding substances such as cryoprotectants to cells allows them to stay cool at low temperatures without forming ice. One can join the more than one hundred people who have already undergone full body cryopreservation for $200,000.
Beyond body freezing and gene therapy, other unconventional ideas of how to cheat death exist. Some thrive at the prospect of uploading our mind into a digital computer. Before even considering the philosophical, legal, and ethical facets of this problem, let’s dig into whether such an approach is possible at all.
A very large part of our brain is dedicated to processing sensory information. We have receptors for sight, pain, touch and other external stimuli, as well as for our internal organs. When the brain is not involved in gathering sensory information, it is involved in higher-order functions that depend upon the sensory information received. It is busy storing the experience into memories for future recall or organising our thoughts to meet short or long-term goals. Sensation and cognition are intimately intertwined.
If we upload the mind into a computer, what happens to our sensory receptors? Leaving us senseless in the dark is far from desirable. In a series of CIA funded experiments, Donald Hebb and his team studied how sensory deprivation affects the brain. They kept perception to a minimum, fitting participants with cotton gloves, helmets and so on. After only two days, participants suffered hallucinations and were unable to express coherent thoughts. Surely this doesn’t match anyone’s immortality dream.
‘ROBOTics may be able to provide artificial stimulation to sensors…’
If we want to download our brains into a computer without going insane, computational neuroscientist Nicolas Rougier suggests that we have to connect our sensors to the external world, as well as our internal body parts. Robotics may be able to provide artificial stimulation to sensors – we have seen multiple examples of this, including prosthetic limbs and artificial eyes. If we replace the self with artificial sensory receptors, will we be the same? Probably not. The external environment to which we are exposed makes up a big part of who we are.
Rougier is one of the pessimists. We are in the early stages of mimicking a hand’s function, or reproducing a retina. Even if we were to overcome such problems, should we deem it realistic to expect such technological progress? The human brain is made of
86 billion neurons, each neuron communicating to approximately 10,000 other neurons. The hitch here is that it is not known what exactly makes us who we are – and it is unlikely that a computer will reach the power to manipulate such a big number. Some have argued that Moore’s Law, which states that the power of a computer doubles every 18 months, is likely to reach its limits soon. With this in mind, some scientists deem it unlikely that we will ever develop the necessary technology.
Considerable financial efforts have been put into extending the human lifespan. Still, except for a species of jellyfish called Turritopsis dohrnii – which casually runs the clock forwards and backwards between larvae and adulthood – immortality remains confined to the realm of science fiction. Despite the progress, eternal life is still a long way off.
Considering the future, it is hard to ignore the implications of such a transformation. Who would be the gatekeeper of such technology? Who should have priority to benefit from it? No doubt, such advancements will contribute to inequalities in society. Still, if given the chance to be part of these on-going experiments, would you rather be in the experimental group, or in the control group?