Live Forever: the scientists trying to cheat death

 
Steve Dinneen
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Cleopatra tried bathing in milk. Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed, the first documented female serial killer, born in 1560, thought drinking the blood of virgins might do the trick. Others have scoured the world for the Holy Grail, or tried to broker pacts with the devil.

Since our species became self aware, it has dreamed of cheating death and ensnaring eternal youth. Popular culture is filled with mysterious, alluring characters who never age, from the ubiquitous vampire myth to Dorian Gray, with his perfect, youthful looks (and his dirty secret in the attic).

The beauty industry in the UK is worth £15bn, selling increasingly complicated potions that promise to postpone – or at least mask – the onset of the inevitable. Youth, more than gold or diamonds, is the ultimate luxury. While the average life span in the west has rocketed in the last century – largely a result of almost eliminating infant mortality and deaths in childbirth – the upper limit hasn’t progressed far from the three score years and ten written about in the Old Testament.

Even worse, while more of us are living longer, we are no less likely to age. Eternal youth remains as elusive as ever.

But all is not lost. Monumental leaps in biology and computer science have led some scientists to believe the problem may not be insurmountable. Research is already underway to slow, or even completely eradicate, the ageing process – and it could happen within our lifetimes.

There is a growing consensus that the point at which computers will overtake humans in terms of intelligence will happen in around 25 years, allowing us to answer a host of practical and philosophical questions that have been mooted for millennia, including, crucially, whether consciousness is somehow unique to biological creatures or simply an element of intellect. If it is the latter, there is no reason we couldn’t, in theory, dispense with our physical bodies altogether, creating new designer ones, or entire designer digital worlds, filled with the kind of opulence we can only dream of – at least for those who can afford it.

This, of course, raises all kinds of tricky questions. Is the world big enough to support a population of human beings who never age? What affect would it have on our minds? And, perhaps most importantly, is this a Pandora’s box we really want to open? For some scientists, the answer is yes. Here is how they think it might work.

Dr Aubrey de Grey // Founder, SENS Foundation // Route to eternal youth: Medicine

“It is highly likely that the first person who will escape ageing indefinitely has already been born,” says 50-year-old Aubrey de Grey. “The question is, will people who are 40 or 50 now make the cut?”

It’s a bold claim: de Grey believes there is a 50-50 chance of beginning to turn the tide of biological degeneration that leads our bodies to age within just 25 years. If you’re under 50 and relatively healthy, those aren’t bad odds.

“I can’t stress enough that when I say ‘defeating ageing’, I don’t mean living longer with a biologically old body,” he says. “Once we can fix the inside, fixing the outside will be trivial – staying young is the easy bit.”

If this is true, why is the scientific community not shouting from the rooftops about what would be the greatest scientific breakthrough in history?

“It is largely a symptom of how people perceive ageing,” says de Grey. “Since the dawn of civilization people have known it is this terrible, ghastly thing that’s going to happen to them in the relatively distant future. And they find ways of putting it out of their minds. They come up with all these crazy, irrational ways of doing that, like thinking of ageing as something that is different to disease – that disease is something bad that we need to cure but ageing is natural and normal. This has no biological basis. The diseases of old age are just that – diseases, which are brought on by this slow deterioration we call ageing.”

De Grey has devised seven broad categories of things that contribute to the ageing process that he says we need to “fix” – things like replacing cells that are dead and getting rid of extra cells that shouldn’t be there, which can cause cancers and other problems.

“It is about trying to combat the accumulation of damage in the body that eventually leads to ageing by intermittently repairing it, rather than by trying to tweak the body so it doesn’t create the damage in the first place. The body is too complicated to try to prevent the damage – you’d do more harm than good. This is what led a lot of people to get downhearted with the biology of ageing.

“If the body were a car, we wouldn’t be trying to stop the process of rusting – we’d just be cleaning it off every year so the doors don’t fall off. The problem is, we need to fix all seven categories – if we just get five or six, the other one or two will still kill us.” In other words, to continue the car analogy, there isn’t much point repairing everything except the brakes.

“If things go well, 25 years from now we might be able to keep someone biologically 40 when they are 90 years old. The things the therapies aren’t working on will, initially, stop us from keeping them in the very prime of youth – but you will have that extra 50 years: we will have reached ‘longevity escape velocity’, where the science is progressing quicker than you can age.”

In the medium term, de Grey aims to prove his theory on mice, by rejuvenating a middle-aged mouse and doubling its normal lifespan (“I think we’re about eight to ten years away from that”).

He gives short shrift to the argument that, even if it could work, defeating ageing would lead to a catastrophic explosion in the population. “The carrying capacity of the planet is not fixed – it changes depending on technology. At least if we develop these therapies, humanity will have the choice in the future. No choice is clearly worse.”

And will it only be open to the super-rich – the ultimate luxury product?

“I don’t think so. The average person has more spent on them in the last year of their life than in the whole of their life in the years before. Therapies with the ability to prevent this will very quickly pay for themselves. Children will be more productive because they won’t have to look after their parents. The elderly will be more productive as they will be contributing to the economy rather than consuming wealth. Once these therapies exist, it will be economically suicidal for any country to not implement them.”

Kevin Warwick // Professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading // Route to eternal youth: Cybernetics

Kevin Warwick is a robotics expert who specialises in the fusion of technology and biology. He is one of the first people to successfully transplant living brain cells into a functioning – and completely autonomous – robotic “body”. The cluster of around 100,000 rat brain cells were grown in an incubator dish and mounted in the small motorised housing. The biological “brain” receives information from sensors on the robot and uses them to navigate its environment, avoiding walls and even learning from its mistakes. But can it think? Is it self aware?

“I don’t know,” says Warwick. “I have no way of asking it. All we know is that it is a robot with a biological processor. And if we can do it with a little robot, it is hard to imagine that we won’t eventually be able to do it with a whole human brain.”

This is where cybernetics comes in, allowing us to build robotic bodies which could, one day, house our brains. And, just like we can keep machines functioning for hundreds of years with the right care and occasional replacing of parts, this could give us our first step towards immortality.

“I don’t think there is an end date for how long we can keep a brain healthy. We will soon find out if brain cells can be replaced – maybe with stem cells – and, if so, it could, in theory, go on living forever. The question is: do we remain human or do we become cyborgs? We could give people extra senses or allow them to talk to one another just by thinking. We could even upgrade our intelligence, just like upgrading the processing power of a computer.”

Constructing a body complex enough to understand the cacophony of impulses generated by a human brain – whose 100bn cells dwarf the 100,000 in Warwick’s robot – is no mean feat. And when it does arrive, it isn’t going to be cheap.

“Today’s generation of brain implants cost around $500 to manufacture. But if I then want to put that into my body I’d be looking at costs of $1m, to get a team able to program it to my particular brain and another to insert it. It isn’t a cheap process and you don’t really want to cut corners where your brain is involved.”

While you won’t be able to pick up a Louis Vuitton-branded robotic body for at least a few decades, cybernetics is already being used to improve the quality of people’s lives, with brain implants that emit electronic signals being used by neurosurgeons to help mitigate the effects of diseases like Parkinson’s. Warwick says that, over the next 25 years, a host of neurological problems will be solved by technology. Becoming a cyborg may not be as far-fetched as it sounds.

Anders Sandberg // James Martin research fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University // Route to eternal youth: Digitisation

Anders Sandberg is an advocate of perhaps the most radical method of living forever – dispensing with a physical body altogether. As a transhumanist, he believes there will almost certainly come a point when we are able to fully digitise the information stored on the human brain.

“You want to take a brain and get the information out,” he says. “To do this you would have to scan it. Scanning a whole, intact brain, however, is unlikely to work – the brain is enormously complex and all the little details are incredibly important. Much more likely is scanning slices of a brain, removed from all the blood sloshing around it. This will obviously destroy it – so the brain goes in and data comes out. The initial phase of this kind of surgery will probably look a bit like Victorian steam-punk – very rudimentary.

“Then you need to put that information in a suitable environment. This is very important – without the right space to properly function, the information is useless.” he says. “Think of the environment as the great, great, great grandson of Second Life [the online game where you create an avatar of yourself and interact with other people in a digital world]. It would have to be sensory rich to keep the brain active. Then there would be the problems of recreating the other sensations that make us human, like feeling butterflies in our stomachs – without these you would lose emotional depth.”

If this were possible, it would immediately remove the problem of ageing – a digital file could, if looked after properly, last forever. Whether the copy could be classed as the same person, though, or even a person at all, is another question altogether – and it might be one we have to start thinking seriously about.

“We are already working with mice brains, which hold around two terabytes of data. We think we can turn that into something we could run in a simulated environment if we work a few cells at a time. It won’t happen over the next one or two decades. But after that…

“Then we have to work out how much computing power is required to run a human brain. It will probably be around 2040 when computers are up to it. Once you are at this stage, you open up all kinds of possibilities: you could emulate brains, meaning you would have back-up copies, vastly reducing the chance of you every really dying.

“There is certainly the economic will for this. Fashion brands, for example, would stand to benefit hugely – they could control not only your clothes but your entire image; face, height, everything.”

•••

So, should we be cracking out the champagne and planning how to spend the rest of our eternal lives? Not quite. Other scientists are less than convinced by both the practicalities and ethics of prolonging human life. Colin Blakemore, professor of neuroscience at the University of Oxford, points out that, among a plethora of other issues, death is a vital ingredient of evolution: if nobody dies, we stop breeding out weakness. Thankfully, he says, it almost certainly wouldn’t work, even if we wanted it to.

This, of course, won’t stop people like de Grey from doing his damndest to make it happen. I can’t help hoping he succeeds.

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