What do hideous mall t-shirts, emo bands from the mid-aughts, and gorgeously-wrought realist novels about dissolving marriages have in common? Simply this assertion: Life Sucks. And it does suck, undoubtedly, even for the happiest and/or richest among us, not one of whom is immune from heartbreak, hemorrhoids, or getting mercilessly ridiculed online.
Still, at certain points in life’s parade of humiliation and physical decay almost all of us feel a longing—sometimes fleeting, sometimes sustained—for it to never actually end. The live-forever impulse is, we know, driving all manner of frantic, crackpot-ish behavior in the fringier corners of the tech-world; but will the nerds really pull through for us on this one? What are our actual chances, at this moment in time, of living forever? For this week’s Giz Asks, we spoke with a number of experts to find out.
Dean’s Professor, Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Southern California, whose research focuses on reverse-engineering the human brain, among other things
Could you upload your brain to the web or the cloud and preserve it forever? Probably not. The intricacies are so complex in terms of how each individual neuron responds—it depends on so many different factors and it’s not at all clear from moment to moment if they respond the same way, even in the same individual. There are too many things going, and they vary a lot. Some people think it’s chaotic, some people think it’s more like probability theory or rolling the dice, but everything behaves slightly differently each time you pass through a decision. Every time you bring up an old memory, you rewrite it in a slightly different way. It’s all too complex, and too mixed up with all of the things going on at any given moment. It doesn’t seem to be feasible with current technology, or even near-term nano technology that we’re developing. We’re not nearly close to being able to store what’s going on in the brain.
If we understood the biochemistry of the brain entirely and we could upload the entire brain— not just what we’re seeing superficially, but the biochemistry of how the interactions occur—then it’s possible we could store that brain at a moment in time, and maybe predict how it would change over time. But we don’t understand the biochemistry of the brain in enough detail to be able to store it, because every time we think we understand it, something new comes along. We think we understand the DNA of the brain, but there’s epigenetics that affect how the DNA is actually expressed, and that complicates things. Epigenetics is an emerging field, but the biology isn’t nearly there, the neuroscience isn’t there yet.
That said, understanding is increasing every day—it’s like drinking out of a firehouse. The amount of knowledge that’s coming out of neuroscience is impressive. Eventually we might be able to at least approximate what’s going on in the brain to a first order—so if you had somebody whose personality was very positive and extroverted and optimistic, you might be able to capture that in an artificial brain to some degree. But it won’t be the person—it’ll just be some little piece of who the person is.
What’s going on in your bloodstream and in the hormones and in the proteins all affect what’s happening in the brain, so that makes it difficult too. The brian-body is a complex system, and being able to duplicate that doesn’t seem likely in the short-term. Maybe within four to five decades we could get something that can behave somewhat like a human brain, but it wouldn’t be like a person that we know—it couldn’t capture the subtleties, the nuances of how an individual’s brain is structured, and everybody’s brain is different.
But it’s the ultimate exploration. When I was growing up in the 60s outer space was the frontier—now it’s the brain.
Senior Research Fellow and Co-Head of the Laboratory for Ageing Research at the University of New South Wales, Sydney
You will not live forever. Death is inevitable. Embrace it, and you will find yourself living the best life you can. As the next best thing, if you would like to live longer and healthier, your best chance relies on limiting calorie intake and in particular cutting down on protein intake, regular moderate exercise, a regular sleep pattern, remaining intellectually engaged, and maintaining social contact. In the meantime, there is a whole branch of science devoted to finding ways to maintain health in old age including through new medicines, however for the time being, these will only at best mimic the benefits of these lifestyle interventions.
Professor of Genetics and co-Director of the Paul F. Glenn Center for the Biology of Aging at Harvard Medical School, whose research focuses on why we age and how to slow its effects
Our best chance of immortality is cellular reprogramming to reset the age of the body repeatedly. This would likely involve triggering a combination of the genes that allow cells to become pluripotent stem cells, the so called “Yamanaka factors.” We have evidence from my lab and others that it is possible to use these factors reset the age of cells and rejuvenate complex tissues—skin, kidneys and even eyes.
We could engineer ourselves genetically to respond to a drug or an antibiotic like doxycycline, so we could reset the age of the body, say, every 10 years.
It is feasible we could rejuvenate organs, tissues and even grow new ones with this technology. We might be able to regrow new organs or limbs (like an axolotl). As a species we might live as long as a whale, or a tortoise, or even longer.
Other technologies that will complement this include the ability to kill off old, zombie senescent cells and induce the benefits of diet and exercise with molecules called rapalogs and NAD booster, and tech we can’t yet dream of. When organs fail, we would print new ones on a 3D printer.
Eventually, after a few hundred years of technology optimization, with a combination of reprogramming, hormesis-stimulating molecules, senescent cell deletion, and organ replacement, we could live thousands of years or more.
Longevity tech is at the stage of the Wright brothers we’re in 1903, perhaps dreaming of going to the stars. We know it is possible. There is no biological or physical law against it. The only question is when.
Assistant Professor, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center
Well, forever is a mighty long time, if I can paraphrase. That said, I do suspect that people will eventually live much longer than we do now, and spend a much longer fraction of our lives free from disease. How much longer? Eventually, enough longer that people today might be quite surprised.
Our own germlines are essentially immortal, and they carry the same DNA, encoding the same instructions, as all of our other, mortal cells. In nature, we can identify pairs of related species whose natural lifespan varies by 15-fold or more, and we know that these differences are all due to inheritable changes in their genes, that we are trying to uncover and understand. In the lab, researchers have been able to extend some animals’ lifespans ten-fold. In this context, we sometimes fail to emphasize just how often findings made first in the lab in simple models are later shown to work exactly the same way in humans. There is a very long list of Nobel Prizes, patents, and blockbuster drugs in the clinic that underscore this pattern.
I like to remind students that Thomas Edison, Lord Kelvin, and other experts claimed repeatedly that heavier-than-air flight was impossible, only a few years before the Wright Brothers first flew. In this context, I think it is a safe bet that people will eventually have longer, healthier lives than they do now. The riskier odds are in trying to guess whether it will be us, our children, or our grandchildren who will first see these benefits. Boring as it sounds, for now, I think that generally taking care of yourself through diet and exercise might give you the best improvement in your chances of living to see these advances. The exciting thing is that there are human drug trials underway as we speak that could change that answer dramatically at any time.