The quest to end death: What happens when peak Silicon Valley solutionism meets exponential science and technology?

Tyagarajan S August 31, 2017

Valar Morghulis (All men must die).

The adage applies to the real world as much as George R.R. Martin’s fictional lands. Yet, a growing group of people are questioning why this must be so. Many of them reside in Silicon Valley. They are extremely wealthy. And they believe that they could be a generation that beats the inevitability of death.

Silicon Valley challenges death

“What do we say to the Lord of Death?’

‘Not today.”

― George R.R. Martin, A Game of Thrones

The longest a human has ever lived is 122 years. And for a vast majority, the final checkout happens much ahead of this time thanks to genetics, disease, accidents, pollution and lifestyle choices.

Most of us accept this as a fact of life. Not the super-rich, however.

“Death has never made sense to me,” said Larry Ellison who has donated millions of dollars to the science of anti-ageing research. Peter Thiel, whose obsessions come in weird colours, is betting some of his wealth on beating mortality through the SENS Foundation.

Unity biotechnology, a startup working on age related problems, has raised more than $150 million till date from investors including Thiel and Jeff Bezos. Then there’s Sergey Brin and Larry Page’s secretive project Calico with a massive $1.5 billion war chest to “crack” the problem of ageing. Not much is known about what progress has been made by the company headed by Arthur Levinson who has served as the CEO of Genetech for 14 years and is an ex-board member of Apple.

All of this is reminiscent of emperors herbs, potions and the blood of teens (startups like Ambrosia are actually doing this one) to prolong life.

To be fair, ageing isn’t necessarily a silly problem to tackle. By one estimate, global human population is likely to start declining by the year 2075. Countries like Japan and large parts of the western world are facing the impact of this already. A significant percentage of Indians will suffer from lifestyle and ageing related diseases in the years to come. Investments in biotech could accelerate discoveries that could help cure diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer.

Yet, this is just a stepping stone for the seekers of immortality. They believe that we are less than a lifetime away from conquering the threat of ageing and death thanks to the advances we’ve made in biotech and genetic sciences and the parallel movement to simulate and replicate the human brain.

A pill for getting younger

“Don’t think of it as dying”, said Death. “Just think of it as leaving early to avoid the rush.”

— Terry Pratchett, Good Omens

As it turns out, what kills most of us eventually is living itself. Metabolism, which gives us energy and helps us grow, is abrasive. The messy nature of cell division leaves us with genetic scars much like pollution, stress, bad food, sun and a thousand other aspects of living.

But not to worry, for there’s a pill.

Basis from Elysium claims to help with metabolic repair and optimization. The fact that ageing isn’t a disease means that this ‘supplement’ doesn’t even need an FDA approval.

 

In December 2016, Elysium announced that its first human clinical trials successfully confirmed that Basis was safe to use and increased NAD+ levels

The basis for this pill is a coenzyme called NAD+ that is being increasingly hailed by those working to defeat ageing. NAD+ is naturally found in our body and it plays a key role in ensuring that DNA repair works effectively. A study led by David Sinclair earlier this year revealed that mice, when treated with NAD+ boosters, seem to get younger.

Sinclair himself believes that we are three to five years away from an effective anti ageing drug as he prepares to conduct human studies. NAD+ has even gotten NASA interested. The genetic repair properties of the compound may be critical as the agency considers missions like the Mars trip where astronauts spend long periods exposed to space radiation.

Then there’s Metformin. Metformin has been prescribed for Type-2 diabetes for several decades now, but a British observation study found that patients on Metformin lived eight to 10 years longer. Last year, the US FDA approved human studies to research Metformin’s effect on ageing related diseases.

The most powerful drug to extend lifespan till date is rapamycin. A known immunosuppressant, the drug has been proven to extend life in mice and worms, by inhibiting an enzyme called mTOR. The flip-side is that it weakens the immune system.

It’s all in the genes

As our understanding of how our genes impact ageing continues to grow, so do the options.

In 2009, Elizabeth H. Blackburn, along with two other scientists, won the Nobel prize for the discovery of Telomeres. Telomeres are little sheaths (genetic sequences covered in special protein) that protect the tips of chromosomes and minimize damage to the genetic material, which incidentally causes ageing. As we age, the telomeres shorten and the damages increase. Think of it as a shoe lace with aglets — its ends typically wrapped in plastic — fraying and coming apart.

While scientists recommend sleep, stress-free living and a good diet to preserve our telomeres, there are also attempts to see if genetic engineering can help extend the telomeres. Despite the risk that overproduction of telomeres could potentially cause cancer, there’s already been one reported example of a human getting experimental gene therapy to extend telomeres (its veracity is debatable, however).

 

Elizabeth H. Blackburn won the Nobel prize in 2009 for her discovery of Telomeres – a “cap” at the end of a chromosome that protects it from damage during cell division

Another group of scientists believe that reprogramming cells into behaving like embryonic stem cells can reverse ageing. There’s a limit, however. We need specialist cells to live (unless we go back to being an embryo). Also, that stem cells divide rapidly increases the potential for cancer.

While all of this research and advances offer a glimpse of a fantastic future where ageing is a disease with a ready pharmaceutical cure, the only surefire advice today remains diet, exercise and a stress-free life. Yet, it doesn’t quite jell with the on-demand fix that the Silicon Valley mindset demands.

Uploading the mind

“I am a brain, Watson. The rest of me is a mere appendix.”

― Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone

Vernor Vinge coined the term “Technological Singularity” back in 1983. It was science fiction then. Over the last decade, Ray Kurzweil has been insistent that it is not just that. By the middle of the twenty-first century, he contends, technological capabilities will far exceed the prowess of human minds leading to a fusion, a new species that’s only vaguely human by today’s definition.

Ray Kurzweil is a popular futurist who predicts that technological singularity will happen in the next three decade

This has given the idea of “mind upload” new wings.

Even as Elon Musk and others seek to mesh our brains with the digital network, there is a group that’s planning to desert the bodies altogether.

The chase is on to achieve ‘whole brain emulation’ (WBE). It’s the quest develop a digital-mechanical structure that can simulate the functioning of the human brain. Your thoughts, then, need no longer depend on residing on the substrate of your brain.

A non-profit organization, called Carboncopies is pursuing WBE. It builds on some well-funded scientific studies that are underway around the world, like the blue brain project in EU, to map and simulate parts of the human brain.

Last year, as part of DARPA’s SyNAPSE project to build a “brain hardware”, IBM built a brain-inspired chip called TrueNorth. It could perform 46 billion synaptic operations per second per watt replicating the incredible energy efficiency of human brain.

Perhaps because it’s still early stages, the deeper questions don’t seem to have been broached. Do we give up on our bodies and exist in a digital society like the species of immortals in Arthur C. Clarke’s The city and the stars? A virtual, machine-regulated society is a disconcerting, however utopian it may be.

There’s the other option, of course, again heavily borrowed from science fiction, wherein we switch bodies like jackets.

© Richardmorgan.com

Richard Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs series shows us the possibilities in such a society. A cortical stack, fitted at birth, constantly records thoughts and experience. All of this is backed up in a central location, an information render of a person that can travel across stars to be downloaded into ‘sleeves.’ Your mind isn’t everything though — the sleeve (body) you wear also determines parts of your personality and behaviour.

Dmitry Itskov is building ‘sleeves’ in real life. The 36-year old Russian multi-millionaire’s 2045 initiative aims to free the human mind from its ‘imperfect biological bodies’ and provide the choice of human-like avatars controlled by a brain or brain simulation.

© 2045.com

There’s a school that believes that we’re going about this all wrong. They believe that any attempt to computerize consciousness will be futile. Words like “quantum mechanical phenomena” and “fabric of universe” are thrown around. Given we are yet to completely understand quantum phenomena, much less build on top of it — it is possible that we have a long way to go before being able to achieve a brain-independent existence.

Buying time using cryonics

Life — and I don’t suppose I’m the first to make this comparison — is a disease: sexually transmitted, and invariably fatal.

NEIL GAIMAN, Death Talks About Life

For many of today’s super-rich, all this has given the hope of a future where they could live forever. However, with time running out, they’ve resorted to another idea that’s straight out of science fiction books: Cryonics.

In the twentieth century, Robert Ettinger kick-started the cryonics movement with his book The prospect of immortality. His belief in the possibility of “limitless life”, led him to establish the Cryonics institute. Today, he, along with his mother and his first and second wives, lie in deep freeze, waiting for the big technology breakthrough.

In the Cryonics Institute facility at Michigan, dead clients float in liquid nitrogen vats in “cryonic suspension”

As on date, Ettinger’s Cryonics Institute has 150 people in cryostasis. For $28,000, you could get yourself suspended in cryostat (after your death, of course) hoping for revival at a future point. Another cryonic preservation facility is Alcor Life Extension which, among its frozen human inventory, also hosts the first human to cryonically preserve himself — James Hiram Bedford. The only other preservation facility is KrioRus in Russia, where about 50 clients lie in stasis in a modest two-storey house and hangar.

Getting cryonically frozen is tricky business. After the legal death of a registered client, the facility has to get their emergency Swat team on site and cool down the body before the brain dies. Once transported to the facility, all the water is removed and body is pumped up with antifreeze and then the temperature is dropped to -196 centigrade. Eventually, the clients lie in tanks of liquid nitrogen until they can be revived.

Except, there’s no known way to revive.

Waking up to the future

Behind every man now alive stand 30 ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.
Arthur C. Clarke, 2001: A Space Odyssey

Believers hope that advances in biotech, nanotech and our understanding of the human brain advances sufficiently for revival to happen in the future. But until then, these facilities are nothing more than a long-shot indulgence for the super-rich.

And because revival seems like such a distant possibility, these clients don’t give much thought to the implications of waking up in a far future. Would they find the future as shocking and confusing as the pre historic man entering the civilized world in Edgar Rice Burrow’s The Resurrection of Jimber Jaw? Even worse, would they want to wake up in a world of retards from Idiocracy?

Till date, more than 100 billion human beings have perished. This includes quite a few who believed that death needn’t be inevitable. Perhaps in time, we may have a pill to cheat death but we are likely nowhere in the horizon today.

The research to understand the body and brain, however, may yet prove valuable. If it can generate a cure for ageing and lifestyle diseases like Alzheimer’s and cancer, the craziness may have been worth it.


Updated at 11:37 AM on September 1st to fix title casing in headline.

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