The following is the original transcript from my TedX talk of the same name. Typos and all.
All Illustrations by the lovely Raleen Bagg. Enjoy:
Who wants to live forever?
From the quest for the Holy Grail to the search for the Fountain of Eternal Youth; human history and mythology is littered with our obsession with youth and immortality.
Today, thanks to technological advances we are close to achieving that goal.
If not immortality, amortality, at least, is now within our grasp.
An Amortal is someone who lives agelessly – immortal barring a violent accident. Madonna is a good example!
“Amortality: Unable to die from disease or age. Immortal if no physical ailment befalls you.”
~ Yuval Harari, Author, Sapiens
Right now, there are several scientific paths converging on amortality, indicating that ageing is not inevitable and that it is, in fact, possible for us to prevent – or even reverse the ageing process.
1. Organic amortality
The first way – is through organic immortality – or curing ageing through by fixing our own biology
This method is big in Silicon Valley where Sergey Brin and Larry Page’s Calico, Jeff Bezos and Peter Thiel’s Unity Biotechnology and Peter Diamondis’ Human Longevity Inc and Celularity businesses are all tirelessly working to keep their finders alive for longer.
2. CRISPR kids
It is now possible to alter human DNA before birth. CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology can “cut out” faulty genes that could result in genetic illnesses and abnormalities from human embryos before conception. As this technology progresses, we will, in theory, be able to “immunise” future generations from many, perhaps even eventually all the diseases we suffer from today – even the disease of ageing itself.
The result will be a race of amortal super-humans with enormous brains, perfect health and stunning beauty. This is not science fiction. Experimental CRISPR for humans is already legalised (and encouraged) in China and Japan.
3. Epigenetics and Nutrigenomics
Pre-conception solutions to ageing will, obviously, not help those of us who are already here, but although future generations may have a monopoly on pre-conception genetic modification, adult “bio-hackers” can turn to epigenetics (that is use biological factors to “switch genes on and off”) and nutrigenomics (that is studying what we eat affects our risk and response to disease and ageing) to change the way our genes behave, with the goal of improving heath and increasing longevity.
In essence, this involves monitoring, and experimenting with your own body the same way a scientist would track and test a subject in a laboratory.
You measure – quantify – the effects of exercise, food intake, caffeine intake, alcohol consumption, sleep patterns, medication and meditation, on your health, and then make adjustments and track changes to optimise your body’s vitality.
Calorie restriction (which shows lots of promise in the quest to immortality) is another example of this.
4. Young blood
If the scientific bio-hacking method seems like too much work, young blood may be right for you.
Taking their cue from the very real Countess Elizabeth Bathory who murdered hundreds of young women and bathed in their still-warm blood – in the belief their vitality would be transferred to her, modern scientists have discovered elderly lab rats that receive blood transfusions from young, healthy rats live longer and healthier lives. It didn’t take long for them to start experimenting on humans:
Ambrosia LCC just finished up a clinical trial that took blood plasma from people under the age of 25, and transfused it into older people looking to regain their youth – they are about to open a young blood clinic to the public in New York City.
Young blood is popular with the rich and famous. Billionaire Pay-Pal founder Peter Thiel is rumoured to pay adolescents for vials of their blood and Kim Kardashian swears by Vampire facials (that’s where they smear your own blood all over your face as “personalised platelet face cream).
“I think we’re seeing a reversal of ageing. Now we have data suggesting there’s real changes in physiology after treatment.” ~ Dr Karmazin, Founder of Ambrosia LCC
5. Bio-organic immortality
If the sight of blood, or the idea of needles makes you feel faint, you probably won’t like the cyborg route to amorality either, which involves integrating in-organic technology with the human body, often via surgical means. However, like it or not, cyborgs already walk among us. If you have hearing aid, wear contact lenses, have a hip replacement or a pace maker, congratulations, you’re a cyborg.
Plastic surgery also falls into this category – if your college runs our, just replace it with some plastic and Botox…
Today’s robotics and bio-organic technology just make it possible for us to replace even more faulty and damaged body parts and keep us alive and kicking for longer – we’re already seeing thought-controlled robotic prosthetic limbs and 3D printed bio-organic organs and arteries.
In theory, soon it will be possible to repair or replace any part of your body that wears out, breaks down, loses its attractiveness or otherwise prevents you from living your long life to the fullest.
Some futurists even talk of people one day cutting off healthy limbs to replace them with super-speedy hi-tech prosthetics (Oscar Pistorius).
7. Inorganic amorality
If all this is too much for you, to keep up with, you can also chose to leave your frail, expensive body behind altogether and upload your mind, potentially even your consciousness, into a computer to live on long after your mortal remains have been buried in the ground.
This may seem unbelievable, but scientists working on OpenWorm project have already managed to map the connectome (a connectome is a comprehensive map of all the neural connections in a brain) of the C. Elegans worm. They uploaded the resulting “brain” into a computer programme that now functions exactly like a “real” worm. OpenWorm is not simply a model, rather it’s billed as the first artificial life form.
The aim of the project is to first build a complete, biologically-realistic emulation of the worm, all the way from genes to behaviour, and then to repeat the project on other species, with the end goal of simulating living human beings.
That means you could one day -theoretically- upload your mind and become an immortal living machine programme.
(OK, it’s going to be a LOT more complicated to do the same for a human mind than it was for the worm. A third of our neural connections are unique to each of us and we have more like 86 billion neurones start with, compared to the worm-brain’s measly 302 – not to mention that we don’t even really know what consciousness is yet – but STILL it is “theoretically” possible!)
8. The Brainternet
Then there are brain-neuro interfaces.
Bio-mechanical engineer, Adam Pantanowitz, along with two engineering students at WITS, successfully streamed human brain waves to the internet on an open-source website using an electroencephalogram (EEG) device and called it the Brainternet.
“The idea is that eventually we’re going to become more connected to the networks around us and we could eventually become Internet of Things nodes on the network ourselves. Information can travel from our brains to the networks, and back from the network into our brains.” ~ Adam Pantanowitz
Then of-course, even if you do die accidentally before you get a chance to upload your mind into the cloud, you can always have yourself cryogenically frozen to await resurrection on the distant day scientists discover how to re-animate corpses.
Cryogenics does not come cheap. Fees range from 20,000 to 200,000 dollars a person. You can, however, get a discount if they just freeze your decapitated head, which is, apparently, an increasingly popular option.
All this weird and wonderful science can be summed up with the transhumanism movement’s belief we can and should eradicate human suffering and ageing as a cause of death by utilising technology to augment our bodies and our minds.
In other words, the goal is to
LIVE LONG AND PROSPER
And, so far we are doing very well with the first part of that, even without the innovations I’ve shared with you today:
There are approximately 3.7 million members of greatest generation still alive – they are the guys who were born between 1900 and 1925, lived through BOTH world wars – and are pushing 100 today (sorry Millennials, we’re not the greatest, they are)
According to research by the Washington Post, the final member of the Greatest Generation should die around 2046.
Our life expectancy today has increased by 30 years (to around 80 years) – compared to people born in 1900 who were lucky to reach 50.
What’s more, your chances of survival stop declining and“plateau” once you make it past 105 – this means for every year you live after 105, you can expect to live another…
The oldest human person to date was Jeanne Calment of France who died in 1997 at the age of 122 years, 164 days (and even with her, there is a theory that she died decades earlier and her daughter assumed her identity).
(There is a million pound prize for first person to live break her record and live to 123 years old, what do you think – worth it?)
That said, most of the scientific community believes the maximum human life span is approximately 125 years
But radicals like the longevity expert, Dr Aubrey de Grey, believe that we can “cure” ageing, we can get to 1,000 years! (barring some accidents and violent deaths that not even cyborg body parts could fix) once we apply our minds to “cure” ageing”.
So yes, we are very good at keeping people alive and in the future we will only get better at it!
But what about the second part of the transhumanist manifesto?
LIVE LONG AND PROSPER!
Is that possible? or is it really a question of:
LIVE LONG OR PROSPER
We are very good at keeping people alive – whether they want us to or not.
And there is a very big difference between LIVING and being alive…
in the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, when the greek goddess of the dawn, Eos asked Zeus to make her mortal, human lover Tithonus immortal, she forgot to ask that he be granted eternal youth.
Being young forever is fantastic, being old forever not so much.
Most ageing hollywood celebrities would agree!
Like Eos, are we asking for the wrong thing?
Is it possible for us all to live long AND prosper?
The peak-end rule explored by Daniel Khanaman, Nobel prize winner for economics, in his book Thinking Fast & Slow explains that our consciousness values any experience as the average between the peak intensity of the experience and the end point – not by the duration.
In other words, when it comes to life, quality matters more than quantity.
And the more the end sucks, the less the high points that came before matter.
A life that ends badly is judged to be less satisfying than an otherwise identical life that just ended sooner (before the bad end).
More suicides than homicides – You are (literally) your own worst enemy
Is it any wonder then that more people are killed by themselves than by others – that there are more more than twice as many suicides than homicides at a global level?
In fact, the world-wide number of deaths from suicides is higher than the number of deaths from homicide, terrorism, conflict, and executions – put together.
“Statistically you are your own worst enemy. At least, of all the people in the world, you are most likely to be killed by yourself” – Yuval Harari
Euthanasia is also on the up – it is now the cause of 4.5% of deaths in the Netherlands (one of the first countries to legalise the practice) – even among healthy people.
This kind of morbid trend cries out for a discussion. Why are we so sick of life? And do we even want extra life if we can get it?
These statistics indicate that “life” for life’s sake isn’t quite what it’s cracked up to be.
And what if society doesn’t even want YOU to stick around?
Enter the “Dagwood generation”
If Millennials are the sandwich generation, looking after kids & parents, Generation Alpha (their children) will be the dagwood generation, looking after kids, parents, grand parents and great grand parents – physical and financially – on a nuclear and national level.
After all, who is planning for a 60-year retirement?
Who has the energy to re-invent and re-skill themselves tens of times and keep working past your 100th birthday?
The Alphas are NOT going to like this.
Intergenerational conflict and the fight for the future
There’s a saying in academia that ideas progress one funeral at a time… what happens when bossy boomers stay in power (in the office and in government) for “generations”?
The last baby boomer will only have left us in 2088 – that means that we could have 17 more baby boomer presidents, if each serves one term.
And what about ageless dictators? what happens when old powerful people put population control policies in place to prevent future generations from being born and competition with “their” resources? (as China did with it’s devastating one-child policy)?
Prosperity for all = hell on earth
Not to mention perfect longevity and prosperity for everyone would be hell on earth. The resulting population explosion would destroy economies and natural resources.
The proverbial pie can’t grow fast enough.
If everyone on earth ate the same amount of calories as the average American, global fresh water resources would have already been exhausted back in 2000, when the worlds population hit 6 million. Earth just cant give us all everything – long life, health happiness and high-calorie diets!
Genetic inequality vs procreative freedom
And what happens to the “naturally conceived” future human generations who are not rich enough to access the elixirs and surgeries of eternal youth? They will have to compete with super-smart CRISPR Kids and superhuman cyborgs – supermen vs men, mortals vs immortals… it could get messy, especially as resource competition heats up…
(Sure, maybe we can escape overpopulation and interspecies wars by running to the stars to but do you really want to live forever in a pod on a dustbowl like Mars?)
But all that said, all these negatives still don’t justify NOT striving for amortality!
I’m no deathist: If we are smart enough to achieve amorality we are smart enough to come up with economic and environmental solutions to these conflicts too.
If we can extend life – and preferably quality of life too – we should do it.
We all have the right to as long as possible a life as want to have.
So yes we should strive to cure ageing and achieve the possibility of amortality for humanity – we should give future generations that choice. I’m not questioning that.
Rather I’m asking you to ask the question for yourself – is a longer life right for you?
And if you want to live forever – why?
If you live longer what will you do with the extra time? Something of value or will you waste it worrying about how to use or extend the years ahead?
Is a short life less meaningful than a long one? – less well lived? How long do you really need to live to lead a meaningful life?
In the past people accomplished far more than many of us, with much shorter lives.
Think about the 27 Club
The 27 Club is a list of popular musicians, artists, or actors who died at age 27 – it includes Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin – would they have been happier or more successful if they lived longer (probably not, or at least they didn’t think so themselves, given their main cause of death was self-inflicted.)
Or Alexander the great who conquered the known world and died before his 33rd birthday – I’m 33 and I haven’t so much as paid off my bond.
Or compare me to my great, great, great aunt Jane Austin (yes we’re really related) she only made it to 41, but she wrote six “great novels” in that short time – and I’m yet to finish my first manuscript…
I guess we all have a choice, what would you prefer – to live fast, die young or live slow die old?
When you expect life to be short, you try to pack more in, don’t you? to make the most of your time left.
Maybe previous generations accomplished more than we do (day for day) because they felt their impending mortality?
I’m sure you know, many of us need a “deadline” in order to complete an assignment – you know the saying, the task increases according to the time allocated to it. More time more often means more procrastination than more productivity.
So, if you are given extra – unlimited time, will you waste it procrastinating or spend every minute usefully? After all, things that are abundant are perceived to be less precious than things that are scarce…
Will you enjoy the gift that is the present or will you miss the moments for the years? Longing for a long ago past or wishing for a far ahead future?
Will you enjoy your body or torture it with calorie restriction diets and plastic surgery to stretch your youth beyond its “natural” lifespan?
Honestly, how many extra days do you need to gain at the end of your life to justify giving up a glass of wine with friends today – or a slice of birthday cake?
Which brings us back to the noble transhuman goal: to live long, prosper – to end human suffering.
But one definition of the word “suffer” is simply to “undergo or experience (anything)”
So in many ways, to live is to suffer.
Not to mention, many of the life-extending therapies in the pursuit of transhumanism involve no small amount of suffering themselves (vampire facial or a 10 day dry fast anyone?)….
Honestly, the best (perhaps only) way to eliminate suffering (if that is our goal) would be to upload us all into unfeeling computer simulations (as in the Matrix).
And sure, you can live forever as a cryogenically frozen head or computer programme, but why bother? – Would you really be living? would that give you any joy or value? Would re-awakening to an endless healthy life be any less “suffering” that growing old and one day dying?
My suggestion is – whether you want to live forever or not – that we should all try to really live today – right now – before we try live forever.
So, do you want to live forever?
Or do you want to live today?