5 Ways Science Could Make Us Immortal
We'll take back every bad thing we've ever said about science if it will just make us immortal. That doesn't seem like too much to ask.
The thing is, it might be closer than we think. There are a lot of different ways to keep a human body and mind going long after its expiration date, and experiments are ongoing. The most promising techniques involve ...
Unlocking What Your Genes Can Already DoReally, the only thing keeping you from having the lifespan of a vampire or a Highlander is an enzyme called telomerase.
Bob Barker has none of that.
So if you've decided you want to live until squid evolve to start swinging from trees, the first thing you should know is that while we accept aging as an unquestioned constant of the universe, it really isn't. The breakdown in our cells that causes us to get frail and wrinkly is a specific set of defects that science is just now starting to pin down. By all rights we shouldn't have to get old. After all, nature has plenty of examples of animals that suffer the whims of weather and disease, but if left alone in a germ- and disaster-free habitat would effectively live forever (including tortoises, certain jellyfish and some plants).
I WILL NEVER DIE.
With us, there is that enzyme, telomerase, which acts like the little plastic thingy on the end of your shoelaces for your DNA -- it keeps the ends of your DNA from unraveling. Unfortunately, every time your cells divide, some of this is lost, meaning you are breaking your body's ability to regenerate itself every time you grow or heal. Medical scientists are finding ways to either rejuvenate telomerase or prevent its loss in the first place. If they succeed, that could effectively halt or even reverse the aging process. At that point, youth could not only be wasted on the young, but also completely blown on the elderly, who would likely forget all their hard-earned wisdom with their reinstated endurance and sudden return of fully functioning boners.
And one way or the other, the answer to aging is in our genes. And gene therapy -- that is, manipulating the genes inside our cells to treat disease -- is already a thing. It's just a matter of getting better at it. Futurists Ray Kurzweil and Dr. Terry Grossman think that eventually we could not only block disease-causing genes, but even introduce new genes that, in addition to preventing aging, also make awesome augmentations like changing your eye color or making you glow in the dark.
And, one glorious day, the prehensile cock.
None of these techniques will save you from a fiery car crash, obviously (we're getting to those), but the point is there is no reason to think of a lifespan as something that has to end in 80 or even 800 years, barring deadly intervention from a jealous husband.
Mind uploading is exactly what it sounds like: backing up your entire mind to a computer.
Right along with the porn.
This is one of those ideas that sounds ridiculous but could be closer than you think. The hardware certainly isn't far away.
Scientific estimates vary wildly as to how much computer hardware it would take to mimic your brain, because the human brain stores information in a completely different way than your computer. For instance, if you just count up the neurons, its raw storage is only a few gigabytes, i.e., less than the thumb-size USB drive you have at your desk, but the brain uses a flexible system that lets it store something closer to 2.5 petabytes (that is, 2,500 terabytes) worth of information.
One day, we'll be able to fit a drive with twice that much data in the crack of this model's ass.
That kind of storage is commonplace in computers. Blizzard uses 1.3 petabytes just to run World of Warcraft on it servers. Obviously, we don't have computers capable of mimicking or hosting human thought processes, mostly because we don't understand enough about how the brain retrieves thoughts and memories. But in terms of sheer hardware horsepower, we could probably build something capable of doing it once they figure out how it'd work.
So this may actually be less sci-fi than the rest of the list; scientists have already made working neural interfaces for computers and robots and have even created simulated animal brains using supercomputers. These are the first steps to recording a human mind digitally (called whole brain emulation). Then you could create a digital backup of you, in case something awful happened.
If only we could do the same thing to a franchise.
And from there, the possibilities of this particular method of immortality are limited only by our imagination. You could be downloaded into a robot, or a cyborg body, maybe a fancy synthetically engineered biological body.
Which would mean that out of all the science fiction ever produced, fate chose Virtuosity.
Obviously, that's thinking several steps down the line (particularly the tricky process of going the opposite direction -- transmitting data stored on a computer to an organic brain or something that can otherwise be hosted in a body). But, hell, maybe you like your new digital home and don't want to return to that messy "real world" thing. Imagine being able to save yourself to a computer and then live out the rest of eternity in World of Warcraft, or even one of the many hyper-realistic virtual porn worlds that will eventually crop up in our future.
Of course, cosplayers will quickly lose all sense of themselves, much to their delight.
It is also the least invasive and least terrifying method for possible immortality, as it doesn't require any injections or, you know, work, on your part. You just hook up your brain to a computer and hit "save." You don't even have to be plugged in. Finally, we can all live the dream of living forever. And in the virtual world, ordering another beer is as easy as copy and paste. So what if you manage to live a few billion years and the sun is about to go nova? Don't worry; they'll just move your backup brain to a space-based hard drive. Suck on that, entropy!
So how far off is this? The conservative estimate is 50 to 75 years, while the liberal view has us backing ourselves up by 2030. Obviously nobody knows for sure -- there are predictions from 30 years ago that look pretty stupid now. And zombies may have eaten us all by then. Still, when you look at how fast computing power advances, it's hard not to imagine it coming eventually.
At least our zombies will have badass cell phones in their rotting pockets.
Nanotech Cellular Repairs
Nanotech (i.e., microscopic machines and materials that can build and fix stuff) is quickly becoming to our culture what atomic energy was to the 1950s -- a world-changing technology that, in science fiction stories, always creates monsters. It's easy to get carried away with what nanotech will be capable of. There will be limitations, just as there are with any technology. But it's also hard not to get excited.
Because these techniques aren't just theoretical. Scientists have successfully used nanotech to repair optic nerves in blind hamsters by building a custom synthetic molecule that, when injected, arranges itself into a nanofiber to repair the nerve. They are working on nanorobots that would target and kill cancer cells like tiny hunter-killers.
"We're injecting a tiny army into your shoulder, Mrs. Patterson."
The futurist we quoted before (Kurzweil) thinks we are less than 20 years away from a nanotech immortality revolution, but again, we admit it's hard to stick a deadline on this sort of thing (he tends to be way on the optimistic side). Still, the concept is sound; it's simply a more advanced, less invasive form of medicine that could someday detect and repair body disease and trauma at a cellular level. It would make today's surgeons look like clumsy cavemen.
Kurzweil takes it even further, saying that if we make our tiny machines advanced enough (again assuming the continuing decrease in size and increase in power we've seen with computers since they were invented), then we could theoretically replace the nuclei of our cells with nanocomputers that would do a faster, more efficient job than the shitty nucleus that evolution left us with.
Instead of going into GNC to buy celery juice and algae supplements, you could walk in and buy a red blood cell upgrade and adjustable boobs, for those lonely nights when World of Warcraft and Cheetos aren't enough to fill the void in your new extended life.
Yes, technically if we project nanotech that far into the future, it could also be used to turn people into monsters (monsters with super strength, in fact), and we stand by our argument that nanotech could easily lead to a zombie apocalypse.
Actually, we're pretty sure every item on this list could lead to zombies somehow. That shouldn't stop the forward march of progress, should it?
That'd be like dropping fewer nukes, just because the first couple killed a few tens of thousands of people.
Cloned Parts (or a Whole New Body)
While no one reliable has ever cloned (or claimed to clone) a human, it is scientifically plausible, and as a result, it has been suggested as a means to allow humans to sustain their lives beyond their normal mortal sell-by date.
The rest of us would rather be like Spam.
There are two ideas at work here. The first is the prospect of manufacturing new, healthy, completely "you" organs to replace the crappy old parts you were born with, or even that next-generation organ you put in 30 years ago, whenever they start to get old. Obviously, most people die because a specific organ fails (for Americans, the heart is the most common culprit). So being able to replace parts like you would swap out transmissions on a car could extend life indefinitely, even if nothing else on this list comes to fruition. And organ-farming is the less morally ambiguous cloning method, since it simply requires cloning individual body parts.
The other method can pretty much count on the government giving us a response of "Umm, no ..." (in fact, it already has), because it would use a fully grown cloned body as the receptacle for the brain of an aging person so that person could effectively go from 70 to 20 with a single operation. As you might imagine, this has led to a certain level of squeamishness, since it would mean either effectively killing a cloned person for his body or raising a fully functioning body that was brain-dead from birth.
The end result of this is better fast food.
All of this means that while it is certainly plausible, it is unlikely in the Western world. In the Eastern world, however, it may become a reality. Singapore and China seem to be less worried about the problems with human cloning, and are already working toward therapeutic human cloning (the first one).
Interestingly, the possibility of using cloned bodies for immortality isn't particularly new; they even made a shitty movie about it back in 1979.
'79. The year that gave us bioethics and Alien.
If we have learned anything from movies, and we have learned so much, then it's safe to say that of all the possible methods for achieving immortality, this is the most awesome. Scientists call this the RoboCop approach. Or at least they should.
Homo sapiens are tool users: that, maybe more than anything, has defined the advancement of our species. So even if we never crack the genetic aging code or perfect the method of growing replacement livers, we can turn to our ability to build awesome mechanical tools for immortality. It's what we do.
And we're already on our way -- with artificial hearts, replacement limbs and artificial nerves, we are already rebuilding humans, albeit piecemeal, into cyborgs. Put a stethoscope over the chest of former Vice President Dick Cheney and you'll hear nothing -- instead of a heart, he has a machine that pumps blood. If we can replace one part, we can replace another.
You heard it here, folks. Dick Cheney has a robot heart.
Many of the limitations of these technologies -- weight and durability of the materials and energy efficiency -- will go away with advances in technologies such as carbon nanotubes and metamaterials. Just as we built cars that can transport us faster than our legs, we will have replacement body parts that not only outperform our crappy natural organs but will be nigh invulnerable as well.
Fortunately, prosthetics don't have the same moral complications as cloning a human body or mind uploading ("So, will my soul be uploaded as well?"). The cultural acceptance of this technique will happen one limb at a time. Nobody would start hating Bill Murray if he got an artificial hip. And even if they had to keep going until they replaced his legs and arms and all his internal organs, we'd still hug him if we saw him on the street. Knowing that he now possesses the Terminator-style strength to crush our bones would actually make it better.
What if Jeff Goldblum had laser-eyes?
The downside of this one is that even after you replace the body parts, the brain is still the same age, so you're leaving it to a separate area of science to prevent Alzheimer's and the general degradation of the brain that awaits us all in old age. A gun-toting cyber-badass is a lot less badass when it forgets its own name and leaves its blinker on for miles at a time. If you're wondering why then we put this at #1, it's because the continuing mortality of your frail human brain goes down a lot easier when you can, at any moment, replace your left arm with a flamethrower.
Learn what else science can do for us in our new book! Or you can also check out 5 Superpowers Science Will Give Us in Our Lifetime and 6 Obnoxious Old People Habits (Explained by Science).
And stop by Linkstorm where we'll teach you how to attach that flamethrower without using all that technical bullshit.
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