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The Ruthless, Fruitless Pursuit of Immortality

Technology is bringing us closer to the dream of living forever. What might we surrender in the quest?

By Adam Leith Gollner | November 15, 2013
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Adam Leith Gollner is the author of The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever. He is the former editor of Vice magazine and has also written for The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Guardian, the Globe and Mail and Lucky Peach.

Humans have always longed for immortality. Tens of thousands of years ago, Neanderthals were burying their dead in fetal poses, suggesting hope for posthumous rebirth. In Neolithic times, we entombed food alongside corpses so they'd have something to snack on in the spirit realm. Cuneiform tablets from Nineveh, among the oldest written documents, shimmer with accounts of quests for eternal life. Early humans all tried to make sense of the senselessness of death. They did so through stories about outliving the end, about attaining a never-ending existence in the beyond. Those mythologies became codified into institutional religions that remain with us millennia later.
 
To this day, immortality is usually conceptualized as a kind of secondary life that occurs after death. The idea emerged from our fear of dying, from the knowledge that our days our numbered, from the sense that life must go on in some way. The basic premise of spiritual immortality is simple: We die, but our soul or consciousness doesn't. An energy or force within us outlives its mortal container, ending up in an afterlife or hurled back into rebirth. Three quarters of Americans believe in some form of life after death.
 
(MORE: How Long Do You Really Want to Live?)

But there's another, more materialist side to the equation: Trying to live forever physically. In imperial China, numerous emperors died after consuming toxic elixirs of everlasting life. One of the main goals of alchemy was the attainment of physical immortality. Such approaches may not have succeeded in the past, but driven by recent advances in science and technology, a tricked-out version of humanity's oldest and fondest dream is gaining followers.
 
Physical immortality is a seductive conceit and its allure gains in luster with each new technological breakthrough. Despite the fact that there are no documented examples of anything immortal in nature, there's an increasing sense that science will soon figure out how to end mortality altogether.

All we need is to do, experts tell us, is lengthen telomeres, target sirtuins or activate CREB1, the brain's latest "longevity molecule." Nonprofit organizations like the Immortality Institute and the Methuselah Foundation have been established "to conquer the blight of involuntary death." And every year, more conferences — with names like Humanity+ or the Global Future 2045 International Congress — pop up purporting to reveal the latest breakthroughs in attaining technologically enabled eternity.
 
The reality is that we have seen breakthroughs in the field of organ regeneration and molecular biologists have uncovered ways to extend the life spans of worms, fruit flies and mice. So far, however, these findings haven't yielded any human applications. In 2009, aiming to staunch the hype, the National Institute on Aging announced that "no treatments have been proven to slow or reverse the aging process."
 
That's not stopping people from trying.
 
Longer Life Spans, But Still an Expiration Date

Beyond stoking the embers of our primal need to believe, how did the concept of physical immortality become so popular in recent times? Part of the answer lies in increases to life expectancy. From the dawn of the Homo genus up to the 19th century, an average life lasted approximately 25 to 40 years. Largely due to basic realizations about hygiene, life spans have increased significantly over the past century and a half. Today, anyone above the poverty threshold can anticipate living 70 to 90 years unless an accident, disease or disaster strikes — or immortality becomes real.
 
Will life expectancy continue climbing? Some demographers argue that we've reached a peak, while others suggest that 125 is a reasonable target for baby boomers. Radical life-extensionists speak of "Plastic Omega" (omega being the end of life, and plastic being malleable). No one knows for sure.
 
For the most part, we don't question the idea that every problem is solvable by the rational mind, that humanity's biggest challenge — death itself — will one day be met. But is progress an inviolable fact of history or just a story we tell ourselves? Not everything progresses. Have our emotions evolved since Shakespeare's time?
 
(MORE: Why We Fear Aging More Than We Should)

Our ability to program computers has accelerated our faith in the possibility of overcoming death. Early software developers spoke of coding personality into electronic circuits and reanimating it at will. They hypothesized that, in combining cybernetics with DNA, they'd find the formula for immortality.

In December 2012, Google appointed the computing entrepreneur and inventor Ray Kurzweil to be its director of engineering. Alongside his pioneering accomplishments in fields such as speech-recognition technology and electronic keyboard synthesizers, Kurzweil has claimed that "we have the means right now to live long enough to live forever." He is convinced that we will attain "the Singularity" — the moment when humans will merge with computers, resulting in immortality — by the year 2045 at the latest.
 
One widely discussed aspect of this theory is called mind-uploading, in which we'll ostensibly figure out how to digitize the content of human minds and plug them into computerized hard drives, allowing us to transition back and forth between flesh and data. By the time that happens, our veins will apparently be full of cell-size nanobots.

Eventually, we'll evolve into bodies without organs, since mechanized lungs, for example, would be far more effective than the inflatable disease bags we've been saddled with. And once we eliminate the need to breathe, why not dispense with the digestive system? The kidneys, liver, pancreas and spleen will become extraneous. "Although artificial hearts are beginning to work, a more effective approach will be to get rid of the heart altogether," Kurzweil declared in 2004.
 
(MORE: 3 Adventures in the World of Anti-Aging)

What futurists call Human Body 2.0 will be filled with mechanical parts. Our eyes will be surgically enhanced with monitors that connect our retinas and mind directly to the Internet. Chips and processors implanted in our brains will be synced to Google. There will be little distinction between virtual and analog realities. What today we consider physical products will become information files — e-mail attachments. Pleasure devices will be invented, Kurzweil suggests, that will let us have sex with tangible replicas of our fantasies.

Shaking Off Our Mortal Shell

If a person's body gets damaged, broken or killed, all they'll have to do is download themselves into a new clone-husk. Forget plane tickets — we'll be able to instantly transfer our "selves" across the globe into "foglets" (as bodies will become known) wherever we need or want to be. Through identity diffusion we'll even be able to be in several places at the same time, using wireless links.
 
Singularitarians aren't too concerned about ethical quandaries surrounding cloning and artificial intelligence; they're too busy getting ready for infinity. Few of us realize what pro-immortality advocates are actually proposing. One well-known immortalist, Aubrey de Grey, author of Ending Aging, has written about building island colonies of humanlike apes — tens of thousands of them — that would need to be vivisected and experimented upon to keep humans living forever. Apes are genetically similar to us and age even faster than we do. Another benefit, de Grey writes, is "they don't talk, so if the biomedical imperative is sufficient society feels entitled to do more or less anything to them."

He's raised more than $10 million so far.

(MORE: Why We Should Look Forward to Living to 120 and Beyond)

For as long as we've dreamed of immortality, we've debated its desirability. Techno-utopians claim we're on a preordained path, but not everyone wants to become non-biological. What would it really mean to become software-based creatures? Are we prepared to forsake our humanity to become immortal cyborgs? The radical futurists among us certainly are. "The whole idea of a 'species' is a biological concept," Kurzweil clarifies. "What we are doing is transcending biology."
 
It's clear that physical immortality is, at this time, still an article of faith. Whether it's a poorer one than spiritual immortality is a personal choice. Those who expect the scientific method to provide an answer to every question are simply subverting religious belief into scientism. In the end, when it comes to understanding death, all we have is what we started with: beliefs.
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