“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying,” reads the classic, dry-witted quote from esteemed comedian Woody Allen. “I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.” Penned back in 1993 for The Illustrated Woody Allen Reader, these words held little value other than comedic at the time, but in fact touched on something much more poignant that simmered beneath the surface of the scientific community in the early ’90s: A literal desire to battle human mortality and all but eradicate death.
In an ironic twist, Allen’s famous joke was published the same year that the world’s first ‘intelligent prosthesis’ became commercially available; a microprocessor-controlled prosthetic knee that paved the way for the cutting-edge, 3D-printed bionics we know today. Just three years prior, the Human Genome Project was founded, marking the largest – and arguably, most ambitious – collaborative biological project on the planet. Its aim? To determine the DNA sequence of the entire human genome within 15 years.
From the first instance of successful cloning in Dolly the sheep to the creation of artificial human chromosomes, the ’90s was a decade thick with scientific progress and discovery in the respective fields of genetics, bionics and cryonics, laying the proverbial foundations for an era of aggressive development never before seen. An era that would spawn a spate of projects so ambitious they would have been dismissed as too ludicrous for a Ridley Scott movie, never mind respected as legitimate pursuits within the scientific community.
Today’s intelligent prosthesis are more advanced than ever.
Topics like ‘curing ageing’ and ‘extended life spans’– things beyond our wildest dreams in preceding decades – came to the fore in the millennial generation, as technological and scientific discovery began to deem them relevant. Questions that were once far too abstract to be considered were suddenly justified; the breakneck pace of progress putting the answers on the horizon. Acclaimed scientists, like biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey, led the charge by arguing that human ageing “should not be tolerated in a civilised society”, and that “robust human rejuvenation” is something to be taken seriously. Others soon rallied behind the cause.
Brilliant scientific minds, such as esteemed professor of genetics David Sinclair and biochemist Cynthia Kenyon, can each be seen passionately spreading their anti-ageing message at TED Talks, summits and conferences around the globe. In their eyes, it’s an idea worth sharing and a message worth spreading – with proven scientific practice to support it. In paraphrasing their arguments, ageing should be combatted like any other natural disease; we fight cancer, heart disease and diabetes – why not this leading cause of death, too? Ultimately, the real merit of geriatric prevention comes in the form of improved quality of life. By battling ageing, many of these other diseases should topple with it; the aim is to achieve longer life at better health.
Of course, this is easier said than done and, as always, there are plenty of robust counter arguments to be addressed. Can the planet’s limited resources really support an abundant ageing population? Are there ethical issues to consider when prolonging life? Will life really be worth living beyond humanity’s ‘natural’ lifespan? Interestingly, a combination of these perturbing questions and rapid scientific progress has led to the inception of an entirely new industry – an industry with grand ambitions, indeed.
“GIVEN THE CHOICE, PEOPLE DO NOT WANT TO DIE, WHICH MAKES SENSE BECAUSE GROWING OLD IS LIKE BEING INCREASINGLY PENALISED FOR A CRIME YOU HAVEN’T COMMITTED.”
– DMITRY ITSKOV
If you told the Wright brothers that within 30 years of their first shaky flight, military planes would be shooting one another out of the sky in a violent ball of flames, your words would have been met with decidedly blank stares. This is a reaction that Dmitry Itskov’s 2045 Initiative has dealt with on more than a single occasion. Founded by the Russian billionaire back in 2011, the non-profit organisation aims to “create technologies enabling the transfer of an individual’s personality to a more advanced non-biological carrier, and extending life… to the point of immortality.”
Currently underway, the initiative can be split into three key parts. The first is the development of an android avatar, which is chalked for completion before 2020. Controlled by a ‘brain-computer’ interface, the artificial humanoid body will allow people to operate at a higher level, permanently eradicating physical limitations and drastically reducing biological illness. Once perfected, the second stage of the project will see the creation of an autonomous life-support system, effectively transplanting the human brain directly into the avatar. Finally, when technology has effectively synchronised, a computer model will be designed to transfer individual consciousness into an artificial carrier, achieving cybernetic immortality.
If the initiative achieves its goals, by 2045 a new era of humanity will begin. It will be devoid of disease and death; an evolutionary step that transcends existing principles of the natural world, leading to a higher enlightenment. Ambitious? Definitely. But is it achievable, especially in such a short time span? According to Itskov, absolutely.
Humai focuses on “transcending humanity through robotics”.
“Where there is a will, there is a way,” says Itskov. “As always, it will be a question of resources. For this reason, we seek a global social mandate. We want to establish and publicise that there exists a humanity-wide mass demand for the benefits of these technologies.” In rallying together governments, private investors and scientific institutions across the world, Itskov hopes to not only accelerate its timescale, but also communicate a message of evolutionary change. “Given the choice, people do not want to die, which makes sense because growing old is like being increasingly penalised for a crime you haven’t committed,” Itskov continues.“We want to provide all people much more time to become much better human beings by making biological death optional.”
Of course, such a bold statement has been met – at least in part –with criticism and cynicism: Not least the ‘Frankenstein’ element of transplanting a human brain into a humanoid robot. In defence of the procedure, Itskov cites the first human-to-human heart transplant, conducted by Dr. Christiaan Barnard in 1967. Condemned as a ‘blasphemous abomination’ by many contemporary commentators, the procedure would be considered almost routine by today’s medical standards. And this seems to be the biggest barrier for organisations like the 2045 Initiative. Aside from spearheading cutting-edge scientific progress, there is a certain challenge that comes with confronting preconceived notions of mortality, death and morality.
This is a challenge that another company in the field understands only too well. With a similar end-goal to that of the 2045 Initiative, Humai focuses on “transcending humanity through robotics,” also aiming to transplant the human brain into a custom-built bionic body. With Humai, however, the company places far more emphasis on the use of nanotechnology and artificial intelligence for the reparation of living tissues and cells. But, interestingly, this is not the company’s most morally ambiguous project to date.
WOULD YOU RATHER DEFY DEATH AS A BIONIC AVATAR, OR DEPART THIS WORLD AS IN YOUR NATURAL STATE?
Currently on hold, Project Soul was originally conceptualised as a mobile app that would allow people to communicate with their deceased loved ones via an instant chat messenger. Using the most advanced AI, the somewhat-dystopian application would theoretically work by profiling the social media activities, email correspondence and text messages of the dead, crafting a virtual persona that would respond using the same mannerisms and quirks of character as the subject. A carefully designed algorithm would allow direct interaction, while users would be allowed to decide exactly how much they use the app. Despite its lack of recent development, the project does raise one interesting question: Where do we draw the line between selfish motivations and a legitimate benefit to humanity?
In many ways, one can argue that the pursuit of eternal life is nothing more than an exercise in ego gratification. Just as powered flight conquered the skies and the internet connected the world, our ability to control death is perhaps the most dominant display of mankind’s control over the natural order. Undoubtedly, the millennial generation is developing faster than any that has come before it; but when does the ability to create technologies outweigh their necessity? There will surely come a tipping point when we are shaping the world simply because we can, rather than because we need to.
The question of eternal life is complex, layered and divisive. From its moral implications to its physical limitations, there is a dense cloud of controversy hanging over the topic; yet, it’s a cloud that’s unlikely to dampen its progress. There is little doubt that we will find out just what the implications of these technologies are within our lifetime, even if everlasting life is a little further on the horizon.
Would you rather defy death as a bionic avatar, or depart this world as in your natural state? Think carefully. It could be a question you’ll find yourself answering, sooner rather than later.