Eternal Life 8
August 12, 2011 § 1 Comment
De Grey’s foundation is working on one of the most difficult challenges — the task of removing the junk that accumulates in our cells in our lifetimes. He believes that it causes cardiovascular disease, strokes and Alzheimer’s by creating a build-up of plaques in arteries and brains. The junk accumulates, he says, because our bodies’ own cell-cleaning systems cannot cope with a very small proportion of “garbage” created by our metabolisms.
For his solution, de Grey sought help from a macabre source: death. “We looked at cemeteries. They must have bacteria capable of breaking down these clots because you don’t find them left behind in graves,” he says. De Grey’s team has identified bacteria that can break down our hardy garbage. Now he is pinning down the enzyme that they use so that he can copy it and create a miracle cleaning f lush for our veins and brains. As yet, though, he has not even tried his clotbuster in laboratory mice.
Nevertheless, de Grey is convinced that we may soon reach “longevity escape velocity”, where anyone middle-aged or younger will be able to return regularly for treatments that return them to their youthful cellular starting point. “We have a 50-50 chance of getting to that stage within 25 years,” he says. “Already we can see how to fix all these things. The person who will live to see their 150th birthday has already been born.”
De Grey’s ideas may seem far-fetched but the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Technology Review journal has put up a £15,000 prize for any molecular biologist who shows that de Grey’s theories are “so wrong that they are unworthy of learned debate”. The money has not been won.
And de Grey’s de-greying methods are not the most radical route being proposed to eternal youth. Other scientists believe that our future lies in silicon enhancement — not breast implants, but computer implants that will turn our bodies into immortal self-healing intelligences.
“Transhumanists” believe that by around 2045 we will have achieved this through a mix of nanotechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence.
One of the movement’s leading figures, the inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, puts his faith in the development of nanomachines tinier than atoms that could be deployed in the human body to repair the ravages of time. It is starting to happen, he says, pointing to deep-brain stimulation machines used to combat the symptoms of Parkinson’s and cochlear implants to cure deafness. We are, he says, already becoming part-cyborg.
In future, he claims: “We will have millions of intelligent robots the size of blood cells going inside our body, keeping us healthy from inside, augmenting our immune system, going inside our brain through the capillaries, without surgery, putting our brains on the internet, giving us access to vast amounts of knowledge and so on.”
Kurzweil does not simply talk good technology. As an inventor, he developed the first f latbed scanners and speechrecognition technologies. He also sincerely practises what he preaches. Kurzweil, 63, takes more than 200 pills a day in the hope of extending his life sufficiently to benefit from the first breakthroughs. If the pills fail he has signed up to have his head cryogenically frozen after death, to be thawed in a more technologically advanced age. “I have enough trouble pursuing my interests while I’m alive and kicking,” he has declared. “It is hard to imagine doing that when you’re frozen, but it’s better than the alternative.”
But is it really better than death — being turned into a cyborg, eating dog food, having your head frozen or being injected with graveyard bacteria? The options are all there (or at least, nearly there) if you want to stay young for ever. Then again, suddenly I’m getting nostalgic for the idea of just ageing gracefully.