Life Wellbeing Could medical science be close to curing death?
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Could medical science be close to curing death?

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Nanobots in your blood stream, backing up your brain to a computer, swapping your fallible human form for a sophisticated holographic avatar – it might sound like science fiction, but these are just some of the ways that science is hoping to extend human life and inch us closer to living forever.

US futurist, inventor and Google’s head of engineering, Ray Kurzweil has predicted that by the end of the century humans and machines will merge to create super humans who may never face the prospect of death. And Kurzweil, 65, hopes to be among those kicking mortality to the curb.

Ray Kurzweil
Ray Kurzweil: Working to bring an end to death. Photo: Getty

“Twenty years from now, we will be adding more time than is going by to your remaining life expectancy,” Kurzweil told Forbes Magazine. “We’ve quadrupled life expectancy in the past 1000 years and doubled it in the past 200 years. We’re now able to reprogram health and medicine as software, and so that pace is only going to continue to accelerate.”

Kurzweil is no slouch when it comes to accurate predictions. In the 1980s he predicted the incredible rise of the internet, foresaw the fall of the Soviet Union and identified the year when computers would beat humans at chess.

His next predictions include the programming of nanobots to work from within the body to augment the immune system and fight pathogens. By 2045 he sees us backing up our minds to the cloud and downloading ourselves into robotic forms.

And he’s not the only scientist hoping to blow out hundreds of candles in the future.

Immortality: Not if, when

British gerontologist Aubrey de Grey believes achieving human immortality is inevitable. Last October de Grey told the audience at a US technology conference that they could expect to live 1000 years, maybe longer.

Ageing, he says, is a simple case of bad engineering, and once the human body’s kinks are ironed out we’ll be able to reverse its effects and put death on the back burner.

“My approach is to start from the straightforward principle that our body is a machine. A very complicated machine, but nonetheless a machine, and it can be subjected to maintenance and repair in the same way as a simple machine, like a car,” de Grey has said. “What I’m after is not living to 1000. I’m after letting people avoid death for as long as they want to.”

Google is on board

It’s a goal that even tech giant Google thinks is worth pursuing.

When Google entered the anti-ageing business last year, with the launch of its new biotechnology company Calico, it brought a new level of interest, respectability and crucially – funding – to the field.

Calico has poached some of the leading anti-ageing researchers from across the world to work on the challenge of extending life.

“I think that if Google succeeds, this would be their greatest gift to humanity,” said David Sinclair, an Australian professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School.

Professor Sinclair led a research team which last year announced it had reversed muscle ageing in mice, the results of which exceeded his expectations.

“We want immortality so badly that we’re always ready to be swept away into unthinkingness … Half in love with the impossible we’ve always wanted to conquer death.”

“I’ve been studying ageing at the molecular level now for nearly 20 years and I didn’t think I’d see a day when ageing could be reversed. I thought we’d be lucky to slow it down a little bit,” he was quoted as saying.

“There’s clearly much more work to be done here, but if those results stand, then aging may be a reversible condition, if it is caught early,” he said.

The research involved improving communication between a cell’s mitochondria and nucleus. Mitochondria are like a battery within a cell, powering important biological functions. When communication breaks down between this and the nucleus, the effects of ageing accelerate.

Human trials of the groundbreaking process are expected to start this year.

Buying life

It’s the sort of breakthrough that can’t come soon enough for several  billionaires across the globe who are pouring their fortunes and hopes into immortality research.

Russian entrepreneur, Dmitry Itskov founded the 2045 Initiative in 2011 with the aim of thwarting human death within three decades. Itskov envisages ‘neo-humans’ who will relinquish clunky human forms and adopt sophisticated machine bodies. He claims humans will eventually download their minds into artificial brains, which will then be connected to humanoid robots he calls Avatars.

According to 2045.com: “Substance independent minds will receive new bodies with capabilities far exceeding those of ordinary humans … Humanity will make a fully managed evolutionary transition and eventually become a new species.”

PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel donated $US3.5 million to Aubrey de Grey’s not-for-profit research foundation, telling the New Yorker at the time that: “Probably the most extreme form of inequality is between people who are alive and people who are dead”.

Clearly Thiel would prefer to remain among the living and he’s prepared to pay for his pitch at immortality, most recently making a large donation to the Singularity Institute, which focuses on creating artificial intelligence that could see the rise of cyborgs (merged humans and machines).

Maximising life, minimising death

US entrepreneur turned science innovator, David Kekich, dedicated his life and impressive bank balance to reversing ageing after he was paralysed from a spinal cord injury in 1978. Kekich initially raised money for paralysis research but then switched to anti-ageing research. He founded the Maximum Life Foundation in 1999 and aims to reverse human ageing by 2033.

On his website Kekich writes: “We are moving from an era in which nothing could be done to defeat ageing into an era in which advancing biotechnology will give us the tools to do overcome it … Now, at the dawn of the biotechnology era, the inevitable is no longer inevitable. The research establishment – if sufficiently funded and motivated – could make spectacular inroads into repairing and preventing the root causes of ageing within our lifetime.”

But given that there are yet to be any proven means for extending human life, these billionaires may be motivated more by ego than altruism.

As US author Adam Leith Gollner writes in The Book of Immortality: the Science Belief and Magic Behind Living Forever (Sribner 2013): “We want immortality so badly that we’re always ready to be swept away into unthinkingness … Half in love with the impossible we’ve always wanted to conquer death.”

Yet he says all humans can really do to live longer is to eat well and exercise.

“We all have to go … whether dying in battle, tumbling off a horse, succumbing to pneumonia or being shivved by a lover. Maybe one day we just don’t wake up. However it happens, we enter the mystery.”

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