What is immortality?
To be immortal is to have the ability to live forever. With new advances in research into diseases, aging and artificial intelligence, scientists believe that immortality may be possible in the future. There are several different means by which this could be achieved involving either renewing an individual’s existing body or replacing it with a robotic or computerised one. The big question, though, is whether creating an immortal human population is really a good idea. It might seem desirable on an individual basis to be granted with eternal life, but on a population level there are many problems which must be carefully considered.
Making your body immortal
One way of achieving immortality is by protecting an individual’s existing body and stopping their cells from aging. There are protective DNA sequences in our cells called telomeres. These naturally prevent aging in the cells. However, as cells copy themselves, these telomeres get shorter and shorter over time. The DNA gets damaged and cells age and stop working properly. Scientists believe that if we can stop these telomeres from getting shorter, we might be able to stop our cells from aging1. In support of this, studies in mice have shown that protecting telomeres increases lifespan2.
Immortality can also be achieved through replacing biological organs or body parts with robotic ones or even creating new organs by growing them from stem cells. Both these methods have the additional bonus of abolishing the need for organ donors. However, even if these outcomes are achieved, individuals are still at risk of death from disease.
If there ever came a time where all major diseases had been cured, humans could live forever unless exposed to physical harm. However, this would require massive advances in medical research which are unlikely to happen in our lifetime. There is even research into the use of nanorobots to cure human disease. These robots would be designed to travel through the circulatory system, detect cancer cells, viruses and bacteria and destroy them3. Over 300 individuals worldwide have been cryogenically frozen, wishing to be brought back to life when the diseases they died from can be cured or technology has advanced far enough to bring them back to life4. There were rumours that Walt Disney had been cryogenically frozen but unfortunately these turned out to be false!
Becoming an android
The alternative to protecting or renewing the body is to replace it. If advances in robotics continue to accelerate over the next 50 years, we could have android bodies that look almost identical to human bodies. In theory, an individual’s consciousness could be converted into data and uploaded to an android body. There would even be a possibility to own more than one android body and transfer consciousness between these, meaning an individual could transport themselves to another part of the world in an instant. One advantage of using android bodies as a means of immortality is that they are exempt from disease. However, they are still at risk of physical trauma and data corruption. A similar method of immortality would be for individuals to live in a virtual world. Instead of their consciousness being uploaded to an android body, it could be uploaded to a computer. Here, individuals could live in any kind of world they desire as the world would be completely fictional.
This sounds great! Where’s the catch?
Here, I’d like to pose some of the questions that came into my head when I thought about immortality and the problems that might arise from it.
- How do we choose who gets to be immortal? It might cost each individual person a lot of money e.g. it might cost a lot to buy an android body or to have one’s consciousness transferred into data. Some people might not be able to afford it.
- What if some people don’t want to live forever? Should immortality be optional?
- What happens if a person’s virtual consciousness is lost due to physical trauma or a computer bug?
- How do we deal with the risk of overpopulation?
- Criminals would live forever and, depending on the immortality method, new criminals would be born. With limited space in prisons, how would we deal with this?
- What about when this planet expires? We still need to terraform a new planet if we can outlive the lifespan of earth.
- People would age mentally but not physically – would this pose a personal burden?
- Would we need to identify new ways to define age? What impact would this have on society?
- How would immortality affect evolution?
- We would potentially cause more rapid damage to the environment, accelerate climate change and use up resources faster. How would we deal with this?
These are only some of the issues surrounding the topic of immortality. We are continuing the discussion at ChatSci on Monday 17th Dec, Sofi’s Southside, 6.30pm. Come along and join in!
- Shaw, JW. Telomeres and aging. Curr Opin Cell Biol 52, 1-7 (2018).
- Bernandes de Jesus, B. Vera, E. Schneeberger, K et al. Telomerase gene therapy in adult and old mice delays aging and increases longevity without increasing cancer. EMBO Mol Med 4(8), 691-704 (2012).
- Freitas, RA. Microbivores: Artificial mechanical phagocytes using digest and discharge protocol. Journal of Evolution and Technology 14(1), 55-106 (2005).
- The Guardian. The cryonics dilemma: will deep-frozen bodies be fit for new life? (2016).
Come and join us for our discussion on ‘immortality’ – 6.30pm, Sofi’s Southside, December 17th!