IMMORTALITY

The future of humankind is potentially so different it already has its own name: Post-human or Transhuman. Scientists believe that they are just a decade away from keeping you alive indefinitely; in fact it has been stated 'that the first person to live to 1000 may be 60 already.' Could this be you? You'll simply have to book your body in for a regular service - a simple bit of tissue repair under the bonnet - and ageing as we know it will be a thing of the past. Gene therapy could 'restore you to a much younger biological age.' What's more, it won't simply be about returning yourself to being 'showroom fresh'; advances are well under way to drastically upgrade your whole specifications, our whole species. Cybernetics has already directly linked the brain and nervous system with computers, and over the internet. Welcome to Human 2.0. Yes, this might sound like the future, but it's your future. And it's starting now.

First, let me lay my cards on the table; I'm not a scientist or science expert. However, like all readers of this magazine, I am a human being. (Stop me if I'm making assumptions.) The arc of life is a subject impossible to be disinterested in - unlike bee-keeping, say or Latvia. It's about our future, our family's; we're reminded of our mortality by the decline of a relative or our own grey hair. It's the wakener in the middle of the night, especially if your bed-time reading is Richard Dawkins' 'The God Delusion' (otherwise known as - I hope I'm not giving the ending away - 'There is no God.') Maybe in this age of best-selling atheism, life becomes ever more important because people feel that This Is It. It bothers others too. If 'Who wants to live forever?' is the question sung by Queen in the 80's Sci-Fi film 'Highlander' (Science Fiction will keep cropping up, so look out), then a Google search for 'immortality' bringing up 7.5 million search results means, for a lot of people, the answer is 'Me'. (Then again, 'Britney Spears' scored 103 million results, so others obviously have more pressing concerns.) So who is close to 'the kind of magic' that will give us immortality?

I spoke to Aubrey de Grey, a British gerontologist educated at Cambridge University. He was awarded a Ph.D on account of his 1999 book 'The Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory of Ageing.' He is currently 'Chairman and Chief Science Officer of a charity called the Methuselah Foundation, dedicated to promoting and hastening research to end the ageing process.' One of the foundation's activities is awarding prizes for stretching the lifespan of mice. The current record for a single mice is 'a week shy of five years.' By February 2007 this prize had reached $4.2 million. In my eyes, this makes him a pretty big cheese. He's the man making the bold claims in the second paragraph. Does he still believe that the first person to live to 1000 may be 60 already?

'Yes, I do.' Developments are at 'roughly the rate I would have expected them to be. There has been big progress in taking adult cells, and taking them back into the primitive form that we need to have. Stem cells won't be the whole solution, but they'll be a large part of the solution.'

The Royal Society's website defines stem cells as 'the master cells of the human body. Stem cells taken from embryos that are just a few days old, can turn into any of the 300 different types of cell that make up the adult body. Because stem cells are so versatile, they could potentially be used to repair and replace damaged tissue.'

There are still disputes about what causes ageing. Theories include 'junk' that accumulates as a by-product of metabolism, uncontrolled cell division, such as cancer, or sections of chromosomes known as telomeres which shorten with age and therefore act like a countdown. (One factor is simply nutrition; mice fed a low fat diet were shown to have a longer lifespan.)

I asked de Grey whether his tissue repair strategy meant people would start looking younger? 'It certainly does. Not just looking younger either, we're talking about the inside as well as the outside. That's why I'm confident we can achieve such a dramatic degree of progress. These therapies that I expect we will be able to develop over the next decade will be bona fide rejuvenation therapies which will restore people to a much younger biological age.'

Can people choose an age to remain at? Teenage? (Let's hope not.) Newly, healthily, retired?

De Grey corrected me: 'It's not about remaining at any age. Very much in the same way as renovating a simple man-made machine, such as a car, the biological age would be oscillating depending on how recently, how frequently how thoroughly you do the therapy.'

Incredible stuff. The oldest verified person who ever lived was Jeanne Calment of France who lived to be 122 years and 164 days. As a young girl, she met Vincent Van Gogh.

Each breakthrough will push back your life expectancy. Maybe, you'll never get to the end. Let's say you're 40 now. Ten years time, and the advance in gene therapy may place your ETD (Estimated Time of Departure) as having rocketed from 80 to 140. Except in just forty years time, they've not just sorted out the problem of those pesky telomeres, they can get you back to being 40 again. Suddenly, your life expectancy has rocketed up to 400. So, they've sorted out everything to do with degeneration. Yes, you're still vulnerable to being hit by a car, but what do you know? A decade further on, and your whole skin is upgraded to a lightweight armour-plating. Living forever is looking a distinct possibility.

De Grey emphasised: 'The purpose of all of this is not to get to people to live a long time for it's own sake. The purpose is to eliminate the decline and debilitation and the disease and dependence that goes with ageing.'

This wouldn't make us immortal, but the only death is likely to be a violent one (bad) albeit a sudden rather than lingering one (better, but it still doesn't put a smile on my face.) What about the world being overpopulated enough already?

'That may be true, but we don't kill people in order to make the world less populated, so why should we kill people by inaction?'

This point opens the door to the history of science, and all the medicine, technology and assistance that the human race has received to prolong life. Rejuvenation, stem cells and booking your body in for a service, are just the latest examples of a tradition.

The beauty of evolution, and its apparent design, is because it has occurred over an incredibly long period of time. Technology, on the other hand, advances at a rapid pace, as anyone knows who's taken a 5-year old computer back to PC world and received that smirk. Much of science could be said to have always 'propped up' the few weaknesses in our DNA that evolution hasn't weeded out.

Take the human eye. I don't imagine short-sighted cavemen were particularly successful, but I, like many others have poor eyesight. My ancestors wouldn't have spotted the sabre-toothed tiger, the horse and carriage or the Model T Ford respectively without some sort of aid, and even now I wouldn't be able to cross the road too well without glasses, and subsequently contact lenses. The next step, readily available, is laser surgery.

In a more extreme case this year, an operation at Moorfields Eye Hospital involved injections made into the back of the eye to replace defective genes with their 'normal' counterparts. Helping vision in low light, it is thought to be only the second time gene therapy has proved successful in humans.

We've always assisted what nature has given us. To help explain the next stage, I turned to Professor Martin Smith, President of the Cybernetics Society. He defined cybernetics as 'The science and engineering of communication, control and computation in animals, machines and systems. By studying how information flows through a system those systems can be better understood.'

The system Kevin Warwick, Professor of Cybernetics at Reading University, is particularly interested in is the human body. As Smith explained: 'Kevin has done more than anyone else to bring knowledge of the field to the general public,' including 'some quite high risk experiments on his own nervous system.'

He has been called 'the first human Cyborg'. No, we're not in a Sci-Fi novel again. That's Cyborg as in Cybernetic Organism, part-human, part machine.

Professor Warwick has 'carried out a series of pioneering experiments involving the neuro-surgical implantation of a device into the median nerves of his left arm in order to link his nervous system directly to a computer.' So why did he do these?

. 'The first one back in 98, scientists had been talking about 'we won't have keys' and 'we won't need passports', but no-one had actually done it.' Computers within his university could track his movements and open doors for him. 'The second one in 2002 was linking my nervous system to the computer, partly to see if the technology could help people with disabilities, paralysed individuals to drive themselves. In the Audis of the future you won't need a steering wheel, you'll just think about it and the car will go.'

Warwick enthusiastically explained how the second implant allowed him to link his 'nervous system live on the internet. My brain was controlling a robot hand on a different continent. Science fiction hadn't got me ready for that one....'

If science fiction was the genre that didn't prepare him for that moment, the old gameshow 'Mr and Mrs' wouldn't be able to cope with the next. His wife also had an implant - trust is an important part in any marriage - and 'when my wife's nervous system was linked to my nervous system, when she moved a hand, my brain received a pulse, that was the most exciting thing imaginable scientifically.'

While implants are not yet widespread, 'understanding what's happening in the brain has been a major advance in the last couple of years' and progress has been made in 'using Artificial Intelligence to see when tremors are likely to occur, the typical Parkinson's tremors, so a stimulating signal can be applied to stop the tremors before they actually occur.'

This is what science has always done - exploring, researching, experimenting to try and make sick people well. I wanted to ask Warwick about the next step, Transhumanism. On its website, The World Transhumanist Organisation announces: ìWe support the development of and access to new technologies that enable everyone to enjoy better minds, better bodies and better lives. In other words, we want people to be better than well.î

Better than well?

Warwick: 'I wouldn't put myself as a Transhumanist, but we really have a limited range of senses and if we can increase the sensory range then let's do it, why not? For me the big one is communication, brain to brain, as a human we are very poor, speech is this simple trivial coded message passing system. Clearly with the use of technology we can improve on that.'

He is adamant that 'telepathy, technically is going to be possible'. He feels that significant advances in thought communication will be 'in a very short timescale, maybe ten or twenty years.'

All this talk of upgrades reminds me that Windows Me was famously bug-ridden compared to 98. We'll have to choose our implants carefully in the future.

Warwick is aware of 'the knock-on effects. If you've upgraded your brain and it has other features, functions that the regular human doesn't have, it will have an effect on society.'

Both Aubrey De Grey and Kevin Warwick seem to be making incredible steps to change the lives of humans. Their research into degenerative diseases and correcting breaks in the nervous system respectively, are worthwhile pursuits. The extension of this research however seems to be about keeping us in the peak of health indefinitely or 'upgrading' humans to the level of telepathy.

Any scientific breakthroughs are treated with anything from sceptism to horror by the public. What will they lead to? The Theory of Relativity resulted in the atomic bomb, we've all heard of the supposed 'wonder cure' for morning sickness, Thalidomide, and even Dolly the Sheep died a premature death (or some would say expected, created as she was from adult cells.) Any pronouncements that touch on ironing out the imperfections of humans inevitably lead to accusations of eugenics.

Everyday, on the local news, we witness the tragedy of people dying young from diseases such as cancer. For escapism, we watch films - from 'Terminator' to 'I am Legend' - where future scientific advances go predictably wrong. Can we prevent the former without causing the latter? In searching for the new, how can we decide what is right?

Philippa Taylor is a consultant on Bioethics and Family. She defined Bioethics as 'all about the right and wrong of medicine and bio-technology.' What she fears most is 'science without boundaries. It is absolutely right to treat and heal and care, search for treatments for diseases and disorders - man's always tried to do that.' She is more concerned with the possibilities of Transhumanism, and if a 'treatment for one person for Alzheimers or Muscular Dystrophy then becomes an enhancement for someone who is otherwise healthy.'

It reminded me of athletes, injecting drugs prior to a race. 'Sport is a really good analogy because we do regulate that. It's not easy and we know people slip through the net but it is possible to regulate.' Returning to the eye, Taylor said 'I think it is possible to define the outer limits of health and what is normal,'; she made the distinction of someone who had perfectly good sight having surgery 'to hit a golf ball better.'

Taylor welcomed the use of stem cells taken from adult cells (which Aubrey mentioned earlier as one of the recent major advances), but disagreed with the use of those taken from cloned embryos. 'The future I would want is human and humane. A humane future that will value each human as equal, one that treats everyone the same from embryos to the severely disabled and the fully-abled.'

If we knew we were going to live indefinitely, would we ever get off our (possibly genetically-enhanced or cybernetically-upgraded) arse? EM Forster, the novelist and essayist, put it more eloquently: 'Death destroys a man, but the idea of death saves him.'

Taylor: 'What's the point of living forever if there isn't really a purpose? Even if you could expand life by twenty thirty years what kind of quality of life would you have?'

De Grey would say the quality is good enough, and would enable people to 'keep up with their granddaughters on the dance floor.' Personally, I'm a bit worried about this dance floor. With no-one dying, or even deteriorating from old age, it's going to be extremely packed, and we may as well use it as a microcosm of the earth. No-one will duck out of the birdie song because of aching limbs, because either gene therapy or cybernetics will have rebuilt them.

Couple this with how sport will now develop - super-enhanced eyesight, brains assisted with trajectory software, implants in our limbs to repeat exactly stored successful movements - and suddenly golf will be rendered meaningless. (Make up your own joke here.) Although, just like the dance floor, the fairway may be too packed.

Perfection will mean we lose enjoyment in our overcrowded hobbies. Our work life will go on forever, still working at the age of 1000, because we are kept in an economically viable state. We won't even be able to take much pleasure in the next generation. As Taylor pointed out: 'How would the young ever gain leadership and experience?' We will simply look down on them casting our 'Been There, Done That' shadow that never allows them into the limelight.

So what do the experts think will happen in their own future?

An insight from Kevin Warwick came when I asked, facetiously: 'When you watched the first Terminator, were you cheering for the baddie?' He laughed, adding: 'What I cheer for is reality. They have this Hollywood ending where the humans win out, I don't really see that's going to happen, it's not real.' He feels in the future, we will need to upgrade 'otherwise we are going to get taken over. If you can't beat it, join with it.'

Aubrey De Grey wasn't sure he would want to live to be 500, or even 100, 'but I'd like to decide whether I'd like to live to be 100 when I'm 99, rather than having that choice removed from me by my declining health.'

Martin Smith felt 'if living to 500 years meant 100 years of mental and physical fitness followed by 400 years in a nursing home, no thanks', a point echoed by Philippa Taylor: 'Are we going to live a life that's very long but has no quality?' She wanted to see 'more discussion and more regulation.' Warwick agreed it was up to scientists 'to be as open as possible about what we can do.'

What can be done will change dramatically over the next decade, so these discussions and decisions will need to happen now. I have been privileged to speak to visionary scientists bringing what I thought was a far-off future ever closer, but with it comes all of science fiction's concerns about what it is to be human.

Friends and family agreed with the experts about whether they wanted to live forever: a unanimous 'No'.

Maybe it's just me who's reluctant to 'shuffle off this mortal coil'. To update Shakespeare, the question may have to become: 'To be (radically altered) or not to be.' I'd probably quite enjoy 'Outstaying My Welcome' in the ultimate sense, and that's how I think it's best described. A curse, not for ourselves, but the next generation, as we stick around and annoy them, wearing a badge on our 420th birthday, that says '210 again', and telling them about the ancient custom of 'inheritance tax' - tax remains, but inheritance stopped long ago.

Did I ever say when I was young I met Van Gogh? Or was that someone else? They've kept me alive, but I chose the wrong memory upgrade, it's got a few bugs, and my real youth was such a long time agoÖ..

Copyright 2016 - Richard Hearn. You can follow me on Twitter if you like. Here I am!