Lilara’s laughter fades into awed silence as the autocab drifts to a stop. It was a long ride from the Johannesburg spaceport, but finally, the family had arrived at their destination: Lilara’s mother’s old family estate. Her mom met her father there when he was just a 24-year-old graduate student performing ecological research on the 50,000-acre preserve. That was in 2088 when the desert was threatening to overtake everything completely.
Eventually, Lilara’s parents moved together to Mars City Two, also known as Olympia, where they became leaders in the terraforming initiatives. Over the next few centuries, Mom and Dad would end up holding some of the most senior roles in Mars’Sci. Because of them, Mars was fast becoming a wet, green planet that would be on par with Earth in another couple of centuries.
After dinner in the guest house, the little family spent a few hours with Lilara’s grandparents in the VR world Archeon, where all of her relatives who died since about 2100 continued to live. It was always bittersweet since everyone who visited knew that one day they would be there, too. All the Archeonese assured the Living, however, that they couldn’t tell any difference between their biological lives and their virtual ones.
Mom and Dad waited so long to become parents because they were busy, important people, and there was so much to do. But Lilara knew that when they did decide to have her, it was the happiest choice they’d ever made. They had spent a long time to make sure the people of Earth could have a second home if they needed it, and now they would spend just as much time making sure their daughter could have the same opportunity if she ever chose to.
More than a few scientists believe that a baby born today might never die.
“Immortality” is a loaded word, for sure: In the broadest sense, it refers to not being able to die, ever. To know what immortality is, however, we need to define death. For us, death is a permanent cessation of all vital functions: the end of life. (Merriam-Webster)
And then we have “poetic death”, when the light goes out of a person’s eyes, a soul escaping a damaged vessel and moving to a higher plane.
Death, as with life, is such a complicated matter with roots in both philosophy and science. For our purposes, we will say that death is when the body dies and takes with it a person’s memory, personality, and consciousness. “Immortality” will be any state in which a person’s memory, personality, and consciousness remain intact, in some accessible form, indefinitely.
To many people, we are already immortal, in the sense that what makes us “us”, in the form of a soul, leaves our bodies upon biological death but then moves on to an afterlife.
What might keep Lilara and her family going for centuries? We may find some of the answers in creatures that we’ve shared this pale blue dot with for aeons.
A German marine biology student discovered Turritopsis dohrnii in 1988 when he was researching hydrozoan invertebrates on the Italian Riviera. He kept this strange species, which he didn’t recognise, in a petri dish, just as he did with other findings, and observed it over the course of the next week. Rather than reproducing or dying, as expected, his Turritopsis dohrnii specimens behaved very differently: it appeared to be ageing in “reverse”, and returning to earlier stages of its life cycle.
Here he had found a real-life Curious Case of Benjamin Button, or, shall we say, Jeremy Jellyfish.
Other researchers continued to study Turritopsis dohrnii over the ensuing decade, ultimately publishing a paper in 1996 by Ferdinando Boero et al. titled “Reversing the Life Cycle”. The creature was examined in great detail and observed returning to its earliest life stage for jellies (the polyp form).
In the decades since, we have come to understand this a bit better. When stressed by its environment, members of this jelly’s genus undergo the process of cellular transdifferentiation, when various cells transform into other types of cell, which is what occurs with human stem cells.
Now popularised as the “immortal jellyfish”, we still don’t completely grasp all of the intricacies of how Turritopsis dohrnii does what it does. The little creatures have been spreading around the world, moving from the Mediterranean in cargo ship seawater ballast, and can now be found from the Caribbean to Japanese waters.
Kevin J. Peterson is a molecular biologist at Dartmouth studying the mechanism by which our immortal jellyfish continues in its constant forward, backward, forward cycle. This is controlled, seemingly, by a genetic material called microRNA which appears to cause stem cells to move from their undifferentiated state to its fated form (heart cell, brain cell, skin cell, etc.).
James Carlton, a professor of marine sciences at Williams College in Massachusetts, says, “ “That word ‘immortal’ is distracting. If by ‘immortal’ you mean passing on your genes, then yes, it’s immortal. But those are not the same cells anymore. The cells are immortal, but not necessarily the organism itself.” In essence, when our immortal jellyfish’s cells transdifferentiate, it is just returning its cells to their primary undifferentiated forms. It then re-builds them into new versions of their differentiated forms, creating what is essentially a clone of the original jelly.
Other Earthly living things may be immortal (and could be included along with some of the most extreme creatures here), or at the least are astonishingly long-lived:
Remarkably similar to the immortal jelly is the freshwater hydra polyp, which also seems to be able to live indefinitely. It regenerates lost appendages and never shows signs of cellular senescence or ageing.
Red sea urchins seem to be able to continue living, reproducing and regenerating almost indefinitely once they grow out of their larval stage.
The bristlecone pine of North America can live thousands of years. One specimen, nicknamed “Methuselah” after the longest-lived human named in the Old Testament, has been dated at over 4,700 years. This nigh-immortality also seems to be related to stem cells, as described in this research paper from 2013.
The Arctica islandica ocean quahog clam can live for over 500 years. One was found in 2006, nicknamed “Ming the Mollusc”, but was summarily placed in a freezer by the researchers not realising it would turn out to be of record-breaking age. These clams, along with numerous other long-lived bivalves, tend to follow a rule common among many animals: the longer it takes to reach reproductive maturity, and the slower the animal’s growth rate in general, the longer its lifespan tends to be post-maturity.
Long life isn’t just reserved for small, less complex animals. The Aldabra giant tortoise, tuatara lizards, rougheye rockfish, Greenland shark, koi, and even the huge bowhead whale have all been found in many cases to live longer than 200 years. And let us not forget ourselves, Asian elephants and macaws who all share lifespans between 70–80 years when provided with proper care and nutrition.
Immortality for humans could take many forms.
As quantum computing progresses, thanks to continued efforts of IBM and others, our potential to store the immense complexity that is a human mind grows. In the March 2018 issue of Fortune, write Grace Donnelly reports on the Y Combinator venture Nectome that is aiming to preserve brain structure through a chemical freezing process, with the hopes that memory and knowledge will also be preserved and can somehow be copied.
Dr Ian Pearson, a British futurologist and author of You Tomorrow, places paths to immortality into three buckets:
“Living” in virtual worlds.
“Living” in android bodies.
And renewing the human body.
The first two are essentially the same and would likely both be possible if either one comes to be. This is because the fundamental problem that needs to be solved for each is the same: Can the mind be somehow downloaded or otherwise copied?
“A complete map of the human brain containing detailed information about each neuron and synapse would occupy about 20,000 terabytes and require 1016 flops (floating point operations per second) of processing power to function. Currently, only the world’s fastest supercomputer possesses the capability of crunching that many numbers in a second.”
If what makes a person a person is all in the structure of the brain, many scientists feel that this is essentially possible, and with enough advances in technology we will eventually be able to make a copy of ourselves.
If there is a “missing ingredient” that results in consciousness and that is responsible for making you “you”, something that cannot be recreated by just building an exact structure of neurons, we may be out of luck. We may find we can copy the structure and information of a mind, but when we “boot” it up all we see is hard data and a complete lack of anything like self-awareness.
Renewing the human body can take numerous forms, and would likely be a combination of replacement parts and gene therapy based on trends in current medical technology. Advances in lab-grown organs, such as these fallopian tubes, and 3D printing (called “bioprinting) will probably make traditional transplanted, and artificial organs and even limbs seem antique by the middle of this century.
Stem cell infusion therapy is also proving quite promising, as detailed in the results of a study published in April 2017 in The Journals of Gerontology. Fifteen frail patients between the ages of 60 and 95 each received stem cell transfusions from donors between the ages of 20–45, and six months later, all patients were healthier.
If we can keep our bodies and minds intact for many multiples of our natural lifespan, this will not be a guarantee of eternal bliss. Unless all of us become “immortal” at once, there would be a long time during which only small numbers of people might be transcending our biological limits. Perhaps the treatments and procedures are only affordable by the very wealthy, resulting in situations much like those found in the recent Netflix series Altered Carbon, the 2013 Neill Blomkamp film Elysium and the 1990 Orson Scott Card novel The Worthing Saga.
And no matter if our minds end up in a massive VR simulation, android bodies, or they remain in biological construct or cloned bodies, there is the problem of how much moving through the vastness of time itself might affect us. How long can one consciousness continue to operate in an uninterrupted state before a psychological problem develops? The boredom of everyday existence generally affects most modern humans with varying psychological impact even before their eighth decade of life. Imagine eight centuries. And time would eventually seem to become a blur, as we experience and remember things relative to how long we’ve lived in total.
Beyond those issues, there is the question of how we would handle the increased overpopulation that would result from widespread “immortality”.
Ultimately, one thing that can’t be ignored is that immortality may not be possible at all. Inevitably, given enough time for the science to catch up to our imaginations, we will be able to prolong the lifespans of our bodies significantly, and perhaps even copy and download our minds and preserve self-awareness and consciousness.
Just as with the tiny Turritopsis dohrnii, which must completely remake itself in order to never truly die, most paths to our immortality will require that same sacrifice. Copying a mind would be similar to creating another instance of a database. For a while, at least, you would have 2 of the same thing, and the original must either be kept or destroyed. But the copy would not be the original. It may seem that way to an outside observer, and the copy may not even know it’s a copy. The fact is, though, that the copy is a new thing, a new person, whether built from a brain scan or regenerated cell by cell in a lab.
Eugen Suman, a fellow thinker and futurist, based in Romania, says regarding the above problem (dubbed the “continuity paradox”) that we can:
…imagine this scenario: you get injected with an army of nanobots that, over a period of ten or more years, will replace your brain cells one by one with “artificial cells” so that at the end of the ten years you will have a new artificial brain instead of the old one you possessed. Most people would agree that in the second scenario it would still be you…
So there may well be a way to create a true immortality loop for humans, given enough time and technological advancement. Still, we are left with the potential development of various psychoses or other unforeseen problems that will arise with extremely long-lived consciousnesses.
Immortality can only ever go so far.
Thank you for reading and sharing.