Honors Biology 2
April 27, 2005
Immortality: Within Our Grasp
Mortality is a concept written into humanity’s very genetic code, and it is an idea that constantly shapes how mankind views the world around him (or her). Whether it is a driving factor in one’s day-to-day life or something pondered occasionally, everyone is concerned with the amount of time he or she has left in this world. Robert A. Freitas writes:
34 billion people have ever walked the Earth, and 28 billion of us have already died. The equivalent total information waste is more than 28 billion books, enough to fill almost 2000 Libraries of Congress. The equivalent total economic waste about $60 thousand trillion dollars, enough to rebuild our current tangible civilization 600 times over (sec. 6).
He, along with a collection of other experts believes that within the next few decades the dream of immortality will finally be a reality.
There are essentially two main feasible scenarios of how to get to immortality today. The first of these involves completely erradicating aging at the celluar level. The secret lies in telomeres, “repeating code at the end of each DNA strand, which are made shorter each time a cell divides, thereby placing a limit on the number of times a cell can replicate” (Kurzweil, “Alcor” par. 14). Essentially, once the telomere runs out, the cell is programmed for death (Kurzweil, “Alcor” par. 14). Ray Kurzweil, an important figure in nanotechnology and attendant of the Alcor Convention on Extreme Life Extension, reports Michael West’s findings:
The immortal germ line cells avoid this destruction through the use of a single enzyme called telomerase, which rebuilds the telomere chain after each cell division. This single enzyme makes the germ line cells immortal, and indeed these cells have survived from the beginning of life on Earth billions of years ago (“Alcor” par. 14).
Ironically, the secret to immortality has existed since the dawn of life on Earth. To best utilize this knowledge, Kurzweil reports that West suggests “…future gene therapies that would return cells to their youthful, telomerase-extended state” (“Alcor” par. 15). Kurzweil continues to report:
West expressed confidence that new techniques would provide the ability to transfer the telomerase into the nuclei, and to overcome the cancer issue. Telomerase gene therapy holds the promise of indefinitely rejuvenating human somatic (non-germ line) cells i.e., all human cells (“Alcor” par. 15).
While gene therapy utilizing teomerase may seem to hold the answer to indefinitely prolonging the life of our cells, the thought of such techniques taking mankind all the way to immortality loses its feasibility when you consider that telomerase gene therapy offers no sollution to foreign threats (for example, pathogens) to keep us healthy. However, this is not the only weapon in science’s arsenal in the battle to achieve immortality.
The secret to a more comprehensive immortality strategy (that is, one that keeps mankind healthy as well as unaging) rests within the emerging technology of nanomedicine. Robert A. Freitas is one of the biggest thinkers in the burgeoning field of nanomedicine, and author of several books (including Nanomedicine). In November of 2002, he gave a speech at the Fifth Alcor Conference on Extreme Life Extension discussing what he calls “humanity’s, and history’s, greatest outrage” (sec. 20). He speaks of natural death. In 2001 alone, nearly 55 million people died and only about 3 million of those deaths were caused by human action – “accidents, or suicides, or war,” Freitas claims. “The worldwise influenza pandemic of 1918 exterminated less than 22 million people – not even half the annual casualites from natural death” (Freitas, sec. 1). However, through technology, Freitas believes that mankind can not only stop biological aging, but also reverse its effects on our cells. His contention is that the key lies in the synthesis of biotechnology and nanotechnology – nanomedicine. Freitas explains: “Nanomedicine is most simply and genereally defined as the preservation and improvement of human health, using molecular tools and molecular knowledge of the human body” (sec. 17). It his contention that within the next two decades, nanomedical advances will give mankind the tools necessary “to enable a process I [Robert A. Freitas] call ‘dechronification’ – or, ‘rolling back the clock’” (sec. 18). Essentially, he claims that nanomedicine will allow us to deage – that is, reverse celluar damage and return our physiological age back to our younger years. Nanomedicine will also be able to then retain that age through an annual process or checkup, where “a nanodevice will be sent to enter every tissue cell, to remove accumulating metabolic toxins and undegradable material” (Freitas, sec. 18). What is the limit to all this? Freitas comments, “it may be that you’ll find it hard to coax more than a millennium or two out of your original biological body, because deaths from suicides and accidents have remained stubbornly high for the last 100 years” (sec. 20). Implicitly, it would still remain possible to live forever so long as one could outfit oneself with new biological parts.
Ray Kurzweil sheds some light on how mankind might be able to (easily) manufacture anatomical parts. He explains: “we already have devices to replace our hips, knees, shoulders, elbows, wrists, jaws, teeth, skin, arteries, veins, heart valves, arms, legs, feet, fingers, and toes.” Complex systems, like organs, are also already being replaced…this, in 2002 (Kurzweil, “Cyborgs” par. 2). Work on synthesizing brains is also underway, according to Kurzweil. Clearly, one can infer that human parts will readily be available in the future. Kurzweil is not the only expert to have this vision of the future. “Greg Fahy, Chief Scientific Officer of 21st Century Medicine,” Kurzweil reports in his write up of the Alcor Convention, “…pointed out…it will be possible in the future for people to keep a supply of replacements for all of their organs, to be immediately available in emergencies.” One might think that organs would be costly, however Kurzweil reports that Fahy “painted a picture ‘of the future when organs are grown, stored, and transported as easily as blood is today’”(“Alcor” par. 17-18). Today, blood is relatively cheap, therefore in the future organs will also be relatively inexpensive. Even if one did lose one’s biological body (maintained by nanomedicine) it could easily be replaced – the only problem obviously apparent is that the brain (or rather, the neural networks that makeup an individual’s personality) would be lost somewhere in the process.
The answer lies within Ray Kurzweil’s vision of the future:
Most significantly, these nanobots will be able to directly interface non-invasively with our biological neurons to greatly expand human experience and intelligence. By interfacing directly with our sensory system from inside the nervous system, nanobots will be able to provide full-immersion virtual reality. By creating virtual interneuronal connections, nanobots can literally expand the 100 trillion limit on our interneuronal connections, which is where human thinking takes place (“Future” par. 29).
Nanobots are “tiny yet intelligent devices the size of human blood cells,” (“Future” par. 28) Kurzweil explains. Ultimately, Kurzweil believes that mankind will merge with technology (that in the next two to three decades will rapidly increase in intelligence – to a factor of a trillion or more) in order to increase our own capacity for intelligence while avoiding a doomsday scenario where artificial intelligence takes over the world. In his essay “We Are Becoming Cyborgs,” Kurzweil predicts that “By 2030…It will be routine to have billions of nanobots (i.e., nano-scale robots) coursing through the capillaries of our brains, communicating with each other (over a wireless local area network), as well as with our biological neurons and with the Internet” (par. 12). Inferably, our ‘personalities’ will constantly be connected to and possibly stored on the Internet. If that were true, then it would not be hard to ‘download’ your ‘personality’ into a new brain, which will be as cheap in 30 years as blood is today. Now that the general foundation for how mankind will attain immortality has been laid out, it is time to scrutinize precisely how all these complicated processes might work.
First one must understand (not completely, but at least have a basic knowledge) of how nanotechnology, and in particular molecular manufacturing, will work in order to understand more about nanomedicine and ultimately nanobots. Nanotechnology’s (for clarification, nanotechnology generally referst to anything built at the scale of 1 to 100 nanometers) roots lie with Richard Feynman’s 1959 speech entitled “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” where he theorizied mankind’s ability to construct devices from the atom up. Another source of inspiration for the field of modern technology began in the 1950’s when John Von Neumann theorized a machine, driven by a computer (that contained the machine’s instructions) that was able to replicate itself. It had one arm and essentially created copies of itself from a pile of parts that it was built out of (Kurzweil, “Drexler-Smalley” par. 4-6). This is of course a rather abridged history. Eric Drexler founded modern nanotechnology by essentially combining these two ideas: he theorized a machine built at the molecular scale that could replicate itself, a veritable ‘nanofactory,’ or as Kurzweil refers to it, a universal assembler (“Drexler-Smalley” par. 7-8). For those that doubt molecular manufacturing’s feasibility, Chris Phoenix contends, “A decade ago, Nanosystems studied the required chemistry and engineering in detail; not a single significant error has been found so far” (par. 7). Eric Drexler notes, “When a scientist says something is possible, they’re probably underestimating how long it will take. But if they say it’s impossible, they’re probably wrong” (Kurzweil, “Drexler-Smalley” par. 38). Molecular manufacturing will lead to the cheap production of nanobots, which is a foundation of many other technologies (and most critically to this paper, nanomedicine). Kurzweil explains: “However, the basic concept of nanotechnology is that we will need trillions of nanobots to accomplish meaningful results… Creating trillions of nanobots at reasonable cost will require the nanobots to make themselves” (“Drexler-Smalley” par. 33). Once again, for the critics, Kurzweil alludes, “The ultimate existence proof of the feasibility of a molecular assembler is life itself” (“Drexler-Smalley” par. 21). More pertinently, Kurzweil points out, “By the 2020s, molecular assembly will provide tools to effectively combat poverty, clean up our environment, overcome disease, extend human longevity, and many other worthwhile pursuits” (“Drexler-Smalley” par. 54). Molecular assembly isn’t just a dream; the only reason it doesn’t exist now is because we are still developing the necessary tools to create it. Because the theory of immortality was built upon the foundation of nanotechnology, logically immortality isn’t just a dream either.
Kurzweil, Ray. “The Future of Life.” KurzweilAI. 31 Mar. 2003. 27 Apr. 2005 .
Kurzweil, Ray. “Human Body Version 2.0.” KurzweilAI. 17 Feb. 2003. 27 Apr. 2005 .
Kurzweil, Ray. “We Are Becoming Cyborgs.” KurzweilAI. 15 Mar. 2002. 27 Apr. 2005 .
Freitas Jr., Robert A. “Death is an Outrage.” KurzweilAI. 9 Jan. 2003. 27 Apr. 2005 .
Kurzweil, Ray. “The Drexler-Smalley Debate on Molecular Assembly.” KurzweilAI. 1 Dec. 2003. 27 Apr. 2005 .
Phoenix, Chris. ” Molecular Manufacturing: Start Planning.” KurzweilAI. 8 Oct. 2003. 27 Apr. 2005 .
Kurzweil, Ray. “The Alcor Conference on Extreme Life Extension.” KurzweilAI. 15 Mar. 2002. 27 Apr. 2005 .