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Technology and the search for immortality

Earlier this week, Google Ventures’ managing partner and president Bill Maris claimed that it was currently “possible to live to be 500.” Citing rapid advancements in medical science, Maris believes that there’s no reason why human being can’t vastly increase their lifespan.

Read more: Google’s life-extension firm, Calico, opens $1.5bn drug research centre

The desire for immortality has been an obsession of mankind’s for centuries, but it is only now, through technological advancement, that are we are seeing this desire transition from fantasy to reality. According to some scientists, the first person to live beyond 150 has already been born, and our journey into older age doesn’t show any signs of stopping.

Many will be wondering what the consequences of continued life are likely to be, but it’s also important to understand the technology enabling humans to chase their dream of immortality.

Firstly, improvements to medical science mean that previously fatal disease can now be cured. Cancer survival rates in the UK have doubled over the last 40 years (opens in new tab) and the way we are treating serious conditions is changing too. Stem cell research has the potential to cure various ailments in a much less invasive way to previous treatments. As Maris puts it, "In 20 years, chemo[therapy] will seem so primitive it will be like using a telegraph.”

While medical advancements can certainly increase humanity’s life expectancy, most experts believe that this will only take us so far, and that a phenomenon dubbed “transhumanism” will usher in the age of the immortality.

Transhumanism is the belief that technology should be used to greatly enhance human capabilities, something that could ultimately see human being’s upload their consciousness into machines to achieve radical life extension. While this may seem like science fiction, an increasing number of Silicon Valley-based tech firms are dedicating their time and money towards transhumanism. The Methuselah Foundation, the Foresight Nanotech Institute and The Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence are all examples of firms working towards human life extension.

Even Google, and particularly its R&D biotech company Calico, are working on ways of “curing death.”

“Art [CEO of Calico] and I are excited about tackling aging and illness,” said Google founder Larry Page. “These issues affect us all—from the decreased mobility and mental agility that comes with age, to life-threatening diseases that exact a terrible physical and emotional toll on individuals and families. And while this is clearly a longer-term bet, we believe we can make good progress within reasonable timescales with the right goals and the right people.”

The concerns surrounding extended human life are, of course, perhaps even more important than the scientific advancements required to bring it to fruition.

Global population issues including food shortages and living space will surely be exacerbated by longer lifespans. Moreover, there’s no knowing what as-yet-undiscovered effects of advanced aging will emerge as humans live towards the 150-year mark and beyond. Will internal organs need replacing after a certain number of years? What effect will longer life have on the brain? Will we have to overwrite less important memories as we take part in an ever-increasing number of experiences?

For some, the desire for immortality is another example of humanity overreaching and one that is destined to end in catastrophe. Political scientist and author Francis Fukuyama calls transhumanism one of the “world’s most dangerous ideas,” while others have disputed the moral, ethical and religious merits of immortality.

Read more: Google wants to put tiny magnets in your blood. But why?

Whether or not immortality can ultimately be achieved, technology will certainly help extend human life beyond its current limitations. Already researchers are developing ways to 3D print organs, create bionic replacement limbs and reverse the aging process.

As mankind strives towards greater and greater levels of technological advancement, the key questions that scientist must ask themselves is not whether they can, but whether they should.

Barclay has been writing about technology for a decade, starting out as a freelancer with IT Pro Portal covering everything from London’s start-up scene to comparisons of the best cloud storage services.  After that, he spent some time as the managing editor of an online outlet focusing on cloud computing, furthering his interest in virtualization, Big Data, and the Internet of Things.