Realistically, there are four ways to become immortal.
The first is to reverse the ageing process.
The second is to grow yourself new body parts as and when you need them.
The third is to transplant your consciousness into a donor body.
The fourth is to upload your consciousness to a computer.
I have listed these four paths to immortality in order of preference. I would much rather just stop ageing than upload my consciousness to a machine. And I imagine most people would feel the same.
And that’s good. Because while methods three and four still remain firmly in science-fiction territory, method two has just taken a giant leap forward.
Unfortunately method one still seems illusive. But you can’t win ‘em all, right?
I’ll show you exactly what this giant leap is in a second. It involves a remarkable bio study with pigs.
But first I wanted to look at what immortality would mean for humanity going forward. Both at an individual and a societal level.
Perhaps this is why the world’s billionaires are obsessed with space exploration
Firstly the worlds of work, savings and investment will face a paradigm shift.
If you have an indefinite time period, you could simply put you money in a high-interest savings account and wait 130 years or so. You would then be able to live off the money indefinitely.
£30,000 compounding at 3.5% a year will yield you £100,000 a year in around 132 years.
That is, so long as your savings account had a higher interest rate than inflation.
Up until your compounding reached your required threshold, you’d simply work normal jobs and wait. Or you could continually top it up and get it to compound a lot faster.
Add in £500 a month, and you’ll be making £100,000 a year in interest in just over 78 years… or a normal lifespan today.
But it won’t be that simple. Because with people living indefinitely almost every aspect of society will change. Land, food and water will become ever more expensive and difficult to obtain.
Society would break down. Wars would be fought. People would yearn for “the good old days of death”.
And who’s to say banks could continue to offer compounding accounts? How would they find the money to pay the interest?
In the 90s sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf, Dave Lister ends up cryogenically frozen on a spaceship for millions of years.
When he left, he had a savings account with £17.50 in it. Over the course of millennia, the compound interest in that account made him the richest man on the planet.
As the ship’s computer tells him: “Thanks to compound interest, you now own 98% of all the world’s wealth.”
I think it’s fair to say the implications of immortality are far beyond the scope of my imagination.
But logically, the only way for an immortal human race to service would be to colonise space.
I guess this is why so many of today’s billionaires are becoming obsessed with space exploration. Perhaps they can see the bigger picture. Perhaps they are banking on immortality themselves.
And with an immortal crew, we really would be able colonise space.
Ships could keep searching for habitable worlds for thousands of years. It’s a familiar sci-fi trope for a reason. Because if immortality becomes a reality, space colonisation is inevitable.
Okay, enough of the “what ifs”. What about the scientific breakthrough I promised?
Scientists have successfully grown lungs in a lab and transplanted them into living pigs
For the first time, pigs’ lungs have been bioengineered and transplanted back into healthy pigs.
What that means is a lung scaffold was cultured with cells from a pig’s lungs, grown for 30 days and then transplanted into the pig that supplied the cells.
Within two weeks the transplanted lungs had grown new blood cells of their own.
As the scientists who carried out the experiment write in their paper:
[The lungs] became well vascularized as early as 2 weeks after transplant, and formation of alveolar tissue was observed in all animals (n = 4). There was no indication of transplant rejection. [The lungs] continued to develop after transplant and did not require addition of exogenous growth factors to drive cell proliferation or lung and vascular tissue development.
This is such a big deal because the lungs were grown with the pig’s own cells. This means they didn’t need immunosuppressant drugs to avoid rejection.
Forgetting about immortality for a minute, this technology will eventually bring an end to transplant waiting lists.
Hospitals will simply be able to grow new organs from patients’ own cells using a scaffold.
As Science Alert writes (emphasis mine):
If all goes as hoped with the pig experiments, the researchers believe they could be just five to 10 years away from being able to create lab-grown lungs to transplant into people in compassionate use circumstances (people with life-threatening conditions and essentially no other treatment options).
Eventually, bioengineered lungs could replace donor ones altogether. And that could make the transplant waiting list a thing of the past.
Ushering in a new age of medicine
The anguish, death and suffering this development could alleviate is comparable to the discovery of penicillin. Perhaps it’s even greater.
It could be used to treat all manner of ailments, from cancer to accident trauma.
And when taken to its logical conclusion, it will mean we will eventually be able to grow ourselves entire new bodies.
Getting frail and old? Move your brain into a new, cloned body.
Irreparably damage your a knee in an accident? Grow a new one.
Had to have x body part removed to treat your cancer? Grow a new cancer-free one.
Once bioengineering becomes established, it will usher in a new age of medicine.
And, as the researchers from the pig experiment say, it will start in as little as five to ten years.
However, this development alone won’t make us immortal. There is still the problem of our brains.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, dementia currently has no known treatment or cure. It’s no good having a pristine body if your mind is melted.
I’ve seen it suggested that because this body-part-growing tech will cure so many of today’s health problems, it will leave more money for researching dementia cures. And so that extra money will eventually lead to a cure.
It’s a fair argument. But we won’t know if it actually plays out that way until the time comes. For now, brain health is a definite bottleneck in the quest for immortality.
But wait, it turns out there may even be hope in the fight against dementia.
From the University of Virginia:
By improving the function of the lymphatic vessels, scientists at the University of Virginia School of Medicine have dramatically enhanced aged mice’s ability to learn and improved their memories. The work may provide doctors an entirely new path to treat or prevent Alzheimer’s disease, age-related memory loss and other neurodegenerative diseases.
The research is the latest from the lab of pioneering neuroscientist Jonathan Kipnis, whose team discovered in 2015 that the brain is surrounded by lymphatic vessels – vessels science textbooks insisted did not exist.
That discovery made headlines around the world and was named one of the year’s biggest breakthroughs by the journal Science, yet Kipnis sees his team’s new finding as their most important yet.
“When you take naturally aging mice and you make them learn and remember better, that is really exciting,” he said. “If we can make old mice learn better, that tells me there is something that can be done. I’m actually very optimistic that one day we could live to a very, very, very old age and not develop Alzheimer’s.”
So perhaps there is even hope on the horizon for dementia.
Until next time,
Editor, Exponential Investor
PS I’m sure a few immortality methods that haven’t been considered yet. For instance, before the computer was invented, no one could have imagined uploading your consciousness to a computer. In the same way, I’m sure we will see inventions that lead to new lines of thinking about mortality and many other things. If you’re interested in the idea of immortality, check out my “How to survive death” essay here.
Category: Genetics and Biotechnology