Everyone knows they’re supposed to have healthy habits so they can live a long life, but for everyone alive right now something far greater is on the line- something much bigger than a few extra years of old age. Thanks to the dramatic growth curve of science and technology, within 40 years I predict our tools will have progressed to the point where the human lifespan is extended indefinitely. In a moment I’ll get into why and how, but the important thing to remember is that everyone alive right now is in a race to see if they can last 40 years. If you do, you may never die.
Setting aside any moral or philosophical questions, let’s first talk about whether this prediction is realistic. Historically dying has been an evolutionarily beneficial behavior that gave our species a nice balance between living long enough to prosper and dying enough to drive adaptation. That algorithm worked out differently for different species, and especially well for the Galapagos Tortoise, which lives around 177 years. Fruit flies, not so much.
Almost 200 years for the Tortoise compared to 30 days for the fly. I’d be getting busy too…
The comparative lifespan of a tortoise and fruit fly is important because it reinforces the fact that dying is not an inevitability; it’s a process engineered by evolution and coded into our DNA. And if something is engineered it can be re-engineered, which is exactly what scientists are doing right now. Take for example the Harvard scientists who recently sped up the aging process in mice and then reversed those effects entirely by manipulating the enzyme telomerase. Each time a cell divides in our body the telomere shortens, eventually getting so short the cell doesn’t reproduce itself correctly. The net result of these cellular degradations is old age. In many ways the telomere is like a built in count down clock for our bodies. By ensuring the telomere did not shorten however, the aging process slowed to almost nothing in the mice. And almost more incredibly, by lengthening the telomere the aging process was reversed- the mice got younger.
Human chromosomes (grey) capped by telomeres (white)
This is just one of many studies being done. Another good example is a US team that recently identified a mechanism in the hypothalamus that can be tweaked to shorten or lengthen lives.
They found that a chemical called NF-kB became more active in the hypothalamus of mice as they got older. When the researchers blocked the substance, mice lived up to 1,100 days, compared with 600 to 1000 days for normal healthy mice. When they boosted NF-kB in mice, they all died within 900 days. Tests on the animals six months into the study found that those without NF-kB had more muscle and bone, were better at learning, and had healthier skin han controls.
Further work showed that NF-kB lowered levels of a hormone called GnRH, which is better known for the central role it plays in fertility and the development of sperm and eggs. When the scientists gave old mice daily jabs of GnRH, they found this too extended the animals’ lives, and even caused fresh neurons to grow in their brains. Cai said there may be several ways to slow down ageing, with drugs that dampen the activity of NF-kB in the brain, or raise levels of GnRH. “For now, we are going to work on understanding the mechanism,” he said.
Point being, there’s lots of progress being made with respect to understanding and modifying the mechanisms by which our bodies break themselves down over time. However is that process moving along fast enough to indefinitely expand the lifespan within 40 years? Maybe.. but maybe not. Messing with the cell cycle tends to cause cancer, and each of these techniques raises almost as many questions as it answers. So why am I predicting 40 years?
Because there is another, better way.
This second approach requires the realization of your brain as a computer and your self as data. You may look at your arms and legs and casually consider your body to be just as much “you” as our brain is, but consider a valet parker stepping into many different cars. Does the driver change by entering a new car? Similarly, consciousness is not in your body, it’s in your brain, where approximately 86 billion neurons are ceaselessly processing information and relaying messages. And at the heart of all that processing is data. Your brain stores and transfers information using chemical and electrical potentialities to represent information much like how a computer utilizes bits. As an example, researchers have recently developed mind controlled prosthetics that allow your thoughts (data flowing through your brain) to move an attached device. Once the brain is understood well enough to be modeled digitally, it stands to reason that the complete set of data representing an individual person (at a particular state of time) could be copied or transferred just like saving a file.
I think the brain is like a programme in the mind, which is like a computer, so it’s theoretically possible to copy the brain on to a computer and so provide a form of life after death. -Steven Hawking
I think he meant to say the mind is a program in the brain, but regardless this why it made so much sense when google recently joined the effort by launching a company named Calico- because they specialize in big data. Google also recently hired Ray Kurzweil, who has been predicting this for many years now, and wrote perhaps the defining book on the subject called “The Singularity”.
The Singularity is an era in which our intelligence will become increasingly nonbiological and trillions of times more powerful than it is today—the dawning of a new civilization that will enable us to transcend our biological limitations and amplify our creativity. -Ray Kurzweil
Tying the timeline of lifespan expansion to the timeline of brain research is especially exciting because of how rapidly our understanding of the brain has grown in recent years, and how many groups are pitching in. To highlight just a few recent noteworthy projects:
• In 2010 the National Institutes of Health launched a five-year, $40 million effort to study neural networks called Human Connectome Project.
• In 2012 the Allen Brain Institute in Seattle began a privately funded $300 million effort to map the brain’s basic circuitry of perception.
• In 2013 President Obama announced a large scale brain-mapping project, promising $100 million a year in federal seed money.
Combine that kind of funding with major recent breakthroughs in brain imaging and circuitry manipulation and perhaps you can see why I’m so optimistic this problem will be solved within 40 years. Frankly that may even be a conservative estimate. According to Moore’s Law our ability to process information will have doubled 20 times over the next 40 years. Mind you that’s exponential growth- so wayyyy more than 20 times what it is now. For example 5 times 20 is just 100 but 5²º is 95,367,431,640,625. Certainly it would be unfair to do a simple correlation between our ability to store data and the amount of data in the brain, but it is fair to make the argument that based on Moore’s Law our technology will be sufficiently advanced to where a system like the brain is substantially more modest than the digital systems that surround it.
The human brain contains roughly 100 billion neurons. Each of these neurons seems capable of making around 1,000 connections, representing about 1,000 potential synapses, which largely do the work of data storage. Multiply each of these 100 billion neurons by the approximately 1,000 connections it can make, and you get 100 trillion data points, or about 100 terabytes of information. -Robert Gonzalez
100 Terabytes seems like a lot right now, but soon it will not. A brave new world lies ahead my friends. Drive safe and always back up your data.