By Carl Weiss
Everyone knows that there only two things in life of which we can all be assured: Death and Taxes. Now one of the billionaires behind the world’s most popular search engine wants to take a crack at eliminating the first of these woes. That’s right, Larry Page of Google has made it his stated goal to cure death. With a war chest in the billions, I guess if anyone can take a legitimate crack at the Grim Reaper then he can.
Not that the search for an alternative to death is new. Before he died in 210 BC, the first sovereign emperor of China, Zhao Zheng spent much of his time and considerable wealth searching for the elixir of life. So did the legendary Spanish Explorer Ponce de Leon, who scoured Florida in 1513 for the mythical Fountain of Youth. While both these and other historical notables had an almost obsessive desire to cheat death, none of them had access to modern medicine, DNA research or medical miracles such as transplantation, bionics or bioprinting that are reshaping the very notion of what it is to be human. Page on the other hand does have these and other technologies at his disposal. And he is incorporating them into a new medical technology company called Calico.
Short for “California Life Company,” Calico sounds more like a shelter for cats than a research company. But when you think about it, cats are supposed to have nine lives. And so does Page’s latest venture. Considered the brainchild of Bill Marris, Google Ventures managing partner, he became the catalyst for Calico when he noted that hundreds of companies were focused on curing a variety of medical conditions and diseases. Yet there were no companies that focused on the root cause of disease or what caused the body to progressively fail over time. That we understood the mechanisms involved in death, largely due to progressive genetic degradation as the body aged was not an issue. What was at issue was whether it was possible to not only identify the specific causes of aging, but to develop treatments that would effectively slow, stop or even reverse them.
It was with this stated goal in mind that Arthur Levinson, chairman and ex-CEO of the biotechnology company Genentech was tapped to head Calico. Currently chair of Apple Computer’s board of directors, Apple CEO Tim Cook gave Levinson and Calico his blessing by recently stating, “"For too many of our friends and family, life has been cut short or the quality of their life is too often lacking. Art is one of the crazy ones who think it doesn’t have to be this way. There is no one better suited to lead this mission and I am excited to see the results."
That other people share the belief that trying to “cure death” is a topic best relegated to the lunatic fringe along with such things as Bigfoot research is obvious. It didn’t help matters that Larry Page was quoted in a Time Magazine interview as saying, “We think of solving cancer as this huge thing that’ll totally change the world. But when you really take a step back and look at it, yeah, there are many, many tragic cases of cancer, and it’s very, very sad, but in the aggregate, it’s not as big an advance as you might think.”
Why Can’t We Live Forever?
To start off with we have to look at the strides in longevity that have been made by mankind over the centuries. People born in the year 1800 had an average life expectancy of 35, while those born today have a life expectancy of 75-80 years. So what’s to keep this trend from continuing so that in the year 2200 the average human could live to 150-160 years of age? The reason we live longer than our ancestors has mostly to do with the fact that we have learned how to combat disease, treat life threatening conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and cancer, and that we better understand the nutritional requirements of the human body.
The problem is that even if we were to cure all disease and through a combination of radical surgical procedures including transplantation and artificial organs, be able to effectively treat all known physical maladies, this would not be sufficient to keep us alive indefinitely. Like it or not, in each and every one of us is a ticking time bomb that ensures cell death.
When you get right down to the basis of life, be that of a human or a simple bacteria, all revolve around mitosis, the simple act of cell division. Research has shown that healthy cells are programmed to reproduce for a limited amount of time before they die. In fact, if you take cells from something old and transplant them into something young, the older cells will still die at their preordained time. This is why as people age their bones become brittle, their skin wrinkles, the hair thins and the body becomes less able to ward off disease. We are all in a sense programmed to self-destruct.
The phenomenon known as the Hayflick Limit has been known since 1961 when Dr. Leonard Hayflick, Professor of Medical Biology at Stanford University, first discovered that human cells divide a limited number of times in vitro. Author of the book “How and Why We Age,” first published in 1994, Hayflick demonstrated that during continued mitosis the end of the chromosome called the Telomere progressively degrades. This means that through repeated division, the enzymes that duplicate DNA produce copy errors that ultimately affects cell replication. He also showed that when this mechanism broke down it resulted in either cell death or malignancy. That’s right sports fans, cancer cells while deadly can live forever.
Enter the Methuselah Mice
Of course that didn’t stop other researchers from looking for a way of slowing the process down. While many have espoused the ingestion of compounds known to halt the production of cell damaging free radicals, others think that telomerase, an enzyme that mends the protective covering on cells could be the answer. The problem is that to date no studies have yet proven that either of these concepts has been able to significantly increase the lifespan of mammals.
However, a series of experiments with mice began in 1986 by Roy Walford and Richard Weindruch reported that by restricting their diet by 30 percent that mice could live up to twice as long as those fed a normal diet. Before you start pulling in your belt and breaking out your Adkins Diet Plan, let me also point out that the same experiment was performed with rhesus monkeys begun in 1987 by the National Institute on Aging, which while reporting health benefits did not demonstrate increased lifespan.
What immortality in essence boils down to is correcting the built-in genetic copy error while preventing immortal cells from replicating uncontrollably into cancer. When you consider that until recently such things as gene splicing and gene therapy were the stuff of science fiction then it’s entirely possible that eventually it might be possible to program our genes to turn off the self-destruct mechanism. If that doesn’t work there are other paths to immortality.
Take entrepreneur and author Ray Kurzweil for instance.
Described as “the restless genius” by The Wall Street Journal, and “the ultimate thinking machine” by Forbes. Inc. magazine which ranked him #8 among entrepreneurs in the United States, calling him the “rightful heir to Thomas Edison.” Ray was the principal inventor of the first CCD flatbed scanner, the first omni-font optical character recognition, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first text-to-speech synthesizer, the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano and other orchestral instruments, and the first commercially marketed large-vocabulary speech recognition. Ray is the recipient of the $500,000 MIT-Lemelson Prize, the world’s largest for innovation. In 1999, he received the National Medal of Technology, the nation’s highest honor in technology, from President Clinton in a White House ceremony. And in 2002, he was inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame, established by the U.S. Patent Office.
Among other claims, Ray has also postulated that by 2045, an event known as "the singularity" will occur, allowing humans to fully integrate their psyches with machines. Were that to happen, all any of us who could afford it would have to do to cheat death would be to upload what we call our personality into that of a robot and voila, instant immortality.
So enamored with this concept was he that Russian billionaire Dmitry Itskov has already begun construction of a robotic replica of himself so that once the technology of mind transfer has been worked out he can be the first billionaire on the block to merge with a machine. Since he is currently 32 years old this will make him only 55 years old in 2045, which gives him a certain amount of wiggle room should the technology take a bit longer to become a reality.
What Happens if We Get it Right?
Just like the Wright Brothers being the first to fly with wings, or Neil Armstrong standing on the surface of the Moon, if mankind puts its mind to a problem then there is a high probability that we can solve most any problem. The real problem as I see it isn’t a matter of technology. The problem is more about practicality. In other words, what happens if we get it right?
Think about the ramifications of immortality. Currently there are more than 7 billion people living on planet Earth. Even taking into consideration such things as accidental death and homicide, if we all woke up tomorrow morning with the realization that we would never die, how long would it be before we all starved to death? Considering that it currently takes our global population of mere mortals less than 40 years on average to double, this would ensure the fact that within a generation or two we would all face starvation since I don’t know of any technology that would enable us to keep 20 billion people fed and we haven’t yet invented starships capable of interstellar travel.
Of course, like most other technologies, it will in all likelihood take a number of years for the benefits of immortality to reach the masses. In which case, this means that only the wealthy will be able to afford such a luxury. This could also prove problematic since this would enable the super-rich to consolidate their power which is usually the way in which most revolutions have been fomented since human civilization began.
Even for those in possession of immortality, it could prove more of a curse than a gift. A number of fictional works have been penned over the years about the perils associated with eternal life. In the Picture of Dorian Gray, the main character barters his soul for eternal youth only to pay the price in depravity and despair down the road as everyone around him ages and dies.
As usual with human knowledge, wisdom in many cases takes a back seat. If the Wright Brothers had foreseen what would become of their invention, where forty short years later entire cities were being carpet bombed and millions of civilians killed, would they have stuck to building bicycles? Who knows, but for what it’s worth if it came down to a choice between curing death or taxes, I for one would rather see all of us a little richer rather than a whole lot older.
Carl Weiss is president of WSquared media Group, a digital media agency in Jacksonville, Florida. He is also co-host of Working the Web to Win which can be heard on Blog Talk Radio every Tuesday at 4 pm Eastern and seen on YouTube.