Adventurers of Immortality.

September 27, 2018

     

     Holding up a lit torch made of dry branches, a teenage girl, covered with patches of deer skin, helps her companion, a young boy of about the same age, descend on the smooth rocks leading to the entrance of a cave. As he jumps from the edge of the last rock, the boy utters a wild howl, feigning fear of the darkness awaiting ahead, while she laughs mockingly, pulling him forcefully by the arm.

     The young man grabs a bag of dry fibers hanging from his shoulder and walks into the entrance, his voice reverberating through the gigantic cave. Once inside, at the center of a wide chamber with vaulted ceiling and sinuous, twinkling sides, the girl approaches a wall and, stretching her arm above her head, caresses the cold, wet surface of the rock with the palm of her hand. She turns around and shouts something to her companion, who is still looking at her, paralyzed. As if suddenly awakened from a dream, he opens the bag and busily takes out, one by one, several objects, which he arranges carefully on the cave floor. The girl hurries him again, her clear echo wafting through the tunnels lurking in the dark.

 

Death as a challenge

   

     At a geographical distance from the cavern that is insignificant compared to the tens of thousands of years that have passed, a group of billionaires gathers in an office of the famed Silicon Valley, in California. Among them are the founders of famous companies such as eBay, Oracle and Google, companies that emerged as winners of incomprehensible fortunes in the last race to automate and optimize consumerism. Wealth being what these individuals have in common, what leads them now to this reunion? Are they planning a new algorithm to extend the arms of consumerism to other places in the galaxy? (Some of them already plan to mine asteroids).

     Actually, the big concern of these billionaires continues to reside here on earth. After all, when one has so much wealth, one has assured the future of not only oneself, but that of a countless number of one's future generations. So, what else can one ask of life?

     More life, of course. And if possible, eternal life. Not in the spiritual or religious sense, but in the literal sense. More time to continue enjoying so much fortune, or rather, to continue playing the very stimulating game of accumulating more and more. Unfortunately for them, as the old song goes, "all your money won't another minute buy" —at least not for now.

     The common background of these billionaires also explains their similar way of thinking. Their fortune comes from writing lines of code for algorithms that decide for the world, in a fraction of a second, what the world ought to buy. For them, the functioning of each cell in our body also responds to something similar to a computer code, written in the most remote regions of our DNA. If so, somewhere in the program of life, hidden but not unattainable, are the lines of code that control the deterioration of our body, old age. If only we could find them —they dream—, it would only be a matter of hitting delete and presto! Eternal life! Or at least longer life, with decent health until the last breath.

     "Death to death!" appears to be their motto, and with such a direct threat to the Lady of the Scythe, they have already spent hundreds of millions of dollars to finance certain scientists who claim to have good clues on how to trick her. Hence, the founding of projects with such names as: California Life Company ("Calico" by Google), Human Longevity Inc., Breakout Labs and the Methuselah Foundation (yes, in reference to the biblical character who, according to the Old Testament, lived 969 years).

 

     Already in 2002, a couple of years before the Silicon Valley meeting, the American biogerontologist Richard A. Miller, in his article "Extending Life: Scientific Prospects and Political Obstacles", notes that it is known that the rate of aging can be decelerated in certain mammals by both dietary and genetic means. To begin with, he defines "aging" as the process that turns healthy young adults into less healthy bodies with higher risk of  becoming ill and dying (pretty scientific, right?). However, he warns, aging is not a process in itself, a unique mechanism that governs life, but rather a multitude of factors that, in some way, converge with the passage of time.

     So, is it a coincidence that several mutations in genes and dietary regimes can affect the rate of aging? Is aging a single process or several processes? Or are we dealing with many processes specific to our cells and organs that, in some way, seem independent, but march synchronously with each other?

     Furthermore, why do we age? Actually, Dr. Miller explains, the signs of aging in an organism are the result of whether changes in that organism have an effect on its natural selection. Genetic changes that have an impact long after reproduction are not affected by natural selection, because they continue to be transmitted to future generations. On the other hand, those changes that produce early diseases such as muscular disorders, cataracts, arthritis, etc., will critically hinder an organism's chances of survival and of reproduction early in life, thus eliminating it. That is why mutations that produce late physical decline will tend to accumulate rapidly toward the end of our time.

     But, more fundamentally, what does it mean to be alive? If what makes us aware of our own existence are the recorded memories of our experiences, the sensations received from the outside world, and our learning from such experiences and sensations, wouldn't we still be alive if such experiences were uploaded to a memory device, where they can not only persist but continue to grow, fed by sensations coming from artificial sensors? In this regard, there is already talk of extending our memory and sensations with the help of external devices to which we would permanently be connected, in the same way that we are already attached to a pair of glasses, cochlear implants, cybernetic prosthetics, electronic noses, etc.

 

The pitfalls of extending life

 

     In parallel to the research and progress in delaying aging, there are those who anticipate the downside of such developments. By extrapolating results observed in animal species, whose lives have been extended by restricting their caloric intake and induced genetic mutations, it is expected that human life can be routinely extended to 120 and perhaps 140 years. Those people see the efforts to prolong life as counterproductive, anticipating overpopulation and the consequent reduction in opportunities and resources for future generations. This, despite the world population continuing to increase without the need of longevity. In such case —they claim— strict rules of family planning, conservation of natural resources and the environment, and efficient and equitable distribution of resources must be developed, efforts that even now face either ethical, religious or political opposition. Others, including some super billionaires with less selfish ideas, see a priority in remedying child mortality, malnutrition and misery in places on earth where extreme poverty prevails.

     And there are those who, with a darker vision, see the terrible possibility of living in a country dominated by some crazy, erratic despot, whose life could well encompass several generations of the oppressed. Or the prospect of a society where, as it happens already, the stress of modernity leads to an increase in depression, suicide and violence, phenomena that could be worsened by a longer lifespan.

     In fact, philosophers remind us that it is precisely the limited time and the certainty of death that makes us human: we seek to share the time we have with our loved ones, and we strive to prepare ourselves to contribute to our community with a sense of urgency because we know that time is short. And it is in those episodes of close coexistence where life manifests itself with the greatest intensity.

     The economy, heavily weighed by the health industry, would also be transformed with the extension of life. The pharmaceutical industry earns huge profits from drugs targeting a multitude of age-related afflictions. When the 'formula for youth', a single pill for all old-age maladies, has finally been created, this industry will be reduced to a few winners, those who control the monopoly of their production.

     Aubrey de Gray, a biogerontologist totally dedicated to the cause of life extension, believes that by overcoming the ailments of old age and living longer, rather than becoming competitors to younger generations, we will actually benefit them. This is because the cost of care for the elderly would be drastically reduced. Likewise, young people will not have to worry about caring for their parents, focusing instead on their own productivity and ambitions. As for overpopulation, he asks us the question: "Would you rather get Alzheimer's or have more children?" intimating that, with the extension of life, comes the decision about what is an acceptable family size.

     Which brings us to anticipate, if human history is a witness, that access to such radical benefits will most likely be restricted to a very small group of people who can afford them, starting with our group of billionaires gathered in Silicon Valley and their respective clans. A totally new class will have been created in society: those who not only have more, but also live more.

 

 

A tunnel to eternity

 

     With a light-emitting diode flashlight and advanced geodesic positioning system, capable of operating even at great depths below the earth's surface, a group of speleologists illuminates the formations of calcite inside a cavern. One of them steps onto what, at first glance, seem like pieces of rock lying on the ground, but which, upon closer inspection, turn out to be tools: mortars and stone grinders, bone cylinders, flint knives. The group gathers around the finding, conjecturing (as scientists are prone to do) about its purpose.

     Another of them, noticeable only because the light of his lantern floods the rocks around him, shouts: "Incredible! Look at this!"

     The group hurriedly gathers around the man whose trembling hand directs the light towards a section of the wall. Printed on the surface of the rock, as if still trying to palpate its texture, a delicate, thin silhouette of a hand stands out from a reddish ocher background.

     If what evidences our being alive is more than our body, more fundamentally, the fragments of information that are linked and written in a recording medium (whether the medium is a canvas, a microelectronic circuit or billions of neurons in the brain), how much information is necessary to consider such medium alive? Are we still alive if all our memories are uploaded to a memory device, no matter how crude it is, where they can reside far beyond the disappearance of our natural body? And, if we are not more than the collection of our experiences, printed in some medium, have not the two teenagers who once recorded the joy of a moment on a cave's wall already lived for thousands of years in the fine silhouette of their interlaced hands?

 

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     The original selfie, with the same intention of  recording for posterity a 'here we were', was realized in the negative impressions of human hands 30,000 to 40,000 years ago in caverns throughout southern Europe, such as those of Chauvet Caves in France and Altamira Caves in Spain. To make them, the person whose hand was to be stenciled pressed his/her hand firmly against the wall, while a second person sprayed from a distance the liquid pigment (such as iron oxide minerals dissolved in plant sap or juices), blowing the paint through a hollow bone tube. The scattered liquid accurately delineated the outline of the hand in minutes.

     From an analysis of the characteristics of the hands (for example, using the observation that women typically have the index finger of the hand of the same length as the ring finger) it is now believed that the impressions in the Chauvet caves are mostly from women. It is also intuited that those who dared to enter the caves were usually youngsters in search of adventure. Hence, in this article, the two teenagers are also 'adventurers of immortality', as they seek to eternize themselves through the image of their hands.

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