The only things in life that are certain, so the saying goes, are the two grim reapers of death and taxes. Some of us are able to beat taxes in retired life, but few of us can avoid the other grim reaper. History tells us that man has searched for the Eldorado of eternal life since time immemorial, probably inspired by the biblical stories of century-old prophets, patriarchs and sundry other feisty apocalyptic characters. But this is now the 21st century and the best we have been able to come up with is cryonics, a chance to freeze our bodies until such time as the cure or antidote for mortality is found. And since it takes deep pockets to go down that road, it leaves most of us with a resigned state of mind.
Is death really our inevitable fate? Most major religions are based on the premise we will ultimately die and only strict adherence to the tenets of the religion we happen to practice will guarantee us eternal life…after we die. In other words, the progress of our life is kept hostage to the image of a happy afterlife. You have to admit it, it’s a good way as any to shepherd us towards living a moral, upright, do-gooder life, as opposed to cater to our baser instincts and sink into the abyss of malfeasance and evil-mongering.
In ancient Sumer – we’re talking 4000 years ago – there lived a ruler called King Gilgamesh of Uruk who was known for his prowess in battle. Having survived many a brush with death, he became obsessed with defeating death. He wanted to become immortal – undoubtedly so he could notch up many more victories. To that end he undertook a long journey to the end of the world and found his way into the underworld where he encountered a few memorable characters and came to understand that the gods who created man also affixed an expiration date on the life of every human by setting death as man’s inevitable destiny.
Gilgamesh failed in his quest of finding immortality but he bequeathed his quest and his name to a project started in 2014 by a group of scientists who do not believe that death is inevitable. These modern day illuminati see death as just a technical failure of the human body caused by various known diseases or breakdowns like cancer, heart failure, infections. They see these problems as challenges to be solved and they are actively looking for solutions in the form of new medicines, treatments, organ replacements and DNA interventions.
Giant strides have already been made in the area of genetic and bionic engineering. Dolly the cloned sheep set a remarkable precedent; she was the vanguard but she was still mortal. Genetic engineering has managed to double the life span of some lower organisms like worms and fruit flies. Bionic implants are replacing failing organs and body parts. Nanotechnology has opened the path to bionic immune systems by creating tiny robots that can travel through your body via blood vessels, the lymph system and various other pathways to open blocked paths, fight viruses, bacteria and cancerous growths. Researchers imaginatively call this, tongue in cheek, targeted transport for molecular payloads, i.e. a drug delivery system that deposits their cargo directly inside targeted cells.
These scientists believe humans can, in time, become a-mortal; meaning life can be extended indefinitely, as opposed to immortal, a prospect not yet on their radar. People can still die of accidental falls, blows or other fatal trauma like getting killed in battle or due to a nuclear, terrorist or ecological disaster. In our life insurance policies this may be considered an act of god.
They believe that aging is stochastic, meaning that it is characterized by the accumulation of small random errors in biological systems over time. Aging is primarily the result of damage accumulation in the form of adverse chemical reactions in the body. Think cancer. Reversal of these chemical reactions and the feasibility of error correction or repair in a biological system, they say, may very well eliminate the process of aging and contribute to a radical life extension. Repair of these types of damage involve removal, replacement and/or repair, facilitated by such technologies as organ transplants, stem cell therapy, and tissue engineering. All of these strategies require a fine level of manipulation in the form of nanotechnology of some kind, which is rapidly developing.
If the Gilgamesh Project sounds like a plan to create a Superman, you may not be far from the truth. Genetic and bio engineering, nano robotics, bio implants and the progress of intervention therapies and processes that go way beyond the level of healing or repairing are moving at warp speed. We now have computer models of the mechanical, physical and biochemical functions of a living human body. DNA computing has modules theoretically capable of diagnosing cancerous activity on a cell by cell basis, and directing the release of an anti-cancer drug into the appropriate cells. The intrinsic repair capabilities of the human body coupled to reengineering techniques, nanomedicine and generic molecular repair nanotechnology may form the basis of the transformation of human biochemistry and physiology and give us a chance for an a-mortal life.
We’re well on the way to creating high-functioning cyborgs with all the physical and mental characteristics of humans, with capacities far superior to present-day humans. Some people fear that Westworld-style Androids may not be far behind. This fear may be tempered if we understand that the human brain is the most complicated thing on the planet and scientist still do not know precisely how it works. Even though we already have a discipline called connectonomics which is the science to map the human brain, it is still a big challenge to simulate it in an Android, all our dreams about AI notwithstanding.
However, the considerations and implications of radical life extension and the process to make it happen are immense. There are so many aspects to consider: ethical, legal, social, political. The author Yuval Noah Harari sums these up very succinctly in his book Sapiens – A brief History of Humankind. It’s definitely worth a read. What strikes me as most fearful is the effect a human mass with great longevity will have on this poor planet, already in a sorry state of disintegration. How will Earth support an explosion of the population? Feed it? House it? Will this engender a new meaning to the consideration of space as the final frontier?
You may ask yourself if Project Gilgamesh is a desirable outcome to our quest for eternal life. Even if we solve the problem of Earth’s overpopulation, the final question is not should we allow Project Gilgamesh to continue but how can we guard it against being hijacked by special interests in government, religion and other so-called influencers?
By Ines Wynn
The Boomer Corner is a column dedicated to people over 60 living in Bali. Its mandate is to cover topics, practicalities, activities, issues, concerns and events related to senior life in Bali. We welcome suggestions from readers.
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