Can any future technology make a human exist forever without risking any death or aging?

Many peo­ple in the future could live for­ev­er, but there is an inher­ent risk that tech­nol­o­gy such as immor­tal­i­ty-gain­ing nan­otech­nol­o­gy or upload­ing mem­o­ries will inevitably cause the human race to die out if noth­ing else keeps us alive. In order to avoid this prob­lem, many sci­en­tists are sug­gest­ing that we remain organ­ic and stop try­ing to make our­selves immortal.

This idea was pop­u­lar­ized by promi­nent futur­ist Ray Kurzweil who has been quot­ed as say­ing “I’m more excit­ed about what we’re doing today than I have ever been about any of my pre­dic­tions”. Ray warns that tran­si­tion­ing too far into a mechan­i­cal world would result in an even­tu­al and inevitable decay of human­i­ty.

Will any future technology make immortality possible in humans?

Being immor­tal is being able to live for ever, which means not being able to die and not being able to age. As we have found no immor­tal being yet, it is not imme­di­ate­ly clear whether a tech­nol­o­gy will be able to make us immor­tal in the future.

Imag­ine that you are at death’s door and the only way to save your life is by being trans­ferred into a cyborg body, with arti­fi­cial organs and neu­rons that can keep you alive for­ev­er. This might sound like sci­ence fic­tion, but it is not beyond our reach if sev­er­al dif­fer­ent tech­nolo­gies come togeth­er. Indeed, there are some sci­en­tists work­ing on nan­otech­nol­o­gy as a way to help us live longer and health­i­er lives. In fact, you would have to solve some prob­lems relat­ed to Deoxyri­bonu­cle­ic acid (DNA) if you intend to become immortal.

The biggest prob­lem is that our bod­ies are made up of cells, which are small “bags” that con­tain our DNA. The DNA inside your body is prac­ti­cal­ly iden­ti­cal to your per­fect­ly healthy new­born baby’s DNA—just a bunch of loose strands in a bag that does­n’t do much yet. Your par­ents’ DNA directs the growth and main­te­nance of their bags (cells), but it must be acti­vat­ed in order for those cells to do any­thing use­ful or interesting.

When you come into exis­tence, a bunch of your DNA starts being read by var­i­ous pro­teins and machines in your cells. The “read­ing” process is called tran­scrip­tion. In order for your DNA to be use­ful, it has to be turned into Ribonu­cle­ic acid (RNA) which is anoth­er set of strands that can direct the activ­i­ties of the cell. This is like hav­ing a bunch of print­outs that just sit in bags—only the RNA can do any­thing with them.

DNA → RNA Translation

To get from DNA RNA is called trans­la­tion. This usu­al­ly occurs in a struc­ture called a ribo­some inside each cell. The cell is full of these struc­tures that are con­stant­ly con­vert­ing DNA RNA. The ribo­some can hold a hand­ful of instruc­tions inside it, and then make mol­e­cules out of them.

Any­thing that can be made out of RNA can be made out of DNA as well, so once the trans­la­tion has hap­pened, it’s pos­si­ble to make more cells with the same DNA that you have in your body. This is called cloning, and it’s how we grow all the tril­lions of new cells we use in our bodies.

Find, how to translate DNA instructions into RNA instructions for our ribosomes?

We can’t even make new DNA from scratch. We don’t know how to trans­late DNA instruc­tions into RNA instruc­tions for our ribo­somes, and we don’t even know what all the instruc­tions are. This is why we can’t grow replace­ment organs in petri dish­es, and this is why we can’t grow new peo­ple. This process needs to be dis­cov­ered before we can get past the trans­la­tion step of the “live for­ev­er” problem.

DNA RNA → pro­teins (the oth­er main ingre­di­ents of cells) isn’t the only way to lead a cell to do some­thing useful—there are lots of ways that cells lis­ten to their envi­ron­ment. They respond to neu­ro­trans­mit­ters, hor­mones, growth fac­tors, etc. When a cell gets hit by these things, it either does some­thing use­ful or pass­es them along to oth­er cells in the body. But even turn­ing on these switch­es inside a cell still requires trans­la­tion and would also need cloning—we don’t know how to do this yet either.

For­tu­nate­ly, cur­rent research has shown that if we can find all the RNA instruc­tions in DNA (mean­ing we can trans­late our DNA into RNA) we can fig­ure out how to make those instruc­tions become use­ful inside our bod­ies (turn­ing them into pro­teins). How­ev­er, we still don’t know how to do this. We don’t even know where to start.

There’s no par­tic­u­lar rea­son why our ribo­somes can only read DNA. They could read RNA, or pro­tein, or any­thing more com­pli­cat­ed. If a sci­en­tist went crazy, they could design a new genet­ic lan­guage and fig­ure out how to teach our ribo­somes how to use it. Then we’d be able to have any num­ber of use­ful and inter­est­ing cell func­tions at the drop of a hat—but we can’t do this yet either.

Retrotransposons cause diseases and mutations

Anoth­er prob­lem is that most of the DNA in our body got there by acci­dent. About 96.4% of your DNA is made up of these things called retro­trans­posons that just copied them­selves onto our chro­mo­somes a long time ago and now just repli­cate over and over again. We don’t know what advan­tage this gave us, but we have plen­ty of evi­dence that it hap­pened at one point—we have a lot more retro­trans­posons than any oth­er ani­mal species on Earth. The only pur­pose they serve now seems to be to cause dis­eases and muta­tions, which isn’t very use­ful in terms of immortality.

DNA will also copy itself into RNA, which allows the cell to make lots more copies of the same pro­tein or oth­er mol­e­cule that the DNA orig­i­nal­ly cod­ed for. This is called tran­scrip­tion, and again this process requires the cell to be turned into RNA first. We don’t know how to make a cell become a bag that can then read all of its DNA at once, but it’s pos­si­ble that we’ll fig­ure out how to do this. This would allow us not just to have a longer life span than oth­er species, but also to have an infi­nite lifes­pan.

Genetic variation

Last­ly, it’s pos­si­ble for your DNA in your body to have a dif­fer­ent shape than your per­fect­ly healthy new­born baby’s DNA. It’s because it did­n’t copy itself per­fect­ly. That’s called “genet­ic vari­a­tion” and it’s not very use­ful for the things that DNA does. If we could some­how get sci­en­tists to team up to fig­ure out how to make mod­i­fi­ca­tions (genet­ic changes) that were uncor­rupt­ed by copy­ing itself, we could get over 100% of our DNA in a state where it was use­ful. This same tech­nique could be used to make changes that are very dif­fer­ent from where they come in, as long as they’re uncorrupted—like mak­ing a copy of your mind and putting it inside a new body.

Except this prob­lem, one of the main prob­lems fac­ing cry­on­ics, is a prob­lem of tech­nol­o­gy more than of biol­o­gy. We have no idea how to accom­plish this, and the peo­ple who claim they can do it are snake oil­ers. They’re sell­ing us snake oil.

To sum up: DNA RNA → pro­tein can be accom­plished by any num­ber of ways includ­ing cloning, tran­scrip­tion, and genet­ic engi­neer­ing—all we need is an under­stand­ing of how to do it, so you can make a bet­ter robot or build a nuclear pow­er plant or any­thing else in the world.

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Brain

But you would only get to keep your body in this way if you had some­where else to put your mind.

Well after all that, I guess it’s time to talk about the brain.

The mate­r­i­al in the brain is most­ly water, pro­teins, and salts. That’s because it comes from the same place as most things in our body: The ocean. It takes a lot of ener­gy to make your brain and it takes a lot of ener­gy to keep all your cells alive, so we can only store them for a short time before they start decom­pos­ing and our life stops being use­ful. This is why we have death rituals—because dying is not just a waste of valu­able resources, but such a strong sig­nal to the rest of our body that some­thing must hap­pen quick­ly (oth­er­wise we’ll start rot­ting away).

But we don’t want just to go away. We want to con­tin­ue liv­ing for­ev­er, in the same way that plants and ani­mals do.

This is a very impor­tant dis­tinc­tion. We cer­tain­ly want to keep our cells alive, as long as they have no dis­ease or dam­age that is going to kill them imme­di­ate­ly. But this does­n’t mean we want to keep liv­ing in the same bod­ies forever—it means we want to be able to live for­ev­er in the same phys­i­cal form, but with a dif­fer­ent kind of body. Or, per­haps just in some oth­er world where our mind is run­ning itself, or immor­tal soft­ware on some oth­er com­put­er with­out all the body-bound prob­lems of being your­self trapped inside your own flesh and bones.

To conclude,

On the basis of what tech­no­log­i­cal achieve­ments we have had today in 2022, we can say that we will soon be able to freeze the brain and save it for a very long time, but not indef­i­nite­ly. We will also be able to copy the brain into anoth­er phys­i­cal form like anoth­er com­put­er pro­gram or liv­ing body. But until sci­en­tists fig­ure out how to do these things, we can’t cheat death—not for­ev­er.

One of my acquain­tance researcher, who claims to have been doing research on immor­tal­i­ty, said to me in an infor­mal con­ver­sa­tion, request­ing to remain anony­mous, “Even though we’re nowhere near accom­plish­ing that goal today, I’m cer­tain­ly not going to stop doing the research nec­es­sary to make immor­tal­i­ty hap­pen at some point in the future”. The researcher added that there’s nev­er been a bet­ter time than now—the clos­er we get, the more peo­ple live forever.

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