An enthusiastic transhumanist
One of the most intriguing possibilities raised by the exponential growth in the power of our technology is that within the lifetimes of people already born, death may become optional. This idea was championed with exuberant enthusiasm by Jose Cordeiro on the London Futurists Podcast.
Jose Cordeiro was born in Venezuela, to parents who fled Franco’s dictatorship in Spain. He has closed the circle, by returning to Spain (via the USA) while another dictatorship grips Venezuela. His education and early career as an engineer were thoroughly blue chip – MIT, Georgetown University, INSEAD, then Schlumberger and Booz Allen.
Today, Cordeiro is the most prominent transhumanist in Spain and Latin America, and indeed a leading light in transhumanist circles worldwide. He is a loyal follower of the ideas of Ray Kurzweil, and in 2018 he co-wrote “The Death of Death” with David Wood.
Immortal cells and organisms
Cordeiro has been described as “a hopeless optimist always bursting with energy”. He proclaims that life is beautiful, and we should all enjoy more of it than nature has endowed us with. Some of his optimism about the prospects for longevity stems from the existence of immortal cells in our bodies, and the existence of immortal organisms, like bacteria, some hydras, and some kinds of jellyfish. They don’t age, so if they are not killed by predators or accidents, they can live indefinitely. Bacteria are the oldest life form on the planet, so life on Earth actually started without aging built in.
Ray Kurzweil is a polarising figure, but he deserves much credit for alerting many people to the astonishing impact of Moore’s Law, which is the observation that $1,000-worth of compute gets twice as powerful every 18 months. Moore’s Law means that compute power is growing exponentially, and Kurzweil realised decades ago that this could give us machines with all the cognitive capabilities of adult humans within his lifetime. In the 1980s, Kurzweil was working at MIT with Marvin Minsky, one of the founding fathers of the science of artificial intelligence. Cordeiro studied there, and when he took some courses with Minsky, he came across Kurzweil, and read his book, “The Age of Intelligent Machines”.
Living with death
It’s an odd fact that many people are blasé about the idea of radically extended longevity. There is a very common tendency to say that 80 years is a good and proper length of time to live, and wanting more is greedy and inappropriate. Cordeiro thinks this attitude arises from our need to make death less horrifying. We convince ourselves that death gives meaning to life, and so, to coin a phrase, we are able to live with death.
But is there any reason to believe that humans could be given radically longer lifespans in the near term? The oldest person who ever lived died at the age of 122 back in 1997, and average life expectancy in the US and the UK have actually declined in recent years.
Cordeiro argues that in the last decade or so, exciting progress has been made on extending the lifespans of various animal models: the lifespans of some mice have been doubled. Some fruit flies have had their lifespans multiplied by four, and some worms by ten, so there are now so-called “Methuselah worms” that have lived the human equivalent of 1,000 years.
No human has had their lifespan extended like this, but some human cells have been rejuvenated. The 2012 Nobel Prize for Medicine was given to a Japanese scientist called Shinya Yamanaka. His team have proved than skin cells can be rejuvenated, and now he is working on eyes, which are relatively small organs, without many connections to the rest of the body. They have succeeded with mice and with monkeys, and human tests are starting.
The most recent advances have taken scientists by surprise, because they are enabled by the exponential growth in the power of computer technology, and of new techniques like CRISPR-Cas9. This exponential growth also means that future advances will come much faster than most of us expect.
If cancer can stop aging, so can we
Most of the cells in our bodies age, but cells known as germ cells, which are responsible for reproduction, do not. They make eggs in women and sperm in men, and they exist in all multi-cellular organisms. The other type of cells, which do age, are called somatic cells, or body cells. If somatic cells mutate and become cancerous, then they do not age either. Cordeiro jokes that if cancer can learn how to stop aging, then so can we.
There is no single theory about how and why aging happens that is universally accepted. Instead there is vigorous debate between the protagonists of a variety of theories. For instance some people think that aging is like the wear and tear of a car. Parts of a car get rusty, or fall off because a screw works loose, and similar processes occur at the cellular level in biological organisms. Other people think that aging is built-in obsolescence. Over millions of years, evolution has repeatedly “discovered” that a species thrives when its older members die, not least because this allows younger, improved members of the species to take over.
Cordeiro takes a radical approach to this debate: he dismisses it as unimportant. He argues that all we need to do is to work out how the cells and organisms that do not age manage to avoid it, and then copy those techniques.
Evolution was wrong
Cordeiro also has no time for the argument that evolution arranged for us to age, so there must be a good reason for it. He points out that evolution has endowed us with many defects that science has enabled us to overcome, such as disease, and deteriorating eyesight. He adds that aging takes such varied forms that it cannot have a single purpose. Even within the class of vertebrates called mammals, there are mice which live two years, and whales that live hundreds of years. Aging must be doing very different things in these animals to have such different manifestations.
The optimism that longevity research will make great advances in the coming years stems partly from the exponential rate of improvement of technologies that it is using, and also partly from the fact that so much more resource is being applied to it now. A few years ago, the amount of money invested in the research was in the $millions. Today it is in the $billions, and soon it will be $trillions. Cordeiro believes that within a few years, longevity medicine will be the largest industry in the history of humanity. He is convinced that Ray Kurzweil is right to believe that by 2029 we will achieve longevity escape velocity (LEV), which means that every year that passes, science gives you an extra year of life to offset the year you just spent. The implication of this is that if you manage to live to 2030, death should become optional for you.
Death and politicians
Politicians really should pay attention to these developments. Not just because the end of aging would be the most significant development in human history, but also because there is a huge longevity dividend. Age and the diseases it causes – heart disease, dementia and cancer – consume most of the health budget of every country on the planet. And they are barely managing to cope. If we can cure aging we can slash this cost.
The most useful contribution that a region or a country could make, Cordeiro argues, would be to declare aging a curable disease. This would attract massive funding, and an influx of scientific talent. 90% of human deaths are caused by aging, and age-related diseases. All the other causes – malaria, suicide, drugs, war, famine, and so on – account for only 10%.