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On the quest for the holy grail for as long as we live


Is death inevitable? True, everyone born before Aug. 4, 1900, has proved mortal (the world’s oldest-known living person, a Japanese woman named Nabi Tajima, was born on that date). But the past is only an imperfect guide to the future, as the effervescent present is ceaselessly teaching us.

Must we die? We ourselves probably must. But our children, our grandchildren — or if not them, theirs — may, conceivably, be the beneficiaries of the greatest revolution ever: the conquest of death.

Immortality is an ancient dream. A Chinese king of the third century B.C. dispatched a sage, Xu Fu by name, on a quest for the elixir of life. He was to receive it from a race of immortal beings who lived on a certain mountain. His armada of 60 ships failed to reach the mountain. It reached instead, legend has it, Japan, which Xu and his crew settled and enriched with Chinese wet-rice agriculture, marking the end of Japan’s 12,000-year-long hunter-gatherer Jomon Period culture.

Centuries passed. Humanity matured. Slowly, we came to grips with our mortality. Alchemists evolved into chemists, elixirs into medicines, immortality into longevity; and here’s Japan with a world-leading life expectancy of 83.7 years and rising — to 120 within 10 years, predicts Shukan Gendai magazine; to 150 not long thereafter; to forever, ultimately, eventually — perhaps.

It’s not mysticism anymore, or religion, or alchemy. It’s science. Leading the vanguard has been Aubrey de Grey, a 54-year-old British biogerontologist who, among other things, co-founded and heads the SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) Research Foundation. Its premise is: We grow old because our cells do. But they needn’t. Genetic engineering is progressing to a point where it is at least conceivable that cellular aging can be retarded, even reversed.

Why, then, should we die? We’d live and live, and never grow old. It sounded fantastic when de Grey began his researches around the turn of the century. It sounds fantastic now. There are those among his peers who consider de Grey a crackpot. It’s a charge visionaries must live with. Some are, some aren’t. Anyone in 1900 — or 1950 for that matter — predicting a near-future life expectancy of 83.7 years would have been thought a crackpot.

Likewise anyone predicting the elimination of disease. Not this disease and that — disease per se. Genetic editing and induced cellular pluripotency are no longer visionary. They’re here, now, promising much for the future of regenerative medicine as opposed to such current crudities as drugs and surgery. The pioneering research was led by Nobel laureate Shinya Yamanaka, who showed that mature cells can be reprogrammed to pluripotency — to stem-cell infancy, in effect, capable of growing into whatever kind of cells are needed to regenerate diseased organs. Cutting-edge work in this domain is being done by CiRA, Kyoto University’s Center for iPS Cell Research Application. The diseased body is not healed or cured, as now, with mixed results, but induced to heal itself — potentially much more successfully.

This sort of thing is rapidly going mainstream, and de Grey, if still a fringe thinker, seems increasingly less so. At the very least, medical science has progressed to the point where “negligible senescence” — eternal youth, more or less — is something it might be a good idea to start talking about before it is suddenly upon us without our having thought through the implications. As with most of the other miracle technologies that have turned our lives inside out over the past 100 years — rampant automation, nuclear power, virtual reality, artificial intelligence and so on — this one, as Shukan Gendai points out, has its dark side.

What can be dark about not dying? Just that: not dying. We don’t know; we’ve never tried it; it may not be as wonderful as it sounds. Even healthy, even forever young, would we grow weary of life? Shukan Gendai speaks of each of us “choosing” his or her life span. Immortality if we want it, death on demand otherwise. Are we ready for that? It’s a giant leap. Today we find euthanasia, even for patients dying in agony, morally frightening.

Another issue is economic. Immortality would not, as the magazine notes, be cheap. Insurance wouldn’t cover it. It would not be for everyone. For who, then? The very wealthy, presumably — leading to what? An immortal minority ruling over mortal slaves?

Imponderables abound. “We’d pray for death and it wouldn’t come,” Kobe Women’s College philosopher Tatsuru Uchida mused in an interview with Shukan Gendai five years ago. Even young, even healthy? Why? Uchida spoke of material problems: “Food, drink, clothing, housing, everything would be in short supply; we’d stink, we’d be filthy.” But let’s suppose we solve those problems. Would we still long to escape life, as prisoners long to escape prison?

It’s something we can’t possibly know about ourselves at this stage in our evolution. The one thing that does seem certain is that human beings 100 years from now will be very different from, conceivably unrecognizable to, human beings today.

Let’s consider an analogously revolutionary development we do know a little about, having seen something of it in operation: artificial intelligence. Its presence in mass daily life is in the form of the ubiquitous smartphone. More exotically, it can defeat the best human players of our most cerebral games. What it will be doing for us, or to us, a century from now is anyone’s guess. Its effects even now are not clear. In lifting the burden of thought from us, is it slackening our intelligence? If so, does it matter?

The Asahi Shimbun last week reported on a study led by Noriko Arai of the National Institute of Informatics on the reading skills of junior and senior high school students nationwide. Roughly 24,000 students were tested. The results are appalling. A large majority of students are unable to understand simple sentences. For example, after reading a segment from a junior high school textbook on countries of origin of major league baseball players, students were shown four graphs. Which one fit the information? Twelve percent of junior high students and 28 percent of senior high students got it right.

Arai does not specifically relate declining literacy to smartphone use or artificial intelligence (she herself is a leading AI researcher). She does express fears of what is to become of these students when they grow up and find themselves competing for jobs with AI-equipped devices. Progress is a mixed blessing.

Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”