By crossing genetics with robotics, man is now able to manipulate life. But enough to cheat death?
In Japan in 2050, a robot escapes the police and its destiny. This is the primary theme of director Masamune Shirow’s recently adapted Ghost in the Shell, and its high-speed chase is not far from reality. As the police take on cyborg appearances, the robot takes on a conscience. Man and artificial intelligence interweave so tightly that the concept of age no longer appears to hold meaning.
For Google engineer Ray Kurzweil, this reality is a few years behind. He predicts that machines will overtake their creators sometime around 2029. As a fervent believer in the downloading of the spirit, Shirow’s films are less science-fiction for Kurzweil than inevitability. “A recreated human brain fed by an electronic system will be faster than our biological brains,” he writes in The Singularity Is Near.
As for death, he predicts that we’ll be moving beyond it by 2045. If he’s right, that means the first immortal man is already here.
The key to DNA
Bill Clinton caught his breath. After a list of acknowledgments as long as the red carpet he strolled on his way in, the ex-president addressed the world. “Today, we are learning the language in which God created life,” he said to an assemblage of scientists and journalists in the east wing of the White House. It was June 26, 2000, and Clinton was celebrating the first sequencing of the human genome. Actually, it was only the opening notes of DNA sequencing, but it was enough to glimpse wild possibilities to come. Today we may be able to see the profound order of things, and, tomorrow, to articulate our own words as a child repeats what it hears. In other words, to master the code of Creation. Beyond this, it is hardly necessary anymore to call ourselves the sons of God.
Developed in the late 1970’s, sequencing allows one to read the succession of letters that compose the genome (or DNA): A, T, G, and C to represent adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine. These elements are the core of all life. An enthusiastic Clinton understood that entering the realm of human machines would give medicine new tools to “cure diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes and cancer by attacking their genetic roots.” But that wasn’t all. In laboratories, some demiurge apprentices were already selecting certain genes for their properties, passing them from plant to plant or from animal to animal. A mouse grew to the size of a rat in 1982 using this process. Thirty years later, Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic gave kittens jellyfish genes and made them fluorescent. A path, they said, that would lead to curing their masters.
Will it really be necessary? The prophets of immortality quickly seized the process of guaranteeing “la mort de la mort” (the death of death). In a book of the same title, released in 2011, Laurent Alexandre gathers 20 years of biological research into one grand idea: eternity is not far away. To reach it, you only have to repair the degradation of the genes responsible for aging, in other words neutralizing our internal grave diggers. Aided by “nano-medicine restoration” and “the hybridization between man and machine,” these genetic therapies bear a hope: “The dream of doubling life in the course of a century,” Alexandre says. “The question is no longer whether the battle against death will be victorious or not, but what will be the collateral damage of victory on our definition of humanity?” One could call him brash—if he didn’t have evidence.
In his work, Alexandre cites the experiences of Craig Venter, a biologist who managed to create an artificial cell. “For the first time, a living thing works with a genetic program designed on a computer, then chemically constructed in a test tube, and is no longer the erratic result of Darwinian selection,” notes Alexander among other equally fascinating results. In just a decade, genome sequencing opened multiple fields of new research. Initiatives have spread like a cell dividing, rendering Clinton’s 2000 speech a fossil already.
Back then, Craig Venter was seated to the right of the president. He listened to Clinton make himself the messenger of progress and cast a Solomonic judgment. UNESCO had just made the human genome public, in order to avoid a monopoly, and the president ended a protracted two-year struggle. In 1998, Venter had thrown himself into genome sequencing and had founded the private organization Celera. Celera was competing with the National Institute of Health, a governmental body headed by Francis Collins that Clinton attempted to suppress. At the speech, Collins and Venter are both present to receive laurels. But the latter was not finished.
Two years later, Venter quit Celera to found an institute in his own name to create an in vitro organism. This took the form of an artificial chromosome in 2007, then a cell in 2010. As he perfected his method, Venter increasingly crossed biology with computer science. Now, he created a genetic code on a computer, printed it with the necessary chemical elements, and incorporated it into a cell. His technique attracted other researchers, who called it “hacking the genome.”
The story of Aubrey de Grey shows how intermixed the two fields have become today. An engineer by trade, the 53-year-old Englishman with the long gray beard was introduced to biology by his ex-wife, before having a revelation in 2000. “At a conference in Los Angeles, I suddenly realized there were promising ways to treat the effects of aging,” he says. From then on, he worked toward translating the body in technical terms. “Cells are machines in which small parts fulfill complex functions. They degrade, and that affects their environment. Other cell functions heal a great deal of damage, but not all. It’s really like when a car gets old.”
Except that we don’t really have aftermarket parts. In La Sculpture du vivant. Le suicide cellulaire ou la mort créatrice (Sculpting the Living: Cellular Suicide or Creative Death), the French doctor Jean-Claude Ameisen asserts that good and bad genes are often the same at different points of evolution, and that apoptosis, or cell suicide, is necessary to life.
Instead of replacing dead cells, the researcher Cynthia Kenyon gives them a mutation, announcing triumphantly in 2011 that she was able to double the life expectancy of a miniscule worm called C elegans. But other solutions are also being tested. “Some molecules can influence cells,” says Matt Kaeberlein, biologist in Seattle. Two years earlier, a consortium from the National Institute of Aging extended the life expectancy of a mouse by 9-14% with the help of rapamycin, a molecule found on Easter Island.
For its part, the Mayo Clinic points out the role played by one type of cell, called senescent cells, in aging. Purged of senescent cells twice a week, a mouse remains noticeably healthier than its neighbors, according to study results published in February 2016 in Nature. “In aging, these senescent cells accumulate and participate in the degeneration of our tissues,” Kaeberlein explains. “We can potentially regenerate them by neutralizing these cells.” The California startup Unity Biotechnology is betting on this method to come up with new treatments.
The development of these treatments is where Aubrey de Grey comes in. The gerontologist does not use the term “immortality,” which he believes to be a false view of the spirit. If his research plays out as he believes it will, humans will always be able to die. He only wants to eradicate one of its causes: aging.
De Grey thinks that the man who will live to 1,000 is already alive. He still uses mechanical terms to describe regenerative therapies. “Given that the body is a machine, its functions are determined by its structure. So if we repair the structure, we will also preserve all its functions, mental as well as physical.” That said, our structure is different from that of animals. “The work of Cynthia Kenyon is not very promising for humans because it involves the activation of genetic pathways that work differently in long-living species. A real return to youth can’t work by activating already existent pathways. We must enhance the body with new functions, with new genes that produce enzymes capable of destroying the damage, for example.”
For the time being, research focuses on genes present in other species, like certain bacteria. But “it’s possible that artificial intelligence will allow us to redraw ourselves,” Gray asserts.
The Russian tech magnate Dmitry Istkov takes no precautions. “In 30 years, we will be able to live forever,” he proudly boasted in 2011, when he launched Initiative 2045. All of his energy and his fortune are now devoted to the creation of a controllable robot with a direct neural interface that will function as a human brain. “It’s very difficult, but it’s possible,” says neuroscientist Randal Koene, who coordinates Initiative 2045. It’s an idea inspired by the work of English researcher Kevin Warwick, who succeeded in creating a robot whose cortex contained rat neurons in 2008.
“We are going to become less and less biological, until the machine is able to understand and control the biological part,” says the futurologist Ray Kurzweil without blinking. “We will have non-biological bodies. Since 2012, this former MIT engineer has been working for Google, predicting the future of artificial intelligence. This “humanity 2.0,” he argues, will develop by introducing nano-technologies into the human body in homeopathic doses before subjugating it altogether.
Sound scary? Zoltan Istvan, the founder of the Transhumanist Party, signed on immediately. An ex-journalist from Los Angeles, he made a name for writing articles on the subject. He’ll be a gubernatorial candidate of the party in California in 2018. We must “do all in our power to give to the incredible scientists and technologists the necessary resources to defeat death and human aging in the next 15 to 20 years – an attainable goal according to a growing number of well-regarded scientists,” he says.
Resources abound. “We are seeing regenerative medicine as one of the most convincing areas for investments in capital risk,” read a Goldman Sachs report in 2016. Last fall, several billionaires including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos invested in Unity Biotechnology. The San Diego-based company Samumed is itself worth $12 billion. Google’s subsidiary Calico gets a $1.5 billion budget to combat death. And so it was a golden opportunity for Cynthia Kenyon to take advantage of it in 2014. ZeroCater has fewer means but equal ambitions. “The fact that we can live forever is evident. It doesn’t violate any physical law, so we’ll get there,” Arram Sabeti, its 33-year-old boss, predicts.
The Immortal Mouse
In June 2016, Craig Venter announced he would raise $100 million to launch the HPG-Write project, with the goal of synthesizing the human genome in a laboratory. He wanted to repeat the experience of 2010, where the scientists had created a synthetic organism, but this time using a human model. Theoretically, this method could result in in vitro human birth. “The synthesis of an entire genome, or of a whole organism, goes beyond scientific capacity today and raises ethical and philosophical questions,” says Venter’s old rival, Francis Collins. But Venter doesn’t want to give birth, only to find new treatments.
In January 2017, researchers at Salk Institute had to defend themselves from accusations of having motives other than care—particularly in their crossing of human and pig cells in an embryo. “The ultimate goal is to cultivate human tissues or organs (pancreas, liver, heart…) in animals like sows, which will be able to be grafted without rejection, but we’re still far from it,” says Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, one of Salk’s scientists. Meanwhile, the surgeon Anthony Atala offered to print 3D organs from tissue samples for transplant, a technique in the embryo field that the company Organovo specializes in. “We have already managed to print kidney, liver, lung, bone, blood vessel, heart, and skin tissues,” says vice president Mike Renard.
No one is opposed to that. How does one oppose potentially life-saving transplants? But as soon as one talks about slowing aging, people react differently, De Grey says. “Who is for malaria?” he asked a silent room in July 2015, at a TED-organized conference. De Grey pointed out that “sickness has one thing in common with aging: it kills!” To defeat the enemy, death, the researcher wants to pursue research in regenerative therapies. Future generations will have the freedom to use it or not, he contends, depending on the problems it poses.
The threat of overpopulation is too remote to determine whether people should continue dying or continue living. And as for the fear of genetic stagnation, eliminating death does not eliminate progress. “In a sense, yes, death is necessary to the evolution of the species, but not for long,” De Grey says. “One of the technologies that will soon be available (and certainly necessary to defeat death) is a genetic therapy, which shows that we’ll be able to modify the genetic composition of people alive now.” Man has evolved from generation to generation. Now he can evolve from gene to gene.
The dizzying potential changes in human nature pose a variety of fearsome problems. “We have this pleasant imagination, whereas we have absolutely no idea if, scientifically, it’s viable or even possible, and we never think of the side effects in terms of inequalities or disastrous psychotic effects,” worries science-fiction writer Alain Damasio.
That’s a fear that Seattle researcher Matt Kaerbelein does not subscribe to. “I try not to talk about immortality, because it’s science-fiction,” he says. “We can’t treat aging but we can possibly slow the molecular process of aging to extend our life expectancy. We have managed to increase it for animals by 25-50% in the lab. I’m quite optimistic that some therapies used on animals that have been validated will have similar effects on humans.”
But we are still yet to see an immortal mouse.