Live long and prosper - Can technology extend our lives or even make us immortal?

Immortality. It’s possibly the biggest promise technology has ever made. But can science and technological advancement really bring the ageing process to a complete stop?

Aubrey de Grey, a Cambridge University researcher who heads the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) project, thinks it can. Senescence is jargon for ageing and the SENS project thinks it has identified the seven causes of senescence. Talking to LiveScience de Grey said “I’ve always considered ageing to be undesirable” and argues that immortality won’t be boring. “If life is fun, because one is healthy and youthful” explains de Grey, “then one is not likely to want to die in the next year or two. And I can’t see a time when that would cease to be true.”

Putting the arguments about if we actually want to live forever aside, how would science and technology grant us eternal life? De Grey’s seven causes of ageing all seem to focus on DNA and our cells, their function and their eventual inability to deal with the build up of ‘junk’. Mutations of DNA can affect a cell’s ability to function properly and even cause cancer.

The bad news, especially for the older reader, is de Grey reckons it will take at least another 10 years before life extension by manipulation of cell function and our DNA, but not full-on immortality, will become feasible. However, this prediction is for longer life for lab animals - humans would have to wait for another 15 years before they can enjoy the durability of the mice in de Grey’s lab.

Inevitably, even Google joined the life extension race when they launched Calico Labs, a ‘research and development company whose mission is to harness advanced technologies to increase our understanding of the biology that controls lifespan’. 

There are many such projects and several ‘competitions’ ready to award large sums of cash to the first team able to extend the life of mice by 50%. But dealing with the causes of ageing is just one aspect of the problem of extending and improving the life of humans. Given that the biggest cause of early death in the developed world is poor diet, then advancements in cell technology are likely to produce real results because it’s our cells and their healthy function that are getting hammered by all that junk food. 

Technology can also make our world safer by removing the risk of human error. Self-driving accident-preventing vehicles, for instance - but can technology bring an end to poverty and war?

If in the future when you’ve been enjoying your extended life a little too hard and you lose a finger in some high-risk activity, you’ll probably just nip round to the local A&E and have a new digit printed. 3-D bioprinting is already revolutionising healthcare. Printers that use cells as ‘ink’ have already been developed and researchers are working on a number of printable parts, from heart valves to bionic ears.

M2M, or IoT, is another area where technology and health care co-exist. Sometimes called telehealth or mhealth, it’s a good example of where we are already translating technological and scientific advancements into practical health care. Tiny sensors are revolutionising healthcare by monitoring ‘events’ like blood sugar or heart rate and using the data received to fine tune treatment or even pre-empt a major health problem. Cloud computing, connected devices, Big Data and miniaturisation are all actively playing their part in telehealth. It’s potentially a trillion dollar industry so it’s no surprise that some big names have got into the sector already.

Technology can improve the quality of our lives when properly applied - and healthcare is a prime example. But can it really make us immortal? The only way we’ll ever find out is if we live long enough to witness the advancements of people like Aubrey de Grey and the SENS project. We’ll probably need to survive another 25 years to witness the predicted huge leaps in the management of ageing cells and mutating DNA. However, meanwhile we will witness some amazing technological leaps in 3-D printing, intelligent prosthetics, sensor technology and bio-engineering.

Physical immortality is a long way away but in the meantime, we can all try to follow the advice of a certain Mr Spock, allegedly already 150 years-old when killed in action, and “Live long and prosper”.

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Glenn Le Santo
Glenn Le Santo

Editor in Chief, International, at Orange Business. I'm in charge of our International website and the English language blogs at Orange Business. In my spare time I'm literally captain of my own ship, spending my time on the wonderful rivers and canals of England.