Physicist Michio Kaku doesn’t see immortality as impossible. We should attain digital immortality and might be able to stop the clock on our aging. Advancements in our knowledge of telomeres and research into long-living creatures like the Greenland shark can provide valuable clues.
Historically kings, queens and emperors have tried to find the fountain of youth; they failed.
Ponce de Leon instead founded Florida, emperor Qin of China, apparently he sent his princes to look for the fountain of youth with the order “if you don’t find the fountain of youth, don’t come back.” And apparently he founded Japan and he founded Korea as a consequence of that.
So we have a long history of people searching for the fountain of youth without success at all.
In fact, the tales of Gilgamesh, perhaps one of the oldest written tales predating parts of the Bible—the tale of Gilgamesh, well he had a mission and his mission was to find the secret of immortality.
So today we have two kinds of immortality: digital immortality and genetic/biologic immortality.
Digital immortality I think we will attain. It is an attainable goal. And that is to digitize our entire life. One day when you go to the library instead of getting a book about Winston Churchill you’ll talk to Winston Churchill, you’ll see a holographic image of him that has all the mannerisms, the speeches and maybe the memories of Winston Churchill.
In fact, one of these days your descendants could go to a library and talk to you, because you have been digitized.
I mean think of your credit card transactions, for example, if I know your credit card transactions I already know where you like to vacation, what kinds of wines you like to buy and drink, what you like to do in your spare time.
Think of what happens if I have the totality of your digital fingerprints, all the videos, all the vacations, everything—perhaps I can create a reasonable facsimile of you.
And then, of course, the question is: is that really you? Well, to paraphrase former President Bill Clinton, it all depends on how you define “you”.
If you define “you” as the biological entity with your memories then of course it is not you, but if you define your soul as entropy and information, that is, if you say that your soul is information that evolves with time via the laws of entropy, then you can be digitized—because your soul is digital.
The other immortality, of course, is biologic and genetic immortality. We have artificially intelligent systems that can scan tremendous amounts of data to look for patterns so in the future we will take the genomes of millions of old people and the genomes of millions of young people, run them through an AI system that look for patterns: where is error concentrated? Which genes control the aging process?
For example, take a car: where does aging take place in a car? Well, that’s obvious right? Most of the aging takes place in the engine, because that’s where you have moving parts, that’s where you have combustion, oxidation, that’s where all the action takes place.
Well, in a cell… where is the engine of a cell? It is the mitochondria. And where do we find error buildup, entropy building up in a cell?
And that is the mitochondria.
So, bingo, we now know more or less where to look when you look for the build up of error in a cell, because that’s what aging is.
Aging is the build up of error, cellular error, biological error, genetic error, error. Entropy, that’s what aging is.
Now, if you take a look at the Greenland shark, the Greenland shark has one of the world’s records for a vertebrate that lives so long you could barely measure it. By looking at the eye, the eye of the Greenland shark, you’re looking at the layers, they add layers once a year just like tree rings and you can actually date the life of a Greenland shark. The ones they’ve looked at so far are over 400 years old.
And so we already have examples of vertebrates that have life spans far beyond anything that we humans can muster.
Now, we also have other clues, we know that telomerase, for example, can “stop the clock”.
We have a clock in our cells called telomeres, they get shorter and shorter after every cell reproduction, after a certain point they simply unravel the chromosomes of the cell and the cell goes into senescence and eventually dies. That is the biological clock.
Skin cells, for example, reproduce about 60 times approximately, that’s the Hayflick limit for a skin cell.
But, in Menlo Park California they’ve immortalized these cells. We can now take ordinary human skin cells, apply telomerase on them, and they stop the clock; they simply reproduce forever.
Now what’s the catch? There’s always a catch someplace.
The catch is that cancer cells also use telomerase on the way to immortality.
You see, cancer cells are immortal; that’s why they kill you. Why are cancer cells so dangerous? Are they poisonous? Do they have toxins? Do they eat up ordinary cells?
No, they just live forever, and they populate until they form a tumor, and the tumor kills you. So in other words telomerase is one of the mechanisms used by cancer cells to immortalize themselves, and we’ve isolated it and perhaps one day we’ll be able to use things like telomerase in order to extend our lifespan.
In addition to that we found all sorts of enzymes that are involved in the oxidation process.
For example, the Greenland shark—why does it live so long? Well, the short answer is: we don’t know.
But there is a theory that says the Greenland shark lives near Greenland where it’s cold, very cold—where oxidation takes place at a much lower level than for us mammals living in North America, for example.
And so this means that perhaps by controlling the oxidation process we can duplicate what the Greenland shark has done, and the Greenland shark lives for over 400 years of age.
Now, the point I’m making is very simple: we do not have the fountain of youth.
However, I think it’s only a matter of time before perhaps our grandkids have the option of maybe reaching the age of 30 and stopping. We may be able to stop the clock. We may like to be around 30 because we still have our youthful vigor and we’re a little bit more mature, we may want to stop the clock at that point. That cannot be ruled out.
Unfortunately it’s not, perhaps, for my generation. My generation may be in fact the last generation to die. Generations after this generation may have the option of stopping the clock.