Science Behind the Fiction: How people are trying to live forever

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Jan 31, 2018

Netflix's new series Altered Carbon has been described as cyberpunk-noir, blending equal parts flashy sci-fi and gritty mystery. Based on Richard K. Morgan's 2002 novel of the same name, the series leans on the conceit that, in the future, people will have the ability to transfer their consciousness into new bodies.

Cortical stacks, stored in the spinal column, keep an up to the minute record of a person's experiences and memories so that in the event of death the deceased can be transferred to a new "sleeve." Those with the means can have their memories uploaded to a remote location so that, in the event of total cortical stack destruction, they can still be retrieved, making them essentially immortal.

Kovacs, an ex-member of Envoy (think interstellar space cop) is tasked with solving the alleged murder of a wealthy elite with no memory of the previous two days, the time elapsed between his most recent remote update and his death. What follows is an entertaining romp through a Blade Runner styled sandbox ripe with questions about the ethics and nature of death and longevity.

These questions, however, aren't purely the domain of science fiction. Recent and looming advances in medical and information technology blur the lines between fiction and reality. As technology and knowledge increase, the fiction of yesteryear becomes the truth of today.

From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Nicholas Flamel, the search to cure the ultimate ailment has frustrated and fueled humanity for thousands of years and we show no signs of stopping. In modern times, a collection of businesses, research teams, and individuals are investing in longevity solutions that might, at long last, make aging and even death a thing of the past.

Ray Kurzweil, the futurist, transhumanist, and Director of Engineering at Google believes that practical immortality will be achievable by 2045, and with his 86% success rate at predicting future technologies, that statement carries some weight. How might modern scientists succeed where mushrooms, metals, elixirs, and alchemy have all failed?

Uploading Consciousness

As is explored in Altered Carbon and other fictional works including a recent episode of The X-Files, Joss Whedon's Dollhouse, and Dennis E. Taylors Bobiverse series, the concept of downloading, uploading, and copying the contents of a mind is a well-worn trope.

Bart Kosko, a professor at the University of Southern California, believes that "death is an engineering problem," one that technology can potentially solve, and that solution may be closer than we think.

According to Moore's Law, computing power doubles at a measurable rate, resulting in exponential growth of technological development within information technologies. For humans, who think mostly linearly, this speed of development is entirely counter-intuitive. Futurists like Kurzweil predict a technological breaking point, known as the singularity, happening in the next few decades. At that point, artificial intelligences will outpace humans forever.

While certain forms of science fiction warn that this might result in entities like SkyNet, bent on ruling humanity with a (literal) iron fist, others believe we might evolve together utilizing computer brain interfaces such as Elon Musk's proposed Neural Lace.

By augmenting and improving our brains we might feasibly be able to not only improve our own mental capacities but ultimately make a transition to entirely synthetic systems capable of repair and replacement. While, at the moment, this remains in the realm of fiction scientists like Brian Cox, professor of particle physics at the University of Manchester believes it might become reality sooner than we might think.

Though, right now, we've a ways to go. The best simulations by supercomputers are capable of recreating only a fraction of the brain of a rat, but you've got to start somewhere.

Cryonics

If becoming a robot isn't to your taste (you get super strength and are nigh-indestructible but I imagine it to be cold and there's no pizza) perhaps cryonics is the solution to bet on. It's still cold, doubly so, but you'll be dead, at least functionally, so you won't care. And, with any luck, you can be thawed out later (not unlike a pizza) and you get to keep your wiggly bits. Immortality is give and take.

The nature of death is something we still don't fully understand. When exactly does death occur? At what point is the cessation of bodily function irreversible? The answer to those questions has changed over time. It was once thought that death occurred when the heart stopped beating. Then we learned to restart the heart and revive those who were previously thought to be irrevocably dead. Now the best evidence suggests that death has everything to do with brain function. A person is legally dead when the brain activity ceases.

Proponents of cryonics believe that isn't precisely true. They think of a person like a house, a collection of organized information. A house doesn't cease to be a house if you turn the lights off so a person doesn't cease to be because their mind has stopped crackling with electricity.

Cryonics hopes to take advantage of the brief time between legal death and the destruction of the inherent biological information contained in the body and the mind brought on by decay. By lowering the temperature of the body (or in some cases, just the head) we can, with current technologies, effectively stop biological time. This puts a stopgap in decay, preserving the information that makes a person who they are, in hopes that future advances in medical technology will restore the deceased to full health.

There is some compelling evidence to support this line of pursuit. In rare cases people have been revived hours after clinical death due to a significant drop in body temperature. In May 1999, Anna Bågenholm, a Swedish radiologist embarked on a skiing trip with friends during which she fell head first into a frozen stream where she was stuck for nearly an hour and a half.

When rescuers arrived Bågenholm had no heartbeat and no respiration. When she arrived at the hospital, more than two-and-a-half hours after first falling through the ice, there were no signs of life and her body had only warmed to 56.7 degrees Fahrenheit.

"We will not declare her dead until she is warm and dead," said Mads Gilbert, head of the emergency medical department where Bågenholm was being treated. And it's a good thing, too. Bågenholm made a full recovery.

Cryopreservation is already common practice for preserving cells and tissues in a laboratory setting. Preserving and restoring more complex structures such as full organs or a complete person is more difficult and currently outside our ability. But that doesn't mean it won't be possible in the future which is why companies like Alcor in Scottsdale, Arizona have started preserving people today. With 154 patients already being preserved and more than a thousand living people paid up for services, they're putting their chips down on ice.

Rejuvenation and Organ Replacement

Consciousness transferring and cryonics are built on the assumption that death is inevitable, attempting to sidestep the reaper. But there are those who are hoping to forestall the event entirely by keeping themselves young.

There are two schools of thought bending their minds toward this problem and both have come away with promising results. The first involves halting or reversing the natural process of aging. Chromosomes in our cells have end caps called telomeres. In young people, normal telomeres are 8-10,000 nucleotides long and shorten with each cell division.

These end caps act like an internal biological clock, nucleotides falling off like grains in an hourglass until, eventually, they shorten to such an extent that the cell can no longer divide and dies.

"Now we have found a way to lengthen human telomeres by as much as 1,000 nucleotides, turning back the internal clock in these cells by the equivalent of many years of human life," said Helen Blau director of the Baxter Laboratory for Stem Cell Biology at Standford. "This new approach paves the way toward preventing or treating diseases of aging," said Blau. "There are also highly debilitating genetic diseases associated with telomere shortening that could benefit from such a potential treatment."

This process is currently only being used in a laboratory setting and the effects are temporary but such a tactic could feasibly be used to arrest the ordinary breakdown of cells associated with aging, given reasonable advances in medical technology over coming years and decades.

A more dramatic approach to turning back the clock involves replacing failing body parts entirely as needed. As of August 2017, more than 116,000 people were waiting for an organ in the United States alone and an average of twenty people die every day waiting for an organ that never comes.

That may soon be a thing of the past, custom-made organs are on their way to a hospital near you. Probably. The biggest problem in modern organ replacement is in finding a match, an organ your body can not only use but that won't be rejected. Those pesky foreign cells are getting in the way of saving your life. The trick is to get an organ your body will recognize as your own.

It turns out that organs are more than just layers of cells. Beneath the surface, organs are comprised of protein scaffolds that give an organ its shape. Harald Ott of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute discovered a way to dissolve the cells of an organ while leaving the scaffold intact.

 

What's more, like a magician who disappears a rabbit and then brings it back, Ott and his team found a way to reseed that scaffold with new cells and successfully transplant it into a rat. This same process has already been successfully used in a human patient when a cadaver's windpipe was stripped to its scaffold, reseeded with the patient's own cells, and transplanted.

If and when this process is widely adopted, rejection will be a thing of the past and organ shortage will be defined not by whether or not a match can be found but only by how many scaffolds are available. This particular problem may also have a solution in sight.

Researchers at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine are using 3D printers to build organ scaffolds from scratch and seed them with cells all at once.

The pursuit to defeat death once and for all is taking a many-pronged approach and that's good for all of us. With any luck, the convergence of all of the above technologies may bring to pass Kurzweil's prediction of the death of death itself and you too can become an interstellar space cop.

Altered Carbon premieres on Netflix on February 2.