Philosopher’s stone: Pursuit of immortality

Published Nov 2, 2019, 2:06 am IST
Updated Nov 2, 2019, 2:06 am IST
Trans-humanism is no longer a fringe movement.
Humans and pathogens are locked in a bitter arms race - and so far, the pathogens are winning.
 Humans and pathogens are locked in a bitter arms race - and so far, the pathogens are winning.

The fear of death, disability and disease have always blighted human existence. Can we conquer any of these things, even old age? Can humankind do away with disease by the end of the century? It may sound like a science fiction plot but it just might be within reach, perhaps by the end of the century!

Trans-humanism is no longer a fringe movement. Immensely wealthy and powerful men like Peter Thiel, President Trump’s associate, and Elon Musk, want to live forever. With their almost blind belief that technology can fix everything, it’s no surprise that the newfound quest for immortality is located here.


Conquering epidemics

Humans and pathogens are locked in a bitter arms race - and so far, the pathogens are winning. They are evolving to resist our best medicines and humanity’s pipeline of effective antibiotic weapons is empty. We’re fighting on many fronts to make sure humanity is prepared when the next big outbreak happens. Perhaps it will be a virulent new virus, a persistent killer like AIDS, TB, Malaria or Smallpos. Either way, we’re determined to outsmart our infectious agents. Today, we’re cracking the pathogens’ biological codes.

Death, a curable disease?

For a decade or so, dozens of new types of gene therapies, bionic organic experiments and miracle anti-ageing drug tests have been underway.

The list of diseases humankind has managed to defeat is impressive - polio, typhoid, measles, tetanus, yellow fever, smallpox, diptheria and chicken pox have been almost completely eliminated in many parts of the world. Vaccines and powerful drugs have allowed our species to fight back against the bacteria, parasites and some viruses that threaten to kill us.

Bacilli, viruses and bacteria... since time immemorial, humankind has been combating these microscopic but highly dangerous foes, the cause of so many deadly diseases. While there have been some significant victories in the unending series of battles against killer diseases, the war is by no means won. As medicine continues to advance and prevention education grows, we may see a reduction in death rates causes by these diseases.


An American born in 1950 could expect to live anywhere between 20 to 25 years longer than one born 50 years earlier. Every five year interval since then has gifted the people of American another year or two to add to their lifespan. This seems to be the pattern across the world too, to a larger or lesser extent. Eventually, a minority of super-wealthy refusing to die, could arise and awake.

We can live longer, but how well?

Modern medicine may be adding years to our lives but there isn’t much life to speak of in those extended years. During these years, most of our bodily functions are in a state of decay. In our pursuit of immortality, we risk becoming like Eos’ Thelonius, blessed with everlasting life, but cursed to eternal old age.

Enhanced humans

The idea that age is a disease that can be identified and treated is now fairly well-accepted. Factors that not only increase longenvity but also promote what is known as “active life expectancy,” the time of advancing years, free of disability. Presently, the focus on healthy ageing.

Kurzweil believes in a future where tiny nanobots will swim through ourbloodstreams, repairing and augmenting us on a molecular level until our dependence on them makes usmore machine than  man. But, as bits and bytes, are we still human? At what point do we stop extending life and instead, eliminate it?

Self obsessed as we are as a species, we dwell upon  how short our lives, in the larger view of things.

Comparitively, however, we are exceptionally long-lived. The increase in life expectancy has increased at the astonishing rate of nearly three months per year, or the equivalent of 15 minutes per hour.

Death is by no means defeated

We may live longer but not forever. However, as Stephen Hawking wrote in 2011, “Disability is not an obstacle to success.” Virtual reality is helping people with disabilities conquer overwhelming real-life situations. Bionics advances point the way to conquering disability.

Hybrid humans

Building and rebuilding humans, hybrid assistive limbs, handy hands and neural interfacing are some of the new measures to overcome disability.

Immortality? Who wants that?

Not everyone! Ideally, I would like to die with a minimum of fuss and pain. But eternal life? I vote against!

—  Dr N. Prabhudev is a Former Director, Sri Jayadeva Institute of Cardiology