No person should ever die… EVER!
Is that our goal? Is that the direction we are headed in?
Futurist and author Ray Kurzweil is convinced an end to disease and possibly death by trauma may be here in a matter of decades. He’s taking vitamins like they are candy on a personal quest for the ultimate prize, immortality.
Kurzweil and others have been talking about the possibilities of vastly extended life spans for more than a few years now. The questions that come with these considerations are jarring. And, these questions deserve a thorough look to be sure, because radical, species-altering change is what is on the table. We should consider this prospect very carefully in the largest possible context.
We should ask the first question. Is the goal of the medical community to improve health, or to completely eradicate health problems? In Star Trek speak: What we are talking about is a prime directive.
According to the World Health Organization, the top 20 causes of death are:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Infectious and parasitic diseases
- Ischemic heart disease
- Respiratory infections
- Lower respiratory tract infections
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
- Perinatal conditions (around the time of birth)
- Digestive diseases
- Diarrheal diseases
- Intentional injuries (Suicide, Violence, War, etc)
- Lung cancers
- Road traffic accidents
- Childhood diseases
- Neuropsychiatric disorders
- Diabetes mellitus
It becomes an interesting exercise to look closely at each cause of death and think through not only how to reduce its influence, but how to eliminate it completely. With this analysis comes a vast spectrum of additional questions. The following discussion is but a slice.
For trauma cases, the medical profession soon will be grappling with the ethics of making simple repairs versus making better, longer lasting humans. Futurists say these questions no longer belong to the realm of science fiction. In a matter of decades, we can replace our frail parts with parts that are made of superior materials. Juan Enriquez points to recent medical accomplishments that include re-growing bladders and throats. Entire body replication can’t be far behind.
We may have to ask if the route to this point in medical history was too quick. Have we really absorbed the impact of what these changes will mean for society?
We wrestle with ethical questions for sometimes centuries. So clear in our in minds today as outrageous, slavery had to be abolished at the point of a gun in this nation. Now we are about to be presented with the question: Will we become something else? There is this, too: Do we have a right to live indefinitely, or is it a privilege?
Life, death and years of painful adjustment, all can be avoided. Families will be spared the emotional turmoil of deciding life and death for the brain damaged. The horribly burned can re-grow and slough off their charred skin.
In a nation where health care is afforded to some, but not all, are we prepared to take on such questions as to who lives forever?
The prisons and jails are strained. Science may even address the morally and mentally challenged. Is it realistic to think we can fix the underlying behavioral issues, turn criminals into productive, well-intentioned people? Should they live forever, too?
The end of the end
As medical advances continue, and we devise an entirely new range of health-enhancing options, I propose a new standard. The bar should be set very high, the highest possible. I propose we put an end to human death.
In a society so technologically advanced, financing such a seemingly stratospheric goal is possible. Resulting innovations will more than offset the scales of cost.
Let’s play a game of “what if.” What if we could turn our attention from fixing problems of the past to pondering a new kind of future? What if we could become possessed with a genuine interest in advancing our evolution as a society?
I propose something quite radical in today’s world – that we declare war on human death.
In the past, advances for cures for even minor diseases moved glacially. From Leeuwenhoek’s invention of the microscope in the late 1600s to Louis Pasteur’s discovery of germs the great achievement took centuries. Today, breakthroughs are arriving at greater speed and accelerating to the point where barriers to near immortality are falling daily.
The most dramatic advancements have been seen in the quickening speed of communication, and the spread of knowledge across the Internet. Breakthroughs are commonplace. Headlines are no longer headlines. Online, science accomplishment is building on accomplishments as never before. Virtual collaboration has led to global teaming. As information speeds to all corners of the world, the approaches to solving some of our most perplexing problems have multiplied.
Warring with human death requires a far different mindset. The current trend of paying to live is not the model for defeating death. Here are a few examples of the hurdles that would have to fall:
- Redefining Aging – Humans will need to be re-engineered to stop the aging process at around 25 years of age when bodies are in their peak condition. Humans could live indefinitely at the peak of health.
- Keen Minds – Human mental condition deteriorates as brain cell death takes its toll. Scientists have discovered a replicating switch in individual optic and brain cells that for some reason is turned off soon after birth. Throwing the switch back on is in the cards. Epilepsy, blindness and dementia will be relegated to the past.
- Accidents – Yes, accidents are inevitable. Is it reasonable to think that all can survive accidents?
- Mangled Bodies – Should we rebuild bodies that become hopelessly damaged by today’s standards? Falling into a wood chipper or stepping in front of a steam roller need not be fatal. Is it possible to reassemble the body and reinstall memories?
- Terminal Illness – Can we put an end to viral and bacterial diseases that ravage our bodies from within? Will pathogens become harmless artifacts? With the advent of blood-roaming nanobots, the future will be bleak for the little animals that ravage bodies. Cancer will be forgotten.
- Criminal Minds – Are evil people really worth saving, even if they can be reformed? Science has barely scratched the surface when it comes to understanding the brain. Is it possible to live in a placid society that has forgotten the fear of crime by sociopaths and others lumped under the rubric of the criminally insane?
- End of War – We will always have conflict. So, how do we resolve such disputes among societies that no longer know or appreciate the meaning of death? If war becomes convenient and non-traumatizing, can it be loathed as it is today?
- Death as a Motivator – Nothing motivates like the anticipation of a deadline. With no fear of death, what will become of our humanity? With no need to appreciate death, what becomes of the forces that drove generations to confront such weighty matters as meaning and challenge? Will our imperatives lose their potency, even disappear? Will we pursue achievement in the absence of these possibly extinct drives?
These may seem like distant concerns. But change is coming ¬– this time, at lightning speed. We don’t have the luxury of mulling such matters for decades.
Most importantly, if death is no longer viewed as inevitable, our attitude towards life will shift dramatically.
Our generation could be the last. Though the challenges seem overwhelming, I believe this is the time to establish a long-term directive, a prime directive for all – the end of human death.
Even if it’s not achievable, shouldn’t it still be our goal?
By Thomas Frey and Raymond Alvarez