Four Ways Science Will Kick Death’s Ass

By: 06.03.10  •  12 Comments

Science has given us many wonderful things: Jet aircraft, fast food, atomic power, robotic limbs, and internet pornography.  There is, however, one thing that science will never conquer.  From the oldest proto-human to modern man, there has been nothing but cold, senseless oblivion to look forward to at the end of our eighty years. Death will always remain a part of human existence.  Nah, just kidding!  Science is going to kick death’s ass. Here’s how:

Pictured: personification of human mortality. Not pictured: Job.

1. Science will fix your broken genes.

It’s a sad fact of human existence, but it must be understood:  your genes want to kill you.  Now, they’ll heal your scrapes when you fall out of the tree when you’re five.  They’ll fix your wrist when you break it doing a kegstand in college.  They’ll even fix you up when you have an appendectomy at twenty five.

Your genes can maintain your body indefinitely, in theory.  However, your genes have no real interest in your survival – you are an inconvenient intermediate step to perpetuating themselves.  And, sometime after thirty, your DNA decides that either you’ve already had kids or you’re never going to, and all the helpful repair sequences in your genome stop working.  Forever.  You heal slower or not at all, damage accumulates. You age, grow to hate rock music, and die.


The good news is that science has identified some of the genes responsible for fixing you, and are working on identifying new ones.  As it turns out, if you replace the defective DNA with better versions, you can dramatically slow the aging process.  Early experiments with mice have lead to a twenty percent increase in lifespan, and the potential is limitless.  The bad news is that modern medicine has not yet figured out a reliable way to make these repairs in an organism more than a few hours old.  Yet.

2. Science will give you brand new parts.

Really, though, you don’t have to rely on your worthless genes to fix your body.  After all, medicine already has a way to deal with failing organs: rip them out and replace them with new ones.  The trouble, of course, is supply.  There aren’t nearly enough organs to go around, and civilized people frown upon harvesting babies for their organs.  So if you need a new pair of lungs, you’re stuck on the transplant list with a bunch of cute orphans.

Yeah, you're not getting that liver.

However, there are a few solutions to this problem.  The first is lab-grown human organs (which is unsettling), the second is transplants from animals (which is worse), and robotic organs (which are just plain cool).  The good news is that all of these technologies have experienced a revolution recently.  One of the most promising technologies is animal transplantation.  Now, the obvious problem is that the body doesn’t like having pig parts sewn up inside it, and tends to die (dramatically).  The good news is that scientists have found a way to gradually replace the cells in an organ with new stem cells.  This means that a pig organ could be filled with your own cells and implanted, without any risk of rejection.  Oink.

3. Science will turn you into a cyborg.

We touched on this already, but this really deserves its own entry.  You see, robotic parts have been steadily catching up with human ones, and have recently superseded them in many ways.  Look down at your legs.  They work okay, right?  You can run for a while?  Well, unless you twist your ankle, or get a cramp, or get tired – and, really, you’re not all that fast anyway.  Check out this guy.  He’s a professional athlete, and he has no legs. He’s running on a pair of carbon-fiber machines that make your old-fashioned flesh and blood beg for mercy.  He can run faster than you can, run farther with the same amount of energy, and is immune to essentially any disorder of the leg.  No sprains, no breaks, no blisters.  If his legs do fail, he can replace them easily.  He won’t have arthritis in his knees when he gets old, and he won’t need a walker.  In every practical sense, the amputee has better legs than you.

It’s not just legs, either, though those are farther ahead than most.  Hands are catching up, and hearts are experiencing a resurgence.  Forget those stupid plastic grippers, you’ll be able to crush glass bottles with your Terminator hands when you’re old, if you can afford it.

4. Science will turn your mind into software.

Really, all of this technology is just beating around the bush: you’re keeping the body alive by replacing it with new tissue or with mechanical components.  However, the thing that really matters is the brain, which, as we all know, gets steadily less reliable with age, and eventually fails after accumulating (and eventually forgetting) lots of cats and grandkids.  All the crosswords and ginko bilboa in the world won’t stop that.

Are you my son?

The good news is that very smart  and very crazy people have been giving the matter a lot of thought, and they have an idea.  As it turns out, the brain’s basic mechanisms are not that complicated.  You can write software to emulate it pretty easily, and technologies are being developed to allow a computer running such software to interact directly with the brain tissue.  If this is done, then theoretically you could have your brain mapped, using the disturbingly precise brain scanners under development, and this map could be run on a supercomputer, while you play Crysis 15 for all eternity.

‘But’, you object, ‘Surely there are too many details of the human soul to simply emulate on a mere computer?’  Actually, you’re right, kind of.  There are a lot of moving parts in the brain – about sixty trillion, to be exact.  That’s the number of synapses in the average adult brain, and they embody every piece of information about you.  Every thought, desire, fear, memory, preference, opinion, and ability.

While that sounds like a lot of syanpses, consider this: if you use ten bits to store the state of each synapse, the total storage needed is equivalent to about seventy terrabyte hard drives – current market value: $6000, and falling by the year.  That’s less than your car.

Pictured: your soul.

Now, actually running a program that sophisticated takes a lot of processing power, and modern computers aren’t quite there yet.  There are some shortcuts under development, but even if those don’t pan out, there’s still hope.

According to Ray Kurzweil, a noted futurist, human technology progresses on an exponential curve: while we have need of a technology, its development accelerates exponentially. Consider weapons:

The time from the moment the first hominid murdered another with a sharp rock to the innovation of tying the sharp rock to a stick took hundreds of millenia.  From the sharp rock on a stick to the bow, though faster, still took tens of thousands of years.  From the bow to the rifle, though, is only a few millenia.  From the rifle to the machine gun is less than a century.  From the machine gun to the atom bomb?  A few decades.

Computer science follows the same trend.  The computer that you’re reading this on is about ten million times faster than the gigantic supercomputers of just fifty years ago.  It might take a while for computers to catch up, but there’s no reason it can’t be done, and all you have to do is hold out.  Better get started with the pig organs.

Sorry, Arnold.

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