Death is a big business, which is one reason why Silicon Valley billionaires like Larry Ellison, Peter Thiel and Sergey Brin hope to disrupt the aging process and unlock the secrets of immortality. But is that ethical, let alone even scientifically plausible? Amy Fletcher , an associate professor of political science at the University of Canterbury, explored the topic in a public talk last week. She talks to science reporter Jamie Morton .
From the fountain of youth to the Holy Grail, the notion of immortality seems to have been about for as long as we've been recording history.
Yes, essentially it stretches back to the dawn of human civilisation.
One thing I learned quite quickly in taking up this research project is that the topic of immortality touches everything from religion to anthropology to science and technology, art and politics.
The Epic of Gilgamesh , the earliest surviving great work of literature (2100 BC), for example, is the story of a Sumerian king who wants to become immortal.
I focus on the modern era in the Western tradition, picking up the story with Mary Shelley.
She was influenced by Galvani Aldini's experiments with "animal electricity" and his public science-spectacles of shocking corpses "back to life".
We know now, of course, that this was not the case, but in the 19th century the boundaries between life and death and science and spectacle were quite flexible, and the possibility of reanimating the dead clearly exerted a huge influence on Shelley's imagination.
By the late 19th century, the Russian cosmist thinker Nikolai Fedorov was theorising about the eventual unity of man and science that would allow us to retrieve the molecules of our ancestors from deep space and reassemble them.
For Fedorov, death was the enemy and it was the role of science to conquer it. In the twentieth century, science fiction becomes a mass market and multiple ideas about immortality start to circulate through the culture.
In the 1960s, for example, the publication of The Prospect of Immortality , by Robert Ettinger, introduced mainstream readers to the notion of cryonic suspension.
That same year, 1962, saw the release of the B-movie The Brain that Wouldn't Die , which is as weird and gothic as you might expect, but which also – like much pulp fiction - actually captures the cultural anxieties around brain death and scientific progress in a quite intense way.
And we seem to have been hearing a lot more about it lately, right?
I'm working on the idea, based on looking at these historical examples, that a concerted focus on immortality research tends to coincide with periods of great social and economic stress.
In World War I, for example, the unprecedented level of the carnage is one reason why a belief in spiritualism flourished.
What can look like quackery to us makes sense, and is much more touching, when you realise that mothers and widows, in particular, were hoping for some solace in light of the devastation that the war caused.
Our world is also under great stress, in this case particularly from the cultural anxieties surrounding climate change and possible human extinction.
At the same time, science is going through a period of major advances in biotechnology, cognitive science and artificial intelligence that make the notion of age extension, if not immorality, more plausible than it has been in some time.
And the question of human-machine mergers—or the potential pursuit of "digital immortality" - is a fascinating area.
It raises all sorts of philosophical questions, as well as scientific challenges, and can lead to quite fiery arguments.
But we already know that most of us, via social media, are leaving digital traces of ourselves scattered across the vast internet, and those traces persist after we are gone.
The question arises: does this constitute an emerging new form of digital immortality?
As in Mary Shelley's time, are we again experiencing shifts in how we understand the boundary between life and death?
It may be the case that the persistence of the physical body is not the real issue, but rather finding a process via which our memories and identities can be transferred into the digital realm.
Some other things we read a lot about are telomeres. They're the structures at the end of our chromosomes that protects them, and telomerase, the enzyme that replenishes the telomere. Some scientists have suggested that, by lengthening certain cells by engineering the activation of telomerase, human life could be extended. Is there true potential here, or is it mostly just hype?
I am not a scientist so can't speak specifically to the current state of the research literature. Yet it does seem that the telomere issue was over-hyped in the media.
Scientists are under pressure to produce important findings and justify research grants, the media needs interesting stories, and the financial stakes of finding the definitive anti-aging breakthrough are enormous.
We don't have to necessarily assume "bad actors" when things like this are hyped – the whole system is now geared to reporting studies before they've had much of a chance to percolate through the peer review system.
What about these Silicon Valley billionaires trying to innovate against ageing. Do you think this is kind of gross and elitist?
I wouldn't call it gross, necessarily. These are men who have been quite successful at relatively young ages and they are accustomed to taking an engineering approach to problem solving.
Death, in that sense, becomes something else to "disrupt" and to digitise.
A cynic might also point out that some of these billionaires are so wealthy that they arguably would need four or five lifetimes to spend all their money.
More importantly, from an ethical point of view, there is a case to be made that the choices we make around our bodies are the new frontier of civil liberties.
Just as euthanasia might, for some, represent a coherent choice about life's trajectory, the pursuit of anti-ageing and hypothetical immortality might be pushing the boundaries of what we think is possible in quite liberating ways, and be considered a human right provided that no one else is harmed in the process.
That said, where it can become elitist is that without major changes to the social safety net, and a commitment to eradicating ageism in the workplace, many people literally could not afford to live to 120, or 200, in any sort of dignified or relatively comfortable manner.
Also, it can be difficult for those outside the Silicon Valley bubble to parse the real from the hype, and that small group of techno-libertarian billionaires do have an outsized influence on the political and policy debate precisely because their money buys them entrée into the worlds of media and politics.
So in a hypothetical world where we could actually significantly increase life-span, what other tricky issues might this raise?
Again, the question of ageism would have to be dealt to. While our progress may be imperfect, there is a social emphasis at present on calling out racism and sexism.
Ageism seems to remain an "acceptable prejudice", particularly in the workplace, which is ethically dubious and also just silly.
Even without radical life extension, many of us, in the West, are experiencing much longer health spans - years of vital, productive, healthy life - and the notion that everyone will be ready to retire at age 64 or 65, which dates to the late 19th century, is quite out of date.
And yet it persists. This is a massive waste of talent and energy.
The flipside, of course, is that those who have hard jobs based around physical labour might not relish, say, another 20 years in the coal mine.
With extended lifespans, even without "immortality", the stages of the education process, the notion of retirement, and the balance between work and leisure will all need to be re-thought.
We would also have to think about the outsized effect of these extended lifespans on natural resources and what we might call climate equity.
Those most likely to enjoy the fruits of anti-aging or life extension research generally come from countries that already have a disproportionate "climate footprint".
Would that persist for another 20 or 40 years? Would we have to institute population controls to counterbalance radically extended lifespans?
Yes, that's another big point. Could it be argued that even trying to extend lifespans is unethical?
Potentially, yes. Though many ethicists and philosophers would point out that no innovation benefits everyone equally and simultaneously.
That some people benefit while others stay in the same place does not necessarily rule out the pursuit of anti-ageing. What you want to avoid, of course, is a specific group of people being made worse off.
Also, if one takes the techno-libertarian approach, then these challenges you mention are themselves subject to potential techno-solutions ranging from synthetic food to geo-engineering the climate.
The response to our present predicament depends quite a lot on whether one sees more technology as the path to sustainability or believes it is time for the West to look for alternative pathways elsewhere.
A final question: would the average Kiwi even want to live longer?
We don't yet have much data on this, though a Pew Foundation (US) study in 2013 found that a large majority of those polled would see 79–100 as the ideal lifespan.
Only 4 per cent argued for 101 to 120 years as ideal, and only 4 per cent envisioned life beyond 120 years.
This seems to track, anecdotally, with what I find when I ask students or public audiences about lifespans.
It is interesting to see the divergence here between that small group of techno-enthusiasts, who want "more life" and the broader public wherein, in my experience, what people want is a healthy lifespan that does not much exceed a century.
I am sure there are some techno-libertarians in New Zealand who could envision an extremely extended lifespan, but my intuition is that most Kiwis want a normal lifespan, albeit a healthy and productive one.