New Google hire and renowned futurist Ray Kurzweil sums up how technologies might play out over the next two decades with this claim: “If you remain in good health for 20 more years, you may never die.”
Kurzweil looks at today's trends to piece together a convincing picture of what science hopes to accomplish in the future. He believes we will eliminate most disease, pain, and forgetfulness. "If you live well for the next 20 years," he says, "you may be able to live in perfect health for as long as you wish."
Although accidents, crime, and other forms of violence, may still cause death in this future time, nobody will die from heart problems, cancer, diabetes, or most of the other age-related diseases.
This future is not surprising considering the current speed of medical innovations. It seems just about every week, we hear researchers make fresh discoveries, or begin clinical trials for a new therapy; and over the next 20 years, experts say, healthcare breakthroughs will occur at even faster rates than today.
In a recent Technology Review interview, Harvard genetics professor George Church forecasts a bright future for regenerative medicine using stem cells. Involved in the Personal Genome Project, a massive effort to sequence the genes of 100,000 people, Church sees an increase in doctors using induced pluripotent stem cells (IPS) to create replacement organs and tissues between now and 2030.
These wonder cells could one day regenerate nearly every part of the human body, Church says. At first, the process will be used to make sick patients well, but it will soon become clear that people, who enjoy good health, will want these procedures to enhance and strengthen their already healthy bodies.
Nanomedicine author Robert Freitas talks to Ray Kurzweil in this video interview about developing tiny nanorobots that can roam through our bodies, repairing cell damage. "The hard part is building the first one", Freitas says; "although the progress may seem slow, nanorobots will one day become reality."
Freitas compares nanomedicine development to the computer industry. It took 60 years of market-driven research to bring computers to their present state with today's 'smart' cell-phones, laptops and tablets; and we will see a similar, but more rapid progression with medical nanorobots.
"This revolutionary nanoscience," Freitas says, "is in beginning stages of producing bio robots now. Next will be hybrid robots built from engineered structural DNA, synthetic proteins, and other non-biological materials. Finally, by early 2030s or before, researchers will produce completely artificial devices: nanorobots capable of protecting every cell in the body from disease, injury; and even aging."
If we define disease as something gone wrong with an otherwise healthy body, Freitas adds, then aging; and indeed, 'natural death' are diseases, which occur when the body's cellular structure cannot repair damages. Nanomedicine will not only allow us to repair these damages, but we can undo damage already inflicted. This means that the young can remain young and the old will become young.
In just 20 years, seniors and 'boomers might look in the mirror wondering, "Who is that gorgeous creature?" Their reflection would reveal a perfectly-shaped body with natural hair color, wrinkle-free skin, and real teeth. By mid-to-late-2030s, people will remain healthy indefinitely, enjoying a futuristic lifestyle with driverless cars, household robots, and vacations to Moon, Mars and other exotic locations in space.
Even though our lives will improve immensely, extending human lifespans beyond what some consider 'natural' may evoke controversy. Religions hold that death is inevitable; that living a good life sends believers to an afterlife paradise, and memories of lost loved ones live on in the hearts of descendents.
Nevertheless, experts believe this controversy will not stop efforts to extend health and increase human lifespan. Demand from citizens who believe they deserve improved health and longer, happier lives, will drive this future forward; and it could become reality in time to benefit most people alive today.
Will abilities to extend life progress like this? Stem cell advances, genetic breakthroughs, and nanotech discoveries are occurring almost daily. Humanity's dream of immortality could be just around the corner!"
Dick Pelletier was a weekly columnist who wrote about future science and technologies for numerous publications. He passed away on July 22, 2014.
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