In 2045, humanity will reach the point of singularity, when, thanks to the development of artificial intelligence, the irreversible and rapid technological development of the world will begin. This was predicted by the American IT expert, inventor, futurist and former Google technology chief Ray Kurzweil almost two decades ago. He later added that in the same year, humans should have advanced enough in medicine and technology that death would become an option.
Kurzweil was followed up in his book The Death of Death by his student, the Venezuelan-Spanish economist, technician and futurist José Cordeiro. He believes that the still relatively new medical-technological field called longevity (also sometimes called long life in Czech), which will also include means to achieve immortality, will in the future become the largest industry in the world in terms of turnover.
This is underlined by the fact that entrepreneurs and visionaries such as Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Facebook and Meta chief Mark Zuckerberg, OpenAI director Sam Altman, and Saudi Arabia through their Hevolution foundation are investing billions of dollars in anti-aging research.
Cordeiro, who recently lectured in Prague, explains in an interview why he thinks it is possible that in 22 years people will be able to choose between death and immortality and what the consequences for the planet could be.
You studied engineering and economics, you worked for large oil companies. How did you get into industries like biotech, healthcare and longevity?
I was born in 1962 and seven years after that the first man landed on the moon. I watched it on TV and thought I would like to go there too and learn to work with technology. That’s why I then became a mechanical engineer. Later I started working in the oil industry, but I was always interested in different technologies. I had two fantastic professors at school – one of the fathers of artificial intelligence, Marvin Minsky, and also Ray Kurzweil, who founded Singularity University. I was greatly influenced by one of Ray’s books, Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever, in which he talks about achieving immortality.
When he founded Singularity University, he invited me to it, and I served as a professor of energy and environmental systems there for a few years. Then when I moved to Spain, my father died. That was a great tragedy for me, and that’s why I became more interested in longevity. Another reason was that in 2012 Shinya Yamanaka was awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery that aging can be reversed. He discovered the genes that control aging. The so-called Yamanaka factors can make an old cell young again or vice versa. The aging process is flexible, it can be stopped, reversed or accelerated. It’s an incredible discovery.
You follow Ray Kurzweil in your book The Death of Death, where you argue that immortality will be possible in 2045. It probably sounds pretty fantastic to most people. Is your claim based on data and facts?
The book is partly about the scientific conclusions available to us and partly about what will happen in the future. Of course, it is very difficult to predict the future. I draw a lot from the ideas of Ray Kurzweil, who is an excellent futurist. He has been making predictions for half a century and their accuracy is over 80 percent. Therefore, I take some numbers from him, but also from other scientists, such as the British biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey, some numbers I have from Elon Musk, who is also a great visionary, or from organizations like the United Nations, and some are my own calculations.
Many people do not know or do not realize that immortality was de facto discovered by cancer cells, which do not actually age, but keep multiplying, growing and devouring a person. When a person dies, so does the cancer, but only because it no longer has any food. This was discovered in 1951 in a patient named Henrietta Lacks. She was a black woman from the southern US who was born in 1920 and died at the age of 31 of cervical cancer. The doctors took her cancer cells, gave them nutrients and water, started analyzing them and saw that the cancer was still growing. Henrietta Lacks’ cells are still alive. They are probably the best-known cells in biology and are called HeLa. They are now 103 years old, but they work as if they were young.
Then there are germ cells, which are said to be biologically immortal. Although they die with the person, the genetic information contained in them is passed on. In addition, we now know that there are many biologically immortal organisms, for example, hydras or jellyfish, and also the first form of life on the planet – bacteria that had round chromosomes – was biologically immortal. Chromosomes in humans have ends called telomeres.
The problem is that telomeres shorten as cells divide (after shortening the telomere to a critical limit, the cell stops dividing, the relevant tissue thus stops renewing itself – editor’s note). The exception is cancer cells that produce telomerase, an enzyme that makes telomeres grow longer. Anyway, the first bacteria didn’t have telomeres. They were born and were immortal. The goal of life is life, not death.
In your book, you deal with technologies such as artificial intelligence, tissue regeneration, stem cell therapy, organ printing, cryopreservation or gene therapy, which are supposed to contribute to the possibility of achieving immortality. However, many of these technologies are still at the beginning, being tested and hardly used in practice.
Development is accelerating and we will see more technological progress in the next 20 years than in the last two thousand years. Thanks to Yamanaka, we know that rejuvenation is possible. He performed experiments with mouse skin cells in vitro, i.e. outside the body. In 2020, another very famous scientist, David Sinclair, who did research at my alma mater MIT and is now a professor at Harvard, actually did the same thing as Yamanaka with students, but in vivo, right in the organ, namely in the eyes of mice. He did research on old mice that had lost their sight. He injected something like a Yamanaka factor vaccine into their eye, and this gene therapy effectively rejuvenated their eyes. Now scientists are working with other organs and with animals that are closer to humans than mice.
Therefore, do you assume that in 2045 it will be possible to completely stop the aging process in humans?
Not only that. But above all, I have to emphasize that this is the number predicted by my mentor Ray Kurzweil. He is talking about two magical dates. The first of these is 2030. At that time we will reach a point called the “escape to longevity”. We will continue to age, but thanks to advances in medicine and biology, we will gain an extra year of life every year since then. And then we get to 2045, when rejuvenation technologies will also be available.
According to Ray Kurzweil, humanity will reach a point of technological singularity by 2045, a hypothetical tipping point where humanity’s uncontrollable and irreversible technological growth will begin as artificial intelligence greatly surpasses the capabilities of the human mind. Is it also a condition for a person to be immortal?
Yes and no. Artificial intelligence is very important because it can handle some things that we cannot. For example, the human genome has three gigabytes of data and a human cannot analyze it. We also need to sequence the genomes of millions of people, which we could not do without artificial intelligence. AI is also helping to discover new drugs. In addition, thanks to artificial intelligence, many processes will become cheaper. Analysis of one genome now costs $300, but in five years it will be only $10, and we will be sequencing not only the genome of normal cells, but also of mutated cancer cells. Thanks to this, we will discover mutations that stop aging. And thanks to artificial intelligence, we are also close to curing cancer.
If we accept that immortality will be possible, won’t this therapy be very expensive and only available to the richest people?
It will be available to anyone because the possibility of immortality will be part of the social and health security system. This is because thinking about what is important in public healthcare will change. On top of that, every productive year of human life has a huge economic benefit. It’s called the longevity dividend. On the other hand, by far the largest expenditure in the healthcare sector goes to the treatment of a person in his last years. Even so, he dies in the end. Therefore, investments in the health sector will gradually be transferred to the period when a person is young, and will go mainly to ensure that he does not grow old, because it will be much more economically efficient.
Do you think people even want to be immortal? Most people I’ve talked to about it don’t want to.
People think that if they could achieve immortality, they would live in the world as old men. Nobody wants that. However, scientists are working to make us infinitely young, not infinitely old. In any case, it will be optional. Everyone will be able to die if they want to. In fact, even for an immortal person, death will continue to lurk around every corner. Unfortunately, accidents will probably always happen, and murders and suicides will probably still happen.
Will immortality with the help of medical technology be possible even for people who live unhealthy lives, drink alcohol, smoke or use drugs?
Yes, because in the future we will live in the biological age of 20 to 25 years. At this age, the body is so strong that you can eat and drink practically anything and it will usually cope with it.
Do you believe in God?
I am primarily a scientist and a technically oriented person. I am open to anything that can be proven.
I ask in connection with the fact that religion and belief in the exclusive abilities of God or gods are one of the greatest certainties and stabilizing elements of humanity. How would immortality disrupt faith and religion?
The end of death can bring the end of religion because religion lives on death. And if you take death out of religious traditions, that’s a problem. Religions such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam talk about resurrection. But for that you need death. And Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism talk about reincarnation. But it also has to do with death.
Wouldn’t the possibility of immortality overpopulate the planet? Already today, the Earth is overcrowded in many parts.
Like I said, there will still be violent death and accidents, and a lot of people may not want to live long. Moreover, in many developed countries the population is now stabilizing or declining. By the end of the century, the total world population should also decline. Anyway, this fear of overpopulation has been around since the beginning of time. People have always said that there are too many people and not enough resources. More than 200 years ago, the British economist Thomas Robert Malthus said that there are a million people living in London and no more people can live here. And look today. London has a population of 10 million, which is roughly the same as the population of England at the time. I think there can be many more people living on the planet.
According to UN estimates, at the peak of population growth in the 1980s, there will be just over 10 billion people on Earth. Some scientists estimate that the planet could support a few billion more, but we would have to change our behavior, especially in relation to the environment.
We have a brain, which is by far the most complex known structure in the known universe, and artificial intelligence will improve our capabilities even further. Furthermore, immortality changes our thinking. We don’t care much about the environment now because we expect to die one day. But if we can live here even in hundreds of years, we will want to live on a clean planet and we will take more care of the environment.
Politics, or dictators, will also change. When a dictator knows that he can live a very long time and his enemies can try to overthrow him and make his life miserable for a very long time, he will be more moderate. I think that the longer we live, the more peaceful and tolerant humanity will be.
However, there is still a lot of conflict on Earth and enemies are still killing each other. Investments in armaments are huge.
In historical context, however, it is improving. Every human death is a tragedy, but today it cannot be compared to the number of people who died in, for example, Vietnam, not to mention two world wars. In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, psychology professor Steven Pinker discusses this, saying that violence in the world has decreased and we have never been more tolerant and behaved more morally than we are now. Today we live in the most peaceful period in human history. It’s the best time to be alive yet. And that is also thanks to the fact that we are between the last mortal generation and the first immortal generation.
He was born in Venezuela to refugees who fled Spain from the Franco regime. He studied engineering and economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the USA, and has a doctorate in interdisciplinary science. He worked as a consultant for oil companies BP, Chevron Texaco or ExxonMobil. He later embarked on an academic career. For example, he taught at the NASA research center at Singularity University or at the Institute of Development Economies IDE – JETRO in Japan. He is the vice-chairman of the Humanity Plus educational organization, a member of the World Academy of Arts and Sciences and is active in a number of other organizations.