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The goodness of doctors, the greatness of medical science and the desirability of living forever!

10 January 2013 | Most Popular Articles

My brother-in-law and friend, Prashanto’s mother couldn’t make it, after the burn injuries she suffered during Diwali (refer to my December 13, 2012 editorial At 74, her body gave up after a fight of more than 50 days. And it was a life well lived. Yes, we always have a slightly better view of life on hindsight. I got to think of three key things today that I want to share.

The first being about the goodness of doctors. Yes, I still believe doctors in general have fallen down to almost being merchants of death (refer to one of my past editorials and I also have had pharmaceutical company heads telling me stories about the doctor junkets they propagate in the garb of ‘seminars’, about how crudely doctors behave after getting sloshed over drinks and how each one is there seemingly only to make money. And yet, at the same time, the fact is that for all such doctors, we also have a set of amazing human beings who choose this profession selflessly to make a difference to the lives of fellow human beings; who are pillars of positivity and who day after day bring in the same passion selflessly to cure unknown human beings, as if they were of their own blood. Having seen the destruction of mega-killers like plague, my grandmother wanted my father to become a doctor so that he could save many a life. My father chose economics but always explained to me how tough it was to be a good doctor. He once said, “If a patient needs you at 2 am in the night and you don’t go, you are a bad doctor. And if you go, you are such a good doctor that everybody will remember you at 2 am and you will never be able to have a family life.” The fact is that there is no dearth of good doctors in this world, even in India, who work selflessly day and night (keeping themselves genuinely up to date with the latest research as well) at the cost of personal joys and family life – and not just to make money, but to spread happiness. And it was amazing to see some such doctors during Prashanto’s mother’s hospitalisation, keeping our faith in the profession alive.

The second thing I realized strongly was about the greatness of medical science. Ever since I took commerce in school and then went on to undertake my business management studies, I had always had this air of intellectual superiority over science graduates. Yes, they may understand less about economics, psychology and society, but the fact is that they are working tirelessly to make this society a better and happier place to live in. Yes, I did argue about the excesses of patents (in the first of my abovementioned editorials) but thanks to their R&D, we live in a better world where hope never dies. Till the last moment during the hospitalization of Prashanto’s mother, thanks to medical science and its progress, there was logical hope that remained in our hearts. And linked to this, I finally reached the same old question that I had raised once earlier with my readers, as well as with Prashanto in a personal space – the desirability of living forever and how that is the ultimate goal of medical science. That’s the question I want to leave my readers with today!

The near fact of life now is that those of us who live for another twenty odd years might actually go on to live forever (or at least very, very long). And it’s not me telling this. It’s Ray Kurzweil telling it. Kurzweil has been dubbed by none other than Bill Gates as the smartest futurist on earth. When Ray speaks, you listen. According to him, in another twenty years, science would probably invent ways to reprogramme our bodies and thereby reverse the ageing process; and then, nanotechnology will let us live forever! Already, blood cell sized submarines called nanobots are being tested on animals. And soon, they would be tested on human beings. These nanobots can be used to destroy tumors, unblock clots and perform operations without scars and will ultimately replace blood cells in human bodies and help the body work thousands of times more efficiently! In effect, what it could mean is that people who are around sixty years of age and who will on an average live for about 80 years could expect to possibly go on to live forever. Because once this technology starts working, it will reverse the process of ageing and then help human beings to remain in their mature youth form forever! The very thought can be very, very exciting, as well be very, very depressing! From the moment I read about this possibility, I have had many a debate with others on the good and the bad of it! In my own little way, here’s what I think of it...

My initial reaction was of course not as futuristic as the prediction. I don’t want to live forever, is what I thought. Why should I? Today, I get up in the morning and run behind my work, because somewhere inside there is a fear of death. So I have to do various things “before it’s too late”. I love people close to me that little extra, simply because I don’t know what is in store tomorrow! I come back home early and sit for dinner with my parents because they are old and I want to spend as much time with them. And I feel that life becomes life because of death. Having seen the death of my younger brother when he was only 20, I have felt since then that I would have never known the importance of people close to us had it not been for his death. And ever since then, the fear of losing people close to me has driven my life.

And then, there is the fear of utter boredom. What do you do in life if you were to live forever? Is there really so much to life? Wouldn’t it be boring to carry on living forever? Wouldn’t living become aimless? Would we have any reason to get up in the morning and do more and put more efforts when we know that there is no “time” that is running out? And of course, add to that the big question: Will we remain human beings at all? As it is, science has advanced to a stage where ultimately, in a few decades, we will be able to copy, store and clone human beings with their brains and every detailed gene, which would in effect mean that we can have the same man with the same feelings again, even if he dies by accident, because his brain details have been stored and can be reproduced; thus, in a way, guaranteeing immortality! The same scientist goes on to state that nanotechnology will extend our mental capacity so much that we should be able to write books within minutes. It will help us go into a virtual reality mode where nanobots will shut our brain signals and take us wherever we want to go. Virtual sex will become commonplace in our daily lives (immortality would most likely force us to look at unlimited sexual gratification – like in the primitive times – as one of the key motivations of living); hologram-like figures will pop into our brains to explain what’s happening and human beings will become cyborgs with artificial limbs and organs. That does sound scary, doesn’t it?

I mean, if human beings are not going to have blood cells in their bodies and their bodies would be programmed through nanobots, then what’s the difference between us and robots? Who the hell wants to live like robots? Instead of living for 80 years, if I was to live for 800 years or more – assuming no accidents were to kill me by then, and all diseases have been taken care of by advancements in science – would there be any charm left in living? Wouldn’t the sole aim of living then be seeking pleasure? Wouldn’t we be forced to go back to the days of survival of the fittest in an overcrowded world of immortals? And what about families and marriages? Would you really wish to stay with the same spouse for those many years? Would you still be able to feel as lovingly and passionately for your great great great great great great great great...grandson as you can for your own grandson? Would you even care about him? Wouldn’t your son actually stop caring about you since he knows you aren’t going anywhere and because, being youthful, you are also less dependent on him? In the last forty years, urban Indians on an average have increased their lifespan from 40 to 80 years. If, over the next few centuries, in the normal course of evolution, our lifespan were to increase organically (that is, without any radical, inorganic, external influence like nanotechnology) to 800 years, then I am sure it would’ve been an easy process as we would’ve gotten used to living that long by then. But not if we were to start living a hundred times longer in just another twenty years. Earth and science wouldn’t have yet discovered ways to adapt to this new reality that fast.

But Prashanto has always been vehemently for the idea of living forever. He believes we have so much to see. But I have always thought that life’s happiness was in our close people; and anyway, after a point, Switzerland, Italy and the French countryside, all look similar. The point, I believe, is not about seeing more and seeking more and more endless pleasure, but about spending more and more meaningful time with people you love! Personally speaking, I haven’t been someone really keen on going to Mars and seeing how it looks like! I remember having said to Prashanto during one of our debates on this topic that given a choice, I would prefer to live for about 120 years or so healthily, and then take a pill that could peacefully put me to rest forever. And that was it. However, one such day, while this debate was going on fiercely at my home, I didn’t realise that my son, who was 9 years old then, was listening all along. And he almost broke down. He said, “Papa why won’t you take the medicine that could help you live forever? What makes you think that we shall become inhuman robots? We shall be different. We shall remain as loving and caring...” Just what Prashanto also believed in... My son explained that we don’t love anyone for the fear of losing him or her. We love because we love – and we shall all stay together like this forever. Seeing him almost in a breakdown stage, I remember having wrapped up the debate by saying, “Well then, for him, I will take the pill to live forever.” Perchance that day, I still took him less seriously and said those words simply to finish the debate. But the days that followed, including this latest episode, where I saw the seemingly strong and unbreakable Prashanto break down so painfully today, have made me rethink my stance.

I remember that for many days after that day’s debate, the only thing that bothered my son was the fear that I may not be willing to live forever; and the fear that his grandparents, whom he passionately loves, may not live for another twenty years to take advantage of the monumental upcoming scientific advancement. Thus, at this point of time – despite being kind of convinced that living forever might mean immortality of man but probably the death of “human beings” – seeing in my son’s eyes the love for all of us everyday, seeing in Prashanto’s eyes the love for his mother, I am forced to think that the idea of living forever may not be that bad after all... If that’s how we are to evolve, then so be it! After all, what is science and medicine about? It’s about discovering ways to prolong life and destroy diseases. So while we laud every medical advancement that helps us live a little longer, shouldn’t living forever then be considered the ultimate scientific discovery? Isn’t that the ultimate goal for which medical practice has been striving for unknowingly? And most importantly, whom do we live for? If anyone were to ask me when I would want to die, my answer would easily be, definitely after my parents’ death – as I can’t bear the thought of them living to see another death – and ideally after my son was old enough to live life without me. So the answer in effect is that we live for others. And if my son, who loves me the most, thinks I must live with him forever, then I will want to live with him forever. And wait for life to show how to live.