The desirability of living forever



Two weeks back, I read this most amazing article in The Times Of India’s international news page. It spoke of a scientist claiming that those who live for another twenty odd years might actually go on to live forever. The scientist, Ray Kurzweil, has been dubbed by none other than Bill Gates as the smartest futurist on earth. So when he speaks, you listen. As per Ray, in another twenty years, science would probably invent ways to re-programme our bodies and thereby reverse the ageing process; and then nano-technology would let us live forever! Already, ‘submarines’ called nanobots, no larger than even blood cells, 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 should ultimately replace blood cells in human bodies and help the body work thousands of times more efficiently! Thus, in effect, what it could mean is that people who are currently aged around sixty years and who will on an average live for about 80 years could expect to 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!

This thought can be very, very exciting as well be very, very depressing! From the moment I read about the issue, I have been debating with everyone around on the good and the bad of it! That’s why we thought our readers must get a holistic view of the entire debate because such an issue requires a 360 degrees analysis! And in my own little way, here's what I think of it...

My first reaction was, of course, not as futuristic as the prediction. I don’t want to live forever. 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 the future has 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 only because of death. Having seen the death of my younger brother when he was only 20 years old, I felt that I would have never known the importance of people close to us had it not been for his death. Ever since then, the fear of losing people close to me has driven my life. 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? Would it not be simply 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 in 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 every detailed gene, even the brain structure; which would in effect mean that we could have the same man with the same feelings again even if the person were to die by accident because his brain details have been stored and could be reproduced; thus, in a way, guaranteeing immortality! The same scientist I mentioned above goes on to state that nano-technology will extend our mental capacities to such an extent that we should be able to write books within minutes. The same technology will help us go into a virtual reality mode where nanobots will shut our brain signals and take us to 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 up in our brains explaining what’s happening around and human being will become cyborgs with artificial limbs and organs.

That does sound scary, doesn’t it? I mean, if human beings are going to have their bodies programmed and run through nanobots, instead of blood cells, then what’s the difference between us and robots? And who the hell wants to live like robots? Instead of living for 80 years, if I were to live for 8,00,000 years – assuming no accidents were to kill me by then and all diseases had been taken care of by advancements in science – would there be any charm left of living? Wouldn’t the sole aim of living then be to seek pleasure? Would not we be forced to go back to the days of survival of the fittest in an over crowded 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 be able to feel as lovingly and passionately for your great great great great great great great great...grandson as you could 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 away anywhere soon; and being youthful, you would anyway be less dependent on him? These questions kept haunting me... and I was surely bending towards the not wanting to live forever!

In the last forty years or so, urban Indians, on an average, have increased their life spans from 40 to 80. If we were to start living on an average for 250 years about 250 years later – or 8,00,000 years about 8,00,000 years later, whichever is the case – I am sure living that long would have become an easy process as we would have gotten used to actually living that long by then. But not if we were to start living thousands of years longer in just another twenty years. The earth and science wouldn’t have yet discovered ways to adapt to this new reality that fast. These were the words with which I was debating with my brother-in-law, Prashanto Bannerjee, whose columns you regularly enjoy in this magazines lifestyle section. Prashanto was vehemently for the idea of living forever. While he thought we had so much to see, I thought life’s happiness was in our close people; and after a point, the Swiss, Italian and French countryside all look similar. The point is not about seeing more and seeking more and more endless pleasures, but about spending more and more meaningful time with people you love! I wasn’t really keen on going to Mars to see how the planet looks like! Given a choice, I said, I would have preferred to live for about 120 years or so healthily, and then to take a pill that could peacefully put me to rest forever...

And that was it! I had not realised that while this debate went on fiercely in our drawing room on the day of Navami this year, my son, who was born on another Navami nine years back, had been 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 will become inhuman robots? We will be different. We will remain as loving and caring,” – just what Prashanto also was emphasizing, saying that “we don’t love anyone for the fear of losing him or her. We love because we love – and we will all stay together like this forever...” Seeing him almost in a breakdown stage, I wrapped up our debate and said, “Well, I will take the pill to live forever for him!”

Maybe that day, I still took my son less seriously and said those words to finish the debate. But the days that followed have changed my thinking completely. Because ever since that night, the only thing that has bothered my son day and night has been the fear that I may not be willing to live forever. The fear that his grandparents whom he passionately loves may not live for another twenty years to take advantage of this scientific advancement – he has gone on to convince himself that if my dad’s mom could live for 92 years, then my dad too could live that long and take advantage of the same – has been haunting him (My father, incidentally, is 72 years old; and mother, younger still).

Thus, despite being convinced at this point of time that living forever might mean immortality of man, and surely also the death of ‘human beings’, seeing the love for all of us in my son’s eyes, 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 are science and medicines about? They’re about discovering ways to prolong life and destroy diseases. So while we laud every medical advancement that helps us to live a little longer, would not the achievement of finding ways to live forever be 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 do I want to die, my answer would easily be definitely after my parent’s death – as I can’t bear the thought of them living to see another death – and ideally, after my son was adult enough to live life without me. So the answer in effect is we live for others. And if my son who loves me the most thinks I must live with him forever, I will want to live with him forever. And wait for life to show how to live.

And that precisely is what this issue aims to do. It aims to answer futuristic questions on the earth's limits. The desirability of living forever! The consequences of living forever – like, do we stop having children to save this earth or have children in a ration system only when someone dies in an accident? We delve deeper into questions like the relevance of God and religion if man were to become immortal. What are the new laws that will govern Earth where human beings are immortal? Immortality can lead to a crazy population explosion causing unbelievable harm to the environment, if births are not controlled by law. At the same time, would countries then encourage wars to have more deaths? We also look at some entertaining questions like what would happen to superstars? If SRK were to live forever and Big B were to become the same angry young man again, then would there be place for new superstars? All in all, we hope you enjoy reading this issue as much we enjoyed thinking of it and creating it! Because human existence hasn’t had a bigger breaking news ever!!!

Blurb 1: In effect, people who are 60 years of age and who can expect to live till 80 years can go on to live forever.

Blurb 2: Isn't living forever the ultimate scientific discovery? Isn't that the ultimate goal of medical practice?

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