Aging as Error Accumulation

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Aging is intuitively a departure of the body from a state of normality which may be termed the healthy state. Of course, aging is not the only means of effecting this departure – it must contend with the effects of disease, toxins, radiation and generally any event which leads to somatic/genetic damage which interferes with biochemical function. A healthy state can be imagined as a body configuration which reduces on the finest level to a correct pattern of atoms or pattern of interaction of atoms. The fraction of healthy states is insignificant relative to the totality of states which may be termed unhealthy (disease, aging and death etc.). This is intimately linked to the second law of thermodynamics and means that energy must be continually expended to maintain the body within the relatively narrow boundary of healthy states.  

The formulation of aging as a manifestation of unhealthy states which resolve to  incorrect patterns of atoms or atomic interactions is in keeping with the SENS program which interprets aging as the result of seven types of damage accumulation (the Seven Deadly Things). The two interpretations express the same idea.

A slight departure from the formulation of aging as damage accumulation is the consideration of aging as error accumulation. The difference is not merely formal. The replacement of the word damage by error has the effect of aiding us in perceving aging from the perspective of information theory – its proper environment.

A convenient consequence of the kinship between aging, disease, and death is that technology compatible with addressing the aging problem will find application in the correction of the disease and the reversal of death.

What is Life Extension?

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What is life extension? The term is employed in various ways which obliges a slender clarification. Firstly, it is often used as a shorthand for life extension science (more formally known as biomedical gerontology) – the science devoted to attaining indefinite longevity. Secondly, it denotes the longevity which constitutes the objective of life extension science. Thirdly, it sometimes refers to the increase in average human lifespan already achieved by improvements in medical practice and technology. Lastly, it can also refer to the various movements geared towards the dissemination of knowledge on the feasibility and desirability of indefinite longevity.

Life extension intuitively connotes something radical and new. As the scientific pursuit of indefinite longevity, life extension makes a legitimate claim to radicalism. However, if life extension is framed generally as an assault on any event which shortens the human lifespan, then it loses its novelty. In the latter sense, ever since man gained respect for germ theory, implemented systematic hand washing and hygiene; ever since man made use of antiseptics, antibiotics and vaccines, he has practiced life extension. It is no statistical anomaly that the advent of the industrial revolution saw a sudden and unprecedented increase in the average life expectancy – largely the result of the attenuation in infant mortality rates emanating from technological and societal implementations afforded by the revolution (systemic hygiene, sewers, central heating, clean drinking water, more food, cheaper clothing, more hospitals, antibiotics, vaccines etc.). These fundamental amenities and practices along with continual advances in surgery and diagnostic and therapeutic technology have undoubtedly led to an astounding increase in the average life expectancy. But changes in the maximum lifespan have been less significant (if not nil) – a situation further complicated by the paucity of historical support for long-lived persons (for there has never been a dearth of extraordinary claims to longevity; a fact which modernity greets with appropriate skepticism). Some biogerontologist speculate that the maximum human life span is somewhere in the region of 125 years and may even be under evolutionary prescription. Jeanne Calment, the oldest person on historical record, lived to 122 years, 164 day.

The fact that aging is the primary (and seemingly the only inevitable) mode of death has resulted in a necessary particularization of the general life extension agenda to an assault on aging. In this sense, life extension refers to anticipated technology and is interchangeable with biomedical gerontology. In the realm of medical technology, we have undoubtedly gone far; but not far enough, and the inevitable next stage in health care is the dawn of radical life extension. Life extension, as the scientific pursuit of indefinite longevity, is sometimes referred to as radical life extension to differentiate it from increases in average lifespan achieved under existing systems of medical policy, practice and technology. All these policies and technologies have the fundamental commonality that they systemically seek to treat the symptoms of aging. Radical life extension is predicated on a substantially different philosophy – the bold objective of annihilating aging itself.

It verges on tragedy that we pump billions of dollars annually into the elimination of the symptoms of old age – cardiovascular disease, atherosclerosis, hypertension, cancer, type II diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease – yet tackling the root of the problem – aging – seems taboo. It is driven by a attitude which preaches “good” but eschews “better” and “the best”. Such illogically must have part of its origin in what Aubrey de Grey termed the pro-aging trancethe impulsion to leap to embarrassingly unjustified conclusions in order to put the horror of aging out of one’s mind.

The principle technologies by which aging elimination is expected to be achieved are stem cell research, tissue engineering, organ replacement, genetic modification and molecular repair nanotechnology – with molecular repair nanotechnology representing the most revolutionary form of life extending technology. An important safeguard against death before the advent of or access to life extending technology is cryonic preservation. Cryonics is therefore indispensable to the life extension agenda and it is not surprising to find that a number of life extensionists are also cryonicists.

It would be remiss to speak about life extension without commenting on its moral aspect. Life extension, as indefinite longevity, represents the moral imperative of rendering the human lifespan – in so far as it is possible – a matter of choice. No apologies can be made for that fact. In its defense one need resort to no sophistries of argumentation. The fundamental moral principle of life extension is the right to life – which is accompanied by no clause on the duration of that life. A corollary of the right to life is the right to the highest quality of life one has access to or can afford. A necessary requirement of a quality life is health. Life extension therefore represents the rendering of a person’s health a matter of choice in so far as it is possible. It is inconceivable that a person’s demand for good health violates any moral principles or that a person’s desire for an indefinite health span challenges any moral proscription.

Those who proclaim the inevitability and even the utility of death are pitiable in so far as they represent victims of centuries of subjugation and have acquired sympathy for the oppressor. It is also an affront to human ingenuity and antithetical to the human spirit that man should entertain the notion of death as a solution to overpopulation – a Malthusian pessimism which has no place in the 21st century. To pronounce that no effects would issue from the implementation of life extension technology would be to play the charlatan as the injection of any great technology into society is bound to create a momentary disequilibrium. Whatever problems may emanate from human life extension, I am convinced that they are not beyond the ingenuity of man and are small relative to life extension as a supreme benefit and moral imperative.

A fundamental objective of life extension is the advent of the Methuselarity – a term coined by Aubrey de Grey to refer the point in our progress against aging at which our rational expectation of the age to which we can expect to live without age-related physiological and cognitive decline goes from the low three digits to infinite. A related concept is The Longevity Escape Velocity – also coined by de Grey – which refers to a threshold in life extension which would allow us to deplete the levels of all types of damage more rapidly than they are accumulating.

I unreservedly proclaim that the advent of radical life extension – in the form of the Methuselarity – will represent a turning point in history. Time shall be severed in two – before and after the Methuselarity. I anticipate that the attainment of the Methuselarity will be accompanied by an economic climate which will place as much emphasis on the dispersal of life extending technology as its further improvement. This will culminate in a spatial homogenization of medical technology and will herald the beginning of the end of medicine as the very technology which affords the realization of life extension (molecular repair nanotechnology) will be compatible with the efficient elimination of pathogens, detoxification, and general repair of bodily damage even in extreme situations such as high-dose whole-body irradiation, 3rd and 4th degree burns and decapitation. I also envision artificial augmentation of the immune system through recombinant DNA technology and the seamless integration of nanobots into our biochemistry (see Freitas’ microbivore).

The same technology will also permit the reanimation of patients who have undergone cryonic preservation – the only safeguard against death before the advent of or access to life extending technology.

True to its inexhaustible generality of application, molecular nanotechnology in the form of molecular assemblers (a technology which will most definitely emerge concurrently with the quality of molecular repair technology suitable for radical life extension) will transform the rules of economic exchanges and the very spirit of social relations by ushering an age of plenty.

The post-Methuselarity will also place a premium on the value of life and will incite our enthusiasm to engineer a safe society. In the absence of death by aging and disease, simple statistical analysis predicts a median lifespan of 1200 years for a 12-year-old and a maximum of 25,000 years (with a probability of one-in-a-billion). In a safe society, the average and maximum human lifespan are unimaginable.

What is Aging?

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Masoro, in the Handbook of Physiology, defines aging as deteriorative changes with time during post-maturational life that underlie an increasing vulnerability to challenges, thereby decreasing the ability of the organism to survive. This is contrary to the perception of aging as an extension of development – a viewpoint which Aubrey de Grey appropriately denounces in his assertion that aging is not an extension of development but a decay.

The inevitability of aging is often pronounced on the basis that aging is universal. Not only is this inference flawed but more importantly, the premise itself is invalid. The universality of aging is a careless conjecture as there a number of organisms which do not display increasing vulnerability to challenges with chronological age. These organisms are said to be negligibly senescent and include the jellyfish Turritopsis dohrnii, tardigrades, bacteria (at the colony level), hydra, lobsters and planarian flatworms. The strategy by which Turritopsis dohrnii achieves negligible senescence – transdifferentiation – is particular impressive. When confronted by environmental stress, physical stress, sickness and aging, the T. dohrnii adult/medusa employs transdifferentiation to revert to the youthfulness of its polyp stage.  This amazing feat has gained it the title of immortal jellyfish (for in the absence of predation and disease, the process of transdifferentiation may proceed indefinitely).

Aging in humans is not merely a physiological event but is simultaneously a psychological and social phenomenon. Though not the explicit purview of biomedical gerontology, the psychological and social dimensions of aging are not beyond the concern of the life extensionist. The psychological dimension comprises the alterations that occur in sensory processes, perception, cognitive capacity, adaptability and personality. The social aspect refers to an individual’s changing roles and relationships with family, friends, and community as well as changing productive roles within organizations such as the workplace.

Biomedical gerontology is aptly fixated on the biological aspect of aging and pays little attention to its psychological and social dimensions since the eradication of aging as a biological phenomenon naturally annihilates it as a psychological and social reality. There is however a noteworthy concern that the elimination of the biological aspect of aging does not necessarily translate to an elimination of its psychological effects as the mental exhaustion and existential ennui of long life may persist even after rejuvenation. Assuming their legitimacy, such concerns may be addressed by technological developments in the science of brain aging (especially that related to microscale connectomics) as well as modulations of societal institutions to accommodate radically augmented lifespans. It is also likely that the variety of experiences afforded by future technology may effectively nullify the relevance of the “ennui” argument.

Why Gilgamesh?

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The Epic of Gilgamesh relates the legend of the Sumerian warrior-king Gilgamesh – two thirds god and one third mortal – who after much heroic adventure with his trusty companion Enkidu is vicariously confronted with his own mortality through the death of Enkidu (who is ordained to die by divine edict for having participated in the sacrilegious killing of the Bull of Heaven).

After an extended mourning (during which he fastens onto the corpse of Enkidu), he embarks on a perilous quest in search of immortality through communion with Utnapishtim (the Babylonian counterpart of Biblical Noah), who has been granted immortality by the gods.

Utnapishtim informs him that his desire for immortality cannot be granted for immortality is the prerogative of the gods (even though Utnapishtim himself was made immortal by the selfsame gods). He nevertheless bequeaths Gilgamesh with a parting gift by telling him that the elixir of life – which will rejuvenate Gilgamesh (but not render him immortal according to my interpretation) – grows at the bottom of a certain river.

Gilgamesh does find the elixir of life, in the form of a plant, but loses it to a serpent. He returns to Uruk bearing the consolation that his path to immortality lies in the erection of monumental works.

Gilgamesh is thus the prototype of the hero who embarks on the quest for immortality.

In the heavily Christianized Western society, the notion of life extension is likely to evoke the image of Methuselah – the biblical patriarch reputed to have lived the extraordinary long life of 969 years. Despite his longevity, Methuselah cannot lend his name to the Project as he fails to embody the desire for life which defines Project Gilgamesh – he is a ready-made.

Tithonus, too, may be summoned in those minds learned in a little Greek mythology but he fails miserably for he is the abominable specter of “failed life extension” and the tragic emblem of an obstinate error in the public perception of life extension which has acquired the name: the Tithonus error.

Ponce de León, except for his want of antiquity, would have been an ideal candidate. Fact or fiction – the image of a Spanish conquistador scouring the Americas in search for the Fountain of Youth is certainly a powerful emblem for the cause of life extension.

The quest commissioned by Quin Shi Huang’s in search of the Elixir of Life also deserves an honorable mention.

Sisyphus’ outmaneuvering of death, Orpheus’ descent into and return from Tartarus, Herakles’ defeat of Death in the tale of Alcestis, Asclepius’ resurrection of the dead, the Phoenix’s eternal return from the ashes of its predecessor, and the legend of the Wandering Jew (who is punished with immortality for taunting Christ under the weight of the cross), all evoke quintessential themes of life, death, resurrection and/or immortality.

But no story captures the spirit of antiquity, the tragedy of the death, the intense meditation on the meaning of life, and the relentless pursuit and desire for immortality as that of the redoubtable Gilgamesh.

Against the recommendation of Aubrey de Grey, I persisted with the title Project Gilgamesh primarily for the reason advanced above. True, the invocation of Gilgamesh in the title of anything life extension related is clichéd but the appropriateness of the use overrides its banality.

True, Gilgamesh failed. The gods denied him his object. But what of it? We, children of Gilgamesh, live in a new age – an age of infinite scientific possibilities. Where our father failed, we must succeed.

How I Joined the Life Extension Movement

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The impression of immortality – both as an existential yearning and scientific possibility – has never been alien to me. But the explicit recognition that I wanted immortality – or more so that I wanted indefinite longevity – crystallized in the middle of my first year as an undergraduate student at the University of the West Indies. I was twenty-one.

The motivation for my desiring indefinite longevity adopted the form of the idiosyncratic and irrational fear of walking among the bookshelves of the university library – a fear that I had felt for a long time (in smaller libraries) but which became particularly pronounced during my visits to the university library. I have always known the modus operandi of that fear.

The library, not merely a vast repository of knowledge, was a taunting exhibition of my ignorance. What I knew was intolerably insignificant relative to the worlds of knowledge bound up in the totality of books.

It was not so much that my knowledge was incomplete (an inexorable fact) but that my understanding had not attained the heights which I presumed it capable of scaling. I also knew that my expected life span was insufficient to amass the knowledge and understanding which would permit me my goal of seeing the universe stripped down to the fundamentality of its nakedness.

One night, after a particularly uncomfortable visit to the library, I sat down and acknowledged that the only means to such an end was the realization of radical life extension.

That very night I set out to discover whether any scientist or research facility was engaged in work on life extension science. I confess that I half expected to find life extension in the disreputable state of a mere curiosity or fringe science.

Fortunately, my immediate discovery of the work of British biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey dispelled any doubts as to the scientific feasibility of life extension. De Grey’s views on life extension resonated with my own intuitions and I quickly perceived his SENS program as the foundation upon which I wanted to build by own assault on aging.

The SENS program is bold and unapologetic, clearly formulated, scientifically cogent, morally grounded, and eloquently articulated – characteristics reflective of de Grey himself.

A defining feature of SENS is its recognition of aging as the result of a process of damage accumulation intimately tied to metabolism – a view which I share, notwithstanding the insights offered by programmed theories of aging with which it can find some reconciliation.

What is Project Gilgamesh?

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Project Gilgamesh, formally established on 3rd May 2014, is an initiative devoted to educating the public about radical life extension and cryonics as scientific possibilities and moral imperatives. Before the blog, Project Gilgamesh took the form of face-to-face presentations delivered among a cadre of friends and to anyone with interest in an introduction to life extension and/or cryonics. The scope and impact of Project Gilgamesh was therefore very limited. With the Project Gilgamesh blog, it is anticipated that the message of Project Gilgamesh will reach and resonate with an international audience.

The content of the first twenty-six or so posts of the Project Gilgamesh blog will be taken from an unpublished founding document of Project Gilgamesh titled Project Gilgamesh: A Manifesto. As such, these initial posts will serve not only as an introduction to life extension and cryonics, but as an expression of the particular views of Project Gilgamesh on these subjects and the research philosophy that should underlie their scientific development. Subsequent blog posts will place more emphasis on disseminating a critical outlook on the diversity of research initiatives and strategies (and their underlying theories) dedicated to the objective of indefinite longevity.

Project Gilgamesh is heavily influenced by the theoretical foundations of the SENS program advanced by British biomedical gerontologist Aubrey de Grey. The SENS program is arguably the most formidable assault on the aging problem in terms of its theoretical basis, clarity of vision and motivating philosophy. Particularly indispensable to the SENS approach is its perception of aging as the result of seven types of damage accumulation – a perspective fully endorsed by Project Gilgamesh. Project Gilgamesh also shares the SENS belief that the requisite theoretical knowledge for the realization of radical life extension has already been worked out. As Dr. de Grey has often expressed, aging elimination is not so much a theoretical problem as it is a technical one. This is not to underestimate the intractability of the aging problem but rather to highlight its difficulty as stemming much more from a lack of refinement in our engineering strategies than in a poverty of our theoretical understanding.

Beyond its reliance on the SENS program, Project Gilgamesh makes certain propositions which may constitute its uniqueness, namely: the importance of protein design and drug delivery systems as precursors for cancer nanomedicine and cancer nanomedicine itself as a prototype for molecular repair technology, the Policy of Minimum Interference, the potential indispensability of microscale connectomics to the problem of the aging brain, the Virtual Physiological Human (and related initiatives) as potentially expedient to the life extension agenda, and an explanation of the inefficacy of telomerase therapy. Project Gilgamesh is also informed by the theories of programmed death and evolutionary considerations of maximum organismal life span.