There is a tipping point at which science fiction becomes science. Once, concepts such as space travel or a pocket computer containing all the known information in the universe seemed fantastical. So perhaps even immortality is closer than we realise. Some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs certainly think so, anyway. And, as the technology reporter and psychologist Aleks Krotoski points out, “When the tech industry gets interested in something, they will do anything to make it happen.”
The Immortals tracks longevity research, from vampire myths to a global industry worth $25bn, and tries to separate reality from hype. We meet a colourful cast of scientists, doctors, tech-bros and eager patients: from the husband and wife team who stitched an old mouse to a young mouse and discovered the rejuvenating potential of young blood way back in 2005, to Bryan Johnson, the multimillionaire tech entrepreneur who earlier this year injected himself and his 70-year-old father with his teenaged son’s blood plasma. There’s a biotech founder who is out to “hack” the way regulators consider anti-ageing drugs, plus a community of AI evangelists who believe we can reach “longevity escape velocity”: the speed of technological progress that will enable humans to pause the process of growing older long enough to find cures for age-related conditions like cancer and dementia, theoretically empowering us to cheat death altogether.
Krotoski invites us to be sceptical. One episode focuses on the charismatic founder of a clinic (now shut down), which sold anti-ageing plasma infusions, who suggested the treatment “comes pretty close” to providing immortality but never released the data to back up his claims. But she also presses us to engage with the practical, legal and ethical implications of lifespans increasing dramatically. Will we merge with artificial intelligence and become “post-human”? What would an elite class of billionaire immortals do to society? And, when it comes down to it, do we really want to live forever anyway?
[See also: Can we live forever?]
This article appears in the 06 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Crumbling Britain