Compliments of BBC
“Within the next 30 years,” promises Dmitry Itskov, “I am going to make sure that we can all live forever.”
It sounds preposterous, but there is no doubting the seriousness of this softly spoken 35-year-old, who says he left the business world to devote himself to something more useful to humanity. “I’m 100% confident it will happen. Otherwise I wouldn’t have started it,” he says.
It is a breathtaking ambition, but could it actually be done? Itskov doesn’t have too much time to find out.
“If there is no immortality technology, I’ll be dead in the next 35 years,” he laments. Death is inevitable – currently at least – because as we get older the cells that make up our bodies lose their ability to repair themselves, making us vulnerable to cardiovascular disease and other age-related conditions that kill about two-thirds of us.
So Itskov is putting a slice of his fortune in to a bold plan he has devised to bypass ageing. He wants to use cutting-edge science to unlock the secrets of the human brain and then upload an individual’s mind to a computer, freeing them from the biological constraints of the body.
“The ultimate goal of my plan is to transfer someone’s personality into a completely new body,” he says.
Itskov’s interest in making the impossible possible began as a child in the Soviet Union in the 1980s. “My biggest dream was to be a cosmonaut, to fly in to outer space,” he says. One science fiction novel made a lasting impression: “The hero took some immortality pill and he ended up flying the orbit of Earth. I remember myself questioning what I was going to do if I’m immortal.”
But does his plan to allow us all to upload our minds to computers amount to anything more than sci-fi? The scientific director of Itskov’s 2045 Initiative, Dr Randal Koene – a neuroscientist who worked as a research professor at Boston University’s Center for Memory and Brain – laughs off any suggestion Itskov might have lost touch with reality.
“All of the evidence seems to say in theory it’s possible – it’s extremely difficult, but it’s possible,” he says. “So then you could say someone like that is visionary, but not mad because that implies you’re thinking of something that’s just impossible, and that’s not the case.”
The theoretical possibility Randal refers to is rooted in questions about how our brains work that neuroscience has yet to answer. Our brains are made up of about 86 billion neurons, connected cells that send information to each other by firing electrical charges that propagate through this organ in our skulls like waves.
But exactly how the brain generates our mind is a mystery like no other in science, according to the neurobiologist Prof Rafael Yuste of Columbia University. “The challenge is precisely how to go from a physical substrate of cells that are connected inside this organ, to our mental world, our thoughts, our memories, our feelings,” he says.