Immortality: The cost of living forever

The allure of everlasting existence
Immortality: The cost of living forever

The allure of everlasting existence

Have you ever desired to live forever? Or maybe just 200 more years?

The concept of immortality has been around as long as people have been alive. Without getting too philosophical, there is some debate on what immortality actually means. Some believe eternal existence means that our conscious brains live on past the deterioration of our bodies. Others think it’s about postponing the aging process all together.

Technically, if the universe ends like scientists think it will, no one will ever be immortal. But that’s not stopping companies from going all in with anti-aging products and technologies that can keep us alive for much, much longer.

Immortality has also been seen as a ploy for the super rich and mighty to stay in power. But it’s not like everyone wants to live forever. “Life will lose meaning when you become immortal. You lack the urgency, the deadlines, the targets you place on yourself. You just lack a purpose,” Jane Njoroge, a health editor in Nairobi, told Quartz.

What would you do if death became more of a choice than an ultimatum? Let’s look at why everlasting life is so alluring—and why it might not be.

By the digits

108,988,552,251: Number of people who have died since the beginning of time

150,000: Number of people who die every day

385,000: Number of babies born every day

$610 billion: Estimated size of the immortality industry by 2025

969: Years Noah’s grandfather Methuselah lived, according to the Bible

300: Number of bodies frozen in liquid nitrogen in America in the hopes that science will one day bring them back to life

30,000: Years the Pithovirus sibericum virus spent in the permafrost before being revived

120: Age that some researchers expect people will live to in the future

30: Seconds before and after death during which unique brainwaves replay your life


“I mean, if 10 years from now, when you are doing something quick and dirty, you suddenly visualize that I am looking over your shoulders and say to yourself, ‘Dijkstra would not have liked this,’ well, that would be enough immortality for me.”

Dutch computer science pioneer Edsger Dijkstra, who designed and coded the first Algol 60 compiler

A statue of plato is shown with a pigeon sitting on its head. There's a big stone building in the background.
Photo: Milos Bicanski (Getty Images)

Who penned the Doctrine of the Immortality of the Soul?

A. Stephen Hawking

B. Aristotle

C. Plato

D. Socrates

Find the answer below!

An urge as old as time

Humanity’s quest to achieve immortality has been documented as early as the 3rd century BC, when Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang ingested mercury in the form of elixir poisoning to gain eternal life (spoiler: it didn’t go well). Instead of boosting longevity, these elixirs shortened lives and led to painful deaths. At least five power-hungry Chinese emperors died because of elixirs meant to help them rule forever.

The arguments for and against immortality can get pretty metaphysical. In the final argument of his book Phaedo (pdf), or On the Soul, Greek philosopher Plato recounts the last hours of Socrates’s life. Plato concluded that the soul is most like an intelligible being, and that the body is most like a perceptible and perishable being. He believed that after a person has died, the soul still possesses some power and wisdom.

But there’s a scientific element woven into the idea of eternal life too. There’s evidence that slowing or pausing the aging process could happen in the near future, and that advances in biology and medicine will allow us to extend our lives far beyond our current life expectancy.

Today, people like Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page are leading that quest. They heavily invested in Calico, a medical anti-aging research venture, and Amazon chairman Jeff Bezos has thrown his weight behind technologies aimed at conquering aging and defeating death. Last February, Bezos backed a startup called Altos Labs, which recruited GlaxoSmithKline’s top scientist Hal Barron as its CEO. The startup secured more than $3 billion in funding.

Fun fact!

One species of jellyfish, the Turritopsis dohrnii, is immortal. It reverses its life cycle through transdifferentiation, converting one type of cell into another, from old age back into a juvenile form.

Brief history 

2100-1200 BC: The poem Epic of Gilgamesh details a quest for both physical and mental immortality.

3rd century BC: Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang ingests mercury to live forever, but dies instead.

1492: Pope Innocent VIII reportedly gets injected with blood from children to keep spry.

16th century: Diane de Poitiers, supposedly the most beautiful woman in France, drinks gold to stay youthful.

1940: The movie Experiments in the Revival of Organisms documents Soviet research into resurrecting dead animals.

1951: Henrietta Lacks dies of cervical cancer, and her malignant cells are cultured and used to start a cell line, called HeLa, which lives on to this day in research labs around the world.

2000: The global human life expectancy is 66.8 years.

2019: The global human life expectancy increases to 73.4 years.

Watch this!

A person moves their hand toward a glowing orb.
Screenshot: YouTube

Craving a never-ending movie night? Quartz put together a trailer playlist of six films that deal with the concept of immortality, from heroes who can’t die, to women who’d do anything to stay young. In each film, immortality derives from different sources: potions, accidents, birthright, and even a magic water spring. For some characters, immortality is the absence of aging. For others, it is a regenerative process. What all these stories have in common is the understanding that immortality is more of a curse than a blessing.

Take me down this 🐰 hole!

While immortality is still out of reach, the truth is, we’ve never been closer to achieving it.

Last month, British biologist and technologist Dr. Andrew Steele published a book that details how possible it is to live beyond 100 years, arguing that within the next decade, developments in senolytics will birth a new era where there will be “no kind of absolute cap on how long we can live.”

Senolytics—or drugs that work to eliminate cells that degrade tissue function—are already showing promising results and could become available on the market within the next decade. In such a scenario, senescent cells, which are responsible for aging, would be killed and eliminated from the body. As the human immune system ages, senescent cells accumulate and taint healthy cells leading to our ability to fight diseases and degradation of our cognitive abilities. By suppressing these cells, Steele believes, human life span can be extended to 200 years.

Even after death, technology has expanded our interaction with the deceased, allowing people to posthumously send videos or chat with friends and family. Surviving loved ones can interact with a dead person’s customized voice avatar via a smart speaker, mobile or desktop app, and it responds, through Alexa-like voice recognition technology. Pixelup, a photo AI generator app, allows users to “bring dead people back to life” by editing their old photos into live videos.

Oh and then there’s the metaverse. Russian billionaire Dmitry Itskov is running the 2045 Initiative to make it possible to, uh, live as an immortal holographic avatar. If it sounds a lot like San Junipero, it basically is. What Itskov calls “cybernetic immortality” will be achieved by uploading his brain to a computer.

Cast members of the movie Tuck Everlasting are shown at a movie premier.
Photo: Jim Ruymen (Reuters)

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Today’s email was written by Faustine Ngila and edited and produced by Morgan Haefner.

The correct answer to the pop quiz is C., Plato. Plato was the first scholar to create and advance the theory of the Doctrine of the Immortality of the Soul. Plato argued that the soul is immortal and separate from the body. He believed the soul was eternal, and it doesn’t come into existence with the body, it exists prior to being joined to the body.