How far can we extend our lifespan?

Meet the Genetic Scientist Extending life Expectancy

Russian-born Maria Konovalenko is one of the most visible faces at work in the pro-longevity community today. A zealous advocate for the fight against human ageing and a PhD scientist and researcher at the trailblazing Buck Institute in California, her ultimate goal is to use advances in science and technology to help people live the longest, healthiest lives they possibly can.

Her ethos – that ageing and dying should be seen as diseases that humanity can work together to cure – challenges everything we understand about natural life cycles. It also hints at the possibilities that lie ahead for radical human lifespan extension – an extra 30 years in her lifetime, she conservatively estimates, then rapidly up to 200, 300. Beyond that, lies the rather more distant goal of human immortality.

Maria at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato, California, credit Damien Maloney

VICE: Can you give me a broad overview what youre up to currently?

Maria K: I’m in the third year of my PhD in Biology of Aging, set up by USC and the Buck Institute, the leading organisations in the field. I became a student here in the programme’s first year – so basically it started with us, we’re the guinea pigs. I feel incredibly privileged. I’m focusing on ageing and stem cells in mouse tracheas – we’re trying to figure out which genes are responsible for the failure of tissue to replenish itself.

With the emergence of things like the Google-funded Calico Labs, would you say theres been a more concerted push to understand the secrets of immortality in recent years?

Not immortality. We’re way off that. What we’re looking at now are the basic mechanisms that drive ageing, figuring out why our bodies lose their regenerative potential over time. Some people are answering different questions – for example, why do we develop neurodegenerative pathologies, like Alzheimer’s? We’re all looking at different mechanisms and then trying to interfere with them to slow down ageing. You can extend the lifespan of a worm ten times – that’s unbelievable! – but when you look at more complex animals, like mammals, it’s not as effective.

What do you think we can expect within the limits of our lifetime?

If you’re in your sixties or seventies, hopefully, within the next decade or so, we’ll have a therapy that will extend your health span – the years in which you’re generally healthy and free from disease. That’s based on recent discussions at one of the big ageing conferences, and what some of the key biologists believe. If you’re in your thirties, your life expectancy and the probability of more breakthrough techs being developed is way higher.

What those will be and how many extra years they’ll give us, we don’t know.

We could develop a combination of things that have a synergistic effect. For example: the Buck Institute’s Dr Pankaj Kapahi created a worm that had two tailored genetic mutations – if administered separately, these mutations had been shown to give about 100 and 60 percent extra lifespan, respectively. But, administered together, they didn’t yield to a 160 percent increase in lifespan – it was actually an increase of almost 500 percent!

Maria at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato, California, credit Damien Maloney

How could AI help expand human lifespan?

AI could change the fate of humanity. People in biology are already dealing with tons of data, but AI would be able to come up with models and predictions based on the entire breadth of existing human knowledge in biology, very quickly. Here’s an example: the IBM AI-supercomputer “Watson” was able to digest all our collective cancer knowledge and diagnose cancer patients more accurately than human physicians. AI wouldn’t just be the tool that scientists use – it would be the scientist.

What kind of opportunities could radically extended lifespans give us as a species?

I think that liberation from biological ageing is one of the most wonderful things that could happen to humans. We could end pain, disease, suffering; we could go to different planets, deal with the technological problems that space travel poses, create new worlds.

It really comes down to implementing your dreams.

What do you think the global economy might look like in such a world?

Everything would immediately be different in a world with AI. It’s very hard to make any meaningful predictions beyond its arrival. But I believe that when it does, technological progress will be the main driver of the economy. The economy of the previous two centuries was driven by what was inside the Earth – oil, gas, things like that. Right now, the most expensive companies are tech companies.

If people were born into a world with the expectation of significantly longer life – 200, 300 years – what do you think would happen to punishments for crimes like murder?

It would be costly for the government to keep criminals alive in prison for 200, 300 years. We’d have to rethink our old penitentiary system. If a person has done something wrong, maybe we could use tech to change underlying psychological factors that caused the person to commit the crime in the first place. Maybe we’ll come up with a neurotransmitter cocktail, for example, that lets us treat criminals as if violence is a curable disease?

Maria at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato, California, credit Damien Maloney

How about the ideal of romantic monogamy – if people are living much longer, will they still want to spend their entire lives with one person?

People are very interesting creatures because our relationships adapt and change along with us. I know I might sound extremely optimistic, but there are way too many dystopias in the movies; how might the world look if everything goes right? If the future-society changes so much that monogamy’s no longer beneficial for an individual, then people will adapt. Chances are the number of pairs staying together for life will decrease. But I don’t think it will hit zero.

As a generation, what kind of legacy do you think we should be looking to leave behind?

Definitely extending lifespan and health-span by somewhere in the region of 30 percent. This will happen within the coming few decades. As for the bigger legacy, people are building the base of the algorithms that will hopefully create AI in the more distant future. So that will probably be part of our legacy, too.

Do you believe in life after death?

I don’t. However, have you seen Black Mirror? The “San Junipero” episode – I believe that’s a very basic, optimistic representation of what mind uploading might look like in the future. If you could somehow transfer consciousness from a biological subject into some kind of storage device – that could be life after death.

Is that something youd enjoy?

Absolutely. I don’t want to die. You would be forever young.

Why would you like to live forever?

I would like to implement my dreams. And they range from having a pair of wings, to being able to drink a cocktail in a bar on Mars, to solving the existing problems of the world – economic inequality, diseases that make our lives miserable, things like that. I have an endless list of dreams. And that’s why I need an endless amount of hours.

Interview by Kev Kharas

Photography by Damien Maloney