People have been trying to live forever for … basically forever. But cheating death has always been a particular obsession for the rich. Ancient Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang took mercury pills in his quest for immortality during the third century BCE (whoops), while Egyptian pharaohs had their remains mummified to prepare for the afterlife—only to have powders made from their crushed-up bones consumed by the likes of European royalty seeking health remedies in the 16th and 17th centuries. In more recent years, elites have experimented with young blood transfusions and syringes filled with the cells of fetal lambs, which they’ve had injected into their buttocks.
The present-day pursuit of physical immortality—or, at the very least, a substantially extended lifespan—is a booming business. Google has an aging research venture called Calico; tech titans like Peter Thiel and Jeff Bezos are investors in startups focused on longevity; and entrepreneurs like Bulletproof Coffee founder Dave Asprey, who has publicly declared his goal of living to 180, have built lifestyle empires around their passion for biohacking. Many Silicon Valley types also ascribe to the idea of the singularity, popularized by Google director of engineering Raymond Kurzweil, which holds that by 2045, AI and biotechnology will have rendered humankind effectively immortal.
It’s easy to dismiss today’s immortalists as modern-day pharaohs and emperors—enjoying access to practically everything life has to offer, and unwilling to accept the reality that death will, inevitably, put an end to their good fortune. But the business of immortality is worthy of serious consideration because Silicon Valley’s war on death reveals what is perhaps the tech class’s single defining characteristic: A refusal to accept limitations.
That Silicon Valley’s titans believe innovation can help them crack death and aging makes intuitive sense. They’ve spent their entire careers quite literally banking on the idea that science and technology can solve the world’s problems. In much the same way, they’re now both investing in, and profiting from, the idea that it’s possible to outsmart death. Buoyed by the valley’s utopian impulses, these latest attempts to defeat death are an extreme expression of the exceptionalism that shows up throughout the tech sphere. The tech elite don’t have to do their own laundry or shop for groceries or mattresses, because there are apps for that; they don’t have to submit to regulation or feel guilty about making outlandish amounts of money, because their inventions are supposedly changing the world. Now they’re hoping that they, specifically, don’t have to die—a belief that could wind up having big consequences for everyone else.
The tissue tinkers
The people behind today’s efforts to extend the human lifespan can be sorted into two categories: the tissue tinkers and the healthspanners. Both groups want to find interventions that could prevent the ravages of aging; healthspanners simply hope the outcome will be a robust old age followed by a quick, painless death, while tissue tinkers want that and at least several hundred (or several thousand) more years on the planet, too.
“A lot of people alive today are going to live to 1,000 or more,” the English researcher Aubrey de Grey declares in a 2005 Ted Talk. De Grey, a self-taught biogerontologist with a background in AI and computer science, cuts an eccentric and charismatic figure. A former polyamorist who famously maintains a waist-length beard and holds forth in media interviews about his passion for beer, de Grey is an unofficial mascot of the tissue tinkers, who believe that by fiddling with our bodies’ cells, tissue, and DNA, we can drastically extend our lifespans.
His 1999 book, The Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory of Aging, argues that if we can develop remedies to fix seven categories of damage that accompany biological aging, people could, theoretically, live indefinitely. To that end, de Grey, along with philanthropist David Gobel, co-founded the Methuselah Foundation in 2003. Named after the biblical figure who died at the ripe old age of 969, the Springfield, Virginia-based institute soon received a $3.5 million check from Peter Thiel, the cofounder and former CEO of PayPal. According to de Grey, the foundation focuses “on promotion and advocacy, via prizes especially ” of regenerative therapies that aim to “make 90 the new 50 by 2030,” per its tagline. The foundation branched out into the Mountain View, California-based SENS Research Foundation six years later, which, according to de Grey, focuses on “specific research projects” in the area, and last year nabbed a $2.4 million donation from Vitalik Buterin, cofounder of the blockchain platform Ethereum.
- Name: Peter Thiel, age 51
- Bio: PayPal cofounder, Trump advisor, Facebook board member.
- Need to know: Besides the Methuselah and SENS foundations, Thiel has invested in Singularity University, Kurzweil’s techno-utopian incubator dedicated to the idea that humans will one day merge with AI and live forever. He’s given money to numerous life extension ventures, including Alphabet’s Calico and Unity Biotechnology. In 2009, Thiel sank millions into a now-defunct Silicon Valley genome sequencing startup called Halcyon Molecular, which sought to use personalized gene therapies to extend life.
- It’s personal: Thiel takes human growth hormone pills, a drug that’s been studied for its effect on aging since the 1990s but has a long list of known side effects.
De Grey is far from alone in his belief that old age is a kind of disease that can be cured. Brian Hanley, a 60-year-old microbiologist who gives himself gene therapy, says that cracking the biological code will allow us to “create humans that can live for 10,000 years.” He believes that gene therapy, specifically, “has the potential to make extraordinary changes, on the order of Marvel Comics transformations.” Likewise, Peter Nygård, a 75-year-old Finnish-Canadian fashion mogul, is known for his use of experimental stem cell therapy, a process which he has said allowed him to “reverse aging.” And Arram Sabeti, the 30-year-old founder of a food catering company and self-described “longevity entrepreneur,” told the New Yorker in 2017 that the proposition that we can live forever “is obvious” because it doesn’t violate the laws of physics. They’re only a handful of characters bringing their credibility, cash, and a deep faith in innovation to the field of radical life extension—an arena powered by a potent mixture of science, fear, and magical thinking.
While most tissue tinkers are interested in immortality or, at least, radically extended life, healthspanners are more concerned with compressed morbidity, the goal of which is to give people a better quality of life into old age, followed by death that is not preceded by years of illness.
“We would like to make the entire life full of energy and free from disease and disability,” explains Luigi Ferrucci, a geriatrician, epidemiologist, and scientific director at the National Institute on Aging (NIA) part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Not only would compressed morbidity make people healthier and happier, its advocates point out, but the US alone would save $4 trillion a year in health-care costs.
- Name: Larry Ellison, age 74
- Bio: Cofounder, chairman, and chief technology officer of Oracle Corporation.
- Need to know: Over the past several decades, Ellison has reportedly funneled some $430 million into the Ellison Medical Foundation, which funds all manner of companies focused on “basic biomedical research” related to aging. He cut funding to the foundation in 2013.
- It’s personal: Ellison, whose adoptive mother died of cancer when he was in his 20s, frequently expresses his bafflement over his own impermanence: “I don’t understand how someone can be here, then not be here,” he told the Washington Post some 20 years ago.
Healthspanners are not interested in immortality chatter. (“I don’t care what time I die,” says Felipe Sierra, a biochemist and director of the division of aging biology at NIA, “but I want to be healthy until the day before.”) But both Sierra and Ferrucci say there’s no sense of competition between researchers like themselves and the Silicon Valley community. “We’re just moving in different directions,” Ferrucci says, adding that there’s also precious little in the way of collaboration.
The business of life extension
In spite of their philosophical differences, much of the research into life extension is of interest to both tissue tinkers and healthspanners.
Research shows there are a few things that clearly increase our chances of living a longer life: eating healthy, exercising, avoiding smoking, and—for the exceptionally committed man—castration (seriously). Pretty much everything else is conjecture. The first reason for this is that, because the human lifespan is relatively long, performing studies with people is both laborious and inefficient compared with mice or worms. The second is that aging is not considered a disease by the Federal Drug Administration (it’s a “risk factor”), and the agency has never approved a drug to combat it. Therefore, pharmaceutical companies have had little incentive to create drugs that target aging, which means that foundations and companies have used funds to focus on treating specific diseases.
This has been changing in recent years. Whereas academic and government institutions have historically funded aging research, a new wave of longevity-focused venture capital firms are springing up. The largest of these firms was introduced just last month: investor Sergey Young’s $100 million-dollar Longevity Vision Fund. The fund has yet to announce any of its portfolio companies, but a statement on its website says it plans to channel the cash into “startups and companies around the world that develop technologies, products and services to expand the human lifespan to 200 years.”
As investor interest in longevity blooms, a number of companies are starting to explore experimental approaches to life extension. One of these is Elysium Health, founded by MIT scientist and pioneering aging researcher Leonard Guarente. Elysium sells a pill called Basis that costs $60 for a month’s supply, and is supposed to mimic the longevity effects of calorie restriction without the uncomfortable act of starving oneself.
The effects of caloric restriction were first discovered in the 1930s, when scientists found that lab rats with restricted food intake not only lived longer, but developed fewer age-associated diseases. Experiments with caloric restriction have been repeated with promising results in mice and monkeys since then. A 2018 calorie restriction trial in 53 humans found that cutting calories by 15% showed benefits for staving off age-related disease, although researchers qualified that “the number of participants was relatively small and the duration short in the context of a human lifespan.” Scientists think that, under the strain caused by being in a state of near-starvation, evolution has taught the human body to boost its defenses, bolstering cells and the immune system. But since severely restricting calories is uncomfortable at best, efforts are underway to mimic this mechanism with drugs and supplements.
- Name: Apollo Ventures (Berlin, Germany)
- Funds raised: $2 to $5 million since 2016
- Founder: James Peyer, age 31
- Need to know: One of the five companies the firm funds is developing therapeutics that work on the mTOR pathway, which is thought to also be affected by calorie restriction.
- It’s personal: A biologist himself, Peyer has made no public immortality claims, but envisions a future in which we’ll all swallow a bunch of pills to stave off age-related diseases.
To that end, Elysium is currently running human trials. Guarente tells Quartz that the pill’s impact on the human body is “mainly conjecture” at this point, although he notes that his fingernails grow faster (“Isn’t that silly?”). Like many dietary supplement companies, Basis has bypassed the FDA’s laborious screening process because the two active compounds in the pill are already sold separately on the market. These are pterostilbene, which naturally occurs in blueberries, and nicotinamide riboside (NR), a substance found in milk and is thought to boost nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide (NAD+), which helps make energy for cells.
- Name: Life Biosciences (Boston, Massachusetts)
- Funds raised: $75 million since 2017
- Founder: David Sinclair, age 50
- Need to know: The firm’s CEO is PepsiCo’s former top scientist, Mehmood Khan. It’s also backed by WeWork CEO Adam Neumann.
- It’s personal: Sinclair is the Harvard geneticist that enthralled oenophiles everywhere when he found that resveratrol, a compound found in grapes and red wine, seemed to slow aging in mice using a similar mechanism to the compounds found in the Basis pill. (He did this research during his postdoc at MIT with Guarente.) Further studies, however, complicated the picture about possible benefits of resveratrol, and Sinclair’s resveratrol-focused drug company shuttered five years after pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline bought it for $720 million.
There are also two FDA-approved drugs being researched for their youth-giving potential: metformin, a drug used to treat diabetes, and rapamycin, a compound discovered oozing from an Easter Island bacterium in the 1960s and was subsequently used to prevent surgical implant rejection.
The FDA is carrying out the first aging-targeted human trial using metformin, a study being led by Nir Barzilai, a professor of medicine and genetics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University and the founding director of the Institute for Aging Research. Two other Guarente postdocs, Matt Kaeberlein and Brian Kennedy, are studying rapamycin: the former in companion dogs, and Kennedy at the Novato, California-based Buck Institute of Aging. (Guarente, for his part, hems and haws when asked about rapamycin’s longevity properties.)
It’s worth mentioning that over half of a dozen people who spoke with Quartz about their “longevity routines” took one (or all three) of these substances. Basis can be ordered online, while metformin and rapamycin require prescriptions.
- Name: Juvenescence (Virgin Islands, USA)
- Funds raised: $65 million since 2016
- Founder: Jim Mellon, age 61
- Need to know: Mellon, a billionaire entrepreneur linked up with the former head of drug development at Pfizer to start this longevity-focused investment firm.
- It’s personal: Mellon is a firm believer in radical life extension: “I do absolutely believe that the first people who will live to be over 150 are amongst us now,” he has said, and is known for taking metformin every day. “Every single person in the longevity area takes metformin. That’s kind of a given,” he told Neo.Life last year.
There are also experimental areas of life extension research that are not available to the public—unless you’re part of a human clinical trial, they’re pretty much a no-go. The first of these is the goriest: the vampiric process of parabiosis. Parabiosis, or young blood transfusion, is exactly what is sounds like: the transfusion of one person’s blood to another by linking circulatory systems. Eek!
The youth-promoting effects of young blood have a messy history in humans. In the 15th century, Pope Innocent VIII was rumored to have undergone several crude blood transfusions from three young “donors” to cure what is now thought to have been renal disease. (The donors died shortly thereafter.) In the early 1600s, the Hungarian countess and serial killer Erzsébet Báthory purportedly bathed in the blood of virgins to retain her youth.
There have been no credible published trials of parabiosis in humans. Trials in mice have shown that parabiosis seems to buoy the livers and muscles of the older mice, and a 2017 study by Stanford scientist Tony Wyss-Coray that showed young blood helped to boost brain function in old mice.
While the study of parabiosis is still in its earliest stages, a number of companies have sprung up to explore the therapy (and perhaps capitalize on it early). Alkahest, for example, was founded by Wyss-Coray in 2014 to develop blood therapies that aim to help combat age-related cognitive dysfunction, and continues to do research in that area. There’s also the recently shuttered startup Ambrosia Medical, founded by the 34-year-old Stanford med graduate Jesse Karmazin, who charged $8,000 to transfuse a liter of young blood into patients ($12,000 for two liters).
On a phone call in February, Karmazin claimed that the treatment “really does seem to make people younger… we see improvements in things like memory and muscle strain, energy, sleep quality, joint pain, skin quality, you know, all the normal hallmarks of aging.” He also said that Ambrosia had ran the first clinical study of parabiosis in humans in “about 100 people” and claimed that the company had found, “you know, good results,” but did not elaborate. The study has not been released, and Ambrosia has since ceased operations following an FDA warning that expressed concern over patients “being preyed upon by unscrupulous actors touting treatments of plasma from young donors as cures and remedies.”
Another hot topic in life extension research is senolytics, the first class of drugs being developed with the express purpose of delaying or treating aging. Senolytics target senescent cells, the “zombie” cells that accumulate in the body as we age, causing damage to the well-behaved cells around them. Naturally, researchers are looking at ways to remove these cells. Senolytics have seen success in mice, even restoring the performance in their legs.
One of the biggest companies in this space is Unity Biotechnology, which went public and began human trials in 2018. It counts Bezos and Thiel among its early investors.
- Name: Longevity Fund (San Francisco, California)
- Funds raised: $37 million since 2017
- Founder: Laura Deming, age 24
- Need to know: Deming dropped out of MIT at 16 for a Thiel Fellowship and spent time working in aging research labs. The Longevity Fund was an early investor in Unity Biotechnology.
- It’s personal: Deming has said that the deaths of her grandparents at a young age affected her interest in aging research, and has described death in the same unhappy terms as other immortalists. “If we succeed, we will have turned the most awful paradigm that we know on its head. The inevitability of death,” she declared on stage at the seventh annual Singularity Summit.
This list isn’t exhaustive, and each method faces substantive questions and criticisms—first and foremost, do any of them actually work in humans? There are also various levels of evidence—and confidence—behind each. The nearly 100-year history of calorie restriction research holds up better than crude experiments of parabiosis; drugs that already have FDA approval have a market advantage over those that don’t, and so on.
In short, it’s always best to proceed with skepticism when wading into the world of longevity. Kaeberlein, who is also the president of the American Aging Association and professor of pathology at the University of Washington, puts it well: “There are lots of people who are using their own strategies based on drugs that they’ve heard about or that they’ve read about in the literature that work in a mouse or a fly or work in a worm, and they’ve decided they want to try it. It might help. It might not. It might hurt. We don’t really know at this point.”
Alphabet’s Big Bet
Of all the people and institutions interested in this space, there’s one that you’ve definitely heard of before: Alphabet. The Google parent-company is known for pursuing bold and improbable futuristic ventures; its so-called “moonshot factory,” X, is known for dreaming up everything from smart contact lenses to hot-air balloons that give people in poor, rural areas internet access to the now-failed Google Glass. But Alphabet’s most ambitious project of all is also perhaps its most secretive—and its most controversial.
Calico, short for the California Life Company, marked Big Tech’s first substantial foray into the scientific study of aging. It was founded in 2013, kicking off with a $1.5 billion pool of cash (courtesy of both Google and its first partner, the big pharma giant Abbvie) with a promise to bring new aging research and pharmaceuticals to market. Calico’s founder is Bill Maris, who also launched and served as the CEO of Google Ventures, Alphabet’s venture-capital arm.
- Name: Bill Maris, age 44
- Bio: Founder of Calico; founder and former CEO of Google Ventures.
- Need to know: In 2015, Maris told Bloomberg, “if you ask me today, is it possible to live to be 500? The answer is yes.”
- It’s personal: Maris has said he was profoundly affected by the death of his father from a brain tumor: “I majored in neuroscience, I’ve worked in hospitals, but until my father died I did not understand the finality of ‘Gone, never to be seen again,’” he told the New Yorker in 2017, adding, “my thoughts can turn to dark things when I’m alone.”
It’s been reported that Calico is researching topics including cellular aging and the effects of calorie restriction on mammals. Six years later, however, the company has yet to publish any research in a scientific journal, nor has it gone public with any findings. Little is known about what Calico is working on, outside of the fact that it’s reportedly studying a colony of hideous naked mole rats. Calico did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Scientists not connected to Calico say its launch helped legitimize the field of aging research, but its lack of collaboration and secrecy has disappointed many in the research community.
“Calico has been pissing me off,” Barzilai tells Quartz, adding that when Calico scientists come to academic conferences and symposiums, they never present findings and even avoid watercooler conversation.
Kaeberlein adds that many scientists in the geroscience community have taken issue with Calico’s staffing. He says that with the exception of Cynthia Kenyon, the company has not recruited effective leadership, instead picking people that “know nothing about the biology of aging… I shouldn’t say nothing. They know a little bit about the biology of aging, but not much.” He also says that Calico’s failure to recruit what he sees as a strong staff of aging experts might be viewed as a misuse of resources. (Kenyon was not available for comment.)
As for Calico’s secretive nature, many in the scientific community note that the strategy seems at odds with the spirit of science itself, and only buoys suspicions that Calico’s rodent experiments are not going as planned. “Science is by and large about advancing knowledge,” says Ferrucci. “If you hide what you learned from the scientific community, that’s really not helping to advance knowledge.”
In the event that science and technology aren’t able to rescue us from death in our lifetimes, there is a back-up plan available to those with money to burn. Cryonics, the process of preserving the body in liquid nitrogen shortly after death, has been around for decades. But some might argue that the Renaissance-era philosopher and scientist Sir Francis Bacon pioneered the idea. As the story goes, Bacon, on a snowy evening in London, had the idea that freezing flesh could preserve it. In a fit of inspiration, he bought and killed a chicken, packing it with snow. The chicken was successfully frozen (for how long, it is unknown). Unfortunately, Bacon himself contracted acute pneumonia and died.
Contemporary cryonics was first proposed in the 1960s by a physicist named Robert Ettinger, who wrote in his fateful 1962 manuscript The Prospect of Immortality “at very low temperatures it is possible, right now, to preserve dead people with essentially no deterioration, indefinitely.” In 1967, a TV repairman and Ettinger devotee named Robert Nelson performed the world’s first “successful” cryopreservation on a psychologist named James Bedford, who is still frozen today.
Today, there are three companies that can freeze you for the future: The US-based cryonics companies Alcor and the Cryonics Institute (CI), and Russia’s KrioRus.
Alcor, founded in 1972, is based in Scottsdale, Arizona. The company says that 1,236 living “members” are signed up for their cryopreservation services, including Kurzweil and Thiel, hedging their bets. Seventy-five percent of members are men, according to the company’s co-founder Linda Chamberlain. It currently has 166 “patients” in preservation, including the baseball icon Ted Williams.
Alcor is the most expensive option for preservation. Members can sign up for a whole-body preservation, which costs $200,000, or just freeze their heads to preserve the brain for $80,000. To ensure reanimation, Alcor’s patients pay half of their preservation fee into a patient care trust fund, which is controlled by a board of trustees, two-thirds of whom are required to have relatives in cryopreservation. The entire fund is worth $16 million today, and Chamberlain says its “conservatively invested.” That said, both Alcor and CI are nonprofits, which they have to be to take possession of dead bodies. They do this under the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act (UADA), which also regulates the donation of organs, tissues, and other human body parts in the US. Legally, therefore, cryonic “patients” are bodies donated to science.
“Our goal is to develop reversible, suspended animation just like we see in the movies.” — Alcor founder Linda Chamberlain.
If the cost of Alcor seems steep, the Michigan-based CI charges a neat $28,000 for a whole-body freeze; it doesn’t have a “neuro” option. It has 1,536 people set to be preserved at death, and 170 bodies frozen in storage in a suburb of Detroit. Meanwhile, the Moscow-based KrioRus, the leading cryonic storage company outside of the US, will set you back $36,000 in US dollars for a full-body freeze, and $12,000 for just your noggin.
Perhaps counterintuitively, cryopreservation is not reserved for eccentric billionaires; in fact, the overwhelming majority of those who opt for it are middle-class. Both CI and Alcor allow patients to pay with life insurance, and KrioRus allows payment through installments. “We have people from every walk of life,” says Chamberlain.
So what are the chances that these efforts to outsmart death and aging will eventually pay off?
Particularly for well-off people in developed countries, it’s not outlandish to think that longer, healthier lives are within reach. At 72 years, the global human lifespan is already longer than it’s ever been; in the European region, per World Health Organization data from 2016, it’s up to 77.5 years. And there’s general consensus among scientists that we haven’t hit the ceiling yet. Sierra, at the NIA, is optimistic that global life expectancy will increase within our lifetimes—though to ages like “85 or 89, nothing dramatic”—and that aging research may soon help forestall common afflictions of the elderly, improving quality of life.
Most biologists refer to the hallmarks of aging to describe the deterioration of the body over time. Over the past several decades, according to Kaeberlein, biological research has identified around nine molecular processes in the body that seem to be, as he puts it, “mechanistically related to the declines in function and the diseases that go along with aging.”
If biologists can slow down, modulate, or even reverse the so-called hallmarks of aging, it may be possible to delay or reverse some of the declines that lead to everything from dementia to cancer to heart disease. The past several decades of biology have therefore been dedicated to developing strategies that target these hallmarks. For example, research from Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn suggests that moderate exercise and getting at least seven hours of sleep, among other factors, may help prevent the shortening of telomeres—the protective structures at the ends of our chromosomes—thereby increasing our chances of living a longer life.
Likewise, a groundbreaking 1993 discovery by Kenyon, the aforementioned vice president of aging research at Calico, is informing some of today’s most promising life-extension research. By mutating a gene that affects the insulin pathway of C. elegans, a nematode worm, and doubling its lifespan, Kenyon and her team showed that the rate of aging is subject to genetic control.
Still, many of the hallmarks of aging interact with one another, leading to what Kaeberlein calls a “cascade of dysfunction” as we get older and making it harder to effectively wipe out the illnesses associated with age. He also points out that “just because we can give names to these nine things that are the hallmarks of aging, that doesn’t mean those are the only things that go wrong during aging … Even if we could fix all of these hallmarks of aging, I think that people would still get sick from different things, but it would just happen a lot later.”
As for those setting their hopes on cryonic preservation: Even if scientists do eventually find a way to reanimate the dead, there’s a separate issue. When a body or head is cryonically preserved, its tissues solidify, a process known as vitrification. No one knows yet how to reverse vitrification, so thawing the body would just turn it to a sort of horrible tissue puree.
Then there’s the problem of disease reversal: If you died of a disease, it would still need to be cured upon reanimation. This is why patients might choose to only preserve their heads, especially if their bodies are old or damaged.
In other words, it may be possible to put off death for a while. It’s a lot less likely that we’ll be able to put death off indefinitely. “I think that only people who don’t understand biology would ever accept the idea that we can cure aging,” says Kaeberlein, adding: “I think that it’s realistic to think that we can slow it down.”
If there’s not much hope for eternity in our bodies, or even in our own heads, perhaps there’s another way some part of us can stay alive. A group we’ll call the cyborgs believe that advances in technology will allow either our brains or our bodies (or both) to merge with artificial intelligence, at which point we will transcend our biological limitations.
At the head of this movement is the Queens-born inventor Raymond Kurzweil. In 2005, Kurzweil published his seminal book, The Singularity Is Near. It predicted that advancements in technology would end with the radical transformation of humankind into superintelligent, part-technological—effectively immortal—beings. This event, known as the singularity, took a frenzied hold in the secular bubble of Silicon Valley, serving as a sort of proxy for religious faith; the Verge has sarcastically referred to it as “the rapture of the nerds.”
Thiel has said there is “no good future” in which the singularity does not occur. Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page helped Kurzweil and XPrize founder Peter Diamandis quietly launch Singularity University in 2008, reportedly donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to kickstart the organization. The B-Corp corporation offers executive camps and graduate courses for tens of thousands of dollars apiece, and has been described as a “transhumanist” think tank. Transhumanism, which is part and parcel of the cyborg doctrine, can be broadly defined as a movement dedicated to the defeat of death, operating under the belief that the human race will evolve well beyond its current physical and mental limitations through scientific and technological advancements.
- Name: Martine Rothblatt, age 65
- Bio: United Therapeutics CEO; SiriusXM cofounder.
- Need to know: Rothblatt, the highest paid female CEO in the US, is also the founder of Terasem, a religion inspired by Judaism and transhumanist thought (one of its four founding beliefs is that “death is optional.”)
- It’s personal: Rothblatt had a “mind clone” robot version of her wife, Bina48, created; the robot completed a philosophy course at Notre Dame de Namur University in 2017.
So how, exactly, do singularity devotees and transhumanists think we will eventually escape our feeble human bodies and reach our post-human forms? At present, many use things like supplements, “smart” drugs, and other experimental life-extension therapies—Kurzweil himself takes some 90 pills a day. However, Kurzweil predicts that by 2030, not only will aging research have helped reduce the risk of age-related diseases, but advanced nanotechnology will allow tiny robots to swim through our bloodstreams, sorting out our damaged cells. The obliging nanobots will eventually connect our consciousness to a “neocortical annex” in the cloud, allowing human intelligence to expand a billionfold. At this point our bodies will become obsolete, and humans will be like gods.
Until that day comes, there are a number of organizations active in trying to create a sort of digital immortality. Nectome, a Y Combinator-backed startup, promises to preserve terminally ill customers’ brains in chemicals for possible future digital uploading for $10,000. Meanwhile, Replika is a messaging app where users spend dozens of hours answering questions, effectively building a digital “library” of information on themselves. That data is then used to create a bot that, theoretically, acts just like the user. It was built by a Russian entrepreneur named Eudenia Kudya, who uses the app as a way of talking to her late best friend.
It’s not exactly resurrection, but Black Mirror-style options like these do offer a way of leaving a part of ourselves behind. Before his death last year, even Steven Hawking acknowledged the viability of digital immortality, saying, “it’s theoretically possible to copy the brain onto a computer, and so provide a form of life after death.”
The inequality of immortality
The fact that Silicon Valley is a breeding ground for the modern-day immortality quest is not so surprising. Philosopher Stephen Cave, the author of Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization, pointed out parallels between the tech titans who are terrified of death and the protagonist of Aldous Huxley’s 1939 book After Many a Summer. In Huxley’s story, an aging Hollywood mogul hires a doctor to help him find a treatment that will allow him to live forever: “This sort of super-optimistic, California business-person belief in the possibility of what can be done with money and human ingenuity itself has a long history,” Cave explains.
It’s equally unsurprising that, with a few exceptions, the people who are spending the most time, money, and energy on the pursuit of immortality tend to be wealthy, white men. They’re members of society who are accustomed to feeling as if they have control over their bodies and destinies, while women and people of color have historically been subjected to harsher realities. For them, there’s no need for extensive mental gymnastics to comprehend what it means to be mortal.
All this points to the fundamental question of access: Who gets to live forever? Life expectancy in many sub-Saharan African nations still barely crests 50, and already geography, wealth, and access to education are major factors in predicting mortality. Life extension therapies, supplements, and experimental drugs are costly, making any possible radical improvements in longevity just one more privilege afforded to the rich.
There’s also the question of what the costs of achieving immortality or even radical life extension would be for a planet where overpopulation is already a concern. Sabeti, the young longevity entrepreneur, suggests imagining a world in which “we already had immortality”—wouldn’t the same problems exist? “Would the first answer you reach for be for rounding up 100,000 people each day and executing them? I like to think we have more ingenuity than that.”
It seems this viewpoint—sort out immortality for us first, solve problems for them later—is a common one in immortalist thinking. For instance, Danila Medvedev, co-founder of KrioRus and director of the Russian Transhumanism Movement, criticizes the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals for this very reason. The goals, which include ending poverty and hunger, “are about just making sure everybody gets to a modern level,” he says. “And to a person in London or in Moscow, does that make any sense? We have clean water already. We have clean air, clean water, we have enough food, we have toilets. We don’t have malaria.” Likewise, Bulletproof Coffee founder Dave Asprey, who steps on a $26,000 scale some mornings, swats away the idea that longevity could be exclusive. “Cell phones were a rich person’s game 25 years ago,” he says, “They’re a dollar in Africa today. The technology that I’m talking about now, they’re all expensive for a short time for everyone, and by talking about them, my job is to make them accessible.”
Most scientists agree that increasing investments in longevity research are a boon to the field; if a billionaire investor who wants to live forever happens to be the one funneling cash into unsexy research on mitochondrial dysfunction, so be it. There is, of course, a risk that more resources will be dedicated to the diseases that affect people after what are relatively long and pampered lives, rather than the infectious diseases and nutrition-related illnesses killing most people in low-income nations. What’s more, if technologies do develop at the rate Silicon Valley is betting on and literally investing in today, it’s possible that we’re facing a future in which a small community of very rich immortals reign.
Moreover, for a society with rules and morals designed around the reality of death, the pursuit of immortality itself could prove dangerous.“There’s a cognitive risk in believing you might be immortal,” says Hansa Bergwall, the CEO of the app WeCroak, which sends daily notifications to over 70,000 subscribers reminding them that one day they’ll inevitably bite the dust. “A lot of very bad habits and mental frames come into play really quickly. The more that you partake in the delusion that this existence is permanent, the less [you have] quality of life … You won’t be happy, and you’ll let many years go by without facing the urgency of finding your deepest values and living them.”
There’s no denying that it’s scary to contemplate death. But people ranging from Bergwall and Cave to ancient philosophers and Buddhist monks have touted the benefits of gazing into the void and confronting our own terror of it, which can help familiarize us with the concept of death and even come to accept it.
Try it now: The sun just exploded. Earth and all living things on it are snuffed out. You are gone. Everything and everyone you love is gone. There’s nothing to fall back on.
If you’re able to imagine that—it’s difficult to do—the existential terror could take your breath away. But it could also be a step toward realizing that you are no less a fixture of the earth than a mouse or a fly or worm. And best of all, it’s free.
Correction: An earlier version of this article noted that Alcor’s Patient Care Trust is worth $60 million. It is worth $16 million.