Seeking eternal life, Silicon Valley is solving for death
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For years now, the luminaries of Silicon Valley have been putting their minds, money, and machines behind an all-out effort to solve for death. Full of futurists who don’t have enough time in the day to achieve their lofty goals, the Valley has long looked for ways to make those days never-ending. After all, there is just so much left to do (and so much money left to be made).
Larry Ellison, the eccentric co-founder of software conglomerate Oracle, donates hundreds of thousands of dollars to life-extension therapies every year. “I don’t understand how someone can be here, then not be here,” he says. We’re not sure if Peter Thiel, co-founder of Paypal and unofficial technology advisor to US president Donald Trump, really transfused blood from younger men into his own in a search for eternal youth, but he’s definitely made an enemy of getting older. “I’ve always had this really strong sense that death was a terrible, terrible thing,” he told the Washington Post, reflecting on the millions of dollars he has donated to anti-aging research.
In 2013, Bill Maris, the founding CEO of Google Ventures, Alphabet’s venture-capital arm, convinced CEO Larry Page and president Sergey Brin to launch Calico, Google’s billion-dollar, super-secret effort to cure aging. When asked why, Maris told the New Yorker that seeing his father die of a brain tumor changed him: “My thoughts can turn to dark things when I’m alone.” He, like so many, feared the end that awaits us all.
Other denizens of the valley pursue cryogenics or cryonics, which is the process of freezing oneself in a vat of liquid nitrogen soon after death. They do this in the hope that it will suspend them in time, preserving them for a future when science can bring them back to life. There are about 350 people already frozen worldwide with another 2,000 signed up—but yet to die.
The titans of the Valley are known for making the impossible possible. So what happens if they succeed? Instead of asking whether or not they can eschew death, they should be asking whether or not they should.
Extending our expiration dates
We’ve already gained significant ground on the Grim Reaper. An American born in 1950 could expect to live anywhere between 20 to 25 years longer than one born 50 years earlier, and every five year interval since then has gifted another one to two years of life to US citizens.
However, not all humans have had access to the same medical and social conditions that are extending lifespans in the West. Carlo Leget, chairman of the Netherlands Department of Care Ethics, says there are huge global lifespan disparities that we can’t close the gap on. Take Nigeria, for instance: In 2010, the average life expectancy for anyone born in the African continent’s most populous country was just a shade over 50. The US, on the other hand, eclipsed the 50-year average in 1910.
The life-extension methods that Silicon Valley visionaries are pumping millions of dollars into will, by definition, be prohibitively expensive. Cryogenics, for example, can range in price from the $28,000 price tag of smaller firms to the $200,000 charged by cryogenics mainstay Alcor. If life extension follows the universal trend of haves and have-nots, it’s likely to widen an already growing lifespan gap, with the poor dying earlier and the rich dying later. Eventually, a minority of super-wealthy immortals could arise.
“Most of us want to live on, to be free from the fear of death. [But] such a wish alone does not prepare us for its consequence: being alive forever.” And what would a world full of perpetually living people look like? Do we continue to age with the bones in our backs slowly fusing together and our hair growing thinner? Or is the pace of our life halted, our internal clocks ticking slower, allowing us to live as teenagers into our first centenary? Stephen Cave, the executive director of the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence at Cambridge, wrote about the flipside of living forever in his book Immortality. “Most of us want to live on, to be free from the fear of death,” he says. “[But] such a wish alone does not prepare us for its consequence: being alive forever.”
Modern medicine may be adding years to our lives, but during those years, most of our bodily machines are already well into a state of decay. The years we’re tacking on to the end of life are most commonly years spent bent over and weakened, suffering from osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s and under attack from all forms of cancer. In our pursuit of immortality, we risk becoming like Eos’s Thelonius, blessed with everlasting life, but cursed to eternally age.
“We are living longer,” Cave writes, “but we can all expect to spend many of those extra years unable to wash or dress ourselves, unable to recognize loved ones, our senses fading and our strength gone.” That begs the question: Are those extra years worth it?
How can we live forever?
Felipe Sierra, director of aging biology at the National Institute on Aging, formed the Geroscience Interest Group in 2012. He aimed to bring together researchers with diverse specialties in fields that could help isolate and identify the molecular, genetic, and metabolic processes that make us age.
Sierra feels that rather than look at old age as a series of increasingly debilitating and more frequent ailments, we should recognize those ailments as symptoms of aging itself, and treat the root cause accordingly. He and a growing number of his colleagues believe that identifying and treating flaws hardwired into our bodies—like how cells become senescent, a kind of incomplete death that poisons other nearby cells; how the double-helix structure of our DNA starts to fray with age, leading to mutations and bad copies; or how just plain old stress can lead to system-wide inflammation—is key to extending our enjoyment of any extra years science can give us.
As the geroscience community sees it, solving for these problems could increase our healthspan, which is the length of time we are able to lead healthy, active, and productive lives. If we also happen to live longer as a result, all the better.
So far, the research is seeing success—albeit mostly in animals. Caloric restriction was a hot topic for a while: It was found that keeping mice and monkeys in a state of near starvation could prolong their lives anywhere from 10% to 65% while also decreasing illness and infirmities. Senolytics, the first class of drugs developed specifically to address cell senescence, has had a lot of success in mice, even reinvigorating completely irradiated limbs. And Rapamycin, a drug originally developed to prevent the rejection of stents used in heart surgery, has already shown an ability to extend lifespans in mice, and is now being tested on dogs.
The idea that age is a disease that can be identified and treated is now fairly well accepted. The idea that age is a disease that can be identified and treated is now fairly well accepted, but only a decade ago, it was laughable. Aubrey De Grey, an upstart computer-science engineer, created what could be considered a precursor to the field of geroscience. De Grey theorized SENS (Strategies for Negligible Senescence) in his 1999 book The Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory of Aging. The basic premise was that we can attack and treat aging much like we treat all disease: by identifying the core cause and traits, and then developing ways to relieve or prevent them. If we can do this, in theory, humans could live forever.
In July 2005, editor in chief of MIT Technology Review Jason Pontin offered $20,000 to any PhD-level molecular biologist who could debunk SENS. The challenge ended unclaimed, somewhat controversially, a year later.
Living in the cloud
However, some Valley types want to take our bodies out of the equation all together. Inventor and futurist Ray “The-Singularity-is-Near” Kurzweil, now the director of engineering at Google, and Russian billionaire news magnate Dmitry Itskov want to bring our minds from the analog into the digital.
Kurzweil believes in a future where tiny nanobots will swim through our bloodstreams, repairing and augmenting us on a molecular level until our dependence on them makes us more machine than man. Itskov has a less nuanced approach: He wants to rip our brains out of our bodies and put them into robotic avatars—and he wants the ability to do it by 2025.
But, as bits and bytes, are we still human? At what point do we stop extending life, and instead eliminate it? After Itskoff takes our brains out of our bodies, he wants our minds to leave the flesh entirely. As part of his 2045 initiative, Itskoff wants to upload our personalities into an artificial brain when we die. We would live on as 100% virtual holograms floating around space, no longer linked to the physical world, existing as energy, thought, and information. Kurzweil thinks that will happen as a natural part of evolution: that our synergy with machines will augment our thought capabilities, eventually culminating in a point where humanity will travel the cosmos as pure energy.
Or, as Neo would say, “Whoa.”
But just how big is the server farm that houses all of humanity? And who’s taking care of all the machinery while we’re in it? Is this computational pangea still life? Are we still us?
The meaning of life is death
As physician turned bioethicist Leon Kass says, “Mortality makes life matter.” Kass is the author of The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis and once headed George W. Bush’s presidential council on bioethics. To him the question of whether we should aspire to live forever is not a philosophical one: It’s simple economics.
The value of scarcity dictates that the less of something there is, the more something is worth. For our lives to have meaning and urgency, it is therefore “crucial that we recognize and feel the force of not having world enough and time,” he says. In the absence of death, he fears mankind will become lazy, disengaged, and disinterested.
“All of our most cherished human values like courage and generosity would be inconsequential if we existed in perpetuity.” Then there’s terror-management theory, which states that humanity has a unique knowledge of the abstract meaning of death: Unlike other animals, we can picture it and therefore fear it in a particular way. Because of that fear, we are pushed to make the most of what little life we have. Sheldon Solomon, psychology professor at Skidmore College and co-creator of the theory, says in an interview for Scientific American that “the idea that death is an affront to human dignity that needs to be completely eliminated strikes me as arrogant (and selfish) homocentric death denial.”
Humankind has known this for a while. “As the ancients noted, immortality would make life meaningless and banal,” Solomon says. “All of our most cherished human values like courage and generosity would be inconsequential if we existed in perpetuity.” In other words, nothing is impressive when there’s an infinite amount of time to do it in. Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and science avatar to the millennials, puts it nicely in an interview with Larry King about his lack of fear surrounding death: “If you live forever, why get out of bed in the morning, because you always have tomorrow.”
And even if we managed to live forever—what would we do with all that time, anyway? As novelist Susan Ertz said, “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.”
Motivated by fear of the unknown, most of us try to hold on to the life we have now. But in doing so, we may fail to consider that the brevity of life is what propels us to make the most out of living it. It’s possible that in order to live our lives fully in the present, we need to accept that there will come a day when that present will end.
Silicon Valley wants to make us immortal, and they’re accustomed to getting what they want. But by making our lives never-ending, will they take from us the meaning of what it is to live?
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