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Disrupting the Reaper: Tech Titans’ Quest for Immortality Rages Forward

Silicon Valley's war on death continues—as does the uncomfortable, spreading psychology of those rich enough to fight it.

Jacob BanasOctober 12th 2018

EVERYONE DIES. ‘Just a fact. The knowledge and subsequent fear of our impending doom drives the way we go about this world: Either as methodically and cautiously as we can, playing the odds of hanging onto this mortal coil as long as we can, or, going full-YOLO:  smoking, caloric indulgences, skydiving, public restrooms, chainsaw juggling, Tinder dates — whatever it is.

But a handful of uber-successful Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have been trying for years to reconfigure death against its given as an immutable truth — and now, they’re pushing harder than ever before.

Google cofounder Sergey Brin, Oracle chairman Larry Ellison, and (but of course) Elon Musk are approaching their supposed respective demises with the same gusto the average person might a home remodeling. The members of this informal club are set on stretching the limits of the human lifespan, from about 120 to 1,000 (or more). To them, admitting that they’ll die (or die on a typical timeline) is akin to accepting defeat.

“There are all these people who say that death is natural, it’s just part of life, and I think that nothing can be further from the truth,” Paypal co-founder and investor Peter Thiel told Business Insider in 2012. To him, “death is a problem that can be solved.”

These billionaires probably won’t succeed. But even more: If they do stumble upon a technique that actually extends life, it won’t really benefit them — or anyone else.

Since the earliest days of human myth-making, there have been stories of those who work to find ways to avoid or delay death. There’s Gilgamesh, the titular king in an epic that dates back to 2,000 BCE, sought a longevity-granting plant; the Greek legend of Tithonus (who asked Zeus for eternal life but forgot eternal youth), Ponce de Leon (who ventured to new lands in search of the fountain of youth), Dorian Gray (who sold his soul for eternal youth). And so on. These are all men (real or fictional) who sought eternal life, all of whom failed.

It’s not hard to read these legends as cautionary tales. Whether they were struck down in battle, cursed to live forever with the decrepitude of old age, or simply met a swift demise, none of these quests bore the fruits of their labor. Even those hungriest for longer lives can’t deny the physical and cognitive degradation of aging. As we age and certain physiological processes don’t work as well as they once did, our bones break more easily, organs begin to fail, minds dull, locomotion is limited. Is there even a point in trying to extend the human lifespan if it means your existence is reduced to a miserable shadow of its former self?

Of course: None of these concerns will slow down the aforementioned Ponce de Leon-would-bes. Not satisfied with solving problems like how we get around and how we talk to each other, longevity research is Silicon Valley’s new pet project. In 2013, Google founded Calico, a biology company with the stated goal of “solv[ing] death” (a glimpse at the company’s web site shows that since its inception Calico researchers have been mired in what longevity scientists have been doing for decades: testing certain types of molecules on non-human species to see if they extend the organisms’ lives).

Others concern themselves with treating chronic diseases to help humans live longer, better lives. Human Longevity, Inc. uses algorithms to predict an individuals risk of cancers or a genetic condition based on a genetic test. Verily, another Google subsidiary, creates devices which improve quality of life for people with chronic illnesses such as diabetes and Parkinson’s.

But don’t confuse modern medicine’s efforts to extend life with the kind of long-term health many might dream of, warns Linda Waite, professor of urban psychology at the University of Chicago. If we had a choice in the matter, most of us would like to go quick, painless, or else in our sleep.

But heart disease and cancer rates are on the rise, and according to Waite, “the choices that people make often get them the kind of death they all say they don’t want.”

THE WILD THING IS that there are, in fact, a few treatments scientists are exploring which could, in fact, help people live longer, and be affordable for the masses, too. Among them:

  • Metformin, a medication doctors currently prescribe to patients with diabetes, may reduce DNA damage and help keep cells working normally.
  • Rapamycin, an immunosuppressant, has shown promise in keeping cell growth and reproduction regular in aging cells.
  • And in studies, tanespimycin, a drug used in cancer treatments, has helped clear the body of cells which no longer divide properly. It’s not yet clear which of these compounds (if any) will help humans live longer, but the results of early studies are promising.

But these Silicon Valley companies seem more interested in out-of-the-box approaches to longevity.

Most of the interventions they’re looking at aren’t approaching any “anti-aging treatment” that would actually help the average person, nor are they intended to — many of the investors pouring money into these efforts are doing so mostly to help themselves.

The lack of a scientifically proven intervention for extending life isn’t stopping the tech leaders from trying out a few themselves. Peter Thiel is definitely not but maybe kind of receiving injections of blood drawn from healthy young folks, a technique that hasn’t been shown to work in humans and is based on some very scary studies in mice.

At 32, Serge Faguet, founder of video platform TokBox and Russian booking web site Ostrovok, claims he’s spent $200,000 on “biohacking,” including hearing aids to augment his already-perfect and microdoses of MDMA, all in an effort to live his best life (what happens when he actually does get old, well, we’ll have to see).

Image Credit: Emily Cho

They do this with the knowledge that, if somehow they do find an intervention to extend the human lifespan, it will almost certainly be too expensive for the average person to afford, which would create two entirely different classes of humans — one group with money that can see 150, and another that just has to take whatever small insights trickle down from the top.

“The disparity of wealth in the United States will create a “class of immortal overlords,” former Facebook President Sean Parker said at a cancer innovation event last November. “Because I’m a billionaire, I’m going to have access to better healthcare so… I’m going to be, like, 160 and I’m going to be part of this class of immortal overlords.”

To think that money and a bit of self-experimentation can solve an issue that plagued humanity and has been unsolved since humans evolved, to create two biologically separate classes of human beings — and be fine with it? 

There might be something going on there, you know, psychologically, to explain a bit of that. Are these entrepreneurs just in denial about their own deaths? Because they already changed the world so much by creating the thing that brought them to prominence, are they just bored now?

There’s some hubris in there for sure, says Waite, the psychology professor. “Aren’t they masters of the universe? They think they can have everything just because they’re rich, but it’s so not true.” Sounds a lot like the same kind of pride and arrogance shared by Gilgamesh and Tithonus and Dorian Gray.

Faith — where it’s allocated, and where it’s not — could also be playing a role. “Traditional religion in the Bay Area is being replaced with another sort of faith, a belief in the power of technology and science to save humanity,” according to an article about Christianity in Silicon Valley published by Quartz. Combine this new governing philosophy (what others have called a “religion of technology“) with leaders who are too young to find peace in the concept of death and who haven’t experienced the kinds of traumas that might inoculate them against some of that fear? You get a perfect storm of longevity obsession.

So far, there are no drugs or infusions or special herbs you can eat to live a longer, healthier life. No, the only thing proven to help you live longer is exercise and a healthy diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, and fruits. No shortcuts.

If Silicon Valley entrepreneurs really wanted to “disrupt” death, they would do more of that, and blow less money on the kind of outside-the-box schemes that might soothe their egos, but won’t really help anyone along the way.

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