We all want to live forever, but some of us have the means to actually do something about it. Adam Gollner, author of The Book of Immortality, profiles five billionaires pouring money into longevity research.
Of all the things money can’t buy—love, happiness, time machines—immortality is one we sure pay a lot for. According to the market-research firm Global Industry Analysts, the anti-aging industry generates more than $80 billion per year. All this despite the fact that there are no proven ways of extending human lifespan.
In the past decade, longevity research has become a legitimate academic pursuit for molecular biologists. Scientists are trying to untangle the basic mechanisms that underlie aging, and the idea is catching on that growing old isn’t just a fact of life but rather a disease that can be cured through medical interventions. Some of the biggest proponents of radical life extension also happen to be billionaires. There’s something about amassing more money than you can ever possibly use that naturally makes you hunger for ways to stay alive longer—if not forever.
The conceit isn’t new. In Imperial China, numerous all-powerful emperors actually died from consuming mercury-based potions intended to make them live forever. When Pope Innocent VIII lay on his deathbed in 1492, three 10-year old boys were paid a ducat each to give their blood to the pontiff—they all died, although the notion that diminished vitality can be hot-wired with veinloads of fresh blood is still fueling gossip about Keith Richards. During the 16th and 17th centuries, countless European alchemists swindled aristocrats with bogus drugs for eternal life (these physicians often harmed themselves in their search for the philosopher’s stone, whether asphyxiated by arsenic fumes or blinded from noxious vapors or poisoning themselves with lethal elixirs). After World War I, thousands of rich old men opted for that era’s glandular fountain of youth: having chimpanzee testicles grafted into their scrotums at Sergei Voronoff’s exclusive medical clinic on the Riviera.
To this day, gerontology pitchmen assure us that we’re about to solve aging—an opportunity, they inevitably add, we should seriously consider from a business standpoint. This same narrative keeps repeating itself. In 1971, longevity researchers declared that—with proper financing, of course—science would unravel all the mysteries of aging within five years. Five years later, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that “human life could be extended to 800 years.” That same year, an outfit called Microwave Instrument Co. in Del Mar, California, said they’d have immortality drugs on the market within three years. Here we are, decades later, still croaking.
Death isn’t easy to contend with. Imagining that we’ll live forever—whether physically or spiritually—is an elemental solace. No matter how wealthy we may be, we still can’t bribe our way out of dying. But that isn’t stopping the these five ultra-rich immortality financiers.
“Death makes me very angry,” admits Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle Corporation and the fifth-richest person in the world (his net worth is $43 billion, according to Forbes). “It doesn't make any sense to me. Death has never made any sense to me. How can a person be there and then just vanish, just not be there?” Death may not make any sense, but perhaps it can be defeated? With that in mind, Ellison has set up a foundation dedicated to ending mortality, or at least to “understanding lifespan development processes and age-related diseases and disabilities.” They spend real money, too: the Ellison Medical Foundation gives out more than $40 million a year. Ellison’s biographer Mark Wilson notes that Ellison sees death as “just another kind of corporate opponent he can outfox.” It’s a Silicon Valley take on The Seventh Seal, with Ellison as the crusading knight and the grim reaper cast as a pasty, wan CEO at a rival software company.
Paul F. Glenn
Santa Barbara–based venture capitalist and investor Paul F. Glenn is the bank account behind a nine-figure endowment that supports laboratory research at institutions like Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and more. Alongside the five-year, $5 million grants the Glenn Foundation for Medical Research gives out to their consortium of labs, they also regularly award unsolicited $60,000 prizes to individual scientists doing peer-reviewed work that they believe deserve support. The foundation’s stated objective is to “extend the healthy productive years of life through research on the mechanisms of biological aging.” But they may also have loftier ambitions. When I interviewed Glenn at his home, there was a book entitled Reversing Human Aging on the coffee table. I asked him how he felt about that idea—about making the Benjamin Button fairy tale real, in effect. “I’m of the anything-is-possible school,” Glenn answered. Alongside his donations to Ivy League institutions, he’s also made contributions to the Methuselah Foundation, whose cofounder Aubrey de Grey claims that “the first person to live to be 1,000 years old is certainly alive today.”
Thirty-two-year-old Russian multimillionaire Dmitry Itskov started the 2045 Initiative with the goal of helping humans achieve physical immortality within the next three decades. According to his manifesto (at www.2045.com), Itskov’s main aims are “to create technologies enabling the transfer of a individual’s personality to a more advanced non-biological carrier, and extending life, including to the point of immortality.” For us to evolve into neo-humans, he says we’ll need to give up on biological bodies and make a leap into artificial, machine bodies as soon as possible. Once our minds are backed up in cyberspace, we’ll just download ourselves into bionic avatars whenever we get a hankering for the thrills of materiality. How seriously does he want to become a cyborg? Itskov, a transhumanist, says he is “100 percent certain” that humans will attain immortality by the year 2045.
“We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” That’s the motto of Founder’s Fund, the hedge-fund managed by PayPal cofounder and Facebook board member Peter Thiel. The future was supposed to be more tricked-out than this, and well-known libertarian “wackaloon” Thiel wants to use his $1.6 billion to do something about it. He’s throwing his fortune behind a number of obsessions, as The New Yorker reported in their 2011 profile of Thiel. First, he’s against higher education, and his 20 Under 20 fellowships are dedicated to keeping promising youngsters out of universities. Then there’s his support for seasteading communities, floating city-states in international waters, and hence not subject to governmental laws and regulations. Most important, Thiel has invested heavily in enterprises dedicated to physical immortality, such as the SENS Foundation. How successful have his efforts been thus far? After he sank millions into a Silicon Valley nanotechnology start-up called Halcyon Molecular, its founder, William Andregg, told TechCrunch.com he plans to live for “millions, billions, hundreds of billions of years.” Halcyon Molecular quietly went out of business last summer.
Of all the moneybags encouraging immortality research, there’s one in particular who has the strongest chance of lending legitimacy to the quest for eternal life: Google cofounder Sergey Brin. While his partner Larry Page has focused more on the business side of things, Brin’s role has been to explore technology opportunities he deems to be “on the cusp of viability.” This means backing everything from synthetic test-tube burgers to prototypes of Google Glass, robotic eyewear permanently synched to the Internet. Under Brin’s aegis, Google has provided hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Singularity University, where executives pay five figures for weeklong seminars about technology’s capacity to solve “humanity’s grand challenges” (including aging and death). Google recently hired the radical futurist Ray Kurzweil to be their director of engineering: he famously claims humans will merge with computers over the next few decades to become immortal superbeings. Brin also chose to get married on David Copperfield’s private island in the Bahamas (where the magician says he’s found the fountain of youth). Can we live forever? Google it.