Silicon Valley came up with a lot of things this year, like creating an on demand pot-to-front-door service, and devising a sparkly way of destroying enemies by shipping them glitter—but one thing it’s still working on is figuring out how humans can live forever. Research into surpassing life expectancy norms has become the pet project of tech billionaires, with entrepreneurs from Mark Zuckerberg to Sergey Brin writing out million-dollar checks to fund their quest.
The list of entrepreneurs jumping on the death-defying bandwagon has grown rapidly over the past few years, creating a veritable who’s who of generous donors. Notorious within the ranks are Peter Thiel, PayPal’s co-founder and developer of Breakout Labs, a funding body for radical research into early-stage science geared toward tackling degenerative diseases; Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, who has donated some $430 million to anti-aging pursuits; and Paul Glenn, a venture capitalist who doles out grants to lab researchers at the likes of Harvard and MIT to investigate “the mechanisms of biological aging.”
“When I interviewed Glenn at his home, there was a book entitled Reversing Human Aging on the coffee table,” Adam Leith Gollner wrote in The Daily Beast two years ago. “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.”
The pursuit of stopping the clock on corporeal degeneration has become increasingly aggressive in those intervening years, with 2015 proving to be the most dogged yet. The 2045 Initiative—Dmitry Itskov’s life-extension organization seeking to transfer personalities onto non-biological items and, ultimately, immortality—projected that this year could be the first in which such a system was created.
The “brain computer interface” has been slated for launch anytime between now and 2020, dispelling naysayers’ qualms that such technologies only have a chance of existing in the very distant future. And there’s certainly no shortage of money to keep powering this research: Google co-founder Larry Page has diverted $750 million of the company’s funds to Calico, its life extension center; Pierre Omidyar, half of the brains behind eBay, has given millions to investigating disease recovery; entrepreneurs Peter Diamandis and Craig Venter set up Human Longevity Inc. in a bid to find a means of elongating the human lifespan.
Much has been written on these philanthropic investors and their infatuation with prolonging existence. But the obvious question is, surely, why the crusade to defy aging is being led by a bunch of tech rich kids. They’ve got the money, yes, and a natural inclination toward figuring out how things work, but why are entrepreneurs whose working worlds have been dominated by making extravagant profits so consumed with doing the same, seemingly charitable thing?
A few have skin in the game—Napster founder Sean Parker, who suffers from a number of life-threatening allergies, donated $24 million to a research center at Stanford last Christmas—but for the most part, this preoccupation with eternal life looks as though it has become an a la mode trope for the industry’s mega-rich.
Take Google, which Brin co-founded with Page in 1998, which has spent years channeling its profits via Bermuda in order to dodge the billions it owes in tax to the U.K. That money would make a serious dent in the cuts society’s poorest face as a result of the endless sanctions handed out by an “austerity government” desperate to balance the books. Might it be more charitable, then, to use the billions being funneled through avoidance schemes into abiding by the law and helping to reverse the problems created by a deficit-laden economy you’ve willfully avoided paying money to for an extended period of time?
“It’s incredibly exciting and wonderful to be part of a species that dreams in a big way,” explained bioethicist Laurie Zoloth. “But I also want to be part of a species that takes care of the poor and the dying, and I’m worried that our attention is being drawn away to a glittery future world that is fantasy and not the world we live in.”
Her sentiments were echoed by Bill Gates, the world’s second-greatest philanthropist (after Warren Buffet), who expressed that “it seems pretty egocentric while we still have malaria and TB for rich people to fund things so they can live longer” in a Reddit AMA earlier this year.
In any case, whether significant progress of the ilk Thiel and co. are searching for will ever be made remains a big “if.” But should one of these projects yield a major discovery, who will benefit? As we’ve gleaned from the plethora of “free” services made flesh (or screen) by these businessmen, there’s no such thing as something for nothing—and that something has largely been handing over our personal data.
So, if one of Mark Zuckerberg’s projects became the first to isolate the exact genes, let’s say, that had been proven to enable aging, and then set about blocking their effects, how would treatment get underway? Would the information be shared worldwide and administered in hospitals for free, or would it become private property with a hefty price tag attached? Or gratis for users in exchange for more personal data?
The goal of these enterprises seems clear, but what they’d actually do if they got there is far murkier. Only time—and however much of it those competing in the anti-death race have left—will tell.