Seated at the head of a table for 12 with a view of the city’s soaring skyline, thumb Peter Thiel was deep in conversation with his guests, medicine eclectic scientists whose research was considered radical, viagra even heretical.
It was 2004 and Thiel had recently made a tidy fortune selling PayPal, which he co-founded, to eBay. He had spent what he wanted on himself — a posh penthouse suite at the Four Seasons Hotel and a silver Ferrari — and was now soliciting ideas to do good with his money.
The Human Upgrade:
Using their ideas and their billions, the visionaries who created Silicon Valley’s biggest technology firms are trying to transform the most complicated system in existence: the human body.
Illustration by Sébastien Thibault
Among the guests was Cynthia Kenyon, a molecular biologist and biogerontologist who had garnered attention for doubling the life span of a roundworm by disabling a single gene. Aubrey de Grey, a British computer scientist turned theoretician who prophesied that medical advances would stop aging. And Larry Page, co-founder of an Internet search darling called Google that had big ideas to improve health through the terabytes of data it was collecting.
The chatter at the dinner party meandered from the value of chocolate in one’s diet to the toll of disease on the U.S. economy to the merits of uploading people’s memories to a computer versus cryofreezing their bodies. Yet the focus kept returning to one subject: Was death an inevitability — or a solvable problem?
A number of guests were skeptical about achieving immortality. But could science and technology help us live longer, to, say, 150 years? Now that, they agreed, was a worthy goal.
Within a few months, Thiel had written checks to Kenyon and de Grey to accelerate their work. Since then he has doled out millions to other researchers with what he calls “breakout” ideas that defy conventional wisdom.
“If you think you can only do very little and be very incremental, then you’ll work only on very incremental things. It’s self-fulfilling,” Thiel, who is 47 and estimated to be worth $2.2 billion, said in an interview. “It’s those who have an optimism about what can be done that will shape the future.”
He and the tech titans who founded Google, Facebook, eBay, Napster and Netscape are using their billions to rewrite the nation’s science agenda and transform biomedical research. Their objective is to use the tools of technology — the chips, software programs, algorithms and big data they used in creating an information revolution — to understand and upgrade what they consider to be the most complicated piece of machinery in existence: the human body.
The entrepreneurs are driven by a certitude that rebuilding, regenerating and reprogramming patients’ organs, limbs, cells and DNA will enable people to live longer and better. The work they are funding includes hunting for the secrets of living organisms with insanely long lives, engineering microscopic nanobots that can fix your body from the inside out, figuring out how to reprogram the DNA you were born with, and exploring ways to digitize your brain based on the theory that your mind could live long after your body expires.
“I believe that evolution is a true account of nature,” as Thiel put it. “But I think we should try to escape it or transcend it in our society.”
Oracle founder Larry Ellison has proclaimed his wish to live forever and donated more than $430 million to anti-aging research. “Death has never made any sense to me,” he told his biographer, Mike Wilson. “How can a person be there and then just vanish, just not be there?”
Can you make it to 100 years or beyond?
The average American can expect to live for about 80 years. But that may change as scientists develop new ways to prolong human life. In a Washington Post-designed game, you will have access to seven promising tools. How many years will you add to your life? Click to play the game.
During the first stage of their careers, the technologists spent their time solving problems in an industry that might seem glamorous but that in the grand scheme of things has been built on automating mundane tasks: how to pay for a book online, stream a TV episode onto a phone and keep tabs on friends. In contrast, they describe their biomedical research ventures in heroic terms reminiscent of science-fiction plots, where the protagonist saves humanity from destruction through technological wizardry.
Their confidence in that wizardry and their own ideas may lead them to underestimate the downsides and even dangers of the work they are funding, say some science philosophers, historians and economists. Their research in stem cells, neuroscience, genetically modified organisms and viruses, for example, tinkers with nature in big ways that easily could go awry — and operates in a largely unregulated space.
Their work to slow or stop aging, if successful, is also likely to lead to broader societal upheaval, increasing pressure on natural resources and on the economy, as people live longer, work longer and imperil already strained entitlements such as Social Security. Life extension also would radically change the most important building block of society: the family. No one seems able to predict what life might be like when half a dozen or more generations are alive simultaneously.
Laurie Zoloth, a bioethicist at Northwestern University, worries that some of the billionaires’ obsession with longevity may be driven as much by hubris as a desire to do public good.
“It’s incredibly exciting and wonderful to be part of a species that dreams in a big way,” she said. “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.”
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