Illustration by Chelsea Beck/GMG
Right after reinventing existing public services with private apps, hacking death may be the ultimate dream of Silicon Valley’s elite. Death is truly the final boss for anyone who thinks enough money and lines of code can solve anything, and boy are they attacking it hard. In 2016, Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan pledged $US3 billion (~$4 billion AUD) toward a plan to cure all diseases by the end of the century.
“By the time we get to the end of this century, it will be pretty normal for people to live past 100,” Zuckerberg said in 2016.
And to be sure, science, medicine and unlocking more about how the body functions have already worked what would look like a miracle to someone living centuries ago: the average life expectancy for someone born in the United States doubled in just 130 years, from 39 years in 1880 to 78 years in 2011. So Zuckerberg’s prediction may actually be easier than ridding his platform of Russian bots. Longevity — and potential immortality — is a particularly popular obsession with the tech world and Silicon Valley billionaires, who seem to be offended that death would ever get the better of them, and that somehow future generations MUST be able to bask in their immortal wisdom, even if their bodies are just throbbing electric impulses in a jar sustained by regular infusions of monkey testicles (yes, a real thing people tried for a while).
The ultimate problem is that human bodies, these sad, slumping, failure-prone products of evolution, just aren’t cut out for living forever. People throughout history have tried, but the garbage body always gets in the way.
“We humans, as we are now, messy bags of blood and bone, are not really fit for immortality,” Stephen Cave, a philosopher at the University of Cambridge and author of the book Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilisation, told me. “So some really profound thing has to happen if we’re going to [change that].”
But if you’re interested in trying, oligarchs, rich lunatics and scientists throughout history provide some a framework, and a lot more is in the works at this very moment. Below, a rundown of the different approaches that have been taken up in the never-ending quest for life to never end.
Hack all diseases out of existence
Zuckerberg, along with his Silicon Valley pals from Google and 23andme, set up the Breakthrough Prize in 2012 to celebrate and promote science innovations, including fighting disease and living longer.
He also set up The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which will donate $US3 ($4) billion over a decade to basic medical research with the goal of curing disease. Some have argued this approach isn’t the most efficient and the money would be better spent targeting single diseases at a time instead of an across-the-board assault. For instance, eradicating smallpox cost just $US300 ($395) million in less than 10 years.
There is a problem with this approach, said Brian Kennedy, the director of Center for Healthy Ageing at the National University of Singapore: even if you treat diseases, you still haven’t cured ageing itself.
“We don’t do healthcare [in the medical community], we do sick care,” he said, pointing out that the goal shouldn’t be just giving rich people access to cures for any disease but rather fundamentally attacking “ageing” itself as a threat.
“Ageing is the biggest risk factor to all these diseases that go out of control,” he said. “This is not just about a few billionaires living longer. This is about a million people living longer.”
Ageing itself creates risks, he said, because organs and body systems inevitably break down over time. His center is researching ways to halt ageing at the enzyme level. One of the most promising is the TOR pathway, a kind of cellular signalling that tells a cell to grow and divide or hunker down and turn up stress responses. Scientists believe that manipulating that pathway could slow down ageing.
“It’s a really robust effect,” Kennedy said.
Once people realise that, he hopes his cause will be as flashy and imagination-capturing as Zuckerberg’s longevity quest.
“The most important thing we can do right now is to validate [the idea that] we can affect the ageing,” he said. “Once that happens, I think interest level will go way up.”
Biohacking will also open up new avenues — and intense ethical debates — about what lengths people can go to to change their genetic code. Scientists, for instance, are still carefully exploring CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) technology, which acts like a homing missile that tracks down a specific DNA strand, then cuts and pastes a new strand in its place. It can be used to alter just about every aspect of DNA. In August, scientists for the first time in the United States used the gene editing technology on a human embryo to erase a heritable heart condition.
Harvesting young body parts
Throughout history, people have seized on the idea that you can essentially patch or infuse the human body with parts of other bodies and cheat death, kinda like jailbreaking your iPhone so it can accept any software.
Take, for instance Serge Voronoff, a Russian-born scientist who in the early 20th century believed animal sex glands held the secret to prolonging life. In 1920, he tried it out, taking a piece of monkey testicle and sewing it to a human’s (although, it should be noted, not his own) scrotum. The idea seemed to catch on: by the mid-1920s, according to Atlas Obscura, 300 people underwent his procedure; at least one woman received a graft of monkey ovary.
“The sex gland stimulates cerebral activity as well as muscular energy and amorous passion,” Voronoff wrote in his 1920 book, Life; a Study of the Means of Restoring Vital Energy and Prolonging Life. “It pours into the stream of the blood a species of vital fluid which restores the energy of all the cells, and spreads happiness.”
Voronoff eventually built his own monkey enclosure on his property and claimed he was able to restore 70 year olds to their youthful vigour. Some could live to 140, he claimed. He was able to charge as much as an average year’s salary at the time for the procedure.
Voronoff died in 1951, apparently never having rejuvenated himself.
Monkey testicles have fallen out of style, but, unlike the good doctor Voronoff, the idea of harvesting body parts is still very much alive.
Trump surrogate, Gawker killer and overall too-rich person Peter Thiel has talked about his interest in parabiosis, the process of getting transfusions of blood from a younger person, to reverse ageing.
“I’m looking into parabiosis stuff, which I think is really interesting. This is where they did the young blood into older mice and they found that had a massive rejuvenating effect,” he told Inc. “It’s one of these very odd things where people had done these studies in the 1950s and then it got dropped altogether. I think there are a lot of these things that have been strangely under-explored.”
Studies have shown this may just be the latest snake oil tactic, though targeted to lunatic rich people who can’t help but be fascinated by the idea of literally feeding off the young.
It certainly didn’t work out for Alexander Bogdanov, a science fiction writer, doctor, and pioneer of cybernetics who dabbled in blood transfusions in the 1920s. He thought that if he ran a train of blood transfusions on himself, he could become functionally immortal. This thirst for blood met a hubristic end: he eventually took a blood transfusion from a malaria patient. The patient survived, but he did not.
Redefining the soul
Cave’s book breaks up immortality schemes throughout history into four classifications: the first one, staying alive in the body, involves all those life extending medicines and life hacking gene therapies discussed above. The second one involves resurrection, an idea that has fascinated people throughout history, from Luigi Galvani’s 18th century experiments running electricity through a dead frog’s legs to more recent efforts at cryonics, the process of freezing your body with the hope that future medicine or technology will be able to restore you to health. Some in Silicon Valley are interested in new versions of cryonics, but so far it doesn’t seem to be getting that much attention.
Cave’s third path involves finding immortality through the soul, something that has driven religious wars and controlled populations for eons. It takes as a fact that your physical body is a degrading mess that will one day betray you, but that doesn’t matter, since the soul is the real, eternal essence of who you are. But it’s best left to religious discussions nowadays, as science can’t seem to prove it exists.
“If bits of your brain are damaged, then bits of you, the fundamental deepest idea of who you are, have disappeared,” Cave said. He’s talking about the idea that if the soul is the indestructible essence of you that can survive eternity, why does our essence change when we suffer brain damage or other personality altering maladies? If your soul lets you live forever, which version of you exactly is the one that lives forever?
“That leads us to wonder if your soul is somehow supposed to be maintaining all these things, why can’t your soul do that for you? If it can do that when your whole brain is gone, why can’t that do that when a part of your brain is gone?”
But some techies argue the nature of these projects will redefine what a soul is entirely: not so much a ghostly essence of your being connected to a higher power, but more a specific set of brain signatures unique to you, a code that can be hacked like any other code.
“Consider, then, the modern soul as the unique neuronal-synaptic signature integrating brain and body through a complex electrochemical flow of neurotransmitters. Each person has one, and they are all different,” Marcelo Gleiser a theoretical physicist and writer and a professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College, wrote for NPR in April. “Can all this be reduced to information, such as to be replicated or uploaded into other-than-you substrates? That is, can we obtain sufficient information about this brain-body map so as to replicate it in other devices, be they machines or cloned biological replicas of your body?”
Google’s lifespan-extending project Calico launched in 2013 with a mission statement that calls ageing “one of life’s greatest mysteries.” Also a great mystery is exactly what Calico has been up to: the company’s work has been shrouded in secrecy, which has led to lots of curiosity and frustration from the rest of people in the anti-ageing field. So far, according to a New Yorker piece in April, all that’s known is the company is tracking a thousand mice from birth to death to find “biomarkers” of ageing, what can be described as biochemical substances whose levels predict death. The company has invested in drugs that may help fight diabetes and Alzheimer’s.
Creating a lasting legacy
The tech side of things brings us to Cave’s fourth path to immortality: legacy. For ancient civilizations, that meant creating monuments, having your living relatives chant your name after you’re gone or carving names on tomb walls.
“If your name was spoken and your monuments still stood, they thought,” he wrote in his book, “then at least a part of you still lived.”
Today’s legacies look different than giant stone shrines, but the ego behind them is probably comparable. The idea of uploading consciousness to the cloud has crossed from science fiction into science possible: Russian web mogul Dmitry Itskov in 2011 launched the 2045 Initiative, an experiment to make himself immortal within the next 30 years by creating a robot that can store a human personality.
“Different scientists call it uploading or they call it mind transfer. I prefer to call it personality transfer,” Itskov told the BBC last year.
Fears of an immortal tech bro planet
So here is one of the obvious main problems with Silicon Valley-led innovations, like many other tech-based lurches into the advanced future: it could be too expensive for everyone to afford. Which in turn could mean that we’ll have a class of near immortals, or cloud-based consciousnesses, ruling over people bound to their horrifying analogue bodies. The meshing of human/computer/nantech parts will also open up a whole new thinkpiece industry about when someone stops becoming a “person” all together and is just lines of code.
Kennedy said opening these options up to everyone will depend on what avenue of research proves the most effective. If ageing is treated as a disease (and healthcare in general somehow becomes affordable to everyone), there’s hope.
“The challenge is to figure out ways to improve health span and get it to everybody as quickly as possible,” he said. “If it’s drugs, it’s achievable. If it’s a bunch of transfusions of young blood, that’s less achievable.”
If all this has you bristling at the thought of techies creating their own super race of “disruptors” impervious to the torments of time and the limits of flesh, that’s understandable. But Cave said you may be encouraged by the entire history of people who’ve chased extended lifespans, from ancient Egypt to the people clinging to their diets and exercise throughout the 21st century.
“The one thing that everyone has pursued immortality has in common,” he said, “is that they’re now six foot under, pushing up daisies.”