Philanthropist Peter Thiel is one of the patrons of the SENS Research Foundation, perhaps the only organization in the world at this point that is coordinating and funding serious efforts to build rejuvenation treatments. Thiel recently published a book, and by the alchemy involved in these matters we are thus seeing more press of late on his views and the causes he supports:
An hour into my conversation with Peter Thiel the conversation turns, as it seems conversations with Thiel often do, to the question of death. 'Basically,' Thiel says earnestly, 'I'm against it.' What he calls 'the problem of death' is a topic that he returns to often. 'I think there are probably three main modes of approaching it,' he says. 'You can accept it, you can deny it or you can fight it. I think our society is dominated by people who are into denial or acceptance, and I prefer to fight it.'
Thiel is an amiable, softly spoken man who gives the impression of thinking out loud. Questions are frequently greeted with a series of 'ums... aahs... I think... let me put it this way...', beginning a thought, stopping, trying another, and then another, as if he is testing the best way to be as precise as he can possibly be. 'Hobbes said that in the state of nature life is nasty, brutish and short,' he says. 'And, um, I do think we want to overcome the state of nature. It is true that you can say that death is natural, but it is also natural to fight death. But if you stand up and say this is a big problem, we should do something about this, that makes people very uncomfortable, because they've made their peace with death. In some ways it's a microcosm of the whole complacency of the Western world. I do think there is this danger that our society has made its peace with decline. I'd like to jolt them out of their complacency a little bit.'
He has poured millions of dollars into what he calls 'the immortality project'. 'I would like to live longer, and I would like other people to live longer.' His belief is such that he has signed up with Alcor, the leading company in the field of cryonics, to be deep-frozen at the time of his death - as much as an 'ideological statement', he says, as in any expectation of being thawed out any time in the near future. 'In telling you that I've signed up for it cryonics, there's always this reaction that it's really crazy, it's disturbing. But my take on it is it's only disturbing because it challenges our complacency.'
He is, as you might expect, a definite optimist. Thiel believes there will be a cure for cancer in the next 20 years, and that a cure for Alzheimer's is within reach. Immortality, he allows, may take a little longer. He has given more than $6 million to support the work of Aubrey de Grey, the English gerontologist who co-founded the Methuselah Foundation, and is now the chief research scientist of SENS Research Foundation (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence). De Grey has famously pronounced that he believes the first person to live to 1,000 is already alive today.
The 'life extension project', Thiel says, is as old as science itself. 'It was probably even more important than alchemy. Finding élan vital, the water of life, was of greater interest than finding something that could transmute everything into gold. And I do think people would prefer immortality to lots of gold. On a fundamental level, the question is whether ageing can be reversed or not. Many biological processes appear to be irreversible, but computational processes are reversible. If it is possible to understand biological systems in informational terms, could we then reverse these biological processes, including the process of ageing? I do think that the genomics revolution promises a much greater understanding of biological systems and opens the possibility of modifying these seemingly inevitable trajectories in far more ways than we can currently imagine.' So immortality may be possible? 'Well, "immortal" is a long time.
'There are many arguments against life extension, and they all strike me as extraordinarily bad: it's not natural; there will be too many people; you will be bored. But I don't think it would be boring at all.' He pauses. 'People always say you should live your life as if it were your last day. I think you should live your life as though it will go on for ever; that every day is so good that you don't want it to end.'