For various reasons, such as people promoting their books, the mainstream media has been giving more attention than usual these past few weeks to the topic of healthy life extension. The quality of the resulting articles is fairly low, as is usually the case. When given marching orders to cover any particular topic, the average journalist grabs the first few specific items that show up in a search of recent articles, wraps them with some pretty words, and launches the result without any attempt at achieving or conveying real understanding of the subject. When it comes aging and efforts to treat aging as a medical condition, just like any other quite complex topic in science and medicine, that real understanding is absolutely vital in order to distinguish between arrant nonsense, legitimate but poor approaches, and efforts that might do very well indeed if given sufficient support. The media is not the place to search for comprehension, on this or any other subject, sadly. So we see articles in which supplements, calorie restriction mimetic research, senescent cell clearance, and spa treatments are all ranked equally, without judgement or insight - options spanning the gamut of the aforementioned arrant nonsense through to potentially viable rejuvenation therapies.
Does it do the cause of human rejuvenation any good to have the press talk more rather than less, when nine-tenths of what is published is wrong, useless, or outright disinformation? It can be argued that there is no such thing as bad publicity. If these bland articles spur some people into moving from the class of those who do nothing into the class of those who head off to find out more, then some of the more active of those folk will eventually make their way into our community. There are many roads to learning about SENS-like rejuvenation research: from the personal health and fitness world; from time spent in other areas of the life sciences; from a passing interest in living longer acquired via supplement sellers; because it is talked about among members of an otherwise unrelated community, such as in the Bay Area technology circles; and so forth. So long as people arrive and help with meaningful progress in research and development, help to grow the community, I don't think the road taken matters all that much. Even if it starts with a few eye-rollingly terrible articles in the press.
It is tempting to see transhumanism as merely the latest rebranding of a very old desire, for immortality. Aubrey de Grey is a biomedical gerontologist who sees death as a disease to be cured. Anders Sandberg, a neuroscientist working on mind uploading, wishes literally to become an "emotional machine." Zoltan Istvan ran a presidential campaign that saw him travel across the country in a coffin-shaped bus to raise awareness for transhumanism. He campaigned on a pro-technology platform that called for a universal basic income, and promoted a Transhumanist Bill of Rights that would assure, among other things, that "human beings, sentient artificial intelligences, cyborgs, and other advanced sapient life forms" be "entitled to universal rights of ending involuntary suffering."
Then there's Max More, a co-founder of Extropianism, who runs the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona. Alcor is a cryopreservation facility that houses the bodies of those hoping to be reanimated as soon as the technology exists. The bodies, "are considered to be suspended, rather than deceased: detained in some liminal stasis between this world and whatever follows it, or does not." Alcor is the largest of the world's four cryopreservation facilities, and houses 149 "patients," nearly 70 percent of whom are male.
Those working on immortality are long-term thinkers and fall, broadly, into two camps: those who want to free the human from the body, and those who aim to keep the body in a healthy condition for as long as possible. Randal Koene, like Max More, is in the first group. Instead of cryonics, he is working toward "mind uploading," the construction of a mind that can exist independent of the body. His nonprofit organization, Carboncopies, aims for "the effective immortality of the digitally duplicated self. Maybe it wouldn't be that much of a shock to the system to be uploaded, because we already exist in this prosthetic relationship to the physical world anyway, where so many things are experienced as extensions of our bodies."
Aubrey de Grey is in the second, body preservationist group, whose efforts tend to be slightly more modest: Rather than solving death, they focus on extending life. His nonprofit, SENS Research Foundation, focuses on research in heart disease and Alzheimer's, and other common illnesses and diseases. (SENS, like many organizations the transhumanists are involved with, has received funding from Peter Thiel.) De Grey's most mainstream contribution is the popularization of the concept of "longevity escape velocity," which is explained as follows: "For every year that passes, the progress of longevity research is such that average human life expectancy increases by more than a year-a situation that would, in theory, lead to our effectively outrunning death." One might dismiss such transhumanist visions as too extreme: so many men, so much hubris. And yet, at a time of great cynicism about humanity - and the future we're all barreling toward - there is something irresistible about transhumanism. Call it magical thinking; call it radical optimism.
Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel is famous for a lot of reasons. He's an acclaimed bioethicist and oncologist and has two very well known brothers, but another thing people always seem to remember about him is that article he wrote in 2014: "Why I Hope to Die at 75." Emanuel's embrace of an early end - one that's only a few years shy of the U.S. life expectancy of 78.8 -is the exact opposite of how most people in America feel about dying. In a survey from the Pew Research Center, nearly 70% of American adults said they wanted to live to be up to 100 years old. But why?
"The quest to live forever, or to live for great expanses of time, has always been part of the human spirit," says Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Emory Center for Ethics. People now seem to have particular reason to be optimistic: in the past century, science and medicine have extended life expectancy, and longevity researchers (not to mention Silicon Valley types) are pushing for a life that lasts at least a couple decades more.
The titans of the tech industry are known for their confidence that they can solve any problem - even, as it turns out, the one that's defeated every other attempt so far. That's why the most far-out strategies to cheat death are being tested in America's playground for the young, deep-pocketed and brilliant: Silicon Valley. Larry Ellison, the co-founder of Oracle, has given more than $330 million to research about aging and age-related diseases. Alphabet CEO and co-founder Larry Page launched Calico, a research company that targets ways to improve the human lifespan. Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal, has also invested millions in the cause, including over $7 million to the Methuselah Foundation, a nonprofit focused on life-extension therapies.
Rather than wait years for treatments to be approved by federal officials, many of them are testing ways to modify human biology that fall somewhere on the spectrum between science and entrepreneurialism. It's called biohacking, and it's one of the biggest things happening in the Bay Area. "My goal is to live beyond 180 years," says Dave Asprey, CEO of the supplement company Bulletproof. "I am doing every single thing I can to make it happen for myself."
"So, you don't want to die?" I asked Zoltan Istvan, then the Transhumanist candidate for president, as we sat in the lobby of the University of Baltimore one day last fall. "No," he said, assuredly. "Never." Istvan, an atheist who physically resembles the pure-hearted hero of a Soviet children's book, explained that his life is awesome. In the future, it will grow awesomer still, and he wants to be the one to decide when it ends. Defying aging was the point of his presidential campaign. He knew he'd lose, of course, but he wanted his candidacy to promote the cause of transhumanism - the idea that technology will allow humans to break free of their physical and mental limitations. His platform included, in part, declaring aging a disease.
But his central goal-pushing the human lifespan far beyond the record 122 years and possibly into eternity - is one shared by many futurists in Silicon Valley and beyond. Investor Peter Thiel, who sees death as "the great enemy" of man, is writing checks to researchers like Cynthia Kenyon, who doubled the life-spans of worms through gene-hacking. Oracle founder Larry Ellison has thrown hundreds of millions toward anti-aging research, according to Inc magazine, and Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin launched the Google subsidiary Calico specifically with the goal of "curing death."
But let's assume, for the sake of argument, that it can be. Let's say human lives will soon get radically longer - or even become unending. The billionaires will get their way, and death will become optional. If we really are on the doorstep of radical longevity, it's worth considering how it will change human society. With no deadline, will we still be motivated to finish things? Or will we while away our endless days, amusing ourselves to - well, the Process Formerly Known as Death - while we overpopulate the planet? Will Earth become a paradise of eternally youthful artists, or a hellish, depleted nursing home? The answers depend on, well, one's opinion about the meaning of life.