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Is Silicon Valley's quest for immortality a fate worse than death?

Is Silicon Valley's quest for immortality a fate worse than death?

Postby smix » Wed Feb 27, 2019 1:40 am

Is Silicon Valley's quest for immortality a fate worse than death?
The Guardian

URL: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/ ... ne-therapy
Category: Science
Published: February 23, 2019

Description: Funded by elites, researchers believe they’re closer than ever to tweaking the human body so we can live forever (or quite a bit longer)
China’s first emperor ordered his subjects to search for the elixir of life in a quest for immortality. In 16th century France, nobles would drink gold in a bid to extend their lifespans. Gilgamesh, the Sumerian king at the heart of humanity’s earliest epic poem, found a magic herb, but a snake ate it. In 2015, a woman on the MTV series True Life: I’m Obsessed With Staying Young bathed in pig blood. In 2019, the quest for everlasting life is, largely, though not always, more scientific. Funded by Silicon Valley elites, researchers believe they are closer than ever to tweaking the human body so that we can finally live forever (or quite a bit longer), even as some worry about pseudoscience in the sector. Scientists and entrepreneurs are working on a range of techniques, from attempting to stop cell aging, to the practice of injecting young blood into old people – a process denounced as quackery by the Federal Drug Administration this week. “There’s millions of people now who won’t see death if they choose,” said James Strole, the director of the Coalition of Radical Life Extension, an organization which brings together scientists and enthusiasts interested in “physical immortality”. At present our bodies are built to last – “if you took perfect care of your body” – 125 years, according to Strole. The problem is that if someone did live to be 125, they are unlikely to remain spry into their final decades. “Who wants to live in some decrepit state?” Strole said. “We’ve increased lifespans a lot, but we haven’t improved quality of lifespan.” That’s where what enthusiasts called “super longevity” comes in. A number of billionaires have pumped money into research that aims to keep people fighting fit as they age. Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page have pumped millions into Calico, a secretive health venture which aims to “solve death”. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and the billionaire Peter Thiel are backers of Unity Biotechnology, which hopes to combat the effects of aging. The idea of never dying might sound like something from science fiction, but the experimental techniques are far removed from a brain in a jar, a body in a freezer or a heart wired up to a car battery. Sierra Sciences is another company racing to cheat death. Its focus is on treatments that can lengthen telomeres – the “caps” at the end of each strand of DNA. Telomeres get shorter each time a cell copies itself. Because our cells copy themselves throughout our lives, the telomeres eventually get very short, and our cells cannot regenerate: we get old. “If you can get the telomeres back to the normal state they were at when you were born, that could reduce your biological age back to 25,” Strole said. “You wouldn’t be reversed back to a baby. You stop where maturity begins and ends.” Among Sierra Sciences competitors is BioViva, whose CEO, Elizabeth Parrish, is so committed to the cause that she became one of the first humans to undergo telomere therapy in 2015. Writing in 2018, she claimed a measurement of her telomeres showed they had “grown younger” by roughly 30 years since she received the treatment – her body was reverse-aging. Others claim they can already prevent aging in animals. George Church, a Harvard professor and the founder of Rejuvenate Bio, uses gene therapy to add anti-aging instructions to DNA. Church says he has succeeded in making mice live twice as long, and the secretive company is said to be planning imminent testing on dogs. The discovery by Calico scientists in 2018 that naked mole rats – which look exactly how they sound, except with bigger teeth – essentially do not age fueled further excitement in the quest for immortality. According to Science magazine the defiance is due to “very active DNA repair and high levels of chaperones, proteins that help other proteins fold correctly”, and the hope is that some of the discoveries could be applied to humans. If and when these technologies became available, they are likely to be fantastically expensive. Strole said demand could eventually lower the price, but plenty of non-billionaires could die in the meantime. Besides that, everyone living much, much longer would cause many other problems. Where do the children of these centenarians live? Until workable life-preserving technology is available, immortality enthusiasts are also obsessed with staying healthy – some fast on certain days, others watch calories, most exercise – so they are around long enough to benefit from emerging anti-aging science. The aim, as many in the “physical immortality community” put it, is to: “Live long enough to live forever.”
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Silicon Valley’s Quest to Live Forever

Postby smix » Thu Feb 28, 2019 3:09 pm

Silicon Valley’s Quest to Live Forever
The New Yorker

URL: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017 ... ve-forever
Category: Science
Published: April 3, 2017

Description: Can billions of dollars’ worth of high-tech research succeed in making death optional?
On a velvety March evening in Mandeville Canyon, high above the rest of Los Angeles, Norman Lear’s living room was jammed with powerful people eager to learn the secrets of longevity. When the symposium’s first speaker asked how many people there wanted to live to two hundred, if they could remain healthy, almost every hand went up. Understandably, then, the Moroccan phyllo chicken puffs weren’t going fast. The venture capitalists were keeping slim to maintain their imposing vitality, the scientists were keeping slim because they’d read—and in some cases done—the research on caloric restriction, and the Hollywood stars were keeping slim because of course. When Liz Blackburn, who won a Nobel Prize for her work in genetics, took questions, Goldie Hawn, regal on a comfy sofa, purred, “I have a question about the mitochondria. I’ve been told about a molecule called glutathione that helps the health of the cell?” Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant that protects cells and their mitochondria, which provide energy; some in Hollywood call it “the God molecule.” But taken in excess it can muffle a number of bodily repair mechanisms, leading to liver and kidney problems or even the rapid and potentially fatal sloughing of your skin. Blackburn gently suggested that a varied, healthy diet was best, and that no single molecule was the answer to the puzzle of aging. Yet the premise of the evening was that answers, and maybe even an encompassing solution, were just around the corner. The party was the kickoff event for the National Academy of Medicine’s Grand Challenge in Healthy Longevity, which will award at least twenty-five million dollars for breakthroughs in the field. Victor Dzau, the academy’s president, stood to acknowledge several of the scientists in the room. He praised their work with enzymes that help regulate aging; with teasing out genes that control life span in various dog breeds; and with a technique by which an old mouse is surgically connected to a young mouse, shares its blood, and within weeks becomes younger. Joon Yun, a doctor who runs a health-care hedge fund, announced that he and his wife had given the first two million dollars toward funding the challenge. “I have the idea that aging is plastic, that it’s encoded,” he said. “If something is encoded, you can crack the code.” To growing applause, he went on, “If you can crack the code, you can hack the code!” It’s a big ask: more than a hundred and fifty thousand people die every day, the majority of aging-related diseases. Yet Yun believes, he told me, that if we hack the code correctly, “thermodynamically, there should be no reason we can’t defer entropy indefinitely. We can end aging forever.” Nicole Shanahan, the founder of a patent-management business, announced that her company would oversee longevity-related patents that Yun had pledged to the cause. “I’m here with my darling, Sergey,” she said, referring to her boyfriend, Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google. “And he called me yesterday and said, ‘I’m reading this book, “Homo Deus,” and it says on page twenty-eight that I’m going to die.’ I said, ‘It says you, personally?’ He said, ‘Yes!’ ” (In the book, the author, Yuval Noah Harari, discusses Google’s anti-aging research, and writes that the company “probably won’t solve death in time to make Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin immortal.”) Brin, sitting a few feet away, gave the crowd a briskly ambiguous nod: Yes, I was singled out for death; no, I’m not actually planning to die. After Moby put in a plug for being vegan, Dzau called on Martine Rothblatt, the founder of a biotech firm called United Therapeutics, which intends to grow new organs from people’s DNA. “Clearly, it is possible, through technology, to make death optional,” Rothblatt said. (She has already commissioned a backup version of her wife, Bina—a “mindclone” robot named Bina48.) Aging has long lacked the kind of vocal constituency that raised awareness of H.I.V. and breast cancer; as a species, we stink at mobilizing against a deferred collective calamity (see: climate change). The old wax fatalistic, and the young don’t really believe they’ll grow old. But Rothblatt suggested that the evening marked an inflection point. Turning to Dzau, she declared, “It’s enormously gratifying to have the epitome of the establishment, the head of the National Academy of Medicine, say, ‘We, too, choose to make death optional!’ ” The gathering blazed with the conviction that such events can spark: the belief that those inside the room can determine the fate of all those outside the room. In the back, Andy Conrad picked up a mike to challenge the emphasis on extending maximum life span, which is currently around a hundred and fifteen. Conrad is the C.E.O. of Verily, a life-sciences firm owned by Google’s parent company, Alphabet. Like most of the scientists in the room, he aims simply to help people enjoy a few more “quality-adjusted life years.” He asked, “Isn’t longevity a misnomer? Isn’t it ‘living longer well’? Or ‘healthspan’?” The biologists nodded with relief. Norman Lear, still vigorous at ninety-four, closed the night by saying, “Seven years ago, I wrote a pilot script for a TV show called ‘Guess Who Died?,’ about people at a retirement community. I just learned today that it’s on its way to being made.” The audience demographics were catching up to him: by 2020, for the first time, there will be more people on Earth over the age of sixty-five than under the age of five. Lear continued, “So what I wish to offer you is, we have a stage now to get some of the things you’ve said tonight out to a national audience.” More applause: the message would spread! But which message? Death is optional? Or death will just have to wait?
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For decades, the solution to aging has seemed merely decades away. In the early nineties, research on C. elegans, a tiny nematode worm that resembles a fleck of lint, showed that a single gene mutation extended its life, and that another mutation blocked that extension. The idea that age could be manipulated by twiddling a few control knobs ignited a research boom, and soon various clinical indignities had increased the worm’s life span by a factor of ten and those of lab mice by a factor of two. The scientific consensus transformed. Age went from being a final stage (a Time cover from 1958: “Growing Old Usefully”) and a social issue (Time, 1970: “Growing Old in America: The Unwanted Generation”) to something avoidable (1996: “Forever Young”) or at least vastly deferrable (2015: “This Baby Could Live to Be 142 Years Old”). Death would no longer be a metaphysical problem, merely a technical one. The celebration was premature. Gordon Lithgow, a leading C. elegans researcher, told me, “At the beginning, we thought it would be simple—a clock!—but we’ve now found about five hundred and fifty genes in the worm that modulate life span. And I suspect that half of the twenty thousand genes in the worm’s genome are somehow involved.” That’s for a worm with only nine hundred and fifty-nine cells. The code book is far more complex for animals that excite our envy: the bee larva fed copiously on royal jelly that changes into an ageless queen; the Greenland shark that lives five hundred years and doesn’t get cancer; even the humble quahog clam, the kind used for chowder, which holds the record at five hundred and seven. For us, aging is the creeping and then catastrophic dysfunction of everything, all at once. Our mitochondria sputter, our endocrine system sags, our DNA snaps. Our sight and hearing and strength diminish, our arteries clog, our brains fog, and we falter, seize, and fail. Every research breakthrough, every announcement of a master key that we can turn to reverse all that, has been followed by setbacks and confusion. A few years ago, there was great excitement about telomeres, Liz Blackburn’s specialty—DNA buffers that protect the ends of chromosomes just as plastic tips protect the ends of shoelaces. As we age, our telomeres become shorter, and, when these shields go, cells stop dividing. (As Blackburn said, “It puts cells into a terribly alarmed state!”) If we could extend the telomeres, the thinking went, we might reverse aging. But it turns out that animals with long telomeres, such as lab mice, don’t necessarily have long lives—and that telomerase, the enzyme that promotes telomere growth, is also activated in the vast majority of cancer cells. The more we know about the body, the more we realize how little we know. Still, researchers plunge ahead. Understanding isn’t a precondition for successful intervention, they point out; we had no real grasp of virology or immunology when we began vaccinating people against smallpox. In the murk of scientific inquiry, every researcher looks to a ruling metaphor for guidance. Aubrey de Grey likes to compare the body to a car: a mechanic can fix an engine without necessarily understanding the physics of combustion, and assiduously restored antique cars run just fine. De Grey is the chief science officer of Silicon Valley’s SENS Research Foundation, which stands for Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence—a fancy way of saying “Planning Your Comprehensive Tune-up.” An Englishman who began his career with a decade of work in A.I., he speaks with rapid fluidity, often while stroking his Rasputin-length beard. De Grey has proposed that if we fix seven types of physical damage we will be on the path to living for more than a thousand years (assuming we can avoid getting hit by a bus or an asteroid). When I met him at the SENS office, in Mountain View, he told me, “Gerontologists have been led massively astray by looking for a root cause to aging, when it’s actually that everything falls apart at the same time, because all our systems are interrelated. So we have to divide and conquer.” We just need to restore tissue suppleness, replace cells that have stopped dividing and remove those that have grown toxic, avert the consequences of DNA mutations, and mop up the gunky by-products of all of the above. If we can disarm these killers, de Grey suggests, we should gain thirty years of healthy life, and during that period we’ll make enough further advances that we’ll begin growing biologically younger. We’ll achieve “longevity escape velocity.” De Grey vexes many in the life-extension community, and one reason may be his intemperate life style. He told me, “I can drink as much as I like and it has no effect. I don’t even need to exercise, I’m so well optimized.” Until recently, he maintained two girlfriends and a wife. Now, he said, “I’m engaged, and my polyamorous days are behind me.” But the main reason is his prophetic air of certainty. His 2007 book, “Ending Aging,” is replete with both exacting research into the obstacles to living longer and proposed solutions so ambitious that they resemble science fiction. De Grey’s fix for mitochondrial mutation, for instance, is to smuggle backup copies of DNA from the mitochondria into the vault of the nucleus, which evolution annoyingly failed to do—probably because the proteins needed in the mitochondria would ball up during their journey through the watery cell body. His fix for that, moving the DNA one way and the proteins that it produces another, amounts to a kind of subcellular hokey pokey. A number of scientists praise de Grey for anatomizing the primary threats, yet they see troubleshooting all seven pathways through such schemes—and you have to troubleshoot them all for his plan to work—as a foredoomed labor. Matt Kaeberlein, a biogerontologist at the University of Washington, said, “It’s like saying, ‘All we have to do to travel to another solar system is these seven things: first, accelerate your rocket to three-quarters of the speed of light . . . ’ ” The great majority of longevity scientists are healthspanners, not immortalists. They want to give us a healthier life followed by “compressed morbidity”—a quick and painless death. These scientists focus on the time line: since 1900, the human life span has increased by thirty years—and so, as a consequence, have cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and dementia. Aging is the leading precondition for so many diseases that “aging” and “disease” are essentially metonyms. Accidents and violence are the leading causes of death up to age forty-four, then cancer rises to the top, and then, at sixty-five, heart disease. Healthspanners want to understand the etiologies of cancer and heart disease and then block them. Why do we almost never get those diseases at age two? How can we extend that protection to a hundred and two? But if we cured cancer we would add only 3.3 years to an average life; solving heart disease gets us an extra four. If we eliminated all disease, the average life span might extend into the nineties. To live longer, we’d have to slow aging itself. Even if we do that, the healthspanners believe, we’re not going to live forever—nor should we. They worry about the rapid drain on natural resources and on Social Security; the potential for a Stalin or a Mugabe to stay in power for centuries; the loss of new ideas from the young; and profound lifelong boredom. Amy Wagers, a researcher at Harvard, told me, “Part of the meaning of life is that we die.” The Greeks warned about the danger of grasping for godlike powers. It didn’t work out well for Asclepius or Achilles, and it worked out even worse for Tithonus, whose lover, Eos, begged Zeus to grant him eternal life but forgot to request eternal youth as well. Decrepit, senile, and miserable, Tithonus eventually shrank into a cicada who stridulated ceaselessly, calling out for release.
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When I met Ned David, I thought that he was about thirty. He had an unlined face and thick auburn hair, he walked rapidly with his hands stuffed into his jeans pockets, and he wore red Converse high-tops. David is forty-nine. He is a biochemist and a co-founder of a Silicon Valley startup called Unity Biotechnology. Unity targets senescent cells—cells that, as they age, start producing a colorless, odorless, noxious goo called SASP, which Unity’s researchers call “the zombie toxin,” because it makes other cells senescent and spreads chronic inflammation throughout the body. In mice, Unity’s treatments delay cancer, prevent cardiac hypertrophy, and increase median life span by thirty-five per cent. “We think our drugs vaporize a third of human diseases in the developed world,” David told me. David isn’t taking any of Unity’s drugs, which won’t be on the market for at least seven years. His youthfulness derives from existing therapies: he takes metformin—a diabetes drug that has made elderly diabetics live longer than a healthy control group—and Retin-A, for his skin. He also swims a lot, having quit running because of spinal osteoarthritis. “I am often accused, here, of picking the things we work on based on the problems of aging I have,” David said. “But because of our drugs I predict that I will run again!” A systemic approach to aging, which would ideally result in your general practitioner prescribing you a “God pill,” is philosophically attractive but financially infeasible. Pharma and biotech companies make money only if they treat a disease, and, because aging affects everything, the F.D.A. doesn’t recognize it as an “indication” susceptible to treatment (or to insurance-company reimbursement). So Unity is taking aim at glaucoma, macular degeneration, and arthritis; the fridge in its lab is stocked with human eyeballs and knee cartilage. This is the customary serial-specialist approach to aging, which tackles it symptom by symptom: let’s restore those eyes, then send you down the street for a 3-D-printed kidney. Last fall, Unity raised a hundred and sixteen million dollars from such investors as Jeff Bezos and Peter Thiel, billionaires eager to stretch our lives, or at least their own, to a span that Thiel has pinpointed as “forever.” In a field rife with charlatans, Ned David’s Dorian Gray affect has factored into his fund-raising. “One class of investor, like Fidelity, finds my youthful appearance alarming,” he said. “Another class—the Silicon Valley type, a Peter Thiel—finds anyone who looks over forty alarming.” Traditionally, it has been the graying tycoons of technology who funded aging research, hoping to disrupt the three-act structure of the Silicon Valley journey: life hacker, rock climber, cadaver. Now aging has cachet in the startup world. Arram Sabeti, the thirty-year-old founder of a tech company called ZeroCater, told me, “The proposition that we can live forever is obvious. It doesn’t violate the laws of physics, so we will achieve it.” Sabeti spends his leisure time reading all-cause-mortality metastudies, and is an investor in the Longevity Fund, a venture fund recently launched by Laura Deming. Deming, who is twenty-two, terms the longevity market a “two-hundred-billion-dollar-plus” opportunity, but she told me that “it’s really impossible to say how big it could be, because if you cured aging you’d change medicine entirely.” Unsurprisingly, it was Google that transformed the Valley’s view of aging. Surprisingly, perhaps, it was the company’s Bill Maris who was in the vanguard. As the founder and C.E.O. of Google Ventures, Maris led successful investments in companies such as Nest and Uber; he was amiable, admired, and financially secure—not an obvious modern-day alchemist. However, he told me, “My thoughts can turn to dark things when I’m alone.” His father died of a brain tumor in 2001, when Maris was twenty-six. “I majored in neuroscience, I’ve worked in hospitals, but until my father died I did not understand the finality of ‘Gone, never to be seen again,’ ” he said. Maris, who is forty-two, is a longtime vegetarian who works out on an elliptical machine for an hour every day. He comforts himself with the knowledge that the scientist who performed a 3-D scan of his brain praised his robust corpus callosum, the bundle of nerve fibers that connects the hemispheres. (Maris displays gleaming polymer models of his and his wife’s brains under glass bells in his office.) But such precautions and advantages were temporary, personal stopgaps. How could he fix the problem permanently, and for everyone? He decided to build a company that would solve death. He discussed the idea with Ray Kurzweil, the futurist who popularized the concept of the Singularity—the idea that humans will merge with A.I. and transcend our biological limitations—and Kurzweil was enthusiastic. Maris also discussed it with Andy Conrad, the geneticist who runs Alphabet’s Verily, and Conrad was thoughtfully discouraging. The first problem was the long study time in humans: it’s hard to run a clinical trial on subjects who take eighty years to die. (A related issue is that we have no accepted model for how to measure biological age, which often differs significantly from chronological age. Seventy probably isn’t the new fifty for, say, Ozzy Osbourne.) The second problem was the immense difficulty of determining whether any seeming cause of aging was actually causal, or merely a correlative of some other, stealthier process. “Andy did throw a lot of cold water on the idea,” Maris said. “But there were no issues of fact. He didn’t say, ‘Aging isn’t a genetic disease,’ or ‘Google will never fund this.’ ” In 2011, Maris pitched his proposed company to John Doerr, a prominent venture capitalist who is on Alphabet’s board. “Imagine you found a lamp on the beach, and a genie came out and granted you a wish,” Maris said. “If you were clever, your first wish would be for unlimited wishes.” As Doerr nodded, Maris continued, “Let’s say you’re going to live, at most, another thirty years.” Doerr had just turned sixty. “If each day is a wish, that’s only between one and ten thousand wishes. I don’t know about you, but I want to add more—I want to add wishes faster than they’re taken away.” Doerr, confronted with the limits to his life span, was galvanized. When Maris pitched Google’s founders, Sergey Brin, who has a gene variant that predisposes him to Parkinson’s disease, loved the idea, and Larry Page declared, “We should do it here!” In 2013, Google launched Calico, short for the California Life Company, with a billion dollars in funding. “Calico added a tremendous amount of validation to aging research,” George Vlasuk, the head of a biotech startup called Navitor, told me. “They have money, brainpower, and time.” But Calico has proved to be extremely secretive. All that’s known is that it’s tracking a thousand mice from birth to death to try to determine “biomarkers” of aging—biochemical substances whose levels predict morbidity; that it has a colony of naked mole rats, which live for thirty years and are amazingly ugly; and that it has invested in drugs that may prove helpful with diabetes and Alzheimer’s. (The company declined to comment.) A number of longevity scientists confess to disappointment with Calico’s direction. Nir Barzilai, a geneticist who is a leader in the aging field, told me, “The truth is, we don’t know what they’re doing, but whatever it is doesn’t really seem to be attacking the problem.” Another scientist who’s familiar with Calico’s workings said that it’s pursuing its mission judiciously, but that the company began, fatally, as a vanity project. The scientist said, “This is as self-serving as the Medici building a Renaissance chapel in Italy, but with a little extra Silicon Valley narcissism thrown in. It’s based on the frustration of many successful rich people that life is too short: ‘We have all this money, but we only get to live a normal life span.’ ” Maris, who has retired from Google Ventures, strongly disagreed with that view. “This is not about Silicon Valley billionaires living forever off the blood of young people,” he said. “It’s about a ‘Star Trek’ future where no one dies of preventable diseases, where life is fair.”
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If Silicon Valley billionaires end up being sustained by young blood, they will satisfy an ancient yearning. In 1615, a German doctor suggested that “the hot and spirituous blood of a young man will pour into the old one as if it were from a fountain of youth.” In 1924, the physician and Bolshevik Alexander Bogdanov began young-blood transfusions, and a fellow-revolutionary wrote that he “seems to have become seven, no, ten years younger.” Then Bogdanov injected himself with blood from a student who had both malaria and tuberculosis, and died. Parabiosis, the surgical linkage of circulatory systems, has had a mostly grisly history in humans—when it was tried as a desperate measure on terminal cancer patients, in 1951, a two-year-old boy lost part of his foot to gangrene—and in rodents, which resisted being conjoined. A 1956 study warned, “If two rats are not adjusted to each other, one will chew the head of the other until it is destroyed.” We kept trying. In 2005, a Stanford lab, run by a stem-cell biologist and neurologist named Tom Rando, announced that heterochronic parabiosis, or an exchange of blood between older and younger mice, rejuvenated the livers and muscles of the older ones. Vampires everywhere felt validated. Last fall, on “The Late Show,” Stephen Colbert warned teen-agers that President Trump would replace Obamacare with mandatory parabiosis: “He’s going to stick a straw in you like a Capri Sun.” Entrepreneurs and venture capitalists also had their straws poised. Rando said, “I’ve had a lot of meetings with young billionaires in Silicon Valley, and they all, to varying degrees, want to know when the secrets are coming out, both so they can get in on the next big thing and so they can personally take advantage of them. I say, ‘This is not an app. If you come at biology from a tech point of view, you’re going to be disappointed, because the pace is much slower.’ ” In recent years, the parabiosis field has grown quarrelsome. Is the rejuvenative key the presence of young-blood proteins, or the absence of something like SASP? Could it be a cellular by-product from one mouse, or the effect of borrowing a younger mouse’s liver? In 2014, the Harvard scientist Amy Wagers concluded that young-blood factors, particularly a protein called GDF11, gave older mice a stronger grip and renewed their brains. Most of her colleagues questioned her results, and the drug company Novartis promptly did a study that suggested the exact opposite: you should blockade GDF11. Wagers told me, “Different groups have reported that amounts of GDF11 go up, go down, or stay the same with age.” With a bleak laugh, she added, “Clearly, one group is right.” After Rando’s colleague Tony Wyss-Coray showed that young blood can foster new neurons in the hippocampus region of the brains of old mice, a company called Alkahest spun out from his work. Alkahest has begun to sift the more than ten thousand proteins in plasma, in hopes that the right protein cocktail can cure Alzheimer’s—a process that is expected to continue for more than a quarter century. When I visited Alkahest recently, Joe McCracken, the vice-president of business development, cued up side-by-side videos of genetically identical, equally aged mice. They were about to run a Barnes maze: a disk dotted with black circles, one of which was a hole—a laboratory version of a burrow in which to escape a diving hawk. During previous runs, they’d been trained to remember the hole’s location. McCracken, who was with two colleagues, explained that the first mouse had been treated only with a placebo of inert saline. We watched it nose here and there, uncertainly, before finally stumbling upon the hole. It took a minute and twenty seconds. The men clapped, releasing their anxiety. “It’s me in the parking lot, looking for my car,” Sam Jackson, the company’s chief medical officer, said. Then McCracken played the video of a mouse that had been tuned up with plasma from eighteen-year-old human beings. That mouse darted purposefully toward one sector of the maze, found the hole, and scooted into it in eighteen seconds. The execs grinned and shook their heads: youth. Every longevity experimenter has talismanic photos or videos of two mice: one timid and shuffling, with patchy fur; the other sleek and vital, thrumming with the miracle elixir. But can mice be our proxy? Empathy beguiles us into believing so. When you read that mice made to run on a treadmill were given “a five-minute warmup period and a five-minute cooldown period,” you think, Very sensible. Yet mice don’t have heart attacks, and their muscles start wasting suddenly, rather than gradually, as ours do. Mice also don’t get Alzheimer’s disease, so scientists mimic it by breeding mice with genes taken from humans. But, since we get Alzheimer’s only when we’re old, testing treatments in young mice often proves misleading. It doesn’t help that labs use radiation to cause artificial aging, or that lab mice live much longer than wild mice. Tony Wyss-Coray told me, “People say, ‘The young mouse finds the hole—O.K., we’re good, give me the treatment!’ And I say, ‘We don’t know if it’s safe, we don’t know if mice are the same as humans—you have to wait.’ ” We’ve cured cancer in lab mice dozens of times, and made them live twice as long, yet none of those results have transferred upstream. “So many times, the mice have failed us,” the geneticist Nir Barzilai lamented.
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The reigning view among longevity scientists is that aging is a product not of evolutionary intent but of evolutionary neglect: we are designed to live long enough to pass on our genes, and what happens afterward doesn’t much matter. As the geroscientist Richard A. Miller wrote, “Mice that devote their energies to eating and breeding will do better than those that spend valuable capital on eye repair and anticancer surveillance.” We mature more slowly than mice and live much longer, because we, like whales and naked mole rats, are at much less risk of being eaten in our first year. Yet from the age of thirty or forty on, after we’ve spawned, we’re living on time that evolution regards as pointless. Eric Verdin, the C.E.O. of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, the leading nonprofit in the field, noted that “if you just kept aging at the rate you age between twenty and thirty, you’d live to a thousand. At thirty, everything starts to change.” From that point, our risk of mortality doubles every seven years. We’re like salmon, only we die in slow motion. The battle between healthspanners and immortalists is essentially a contest between the power of evolution as ordained by nature and the potential power of evolution as directed by man. The healthspanners see us as subject to linear progress: animal studies take the time that they take; life sciences move at the speed of life. Noting that median life expectancy has been increasing in developed nations by about two and a half years a decade, Verdin told me, “If we can keep that pace up for the next two hundred years, and increase our life spans by forty years, that would be incredible.” The immortalists have a different view of both our history and our potential. They see centuries of wild theorizing (that aging could be reversed by heating the body, or by breathing the same air as young virgins) swiftly replaced by computer-designed drugs and gene therapies. Bill Maris said, “Health technology, which for five thousand years was symptomatic and episodic—‘Here are some leeches!’—is becoming an information technology, where we can read and edit our own genomes.” Many immortalists view aging not as a biological process but as a physical one: entropy demolishing a machine. And, if it’s a machine, couldn’t it be like a computer? Progress in computers, or anyway in semiconductors, has been subject to Moore’s Law, the exponential flywheel that has doubled capacity every two years. In linear progress, after thirty iterations you’ve advanced thirty steps; in exponential progress, you’ve advanced 1.07 billion steps. Our progress in mapping the human genome looked like it was linear—and then was revealed, once the doublings grew significant, as exponential. A number of startups are trying to harness exponential curves. BioAge has been using machine learning and crunching genomics data to search for biomarkers that predict mortality. Kristen Fortney, the company’s thirty-four-year-old C.E.O., told me that she had also begun testing computationally designed drugs to find an unexpected substance that would powerfully affect those markers. She’s about to seek her next round of venture financing, and she’s optimistic: “Biotech is something a lot of V.C.s don’t understand, but machine learning and big data are things they do understand.” Aging doesn’t seem to be a program so much as a set of rules about how we fail. Yet the conviction that it must be a program is hard to dislodge from Silicon Valley’s algorithmic minds. If it is, then reversing aging would be a mere matter of locating and troubleshooting a recursive loop of code. After all, researchers at Columbia University announced in March that they’d stored an entire computer operating system (as well as a fifty-dollar Amazon gift card) on a strand of DNA. If DNA is just a big Dropbox for all the back-office paperwork that sustains life, how hard can it be to bug-fix?
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In July, Brian Hanley, a sixty-year-old microbiologist who lives in Davis, California, began trying to give himself the equivalent of an operating-system update: he injected analogues of the gene for growth-hormone-releasing hormone, or GHRH, into his left thigh. GHRH is normally produced in the brain, but Hanley was essentially turning a pencil-eraser-size part of his thigh into a gland that made the molecule, which stimulates the heart, the kidneys, and the thymus. He believed that the treatment was working. His testosterone and good cholesterol were up, his heart rate and bad cholesterol were down, his eyesight was keener. And there was a peculiar side effect: euphoria. On one bike ride, when his bike began to topple sideways, he just let it take him down, laughing. When I met with him, though, he moved gingerly around his dining-room table, unable to sit for long. A few days earlier, he’d herniated a disk trying to lift a refrigerator. It was his fourth significant injury since beginning his gene therapy, but he assured me that this was a common problem for people taking a course of regenerative medicine: they feel so good that they try to do too much. When George Church, a Harvard geneticist whose lab collaborates with Hanley, heard about his injuries, he told me, “It sounds like it affected his mind more than his muscles.” For those frustrated by the stately progress of research up the animal chain, from worms to flies to mice to dogs to monkeys, speculative treatments abound. In Monterey, California, a clinic will give you young plasma for eight thousand dollars a pop—but you have no idea what it’s doing to you. Peter Nygård, a leonine seventy-five-year-old Finnish-Canadian clothing designer who got rich making women look slim in modestly priced pants, has had injections with stem cells derived from his DNA. He believes that the process has reversed his aging. In an interview a few years ago, he proclaimed, “I’m the only guy in the world today who has me, in a petri dish, before I was born.” While Hanley has a tinkerer’s mentality—there’s a hyperbaric chamber stuffed behind his couch—he’s a dedicated researcher. Since the F.D.A. requires an authorization for any new tests on humans, he began trying therapies on himself. He’d read the literature on self-experimentation, and tallied the results: eight deaths (including that of the blood-transfusing Alexander Bogdanov), and ten Nobel Prizes. Coin toss. Hanley acknowledged that his research had a few basic problems as a template for reshaping life spans. First, a sample size of one; second, a therapeutic method whose results may not last; third, a gene whose effects seem to be regenerative rather than transformative. In order to comprehensively reprogram ourselves, we’d want to insert corrective genes into a virus that would disperse them throughout the body, but doing so could alarm the immune system. The advent of CRISPR, a gene-editing tool, has given researchers confidence that we’re on the verge of the gene-therapy era. George Church and his Harvard postdocs have culled forty-five promising gene variants, not only from “super centenarians”—humans who’ve lived to a hundred and ten—but also from yeast, worms, flies, and long-lived animals. Yet Church noted that even identifying longevity genes is immensely difficult: “The problem is that the bowhead whale or the capuchin monkey or the naked mole rat, species that live a lot longer than their close relatives, aren’t that close, genetically, to those relatives—a distance of tens of millions of genetic base pairs.” The molecular geneticist Jan Vijg said, “You can’t just copy a single mechanism from the tortoise,” which can live nearly two hundred years. “We’d have to turn our genome over to the tortoise—and then we’d be a tortoise.” Becoming part tortoise wouldn’t necessarily alarm Brian Hanley. If we can only find the right genes and make their viral transmission safe, he declared, “we can enable human transformations that would rival Marvel Comics. Super muscularity, ultra-endurance, super radiation-resistance. You could have people living on the moons of Jupiter who’d be modified in this way, and they could physically harvest energy from the gamma rays they were exposed to.”
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Although Ned David has maintained his milk-fed aspect by battling his own aging on multiple fronts, down to his choice of sneakers, he can’t shake the idea that our foe is fundamentally unitary. David likens longevity research to a huge tree, and he believes that most current efforts, including the therapies his company is pursuing, are just branches of the tree. “No one is working on the trunk,” he told me, mournfully. In December, however, he began to have hope that “trunkness,” as he puts it, was in sight. David had long suspected that the epigenome was central to longevity. If the genome is our cellular hardware, then the epigenome is its software: it’s the code that activates DNA, telling a cell to differentiate—to become a macrophage or a neuron—and then how to remember its identity. The epigenome itself is controlled by agents that add or subtract chemical groups, known as marks, to its proteins. Biologists suspect that when the epigenome accumulates too many marks, over time, the signals it sends to cells change dramatically—and that those new signals produce the effects of aging. This process could explain, for instance, why an old person’s skin can refresh itself with new cells every month and yet continue to look old. In 2012, Tom Rando and his Stanford colleague Howard Chang published a paper noting that a fertilized human egg has properties of eternal youth: sperm and eggs can age, but every embryo resets the clock. Chang, a dermatologist and genome scientist, had discovered that the epigenome in aging skin, once it has accumulated enough marks, turns the genome on with a protein called NF-kB in ways that inflame and age skin. When he inhibited NF-kB in genetically modified mice, it rejuvenated their skin. Rando’s work in parabiosis seemed to hinge on a similar process: making stem cells revert to a more youthful stage. The scientists suggested that “the ideal would be to reset the aging clock but to leave the differentiation program untouched”—that is, to engage the stem cells and make them refresh tissues and organs without making them revert to a predifferentiated state, which would introduce hairy, tooth-filled tumors called teratomas. The goal was young-Brad-Pitt-stage Benjamin Button, nothing more. After that paper, Rando turned back to parabiosis, and Chang began work on a cream to make skin look decades younger. He explained, “That’s what people want.” But he also said that the longevity community had proved too fractious: “It’s the most difficult field I’ve ever worked in, and I didn’t want to define my scientific life with all these fights.” In December, Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, of the Salk Institute, in San Diego, announced that he’d done the work that Rando and Chang had proposed. After four years of trial and error in mouse experiments, he had figured out a way to trigger the Yamanaka factors, four genes that reset the clock in fertilized eggs. When lab mice drank water laced with doxycycline—but only two days a week—they lived more than thirty per cent longer. Wild mice subjected to the same method had rejuvenated muscles and pancreases. As in most modern efforts to circumvent aging, Belmonte was tricking the body—borrowing a powerful mechanism from embryos and, very gingerly, applying it to adults. He told me, “You want a cardiac cell to become a new cardiac cell, but not to revert all the way to a stem cell, which would stop the heart beating. We did that. Our experiment was very rude and uncontrollable, and there will be other deleterious effects, as well as many unknowns. But this is very promising.” Modifying cells’ software was less dangerous than tampering with their hardware, he said, and, as with software, “there will always be a better version of our program next year.” Belmonte was careful to downplay the obvious question that his research provoked: If we could keep resetting our clock, couldn’t we live indefinitely? “The idea is not to increase life span but to have yourself working better,” he told me. He chuckled, and added, “Obviously, if you improve all the cells in your body, as an indirect consequence you will live longer.” Galvanized by Belmonte’s work, Ned David flew to San Diego twice this winter to meet with him and see if there was a way “to prove that this was the ticking clock” and then to “nudge us back to twenty-five-ness.” In mid-March, they discussed ways to proceed. Could they develop markers so that cells would change color in the lab if a drug made them younger—and change to a different color if they were perturbed too far? Could the team activate telomerase to rejuvenate the epigenome? Could they find genes that would act as an emergency brake on the reversion process? There was so much systems logic to think through. David was tantalized by the possibility of trunkness, yet still unsure. “We can revert some tissues, in a shotgunny way,” he said, “but we haven’t figured out the Francis Crick experiment that changes everything.” He laughed. “If I knew what that experiment was, I’d be doing it now.” Even if Belmonte and David find a substance that rejuvenates stem cells the perfect, Goldilocks amount, there will likely be unexpected side effects—for the hip bone is connected not only to the thigh bone but to every other damn bone. To repair tissue, you need to rejuvenate stem cells. But stem cells need to divide to do their job, and the division process invites random mutations—which drive cancer. A great many longevity papers end with mystified hand-waving in the direction of unknown “systemic factors.” Solving aging is not just a whodunnit but a howdunnit and wheredunnit and a whyohwhydunnit. Tom Rando suggested, “It’s not A causes B causes C causes D causes aging. It’s a network diagram of nodes and links—all subject to feedback loops where consequences become causes—that gradually becomes more and more destabilized.” If the body is a set of Christmas-tree lights—and it’s not—then every time you plug it into a new outlet some lights go on and some go off. Stabilizing one part of the network further destabilizes another. That which makes us also unmakes us, and the process of living seems inextricably bound to the process of dying.
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So far, the most powerful interventions you can make to extend your life are the kinds of low-tech things that your doctor has already told you in a droning voice. Quit smoking (ten more years) and wear a seat belt (two more). Assuming you’ve already done that, exercise regularly and watch your diet. Pankaj Kapahi, a researcher at the Buck Institute, recently showed me two clear boxes filled with fruit flies in vials, with two types of food at the bottom: orange goo in one set of vials and yellow goo in the other. “These are the flies on the burger diet, these are the flies on the Spartan diet,” he said, pointing to the boxes. “You can gauge their health by how quickly they go up the vial.” He banged both boxes, hard. The burger-fed flies struggled upward, while the Spartan flies soared. “Some of these diets can double their life spans,” he said. Both caloric restriction and exercise appear to dampen mTOR, a signalling pathway that regulates cellular metabolism. Under strain, the body realizes that it’s a bad time to reproduce and a good time to repair cells and increase stress resistance. Scientists believe this is nature’s way of responding to famine: hunker down and wait for better times to procreate. There seems to be a link between forgoing sex and extending life, since what the French call the little death apparently hastens the big one. The immune suppressant rapamycin makes mice live longer, yet shrivels their testicles. Likewise, the most proven way for a man to live fourteen years longer than average is to become a eunuch. Good news/bad news. Starving yourself, unsurprisingly, has disadvantages. If you want caloric restriction to have a chance of working, you should take in at least thirty per cent fewer calories, and the most useful way to do that—intermittent fasting—is both unpleasant for subjects to endure and impossible for researchers to patent. So the goal is to develop powerful drugs that subdue mTOR without making you feel famished. In the meantime, the Calorie Restriction Society’s Web site warns you to be careful how you go about limiting your intake: “Sudden adult onset calorie restriction shortens the lifespans of mice.” The site goes on to say, “There are several other risks you should be aware of”—at which point the page breaks off. Leonard Guarente, an M.I.T. biology professor who did important research on the mTOR-regulating enzymes called sirtuins—which seemed like a potential master key a decade ago—is a co-founder and the chief scientist of Elysium Health. Elysium’s first nutraceutical product, called Basis, promises “metabolic repair and optimization.” For fifty dollars a month, a daily pill provides you with chemicals that nourish sirtuins. There are no clinical data yet that Basis does anything useful in humans, so, when I visited Guarente in his office at M.I.T., I asked if he’d noticed any effects from taking it. “I have,” he said. He glanced at Elysium’s P.R. person. “Can I say it? It is O.K.?” She gave a calibrated nod, and he said, “My fingernails grow faster.” And what does that mean? “I don’t know. But something.”
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All the leading immortalists started out in tech, and all had a father who died young (as Ray Kurzweil’s did when he was twenty-two), or absconded early (as Aubrey de Grey’s did before he was born). They share an early loss of innocence and a profound faith that the human mind can perfect even the human body. Larry Ellison, the co-founder of Oracle, lost his adoptive mother to cancer when he was in college—and later donated three hundred and seventy million dollars to aging research. “Death has never made any sense to me,” he told a biographer. “How can a person be there and then just vanish?” Bill Maris, who conceived of Calico, said that, when he pondered the inevitability of death, “I felt it was maybe our mission here to transcend that, and to preserve consciousness indefinitely.” Immortalists fall into two camps. Those who might be called the Meat Puppets, led by de Grey, believe that we can retool our biology and remain in our bodies. The RoboCops, led by Kurzweil, believe that we’ll eventually merge with mechanical bodies and/or with the cloud. Kurzweil is a lifelong fixer and optimizer: early in his career, he invented the flatbed scanner and a machine that reads books aloud to the blind. Those inventions have improved dramatically in subsequent iterations, and now he’s positive that what he calls “the law of accelerating returns” for human longevity is about to kick in. I met with Kurzweil at Google, where he is a director of engineering, but he emphasized that he was speaking in his private capacity as a futurist. Though a few days short of his sixty-ninth birthday, he looked much younger. After discovering, in his thirties, that he had Type 2 diabetes, he changed his life style radically and began taking supplements. He swallows some ninety pills a day, including metformin; Basis; a coenzyme called Q10, for muscle strength; and phosphatidylcholine, to keep his skin supple. “How does it look?” he asked me, plucking at his forearm. “Supple!” I said. Kurzweil thinks of such efforts, which attempt to slow aging by using current technology, as Bridge One to indefinite longevity. But he also subscribes to the belief that the body is essentially a computer made up of overwritable data and updatable apps. Therefore, we’ll soon be in the midst of a biotech revolution, which will offer personally tailored immune therapies for cancer as well as organs grown from our own DNA. This is Bridge Two, which he believes will bring us to longevity escape velocity within about fifteen years. “I’m actually a little more optimistic than Aubrey,” he said. Bridge Three, which he expects us to cross by the two-thousand-thirties, is nanobots—blood-cell-size devices that will roam the body and the brain, cleaning up all the damage that de Grey wants to fix with medical interventions. “I used to call it the killer app of health technology,” Kurzweil said, “but that’s not a good name.” When we cross Bridge Four, those same nanobots will connect our brains to a neocortical annex in the cloud, and our intelligence will quickly expand a billionfold. Once that transformation happens, in 2045, the Singularity occurs and we become like gods. “For a time, we’ll be a hybrid of biological and nonbiological thinking, but, as the cloud keeps doubling, the nonbiological intelligence will predominate,” Kurzweil said. “And it will be anachronistic, then, to have one body.” He raised his arms slightly and squinted at them, a carpenter troubled by a burl in the wood. Kurzweil acknowledges that he was profoundly affected by the early death of his father, Fredric. Fredric was a brilliant conductor and pianist, but he worked incessantly to make ends meet and was often absent from the family. Kurzweil’s mother once observed, “It was hard on Raymond. He needed a father—and his father was never around.” Kurzweil has preserved fifty boxes of his father’s effects, everything from his letters and photographs to his electric bills, all pack-ratted into a storage facility in Newton, Massachusetts. He hopes to someday create a virtual avatar of his father and then populate the doppelgänger’s mind with all this information, as well as with his own memories of and dreams about his father, exhuming a Fredric Kurzweil 2.0. “We have spent millennia rationalizing the tragedy of death—‘Oh, it’s natural, it’s the goal of life,’ ” Kurzweil told me. “But that’s not really how we feel when we hear that someone we love has died.” He fell silent, then reverted to the question of how realistic his father’s avatar would be, how consoling. “Passing a Fredric Kurzweil Turing test is getting easier and easier,” he said, smiling wryly, “because the people who knew him, like me, are getting older and older.”
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The Meat Puppets, fighting off old age, must contend with evolutionary contingency. Jan Vijg, who co-authored a recent paper arguing that our life span is basically capped at a hundred and fifteen, told me, “Yes, our bodies are information-processing systems. But to fix the body-as-computer requires an in-depth understanding of what’s going on in your cells at a molecular level. And we don’t even know how many types of cells there are! Creating a human is not nearly as easy as creating an A.I., because we’re so very confusingly and unintelligently designed by random changes acted upon by natural selection.” The RoboCops must contend with the boundaries of the human terrain. Osman Kibar, the C.E.O. of a biotech company called Samumed, told me, “We humans are very creative. When we hit a biological limit, we cheat—like Kurzweil, who’s saying, ‘Let’s change the definition of human.’ As each of our functions is uploaded or replaced, at some point you stop calling that a human and start calling it an A.I.” We already have technologies that work inside the body, such as pacemakers and cochlear implants. A paralyzed man recently typed eight words a minute by using a brain-computer interface inserted in his motor cortex. How long will it be before the advantages of scaling and precision manufacture can be applied to the whole body? The 2045 Institute, started by a wealthy Russian inspired by Kurzweil’s time line, believes that we can at least begin making down payments on that moment. The institute’s Web site has an “immortality button,” which you click “to start the development of your own personalized immortal avatar.” You can select from among a remote-controlled robotic copy, a full-body prosthesis topped off by your transplanted head, and a top-of-the-line, wholly artificial body containing your uploaded essence, which will “achieve perfection of form and be no less attractive than the human body.” The sticking point seems to be what to do about our heads, specifically our brains. The futurist Juan Enriquez told me, “We’ll be able to transplant a mouse head within five years. And then it gets really interesting—does Mickey remember Minnie?” At the moment, however, no one has figured out how to refresh Mickey’s brain biology, no matter which body it’s attached to. Neurons don’t regenerate, and we don’t grow new ones, except in the hippocampus. Stem cells imported into the brain don’t help; they just sit there, then die. Benjamin Rapoport, a neurosurgery resident at Weill Cornell Brain and Spine Center who’s working on a project that would directly connect brains to A.I.s, said, “The question is, What is the fundamental you that is you? Most people feel it’s the mind. But can your mind exist only in a biological substrate that weighs 1.5 kilograms, is very wet, and floats like a jellyfish? Or could it conceivably exist someplace else?” In a computer, say. A two-way, high-bandwidth interface with the brain could be available within a decade, and scientists are already trying to map the hundred billion neurons in the brain and the hundred-trillion-plus connections between them—the “connectome,” as it’s infelicitously called. Currently, you can model someone’s brain at the synapse level only by slicing it up after the person is dead. Eventually, however, it seems possible that we could achieve “whole-brain emulation” with live subjects. There would then be permanent copies of our brains that would—we hope—themselves have consciousness. But would that be us? Even if you set aside the question of what portion of being human is somatic—of how much our identity derives from the tactile and sensory and emotional consequences of being embodied in flesh, rather than in Row D of a server farm—you can’t dispense with the problem of memory. Unlike the RAM in a computer, human memories emerge from electrochemical inputs, which trigger your brain to match a pattern and produce an output. There is no physical location for your memory of a first kiss. The recollection changes with the stimulus that triggers it, depending on whether you recall the kiss the next day, read about it in a letter, or run into that old girlfriend twenty years later. So if the connectome project works, and we’re transferred to silicon, we might be invulnerable to physical decay and capable of astounding feats of learning and ratiocination, yet shorn of that first memory of crocuses in a spring rain. But maybe we’d have no memory of caring.
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Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey have the same backup plan if the work doesn’t advance as quickly as they expect: when they die, they will be frozen in liquid nitrogen, with instructions left to reawaken them once science has finished paving the road to immortality. Their optimism is admirable, and perhaps the anxieties that their blueprints stir up are just the standard resentments of the late adopters and the left-behinds. “People are daunted when they hear of these things,” Kurzweil told me. “Then they say, ‘I don’t know if I want to live that long.’ ” For Kurzweil, who has two children, the acceptance of inevitable death is no saner than the acceptance of early death. “It’s a common philosophical position that death gives meaning to life, but death is a great robber of meaning,” he said. “It robs us of love. It is a complete loss of ourselves. It is a tragedy.” And yet. Last year, the geneticist Nir Barzilai hosted a screening of a documentary about longevity, and afterward he posed a question to the three hundred people in the audience. He told me, “I said, ‘In nature, longevity and reproduction are exchangeable. So Choice One is, you are immortalized, but there is no more reproduction on Earth, no pregnancy, no first birthday, no first love’—and I go on and on and on.” He laughed, amused by his own determination to load the dice. “ ‘Choice Two,’ I said, ‘is you live to be eighty-five and not one day sick, everything healthy and fine, and then one morning you just don’t wake up.” The vote was decisive, he said. “Choice One got ten or fifteen people. Everyone else raised their hands for Choice Two.” This wish to preserve life as we know it, even at the cost of dying, is profoundly human. We are encoded with the belief that death is the mother of beauty. And we are encoded, too, with the contradictory determination to remain exactly as we are, forever—or at least for just a bit longer, before we have to go.
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Silicon Valley’s quest for immortality – and its worrying sacrifices

Postby smix » Thu Feb 28, 2019 3:26 pm

Silicon Valley’s quest for immortality – and its worrying sacrifices
The Conversation

URL: http://theconversation.com/silicon-vall ... ces-101405
Category: Science
Published: December 10, 2018

Description: Somewhere in Silicon Valley, a man wakes early with the sunrise. Venturing into the kitchen, he pacifies his rumbling belly with a cup of coffee infused with a large knob of grass-fed butter. He’s in the middle of a fast, after all. After a two-hour meditation session, he’s off to spend thousands of dollars on his latest indulgence – stem cell injections. The clinic’s practitioner assures him that removing stem cells from his bone marrow and injecting them into other tissues will rejuvenate them from their fatigued state. He trusts their word, just as he trusts that spraying nicotine into his mouth will give him the benefits of a cigarette without the negative side effects. When he retires for the night, equipped with melatonin tablets and blue light-blocking glasses to ensure his sleep cycle isn’t disturbed, he’s satisfied with the day’s achievements. He’s taken another small step towards his goal. He may be a product of the 21st century, but he’s also part of the growing contingent who are doing everything in their power to make it alive into the 23rd. Humans have long harboured an obsession with living forever. But all those who shared the quest for immortality have something in common – they failed. And yet the dream of eternity hasn’t wavered. So much so, that many alive today cannot help but wonder if the key to their immortality is already lurking in the ever expanding pool of human knowledge. Modern science has opened an assortment of new ways to improve survival, and now members of the technology-driven ultra-rich are adopting these new approaches in an attempt to extend their own lives. But what is often left unsaid is that modern science has also revealed the darker side of longevity extension: the inevitable physiological trade offs that seem destined to hold us back. Nature seems set to deny our human forms from having it all. So what will it be: humanity, or something else entirely?
A utopian fantasy
Francis Bacon’s symbolic narrative New Atlantis was published in 1627. The unfinished novel portrays a society where humankind has used science to wrestle control of its world from nature. To some, this world represents a foreshadowing of the scientific utopia that we are barrelling towards today. But our world, unlike Bacon’s, is one full of self-interest and greed, and it is to these traits that the quest to defy ageing belongs. Failed quests for immortality have a long record. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of humanity’s oldest tales dating back to the 22nd century BC, the title character embarks on an epic quest to attain everlasting life. After many trials and tribulations, he eventually hears of a flower on the ocean floor that will restore his youth. And despite a warning from the only people ever granted immortality by the gods - that his quest will ruin the joys of life - Gilgamesh plucks the flower from the watery depths. His success doesn’t last. Gilgamesh inevitably loses the flower; and eventually, like all mortals before and after him, he dies. His is a story of defiance against our mortal forms, our endeavour to go to great lengths to overcome them, and the ultimate futility of the idea. It encompasses a theme that still holds significant relevance in the field of anti-ageing research. Nearly 2,000 years later, the first emperor of unified China, Qin Shi Huang, also found himself enamoured with the idea of ruling forever. He tasked his subjects with finding him the “Elixir of Life”, but as he aged with no answer in sight he began to grow desperate. There is evidence that he began ingesting potions containing the highly toxic compound mercury sulphide. So in an ironic twist of fate, his quest for eternal life may have led him to a premature grave. Fast forward to the 19th century and Elixirs of Life had made their way into the mainstream, with many bars and apothecaries selling their own concoctions. Consisting of water, herbs and a considerable dose of alcohol, these potions, once touted to extend life, have slowly morphed into today’s herbal remedies. But it would take another 100 years before society could fathom replacing these elixirs with something based on actual evidence. By the 1930s, scientists had used experiments on rats to reveal that restricting calories could lead to a significant increase in lifespan, a finding that still holds a lot of weight with today’s immortality seekers. Despite this success, research into the processes of ageing remained small scale at best. But a revolution was on the horizon. The year 1945 saw the birth of the Gerontological Society, which established a journal and cultivated research interest in the fledgling field. Its work would prove worthwhile, as by the early 1980s humanity’s understanding of and appetite for ageing research had increased considerably. Restricting calories was no longer the sole item on the list of age-halting strategies. New insights into how cells communicate via signalling and the impact of this process on cell behaviour had swiftly come to the fore. Most notably were those based around the hormone insulin, which was found to regulate many aspects of ageing. Then, in 1990, Daniel Rudman transformed the field with his study of the human growth hormone. He had noticed that the amount of lean body mass (everything in the body except fat) decreased as the amount of growth hormone produced by the body’s cells waned. Curious to see if he could reverse this trend, his team injected older males with synthetic growth hormones, reinvigorating their bodies with a more youthful form by restoring their ability to break down fat cells and grow new bone and muscle cells. At this, entrepreneurs sat up and took notice. Many leapt on the idea for monetary gain, determined to sell the hormone as an anti-ageing therapy. Journalists were swept along in the wave of excitement, writing of the “shot of youth” and asking if we could now stop ageing entirely. The metamorphosis of the anti-ageing industry had begun. And although no one quite knew what world would emerge when their longevity mission was done, they were determined that it would be something beautiful. The human growth hormone craze has since fallen away, but a heap of alternative supplementary therapies have readily taken its place. 2003 also saw the completion of the Human Genome Project, which was thought to hold answers for solving many age-related diseases by identifying the key genes that caused them. Yet the answer to avoiding the deterioration that comes with age has remained elusive. In the years since, many research fields have been scoured in search of answers: health, sport science, psychology, medicine, computer science. Interest has only intensified and wealthy benefactors have shown unrelenting perseverance, with entire companies springing into existence in an effort to unlock eternity. Such confidence raises an inevitable question for the rest of us: can it really be done?
Biohacking the body
There are many, many coffee shops in California. But there are a few, in downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica for example, that offer a unique experience. Inside, you’ll find lighting that changes throughout the day, electromagnetic chairs designed to increase customers’ blood flow, and coffee that’s infused with oil and served with butter. These are the entrepreneur Dave Asprey’s Bulletproof coffee houses, located at the very heart of the so-called biohacking movement. Asprey is a well-known, controversial figure who often publicly claims that he’ll live to 180 years old by augmenting his daily habits to alter his physiology. Asprey’s Bulletproof blog is littered with articles and podcasts detailing the health benefits one can supposedly achieve by employing such “hacks”. These include dietary supplements – which the cynical will note are available as Bulletproof products – and activities that subject the body to stress. We see some of these debatable principles materialising in the Bulletproof coffee shops, with Bulletproof coffee playing the star role but magnetic furniture, grounded floor panels and elevated yoga spots providing a diverse supporting ensemble. Far from being an exact science, biohacking is an umbrella term that encompasses a bunch of self-help material, a dollop of scientific reasoning, and a sprinkle of philosophy for good measure. (People who employ technology to augment their bodies have also been referred to as biohackers, but they’re more commonly referred to as transhumanists, which we’ll come to later). Some of the more eccentric biohackers even encourage regular use of prescription and illegal drugs, such as the psychoactive narcotic MDMA to improve charisma and the narcolepsy nootropic modafinil to enhance cognitive function. And unlike many of Silicon Valley’s anti-ageing companies, which pay considerable credence towards genetic variation playing a key role in ageing, biohacking adopts a purely epigenetic approach. It preaches that we can achieve longevity simply by changing our habits and lifestyle. So what sort of physical stressors do biohackers recommend we subject ourselves to? There are many, but an excellent example is the common biohack of taking cold showers. Allegedly, soaking your body in ice cold water provides a boon to the immune system. The scientific evidence supporting this is tentative at best, and highlights the tendency of biohackers to readily extrapolate on scientific findings that reinforce their world view. But you only need to scratch beneath the surface to uncover the murky water beneath. The cold may well train your blood vessels to be responsive, activate calorie-burning brown fat and decrease inflammation, but it is a double-edged sword. Low temperatures can also constrict your blood vessels - increasing blood pressure - and increase your susceptibility to infection. This acts as a counter to the supposed (and unconfirmed) health boon. With this in mind, cold showers and other extreme practices - which Dave Asprey thinks will help him live to 180 years old - are a young person’s game, and might fly in the face of prolonged life. A biohacking practice may yield a net gain in health when you’re young, but as you age there’s a good chance the balance will shift towards a loss.
Inevitability of trade-offs
The biohacking field rarely considers the dark side of longevity extension, that every gain comes with a trade off. Research has shown that we can extend life, but at a cost in ability to fight infection. For example, we can extend the life of the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, by forcing them to eat high sugar, low protein diets. This comes at a cost in the form of fewer offspring per parent and a reduced ability to fight infection, a process that requires protein. We can also increase longevity by knocking down immune genes or by exposing flies to a dead infection. But, likewise, both of these treatments lead to a substantially reduced ability to fight live infections. Zooming in on cellular components reveals the molecular details underlying many such trade offs. The Cinderella story of the anti-ageing field is mTOR (mammalian target of rapamycin), a molecule that performs a diverse range of roles sending signals around the body. Controlling mTOR in effect allows us to control much of the cell system, including how it ages and divides. And there are now a raft of anti-ageing drugs that modulate the activity of mTOR. Biohackers, for their part, have cracked a way to naturally manipulate mTOR into a similar state by restricting their calorie intake, sometimes through intermittent fasting. The logic behind this being that mTOR only signals the cell to build and grow when there are enough nutrients around for it to be worthwhile. So consuming less food means less mTOR activity, reducing cell growth and, in turn, the rate of cell death. But evidence shows that inhibiting this important molecule’s function not only slows ageing but also suppresses the immune system. Our immune system is costly because it uses our precious mitochondria (the batteries that power our cells) to produce toxic compounds and cause inflammation when fighting germs, which damages the mitochondria. So by suppressing the immune system - as shown in both in our own work and elsewhere - we can avoid this sort of damage and make it possible to increase longevity. Of course, this approach comes with considerable risk. These experimental studies have all taken place in controlled environments with minimal exposure to germs. In a natural environment, deliberately impairing an immune system, whether through drug supplementing or caloric restriction, can cost us dearly, especially in a world where bacteria are persistently evolving more resistance to antibiotics. The trade off between immunity and longevity is a fine example of nature’s way of balancing the scales. Preventing mitochondrial damage and suspending cell death may seem like excellent life-extending practices on their face, but foregoing a fully functional immune response to get there is a heavy, and potentially fatal, price to pay. It’s also worth noting that natural selection has conserved the mTOR-equivalent mechanism throughout the evolution of all animal, fungal and plant life, which highlights just how useful it must be. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so ready to tamper with such an integral element to the fitness of our cells.
Immortality or humanity?
There will always be a myriad of ways our mortal forms can go wrong. And we’ve seen that physiological constraints seem set to always hold us back from drastically extending our lifespans and remedying the root cause of ageing – if there even is one. But on the border between science fiction and pioneering science rest exciting technological ideas that could perhaps unlock a different kind of immortality. Technology can already help us catch age-related defects early, but it holds the potential to become even better: what if we were able to circumvent biological trade offs entirely? Billionaire Elon Musk’s company Neuralink is already on the march to set us down this transhumanist path. It envisages a future where humans are far more intimately connected with their electronic devices than we are today. It invites us to work towards a brain-machine interface that would fundamentally integrate us with our technology, achieving a truly symbiotic relationship. The research is still in its early stages, but brain-machine interfaces are already in use in the form of ear and eye implants that can restore our senses, and brain implants that allow disabled people to remotely control computers and robots. Neuralink aims to take this a step further by seamlessly connecting us to electronic devices, the internet and even other humans. Essentially, we’d all have encyclopaedic information on hand and be able to communicate with one another telepathically. To make this remarkable enhancement possible, a brain-machine interface would be injected into our bloodstream and travel to the brain. There it would self-assemble into a mesh-like structure on the outside of the cerebral cortex, entwining technology to the core of our intelligence and sentience. Despite the invasiveness of Neuralink’s implants, there are already a host of healthy individuals who are eager for such artificial enhancement. Some have even gone so far as to perform surgery on themselves just to install a gadget of meagre real-world value. But this may be just the start. Neuralink and the technology it inspires could become a gateway to a post-human future. Through research in this area, we may decipher the means to accurately translate our organic, chemical neuronal pathways into electronic data that could encapsulate them. And so we may, eventually, be able to capture our beings within a computer, living forever as digital memory accessed by a piece of software. This might be an extreme solution to the question of how to live forever, but there are wealthy individuals, such as entrepreneur Dmitry Itskov, devoted to the idea of merging with a computer. Itskov’s 2045 Initiative views brain-machine interfaces as just the first step in a four-part journey that culminates in an artificial brain housing a human personality that controls a hologram-like avatar. Itskov and other futurists are promising immortality, but to attain it we’ll have to make possibly the biggest trade off of them all, giving away one of our most precious and defining gifts: our human form. The organic brain has forever been the vessel of our soul. An artificial copy may go as far as capturing your entire network of 100 trillion connections, but would it truly be you? It’s a deep question, but our transcendence (or just divergence) away from organic matter means that we may well cease to be human as we know it. Concerns that humans have been warring over for millennia – resources, wealth, mates – could cease to be important. Physical pleasures that have been fundamental to our experience – intimacy, excitement, music, food – might be replaced by virtual signals and synthetic stimulants. Or at least for some. The rest of us who can’t afford to become immortal avatars will be left to battle over these now trivial concerns, while the wealthy post-humans drift above for eternity. Musk has shown that entrepreneurship can contribute to science through his forays into the space industry and his company’s revolutionary rocket design. But the quest for longevity has been embraced so tightly by Silicon Valley and others in the business world, that some scientific researchers have actively distanced themselves from tackling the issue. In a biological research field that’s so reliant on a worldwide network of experts, more noble goals need to take the prominent position. A fundamental difficulty of all of these endeavours is that they are an example of science, presumably driven not so much by a desire for greater understanding of the universe or the betterment of humanity, as by personal profit and individual gain. Whether we will ever find a way to overcome the physiological trade offs that hold back immortality, or whether we will really be able to replicate human consciousness in a computer are questions too difficult for us yet to answer. But are those leading the charge against death at least inspiring us to lead healthy lives, or are they simply rallying against an inevitable fate? If you were to ask the wealthy patrons of Silicon Valley, the answer would be the former. They’d direct you to the lifespan statistics, which have shown that we survive well over a decade longer on average today than we did just 50 years ago . They’d also emphasise the growing evidence that defies the idea of an “upper limit” on how long an individual can survive. Ongoing research, they’d argue, is already yielding fruit, and it’ll only be exponential progress from here. But, perhaps unfortunately, our research has shed light on the considerable drawbacks in health that may well come as a consequence of our meddling with anti-ageing therapies. Man’s reach, it appears, continues to exceed his grasp.
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Seeking eternal life, Silicon Valley is solving for death

Postby smix » Thu Feb 28, 2019 7:20 pm

Seeking eternal life, Silicon Valley is solving for death
Quartz

URL: https://qz.com/1123164/seeking-eternal- ... for-death/
Category: Science
Published: November 8, 2017

Description: For years now, the luminaries of Silicon Valley have been putting their minds, money, and machines behind an all-out effort to solve for death. Full of futurists who don’t have enough time in the day to achieve their lofty goals, the Valley has long looked for ways to make those days never-ending. After all, there is just so much left to do (and so much money left to be made). Larry Ellison, the eccentric co-founder of software conglomerate Oracle, donates hundreds of thousands of dollars to life-extension therapies every year. “I don’t understand how someone can be here, then not be here,” he says. We’re not sure if Peter Thiel, co-founder of Paypal and unofficial technology advisor to US president Donald Trump, really transfused blood from younger men into his own in a search for eternal youth, but he’s definitely made an enemy of getting older. “I’ve always had this really strong sense that death was a terrible, terrible thing,” he told the Washington Post, reflecting on the millions of dollars he has donated to anti-aging research. In 2013, Bill Maris, the founding CEO of Google Ventures, Alphabet’s venture-capital arm, convinced CEO Larry Page and president Sergey Brin to launch Calico, Google’s billion-dollar, super-secret effort to cure aging. When asked why, Maris told the New Yorker that seeing his father die of a brain tumor changed him: “My thoughts can turn to dark things when I’m alone.” He, like so many, feared the end that awaits us all. Other denizens of the valley pursue cryogenics or cryonics, which is the process of freezing oneself in a vat of liquid nitrogen soon after death. They do this in the hope that it will suspend them in time, preserving them for a future when science can bring them back to life. There are about 350 people already frozen worldwide with another 2,000 signed up—but yet to die. The titans of the Valley are known for making the impossible possible. So what happens if they succeed? Instead of asking whether or not they can eschew death, they should be asking whether or not they should.
Extending our expiration dates
We’ve already gained significant ground on the Grim Reaper. An American born in 1950 could expect to live anywhere between 20 to 25 years longer than one born 50 years earlier, and every five year interval since then has gifted another one to two years of life to US citizens. However, not all humans have had access to the same medical and social conditions that are extending lifespans in the West. Carlo Leget, chairman of the Netherlands Department of Care Ethics, says there are huge global lifespan disparities that we can’t close the gap on. Take Nigeria, for instance: In 2010, the average life expectancy for anyone born in the African continent’s most populous country was just a shade over 50. The US, on the other hand, eclipsed the 50-year average in 1910. The life-extension methods that Silicon Valley visionaries are pumping millions of dollars into will, by definition, be prohibitively expensive. Cryogenics, for example, can range in price from the $28,000 price tag of smaller firms to the $200,000 charged by cryogenics mainstay Alcor. If life extension follows the universal trend of haves and have-nots, it’s likely to widen an already growing lifespan gap, with the poor dying earlier and the rich dying later. Eventually, a minority of super-wealthy immortals could arise. And what would a world full of perpetually living people look like? Do we continue to age with the bones in our backs slowly fusing together and our hair growing thinner? Or is the pace of our life halted, our internal clocks ticking slower, allowing us to live as teenagers into our first centenary? Stephen Cave, the executive director of the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence at Cambridge, wrote about the flipside of living forever in his book Immortality. “Most of us want to live on, to be free from the fear of death,” he says. “[But] such a wish alone does not prepare us for its consequence: being alive forever.” Modern medicine may be adding years to our lives, but during those years, most of our bodily machines are already well into a state of decay. The years we’re tacking on to the end of life are most commonly years spent bent over and weakened, suffering from osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s and under attack from all forms of cancer. In our pursuit of immortality, we risk becoming like Eos’s Thelonius, blessed with everlasting life, but cursed to eternally age. “We are living longer,” Cave writes, “but we can all expect to spend many of those extra years unable to wash or dress ourselves, unable to recognize loved ones, our senses fading and our strength gone.” That begs the question: Are those extra years worth it?
How can we live forever?
Felipe Sierra, director of aging biology at the National Institute on Aging, formed the Geroscience Interest Group in 2012. He aimed to bring together researchers with diverse specialties in fields that could help isolate and identify the molecular, genetic, and metabolic processes that make us age. Sierra feels that rather than look at old age as a series of increasingly debilitating and more frequent ailments, we should recognize those ailments as symptoms of aging itself, and treat the root cause accordingly. He and a growing number of his colleagues believe that identifying and treating flaws hardwired into our bodies—like how cells become senescent, a kind of incomplete death that poisons other nearby cells; how the double-helix structure of our DNA starts to fray with age, leading to mutations and bad copies; or how just plain old stress can lead to system-wide inflammation—is key to extending our enjoyment of any extra years science can give us. As the geroscience community sees it, solving for these problems could increase our healthspan, which is the length of time we are able to lead healthy, active, and productive lives. If we also happen to live longer as a result, all the better. So far, the research is seeing success—albeit mostly in animals. Caloric restriction was a hot topic for a while: It was found that keeping mice and monkeys in a state of near starvation could prolong their lives anywhere from 10% to 65% while also decreasing illness and infirmities. Senolytics, the first class of drugs developed specifically to address cell senescence, has had a lot of success in mice, even reinvigorating completely irradiated limbs. And Rapamycin, a drug originally developed to prevent the rejection of stents used in heart surgery, has already shown an ability to extend lifespans in mice, and is now being tested on dogs. The idea that age is a disease that can be identified and treated is now fairly well accepted, but only a decade ago, it was laughable. Aubrey De Grey, an upstart computer-science engineer, created what could be considered a precursor to the field of geroscience. De Grey theorized SENS (Strategies for Negligible Senescence) in his 1999 book The Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory of Aging. The basic premise was that we can attack and treat aging much like we treat all disease: by identifying the core cause and traits, and then developing ways to relieve or prevent them. If we can do this, in theory, humans could live forever. In July 2005, editor in chief of MIT Technology Review Jason Pontin offered $20,000 to any PhD-level molecular biologist who could debunk SENS. The challenge ended unclaimed, somewhat controversially, a year later.
Living in the cloud
However, some Valley types want to take our bodies out of the equation all together. Inventor and futurist Ray “The-Singularity-is-Near” Kurzweil, now the director of engineering at Google, and Russian billionaire news magnate Dmitry Itskov want to bring our minds from the analog into the digital. Kurzweil believes in a future where tiny nanobots will swim through our bloodstreams, repairing and augmenting us on a molecular level until our dependence on them makes us more machine than man. Itskov has a less nuanced approach: He wants to rip our brains out of our bodies and put them into robotic avatars—and he wants the ability to do it by 2025. But, as bits and bytes, are we still human? At what point do we stop extending life, and instead eliminate it? After Itskoff takes our brains out of our bodies, he wants our minds to leave the flesh entirely. As part of his 2045 initiative, Itskoff wants to upload our personalities into an artificial brain when we die. We would live on as 100% virtual holograms floating around space, no longer linked to the physical world, existing as energy, thought, and information. Kurzweil thinks that will happen as a natural part of evolution: that our synergy with machines will augment our thought capabilities, eventually culminating in a point where humanity will travel the cosmos as pure energy. Or, as Neo would say, “Whoa.” But just how big is the server farm that houses all of humanity? And who’s taking care of all the machinery while we’re in it? Is this computational pangea still life? Are we still us?
The meaning of life is death
As physician turned bioethicist Leon Kass says, “Mortality makes life matter.” Kass is the author of The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis and once headed George W. Bush’s presidential council on bioethics. To him the question of whether we should aspire to live forever is not a philosophical one: It’s simple economics. The value of scarcity dictates that the less of something there is, the more something is worth. For our lives to have meaning and urgency, it is therefore “crucial that we recognize and feel the force of not having world enough and time,” he says. In the absence of death, he fears mankind will become lazy, disengaged, and disinterested. Then there’s terror-management theory, which states that humanity has a unique knowledge of the abstract meaning of death: Unlike other animals, we can picture it and therefore fear it in a particular way. Because of that fear, we are pushed to make the most of what little life we have. Sheldon Solomon, psychology professor at Skidmore College and co-creator of the theory, says in an interview for Scientific American that “the idea that death is an affront to human dignity that needs to be completely eliminated strikes me as arrogant (and selfish) homocentric death denial.” Humankind has known this for a while. “As the ancients noted, immortality would make life meaningless and banal,” Solomon says. “All of our most cherished human values like courage and generosity would be inconsequential if we existed in perpetuity.” In other words, nothing is impressive when there’s an infinite amount of time to do it in. Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and science avatar to the millennials, puts it nicely in an interview with Larry King about his lack of fear surrounding death: “If you live forever, why get out of bed in the morning, because you always have tomorrow.” And even if we managed to live forever—what would we do with all that time, anyway? As novelist Susan Ertz said, “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” Motivated by fear of the unknown, most of us try to hold on to the life we have now. But in doing so, we may fail to consider that the brevity of life is what propels us to make the most out of living it. It’s possible that in order to live our lives fully in the present, we need to accept that there will come a day when that present will end. Silicon Valley wants to make us immortal, and they’re accustomed to getting what they want. But by making our lives never-ending, will they take from us the meaning of what it is to live?
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Disrupting the Reaper: Tech Titans’ Quest for Immortality Rages Forward

Postby smix » Thu Feb 28, 2019 7:33 pm

Disrupting the Reaper: Tech Titans’ Quest for Immortality Rages Forward
Futurism

URL: https://futurism.com/live-forever-silicon-valley
Category: Science
Published: October 12, 2018

Description: Silicon Valley's war on death continues—as does the uncomfortable, spreading psychology of those rich enough to fight it.
EVERYONE DIES. ‘Just a fact. The knowledge and subsequent fear of our impending doom drives the way we go about this world: Either as methodically and cautiously as we can, playing the odds of hanging onto this mortal coil as long as we can, or, going full-YOLO: smoking, caloric indulgences, skydiving, public restrooms, chainsaw juggling, Tinder dates — whatever it is. But a handful of uber-successful Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have been trying for years to reconfigure death against its given as an immutable truth — and now, they’re pushing harder than ever before. Google cofounder Sergey Brin, Oracle chairman Larry Ellison, and (but of course) Elon Musk are approaching their supposed respective demises with the same gusto the average person might a home remodeling. The members of this informal club are set on stretching the limits of the human lifespan, from about 120 to 1,000 (or more). To them, admitting that they’ll die (or die on a typical timeline) is akin to accepting defeat. “There are all these people who say that death is natural, it’s just part of life, and I think that nothing can be further from the truth,” Paypal co-founder and investor Peter Thiel told Business Insider in 2012. To him, “death is a problem that can be solved.” These billionaires probably won’t succeed. But even more: If they do stumble upon a technique that actually extends life, it won’t really benefit them — or anyone else. Since the earliest days of human myth-making, there have been stories of those who work to find ways to avoid or delay death. There’s Gilgamesh, the titular king in an epic that dates back to 2,000 BCE, sought a longevity-granting plant; the Greek legend of Tithonus (who asked Zeus for eternal life but forgot eternal youth), Ponce de Leon (who ventured to new lands in search of the fountain of youth), Dorian Gray (who sold his soul for eternal youth). And so on. These are all men (real or fictional) who sought eternal life, all of whom failed. It’s not hard to read these legends as cautionary tales. Whether they were struck down in battle, cursed to live forever with the decrepitude of old age, or simply met a swift demise, none of these quests bore the fruits of their labor. Even those hungriest for longer lives can’t deny the physical and cognitive degradation of aging. As we age and certain physiological processes don’t work as well as they once did, our bones break more easily, organs begin to fail, minds dull, locomotion is limited. Is there even a point in trying to extend the human lifespan if it means your existence is reduced to a miserable shadow of its former self? Of course: None of these concerns will slow down the aforementioned Ponce de Leon-would-bes. Not satisfied with solving problems like how we get around and how we talk to each other, longevity research is Silicon Valley’s new pet project. In 2013, Google founded Calico, a biology company with the stated goal of “solv[ing] death” (a glimpse at the company’s web site shows that since its inception Calico researchers have been mired in what longevity scientists have been doing for decades: testing certain types of molecules on non-human species to see if they extend the organisms’ lives). Others concern themselves with treating chronic diseases to help humans live longer, better lives. Human Longevity, Inc. uses algorithms to predict an individuals risk of cancers or a genetic condition based on a genetic test. Verily, another Google subsidiary, creates devices which improve quality of life for people with chronic illnesses such as diabetes and Parkinson’s. But don’t confuse modern medicine’s efforts to extend life with the kind of long-term health many might dream of, warns Linda Waite, professor of urban psychology at the University of Chicago. If we had a choice in the matter, most of us would like to go quick, painless, or else in our sleep. But heart disease and cancer rates are on the rise, and according to Waite, “the choices that people make often get them the kind of death they all say they don’t want.”
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THE WILD THING IS that there are, in fact, a few treatments scientists are exploring which could, in fact, help people live longer, and be affordable for the masses, too. Among them:
* Metformin, a medication doctors currently prescribe to patients with diabetes, may reduce DNA damage and help keep cells working normally.
* Rapamycin, an immunosuppressant, has shown promise in keeping cell growth and reproduction regular in aging cells.
* And in studies, tanespimycin, a drug used in cancer treatments, has helped clear the body of cells which no longer divide properly. It’s not yet clear which of these compounds (if any) will help humans live longer, but the results of early studies are promising.
But these Silicon Valley companies seem more interested in out-of-the-box approaches to longevity. Most of the interventions they’re looking at aren’t approaching any “anti-aging treatment” that would actually help the average person, nor are they intended to — many of the investors pouring money into these efforts are doing so mostly to help themselves. The lack of a scientifically proven intervention for extending life isn’t stopping the tech leaders from trying out a few themselves. Peter Thiel is definitely not but maybe kind of receiving injections of blood drawn from healthy young folks, a technique that hasn’t been shown to work in humans and is based on some very scary studies in mice. At 32, Serge Faguet, founder of video platform TokBox and Russian booking web site Ostrovok, claims he’s spent $200,000 on “biohacking,” including hearing aids to augment his already-perfect and microdoses of MDMA, all in an effort to live his best life (what happens when he actually does get old, well, we’ll have to see). They do this with the knowledge that, if somehow they do find an intervention to extend the human lifespan, it will almost certainly be too expensive for the average person to afford, which would create two entirely different classes of humans — one group with money that can see 150, and another that just has to take whatever small insights trickle down from the top. “The disparity of wealth in the United States will create a “class of immortal overlords,” former Facebook President Sean Parker said at a cancer innovation event last November. “Because I’m a billionaire, I’m going to have access to better healthcare so… I’m going to be, like, 160 and I’m going to be part of this class of immortal overlords.” To think that money and a bit of self-experimentation can solve an issue that plagued humanity and has been unsolved since humans evolved, to create two biologically separate classes of human beings — and be fine with it? There might be something going on there, you know, psychologically, to explain a bit of that. Are these entrepreneurs just in denial about their own deaths? Because they already changed the world so much by creating the thing that brought them to prominence, are they just bored now? There’s some hubris in there for sure, says Waite, the psychology professor. “Aren’t they masters of the universe? They think they can have everything just because they’re rich, but it’s so not true.” Sounds a lot like the same kind of pride and arrogance shared by Gilgamesh and Tithonus and Dorian Gray. Faith — where it’s allocated, and where it’s not — could also be playing a role. “Traditional religion in the Bay Area is being replaced with another sort of faith, a belief in the power of technology and science to save humanity,” according to an article about Christianity in Silicon Valley published by Quartz. Combine this new governing philosophy (what others have called a “religion of technology“) with leaders who are too young to find peace in the concept of death and who haven’t experienced the kinds of traumas that might inoculate them against some of that fear? You get a perfect storm of longevity obsession. So far, there are no drugs or infusions or special herbs you can eat to live a longer, healthier life. No, the only thing proven to help you live longer is exercise and a healthy diet rich in whole grains, vegetables, and fruits. No shortcuts. If Silicon Valley entrepreneurs really wanted to “disrupt” death, they would do more of that, and blow less money on the kind of outside-the-box schemes that might soothe their egos, but won’t really help anyone along the way.
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