Friday 22 February 2019

The techno-geeks who are seeking the key to immortality

John Hearne

If you want to extend your life, there are a couple of basic steps you can take. Eat healthily. Take regular exercise. But if you've more money than you could ever spend in one lifetime, you take a different approach.

A coalition of super-rich internet entrepreneurs including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Google co-founder Sergey Brin have announced that they are giving $33m (€25m) in prizes to a group of 11 biologists.

The inaugural Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences recognises "excellence in research aimed at curing intractable diseases and extending human life".

This isn't the first attempt by the super-rich to urge science to cure what may ail them in the future.

A Russian media entrepreneur, Dimitri Itskov, launched the 2045 Avatar Project last summer. The aim here is not to cure diseases of the affluent, but to create a robot body that's impervious to them, then surgically transplants the human consciousness into it.

The cost of this unlikely procedure is as yet undisclosed, but given the fact that Itskov invited other multimillionaires to get involved, it's clear that you won't be able to get it on VHI any time soon.

In the letter sent last July, Itskov wrote: "You have the ability to finance the extension of your own life up to immortality. (We) have come very close to the creation of such technologies: it's not a science-fiction. It is in your power to make sure that this goal will be achieved in your lifetime."

Another death-fearing rich person, Martine Rothblatt, has something similar in mind. The transsexual entrepreneur believes that the best way to conquer the grave is to upload everything about yourself to the internet so that scientists, at some indeterminate point in the future, can create a robot into which your digital consciousness can then be downloaded.

Rothblatt, however, doesn't envisage an eternity for rich people only. At cyberev.org, ordinary folks are invited to store 'digital reflections' of themselves in photos, videos, texts and so on. The site tells us: "When coupled with future software that elicits the consciousness immanent in such digital reflections, [this] will enable the person to be revived, feel alive, and enjoy a sense of conscious continuity with themselves."

Then there's Peter Thiel. In 2006, the internet billionaire and Paypal co-founder gave $3.5m to the Methuselah Foundation, a non-profit organisation which funds anti-ageing research. This is not, it should be said, about smoothing wrinkles. It says on the site: "No heart attacks, cancer or Alzheimers. It's possible.'

At the time, Thiel's money went to fund the work of controversial Cambridge gerontologist, the bewitchingly named Aubrey de Grey, a man who believes fundamentally in the possibility of immortality. He has said that the first person who will live to see their 150th birthday has already been born, and that the birth of the first person to live for 1,000 years may be less 20 years away.

De Grey's predictions envisage a time when people will only visit doctors for "maintenance", which will include a variety of gene and stem-cell therapies.

One of Thiel's other philanthropic initiatives is the '20 under 20' programme, in which – as the name suggests – 20 people under 20 years of age are offered $100,000 (€77,000) each to drop out of school for two years and "pursue innovation".

Laura Deming, an 18-year-old home-schooled prodigy, is one of Thiel's latest batch of whizz kids. Her blog 'What a Wonderful World' details her love affair with maths and her attempt to achieve immortality. Literally.

"I'm a budding biologist and aspiring entrepreneur. I've wanted to cure ageing since I was eight . . . I'll be in Silicon Valley for the next two years developing ways to commercialise anti-ageing research and extend the human healthspan."

And if that doesn't work, there's always the freezebox.

Ted Williams was a household name baseball player in the US. When he died in 2002, his children decided to have his remains cryogenically frozen, with the aim of rejuvenating him when science arrives at a point where this is feasible.

His head sits in a steel can filled with liquid nitrogen at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona, while his body is stored in the same room, in a nine-foot tall cylindrical tank.

Maybe we'll just call this Plan B.

Irish Independent

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