Silicon Valley’s fascination with a fountain of youth
Hang around Silicon Valley for awhile and the obsession with immortality is clear. Techies want to solve that granddaddy of problems: Death.
Peter Thiel, the billionaire investor behind Facebook and co-founder of PayPal, recently made headlines for his reported personal and professional interest in whether blood transfusions from younger people can improve and even extend life for older people.
Ewww. Vampire alert.
Ghoulish and ethically questionable as it may seem, Thiel’s interest in young blood and other life extension gambits shouldn’t come as a surprise.
In the eyes of many technologists, the human body is just another machine that can be tinkered with and tweaked.
“Why are tech leaders interested in immortality? It’s a combination of scientism and extraordinary wealth,” said Adam Gollner, author of “The Book of Immortality.” “Are Silicon Valley CEOs investing millions into physical immortality any different from the fantastically rich and all-powerful emperors in the Tang dynasty of China who died taking mercury-based elixirs of never-ending life? Time will tell.”
That interest in immortality is a good thing. A generation of tech billionaires are funding the most cutting-edge research in science and medicine. Their support could result in a longer and healthier life for all of us.
“Biology has become an engineering project, and a lot of tech people are engineers,” said Sonia Arrison, author of “100 Plus,” a book on longevity research and the implications of people living longer. Thiel wrote the introduction.
The idea of extending people’s healthy years “used to be a pipe dream,” said Arrison. But it is “no longer a crazy idea. It’s not something that’s unattainable. Society has the tools to make our lives longer and healthier.”
In 2004, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs spoke movingly of his own brush with mortality in a commencement speech at Stanford. He concluded that “death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”
But that view is in sharp contrast to some of this generation’s tech moguls.
Thiel, for example, has railed against Zen-like acceptance of life ending.
“The way people deal with aging is a combination of acceptance and denial,” he told MIT Technology Review. “They accept there is nothing they can do about it, and deny it’s going to happen to them.”
Thiel has not only funded anti-aging and longevity research, but is also taking steps to live to 120, his stated goal. He takes human growth hormone and has said he will participate in cryonic freezing upon his death. A spokesman for Thiel declined to comment.
Larry Ellison, Oracle’s co-founder and executive chairman, has long held an interest in funding life extension, primarily through the Ellison Medical Foundation. He, too, appears to maintain an almost childlike rage about accepting death.
“Death makes me very angry,” he has said. “It doesn’t make any sense to me. Death has never made any sense to me. How can a person be there and then just vanish, just not be there?”
Bill Maris, chief executive of GV, the venture arm of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, told Bloomberg that science has the tools to slow aging, reverse disease and extend life.
“I just hope to live long enough not to die,” he quipped.
That is Groucho Marx funny. But it also speaks to the opportunity that science, technology and medicine have right now to push for new discoveries.
Literature is full of the vain and misguided who lost their souls pursuing immortality. And yes, holding on to a youthful ideal does seem empty — and expensive. Ambrosia, the Monterey firm doing the young-person blood plasma infusion trial is reportedly charging participants $8,000 each.
But when it comes to the wealthy technologists who are trying to take on death, battle dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer and every other disease the Grim Reaper throws at us as we age, why shouldn’t we be rooting for them?
Follow her at Twitter.com/michellequinn.