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Immortality and Life Extension

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This week Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan revealed their plans to dedicate $3 billion to leverage artificial intelligence and other disruptive technologies to solve a seemingly impossible challenge. ‘Can we cure, prevent or manage all disease by the end of this century?’ asked Zuckerberg. He is not the first billionaire to wonder whether technology can extend and preserve life, but maybe one of the few willing to undertake it on behalf of others.

Currently the oldest verified human life span was that of Jeanne Calment. She was born in France in 1875 and died in 1997. The scale of change she must have witnessed over her lifetime is hard to fathom. She described Vincent van Gogh as “dirty, badly dressed and disagreeable” — she had met him at the age of 13 after he had come to her father’s shop to buy paints.

In 2008, I was invited to give a talk at Tim O’Reilly’s Emerging Technology Conference. It was a wonderful meeting of alpha geeks and tech luminaries like Jeff Bezos. I asked the conference chair, Brady Forrest, what he thought the next big wave of disruption would be. He pointed at Bezos and said that it was not well known that groups of wealthy tech billionaires were secretly investing millions into life extension labs . At some point we would notice that these guys weren’t actually dying when they should, and the secret would be out.

I didn’t entirely believe him at the time, but it turns out he was probably right. In 2013, Google funded the health startup Calico , a research facility focused on longevity, with Arthur Levinson, chairman of Genetech, as the CEO. Calico has since partnered with AbbVie, a biopharmaceutical company with a view to potentially co-investing up to $1.5 billion in the project. Russian tech billionaire Dmitry Itskov has also funded his own longevity center, while a number of wealthy individuals have signed up for the Alcor Life Extension Foundation’s cryogenic suspension service to preserve their bodies upon death.

One of the driving ideas behind current life extension research is that aging is not necessarily inevitable, and that the human body is more like a machine that simply lacks the programming manual needed for repair. Cornelia Bargmann, for example, an American neurobiologist who will be in charge of Zuckerberg’s initiative, plans to create a ‘cell atlas’, that maps the locations, types and molecular properties of the cells controlling the body’s major organs.

From this perspective, you can think of genetics as the software that drives our physical hardware, and in the future, gene therapy, 3D printing using stem cells, cloned organs, and the use of medical nanobots may allow us to not only patch the code, but repair broken components.

The technology is still elusive. A nanobot for example, would need to be tiny enough to squeeze through the narrowest capillaries in the human body in order to work like an artificial mechanical white cell, seeking out unwanted bacteria, viruses, or fungi in the bloodstream.

Where there is money, progress will be made — but it does raise an interesting question for our future. If the world’s wealthiest 1% were able to live an additional 50 years, what potential social and economic impacts might this have on the other 99%?

Life extension and Zuckerberg’s quest to end all disease

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I once asked a well connected friend from the Valley what the new economy elites spent their billions on once they exhausted their penchant for fast cars, Gulfstreams and obscene boats. ‘Life extension labs’, he replied cryptically. ‘Now that they are richer than God, most of them are scared of actually meeting him.’

Eccentric digital titans funding scientists and private institutes to keep themselves alive for as long as possible are one thing, but what happens when life extension moves from the realms of the ultra-rich to the pretty-rich? In other words, what impact will the economics of immortality have on the rest of us?

Let’s try a thought experiment

Imagine that life extension technology now exists. It could be in twenty years or a hundred — but for the purpose of discussion, there are two key assumptions that matter.

Firstly, it will probably be expensive. Regardless of the actual production and implementation costs of the treatment, the companies who develop life extension technology will almost certainly need to recoup significant R&D investments and maximise their opportunity for making money while still protected by their patents.

Secondly, longevity is unlikely to be a once off process. Similar to servicing a car, extending life is likely to require a program of regular treatments, physical monitoring, and constant adjustments in lifestyle to achieve maximum effectiveness.

Given these two conditions, here are my predictions for the future impact of mass market immortality.

The Rise of Info-Pharma Giants

Living longer is a problem whose solution may well be part pharmaceutical and part data-driven. Rather than a mass produced elixir, life extension is likely to require highly personal interventions. In other words, your treatment will vary depending on your genetic background and the way you live.

So given the massive data implications of personalized medicine, the companies that may dominate in the space are likely to combine the medical rigour and research scale of large drug companies, with the information processing and data analytics of software or cloud computing giants. In fact, by the time life extension becomes a reality — the merger of an IBM and a Pfizer may be seen as the logical conclusion to a trend that began with Google co-funding a life extension project, Calico , with pharma giant AbbVie.

Immortality As A Service

One possible way that longevity could be made affordable will be to structure it as subscription service. Your monthly charges may vary depending on your individual condition, your conformity to certain lifestyle parameters, and how early you begin preventive treatments. ‘Immortality as a service’ providers will monitor their clients very closely — most likely using technology that evolved from today’s mobile bio-informatics apps.

So be warned: unhealthy lifestyle choices or dangerous physical hobbies are likely to be met with severe subscription rate hikes or even a fatal cancellation of service.

P2P Meat Markets

The alternative to a subscription funding model is someone else paying for your extended lifespan. Rockstars like David Bowie, James Brown, Rod Stewart and Iron Maiden all attempted to securitize their future earnings from their back catalogue and get their money upfront, but what about ordinary people? Financial institutions may baulk at the uncertain risks of securitizing an individual, but what about a P2P loan market for medical treatments?

Consider this scenario — browsing through a virtual stock market of individuals, weighing up their career prospects and capabilities, their influence networks and personal projects — before deciding who you are willing to back with your funds. Peer funding will be a double edged sword for those who take it. Imagine having to justify quitting your job or taking a holiday at your own personal shareholder meeting.

Social Stagnation

If you want to picture the potential social impact of extended lifespans, the best place to look is Japan. According to the World Bank, the average life expectancy in Japan is 82.9 as compared to the global mean of 69.2. Due to both longer life spans and deference to family elders, young professionals entering the workforce in Japan often have to wait until well into their middle age before gaining positions of influence or power. In our future scenario of extended lifespans — this may become a common global phenomenon.

When the rich and powerful hold onto their toys way beyond a normal lifespan, you will see increasingly aged company boards, the indefinite delay of retirement, and a calcification of inherited wealth. If the new rejuvenated elderly are smart, they will concoct elaborate changes to the educational system to keep people in training longer and even encourage an extended adolescence in ambitious juniors — all to distract them from the reality of their continued grip on power. Bread and circuses indeed!

Black Immortality Markets & Rogue Rejuvenation States

Whether you are a Hollywood Studio defending your movie library, or a luxury brand protecting your handbags from imitation — piracy is already a global epidemic. Now consider the consequences of companies or countries stealing technology to prolong life. Prohibitive pricing and the divisive politics of life extension would certainly be sufficient incentive. Would some rogue nation in 2050 proactively encourage stealing longevity technology to provide their citizens with a competitive edge against other nations?

Whether it be for cosmetic surgery or birth control — patients already travel to arbitrage different regulatory regimes and the relative cost of medical treatments. Will we abandon our countries of birth in the future, in order to live longer in some other one? And in the spirit of the oil wars that defined the twentieth century — what kind of future geo-political conflicts could a battle for immortality inspire?

Of course, you should read all of this with a grain of salt. The true consequences of widespread longevity will be impossible to fathom until we actually have to live through it. But as the post war baby boom, China’s One Child Policy and India gender selection bias have all demonstrated — small changes in demographics can have multiplier impacts to human society.

In the meantime, keep a close eye on the world’s technology billionaires. When one of them runs a decent time in the New York Marathon at the tender age of a hundred and two, you should put down your coffee and wonder: is the brave new world of the post-mortal already upon you?

For the digital billionaire who has everything, what is the value of a few more years?

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If freezing your severed head is part of your plan to live forever, then Danila Medvedev is one of the few people on the planet who may be able to help you. In 2005, he founded KrioRus, a cryonics company, and has also worked as Vice-President of the Science for Life Extension Foundation, based in Moscow. Bringing back the deceased, or as Medvedev prefers to call them, ‘the temporarily dead’ is only one of many things the founder of the Russian Transhumanist Movement is passionate about. Aside from life extension, we had a fascinating chat about Douglas Engelbart’s unfulfilled vision for interfaces, the Incan system of multidimensional record keeping, the Russian Cosmism movement and what went wrong with the nanotech revolution.

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