From cutting-edge genetic treatments to computer-brain interfaces that are still in the realm of science fiction, Silicon Valley is on the quest to let us live forever.
Fueled by billions of dollars in wealth created by their disrupting apps and e-commerce platforms, everyone from Google co-founder Larry Page to serial tech entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who became a New Zealand citizen in 2011, are investing in science to slow down or reverse ageing.
Improving healthcare and nutrition have already seen a dramatic increase in human life expectancy, with more people living into their 80s and 90s. But scientists believe there is a limit on the human lifespan - unless breakthroughs in biology can overcome an ageing process that sees our cells become less able to effectively divide and multiply and our organs lose function.
Repairing wear and tear
British gerontologist and human longevity advocate, Dr Aubrey de Grey, describes the human body as being like a car. It wears down over time and can handle a fair amount of damage, but will ultimately come to a stop if it isn’t properly maintained and the worn parts replaced.
We need to get to the same point with the human body, where parts can be replaced and repaired, returning it to its original state. Research that requires huge investment and extensive clinical trials separates us from getting to that point, but de Grey claims that advances in medical technology could see humans who are alive today avoid dying from age-related causes.
But before the breakthroughs come, we need to consider the ethical and social ramifications of humans living substantially longer, says University of Canterbury social scientist, Associate Professor Amy Fletcher.
“If we even manage to push healthy ageing out to 110 or 120 for a relatively large number of people it has cascading effects all through the economic and social system,” she says.
“If certain people are living double the average lifespan, it would require much longer access to retirement funding and education, we’d have to deal with more ageism.”
From de-extinction to immortality
Fletcher got interested in Silicon Valley’s quest for immortality through her work looking at genetic technologies that could be used to bring back lost species - the controversial field of de-extinction.
Some of the same tools being explored for recreating the woolly mammoth, such as CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) gene-editing technology, are also being considered for use in human longevity science.
But Fletcher says that while the technology holds huge promise, the consequences of using it aren’t fully understood.
“You can improve one area, but that can have a cascading effect that can cause illness or disease or problems in other areas,” she says.
Treatments under consideration by scientists around the world range from gene therapy to efforts to reverse ageing in cells and experiments with fasting and diets. Motivating it all, when it came to the cashed-up tech magnates driving much of the cutting-edge research, was a “particular optimism around the possibilities of technology,” says Fletcher.
The Silicon Valley mindset
“A generation of Silicon Valley billionaires are hitting middle age or a bit older and they are very used to success in the things they accomplish,” she says.
“They bring that same engineering mindset, [that] if we just think about the problem long enough, if we put money and smart people on the project, [then] we can cure ageing.”
Ultimately, she adds, it is easy to be cynical about their motivations, given Silicon Valley’s obsession with disruptive business models that scale quickly and dominate an industry category.
“If you could find the cure for ageing, you could probably make an extreme amount of money,” says Fletcher.
That has implications for how any tried and tested longevity technology or treatment could filter through society.
“Like all technologies, it would likely roll out to the wealthy first. The hope would be that you could scale that up and mass-market it. But the benefits won’t accrue to everyone should it happen. They’ll accrue to people at different levels economically.”
Another strand of research underway in Silicon Valley takes a different approach, looking to merge human consciousness with the digital world. Why spend billions trying to patch up the human body as it ages when we could replicate the functions of the human brain and the consciousness unique to each of us in computers, giving ourselves robotic bodies that are easier to maintain and replace.
The futurist and inventor, Ray Kurzweil, suggests that in the next 20 - 30 years, humans and machines will merge, initially allowing us to augment our brain capacity, then to replicate ourselves in digital form.
“The idea is to direct nano-bots to travel through every capillary in the brain, where they will pass in very close proximity to every cortex feature. This could enable the tiny machines to scan each part of the brain and build up a huge database of its contents. And all these nano-bots could be communicating with each other, such as on a wireless network. They could also be on the web,” he told the New York Times.
Fletcher says that such technology usually gets the most pushback when she discusses it in public forums because it remains in “the realm of science fiction”.
More realistic, she says, is the extensive work underway to give us a better quality of life as we age. So the ultimate goal may not be to live forever but to have 90 - 100 good-quality years.
In Silicon Valley, however, that may not be ambitious enough, as ageing billionaires seek to lengthen their lives to see what comes next and to have a chance of influencing it.
Says Fletcher: “Like all things in Silicon Valley, it is a mix of big aspirations, big profit potential and some people who genuinely think they would be helping the world.”