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What happens when billionaires seek immortality

LiveMint logoLiveMint 05-05-2017 Manu Joseph

Death is an old technology but, like the umbrella, it has endured. Will the concept of death, an ingenious idea of nature, ever be replaced by a more advanced science invented by a species?

Many have suspected that such a moment may miraculously arrive in their own lifetime. Among them are a group of people who have the best reasons to go on living—billionaires. They have funded companies, started trusts and announced awards to solve the problem of death. The efforts would, in our age, lead to unnatural longevity at the very least. And if mankind achieves an escape velocity of longevity, where lifespans are so long, say 200 years, advancing and maturing technologies would stretch them even further. Then, one scientist says, people might live for 1,000 years. Aubrey de Grey, the British gerontologist, says 1,000 years because it is a famous round number. He would not be able to argue why the figure is not 2,000 years instead, or why people would die of natural causes at all.

Not all the billionaires of the world are investing in science to live long. Some Indian billionaires, for instance, pray to God. Most of the billionaires who have waged the war against ageing and death are from Silicon Valley because they are the sort of people who have been trained to believe that a problem, because it is a problem, must have a solution. Unity Biotechnology, one such effort funded by Jeff Bezos of Amazon and the venture capitalist Peter Thiel, among others, has declared, “Our medicines could make many debilitating consequences of ageing as uncommon as polio.”

There is a hypothesis, endorsed by the World Health Organisation (WHO), that the eradication of polio involved a beautiful transaction in society: Children who were fortunate to receive the oral polio vaccine would excrete the virus, and children who lived by the sewers, too, could, by chance, receive immunity from the disease. The rich and the poor have always lived this way, exchanging maladies and favours without intending to. The quest of the super rich to live long, too, would deeply affect those downstream. Whether most of the world wants it or not, longevity is going to be thrust down their soul.

The search has many strands. The National Academy of Medicine in the US has announced a $25 million (around Rs160 crore) prize for scientists who find breakthroughs. Google and the chairman of Apple, Arthur Levinson, have founded California Life Company, or Calico, which hopes to end the many diseases associated with ageing. In the grip of the science of longevity, scientists are experimenting on themselves. They are taking medication that might be prescribed for the general public only years later.

Writer and podcaster Timothy Ferriss, in his book Tools Of Titans, which reveals the philosophies and processes of very interesting and successful people, states that several people he has interviewed, including scientists, the rich, and fitness freaks, take Metformin, a drug that is usually prescribed for type 2 diabetes. They take the drug because it is believed to have the ability to prevent or kill cancer. Ferriss also documents a diet that is taking over some circles of America’s successful—the high-fat ketogenic-diet, whose goal is to make the body burn fat instead of carbohydrates, a process known as ketosis. This results in weight loss without significantly reducing muscle mass, improves mental alertness and creates other circumstances that are generally recognized as omens of a long, healthy life. The diet requires a person to fast for about 16 hours instead of the usual 8-10 that most of us observe in the form of sleep, and to eat foods that contain nearly 80% fat and almost no sugars. Malayalees may be delighted to know, and north Indians who live with them alarmed, that the odorous coconut oil is a venerated hero of this diet. Ferriss recommends adding it to coffee, instead of milk, but then do you love longevity that much?

Despite our reverence for science and the optimism of the tech billionaires, we really do not believe in immortality. There are, of course, some (almost) immortal (almost) living things—bacterial spores, for instance. There is a view that life on earth itself was seeded by immortal organic matter that travels across space on asteroids. But still, the body is the problem. It is very poorly designed for immortality. The mind, we suspect, can go on.

Google’s most famous computer scientist, Ray Kurzweil, believes that the next stage in the evolution of man is anthropogenic, or consciously influenced by humans—when we upload our minds to a computer. This is the only meaningful way, at least from the understanding that we have, that man can become immortal and the machine can have sense. Immortality and Artificial Intelligence (AI) in a single phenomenon.

The tech super rich have been obsessed with AI for reasons other than mere business potential. They are a breed of people who are not oppressed by any human. But, it appears, the human mind is lost without an oppressor. Hence their deep interest in AI, and often, its power to destroy the world. But Kurzweil’s theory, and Elon Musk’s more concrete attempt to upload the mind, make AI more endearing to the billionaires because it turns out AI is going to be, after all, us.

Kurzweil has predicted that machines and humans would merge in 2045. So, Dmitry Itskov, a Russian billionaire who made his money in journalism (strange things happen in Russia), has created the “2045 Initiative” which “aims to create technologies enabling the transfer of an individual’s personality to a more advanced non-biological carrier, and extending life, including to the point of immortality”.

Itskov recognizes the general grouse that such “non-biological” carriers would be only for the rich, so he has offered to make cheaper carriers. A Nano of sorts for the poorer minds.

Immortality might be hard to achieve in the next few decades, but exceptional longevity spanning two centuries might be probable. It would create new problems. Are the tech billionaires going to destroy all industries, all human jobs and then make everyone live thrice as long as now? What are most people supposed to do for, say, 200 years? Some, like the billionaires and me, would enjoy the extra century, but most people would be lost in the gigantic ocean of life. They are even now. And how tragic would it be then if one dies at 80. Also, what if one wishes to opt out at 90, saying this is enough: would that be suicide or wisdom?

Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of The Illicit Happiness Of Other People.

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