Here's how today's tech billionaires are trying to defeat death

Peter ThielTristan Fewings/Getty ImagesPeter Thiel thinks humanity’s ‘great enemy’ is death.

Even the most optimistic of today’s big-dreaming tech luminaries — people like Peter Thiel, Larry Ellison, Sergey Brin, and Larry Page — know that living forever is a most-likely impossible goal.

Yet they still want to defeat death.

At the very least, they want to find a way to delay it as long as possible.

The quest for eternal life goes back thousands of years with mostly unimpressive results. But since 1840, life expectancy in developed countries has risen from the low-to-mid 40s to about 80. We’re living almost twice as long as we would have if we were born less than two centuries ago.

So can we almost double life expectancy again, to 150?

That’s a goal that these Silicon Alley luminaries agreed was “worthy” and reasonable at a 2004 dinner party, held with some of the top scientists interested in prolonging life, according to a fascinating Washington Post profile by Ariana Eunjung Cha.

And these billionaires don’t just have money at their disposal, Cha notes in her detailed look at their efforts to defy death, they also have access to modern medicine, genetics, efforts to map the human brain, and computers that can process quantities of information so huge they have never even been conceived of before. We know more about human health than we ever have and have access to tools that didn’t exist decades ago.

Cha writes of these “tech titans:”

Their objective is to use the tools of technology — the chips, software programs, algorithms and big data they used in creating an information revolution — to understand and upgrade what they consider to be the most complicated piece of machinery in existence: the human body.

Here’s some of what they have done so far:

  • Larry Ellison, Oracle founder, has “donated more than $US430 million to anti-ageing research” according to Cha, who says he told his biographer “Death has never made any sense to me… How can a person be there and then just vanish, just not be there?”
  • In 2013, Larry Page founded Calico, a company that’s trying to prevent ageing — with $US750 million from Google.
  • Peter Thiel’s Breakout Labs exists to fund the “radical science” and “bold ideas,” including projects to grow bones from stem cells, research into ways to repair the cellular damage that occurs with age, and ways to quickly cool organs in order to preserve them.
  • Biologist Pam Omidyar and her husband, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, have donated millions to research that tries to figure out why some people are able to bounce back from diseases.
  • Sergey Brin of Google, who has a gene associated with Parkinson’s, has given $US150 million to efforts to use big data to understand DNA. He thinks these efforts could rapidly transform research into Parkinson’s (and other diseases), providing the keys to avoiding neurodegenerative diseases that cut life short.
  • Some of the biggest science awards of the year are the six $US3 million Breakthrough Prizes, funded by Priscilla Chan and her husband Mark Zuckerberg along with Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki (who founded 23andMe, the genetic testing company). According to Cha, they created the prizes to support scientists whose discoveries extend life.

Some fear that extending life would only benefit the wealthy or would create a crowded planet filled with elderly citizens and no good way to support them. And others think that our current longer lives aren’t necessarily better — more people live until their minds and bodies are ravaged by diseases that only exist in old age.

These tech billionaires, however, are optimists and think all this can be overcome. Thiel thinks that the “great enemy” of humanity is death.

“I believe that evolution is a true account of nature,” he told the Washington Post. “But I think we should try to escape it or transcend it in our society.”

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