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%?