Charlotte Lytton

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Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, members of the 1% club no matter how you work out the door policy, have pledged to give away 99% of their Facebook stock. It’s a wonderfully generous thing, but not an easy one to pull off well, and of course the process will be heavily influenced by the worldview of the Facebook founder.

In the announcement of his intentions, Zuckerberg asked this question: “Can you learn and experience 100 times more than we do today?” Listen, I want the world to be 100 times smarter (or even 2 times smarter), but that sounds like he’s investing money in brain chips and VR gear, which is fascinating, sure, but not quite the Gates-ian antimalarial efforts some might have anticipated. In all fairness, the technologist also mentions disease prevention and eradication, but there’s an awful lot of sci-fi-esque wording about radical life extension and the like. A lot of progress may ultimately come from future-forward neuro- and bioengineering, or maybe it will be money spent poorly. Good intentions and good execution are not the same thing.

In a similar vein, a Daily Beast piece by Charlotte Lytton notes that 2015 was the year that Silicon Valley became something of an Immortality Industrial Complex, with the well-compensated wanting to live forever, or at least until their stock options run out. An excerpt:

Might it be more charitable, then, to use the billions being funneled through avoidance schemes into abiding by the law and helping to reverse the problems created by a deficit-laden economy you’ve willfully avoided paying money to for an extended period of time?

“It’s incredibly exciting and wonderful to be part of a species that dreams in a big way,” explained bioethicist Laurie Zoloth. “But I also want to be part of a species that takes care of the poor and the dying, and I’m worried that our attention is being drawn away to a glittery future world that is fantasy and not the world we live in.” 

Her sentiments were echoed by Bill Gates, the world’s second greatest philanthropist (after Warren Buffet), who expressed that “it seems pretty egocentric while we still have malaria and TB for rich people to fund things so they can live longer” in a Reddit AMA earlier this year.

In any case, whether significant progress of the ilk [Peter] Thiel and co. are searching for will ever be made remains a big “if.” But should one of these projects yield a major discovery, who will benefit? As we’ve gleaned from the plethora of “free” services made flesh (or screen) by these businessmen, there’s no such thing as something for nothing—and that something has largely been handing over our personal data.•

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No one with stock options would want to die, so Silicon Valley technologists are earnestly pursuing radical life-extension methods–even immortality. I mock, but I also wish them well and hope there are eventual results. However, anyone professing that successful head transplantations and hundreds-year lifespans are on the horizon is sort of overpromising. Theoretically not impossible but nowhere near ready. From Charlotte Lytton’s Daily Beast piece about the fountain of youth’s new splash:

If a successful, life-extending surgery does arise—and prove successful—its implications would be revolutionary. After announcing his intentions to carry out the procedure several months ago, [head-transplant enthusiast Sergio] Canavero was inundated with volunteers offering themselves up for the project—a testament to how prevalent the notion of extending one’s life really is.

Canavero’s ideology is one keenly shared by Silicon Valley hedge fund manager, Joon Yun, founder of the Palo Alto Longevity Prize. A $1 million reward for those who can successfully “hack the code of life and cure aging,” Yun is hoping to find scientists able to extend the lives of mice by 50 percent, which he believes will be demonstrative in efforts to push the human life span beyond its current U.S. average of 78.7 years.

While Yun’s efforts might resemble a Death Becomes Her-esque bid to uncover an elixir of eternal youth, he is not the first wealthy businessman to make a serious financial donation to the prevention of aging. Peter Thiel, one of PayPal’s co-founders, has donated millions to researchers leading the charge, while Larry Ellison, who co-founded computer hardware company Oracle, has given some $430 million to the cause. “Death has never made any sense to me,” says Ellison.

The government used to fund two-thirds of medical research, with private backers accounting for the other 33 percent of studies, but that ratio has now been flipped, with the major cash injections supplied by entrepreneurs with life-prolonging pet projects far surpassing money pumped in by the state. Some of the ideas being explored by Thiel-backed researchers include technology that can cool human organs at a high speed, allowing them to be preserved long term, and using stem cells to grow bone replacements for broken ones. One more involves analyzing molecular and cell damage throughout our lifetimes in a bid to better understand how we might rejuvenate deteriorating bodies.•

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