Tech titans’ latest project: Defy death

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Seated at the head of a table for 12 with a view of the city’s soaring skyline, Peter Thiel was deep in conversation with his guests, eclectic scientists whose research was considered radical, even heretical.

It was 2004 and Thiel had recently made a tidy fortune selling PayPal, which he co-founded, to eBay. He had spent what he wanted on himself — a posh penthouse suite at the Four Seasons Hotel and a silver Ferrari — and was now soliciting ideas to do good with his money.

The Human Upgrade:
Using their ideas and their billions, the visionaries who created Silicon Valley’s biggest technology firms are trying to transform the most complicated system in existence: the human body.
Click to read Part II: The revolution will be digitized
Illustration by Sébastien Thibault
Among the guests was Cynthia Kenyon, a molecular biologist and biogerontologist who had garnered attention for doubling the life span of a roundworm by disabling a single gene. Aubrey de Grey, a British computer scientist turned theoretician who prophesied that medical advances would stop aging. And Larry Page, co-founder of an Internet search darling called Google that had big ideas to improve health through the terabytes of data it was collecting.

The chatter at the dinner party meandered from the value of chocolate in one’s diet to the toll of disease on the U.S. economy to the merits of uploading people’s memories to a computer versus cryofreezing their bodies. Yet the focus kept returning to one subject: Was death an inevitability — or a solvable problem?

A number of guests were skeptical about achieving immortality. But could science and technology help us live longer, to, say, 150 years? Now that, they agreed, was a worthy goal.

Within a few months, Thiel had written checks to Kenyon and de Grey to accelerate their work. Since then he has doled out millions to other researchers with what he calls “breakout” ideas that defy conventional wisdom.

“If you think you can only do very little and be very incremental, then you’ll work only on very incremental things. It’s self-fulfilling,” Thiel, who is 47 and estimated to be worth $2.2 billion, said in an interview. “It’s those who have an optimism about what can be done that will shape the future.”

He and the tech titans who founded Google, Facebook, eBay, Napster and Netscape are using their billions to rewrite the nation’s science agenda and transform biomedical research. 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.

The entrepreneurs are driven by a certitude that rebuilding, regenerating and reprogramming patients’ organs, limbs, cells and DNA will enable people to live longer and better. The work they are funding includes hunting for the secrets of living organisms with insanely long lives, engineering microscopic nanobots that can fix your body from the inside out, figuring out how to reprogram the DNA you were born with, and exploring ways to digitize your brain based on the theory that your mind could live long after your body expires.

“I believe that evolution is a true account of nature,” as Thiel put it. “But I think we should try to escape it or transcend it in our society.”