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Bracketed by Billionaires

Posted: June 2, 2013 at 2:54 am

Billionaires are just like you and I, but with deeper pockets. They will age and die on the same schedule as the rest of us, as future life span is almost entirely determined by the pace of progress in medical science and the availability of modern medicine is very flat. Within a few years of any new medical technology arriving in the clinic it settles to a price that can be widely afforded. If you're sixty and sitting on your retirement fund then there's very little in the way of medicine that a billionaire could afford but you can't. The billionaire can afford a dedicated hospital with new wall murals, but the therapies are exactly the same as those you'd buy for yourself: a stem cell transplant or infusion of enzymes doesn't care about the size of your bank balance.

Here is another way in which billionaires are just like the rest of us: very few of them care enough about aging to death to do anything about it. Or they don't believe that anything can be done, or they are not up to speed with the present state of longevity science and the potential of SENS-style rejuvenation biotechnology, or any one of the other reasons offered up whenever people's attitudes towards aging are discussed.

Just as a small fraction of the public care enough about aging to do something about it - ranging from donating a little money or time to organizations like the Methuselah Foundation or SENS Research Foundation all the way up to quitting work, going back to school, and becoming a researcher - a small number of billionaires also take steps. Again, these range from modest donations through to the hard right turn in life to take a different path and focus fully on the problem of aging. Unfortunately of these folk only one is a patron for SENS, while the others are focus on different areas that are, ultimately, not particularly relevant to our future longevity for one reason or another. Such is life.

So you might say that SENS, the research program we'd like to see gain a vocal zealot willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars, is bracketed by billionaires. Interested billionaires in fields just off to the left, interested billionaires in fields just off to the right. The optimistic view is that yes, it's just a matter of time until someone is convinced and takes the plunge - because, clearly, some people are thinking along parallel lines and thus we should expect there to be more in the future.

Larry Ellison

Of all the mentioned billionaires, Ellison comes closest to the right direction, but in many ways he's the least interested. He established the Ellison Medical Foundation in the 1990s to explore aging - not because longevity is a passion, but rather because aging research is a good source of intellectual and organizational challenges in the field of molecular biology. Molecular biology was the object, and aging research the happenstance outlet. So the end result is effectively an extension of the National Institute on Aging, and therefore focused on work that has little relevance to extending life. The majority of NIA-funded research is a matter of investigation, not intervention.

Peter Thiel

Thiel has funneled some millions of dollars into SENS research and is to be commended for doing so in a very public way at a time when you could still be ridiculed for it. He is also engaged in producing a broader environment of philanthropy within the networks he can reach with the aim of promoting greater investment and interest. SENS is just one of many radical projects he backs, however, a single part of the large jigsaw puzzle that is Thiel's attempt to influence the building of a better future.

David Murdock

Murdock's interest with longevity extends only so far as its intersection with diet and clean living. He has founded a research institute, the North Carolina Research Campus - and I think that if you manage to create a legacy of scientific research then it's hard to say you went far wrong in life. The focus here is on diet, however, which is very beneficial for health (such as via calorie restriction) but most likely of limited utility when it comes to extending human life. You can't eat your way to reaching 100 years of age with any certainty, and most people with superbly healthy lifestyles nonetheless age to death by 90. The future of longevity is modern medicine.

John Sperling

Sperling has funded a number of ventures of relevance to medicine and health, with a slant on longevity that is similar to the old school "anti-aging" businesses, such as Kronos Optimal Health. These are of no great utility when it comes to extending life: they are simply high end optional health services. At one point Sperling looked set to do much more and talked a good game about longevity, but per Wikipedia he is now more focused on environmental causes than human aging.

Dmitry Itskov

Itskov is taking the hard right turn in life in order to set up and promote his 2045 Initiative: tackle aging by moving out of biology and into machine bodies as soon as possible. He has a vision and is prepared to step up to the plate and put his reputation on the line in order to promote it with the financial muscle available to him. It's only a couple of years into this process, so we shall see how it goes once the initial run has settled down into the slow grind of advocacy, networking, and research funding. But from what we've seen so far, this is the sort of passion for a cause I'd like to see settle onto SENS rather than what looks like a much harder path to eliminate aging.

I'll say this for Itskov: a world in which a billionaire is prepared to openly and loudly back work on machine bodies and artificial minds is a world in which people don't laugh at high net worth individuals who back research into rejuvenation biotechnology. Once someone has planted a flag all the way out there on the field, other people become much more comfortable with what are now less radical gestures. We're somewhere in the middle of a sea change for the public perception of transhumanist technologies: robotics, AI, rejuvenation, and so forth. The cultural space within which people treated these fields as jokes and science fiction is vanishing rapidly, squeezed out by current events.


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