Immortality. It’s an unquenched thirst for Silicon Valley billionaires, for whom reversing or stopping the effects of aging may never be enough. They’re part of the “life extension community”, using their vast wealth to develop everything from disease eradication medicine to disembodiment via holographic avatar.
The fascinating SBS VICELAND documentary Frozen Faith: Cryonics and the Quest to Cheat Death investigates the process of cryogenic freezing. While some believe in the process, for many of these moguls it’s a last resort.
Jeff Bezos, 53, Amazon founder and CEO
Net worth: $US99.6 billion
Interests: Anti-aging technology, disease prevention research
Fast facts: He founded Amazon in a Seattle garage in 1994; his aerospace company, Blue Origin, is developing reusable rockets to carry passengers into space; he purchased The Washington Post in 2013 for $US250 million; he disassembled his crib with a screwdriver when he was just three years old; he turned up as an alien in Star Trek: Beyond and has a laugh "like a cross between a mating elephant seal and a power tool".
The super-buff big kahuna of billionaires has finally beaten Bill Gates to become the wealthiest man in the world and looks to have found an endless supply of the youth potion.
“One of the only ways to get out of a tight box is to invent your way out,” Bezos said of Amazon’s innovative approach in 2008. And the same could be said of Bezos’ interest in age-defying research. He’s a major investor in Silicon Valley startup Unity Biotechnology that aims to produce drugs that would “make many debilitating consequences of aging as uncommon as polio”. The less disease you have, the longer you can live.
Some of Bezos’ financial interests, like many of his counterparts, have an altruistic purpose. He’s also an investor in Denali Therapeutics, which is “dedicated to defeating neurodegenerative diseases”, and Juno Therapeutics which aims to advance cancer treatment.
Peter Thiel, 50, PayPal Inc. co-founder
Net worth: $US2.6 billion
Interests: Cryonics, anti-aging research, disease prevention, parabiosis (transfusions with the blood of young people)
Fast facts: He’s co-founder of $US20 billion CIA-backed data startup Palantir; he is a Trump acolyte, gay, a committed Christian and wants to resurrect the woolly mammoth.
At a youthful-looking 50, Thiel has set a lower bar than most of his counterparts – he’s only aiming to live until 120. But he hopes to be cryogenically frozen and one day reanimated by leading cryonics provider Alcor, featured in Frozen Faith.
“You can accept it, you can deny it or you can fight it,” Thiel says of death. “I think our society is dominated by people who are into denial or acceptance, and I prefer to fight it.”
The billionaire has invested in biotech start-ups like Stemcentrx, which is developing stem-cell technology to find a cure for cancer, and, like Bezos, Thiel is an investor in Unity Biotechnology. He has given $US3.5 million to the Methuselah Foundation, a non-profit developing tissue engineering and regenerative medicine to “create a world where 90-year-olds can be as healthy as 50-year-olds by 2030”.
And perhaps Thiel has found the literal fountain of youth. It’s been alleged he partakes in parabiosis, the process of transfusing blood from the young to the older – the idea being that it reverses the aging process. He was said to be spending $US40,000 per quarter having transfusions of an 18-year-old’s blood.
Dmitry Itskov, 36, Russian media mogul
Interests: Cybernetic immortality
Fast facts: He’s founder of online news company New Media Stars; he's into judo, weight lifting, diving and practical shooting.
“For all the diversity of opportunities that life gives us, there is so little that we manage to find out and do,” says Itskov.
That’s why the Russian media mogul wants to live for 10,000 years, and he’s confident he’ll be able to realise immortality by 2045. By far the most ambitious of this billionaire bunch, Itskov founded the 2045 Initiative in 2011, a movement that “aims to create technologies enabling the transfer of a individual’s personality to a more advanced non-biological carrier, and extending life, including to the point of immortality”.
In other words, by 2045 if all goes to plan, humans could exist as sentient holograms, their personalities intact. There’s an altruistic goal behind the initiative for Itskov – it’s a blueprint for the survival of humanity.
Sergey Brin, 44, Google co-founder
Net worth: $US47.8 billion
Interests: Curing Parkinson’s disease, “curing death”, life-extension research
Fast facts: He masterminded concepts at Google including Google Glass, self-driving cars and smart contact lenses; he’s the richest immigrant in America; he once conducted job interviews dressed as a cow; he’s an adrenaline junkie and a self confessed "kind of a weirdo".
“Obviously everyone wants to be successful, but I want to be looked back on as being very innovative, very trusted and ethical, and ultimately making a big difference in the world,” the billionaire has said.
The desire to make a valuable contribution to biomedical research is personal for Brin. Parkinson’s disease runs in the family and a test found that he has a mutated gene that gives him a predisposition to the neurodegenerative disease. He and ex-wife Anne Wojcicki, co-founder and CEO of DNA testing company 23andMe, have donated in excess of $US160 million to Parkinson's research.
But that’s paltry compared to Google’s $US1 billion investment into anti-aging research with its ultra secretive R&D laboratory, Calico, which aims to “devise interventions that enable people to lead longer and healthier lives”.
Launched in 2013 and led by Brin, the lab is “about a ‘Star Trek’ future where no one dies of preventable diseases, where life is fair,” says Bill Maris, the founder and former CEO of Google Ventures who conceived the concept of Calico.
Renowned futurist and Artificial Intelligence proponent Ray Kurzweil is Google’s director of engineering. He believes that singularity will occur by 2045 (there’s that number again), where humans will merge with AI.
Larry Ellison, 73, Oracle co-founder
Net worth: $US59.8 billion
Interests: Aging, anti-aging, disease prevention, cancer research
Fast facts: He started Oracle with $US1200 in 1977 and this year, 30 years later, he was ranked number seven on Forbes' The World's Billionaires List; in 2010 he pledged to give away at least 95 percent of his wealth to charity; he has four ex-wives; he had a cameo in Iron Man 2 and he’s an adrenaline junkie.
Ellison wants to live forever. At 73 but looking much younger, he seems to have been sucking down the same enigmatic youth juice as Bezos and Thiel.
“Death has never made any sense to me,” he told investigative journalist Mike Wilson, author of his 2003 biography, The Difference Between God and Larry Ellison*: *God Doesn't Think He's Larry Ellison. “How can a person be there and then just vanish, just not be there? Death makes me very angry. Premature death makes me angrier still.”
Ellison is another billionaire for whom mortality is personal, having lost his adoptive mother to cancer when he was in college. He’s donated $US370 million to aging research and founded The Lawrence Ellison Foundation (formerly known as The Ellison Medical Foundation) in 1997. The foundation supports “basic biomedical research on aging relevant to understanding lifespan development processes, and age-related diseases and disabilities”.
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