Since the birth of humankind, people have found innovative ways to cope with their fear of death. Some civilizations have Heaven and Hell. Some believe in karma and cycles of rebirth. Silicon Valley, of course, has technology.
For a culture that places such a high premium on youth, Silicon Valley has had a long history of being fascinated by eternal life. In 1994, a group of transhumanists called the Extropians hosted their first official gathering in Sunnyvale, California to discuss big ideas like cryopreservation and the possibility of uploading human consciousness to the cloud. They aspired to transform society by augmenting human potential, their mission based in the audacious belief that “biology [is no longer] destiny: With genetic engineering, biology is under human control.” In 2007, the World Transhumanist Association moved to Palo Alto alongside similar organizations like the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence and Foresight Nanotech Institute in Menlo Park. Here in the heart of Silicon Valley, there’s no shortage of funding for these outlandish ventures.
In fact, many prominent tech visionaries and entrepreneurs today have elevated transhumanism from a fringe philosophy to the mainstream — for the elite class, that is. In a world where living a long and fulfilling life is more accessible than ever, there remains an ever-present anxiety about not having accomplished enough, about not having maximized one’s full potential. That unease seems to be the driving force behind Silicon Valley’s transhumanist projects.
Alphabet CEO Larry Page launched Calico Labs in 2013, receiving a billion dollars in funding to tackle aging through gene therapies. Calico is equipped with an impressive team of researchers recruited from top medical schools, universities and public-interest research centers, yet remains suspiciously vague about their actual research. Meanwhile, PayPal co-founder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel is known for his fascination with parabiosis, young-to-old blood transfusions that aim to boost health in the face of old age. But the clinical trials for parabiosis have been oddly exclusive, charging participants a hefty $8000 for a single plasma treatment without any guarantor of success. And it seems a bit hypocritical for Thiel — the proclaimed champion of people who “make something new” and go from “zero to one” — to be this concerned with his own preservation. After all, believing oneself to be fundamentally indispensable to the world requires a sizable dose of hubris.
Besides the obvious “creepy factor” of industrial fridges filled with disembodied heads (70 percent male), there are plenty of other reasons to be concerned about transhumanist trends.
First, transhumanism raises pressing concerns about Silicon Valley’s ageist tendencies. For centuries, institutions privileged seniority and experience until the “move fast and break things” startup culture turned these notions on their head. Today, older engineers are finding themselves out of jobs, being turned away in favor of a younger, hipper and cheaper labor force with more updated skills. So part of the appeal of age-defying biotechnology is its potential to keep ambitious, yet aging individuals feeling and looking fresh in the workplace.
But more worrying is the question of who can access these life-extending treatments — especially in a country where jacking up the prices of lifesaving medication is standard fare. When Daniel Gottschling, Calico’s Head of Research, abandons his work at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the UW School of Medicine, his research leaves the transparency of the public realm. Resources are diverted from tackling diseases affecting broad swaths of Americans and instead poured into the noble task of adding two more years to Elon Musk’s or Jeff Bezos’ already cushy lives. Unfortunately, this shift of human, scientific and financial capital precipitates a broader trend toward treating healthcare like a private, rather than public, good.
Furthermore, some have even called these technologies a form of “high-tech eugenics.” When the world’s wealthiest have the option to lengthen their lives far beyond natural lifespans, who ends up left behind? Could our society get stratified along yet another axis: transhuman versus human? And from whom is Thiel sourcing all these young blood transfusions, anyway? These questions may seem far-fetched now, but I’m concerned that too many dollars are going toward the rapid advancement of technology and too little attention paid to the social consequences. And when we’re dealing with the radical reshaping of human genetic fabric — projects that have the potential to redefine the boundaries of existence itself — I’m not sure we can ever be too cautious.
But as much as the immortality industry is a shameless and almost vulgar display of privilege and ego, transhumanism also highlights Silicon Valley’s biggest weak spot. Despite billionaires’ best efforts, no amount of genius or venture capital has been able to actually overcome mortality. Instead, for individuals who found success through a relentless belief in the impossible, it must be troubling to come to terms with the impenetrable limitation of certain death.
Contact Jasmine Sun at jasminesun ‘at’ stanford.edu.