May 29, 2024


 Silicon Valley philanthropists have become an important source of funding for blue sky biotechnology projects in recent years. The co-founder of Microsoft, Paul Allen, gave US$100 million a few years ago for brain research. This has just with the publication of a genetic map of the mouse brain. His partner Bill Gates and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar both supported a successful campaign in California to authorise a US$3 billion bond issue for embryonic stem cell research.

But, as speculative as these might seem, they pale beside the US$3.5 million boost from the co-founder of PayPal, Peter A. Thiel, towards 5,000 year lifespans. The recipient of his largesse is the Methuselah Foundation, the creation of Aubrey de Grey, a 43-year-old English scientist who believes that ageing has seven causes. Once these are licked, we can hope for immortality.

"I’m backing Dr de Grey, because I believe that his revolutionary approach to ageing research will accelerate this process, allowing many people alive today to enjoy radically longer and healthier lives for themselves and their loved ones," Mr Thiel explained.

Amongst ageing experts, de Grey, a former researcher at Cambridge University in the UK, is regarded as a brilliant eccentric, but he is firmly convinced that "engineered negligible senescence" is possible. His critics object that even if he were successful, the planet would be full to bursting with elderly invalids. "Maybe people of the future will decide that children are not much fun anyway and will reduce the birth rate," he responds.

Some of de Grey’s critics amongst scientists complain that he is a publicity-seeking pseudo-scientist, although he maintains that he has published many papers "that provide the scientific basis for my optimism". Although a 5,000-year lifespan (assuming that you don’t walk under a bus) sounds wildly optimistic, he believes that it will be possible for people born as early as 2025.

In an interview with Technology Review in 2004, he explained his position. "If ageing already didn’t exist but we did have all the other causes of death at the rates we have them now — infectious diseases that kill young people, car accidents, wars — then basically you come out 1,000 years that people would live on average, plus or minus a few hundred. I tend to say it will be more like 5,000 years simply because when society is faced with the opportunity to live an arbitrary length of time, we will become more risk averse."