BioHacking: The Silicon Valley Club Who Wants to Debug Death

It is no mere coincidence that the Bay Area, the technology epicenter that we all know and love to critique, has one of the lowest rates of Christian belief in the country. However, that is not to say Silicon Valley is without religion. As the power of the Valley has grown, a new belief system has captivated its culture: salvation through technology. Without much fanfare, entrepreneurs have begun to see life itself as a hackable problem that is begging to be solved. This bold assembly includes Oracle founder and chairman Larry Ellison, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, Paypal co-founder and investor Peter Thiel, and, of course, Elon Musk.  This blog will provide a brief background of the biotech being researched and developed; but, will primarily focus on exploring the psychology of this unofficial club and the potential effects on society.

Image result for technological immortality

The Science

The movement towards anti-aging practices has already picked up steam in Silicon Valley and in Hollywood; often focused on anti-oxidant molecules that protect cells from natural decay. In the article Silicon Valley’s Quest to Live Forever by Tad Friend, Hollywood elite have been buzzing about the molecule Glutathione, dubbing it “the God molecule.” Genetics Nobel-laureate Liz Blackburn debunks this obsession by stating “taken in excess it can muffle a number of bodily repair mechanisms, leading to liver and kidney problems.” Although we cannot put our faith in a single molecule to solve this age-old problem, perhaps we can turn to one of the lesson-known offshoots of tech conglomerate Alphabet.

In 2013, the parent company of Google founded the research start-up Calico, which treats aging as a simple disease that needs to be cured like Polio or AIDS. (Calico: Google’s New Project to Solve Death) This radical mindset is not uncommon to the company or the hacker community as a whole. In the book I read last December for Tech Trek, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, hacker culture is defined by curiosity and an insatiable desire to improve faults in a system. Google co-founder Larry Page is a part of the unique collective that view mortality as a fault in our body’s system, as a bug that needs to be corrected.

Image result for Calico company
Credit to TIME Magazine

In addition to Calico, there are many medications that have been identified as potential anti-aging treatments. The Futurism article Disrupting the Reaper: Tech Titans’ Quest for Immortality Rages Forward by Jacob Banas, cites treatments such as Metformin, “a medication doctors currently prescribe to patients with diabetics, [which] may reduce DNA damage and help keep cells working normally.” In addition, there are encouraging early studies of a drug called tanespimycin, a cancer treatment that identifies and aides removing cells that no longer divide properly; an example of a drug that is not currently being applied to anti-aging, but whose science could pivot with the right motivation. Right now the research is focused on extending the possible human life-span; however, the tech gurus behind the movement are, in typical fashion, aiming much higher.

Individuals: The Iron Man / Rick Sanchez Complex

It is understandable that the culture of the uber-ambitious Silicon Valley is not quite the same as your hometown. To explore it further, there seems to be a commonly-held, but rarely-spoken, understanding that there is a new and unique belief system in the Bay Area. Oliver Staley, of the global business publication Quartz, says

“Traditional religion in the Bay Area is being replaced with another sort of faith, a belief in the power of technology and science to save humanity. It’s a creed that says poverty and disease are simply programming challenges yet to be solved, bad code to be debugged.”

Staley’s article How to talk about God in Silicon Valley, is eerily reminiscent of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s infamous mantra: “God is dead and we have killed him.” Ever-intelligent and ever-ambitious entrepreneurs have begun to tackle mortality as a literal challenge to solve themselves.

I present this mindset as the Iron Man/Rick Sanchez Complex (depending on your pop-culture preferences). For those who do not consume science fiction as piously as I do, Iron Man and Rick Sanchez are fictional characters graced with supreme intelligence, too much free time for scientific exploration, and a rare form of motivational narcissism. Perhaps I am over-stereotyping, but a select few Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are reaching this characterization; where no challenge is too difficult, no mountain too high to climb. With an insatiable desire to identify, improve, and reiterate our society’s biggest problems, it was only a matter of time before these aspiring individuals questioned death. After all, if they were able to reach immortality, they would have infinite time to correct infinite bugs.

Societal: The Altered Carbon Reality

One glaring side-effect of such research and development is the question of availability; assuming a breakthrough, how accessible with the treatment be? How much will it cost? Who will receive it? It is not so far-fetched to imagine that the answer will be limited, expensive, and only those who can afford it. A future where only the handsomely wealthy have access to the elixir of life presents a massive societal concern of inequality. In an even more obscure sci-fi reference, I will borrow one of the main themes of the Netflix original series Altered Carbon, to discuss the matter of life inequality on a societal level.

In the 2018 television show, (based on the 2002 novel of the same name by Richard K. Morgan) there are two distinct classes of humans: those who can afford to have their consciousness implemented into identical clones of themselves when their bodies fail them, and those who cannot. Imagine the 1% being able to live forever and the rest of the population having to live under the natural conditions of mortality. This could represent the wealthy and powerful being able to maintain their wealth and power for centuries, or powerful world-leaders entrenching themselves in power beyond what is natural. Although I am not trying to argue Elon Musk would become tyrannical if he was able to live forever, there must be government regulation of this research if it were proven to be successful. The current practices of applying this technology towards Cancer and Diabetes patients should remain the focus.

This potential innovation could bring about an entirely new revolution of philosophical questioning, if we can live forever, or just a couple centuries, should we? How will we spend our time? What will such a civilization value? Include other advances such as Artificial Intelligence and the concept of The Singularity, and the discussion becomes only more convoluted. New frontiers always garner anticipation and excitement, but this iteration requires much more consideration before we make it a reality.

9 thoughts on “BioHacking: The Silicon Valley Club Who Wants to Debug Death

  1. Hi Mike, this post was incredibly interesting. As I was reading, I was reminded of HBO’s show West World, which now has begun to wrestle with this same idea of implanting consciousness in another body. I think you made a great point that would have serious and potentially dangerous consequences–that is only the elite, the wealthy, and the powerful would have access to this technology. As a result, I wonder about the social justice implications and the perpetuation of the division in social class, particularly in the US. Crazy to think that to live forever may not be impossible someday!

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  2. Michael,

    This is such a fascinating blog. I had no idea that anti-aging technology was this far along. I believe it would be amazing and hugely beneficial to society if Calico can find the cure to diseases such as AIDS or Cancer. However, I agree with you that defying the natural conditions of mortality creates a new set of issues for society. In addition to the issues you listed, the growing population would lead to a lack of resources. This would eventually result in death if we run out of food or other resources. Therefore, I argue that it definitely is not worth loosing many lives in order to extend the lives of the fortunate few.


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  3. Hey Mike, cool article. Personally, I never considered applying the entrepreneurial mindset of tackling difficult questions with an overly optimistic drive to beat death! After reading the Calico Time article, it makes me want to believe that Google will be successful in its endeavors. Also, I agree with Jane that if successful, there will arise many societal problems about if it’s sustainable or not. It’s reminds me of social Darwinism if a select, handful of people are able to extend their life. And then ethical questions would also arise like if it’s moral to use technology to go against the natural process/life of a human being. So, if biotech is able to make people live forever, it would be opening another can of worms of problems for these tech people to solve.

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  4. Mike,

    Nice work. It seems a lot of this buzz around ‘hacking death’ is grounded in a lack of humility, which is interesting because that is a virtue that many major religions emphasize. Some of these entrepreneurs Musk, Page, etc may have earned the ability to be confident in their innovative capacities, but I wonder how markets and investors would tolerate massive R&D investments in the quest for immortality. Right now it looks like a bit of a side project, but I wouldn’t think that it would necessarily be beneficial for Google to spend even 20 percent of their research funds to such projects that may be boondoggles. Anyways, while the past 10-20 years have been transformative in tech, I’m still waiting on flying cars, and in the meantime, I think people would be better served by transferring the energy they spend trying to engineer immortality to solving the current issues our world faces and finding the most meaning in their naturally-alloted years.

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  5. Hi Mike! It’s a really cool topic. It reminds me of a recent article that I read about being technically advanced and dominant is actually creating an authoritarianism. The higher and advanced technology will always be controlled and utilized by a small number of people, and those people will eventually become the privileges in the society. It’s not the wealthiest that has the most power, but it is the one who control the technology that is the most powerful.

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  6. Hey Mike,
    This post was really cool to read. When you mentioned how mostly the wealthy would be able to afford this treatment it reminded me of the last American Horror Story season which was Apocalypse. Essentially the same idea, there was something killing all the people and the rich were the only ones who were able to afford fancy bunkers that allowed them to live. It is very interesting to think of the implications of a drug that could stop aging in that the rich would be mainly the only ones who would be able to benefit and how that would change society as a whole. Great Job!

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  7. Very interesting post, Mike! I wonder if anyone will be successful with eternity and if so, how long it will take to “debug” the human code. ‘Altered Carbon’ sounds like a cool show. The thought of having a chip of someone’s consciousness that can be inserted into another body sounds like a cool idea, but not sure I’d be willing to do it myself. Like you mentioned, if the possibility of eternity becomes a reality, there will be many philosophical questions. And if (let’s say) people have the option to live for a couple of centuries, will the earth become over populated? So many questions to consider. Very interesting topic!

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  8. Nice post. There’s a good book by Yuval Harrari called Homo Deus that goes into this topic in fairly considerable depth. It’s not as good as his first book Sapiens, but it’s a nice read thats worth checking out.

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  9. Just reread this post to help prepare for my next blog post, possibility about the biotech/genetic engineering industry and its social implications. The Iron Man complex sounds interesting. With recent biotech applications such as the genetically engineered babies to commercial ancestry/disease-checking DNA kits, I wonder the future of biotech would be to save the imperfections (cancer, innate disease) or to preserve the perfect (stop death).


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