Loading…
0:00
15:24

On a recent weekday afternoon in a basement auditorium at New York University, Antonei Csoka, PhD, a professor of anatomy at Howard University, is standing at a podium, clicking through PowerPoint slides about how to live forever. Or at least how to achieve the first step toward eternal life, by killing life-ending diseases before they kill us. In the radical life-extension community, I learn, this concept actually has a name: “actuarial escape velocity.”

Before long, Csoka’s jargon-heavy remarks start running together. Admittedly, it’s hard for me to wrap my head around what he’s talking about, or its implications — I’m a journalist, not a transhumanist — but there’s a simple fact here that even my feeble human brain can understand: In the past few years, medical research has developed a host of potential ways to keep humans healthier for longer, allowing the species to stretch the human lifespan well beyond the 80 or so years people in the United States enjoy today. At some point, the people in the room agree, someone is going to bring one of these developments to market in the form of a treatment that stops or drastically slows aging. And by extending all of our lives, that someone is going to make a fucking killing.

That’s the focus of the event I’m attending, called Ending Age-Related Diseases: Investment Prospects and Advances in Research. Put on by an organization called the Life Extension Advocacy Foundation, it aims to provide privately held biotech companies the opportunity to present their anti-aging research to potential investors, and for investors to explain how a company can keep from going broke long enough to forestall death.

I feel like I’m listening in on a meeting of the Illuminati that for some reason is being held in a cave.

Here, CEOs will brag about their funding rounds and talk up their unique anti-aging protocols; one panel will be devoted to “venture philanthropy” — the idea that the best donations are those that might turn a profit another is meant to help life-extension entrepreneurs avoid the typical challenges that befall startups.

Ticket prices started at $100, and the conference has attracted approximately 150 attendees — academics, investors, entrepreneurs, life-extension enthusiasts, and journalists, all gathered underground on the NYU campus. The event room is windowless; the air is stagnant. The walls and ceiling are coated with a crumply, metallic mesh. Given the topic at hand, I feel like I’m listening in on a meeting of the Illuminati that for some reason is being held in a cave.

At one point in his presentation, Csoka refers to something called the Weismann barrier, saying the phrase with enough authority that I decide I’d better focus on what he’s talking about (and Google it later). Before I can catch back up, he flicks to a slide with a background made up of green code straight out of The Matrix. “I think reality itself may be a deeper projection from a different level of reality,” Csoka says.

“The features of space and time come from a singularity,” he adds, asserting that “this reality is increasing in complexity.” The next slide features the pyramid from Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — a psychological theory about what drives human behavior — alongside a second pyramid, labeled “ACTUALIZATION OF THE COSMOS.”

Now I’m experiencing the fun kind of incomprehension, the same feeling you get from reading a ’60s-era sci-fi book that the author clearly wrote on acid.


For as long as we’ve been alive, we’ve been trying not to die. It’s believed that Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China, took mercury pills thinking they’d make him immortal (they didn’t). Sir Francis Bacon, inventor of the scientific method, was convinced that human lifespans could stretch into the hundreds of years because it said so in the Bible; as legend has it, he died at 65 while trying to freeze a chicken in the snow. In Victorian-era Britain, the scholar and spiritualist Frederic Myers looked at Darwin’s theory of evolution and decided that the next stage of our own evolution would involve developing telepathic powers, which would somehow allow us to transcend death. And in Lenin-era Russia, Soviet cosmists — who, as their name might imply, were essentially cosmic communists — believed that death was a bourgeois construct that could be overcome through class struggle.

By the time Csoka starts talking about how we’re now in the age of “Alchemy 2.0,” someone, presumably one of the conference organizers, signals that he ought to wrap it up. “Two minutes,” he says. Csoka proceeds to go on for five minutes about astral projections and artificially augmented human intelligence. In closing, he shows us a still from Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal where the guy plays chess with Death.

Csoka’s assertion that we’re in the age of Alchemy 2.0 is dead-on — though perhaps not in the way that he meant it. “During the Middle Ages,” writes Adam Gollner in the Paris Review, “every alchemist worth his saltpeter tried to find the Philosopher’s Stone,” a legendary “means to transmute base metals into gold and — more importantly — concoct elixirs of immortality.” Most alchemists were either independently wealthy or the beneficiaries of wealthy patrons and, to secure a steady flow of cash, would often stretch the limits of their protoscientific inquiries.

The tradition of rich people throwing money at death runs deep. Today, these patrons are most often tech billionaires, with Peter Thiel among the vanguard. Thiel himself has publicly expressed a desire to extend his lifespan to 120, and his VC firm, Founders Fund, has made multiple investments in biotech companies — including at least one, Unity, that specifically targets age-related diseases. According to public tax documents, Peter Thiel is a longtime donor to the SENS Research Foundation and the Methuselah Foundation, a pair of nonprofits dedicated to exploring the possibilities of extending human lifespan.

Both SENS and Methuselah are headed up in part by Aubrey de Grey, a British computer scientist who is one of the most well-known figures in the radical life-extension world. In addition to being hailed for his raw intelligence — he earned his biology PhD despite a lack of formal training in the field, and earlier this year made headlines for solving a decades-old math problem involving colored dots connected by a potentially infinite number of lines — de Grey has made a name for himself by, more or less, being audacious enough to publicly claim that humans can live forever and being smart enough to plausibly back up those claims.

De Grey seems to be everywhere — giving TED Talks, contributing to academic literature, and serving as both the keynote speaker and a panelist at this Ending Age-Related Diseases conference. His big idea, perhaps the big idea, the one that underpins this corner of longevity research, is that death is ultimately a bug in our physical hardware — the human body. So, if we can repair or replace that hardware, we might be able to sidestep mortality altogether. De Grey may be on to something: In 2005, the MIT Technology Review offered $20,000 to anyone who could credibly disprove de Grey’s theories for defeating aging; despite receiving five submissions, the prize went unclaimed.


During the coffee break after Csoka’s presentation, I pace the hallway turned ad hoc snack bar, taking in the crowd. I realize the conference attendees can be divided into three categories: entrepreneurs (mostly young, well-dressed white guys), investors (mostly slightly older, well-dressed white guys), and radical life-extension evangelists (white guys of all ages, many of whom have ponytails).

What these men have in common is that they all look younger than they are. “I’ve done an exotic treatment or two,” says Bobby Brooke, the boyish 38-year-old CEO of Intervene Immune, a company that’s working to clear out the thymus (a little organ between your lungs that controls large swaths of your immune system). He also plays basketball three times a week and tries to limit his calorie intake. “I take an 80-20 approach” between conventional and experimental health treatments, Brooke says, before biting into a slice of pizza. “There are limits to what diet and exercise can do.”

When it comes to sussing out a life-extender’s true age, you should look at the eyes, says a British man named Reason, who won’t share his given name. “It’s the fine lines at the edge,” he says, that belie a person’s age. The man called Reason is in his late forties but has the air of a goth PhD candidate, complete with black leather blazer, black polo shirt, and black socks with gold toes that poke out of black flip-flops. He has a shock of strawberry blond hair making its way down his back in unruly curls.

“Hair is very weird,” Reason says. “People are just absolutely fixated about hair. Hair aging is so decoupled from the rest of aging. Its own little ballgame running on the side. But of course you can’t really explain that to the rest of the world.”

A software developer by trade, Reason got into radical life extension after experiencing what he calls a “visceral bolt from the blue.” He adds, “I woke up one day and thought, ‘Wow, I really don’t want to die.’” In the early 2000s, he started a blog, initially called The Longevity Meme, to publish news on the current state of anti-aging research. He still updates the site, now called Fight Aging, and since its founding has branched into investing in biotech companies and founding his own company.

As his name might imply, Reason carries with him a libertarian streak and has utmost faith that the free market will eventually produce inexpensive treatments for life-ending diseases. The traditional pharmaceutical research world, he argues, “is really, strongly, enormously biased against doing two things at once.”

Unlike Big Pharma, which Reason says specializes in “attempts to ameliorate a problem by attacking one thing,” the life-extension corner of the biotech industry focuses on the root cause of all disease — physical decay — in the hopes of achieving a breakthrough. In the process, this part of the industry is rewriting the rules of medicine, in much the same way that Amazon has done for retail and Uber has for affordable transportation.

To most people, the idea of a handful of upstart companies holding the keys to eternalish life sounds dystopian. After all, it stands to reason that a product that could legitimately stave off mortality would be able to charge customers whatever it wanted, pushing economic inequality to existentially dire extremes.

The man named Reason firmly believes this will not happen, just as firmly as he believes the sky is blue or hair is weird. “This stuff will be cheap,” he says. “Everybody ages for exactly the same reason. The therapy that works for Person A will work for everybody else,” he says, which will lead to “mass manufacture at the scale of being used by the entire population.”

Of course, scientifically sound anti-aging treatments don’t yet exist, and the preliminary approaches these folks are exploring remain prohibitively expensive. Reason isn’t worried. “If you hate rich people, think about this,” he tells me. “Rich people get access to really expensive, crappy versions of this technology. They’re guinea pigs. Eventually, treatments become cheap.”

Before we part ways, Reason offers to send me a link to a guide he’s written on how to order “technically illegal” anti-aging treatments on Alibaba (vendors on the site are, he says, “surprisingly reliable”).


Regardless of whether you subscribe to Reason’s math (or his faith in sourcing gray-market medications from China), medical research has made anti-aging developments that are leaps and bounds ahead of what the layperson might believe possible. “There are all kinds of things going on with stem cells these days,” says Paul Spiegel, a lawyer whose firm, Eclectic Law, works with life-extension companies and helped sponsored the event. “Then there’s gene editing,” he adds, pointing to the work of George Church at Harvard’s Wyss Institute, whose team is working on 3D-printed organs, synthetic DNA, and recreating human organs on microchips.

In the short term, Spiegel says, “There are some pharmaceuticals that are looking very interesting.” He cites the drug metformin, which has been studied since the late 1950s, telling me that although it’s currently approved for treating diabetes, people are using it off-label for life extension. “I take it. Everybody I know takes it.” (Spiegel also thinks that in the future we’ll be backing up our brains on computers; he has already written up a bill of rights for what he calls “substrate-independent minds.”)

These biotechnological near-breakthroughs have begun to attract those on the more establishment side of the medical business. To James Peyer, PhD, a partner at the biotech-oriented venture capital firm Apollo, that’s a good thing. “If that wasn’t happening, that would be an indication that we’re further from making an impact,” he tells me as we steal away from a panel that Reason happens to be speaking on. “It’s kind of funny,” Peyer says. “There’s this triple threat of cryptocurrency, libertarians, and longevity folks that 10 years ago would have been a single Venn diagram. I think it’s scattered out a bit since then.”


I came from Silicon Valley,” says Steven Garan, director of bioinformatics at UC Berkeley’s Center for Research and Education on Aging. “I believe we can find a solution to this problem.” Those solutions, according to a bevy of confident speakers, are well on the way.

The CEO of a company called AgeX promises us that “regeneration is the key to understanding aging.” Another CEO, this one from a research company called Ichor, announces that his company has just gotten $10 million to research molecules that stop cells from aging. Yet another CEO talks about how his company is working on programming DNA to kill cancer. Bobby Brooke of Intervene Immune cites a quote from the MIT Technology Review claiming that if a company could add two years to a person’s life, that company would be worth $100 billion.

Aubrey de Grey seems to be settling comfortably into this startup-fueled, big-money stage of the life-extension field. Though SENS remains a nonprofit, last year de Grey became a vice president at AgeX, where, according to his company bio, he spends approximately 30 percent of his working time.

In person, de Grey is avuncular and funny — his speech to kick off the day’s events is delayed because he’s having trouble queuing up his PowerPoint presentation; after puttering around the stage while someone provides technical assistance, he proceeds to tell us that, in his opinion, death is “rather a bad thing.”

“Rich people get access to really expensive, crappy versions of this technology. They’re guinea pigs.”

De Grey is aware that his self-appointed mission might sound a little nuts, but nevertheless, he presses on. If he’s right about using a tech-world approach to solving aging, he’ll be rich. If he’s wrong, he’ll just be dead.

But he may be rich either way. Later in the day, while on a panel called “The Current State of Aging Research,” de Grey strokes his waist-length beard in silence as a Harvard Medical School professor posits that longevity can’t be measured in a clinical study. De Grey challenges him, and they go at it for a couple minutes.

During the question-and-answer portion of the talk, someone in the audience asks what we can do today to ensure we live longer.

De Grey doesn’t miss a beat: “Give me lots of money.”