Google co-founders and Silicon Valley billionaires try to live forever

Sergey Brin

One hundred and fifty thousand people die every day, reports Tad Friend of The New Yorker in the article, “The God Pill: Silicon Valley’s quest for eternal life.” Most check out well before what is considered the maximum age of 115, and some of them could afford to keep going far longer, if only science would allow it.

The urge to combat aging, especially among the affluent, is an old one, but new technological breakthroughs can make the prospect seem tantalizingly close.

Friend joins Nobel Prize-winning scientists, icons of the entertainment industry such as Goldie Hawn and Moby, and tech billionaires like Google co-founder Sergey Brin, for the launch of the National Academy of Medicine’s Grand Challenge in Health Longevity, which will distribute $25 million as part of its endeavors to, as one doctor puts it, “end aging forever.”

Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and Palantir, at the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.

Alex Wong
Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and Palantir, at the Republican National Convention on July 21, 2016 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio.

For the super rich in the “life-extension community,” it’s a small world. Brin, whose company has invested over $1 billion in a “longevity lab”called Calico (short for the California Life Company), is dating Nicole Shanahan, the founder of a patent-management business that will work with some of the National Academy’s biotech patents.

 According to Friend, Shanahan attended the launch with Brin:

“I’m here with my darling, Sergey,” she said, referring to her boyfriend, Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google. “And he called me yesterday and said, ‘I’m reading this book, “Homo Deus,” and it says on page twenty-eight that I’m going to die.’ I said, ‘It says you, personally?’ He said, ‘Yes!’ ” (In the book, the author, Yuval Noah Harari, discusses Google’s anti-aging research, and writes that the company “probably won’t solve death in time to make Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin immortal.”) Brin, sitting a few feet away, gave the crowd a briskly ambiguous nod: Yes, I was singled out for death; no, I’m not actually planning to die.

If all goes well, Brin won’t age, either, or not past a certain point. Slowing or stopping that process is the current focus of biochemist Ned David, co-founder of Unity Biotechnology, who is 49 but, according to Friend, looks 30. The scientist’s youthfulness is part of his appeal, writes Friend.

Last fall, Unity raised a hundred and sixteen million dollars from such investors as Jeff Bezos and Peter Thiel, billionaires eager to stretch our lives, or at least their own, to a span that Thiel has pinpointed as “forever.” In a field rife with charlatans, Ned David’s Dorian Gray affect has factored into his fund-raising. “One class of investor, like Fidelity, finds my youthful appearance alarming,” he said. “Another class — the Silicon Valley type, a Peter Thiel — finds anyone who looks over 40 alarming.”

Investing in bio-tech breakthroughs is one way the super rich are trying to stay young and healthy indefinitely. Others in the community are settling for cryogenic freezing, in the hopes that they can be thawed once regenerative science has sufficiently advanced.

Alcor CEO Max More poses in front of the dewars that house his 147 cryopreserved patients.

Qin Chen
Alcor CEO Max More poses in front of the dewars that house his 147 cryopreserved patients.

CNBC reported in 2016 that “thousands of people around the world have put their trust, lives and fortunes into the promise of cryonics.” At that point, at Alcor’s center in Scottsdale, Ariz., nearly 150 individuals had elected to preserve either their heads ($80,000) or their entire bodies ($200,000) in liquid nitrogen.

Some wealthy individuals are covering their bases: Thiel has invested in both Unity and Alcor.

If there is a way to “solve death,” as Friend puts it, whether through cryonics or gene therapies, a kind of vampirism in which Silicon Valley billionaires “end up being sustained by young blood” or more wholesome methods such as good nutrition and medicine, some combination of the above or perhaps an actual sorcerer’s stone, the next generation of well-funded alchemists is determined to find it.

As a 30-year-old start-up founder confidently tells Friend, “The proposition that we can live forever is obvious. It doesn’t violate the laws of physics, so we will achieve it.”


Gene-testing company ‘here to stay’

The $99 personal DNA test was designed to detect a range of gene variants
Personal-genetics company 23andMe says it is “not going anywhere”, after the Food and Drug Administration ordered it to stop marketing-spit testing kits.

“Our mission is unchanged,” it says.

On Friday, the Californian company stopped giving its health-risk results – based on gene variants – to those who had bought the tests after 22 November.

The FDA feared they would make poor decisions, such as opting for unnecessary surgery on the basis of a risk for a gene linked to cancer.

Founded in 2006 by Linda Avey, Paul Cusenza and Anne Wojcicki, who reportedly separated recently from her husband, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, the company had offered results about a customer’s risk for 254 diseases and conditions, including genes linked to diabetes, heart disease and breast cancer.

But last week, in response to the regulator’s demands, the company, based in Mountain View and backed by wealthy investors, including Google, halted television, radio and online advertising for its $99 (£60) personal genome analysis product.

The health results had marked the company out from many other direct-to-consumer genetics companies, which are largely focused on providing information about ancestry alone.

The company’s former rivals, Navigenics and deCODEme, have since disappeared from the market after being acquired by bigger companies.

But spokeswoman Catherine Afarian told US website Venturebeat: “We are not going anywhere, although we recognise that the FDA process will take time.”

And she told BBC News the company “remains committed” to consumer genetics.

Warning letter

Many of the affected customers will reportedly be able to request a full refund, although they will continue to receive raw data and ancestry information.

Ms Afarian said the company was working hard to resolve the issues with the FDA and implied it might start to reintroduce aspects of its health tests in stages.

In its warning letter, the FDA said 23andMe had not provided assurances about how well the test predicted the presence or absence of a particular genetic variant or how well that genetic variant related to the risk of a specific disease.

The FDA said it was particularly concerned about the potential health consequences of assessments for drug sensitivity and a gene called BRCA linked to breast and ovarian cancer.

“For instance, if the BRCA-related risk assessment for breast or ovarian cancer reports a false positive, it could lead a patient to undergo prophylactic surgery, chemoprevention, intensive screening, or other morbidity-inducing actions, while a false negative could result in a failure to recognise an actual risk that may exist,” the letter said.

Hank Greely, director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University, said the company would have to overhaul its methods for characterising genetic variants.

In a blog written at the time of the FDA order, he said: “The SNP chip method that 23andMe uses was never very good at providing useful genetic information.

“Its advantage has been its low cost. But as sequencing gets cheaper and cheaper, SNP chips have already largely become obsolete for most genetic testing.”

Anne Wojcicki has said she stands by the data, and Ms Afarian said consumers had not been harmed.

Nevertheless, the company is being sued by customers in California, who say there is “no analytical or clinical validation for the [personal genomics service] for its advertised uses”.

Asteroid miners want to turn rocks into spacecraft.

Not content with sending the first tourist into space and landing NASA’s Mars rovers between them, Eric Anderson and Chris Lewicki have an outlandish plan to mine asteroids, backed by Google billionaires. But, they tell Paul Marks, that’s just the start.

Eric Anderson (left) and Chris Lewicki (right) aim to launch asteroid-spotting telescopes by 2014 <i>(Image: Brain Smale)</i>

Your asteroid mining company Planetary Resources is backed by the Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt. How tough was it to convince them to invest?
Eric Anderson: The Google guys all like space and see the importance of developing an off-planet economy. So Larry Page and Eric Schmidt became investors. And Google’s Sergey Brin has his name down as a future customer of my space tourism company Space Adventures.

You want to put space telescopes in orbit to seek out asteroids rich in precious metals or water – and then send out robotic spacecraft to study and mine them. Are you serious?
Chris Lewicki: Yes. We’re launching the first telescopes in 18 months – and we’re actually building them ourselves in our own facility in Bellevue, Washington. We have a team of more than 30 engineers with long experience of doing this kind of thing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, myself included. Many of our team worked on designing and building NASA’s Curiosity rover, and I was a system engineer on the Spirit and Opportunity rovers – and flight director when we landed them on Mars.

How many asteroid-spotting telescopes will you need – and are they anything like Hubble?
EA: We’d like to put up at least 10 or 15 of them in orbit in the next five years,some of them on Virgin Galactic rockets. They’re a lot less capable than Hubble, which is a billion dollar space vehicle the size of a school bus. Our telescopes – which we call the Arkyd 100 spacecraft – are cubes half-a-metre on a side and will cost around $1 million each, though the first one, of course, will cost much more. But when they are developed to a high level of performance, we want to print them en masse on an assembly line. They will have sub-arc-second resolution, which is just a mind-blowing imaging capability.
CL: The smaller we can make them the lower they cost to launch. Making them the size of a mini fridge, with 22-centimetre-diameter optics, hits the sweet spot between capability and launch cost.

How can you tell if an asteroid might have platinum, gold or water deposits?
CL: We’ll characterise them by studying their albedo – the amount of light that comes from them – and then with the appropriate instruments we can start to classify them, as to what type of asteroid they are, whether they are stony, metallic or carbonaceous. We’re starting with optical analyses though we could use swarms of Arkyd 100s with spectroscopic, infrared or ultraviolet sensors, too, if needed.

Once you spot a likely asteroid, what then?
EA: We’ll send other spacecraft out to intercept and study them. They will be rocket-assisted versions of the telescope – the Arkyd 200 for nearer Earth space, and the Arkyd 300 which is the same except that it will have a deep space communications capability. We’ll make sure we understand every cubic inch of that asteroid. We’ll find out where it is, what its inertia is, what its spin rate is, whether it has been burned, impacted, or is carbonaceous or metallic. We’ll know that asteroid inside and out before we go there and mine it.

Will you be able to tell, remotely, if a space rock has lucrative platinum deposits, say?
CL: Probably not. But we would be able to tell metals from water or silicates. There’s an asteroid out in the main belt right now called 24 Themis, and we’ve been able to sense water ice on its surface from way back here on Earth. Identifying metals will require spectrometry and direct analysis of the materials returned. The Arkyd 300 will get right up to the asteroid, land on it and take samples – like NASA’s NEAR and Japan’s Hayabusa missions did – then return pictures, data and grain samples back to Earth for analysis.

Digging up ore on an asteroid 50 to 500 metres wide in zero gravity will be a tough task, even for robots. What technology will you use?
CL: The data the 300-series gathers will allow us to design the mining spacecraft. There are many, many different options for that. They could vary from very small spacecraft that swarm and cooperate on a bunch of tasks, to very large spacecraft that look seriously industrial. Before we can begin the detailed design of a mining spacecraft, we need to actually go there, explore the asteroid and learn where the specific opportunities are.

You’ve suggested an asteroid could be brought closer to the Earth to make it easier to mine. Is that really feasible?
EA: It is. One of the ways that we could do that is simply to turn the water on an asteroid into rocket fuel and burn it in a thruster that nudges its trajectory. Split water into hydrogen and oxygen, and you get the same fuels that launch space shuttles. Some asteroids are 20 per cent water, and that amount would let you move the thing anywhere in the solar system.

Another way is to set up a catapult on the asteroid itself and use the thermal energy of the sun to wind up the catapult. Then you throw stuff off in the opposite direction you want the asteroid to go. Conservation of momentum will eventually move the thing forward – like standing on a skateboard and shooting a gun.
CL: This is not only our view. A Keck Institute “return an asteroid study”, involving people at JPL, NASA Johnson Space Center and Caltech, showed that the technology exists to place small asteroids a few metres wide in orbit around the moon for further study.

Can you think of any other uses for asteroid repositioning?
EA: There is one incredible concept: we could place the asteroid in an orbit between the Earth and Mars to allow astronauts who want to get there to hop on and off it like a bus. Think about that. You could make a spacecraft out of the asteroid.

Apart from your commitment to turn a profit for your investors, might there be spin-offs for the rest of us?
EA: Hopefully, we’ll be finding hundreds of new asteroids that would not otherwise have been discovered – including asteroids that are Earth-threatening. We do need to develop the ability to move asteroids: every few hundred years an asteroid strikes that is capable of creating great loss of life and billions of dollars worth of damage. If the 1908 Tunguska meteor had struck London or New York it would have killed millions of people. It is one of the few natural risks we know will happen – the question is when. And we have to be ready for that. So while some might regard moving asteroids as risky, it really is something we need for our planet’s future safety.

What will be your first priority: seeking precious metals or rocket fuel on the asteroids?
EA: One of our first goals is to deploy networks of orbital rocket propellant depots, effectively setting up gas stations throughout the inner solar system to open up highways for spaceflight.

So you are planning filling stations for people like Elon Musk, the SpaceX billionaire planning a crewed mission to MarsMovie Camera?
EA: Elon and I share a common goal, in fact we share many common goals. But nothing would enable Mars settlement faster than a drastic reduction in the cost of getting to and from the planet, which would be directly helped by having fuel depots throughout the inner solar system.

World’s first lab-grown burger is eaten in London.

The world‘s first lab-grown burger was cooked and eaten at a news conference in London on Monday.

Scientists took cells from a cow and, at an institute in the Netherlands, turned them into strips of muscle that they combined to make a patty.


Researchers say the technology could be a sustainable way of meeting what they say is a growing demand for meat.

Critics say that eating less meat would be an easier way to tackle predicted food shortages.

The burger was cooked by chef Richard McGeown, from Cornwall, and tasted by food critics Hanni Ruetzler and Josh Schonwald.

Upon tasting the burger, Austrian food researcher Ms Ruetzler said: “I was expecting the texture to be more soft… there is quite some intense taste; it’s close to meat, but it’s not that juicy. The consistency is perfect, but I miss salt and pepper.”

She added: “This is meat to me. It’s not falling apart.”

Food writer Mr Schonwald said: “The mouthfeel is like meat. I miss the fat, there’s a leanness to it, but the general bite feels like a hamburger.

“What was consistently different was flavour.”

Prof Mark Post, of Maastricht University, the scientist behind the burger, remarked: “It’s a very good start.”

he professor said the meat was made up of tens of billions of lab-grown cells. Asked when lab-grown burgers would reach the market, he said: “I think it will take a while. This is just to show we can do it.”

Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, has been revealed as the project’s mystery backer.

Prof Tara Garnett, head of the Food Policy Research Network at Oxford University, said decision-makers needed to look beyond technological solutions.

“We have a situation where 1.4 billion people in the world are overweight and obese, and at the same time one billion people worldwide go to bed hungry,” she said.

Mr Schonwald said he missed the fat, but that the “general bite” was authentic

“That’s just weird and unacceptable. The solutions don’t just lie with producing more food but changing the systems of supply and access and affordability, so not just more food but better food gets to the people who need it.”

Stem cells are the body’s “master cells”, the templates from which specialised tissue such as nerve or skin cells develop.

Most institutes working in this area are trying to grow human tissue for transplantation to replace worn-out or diseased muscle, nerve cells or cartilage.

Prof Post is using similar techniques to grow muscle and fat for food.

He starts with stem cells extracted from cow muscle tissue. In the laboratory, these are cultured with nutrients and growth-promoting chemicals to help them develop and multiply. Three weeks later, there are more than a million stem cells, which are put into smaller dishes where they coalesce into small strips of muscle about a centimetre long and a few millimetres thick.

An independent study found that lab-grown beef uses 45% less energy than the average global representative figure for farming cattle. It also produces 96% fewer greenhouse gas emissions and requires 99% less land.

These strips are collected into small pellets, which are frozen. When there are enough, they are defrosted and compacted into a patty just before being cooked.

Because the meat is initially white in colour, Helen Breewood – who works with Prof Post – is trying to make the lab-grown muscle look red by adding the naturally-occurring compound myoglobin.

“If it doesn’t look like normal meat, if it doesn’t taste like normal meat, it’s not… going to be a viable replacement,” she said.


She added: “A lot of people consider lab-grown meat repulsive at first. But if they consider what goes into producing normal meat in a slaughterhouse, I think they would also find that repulsive.”

Currently, this is a work in progress. The burger revealed on Monday was coloured red with beetroot juice. The researchers have also added breadcrumbs, caramel and saffron, which were intended to add to the taste, although Ms Ruetzler said she could not taste these.

At the moment, scientists can only make small pieces of meat; larger ones would require artificial circulatory systems to distribute nutrients and oxygen.

In a statement, animal welfare campaigners People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) said: “[Lab-grown meat] will spell the end of lorries full of cows and chickens, abattoirs and factory farming. It will reduce carbon emissions, conserve water and make the food supply safer.”

The latest United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report on the future of agriculture indicates that most of the predicted growth in demand for meat from China and Brazil has already happened and many Indians are wedded to their largely vegetarian diets for cultural and culinary reasons.