in print | Undark • Tracking a cure for death + aging

feature: with Ray Kurzweil
March 19, 2020


note: This story is collected for the Kurzweil library.

— story —

group: by Knight Foundation
tag line: Supporting transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, engage communities, and foster the arts.

publication: Undark
tag line: Truth, beauty, science.

story title: book review: Inside Silicon Valley’s quest to prolong life
date: March 2019
read | story

— summary —

In the book Immortality Inc. science journalist Chip Walter chronicles today’s often-extravagant attempts to outfox aging.

— introduction —

The comedian Mitch Hedberg once joked about a brand of chewing gum that didn’t live-up to its name: “I had a stick of CareFree gum, but it didn’t work,” he would say. “I felt pretty good while I was blowing that bubble, but as soon as the gum lost its flavor, I was back to pondering my mortality.” In the end, Hedberg died much too soon, from a drug overdose in 2005 — at the age of 37.

Recently, actor Kirk Douglas died at age 103. When someone dies too soon, we say they were cheated; when they live to be centenarians, we think how wonderful to have been blessed with such a long life.

But what if Douglas, too, was cheated? What if we could all live to be 150 or 300 — or more? Does there need to be any upper limit at all? This is the age-old question — so to speak — at the heart of Chip Walter’s latest book:

— book —

book title: Immortality, Inc.
deck: Renegade science, Silicon Valley billions, and the quest to live forever.
author: by Chip Walter
year: 2019

this book on Good Reads | visit

Chip Walter — a veteran science journalist — has a straight-forward thesis: death is a problem in need of a solution. And he wonders what would happen if we could throw enough brains + dollars at it. At least that’s the perspective of the researchers and entrepreneurs who are key characters in Walter’s book Immortality, Inc. To what extent he’s on-board with their proposals is never quite spelled-out. But for the most part, he relays their thoughts and aspirations uncritically.

The struggle to understand aging.

Of course, death doesn’t live in a vacuum. Rather, it seems to shadow its old friend aging. And that — for Walter’s band of experts — is the key. Wage enough battles against aging (they suggest) and the war against death will be won along the way. As they see it, aging is the stealthy culprit lurking behind many of today’s most feared illnesses.

Here Walter cites the work of Aubrey de Grey PhD — a bio-medical gerontologist and co-founder of SENS Research Foundation. SENS stands for Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence. The group “finds therapies that cure + prevent the diseases and disabilities of aging — by comprehensively repairing the damage that builds-up in our bodies over time.”

The root of the problem.

Walter says De Grey was among the first to recognize that our most prolific killers: heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s — are aging’s side effects. He writes: aging is “the mother of all diseases.” Rather than tackling diseases one-by-one, he wonders if more scientists ought to follow in de Grey’s footsteps “to get to the root of the problem.”

It’s not just de Grey, of course. Walter tracks the movements of a half-dozen key players — most of them working in, or at least associated with, Silicon Valley. Including genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter PhD, computer scientist + Google co-founder Larry Page, and futurist Ray Kurzweil. He’s especially interested in the money trail: wherever the money goes, innovation is likely to follow.

And the problem of aging has certainly attracted the attention of the tech giants. In year 2013, a company called Calico — funded largely by Google — sprang into existence. A story in Time magazine covered it in their feature “Google vs. Death.”

Some possible discoveries.

So how is the battle against aging going? There have certainly been some striking discoveries. Take stem cells, for example. Known since the 1960s, stem cells can develop into many different types of cells within the body, and are now being used in a variety of novel treatments. Placental stem cells may be especially versatile. But there are enormous challenges. As Walter notes: “Introducing new stem cells into the body of someone with a pre-disposition to various cancers might actually encourage tumors rather than eliminate them.”

However, after citing the work of several optimistic scientists, he ends the discussion on an up-beat note, asking if stem cells might become “the holy grail of radical longevity, and 1000-year life-spans would abide as the human race broke its evolutionary bonds.”

Clues from the animal kingdom.

Animals are providing other clues. Consider the naked mole rat. These little pink rodents are similar to mice. But while mice live for about three years, naked mole rats routinely make it to 25. Here we meet physiologist Rochelle Buffenstein PhD — who oversees the largest captive colony of naked mole rats (2,000 of them), tracking them to find the secret to their longevity. One guess: it may involve a protein known as Nrf2, which mitigates the damage to cells caused by oxidation.

Another creature of interest is the bowhead whale, the longest-lived mammal on earth. They can live for more than 200 years. As Walter notes, some of them “might have been swimming the Beaufort Sea when Napoleon Bonaparte (the historic French military leader) was marching on Moscow, Russia.” Researchers have pondered the whale’s environment, its diet, and its genetic make-up.

In a sense, all 3 might be involved: it seems that the whale evolved to live in very cold waters, and to survive on very little food. Walter notes these whales never seem to develop cancer or dementia. It’s not immediately obvious how humans can capitalize on the bowhead whale’s success. But perhaps the cetaceans will at least provide some hints.

Kurzweil hopes medicine’s progress will match computing’s growth.

Are Walter’s experts over-estimating the pace of future progress? Some of them are clearly hoping that developments in medical science will parallel those in computer science. Ray Kurzweil — pioneering inventor, author, and futurist — explains the speeding-up that computer scientists label “Moore’s law” is part of a larger trend. He believes it goes way back to the Big Bang, and is indicative of the universe “accelerating its own organization.”

Kurzweil calls this the “law of accelerating returns.” He believes that — by the end of the current century — human tech will have jumped by an amount equivalent to all of the progress made in the last 20,000 years. Walter writes: “It was all writ large in everything from the chemical + molecular interactions that shaped the early universe — right up to the advent of DNA, genes, language, and math. And it was gathering speed with the absolute reliability of a Swiss watch.” Walter channels Kurzweil’s vision.

Longevity escape velocity.

A closely related idea is something that de Grey calls “longevity escape velocity.” There’s no need to solve the aging problem in one fell swoop. Instead, the idea is those people who are still in good health at age 70 “would live youthfully to age 150 — when more advances could allow them to live to 300 until still more progress came. Somewhere along the line, the really big breakthrough will reverse aging altogether.”

Does Walter believe these extravagant claims? He doesn’t say, but his tone is like a cheerleader’s. In 300 pages he rarely inserts a sober note of skepticism. A New Yorker article from year 2017 covered the same topic, and did a better job showing the difficulty of applying Silicon Valley optimism to medicine.

The author — Tad Friend — quotes biologist Thomas Rando MD • PhD who said: “If you come at biology from a tech point of view, you’re going to be disappointed, because the pace is much slower.”

Answering the obvious questions.

In Walter’s book, many obvious questions either go unmentioned — or get a brief treatment. Is life-extension meant to be an alternative to having children? Or do we envision reaching — say 300 years-old — and having a 275 year-old child plus a 250 year-old grand-child? And 325 year-old parents?

And who will actually get these imagined treatments + therapies? Will they be available to everybody, or only the rich — perhaps adding “life-span disparity” to a host of already problematic disparities? Walter does have a few sentences about this — briefly adopting the voice of a skeptic, he asks if life-extension is for a “bunch of selfish, well-heeled, white, male baby boomers who are looking down the barrel of their own mortality and not caring much for the view?” And, do we even want to live forever? Some people claim they do — but just wait until they’ve filed their 1 millionth income tax return.

Final thoughts.

There are some clunky moments — like the opening of chapter 27: “In early 2016, when she became Calico’s chief computing officer, the views and aspirations of Ray Kurzweil didn’t inhabit the mind of Daphne Koller PhD.”

More troubling is the start of chapter 23. Walter’s description of a celebrity-packed soiree in (entertainment industry legend) Norman Lear’s mansion in Los Angeles, CA comes perilously close to duplicating the first paragraphs of Tad Friend’s New Yorker article. Walter does mention the article a few pages later, but didn’t cite it as a source.

On the plus side, Chip Walter has gained the trust of many innovative + imaginative thinkers of the 21st century. He’s able to offer the reader a glimpse inside their minds. And what we find is colorful. Whatever you think of the quest for immortality, it’s impossible not to be intrigued: to weigh the allure of a long — possibly endless — life against the realization that our days are numbered. And the value this realization gives each day.

discussed in this story:

on the web | pages

Chip Walter | home
Chip Walter | YouTube channel

tag line: A best-selling author, journalist, and screen-writer.

on the web | pages

J. Craig Venter Institute

visit | home
visit | bio: J. Craig Venter • PhD
visit | YouTube channel

tag line: Pioneering genomics to positively impact life.


Thomas Rando MD • PhD
Rochelle Buffenstein PhD

on the web | pages

Alphabet | home
Calico • by Alphabet | home

tag line: We’re tackling aging, one of life’s greatest mysteries.

on the web  | pages

Alphabet | home
Google • by Alphabet | home
Google • by Alphabet | bio: Larry Page

tag line: Our mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

on the web | pages

Stanford Univ. | home
Artificial Intelligence Lab • by Stanford Univ. | home
Artificial Intelligence Lab • by Stanford Univ. | bio: Daphne Koller PhD

tag line: A center of excellence for artificial intelligence research, teaching, theory, and practice .
motto: The wind of freedom blows.

on the web | pages

SENS Research Foundation | home
SENS Research Foundation | bio: Aubrey de Grey PhD
SENS Research Foundation | YouTube channel

tag line: re-Imagine aging.

reading from this story:

1. |

publication: Time
tag line: The most important magazine to the world’s most important people.

story title: Google vs. Death
author: by Harry McCracken • Lev Grossman
date: September 2013
read | story

group: by Time USA
tag line: Now more than ever, the truth matters.

2. |

publication: the New Yorker
tag line: Dig deeper. Think harder. See further.
tag line: Go beyond the headlines.

story title: Silicon Valley’s quest to live forever
author: Tad Friend
date: March 2017
read | story

group: by Conde Nast
tag line: A media company for the future.
tag line: It starts here.


— notes —

DNA = deoxy-ribo-nucleic acid
SENS Research Foundation = Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence Research Foundation

* Knight Foundation — today’s name for John S. + James L. Knight Foundation
* Silicon Valley — colloquial for San Francisco, CA bay area • United States