Immortality: The Precarious Side-Hustle of The Ultra Rich

Benedict Robinson for Distilled Post

Most people have a hobby. Be it exercise, art, growing your stamp collection, or baking banana bread, we all have something we enjoy in our spare time. These can be as mundane as knitting, or as bizarre as the Welsh sport of bog snorkelling. But none are quite as peculiar, audacious, or expensive as the side projects of many billionaires: the quest for immortality.

Famously, Walt Disney is rumoured to have tried this - some urban legends go as far as saying he’s frozen in a chamber under Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride - but while this has been proven to be bogus, he may have inspired today’s 1%. Jeff Bezos funds Altos Labs, a company committed to “cellular rejuvenation” to reverse the ageing process. Larry Page, co-founder of Google, has thrown money at Calico, a biotechnology company focused on lengthening lives, while Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, has invested $180 million in the anti-ageing company Retro Biosciences.

However, by far the most fanatical appears to be Peter Thiel. The PayPal co-founder’s Breakout Labs Fund has bankrolled many endeavours attempting to recreate the Holy Grail. These exploits include dabbling in blood transfusions from 16 to 25 year olds to obtain their youthful qualities by osmosis, and cryonics, the Austin Powers approach to surviving past your time; the latter of which has gained considerable traction in recent years.

Freezing Old

Thiel has committed to having his body frozen upon his death by the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, “the world’s leader in cryonics”. Cryonics, as defined on Alcor’s website, is “the practice of preserving life by pausing the dying process using subfreezing temperatures with the intent of restoring good health with medical technology in the future.” Despite stating that he doesn’t believe in these projects - claiming his interest is purely symbolic: “we need to be trying these things” - being cryogenically frozen demonstrates in itself a desire to live forever. Cryonic donors freeze their bodies, hoping that one day, future technology will be able to revive and sustain them indefinitely.

And apparently there is a degree of popularity behind this method of conservation. Cryopets, run by the self-styled “High School Dropout Immortalist”, Kai Micaiah Mills, is another start-up aiming to crack “the death problem”. The company is one of many Thiel Fellows who are given a grant by the aforementioned anatomical alchemist; this one offers to preserve the bodies of beloved pets, and one day humans, so that they can eventually be brought back to life when the medicine of the era permits.

This style of preservation, while expensive, has enticed many who chase the fountain of youth. In 2022, the Alcor Foundation had the bodies of almost 200 people frozen at -196 degrees. This, allegedly, includes a few celebrities, and the list of those who’ve expressed a desire to be preserved is even greater. But as of yet, it has not had much success. Plenty of bodies have been frozen, none have been reanimated.

A (Woolly) Mammoth of a Task - The Wizards Grappling With De-extinction

But there is one field of life preservation that seems to be yielding some fruit, though admittedly it is not available to the individual. De-extinction is the practice of bringing back previously extinct species from the dead, repopulating an area with its long-dead inhabitants. The plans for this science are ambitious, resurrecting the woolly mammoth and Tasmanian tiger among them, but there have already been some more modest results.

The Hawaiian hibiscus is an extinct species of flower whose DNA has been used as a template to bring back its forgotten fragrances. How anyone can confirm the smell of a long-extinct flower is something we have to trust in the science to believe, but apparently it is true. The fragrance of extinct flowers has been resurrected. So what’s next?

Well, according to the industry leader in this field, Colossal Biosciences, the next step is the revival of animal species, with woolly mammoths as the figurehead. The company boldly claims: “We are the de-extinction company. We accept the challenge. On behalf of humanity, the animal kingdom and the universe at large” - whether or not the animal kingdom and universe at large have given them their much-deserved thanks remains unknown.

But despite this braggadocious declaration, Colossal Biosciences has admirable aims. Unlike most billionaire side-hustles, which only serve to prolong the egos of their investors, de-extinction may have commendable applications for the environment. According to its CEO, Ben Lamm, Colossal aims to revive ecosystems by bringing back “keystone species”, animals that define a whole ecosystem and on whom the entire ecosystem relies.

Lamm uses the example of wolves in Yellowstone Park; having gone extinct almost a hundred years prior, they were reintroduced in 1995 after their standing in their natural hierarchy was understood. With their reintroduction, the whole ecosystem, including their prey, flourished. Lamm and his company Colossal hope to achieve this environmental boom with the reintroduction of previously extinct species, igniting an explosion of life in their habitats.


The Consequences of Eternal Life

Most billionaires are too blinded by arrogance to realise the negative effects of an immortal human race. An ever-accumulating population for one, exacerbating all the issues the planet currently faces for far more people. Then there’s the question of youth: will an ageing population maintain a decent quality of life too, or will our new supercentenarians painfully shrivel up until they resemble dates more than people?

Finally, putting an end to death effectively puts an end to change, at least in a societal sense. Autocrats with lifelong terms, such as Xi Jinping in China, would be able to rule forever. Wealth and power would compound with age, meaning the billionaires of today would be the billionaires of forever, and taking a shot at joining them on the podium would be a substantially harder task.

Living forever, at least when this technology is new, would be wildly expensive, so it would only be the ultra-rich who could afford it. While there are some anti-ageing/anti-death corporations that only fund schemes that can be “democratized”, the vast majority appear to be mere facades of rich individuals’ vain hopes to extend their legacies, seemingly indefinitely.

The one life-preservation method that seems likely to benefit humanity and our planet is de-extinction. Though it is more “resurrection” than “preservation”, with predictions that up to 50% of all species could go extinct by 2050, this science could not only be helpful but vital in the fight to preserve our environment.