DOMINIC LAWSON: Good luck spending millions trying to live for ever, Mr Bezos, but eternity would be the death of me
The desire to defy the years — at least in the music business — is unstoppable. Over the past few days two groups whose heyday was 40-plus years ago announced they are getting back together.
One, Genesis, is to go on tour, reprising its hits from the 1970s. It will be rather a struggle. Phil Collins told the BBC: ‘I can barely hold a [drum] stick in this hand. There are certain physical things that get in the way.’ So the 70-year-old, who has recently had back surgery, is handing over the drum kit to his son Nicholas.
The Swedish group ABBA have also declared they are getting together again. Their approach is more innovative. Not only are they releasing an entirely new album, Voyage, their first in almost 40 years, but they are going to appear as digital versions of their younger selves, created by George Lucas’s studio (which brought you all those Star Wars special effects). These avatars are to be known as ‘ABBAtars’.
Obviously, it would be impossible for the Abba members — Benny, Bjorn, Agnetha and Anni-Frid — to be as they were in their prime, just as Phil Collins cannot sweep back the years and hit those drums as he did. Or at least, not if the human condition remains as it has always been: subject to the inevitable ravages of time.
Which, it turns out, is something the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, wants to change.
Golden oldies: Swedish group ABBA (pictured) are back together and releasing a new album. They are going to appear as digital versions of their younger selves, known as ‘ABBAtars’
It has just been revealed that the founder of Amazon has put a slice of his estimated $200 billion fortune into a new venture called Altos Labs. This will, according to a piece in MIT Technology Review, be ‘pursuing biological reprogramming technology, a way to rejuvenate cells in the lab to revitalise entire animal bodies, ultimately prolonging human life.’
This is going to be a multi-national venture with laboratories not just in the U.S. but also Japan and Cambridge in the UK, which is already a centre for stem-cell research.
According to MIT Technology Review, ‘Altos is luring professors by offering sports-star salaries of $1 million a year or more, plus equity . . . One researcher who confirmed accepting a job offer from Altos, Manuel Serrano, of Barcelona’s Institute for Research in Biomedicine, said the company would pay him five to ten times what he earns now.’
Spanish researchers have been in the vanguard of a rejuvenation method that involves adding four proteins, known as ‘Yamanaka factors’, to the cells of mice. This had the effect of making those cells regress to a younger form.
Another Spanish scientist in this field, Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, achieved what were described as ‘signs of age reversal’ in mice, and led him to term this ‘a potential elixir of life’.
It has just been revealed that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos (pictured) has put a slice of his estimated $200 billion fortune into Altos Labs, a venture aimed a ‘ultimately prolonging human life’ [Stock image]
Mice, clearly, are not humans. And the experiments have had setbacks: a number of the rodents developed grotesquely disfiguring ‘teratoma’ tumours.
But Bezos would not have got involved unless he saw this as having beneficial application to our species. Perhaps this was what he had in mind when, in his farewell letter as CEO to Amazon shareholders in July, he said (quoting the British biologist Richard Dawkins): ‘Staving off death is something you have to work at . . . if living things don’t actively work to prevent it, they would eventually merge with their surroundings and cease to exist as autonomous human beings.’ Or, as it says in the Book of Common Prayer: ‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust’.
Bezos is not the only Silicon Valley multi-billionaire to be driven by the idea of reversing the ageing process. In 2016 Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal, joined Bezos in funding Unity Biotechnology, dedicated to the development of ‘therapeutics to slow, halt or reverse diseases of ageing’. Three years before that, the founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, invested $750 million in Calico Life Sciences, similarly devoted to tackling the human ageing process.
None of these ventures has yet come up with the goods. But would it be desirable if they did? On the face of it, the answer would be ‘Yes’. Certainly in the view of affluent West Coast Americans, where vast efforts are made — by both sexes — to appear much younger than their chronological age.
Success in biologically reversing the ageing process would be bad news for the legion of plastic surgeons in that part of the world, but surely it would be outweighed by the joy of billions — assuming it was affordable — who never again had to worry about infirmity, or indeed, getting older?
I don’t think so. If you stop to think about what living for hundreds of years — let alone immortality — would mean, the prospects are as terrifying as they are tantalising. It’s not just a question of an infinitely expanding population — Bezos has an answer to that, which I will come to — but the nature of our humanity.
What would life mean, if it had no end? Down the centuries, novelists have recognised this. The satirist Jonathan Swift had his character Gulliver visit Luggnagg where certain individuals were born ‘with a red circular Spot in the Forehead, directly over the Left Eyebrow which was an infallible Mark that it should never dye’. These immortals, Gulliver was told, were called Struldbruggs.
Enraptured, Gulliver exclaimed: ‘Happiest beyond all comparison are those excellent Struldbruggs, born exempt from that universal Calamity of human Nature . . . without the Weight and Depression of Spirits caused by the continual Apprehension of Death’.
Genesis is set to hit the road on a new tour, but Phil Collins (pictured), 70, revealed he can no longer play the drums like he used to
But then Gulliver discovers the truth: that these immortals are so cut off from other humans, by virtue of outliving them by many centuries, that ‘they lye under the Disadvantage of living like Foreigners in their own Country’.
And in The Makropulos Affair, the Czech science fiction writer Karel Capek had a 337-year-old character called Emilia, who complained bitterly that ‘No one can love for 300 years . . . and then everything tires one. And then you find out that there is nothing at all’.
This theme — the boredom of living for eternity — was also picked up by the Anglo-American novelist, Susan Ertz, who wrote: ‘Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon’.
In the case of multi-billionaires, I suppose there is the desire to live long enough to enjoy their vast fortunes to the full. They, at least, wouldn’t have to worry that the cash would run out before they did (because be assured, eternal life would mean instant destruction of the business model of the pensions industry).
The likes of Jeff Bezos, in any case, are not the sort who are capable of being bored: he has a terrifying drive unlikely ever to be satisfied in a normal lifespan.
Bezos’s main post-Amazon project is space exploration, under the brand Blue Origin: it was in this pursuit that in July, along with a small group including his brother, he entered sub-orbital space on the vehicle New Shepard.
In fact, he has long believed that humanity will exhaust Earth’s resources and must therefore colonise space. Bezos, while a student at Princeton, became a devotee of one of the university’s physicists, Gerard O’Neill, who set out a vision of human space settlements.
Bezos’s main post-Amazon project is space exploration, under the brand Blue Origin: it was in this pursuit that in July, along with a small group including his brother, he entered sub-orbital space on the vehicle New Shepard (pictured)
The vast majority of us, I fancy, would not be drawn to life on some space station, however well stocked with products supplied by a weightless Amazon delivery service. Life on a real other Earth-like planet — now that would be another matter.
The closest equivalent planet to our own yet identified by astronomers is known as Kepler-452b. It has a sun like ours, from which it gets energy just 10 per cent higher than that we receive, and is in an orbit just 20 days longer than our 365.
There is a difficulty, however: it is 1,400 light-years from us. Which means that at the speed of the fastest of the current generation of space probes, it would take more than 26 million years to reach it.
So, take your elixir of life, Mr Bezos, and enjoy that journey. The rest of us will settle for mortality.