Do Billionaires Crave Eternal Life?

A Russian entrepreneur certainly hopes so

2 min read

Though a sucker may be born every minute, few grow up to be billionaires. But maybe one’s enough.

That seems to be the business model behind today’s wacky story about a Russian entrepreneur who wants the world’s billionaires to fund a project to find the key to immortality. The entrepreneur, Dmitry Itskov, expects the first fruits in about a dozen years, when a human brain is to be transplanted into a robot body. The resulting “avatar,” as he calls it, will “save people whose body is completely worn out or irreversibly damaged.”

It’s a rather convenient timeline. Although Itskov is only 31 years old and can wait a while, the billionaires he’s canvassing on Forbes magazine’s annual list have an average age of around 66 years. Those guys can’t wait forever.

A brain in a bot is just a way station to Nirvana, which would ultimately involve downloading the brain’s contents into a computer. That and other tweaks to the technology will take a few decades, Itskov says, which is why he calls his project the 2045 Initiative. It held its first meeting in Moscow in February and has just opened an office in San Francisco. It is planning a big meeting in New York’s Lincoln Center in June 2013.

In ages past, those who would cheat Death generally talked of an elixir, but nowadays their line of patter tends to run in a cybernetic vein. Maybe digital technology is hot, or maybe it just seems to offer greater security. A brand new body can get crushed by a 500-pound anvil that may fall on it, as anvils are wont to do. Once it’s downloaded into a computer, your mind is safe from anvils, pandemics, and even planet-destroying asteroids (as soon as its mirrored onto interplanetary networks).

Where have we heard all this before? Ah, yes, the Singularity, subject of our award-winning special issue a few years ago. And indeed, the Singularity has attracted the fervent interest of at least a few rich people—Ray Kurzweil, for one.

And where else have we seen rich people running after fool’s gold? Ah, yes, the asteroid mining company!

A fool and his gold: There must be a Russian proverb like that one.

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This CAD Program Can Design New Organisms

Genetic engineers have a powerful new tool to write and edit DNA code

11 min read
A photo showing machinery in a lab

Foundries such as the Edinburgh Genome Foundry assemble fragments of synthetic DNA and send them to labs for testing in cells.

Edinburgh Genome Foundry, University of Edinburgh

In the next decade, medical science may finally advance cures for some of the most complex diseases that plague humanity. Many diseases are caused by mutations in the human genome, which can either be inherited from our parents (such as in cystic fibrosis), or acquired during life, such as most types of cancer. For some of these conditions, medical researchers have identified the exact mutations that lead to disease; but in many more, they're still seeking answers. And without understanding the cause of a problem, it's pretty tough to find a cure.

We believe that a key enabling technology in this quest is a computer-aided design (CAD) program for genome editing, which our organization is launching this week at the Genome Project-write (GP-write) conference.

With this CAD program, medical researchers will be able to quickly design hundreds of different genomes with any combination of mutations and send the genetic code to a company that manufactures strings of DNA. Those fragments of synthesized DNA can then be sent to a foundry for assembly, and finally to a lab where the designed genomes can be tested in cells. Based on how the cells grow, researchers can use the CAD program to iterate with a new batch of redesigned genomes, sharing data for collaborative efforts. Enabling fast redesign of thousands of variants can only be achieved through automation; at that scale, researchers just might identify the combinations of mutations that are causing genetic diseases. This is the first critical R&D step toward finding cures.

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