Tuesday, August 20, 2013

"The Immortality Financiers: The Billionaires Who Want to Live Forever"--But Just One Thing

The tech billionaires listed in this Daily Beast article--including Larry Ellison, Sergey Brin, and Peter Thiel--might find more success in their quest for immortality if that quest were more realistically defined.

That is, rather than shooting for the moon on immortality--with all the infinite moral and ethical quandaries that emerge therefrom--they might focus on a war against disease, including the as-of-now-invincible Hayflick Limit, which casts a dark pall on any bright hopes for significantly longer life. 

If so, then the optics of the struggle would shift from private to public.  That is, the better-health/longer-life issue should shift from private vanity to public policy.  And that's good news, ultimately, for all concerned. 

While a billionaire-boutique effort might be better than nothing--and as argued here many times, the drying up of the medical-cure pipeline is a serious and budget-busting issue--a true public-private partnership and a national or international mobilization beats everything else.   

The bigger the better.  Scale is your friend.  

The billion-and-first iPhone is better--and certainly more reliable--than the prototype of something different, no matter how grand its ambitions. 

As we were reminded with Mitt Romney's Orca get-out-the-vote program, one doesn't want to be the first to use something complicated and technical.  I would feel safer riding in a plane from Boeing--backed by a century of R&D, much of it financed by the Pentagon, as well as many millions of pilot hours--than in some contraption that just came out of the skunkworks.   Thrill-seekers and would-be record-breakers can get in anything they want, of course, but they know the dangers. And the statistics confirm that such dare-devilry is, indeed, dangerous.  

If Ellison, or any of these others, is willing to be the very first person to try the new potion, well, that's okay.   But the moment that he gets into testing it on anyone else--be it duped Third World peasants, unwilling Chinese prisoners, or even highly paid volunteers--that's when the trouble will come.   Issues of right aside, this is an NGO world, and an NGO world with cellphone cameras and Twitter.  

So billionaires are best off learning from the successes of the past.  If they study history, they will realize that the best way to truly get this done is the way the railroads got their way in the 19th century, or AT&T got its way in the early 20th century--or the polio vaccine in the mid-20th century.  That is, by building a robust political framework around their enterprise, shielding them from liability, rent-seekers, etc.    

That's the time-tested way to get this done.  I argued this historical point here, on August 2. 

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