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How the 'cognitive elite' plan to outsmart nature and cheat death

Vastly wealthy, clever people are experimenting with linking our brains to machines in the hopes of dodging mortality, writes David Aaronovitch

30 May 2021 - 00:01 By David Aaronovitch
Elon Musk is the chief executive of Neuralink, a company developing tech intended to be implanted in the brain, which would allow you to control external devices with your thoughts.
Elon Musk is the chief executive of Neuralink, a company developing tech intended to be implanted in the brain, which would allow you to control external devices with your thoughts.
Image: Siphu Gqwetha

Transcending the human condition is a common fantasy. What else are all those superhero movies about? A man can fly, a girl can see through lead, a boy can climb the outside of skyscrapers. But those films are also subtle reminders that none of us can do those things. There's the office the next morning, the kids to take to school, the dog to walk, the hospital appointment to keep. Any dreams of superpowers are just that: dreams. Unless you are incredibly wealthy.

Because then you not only have the mindset that suggests you are capable of unusual feats, you also have the resources to indulge attempting them. And, more important, perhaps, the actuarial calculus that restrains most humans from spending big on long shots doesn't apply to you. Like an early Renaissance nobleman who's lived a life of sin, you might think that eternal salvation is problematic but building an ornate chapel inside a cathedral and endowing a convent might just tip the scales.

That kind of calculation may be why a surprising number of the world's wealthy people were to be found in New Zealand during the pandemic. In the late 1990s, a semi-apocalyptic book was published that won attention from some of America's burgeoning tech billionaires.

The Sovereign Individual: How to Survive and Thrive During the Collapse of the Welfare State, co-written by British journalist William Rees-Mogg and James Dale Davidson, an investment adviser, predicted a near future in which states would no longer be able to tax their entrepreneurs and would thus begin to disintegrate. From the wreckage would arise a new "cognitive elite" of vastly wealthy, clever people.

Among those taken with this prediction were the PayPal king Peter Thiel and Marc Andreessen, the co-creator of Mosaic, the first widely used web browser.

Just under a decade ago Thiel became a citizen of New Zealand, having spent a total of less than a fortnight in the country. His citizenship was conferred in a ceremony at the New Zealand consulate in Santa Monica, California. Subsequently he bought a 500-acre plot on South Island.

In 2016, Sam Altman of Y Combinator, which funds and mentors tech startups, let slip to journalists that in the event of social breakdown, or a deadly pandemic, or a nuclear exchange, he and Thiel had agreed to head off by private jet for the South Island retreat and wait out the catastrophe.

That is not Altman and Thiel's only insurance policy. After all, those doomsday scenarios are each relatively unlikely. Well, mostly. Death, however, is certain. So another well-trodden path among the super-wealthy is the one that might, just possibly, lead to no death at all.

The subject is hooked up to a machine that embalms the brain, which at a future date can be reawakened and linked to a computer

It was reported two years ago in the MIT Technology Review that Altman was one of two dozen people who have signed up with a company called Nectome. The company's website declares the intention to preserve a client's brain sufficiently so as "to keep all its memories intact: from that great chapter of your favourite book to the feeling of cold winter air, baking an apple pie, or having dinner with your friends and family".

Essentially what happens is that the subject is hooked up to a machine that embalms the brain, which at a future date can be reawakened and linked to a computer, creating a kind of total backup. The brain's contents, then, can achieve immortality - fragrant recollections of apple pie and all - as long as IT can service the computer, presumably. The big drawback is that the embalming process will kill you, so it is something you would probably want to leave to the last moment.

An alternative, invested in apparently by Thiel, is "neuropreservation". The idea is similar to Nectome's but seems to mean that you die before the freezing process begins and that, when you are defrosted and reconstituted at some time in the future, you will still have your own head to which a new body can be attached, using a process yet to be discovered. This is an uncomfortable image, to say the least. My head atop the kind of body I would be likely to choose, were I able, would be the stuff of horror fiction.

All these techniques have their antecedents in history, of course. Cryonics, the hovercraft of the immortality industry, was fashionable in the 1960s and '70s. Walt Disney was believed to have been frozen after he turned in his Mickey ears in 1966, but it turned out he'd been buried after all. The US company Alcor Life Extension, the best-known company of a handful still offering the service, has a steady stream of customers, some of them cancer victims facing early deaths.

Recently, however, battling age and attaining deathlessness have become a fixation with tech and investment billionaires - at least, among those who don't want to go to Mars. As one of them put it: "Medical technology is moving so fast we may be the last generation to die." And who wants to be the soldier killed on the eve of armistice? So why not give the whole business of surviving forever a nudge if you can afford it?

Other tech billionaires have slightly more modest and possibly more attainable schemes for being something a little better than human.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
Image: Britta Pedersen-Pool/Getty Images

Enter Elon Musk (of course) and Neuralink. The name gets you halfway to the idea. Started four years ago, and headquartered in San Francisco, Neuralink employs a staff of 100, including top neuroscientists, funded largely by Musk, who is also the chief executive. The company's business is developing brain-machine interfaces (BMIs). These would take the form of surgical implants in the brain, whose thousands of tiny electrodes connected by incredibly thin wires ("neural lace", they call it) would convey impulses directly to external devices. As the website says, in the first instance Neuralink "would allow you to control your iOS device, keyboard and mouse directly with the activity of your brain, just by thinking about it".

Earlier this year, at a demonstration using a live pig, Musk described the implant as a "Fitbit in the skull". It's fair to say that neuroscientists are sceptical about practical application any time soon, but that doesn't mean it will never happen. After all, scientists laughed at the Zeppelin.

To be fair to Neuralink, its ambition, if realised, could revolutionise the lives of millions of people suffering from muscular wasting and motor diseases. But that's not where its ambition ends. As the company says: "As our devices continue to scale, and as we learn to communicate with more areas of the brain, we will discover new, non-medical applications for our BMIs. Neuralink's long-term vision is to create BMIs that are sufficiently safe and powerful that healthy individuals would want to have them."

All of a sudden a vision of enhancement opens up. For a few tens of thousands, perhaps, you could have the kids wired up so that their brains could download complex knowledge and detailed information. So they could go to that job or college interview, or sit that exam, and think themselves into straight As, incredible business deals or the mindset of a potential partner. No more Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother practice for 10 hours a day for your progeny, when their BMIs could guide their hands over the keys or the strings as soon as they picked up the instrument. And you could walk into that gallery or listen to that opera, secure in knowing without trying where this picture fitted into Leonardo's canon or what the reviews were like the last time Bryn Terfel sang Figaro.

You would be halfway to fulfilling the prophecy of the great Raymond Kurzweil, innovator and futurist, who has long predicted a merger between humans and machines into what he calls the "singularity". A guru for billionaires fighting ageing, Kurzweil too hedges his bets by being involved with the people promoting neuropreservation. The future is so exciting, he wants to be there to see it. 

Of course, what any of these incredibly wealthy people will say is that they want any anti-ageing and anti-death technology to eventually be available to all. They are happy to be the pathfinders and, sometimes, the guinea pigs, and to help everyone discover a path to rise above what for a million years has been the human condition.

However, there's a problem, albeit an exciting one. It is that we're only just learning some of the most important lessons about what it is to be the human being that each of us is. If you take Covid-19, for example: why are some groups of people (allowing for age) so much worse affected than others? Why do certain therapeutic drugs work so well for the patient in Bed 1 and hardly at all for the poor so-and-so in Bed 2?

Having your entire genome sequenced, as I did last year, is a fascinating business. Not only do you learn if you carry a genetic condition, but complex associations of your genetic material appear to correlate to traits, including predispositions to drug intolerances and mental-health problems. And it is nothing like as simple as: "Your mum was good at maths so you will be." Indeed, it is possible for one member of a nuclear family to have certain heritable traits that none of the rest shares.

Robert Plomin, the geneticist who wrote the 2018 book Blueprint: How DNA Makes Us Who We Are, explained to me a couple of years ago what the implications of these discoveries were. If you could create a "polygenic score" for heritable traits, these would suggest to you whether it was, for example, worth bullying the non-musical child to practise the bassoon, or a good idea to concentrate on certain kinds of learning or certain kinds of exercise rather than others to optimise results. Most controversially, Plomin concluded from one key study that, when it came to long-term achievement, spending large sums on expensive educations was money wasted. Children would get to where they were going anyway.

In this context, fighting ageing or scheming to cheat death begins to seem redundant. Save for catastrophic human intervention or natural disaster, many of these things have been mapped out for you, relative to everyone else, from the moment you first drew breath. And until you find out - as we soon may - what you're really made of, all the rest of it feels very much like a whim of the wealthy.


• Cryonics is the low-temperature freezing and storage of a human corpse or severed head, with the speculative hope that resurrection may be possible in the future.

• American physicist Robert Ettinger first conceived of the idea of cryonics in his book, The Prospect of Immortality (1964), which spelt out how "you and I, right now, have a chance to avoid permanent death".

• In 1976 Ettinger founded the non-profit Cryonics Institute in Michigan, whose first frozen client was Ettinger's own mother.

• The institute now safeguards 112 preserved human "patients", accompanied by 91 pets.

• More than 500 paid-up members have reserved their spots in the deep-freeze, while the institute has also been joined by numerous similar organisations in the US and beyond.

• Both Timothy Leary (American psychologist and advocator of psychedelic drugs) and Larry King (American TV host) were cryonics advocates and signed up with cryonics providers, but changed their minds shortly before their deaths and were not cryopreserved.

• According to the New York Times, disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein wanted to have his head and penis frozen after death so that he could "seed the human race with his DNA".