A New Age: Pittsburgh-Based Author Chronicles Science's Search For Human Immortality

Jan 8, 2020

Chip Walter’s new book is titled “Immortality Inc.: Renegade Science, Silicon Valley Billions and the Quest to Live Forever.” It’s about the money, and the research, that’s seeking a way to extend human life indefinitely.

Chip Walter discusses "Immortality, Inc." at Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures: 6 p.m. Thu., Jan. 16. Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh Main Branch, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland

Sounds like science fiction, but Walter thinks breakthroughs are just around the corner.

“I think it's going to begin to happen in the next five years,” said the Pittsburgh-based science writer in a recent interview.

As the term “renegade science” suggests, efforts to “cure death,” as Walter puts it, remain something of a fringe enterprise. But given the riches that are backing work by scientific visionaries, Walter is convinced they won’t be for long. And his 300-page book doesn’t seem to be dwelling on the fringes: Walter is a former CNN bureau chief with other respected science books to his credit, and “Immortality, Inc.,” published by National Geographic, is getting respectful reviews from the likes of Publishers’ Weekly.

The project started several years ago, when Walter recalls magazines running cover stories on research that had the much more modest goal of helping people live to 120 or so. At the time, he didn’t find the prospects for such lab work especially bright. That changed in 2013, when he learned that Google was getting into the game.

“And you went, ‘OK, now it’s serious,’” he said. “That was to me a huge turning point because there was some serious credibility behind that. It wasn't just snake oil.”

The money impressed him, as did name investors like Google co-founder Larry Page, Google Ventures investor Bill Maris, and Apple chairman Art Levinson. And the research was being guided by folks like Ray Kurzweil, the engineer and futurist perhaps best known for creating the notion of “the singularity,” the idea that human and artificial intelligence are destined to become one.

Kurzweil, said Walter, “was one of the first people to be able to credibly argue that we really don't have to die from aging. We may die of other things, but we don't have to grow old and just kind of clatter away.” Other visionaries tracked in “Immortality, Inc.” include biochemist Craig Venter, a driving force behind the Human Genome Project and the company Human Longevity, Inc., and Aubrey de Grey, the eccentric British computer scientist and gerontologist who wrote the book “Ending Aging.”

The book's protagonists protagonists seek to reclassify aging not as an integral part of life, but as a disease

Among other efforts, Walter’s protagonists seek to reclassify aging not as an integral part of life, but as a disease. Inconveniently, aging is programmed into our genes: Evolution, it seems, loses interest in most animals after they have passed breeding age. So the key to halting aging, said Walter, lies somewhere within our ever-expanding knowledge of our DNA as abetted by ever more powerful computers.

“We're just gathering way more information, way faster,” said Walter, whose own books about human evolution include “Thumbs, Toes, and Tears” (2006) and “Last Ape Standing” (2013).

That data could lead to, say, gene-splicing treatments to prevent aging. Kurzweilian visions, meanwhile, include robots small enough to swim about in our bloodstreams, repairing the damage cells accrue as they age.

As detailed in “Immortality, Inc.,” researchers are also exploring the genomes of animals that do not seem to age: charismatic megafauna like bowhead whales and Greenland sharks, but perhaps especially the otherwise lowly naked mole rat. These homely creatures live up to 35 years – outlasting their fellow rodents by orders of magnitude and, more importantly, retaining youthful vitality right up until they die from accidents or other causes.

Naked mole rats have had an outsized influence on the whole process

Mole rats, in fact, have had an outsized influence on the whole process – including shoring up support from key investor Levinson, said Walter.

“When I first met him, [Levinson] said, ‘I’m not sure, we might just have to age, you know?’” said Walter.
“So whenever … they discovered these other animals that simply don't seem to age, he said, ‘OK, these are mammals. That probably means that we could somehow -- if we can figure out, the genetics of it -- stop aging and maybe even turn it back.’”

Researchers have even had some success extending the lives of earthworms and mice by tinkering with their genes, Walter writes.

The book also includes a memorable visit to Alcor, the Arizona-based company that (more or less) freezes paying customers -- or sometimes just their heads -- shortly after they die, in hopes that medical science of the future will be able to revivify them.

"I came to the conclusion, 'My God, they're going to pull it off'"

When Walter started work on the book, he acknowledges, he thought the quest for immortality was “crazy. But by the time I got through at all and saw the science, I came to the conclusion, ‘My God, they're going to pull it off.’”

Many accounts of this sort of research are notably more skeptical of our prospects for conquering death. “No serious scientist believes in immortality,” wrote New York Times health journalist Nicholas Bakalar in late 2018.

In a 2017 New Yorker article covering many of the same players and projects as “Immortality, Inc.,” Tad Friend noted archly, “For decades, the solution to aging has seemed merely decades away.” Much more than Walter, Friend emphasized the daunting scientific complexity of the science behind aging.

But even if it were possible to extend life indefinitely, should we?

For instance, if it a big chunk of humanity were able to become immortal – or even to extend life by, say, 50 years – population would skyrocket, straining the ecosystem. Arrangements for retirement as we know it would go out the window.

"You have a whole huge generation of baby boomers who are facing their mortality right now"

In his book, Walter notes such concerns, but doesn’t dwell on them.

“I don't know that there is a solution. I mean, any more than there was a solution whenever we started creating cars or cell phones,” he said in an interview. “The truth is every technology is double-edged. You know, they can be used for good or for ill.”

As Walter observes, the research he documents in “Immortality, Inc.” – and indeed, the whole multi-billion-dollar anti-aging industry – has largely been driven by Western baby boomers, the oldest of whom turned 70 a few years ago.

Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of people around the globe lack clean water, electricity, or both. Last year, a U.N. report warned that within a matter of decades, global warming and other environmental crises could threaten the ecological foundation of human civilization itself.

But in an interview, Walter frames the quest for immortality in terms of a demand for longevity.

“You have a whole huge generation of baby boomers who are facing their mortality right now. They're not very happy about that, and they never saw themselves as a generation that was going to kind of go quietly,” he said. “We can debate whether or not that's the best use of our resources. But the truth is, the resources are being used and they're moving forward. And I think there's a huge need for it. So I think it’s going to happen.”

Walter, personally, seemed to relish the prospect.

“If someone walked up to you and said, ‘I can help you live pretty much as long as you want and you will be healthy,’ do you want to die instead?” he said. “And so what we really need to be thinking about as a society is, ‘How are we going to handle this?’”

On Jan. 16, Walter visits Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures to discuss "Immortality Inc." The event is at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's main branch, in Oakland. Admission is free with registration. [Editor's note: Walter will be in conversation with WESA's Bill O'Driscoll.]

[This article was edited Jan. 14 to clarify the sources of financial backing of the some of the research ventures.]