At 11am on a Sunday morning, I slip into a row of seats in front of a podium with flower bouquets on each side. I'm here to listen to an aging white man talk about the afterlife. A woman in a fancy hat arranges a potluck lunch on a back table. Other attendees, mostly gray-haired, pass around a wicker basket and toss in $20 bills and personal checks.
We aren't in church. This is godless Silicon Valley.
The Humanist Society has welcomed Ralph Merkle, a Livermore native, to explain cryonics—the process of freezing a recently dead body in "liquid goo," like Austin Powers—to the weekly Sunday Forum. We all want to know about being re-awoken, or reborn, in the future.
Merkle, who has a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford and invented what's called "public key cryptology" in the '70s, makes his pitch to the audience: hand over $80,000, plus yearly dues, to Alcor, and the Scottsdale, Arizona–based company will freeze your brain, encased in its skull, so that you and your memories can wait out the years until medical nanotechnology is advanced enough to both bring you back from a frozen state as well as fix the ills that brought on your death in the first place.
"You get to make a decision if you want to join the experimental group or the control group," Merkle says. "The outcome for the control group is known."
Alcor gained infamy in 2002, when the body of baseball legend Ted Williams was flown to the company's Arizona headquarters, where his head was then severed, frozen and, according to some reports, mistreated.
The Humanist Society is an ideal audience for Merkle's presentation, as its congregants aren't held back by the tricky business of believing in a soul. Debbie Allen, the perfectly coiffed executive director and secretary of the national board of the American Humanist Association, considers cryonics a practical tool. "Religion has directed the conversation for thousands of years," she says. Allen prefers to focus on ethics, and whether cryonics "advances the well-being of the individual or the community."
"Science-fiction," someone whispers behind me, as Merkle talks about nanorobots of the future. He also notes how respirocytes and microbivores can be "programmed to run around inside a cell and do medically useful things like make you healthy."
As one might expect in a room full of humanists, skepticism runs high during the Q&A portion of the meeting. People are wondering exactly what kind of animals the scientists have used to test the cryonics process (answer: nematodes); when Alcor freezes bodies (after one's heart stops, if a DNR, or do not resuscitate, order is requested); whether a frozen brain is any good if the rest of the body deteriorates ("Toss it," Merkle says. "Replacement of everything will be feasible."); and what happens if Alcor goes bankrupt.
"We take that very seriously," the doctor says.
Lunch is served.
"Why would he want to preserve somebody like Adolf Trump?" asks Bob Wallace, 93, who ate salad and cubed cheese with his partner, Marge Ottenberg, 91, whom he met at a Humanist Society event.
"Obviously, the worst possible people are most likely to want to live forever," says Arthur Jackson, 86, a retired junior high school teacher.
Ottenberg seems more open to the idea of coming back from the dead than her golden-year counterparts. "Whatever works," she says.
Silicon Valley is the sort of place where people dream about nanorobots fixing our medical disorders. It's the sort of place where hundreds of millions of dollars are spent chasing that dream.
The last five years have seen an investment boom in what's called "life extension" research. Some of it is straight-up science, such as the Stanford lab researching blood transfusions in mice to cure Alzheimer's. Scientists are in a race against time to help as many people as possible, as fast as possible. They're battling a disease that saw an 89 percent increase in diagnoses between 2000 and 2014; and Alzheimer's or other dementia is currently the sixth leading cause of death. There are also nontraditional sources of cash flowing into biotech, which was once considered a risky investment.
But death itself is the biggest social ill Silicon Valley is trying to solve.
We can build apps to keep track of diabetics' blood glucose levels, to measure how soundly we're sleeping and to access medical records in an instant, but none of this stops the body from wearing out. Alongside the scientists laying the medical foundation to get us to the nanorobots envisioned by Merkle, techie utopians are looking at other ways to cheat death. A cluster of tech companies are attracting far more funding from Silicon Valley than academia, shifting the research landscape with infusions of cash.
Bryan Johnson, an entrepreneur who sold his online payment company to PayPal for $800 million, was the first investor in Craig Venter's Human Longevity Inc., which aims to create a database of a million human genome sequences, including people who are over 100 years old, by 2020. Oracle founder Larry Ellison, who once said "Death makes me very angry" and is one of the oldest of the life-extension investors at 72, has also invested in Human Longevity. Johnson infused even more cash into the biotech field, investing another $100 million of his own money into the OS Fund in 2014, to "support inventors and scientists who aim to benefit humanity by rewriting the operating systems of life."
Such projects are examples of Silicon Valley's extreme confidence in its own ability to improve the world. In an email, Johnson describes his work in grandly optimistic terms.
"Humanity's greatest masterpieces have happened when anchored in hope and aspiration, not drowning in fear," he says.
It takes some serious chutzpah to say you'll extend the human lifespan, and for Johnson, he and his colleagues are venturing where no one has gone before.
"Building good technology is an act of exploration, and that it is very difficult for us to imagine the good that might come from any new technology," Johnson says. "We proceed, as explorers, nonetheless."
Johnson's lofty goals are similar in scale to other giant anti-aging investments in Silicon Valley. In 2013, Google created an anti-aging lab called Calico (for "California Life Company"), hiring top scientist Cynthia Kenyon, known for altering DNA in worms to make them live twice as long as they usually do. Calico is not your local university research lab; it has $1.5 billion in the bank and has remained close-lipped about its progress, like a Manhattan Project for life extension.
For Google co-founder Sergey Brin, 43, Calico may be another way to attack a more personal health concern: Brin carries a gene that increases his likelihood of contracting Parkinson's disease and has already invested $50 million in genetic Parkinson's research, conducted by his ex-wife's company, 23andMe. Brin said in 2009 that he hoped medicine could "catch up" to cure Parkinson's before he's old enough to develop it.
That hope is a common thread among health-obsessed tech investors like PayPal founder Peter Thiel, 49. A libertarian and Trump adviser, Thiel is trying to avoid both death and taxes. His foundation hired a medical director, Jason Camm, whose professional goals include increasing his clients' "prospects for Optimal Health and significant Lifespan Extension." Like Brin, who swims and drinks green tea to prevent Parkinson's, Thiel has changed his daily habits to live longer. He's aiming for 120, so he avoids refined sugar, follows the Paleo diet, drinks red wine and takes human growth hormone, which he believes will keep bones strong and prevent arthritis.
Thiel has also expressed personal interest in a company called Ambrosia in Monterey, where Dr. Jesse Karmazin is conducting medical trials for a procedure called parabiosis, which gives older people blood plasma transfusions from people between 16 and 25. Karmazin has enrolled more than 70 participants so far, each of whom pays $8,000 for the treatment. Much has been made of Thiel harvesting and receiving injections of young people's blood, though Karmazin recently denied that Thiel was a client of his.
Karmazin doesn't call himself a utopian, but he does note that his work requires some faith. "There's always uncertainty about whether it's going to stand the test of time, whether it'll work at all," he says. "That's especially true in technology, and you have to believe in it."
At the same time, the dystopians of Silicon Valley are preparing for the apocalypse. Reid Hoffman, CEO of LinkedIn, told the New Yorker that he guesses up to 50 percent of tech executives have property in New Zealand, the hot new hub for the end of the world. Steve Huffman, CEO of Reddit, bought multiple motorcycles so he can weave through highway traffic if there's a natural disaster and he needs to escape. He also got laser eye surgery so he wouldn't have to rely on glasses or contacts in a survival scenario.
Among the dystopians is Elon Musk, whose brand-new Neuralink company is investigating what Musk calls "neural lace," a digital layer on top of the brain's cortex that connects us to computers. Such inventions could eventually lead us to what Google director of engineering Ray Kurzweil calls "technological singularity," or the time when ever more powerful artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence, around 2045.