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Peter Thiel’s quest to find the key to eternal life

PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel is funding, through his nonprofit, research on anti-aging projects. (Tristan Fewings/Getty Images)

Peter Thiel, 47, revels in being a contrarian. The billionaire co-founder of PayPal and investor in Facebook has set up a fellowship program that encourages kids to drop out of college, has given millions of dollars to Ron Paul’s PAC and has started an organization dedicated to the world’s first floating city out of reach of any government on Earth. But the idea he’s most passionate about is using technology to extend human life far beyond what it is now and all the biological, societal and philosophical changes that come with that.

He’s funding dozens of scientists through his nonprofit, Breakout Labs, which aims to support early-stage companies that push the boundaries of what’s possible, and directly through personal donations to institutions and individuals.

This interview, one in a series of conversations with Silicon Valley figures who are shaking up philanthropy, has been edited for length and clarity.

Why aging?

I’ve always had this really strong sense that death was a terrible, terrible thing. I think that’s somewhat unusual. Most people end up compartmentalizing, and they are in some weird mode of denial and acceptance about death, but they both have the result of making you very passive.

I prefer to fight it.

Almost every major disease is linked to aging. One in a thousand get cancer after age 30. Nixon declared war on cancer in 1971, and there has been frustratingly slow progress. One-third of people age 85 and older have Alzheimer’s or dementia, and we’re not even motivated to start a war on Alzheimer’s. At the end of the day, we need to do more.

All your philanthropic projects are founded on the idea that there’s something wrong with the way the current system works. What are the challenges you see in biomedical research?

I worry the FDA is too restrictive. Pharmaceutical companies are way too bureaucratic. A tiny fraction of a fraction of a fraction of NIH [National Institutes of Health] spending goes to genuine anti-aging research. The whole thing gets treated like a lottery ticket. Part of the problem is that aging research doesn’t always lend itself to being a great for-profit business, but it’s a very important area for a philanthropic investment.

How is your approach different?

NIH grant-making decisions end up being consensus-oriented, focused on doing things that a peer review committee thinks makes sense. So you end up with a very conservative bias in terms of what gets done.

[On the other hand,] the original DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] was phenomenally successful. You had a guy running it, and he just gave out the money. It was more focused on substance and less on the grant-writing process. That’s the direction we should go. I worry that right now, we have people who are very nimble in the art of writing grants who have squeezed out the more creative.

You’re currently funding Cynthia Kenyon, Aubrey de Grey and a number of other researchers on anti-aging. What was it about these individuals and their work that got your attention?

They think far outside the conventional wisdom and are far more optimistic about what can be done. I think that’s important to motivate the research.

Leon Kass — the physician who was head of the President’s Council on Bioethics from 2001 to 2005 — as well as a number of other prominent historians, philosophers and ethicists have spoken out against radical life extension. Kass, for instance, has argued that it’s just not natural, that we’ll end up losing some of our humanity in the process. What do you think of their concerns?

I believe that evolution is a true account of nature, but I think we should try to escape it or transcend it in our society. What's true of evolution, I would argue, is true of all of nature. Even basic dental hygiene. If it's natural for your teeth to start falling out, then you shouldn't get cavities replaced? In the 19th century, people made the argument that it was natural for childbirth to be painful for women and therefore you shouldn't have pain medication. I think the nature argument tends to go very wrong. . . . I think it is against human nature not to fight death.

What about the possibility of innovation stagnation? Some argue that if you live forever, you won’t be as motivated to invent new ways of doing this.

That’s the Steve-Jobs-commencement-speech-in-2005 argument — that he was working so hard because he knew he was going to die. I don’t believe that’s true. There are many people who stop trying because they think they don’t have enough time. Because they are 85. But that 85-year-old could have gotten four PhDs from 65 to 85, but he didn’t do it because he didn’t think he had enough time. I think these arguments can go both ways. I think some people could be less motivated. I think a lot of people would be more motivated because they would have more time to accomplish something meaningful and significant.

How long is long enough? Is there an optimal human life span?

I believe if we could enable people to live forever, we should do that. I think this is absolute.

You’re currently funding researchers who are working on a lot of different ways to slow down or even stop aging — a treatment that would work on the cellular or molecular level, regenerative technologies to replace body parts, cybernetics. If scientists are able to come up with a way to extend human life, how do think it will work?

It will be very multi-pronged. I don’t think the answer will be a single pill. I think there will be a series of regenerative technologies and a series of cures for various diseases. I think it’s probably a combination of those two that will be the most critical. Then there are a few problems that will probably require a different approach — like how do you avoid decay of the brain over time.

What does the future look like if everyone lives to be, say, 150?

Certainly if we could just live to all be 100, that would be quite a transformation. There is good news and bad news. The bad news is: If you don’t believe in the good news, you’re not saving enough for retirement and likely to spend much of your old age in poverty. I suspect if people live a lot longer they would be retired for a somewhat longer period of time. Just the financial planning takes on a very different character.

I think you have far more generations in a family. People would have great-great-great-grandchildren in ways I think quite rare today. I think if you had a much longer life span, I do think the question of the future becomes more important. What would the 22nd-century world look like?

[In terms of careers,] I think you could, for example, become a teacher and then you could become a writer, and then you could become a doctor. Those are completely different professional lives. If someone tries to do all these things now, that is generally seen as kind of a really confused person who doesn’t know what they are doing. But in the future, there is a way in which you might be able to have these really divergent careers. Or maybe you could have something new — a combination of those three.

So would you say you have an optimistic view of the future? Are there particular books, TV shows or other things that influenced your outlook?

There is a sort of genre of optimistic science fiction that I like, and I don't think there is enough of. One of my favorites is a relatively short story by Arthur C. Clarke, "The City and the Stars." It's set in this far future on Earth in this somewhat static society and trying to break out. There is a sense we are just at the beginning of this infinite journey. . . . I was a fan of the original "Battlestar Galactica" and watched a few of the remake ones, and it was so much more negative than the original. The Cylons were the enemies, and it was generally a bad tech experience. I much prefer the original.

What about you? What would you do with the rest of your life if you knew you would live that long? Would you want to be a rock star or take up professional golf or something like that?

I'm not sure . . . but I would be tempted to go back into some specific technical research area where I would just work on really understanding some area of science. I always have the sense that I don't have enough time to learn about all the things I want to learn about.

Assuming the breakthrough in eternal life doesn’t come in our lifetime, what do you hope to have achieved through your philanthropy before you die? What would you like to be remembered for?

I think if we made some real progress on the aging thing, I think that would be an incredible legacy to have. I have been fortunate with my business successes, so I would like to encourage, coordinate and help finance the many great scientists and entrepreneurs that will help bring about the technological future. It’s sort of not important for me to get credit for the specific discoveries, but if I can act as a supporter, mentor and financier, I think that feels like the right thing.