The first men to conquer death will create a new social order – a terrifying one

Immensely wealthy and powerful men like Peter Thiel and Elon Musk want to live forever. But at what cost? 

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In a 2011 New Yorker profile, Peter Thiel, tech-philanthropist and billionaire, surmised that “probably the most extreme form of inequality is between people who are alive and people who are dead”. While he may not be technically wrong, Thiel and other eccentric, wealthy tech-celebrities, such as Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg, have taken the next step to counteract that inequality – by embarking on a quest to live forever.

Thiel and many like him have been investing in research on life extension, part of transhumanism. Drawing on fields as diverse as neurotechnology, artificial intelligence, biomedical engineering and philosophy, transhumanists believe that the limitations of the human body and mortality can be transcended by machines and technology. The ultimate aim is immortality. Some believe this is achievable by 2045.

Of course, humans have long harnessed technology, from vaccinations to smartphones, to improve and extend our lives. But that doesn’t admit you into the transhumanist club. Wanting to live forever, and possessing vast sums of money and time to research, does. 

The hows and whens of transhumanism are matters of debate. Some advocate the "Singularity" – a form of artificial super-intelligence which will encompass all of humanity's knowledge, that our brains will then be uploaded to. Others believe in anti-ageing methods like cryonics, freezing your body after death until such a time when you can be revived.

Transhumanism is no longer a fringe movement either. Darpa, the US government’s research arm into advanced weaponry, created a functional prototype of a super soldier exoskeleton in 2014, which will be fully functional in 2018, and is researching the possibility of an artificial human brain.

"Transhumanism doesn't have much to say about social questions. To the extent that they see the world changing, it's nearly always in a business-as-usual way – techno-capitalism continues to deliver its excellent bounties, and the people who benefit from the current social arrangement continue to benefit from it," says Mark O'Connell, the author of To be a Machine, who followed various transhumanists in Los Angeles."You basically can't separate transhumanism from capitalism. An idea that's so enthusiastically pursued by Musk and Peter Thiel, and by the founders of Google, is one that needs to be seen as a mutation of capitalism, not a cure for it."

Silicon Valley is characterised by a blind belief in technological progress, a disregard for social acceptability and an emphasis on individual success. It's no surprise, then, that it is here that the idea of living forever seems most desirable. 

Musk has publicly declared that we have to merge with artificially intelligent machines that overtake humanity in order to survive. Ray Kurzweil, the inventor and futurist who pioneered the Singularity, is now an engineer at Google. O'Connell points out that "you'd have to be coming from a particularly rarefied privilege to look at the world today and make the assessment, as someone like Thiel does, that the biggest problem we face as a species is the fact that people die of old age". 

On an even more basic level, a transhumanist society would undoubtedly be shaped by the ideals of those who created it and those who came before it. Zoltan Istvan, the transhumanist candidate for governor of California, told Tech Insider that “a lot of the most important work in longevity is coming from a handful of the billionaires...around six or seven of them”.

Immortality as defined by straight, white men could draw out cycles of oppression. Without old attitudes dying off and replaced by the impatience of youth, social change might become impossible. Artificial intelligence has already been shown to absorb the biases of its creators. Uploading someone’s brain into a clone of themselves doesn’t make them less likely to discriminate. Thiel and Musk, for example, identify as libertarians and have frequently suggested that taxes are obsolete and that governmental military spending needs to be curbed (and put into life-enhancing technologies).

Thiel himself is a Donald Trump supporter. A one-time associate Michael Anissimov, previous media officer at Machine Intelligence Research Institute, a Thiel-funded AI think tank, has published a white nationalist manifesto. In a 2013 interview, Anissimov said that there were already significant differences in intelligence between the races, and that a transhumanist society would inevitably lead to “people lording it over others in a way that has never been seen before in history”. It doesn’t take much to guess who would be doing the "lording".  

"The first enhanced humans will not be ordinary people; they'll be the people who have already made those ordinary people economically obsolete through automation. They'll be tech billionaires," says O'Connell.

If those who form society in the age of transhumanism are men like Musk and Thiel, it’s probable that this society will have few social safety nets. There will be an uneven rate of technological progress globally; even a post-human society can replicate the unequal global wealth distribution which we see today. In some cities and countries, inhabitants may live forever, while in others the residents die of malnutrition. If people don’t die off, the environmental consequences – from widespread natural resource devastation to unsustainable energy demands – would be widespread. 

It would be remiss to tar all transhumanists with one brush. In 2014, Istvan claimed in The Huffington Post that the membership of transhumanist societies and Facebook groups has started to expand in number and in diversity, drawing in young and old people of all political persuasions and nationalities.

There are some prominent transhumanists who don’t fit into the Silicon Valley mould. Natasha Vita-More, the former Chairman of the Board of Directors of Humanity+ , the global transhumanist organisation, has spoken about the potential for a posthuman society to address issues of economic justice. Other academics and philosophers have even spoken about the need to explicitly ground diversity and tolerance within posthumanism, such as Nick Bostrom, the head of the Future of Humanity institute and one of the original modern transhumanist thinkers.

It remains the case, though, that the majority of the money invested in making transhumanism a reality comes from rich, white men. As the descendants of a species with a tendency to exploit the downtrodden, any posthumans must guard against replicating those same biases in a new society. For some, potentially in the near future, death might become optional. For others, death will remain inevitable.

Sanjana Varghese was perviously a Wellcome scholar at the New Statesman. She writes about science and technology.