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Science fiction writers and moviemakers have long been obsessed with it, and so have scientists. Immortality, the fountain of youth or extending our life expectancy is being talked about like never before. We all want and need love and money, but having a longer life expectancy is now firmly on the agenda. 

Chasing the fountain of youth

In science fiction writing, it even has its own sub-genre. Immortality fiction has existed since the 1940s and includes novels such as Holy Fire by Bruce Stirling or The World of Null-A by A.E.van Vogt, written in 1945. And what about the movies? Remember Highlander and Death Becomes Her to name just a few, or Black Mirror, which often refers to the horror of living forever. 

Big money steps in

Fast forward to the corporate world and Elon Musk. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2016 that the billionaire entrepreneur had founded Neuralink, a company that’s working on merging computers with human brains. And he’s not alone. Silicon Valley entrepreneur Bryan Johnson has set up neuroscience start-up Kernel to build a “non-invasive mind/body/machine interface (MBMI) to radically improve and expand human cognition.” Or Larry Page, former CEO of Google and current CEO of Alphabet,  who founded Californian Life Company (Calico) an anti-aging research center, with a reported $750m investment from Google. 

These entrepreneurs are leaping into the neuroscience arena and taking a corporate approach to extending and improving our life expectancy. And scientists are increasingly vocal about this prospect, too. 

Reality check

Stanford University neuroscientist and Kernel advisor David Eagleman doesn’t believe, however, that implanting a computer into a healthy human brain is the way to go. Namely, because of the obvious risks of infection or death. However, he and other scientists at Kernel are looking at devices that work like implanted devices used to treat conditions like Parkinson’s or epilepsy. And at IBM, researchers are already analyzing what the brain does when a person has an epileptic fit. 

What Kernel and Neurolink are apparently concentrating on is looking at similar devices and gathering data on long term neurological conditions. It’s a way of trying to understand better how our brains work and trying to make them healthier and boost intelligence and memory. 

Elon Musk spoke at the Code tech conference back in 2016. He believes humans are already merging with technology because we depend so much on modern gadgets. But we’re falling behind and need to give the human brain an electronic layer that works with artificial intelligence. The benign situation with ultra-intelligent AI is that we would be so far below in intelligence we’d be like a pet or a house cat. I don’t love the idea of being a house cat.” However, Eagleman is clear that this cannot involve implanting devices in a healthy brain. 

Scientists at the Feinstein Institute of Medical Research are also looking at developing technology to treat disease. Their vice president of advanced engineering and technology, Chad Bouton, warned against unnecessary invasive surgery. 

None of these ideas are new, however. As early as 2004, PayPal founder Peter Thiel sat down with scientists to talk about whether or not death is an inevitability or merely a problem technology and science can work together to solve.

Whatever the answer is, it’s clear that increasing numbers of seriously wealthy entrepreneurs are using their millions to transform scientific research into prolonging the average life expectancy. However, scary as it may sound, the more we understand the brain, the more likely it is we can combat disease and develop DNA to enable people to live longer and better.