Skip to main content

7th March 2024

What impact might the growing interest in radical life extension technology among the ultra-wealthy have on philanthropy?

Philanthropy has always had a close relationship with death. For a large part of history, giving a gift to charity in the form of a bequest in your will – which could be used to build something with your name on it (e.g. a hospital, museum or university) or to create a foundation that could carry on your name and your wishes after you are gone – was the preferred option for those with money who sought a way of making death less final. Now, however a growing group of wealthy people are putting their money behind efforts to literally cheat death, by developing new tools that could extend individual lifespans far beyond normal limits (and potentially even indefinitely).

Scene from the film "The Seventh Seal" showing Death saying "You all say that but I grant no reprieves".

(Image by RD Barry, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The concepts of extreme longevity and immortality have been recurring motifs in myths and stories across many cultures since the dawn of human civilisation, so this is by no means a new dream. However advances in medicine and technology mean that for some it is no longer just a dream, but a potential reality.  Since one of the aims of Why Philanthropy Matters is to keep an eye on the weak signals and weirder corners of current philanthropy, in order to see if there are any clues about where things might go in future and what sorts of issues we might face, I thought it would be good to explore the relationship between philanthropy and this new quest for eternal life. What is the current role of philanthropy in funding gerontology and anti-aging research? What is the likelihood of this expanding in future? And conversely, what impact might the development of life extension technologies have on philanthropy and civil society?


What is the current state of funding for gerontology research and life extension tech?

The first thing we should ask is whether there is genuinely interest among wealthy donors and investors in gerontology and life extension. The complicating factor here is that there is a whole spectrum of things that might fit this description, from relatively staid mainstream research into the biological basis of aging through to the far more wild and wacky stuff that tends to grab people’s attention (such as millionaire tech entrepreneur and biohacker Bryan Johnson’s efforts to reduce his ‘biological age’ by injecting himself with blood plasma taken from his 17 year old son, which in fairness he eventually stopped doing having concluded that it brought no perceptible benefits, but was soo-oo-oo-per creepy while it lasted). There is also a distinction to be made between interventions which aim to extend an individual’s lifespan in their current form, by slowing down or reversing the aging process, and approaches which offer the possibility of extended lifespan in some altered form (e.g. by allowing someone to “download” themselves and create an digital version that can continue after their biological death; which is still speculative at this point but there are plenty of people who believe it will happen in the future). For the purposes of this blog I’m primarily interested in the former- i.e. examples where an individual would potentially be able to extend their own lifespan by continuing to live in their current form.

Sam Altman

It seems as though there are plenty of very wealthy people are interested in this too. It is hard to get exact figures, but one can certainly find plenty of media stories over the past years highlighting the growing interest in life extension among tech billionaires, in outlets like the Financial Times, The Guardian, Businessweek and MIT Technology Review. Many of these stories also give specific examples of those who are known to have supported life extension initiatives of one kind or another, including OpenAI founder and AI industry poster boy Sam Altman, libertarian tech investor Peter Thiel, Oracle founder Larry Ellison, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Google founder Larry Page and tech investor Yuri Milner, to name just a few. The slight word of caution here is that this basic story (“shady billionaire plans to develop a way of living forever”) clearly conforms to well-worn dystopian sci fi tropes, and also to our general suspicion that most tech moguls are only one step away at any given point from becoming Bond villains, so it doesn’t take much prompting for it to get written up fairly often. Which is not to say there isn’t truth to it; only that we should be slightly wary of assuming that the level of interest and coverage is necessarily reflective of how widespread the phenomenon actually is.

That being said, there are plenty of people and organisations out there working on life extension and anti-aging interventions. A lot of this appears to be done on a for-profit basis, and supported through venture capital and commercial investment (which shouldn’t be that surprising, as anyone who manages to “solve” death would undoubtedly make a LOT of money, in addition to improving lives and society, yadda yadda…) But there are also non-profit organisations and philanthropic funders that focus on longevity as a cause (although most of them are so far removed from the circles of mainstream philanthropy and nonprofits that you would be forgiven for having no idea they existed). To give just a few examples, the Methuselah Foundation, The SENS Research foundation and the Longevity Science Foundation are all 501©(3) nonprofit organisations in the US), the Forever Healthy Foundation is a nonprofit in Germany and Hevolution Foundation is a new Saudi Arabian funder (formed in 2021) that has a reported annual budget of $1bn and look set to become one of the biggest players in the longevity field. (The UK doesn’t really seem to have any wacky longevity charities at the moment from what I can see, which might be testament to our system of regulation and our public benefit test for registered charities, but is also quite boring from the point of view of this article).


Is this philanthropy or self-interest?

It seems as though there is enough evidence of interest in life extension and anti-aging technologies among the very wealthy that we should take this seriously as a potentially important future trend (even if we should avoid getting carried away about it right now). Our second question, therefore, should be: is this actually philanthropy, or merely self-interest?

Some of the support for life extension from tech billionaires looks, on the face of it, much more like high-risk early stage investment than like philanthropy. Sam Altman’s $180 million for Retro Biosciences, or Jeff Bezos’s undisclosed (but almost certainly big) backing for Altos Labs, for example, were clearly not acts of charity since they took the form of commercial equity investments – and Altman and Bezos stand to make a lot of money if they turn out to be successful. If you believe that getting a personal financial benefit from anything invalidates it as an act of philanthropy, then this is presumably an open-and-shut case of “not philanthropy”. But many would argue that things are not that clear-cut: for one thing, there is a whole growing field of impact investment which seeks to combine both financial and social return, which might not quite be philanthropy but is certainly adjacent to it. And even if it would be too much of a stretch to claim that life extension technologies count as impact investments, there are plenty of tech titans who would argue that it doesn’t matter, since they clearly believe that their commercial activities are a form of philanthropy; or perhaps even something better than philanthropy. Elon Musk, for instance, has claimed that all of his companies (SpaceX, Neuralink, Tesla etc) are a form of philanthropy, and Google founder Larry Page has wondered aloud in the past about whether giving all of his money to Musk would be better than giving it to charity. A recent article in Mother Jones reported that this line of thinking has even got a trendy new name now – “Effective Accelerationism” (or E/Acc): this is pitched as an alternative to Effective Altruism’s somewhat pessimistic stance about the risks posed by technologies such as AI, and instead promotes the idea that the best interests of the human race (and coincidentally the bank balances of tech investors…) would be best served by developing technology bigger and faster. For anyone who subscribes to this kind of thinking, the idea that investment in life extension technology could be both enormously lucrative and an act of heroic altruism is clearly not a contradiction.

Even if we assume that the principal aim of investing in life extension tech is not to make money, or that the risks involved are great enough that there is something more than straightforward greed involved, it is of course possible that self-interest is playing a big part, as those investing might want to benefit from the technology themselves. I doubt, for instance, that it is a coincidence that most of the high profile people who have invested in life extension tech are men of a certain age. I’m a man of a certain age, and I know that I certainly spend an increasing amount of time looking back over my life and thinking about my own mortality – particularly in those sleepless moments at 3am. If I also had a billion dollars (which, just for the avoidance of doubt, I very much don’t) then my thoughts might well turn to whether I could spend some of it on finding ways to combat ageing that are more effective than the tried-and-tested approach of getting my ear pierced and buying a motorcycle. I am also going to assume that these men (and they are all men) are not unburdened by ego or self-confidence, so they probably believe that it would be in the best interests of the human race not just that people in general are potentially able to live longer, but that they themselves, specifically, are able to live longer (or even forever) so that we all get the continued benefit of their brilliance. (In fairness to Elon Musk, he definitely doesn’t believe this, as he is unusual among Silicon Valley billionaires in being quite opposed to anti-aging research, arguing that “I don’t think we should try to have people live for a really long time… it would cause asphyxiation of society because the truth is, most people don’t change their mind. They just die. So if they don’t die, we will be stuck with old ideas and society wouldn’t advance.”)

Could an interest in life extension count as philanthropy even if it is driven by self-interest, however? Some would certainly argue that it is mistake to think that an act can only be philanthropic if it is driven purely by altruism, since in reality acts that we think of as philanthropic are driven by all sorts of motivations (e.g. desire for a “warm glow” reward, religious compunction, wanting to boost one’s social status etc.) What is more relevant, it is claimed, is not what motivates the act of giving but whether it results in a genuine public good – so the pertinent question is who would benefit from these life extension technologies? If they are only ever going to benefit the investors themselves, or a small handful of extremely wealthy people who are able to afford them, then developing them can’t really be seen as an act of philanthropy. In fact, worse, it would probably constitute an act of great harm, since it would potentially introduce all kinds of damaging new inequalities into our society (as we shall consider in the next section). If, however, life extension technology is developed with a view to ensuring that it benefits humanity as a whole, so that consideration is given to issues of access and equity, then it is plausible to argue that investing or giving grants to support research and development is a form of philanthropy (even if the donor/investor themself also stands to gain).

There certainly are some wealthy individuals with an interest in life extension who clearly do view it as a mission. They see death and aging not as an inevitable part of life but as diseases or social problems that we should aim to address in the same way that philanthropists have tried to address many other challenges throughout history. The biotech entrepreneur Alex Zhavoronkov has, for instance, established a “longevity pledge” which asks wealthy people to commit to put their time and energy towards finding potential remedies for aging and death. He argues that “there is no cause more urgent, more altruistic, more impactful, more important, and more ambitious than enabling humans to improve continuously. Aging is restricting our freedom in more ways than any regime, religion, or exploitive corporation. Aging is the major barrier to individual freedom, hope, and prosperity. It inhibits economic growth as well as our collective ability to develop sustainably and responsibly.” Quite how many of the other wealthy people who are interested in life extension share his zeal remains to be seen, however. The gerontologist Aubrey De Grey, who established the SENS Research Institute and is a legendary (though always divisive, and now disgraced) figure in life extension circles, has complained in the past, for instance, about the difficulty of getting philanthropic funding for research like his thanks to a combination of self-interest and economic “free riding”, arguing that:

“The problem is that they are selfish. Overwhelmingly, those old enough to be seriously feeling the effects of aging are also old enough that they view the prospect of significant personal benefit from antiaging research as negligible, while those young enough to entertain the prospect that they might still be around to partake of such therapies when they finally arrive tend to discount the possibility that such an outcome is not in fact virtually certain, and thus that their contribution could improve their chances. The benefit accruing to others than themselves seems simply not to figure in their calculations.”

It is worth noting that De Grey’s work has always been at the speculative edge of gerontology research (he famously claimed that the first person to live to 1,000 has already been born), so it is possible that the lack of support is more reflective of people’s assessment that it is just not very believable rather than anything else. (Although it should be said that in 2021 a cryptocurrency startup called PulseChain donated over $25 million to the SENS Research Foundation – which, if you are sceptical about crypto, is not necessarily evidence of mainstream legitimacy but does represent a hefty whack of cash). And this raises one final question that it is worth considering here: just how credible is all of this? If there is a genuine chance (even a very small one) that all this research into gerontology and life extension might actually make it possible for all of us to live longer, then presumably it is legitimate to position support for it as a philanthropic “big bet”. If however, it is all nonsense, then is this just a wild goose chase, and a colossal waste of money?

This is of course, not just a question we can ask about life extension, but about any support for highly speculative technologies. Critics might argue that spending money on developing such technologies, or similarly on addressing highly speculative future risks, is morally indefensible when there are so many immediate and acute problems in the real world that need addressing right now. Those who defend philanthropic big bets meanwhile, would point out that our ability to judge in the present which are worth pursuing is very limited, and that the whole point is to take risks that will only be borne out by the benefit of hindsight. They might even point to examples like the grant the Rockefeller Foundation gave to support the 1956 Dartmouth Conference, which gave birth to the modern field of AI. (Although it should be said that the Rockefeller Foundation gave less than was originally asked for, precisely because they were a bit dubious about the merits of the application!) In the case of gerontology, there are certainly plenty of people who are sceptical about the more extreme claims to be able to extend human lifespans (as this interesting article in MIT Technology Review from someone who has observed the gerontology field for a long time details). So we might well question the value of this as a focus for philanthropy (as, indeed, the Effective Altruism movement does, since they are noticeably lukewarm on gerontology research as a worthwhile area to donate to).


Should we extend human lives, even if we can?

In Jurassic Park, the unfeasibly cool chaos mathematician Dr Ian Malcolm, played by Jeff Goldblum, famously utters the line, “your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should”. Perhaps we should be asking ourselves a similar question when it comes to life extension: even if it turns out that we can extend human lifespans (perhaps indefinitely), should we? This is important from the point of view of understanding philanthropy’s role in all of this, since if there are reasons to have substantial practical or theoretical qualms about whether life extension would be a public good, then arguably support for it is not philanthropy – regardless of whether it is motivated by self-interest or (misguided) altruism.

(Image by skythlee on DeviantArt, CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

One immediate reason we might doubt whether allowing everyone to live far longer is a good thing is that some would argue that the world already suffers from overpopulation, and this would only exacerbate things. Of course, philanthropy has long been making it possible for people to live longer by virtue of addressing issues of illness and poverty and thereby increasing average lifespans, but potentially being able to extend these lifespans far past where they would be naturally would add a new dimension to the potential challenges. The other thing to note is that the awareness that increasing life expectancies on a population level might lead to issues has led some to focus instead on the idea that we should aim to be selective about the groups and individuals whose life chances we aim to improve, which has led some philanthropic funders throughout history to embrace problematic eugenic theories (as detailed in this WPM article).

Even if we avoid going down the road of deliberately selecting who gets access to life extension technology, the reality is that it is very unlikely that everyone would benefit from it equally, so there would be almost certainly be new forms of inequality to contend with. Firstly there is the question of who controls the technology: there are already concerns that a small handful of tech billionaires control a worryingly large proportion of the platforms and infrastructure on which our lives increasingly depend, and if some of these people also gained control over technologies that could determine who gets to live longer, these concerns are only going to get more acute. There is also the question (which we have already considered to some extent) of who has access to the technology. In the utopian visions of some life extension advocates, the goal is for us collectively as a species to “beat death”; but the reality is far more likely to be that (in the short term at least) these technologies are only available to the very wealthy, in much the same way that commercial space flight is. The difference here, of course, is that unlike going on a trip to space, being able to live longer is likely to bring further advantages in terms of wealth creation, thanks to compound interest and investment returns. So the gap between those who can afford the technology initially and those who can’t might increase exponentially and become impossible to close.

At a more fundamental level, throughout history death has always been the “great leveller”: no matter how much wealth you accumulate in your lifetime, death comes for us all and treats all equally. But what happens if this is no longer true? The degree of inequality it might bring and the sense of injustice it might lead to are hard to fathom. Furthermore, what if we believe that death is a necessary part of life (and not a “disease to be eradicated” as the life extension boosters would have it)? In trying to overcome death, would we in fact lose one of the things that defines us as humans? (A really interesting 2007 article in the Journal of Medical Ethics considers some of these ethical questions).

There is also the question of the societal impact of artificially extending lifespans. As we noted before, Elon Musk (and others) have expressed concerns that it would lead to a “stagnation” because there would be less room for new people and new ideas to emerge. We also have no idea what sort of impact living for extended periods might have on us as individuals or our social structures and relationships. Would there be unforeseen health implications of having such an aging population? Would parental or marital relationships continue to be relevant if people were living for 200 years or more? And might we all just get terminally bored and suffer from a sort of existential ennui that is difficult to shift? It is clearly hard to know the answers to any of these questions at this point, but they are certainly indicative of the kinds of considerations that might give us pause.


What impact would life extension have on philanthropy?

Returning to our original question, what does all of this mean for philanthropy? Well, for one thing it might be argued that the potential negative societal impacts of life extension technology, as outlined above, might be good reason to think that this is not an appropriate goal for philanthropy. For another thing, these negative impacts might create new social issues that philanthropic organisations will then be called on address, so they will need to adapt in the face of these new challenges. But would extension of individual lives also have a direct effect on philanthropy itself? We noted right at the start of this article that philanthropy and death have always been pretty closely intertwined. The desire to leave a legacy behind has been a crucial motivating factor for philanthropic giving for at least the last 2,000 years, and even though there is an increasing focus these days on giving while living, it still plays a vital role (as evidenced by the health of the legacy giving market). If, however, people are – to put it bluntly – not dying, then would that take away an important driver of philanthropy, and would we see less giving as a result?

Another big philanthropy/death theme throughout history has been concern about the “dead hand of the donor” – i.e. the way in which perpetual endowments (foundations) allow those living at a particular point in time to cement their values and wishes into a structure that can continue long after their death, thereby enabling them to exert an undue (and unjust) influence on the lives of future generations. (For more on this, see our recent WPM article series on the history of foundations). But what if the individuals who established foundations didn’t die, and instead hung around for another couple of hundred years – would this make things better? It is hard to say with certainty, as we don’t yet have any empirical evidence on the preferences of 300 year-olds or how likely they are to adapt to changes in society over the course of their lifetime. However, I am willing to speculate that there may well be issues with giving wealthy people the ability to decide the priorities of society three centuries after the era they were born and grew up in. (Maybe it will transpire that I’m being unfair to the ultra-elderly there, but I stick by my assessment for now). In which case we would not be solving the problem of the “dead hand of the donor”, but merely replacing it with the “undead hand of the donor”. Would this be any worse than the current situation? Foundations in their current aren’t always noted for their speed in changing with the times, but they certainly can do it –there are many examples of foundations that have evolved quite a long way beyond the personal views and values of the founding donor (including such well-known institutions as the Ford and Rockefeller foundations). But if that donor was still alive and involved in the foundation’s governance today, would that kind of evolution be possible? Again it is hard to say, as that comes down to whether you think an extremely old living donor is more or less likely to adapt and respond to changing needs than a board of trustees and a professional staff who are charged with managing the foundation after their death.

There would also be the question of boredom. A perpetual institution can exist for hundreds of years with the aim of addressing a broadly fixed set of social issues because the individuals involved will change over time, bringing new ideas and new energy with them. But could an individual philanthropist do the same? Would they get bored or frustrated by sticking with one set of issues, and decide at some point to shift focus entirely, or perhaps even give up on philanthropy entirely? Once again, we have no way of knowing, although it is instructive that in literature and fiction which imagines the existence of extremely long-lived or immortal humans, on of the recurrent motifs is that they are often portrayed as increasingly jaded over time and less interested in engaging with the problems of society (particularly as they affect those with normal length lifespans).


So What?

It is far from clear at this point if developments in science and technology will enable us to extent human lifespans significantly beyond their natural lengths. There are also plenty of good reasons for thinking that we perhaps shouldn’t do so even if we could. However, the fascination with the idea of life extension and anti-aging that is evident from recurrent articles and news features, as well as the increasing sums of money being put towards supporting efforts to make these dreams a reality, suggest that we should take this seriously as a topic. As there are clear potential implications for philanthropy (and since philanthropy has such a long-standing relationship with our notions of death and mortality, as we have discussed), this is, to my mind, a really good example of the sort of ‘weak signal’ of what might be to come that anyone interested in possible futures for philanthropy and civil society should give some thought to (as I have tried to do here).

Learn from our past to better understand our future.

Philanthropy has a long and varied history. We’ve created bite-size chapters that you can jump in and out of to better understand philanthropy.