High-Tech Daydreamers Investing in Immortality
By JAMES GORMAN
Published: November 1, 2003
AMDEN, Me. — Aubrey de Grey took the stage of the Camden Opera House, tugging at a beard worthy of Methuselah, to tell his listeners that they could triumph over death.
Mr. de Grey was not selling an afterlife or a metaphor. He is a geneticist at the University of Cambridge, in England, and his prophecy was straightforward if hard to believe: Getting old and dying are engineering problems. Aging can be reversed and death defeated. People already alive will live a thousand years or longer.
He was at pains to argue that what he calls "negligible senescence," and what the average person would call living forever, is inevitable. His proposed war on aging, he said, is intended to make it happen sooner and make it happen right. He subscribes, it seems, to the philosophy articulated by Woody Allen: "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying."
This notion of getting in on the ground floor of immortality was apparently appealing to the roughly 500 people who came in mid-October to this coastal town of big yachts and small gift shops about 70 miles northeast of Portland to attend Pop!Tech, an annual technology conference. They were ready for the Next Big Thing. After all, many of them were present at the creation of the last one, the spread of the personal computer and the explosive growth of the Internet.
Stephen M. Case, the founder of AOL, was here, as were John Scully and Robert Metcalfe, who started the conference seven years ago. Mr. Scully was the chief executive of Apple, after he had left PepsiCo. Mr. Metcalfe invented the Ethernet and founded 3Com, among a few other achievements, before he became a venture capitalist. Other, lesser known entrepreneurs and investors, along with dot-com veterans, a gaggle of journalists and the merely curious, also attended to look for new ideas or promote them, and to use the gathering of thinkers and talkers as a guide to what's next.
The answer was clear. Now that the giddiness and glamour of the killer app and ultimate hand-held gizmo have passed into memory, it is biology that beckons. The possibility of making money out of biotech is of obvious interest. But the more exciting question in the air was not so much where to put your money as what to think about. Differentiating between vision and fantasy would come next.
Many in the audience seemed unafraid of amending the presumed laws of nature. When Juan Enriquez, from the Harvard Business School, displayed an X-ray of a chicken with three wings and asked who believed that this sort of research ought to continue, about two-thirds of those in the audience raised their hands. This was before they knew its purpose, which is to understand how to regenerate damaged tissues for human beings.
Mr. Enriquez said he was surprised, as well he might be. It is not often you find 300 people ready to vote for extra limbs, no matter the reason.
Other speakers addressed the importance of stem cell research, ocean exploration, a crisis in the patent system, the soul-deadening effect of suburbs, and the mode by which the Earth will die.
For audacity of imagination, though, Mr. de Grey was matched only by Joe Davis, a molecular artist from M.I.T. with a peg leg and a devilish glint in his eye, who, with the help of scientists at Harvard and M.I.T. has made art of DNA by inserting coded messages into the genes of bacteria. He does not work only with DNA. He also pointed out that drawings sent into space, presumably for curious extraterrestrials, lacked anatomically correct female genitalia. He has not been able to remedy that, but he did record vaginal contractions and translate them into a radio broadcast.
He also provided instruction in basic biology using a DNA model made of garden hose to great effect. All in all it was a perfect atmosphere for Mr. de Grey, whose campaign against death has something of the feeling of an Internet start-up. On one hand he is promising the world. On the other, the underlying science and technology are real, Mr. de Grey argued. And the business plan is, if nothing else, bold.
Yet without true expertise in some very sophisticated biology, it was hard to know how far away from the mainstream he was.