Billion to One

The Business of Living Forever

The melding of human and machine intelligence might make us immortal—and might make a bundle for an ingenious few.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly

Illustration by Rob Donnelly

At the tender age of 32, Dmitry Itskov is not yet a billionaire, although a lot of respected news outlets think otherwise. He is a millionaire many times over—a survivor of the dot-com bubble who made his fortune building a media empire in Russia. Like many people who become extremely rich very quickly, he has decided to invest some of his money in innovative, forward-looking endeavors. But his idea is more ambitious than most: radical life extension.

In 2011, Itskov founded the 2045 Initiative, which is named for the year when he intends to complete the project’s ultimate goal: to outwit and outrun mortality itself. His “avatar” project is a four-stage process, beginning with the development of androids directed by brain-computer interfacing—mind-controlled robots, in other words. It would culminate in a computer model of a person’s brain and consciousness, which could be uploaded into a machine for posterity. An eternal problem, solved.

To achieve cybernetic immortality and turn what he calls his “science mega-project” into a reality, Itskov’s 2045 Initiative is funding labs around the world; Itskov is both investing his own money and raising external capital, building support among entities ranging from Ivy League universities to large corporations to even the Dalai Lama.

Even if Itskov doesn’t reach his final goal of radical life extension via avatars, the amount of attention he’s bringing and money he’s investing in neurotech research have many people excited. And Itskov is just one in an increasingly crowded field. One of the big brains involved in the 2045 Initiative is Ray Kurzweil, the famed inventor and futurist who popularized the concept of the singularity. Kurzweil is also, along with Stanford University computer science professor Andrew Ng, working with Google to develop the much-discussed artificial-intelligence system called Google Brain. The project is based on Ng’s field of research, known as deep learning, which melds computer science and engineering to construct machines that process data in ways similar to the workings of the human brain.

“There is a sense from many places that whoever figures out how the brain computes will come up with the next generation of computers,” Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, told Wired recently. That helps explain why other behemoth companies—including Microsoft, IBM, Apple, and Chinese search giant Baidu—have been racing to set up their own deep-learning research arms. At Stanford, meanwhile, bioengineers are making great strides toward reverse engineering the brain through neuromorphic technologies: “systems of nondigital chips that function as much as possible like networks of real neurons,” as a recent Nature article explained. Ultra-efficient neuromorphic hardware, Nature added, could be used in anything “from smartphones and robots to artificial eyes and ears.” The practical applications are endless—and potentially the makings of big business.

While those techies are working on artificial brains, other scientists and engineers are using technology to tweak, repair, and upgrade the actual human brain, and their intrepid research has similar business potential. Neurotech—whether to render humans immortal or not—is “one of the most dramatic growth areas of the 21st century,” according to the market watchers at Neurotech Business Report, which predicts neurotech’s market size to double between 2012 and 2016. Last month, the publication hosted the Neurotech Leaders Forum, which one attendee described to me as “like a dating service for researchers and venture capitalists.” This year’s Aspen Brain Forum focused on accelerating translational neurotech: moving research from lab, to prototype, to application, and finally to market. In its first five years, more than 100 groups have joined the Neurotechnology Industry Organization, an association that host conferences, advocates for neurotech investment, and lobbies for policies that support growth and innovation.

Neurotech is also enjoying a boost from public coffers. Last year in the journal Neuron, a group of leading researchers proposed a large-scale effort they called the Brain Activity Map Project. They predicted that neurotech “will provide economic benefits, potentially leading to the emergence of entirely new industries and commercial ventures.” This project has since been subsumed into the recently announced BRAIN (Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) Initiative, which will, in its first year alone, grant $110 million in federal funding plus another $122 million from private organizations toward R&D aimed at creating new, applicable neurotech. Add to that $1.3 billion from the European Union’s Human Brain Project and you’re looking at a solid base.

Ed Boyden and Joost Bonsen, two faculty members in the famed MIT Media Lab, anticipate that neurotech is poised to take off much in the same way that biotechnology did. As Bonsen recently told MIT News, neurotech analogs to Biogen and Genzyme “are being born or blossoming now.” Boyden and Bonsen’s MIT course, “Neurotechnology Ventures,” is intended to “seed the Silicon Valley of neurotech,” as Boyden put it. They’re betting that the next billionaire tech visionary—the next Larry Page or Sergey Brin—will emerge not from the Stanford computer science department, but from MIT’s burgeoning neurotech hive.

Not that Stanford is resting on its laurels. Within five years, Stanford bioengineer Kwabena Boahen told Nature, “We envision building fully autonomous robots that interact with their environments in a meaningful way, and operate in real time while their brains consume as much electricity as a cellphone.” These are the kinds of robots that populate Dmitry Itskov’s dreams. The hope is that innovations in deep learning and neurotech might eventually meet, melding human and computer intelligence in ways that will allow us to live forever—or at least longer. If that happens, the great scientific and business minds that monetize deep learning and neurotech will have more than enough in their coffers to fund an eternal retirement.