While Elon Musk is working on improvements to Tesla’s autopilot features and teaching a monkey how to play Pong with its mind, Jeff Bezos—his now well-known nemesis—is allegedly partaking in yet another futuristic venture, one that could soon allow humans to live longer. Introducing Altos Labs, a biological reprogramming tech company currently looking into a variety of methods that could help reverse the ageing process.
As of now, the company has raised more than $270 million in funding thanks to massive donations from people all over the world who are banking on the company’s promise, Bezos included. Bezos is said to have a fairly long-standing interest in longevity research, and he previously invested in an anti-ageing company called Unity Biotechnology. Another investor, along with the richest man in the world, is Russian-Israeli entrepreneur Yuri Milner, as reported by the MIT Technology Review.
One method being studied by Altos Labs is whether this reprogramming could teach cells to revert back to their ‘stem cell’ origins, make them readapt to the skin and give it a more youthful appearance. In order to do so, Altos Labs has recruited Nobel Prize winner Doctor Shinya Yamanaka, who will serve as an unpaid senior scientist, chairing the company’s scientific advisory board.
“The Japanese researcher discovered that four specific proteins, now known as ‘Yamanaka factors’, could be added to a cell that would help reprogram it into its stem cell state,” reports Lad Bible. Also joining Altos Labs’ team is Juan Carlos Izpisúa Belmonte, a Spanish biologist at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, who won notoriety for research into mixing human and monkey embryos and who has also predicted that human lifespans could be increased by 50 years.
Just so you get an idea of who we’re dealing with here, by 2016, Izpisúa Belmonte’s lab had applied Yamanaka factors to living mice, achieving signs of age reversal and leading him to term reprogramming a potential “elixir of life.”
Last but not least, the biological reprogramming tech company has also hired Steve Horvath, a UCLA professor and developer of a “biological clock” that can accurately measure human ageing, Peter Walter. Walter’s laboratory at the University of California is behind a molecule that shows remarkable effects on memory, alongside Doctor Jennifer Doudna, who won a Nobel Prize in 2020 for her co-discovery of CRISPR gene editing, as well as Manuel Serrano from the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB).
Altos Labs is luring more university professors by offering salaries of $1 million a year or more, plus equity, as well as freedom from the hassle of applying for grants. Serrano, who plans to move to Cambridge in the UK to join an Altos facility there, said the company would pay him five to ten times what he earns now. “The philosophy of Altos Labs is to do curiosity-driven research. This is what I know how to do and love to do,” Serrano told the MIT Technology Review. “In this case, through a private company, we have the freedom to be bold and explore. In this way, it will rejuvenate me.”
Long story short, although Altos Labs has so far managed to recruit some impressive names in the biological reprogramming sector, as well as some pretty big investors, its research still needs a lot of work before it can ever be applied to humans. But who wants to be a party pooper when there’s a possibility that in a couple of years, we’ll all still look and feel like 20 year-olds? Dystopian movie plots aside, I’m excited.
Some of you might not remember, but August 2017 was definitely microchipping’s ‘breakthrough’. Wisconsin-based company Three Square Market had lined up its employees in its cafeteria to be implanted with microchips. Just after that, the news named the event the “chipping party” and bombarded us with futuristic tales of cashless payments and phoneless calls. We were all going to be transhuman. Back to 2019, and most of us are still microchip-free. So why are microchips still not the norm?
Let’s start with the obvious—the idea of living with a chip under your skin potentially monitoring your every move is not one that is easy to accept. After the famous chipping party, religious groups panicked, convinced that the small implants actually marked people with “the mark of the beast”, and accused Three Square Market of being the antichrist. While this sounded highly improbable, more rational worries have since then been stated and proved right.
Microchip implants are similar to the ones we’ve started putting under livestock and our pets’ skin. In other words, the tiny bar codes have been around for a while. Kevin Warwick, a professor of cybernetics at Reading University, had already implanted a chip in his hand by 1998. Warwick wanted to show the world that it was doable, but also that microchipping was the future. To him, fusing technology with our bodies had to be the next big step. He obviously didn’t take data breaches and exploitation of labour into consideration.
So far, the few people that have been microchipped are digital-savvy people from wealthy countries. Well-educated Swedes—“chips and beer” evenings were quite big in Stockholm—do not make up the world’s population. Talking to The Guardian, Urs Gasser, executive director at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society, made a very valid point about the way people reacted to the chipping party, stating that “[s]eeing employees get implanted at the workplace made people question what it means to be an employee. Are you a person being paid for your work, or are you the property of the company you work for?” These implants probably weren’t the “mark of the beast”, but they definitely reminded us of the dystopian novel 1984.
The implications that microchipping technology brings with itself are exactly what stops us from getting them. Having a chip under our skin equals increased worker surveillance for most. And, more recently, it could also mean that data collection methods could go up a notch—something that we clearly don’t need while Facebook is still around. After all, microchips could surveil us non stop, and monitor us wherever we go. Remember the nightmare that was Snapchat Map, when all your Snapchat contacts could see where you were at any time of the day? Imagine this with microchips, only this time we won’t be able to turn its signal off.
The same kind of concerns have recently been raised by lawmakers in the US. The states of Arkansas, New Jersey and Tennessee have started drafting new bills to make involuntary microchipping illegal, while Nevada has already passed its own version of the bill. The message is: feel free to microchip yourself if you want, but don’t force anyone to do the same, especially not if they’re your employees. And yet, surveillance tech still is a big issue in the US, with companies forcing their employees to wear an Apple watch constantly to monitor their health. There doesn’t seem to be that much difference between this and microchips.
To try and look at microchipping under a different light than this ethically problematic one, Screen Shot spoke to Jowan Österlund, founder and CEO of the microchipping company Biohax, and the body piercing professional that microchipped the lucky employees who attended 2017’s chipping party. Österlund, like many others, can’t ignore the risks that microchips could entail, but for him, it’s part of a good thing, “People say that [they’re scared of microchips] while they’re on Facebook, on their smartphones logged into their Google accounts, so I can’t really take that seriously. I wouldn’t want people to blindly accept any kind of new technologies, because that would be repeating the same mistakes again. If people are scared, it’s good—they get informed, and they’re not afraid anymore.”
Österlund furthered his point by pinpointing the many benefits that microchips could bring to adapters, such as health-related tracking, “you could get all the information you need about your heart rate patterns, your sleeping patterns, your blood oxygenation, and breathing patterns.” According to him, most of us react that way to microchips because of the small body modification they come with. What needs to be changed, for them to be 100 per cent safe, are the regulations that have been proven to be already problematic, even without most of us having a chip implant.
Instead of panicking about microchips, our attention should be focused on demanding stronger labour regulations and data protection laws, such as Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). In other words, don’t shoot the messenger. Microchips could be our society’s gamechanger—the only question is: are we ready for that kind of change?