Have you ever thought about some crazy ideas like immortality? Aubrey de Grey is one of the great minds in the 21st century. He is a scientist who challenges one of the most difficult topics in human history: aging. He is the Chief Science Officer of the SENS Research Foundation. He is not a usual scientist who works only in a lab, but he promotes his project, does fundraising, and seriously tries to make a paradigm shift.
-----For those who are not familiar with you, let us know more about your project. What is the core concept of “Ending aging"? What would you like to achieve through your project?
At SENS Research Foundation we are focused on developing rejuvenation biotechnologies, which means medicines that can not just slow down aging but actually reverse it. We want to take people who are already in middle age or older and restore their physical and mental function to that of a young adult. We aim to do that by repairing the molecular and cellular damage that the body does to itself throughout life as side-effects of its normal operation.
-----What drives you to pursue your mission, spending lots of time and capital?
I’ve always been driven by humanitarian motives, so I want to work on problems that cause human suffering. Aging undoubtedly causes far more human suffering than anything else. The strange thing is that there are so few people who think that way: lots of people claim to be humanitarian, but hardly anyone thinks aging is really important.
-----How did you get interested in science, gerontology, and aging?
I got interested when I discovered how few other people are interested - even biologists. Until I was about 30, I had totally assumed that everyone understood how serious a problem aging is and that lots of experts were working hard to defeat it. After I married a senior biologist and discovered that that wasn’t true, it was an easy decision to switch from my previous career as a computer scientist.
-----How does your experience in computer science help you understand aging and come up with solutions for that?
It was extremely helpful. The first reason is just that computer science is a very different field; quite often in science people have made important breakthroughs after switching fields, because they are not blinkered by the new field’s "conventional wisdom”. Second, computer science is a very goal-directed, technological field, whereas pretty much everyone else in gerontology back then was much more of a basic scientist - great at testing hypotheses so as to understand nature better, but not so good at seeing how to use existing knowledge to manipulate nature.
-----When the value of your idea transcends current human experience, how do you persuade people to believe in you and make people understand the value of your project?
This is a challenge for any pioneering technologist, but it’s especially difficult in aging because people have built up such strong psychological defences against the horror of aging and they don’t want to think rationally about it. I don’t have just one strategy: I have developed a large number of answers to the most frequent concerns about the feasibility and desirability of defeating aging, and I use them on demand.
-----As you know, people live with full of misconceptions. How do you clear up the misconceptions that people have towards your project?
It’s always difficult. I try to understand the basis for their misconception: whether it is just ignorance of what has already been achieved in developing these technologies, or false assumptions about the consequences of success, or philosophical objections, etc. Then I try to work with them and take them one step at a time to a more accurate understanding of the issues.
-----In order to raise capital for visionary projects and ideas, what are important things for entrepreneurs, scientists, and futurists to remember?
I sometimes give a talk on that topic, called “How to be a successful heretic”. The main messages are that one can rise above the crowd only by having a compelling technical basis for one’s idea, a clear vision for its benefit to humanity (and, in the case of investments, to the investor) and a comprehensive set of succinct answers to all the concerns that people may have about whether the idea is as valuable as one is claiming.
-----What person comes to mind when you think of the word “successful”? and why?
That’s a rather unfair question, because different people are successful in such different ways - it depends what they are setting out to achieve. I’m extremely successful in some ways, in terms of the contribution I’ve made to the defeat of aging, but not very successful in other ways, such as in terms of the amount of money that’s being spent on the necessary research.
-----You make a call to 20-year-old Aubrey de Grey. What kind of advices you would give to him?
I honestly don’t know. When I look back at my life, I can see that I had some essential characteristics that have got me where I am, such as intelligence and determination and charisma, but also that I have benefited from a huge amount of luck. I don’t think I’ve made many mistakes, all in all. In particular, I don’t know whether I could have achieved as much in aging if I had focused on aging all my life.
-----If you can leave one message to the next generation to make the world better, what would you say?
Aim high! The greatest enemy of our efforts to improve people’s lives is our belief that we can’t.