Is tech's quest for immortality a rich man's game?

Ben Kingsley, lying down, in a scene from the movie “Self/Less”
Source: Focus Features

"You're rich, but you're dying. Do you feel immortal?"

That question, posed by one of the characters in the psychological thriller "Self/less" to ailing billionaire Damian Hale, highlights recent scientific advances to extend human life beyond its normal boundaries. In Silicon Valley and the halls of academia, vast amounts of time and money are being showered upon efforts to make bodies withstand the ravages of age and disease.

"Self/less" stars Ben Kingsley as Hale, a wealthy magnate who gets more than he bargained for when he undergoes an expensive treatment called "shedding" that lets him swap his dying body for a younger one. The movie shows the downside of immortality, after a series of unforeseen circumstances soon overwhelm his new lease on life.

The movie arrives at a time when technology and medicine are aggressively probing the boundaries of human mortality. Aside from the obvious issue of whether the quest for immortality is worth its attendant complications, the movie begs another nettlesome question: Is the pursuit of longevity really for the rich?

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The concept of living forever exposes a divide between the haves and have-nots. In "Self/less," Damian Hale pays a whopping $250 million to "shed" his body, a price tag hardly accessible to the working class.

Society's fascination with tapping the fountain of youth extends back centuries to folklore where "queens bathe in blood, thinking it kept you younger," Tarsem Singh, "Self/less'" director, told CNBC in a recent interview. Vestiges of those efforts to hold back the years have made a comeback, with blood treatments a part of the nearly $300 billion market for anti-aging cosmetics.

Technology is set to yield more advances—and no doubt more public and private contributions will fund such initiatives. However, average citizens are unlikely to be afforded immediate access to the treatments.

Given all the complexities of science and unintended consequences—some of which are detailed in "Self/less"—Singh suggested the immortality project may not be worthwhile.

"Who wants to live like that?" the director asked CNBC. "Science never works that cleanly, you never know what was done in a lab." Efforts to turn back the biological clock have "been around forever, but we are not made to be immortal," he said.

'We don't want things to be expensive'

Still, one factor remains abundantly clear. Wealth, and lots of it, is the wellspring from which longevity research stems. Billionaires such as Larry Ellison, Peter Thiel and Sergey Brin are throwing their financial might behind the still-emerging science.

Meanwhile, entities such as the $2 billion Google Ventures have hundreds of millions at their disposal. The anti-aging revolution is billed as a development beneficial to all humans, yet it's far from clear that everyone will benefit—at least not at first.

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Proponents, however, argue that extending life is moving away from cloned bodies and brain transplants often seen in popular culture. And they say immortality isn't just a conceit for the rich.

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David Gobel, co-founder and CEO of The Methuselah Foundation, argued that the federal government—through National Institutes of Health and other agencies—rather than private wealth was the biggest engine of longevity research spending. In fiscal year 2015, the NIH requested nearly $1.2 billion in total spending on aging research and treatment.

"The vast majority of life extension proponents don't want things to be expensive," Gobel said in an interview. He suggested that, by adding at least seven years to the average human life span, the government could even cut the Medicare deficit.

Using regenerative medicine to improve the body's functioning tissue, Gobel said his organization's aim is to make "90 the new 50 by 2030."

Rather than cloning or mind transplants often seen in the movies, "we want a more robust lifestyle by creating new parts for people."

Ian Pearson, a noted U.K.-based engineer with research consultancy Futurizon, estimates that average wealth will double within the next four decades, "so everyone will be twice as rich," and can presumably afford to pay more to live longer. "Some people don't want to live forever but other people do," Pearson told CNBC in an interview.

"It doesn't have massive appeal, and some are quite content with life as it is. There is a limited demand for it, but there will be hundreds of millions who do want to carry on living," the futurologist added.

Similar to the plot of "Self/less," Pearson sees the future of immortality in the ability to download the mind to an external cloud computer that preserves consciousness.

Just as with other technology from media players to cell phones, the prices of anti-aging solutions are likely to come down "very quickly" after the first generation hits the market, Pearson said.

Rapid advances in medicine and technology are slowly inuring the population to ideas that were once unthinkable, experts say, making wider adoption an easier sell, which in turn helps facilitate lower costs.

"The idea of a head transplant is horrific to the average guy on the street. It's horrific to me," said Methuselah's Gobel. Then again, he said, so was the idea of a heart transplant—which over the last several decades has become more accepted.

"The apparatus of [longevity research] has moved into accommodating the cost," Gobel added.