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When a group of Chinese start-up founders and innovators visited Silicon Valley in January, they came away less than impressed. “The age that Silicon Valley serves as the teacher and China follows step by step is becoming the past, at an accelerating pace,” Li Gen, the founder of a Beijing-based online media start-up, reportedly wrote on his company’s WeChat account. Perhaps he would have changed his tune, if only he had known of the new Y Combinator start-up that offers to disrupt the very act of dying itself. Per the M.I.T. Technology Review, Nectome uses a high-tech embalming process to preserve brains postmortem, presumably making them available for examination (and digitization) by future generations for the very reasonable price of $10,000—refundable if you change your mind beforehand. Y Combinator president Sam Altman has already signed up for the service—“I assume my brain will be uploaded to the cloud,” he said.
The only catch: the process is, per Nectome’s Robert McIntyre, “100 percent fatal.” Yet he and co-founder Michael McCanna refer to their company, which has already received a $960,000 federal grant, using the same tech-world jargon that a C.E.O. might use to describe an app allowing you to hail a car by pressing a button on your phone. Nectome will work by connecting people with terminal illnesses to a heart-lung machine and pumping anesthetized patients full of embalming fluids. The deadly experience, said McIntyre, “is why we are uniquely situated among the Y Combinator companies.” The company will pitch itself to investors at Demo Day next week, along with a message that aims to drive home the mission of the start-up (brain preservation) without being too overtly creepy (we kill you to do it). “The user experience will be identical to physician-assisted suicide,” McIntyre said. “Product-market fit is people believing that it works.”
Another obstacle for Nectome to overcome will be the seeming impossibility of reviving memories found in dead brain tissue. As McGill University neuroscientist Michael Hendricks wrote in 2015, “Reanimation or simulation is an abjectly false hope that is beyond the promise of technology and is certainly impossible with the frozen, dead tissue offered by the ‘cryonics’ industry.” Nevertheless, the company has so far attracted a handful of willing guinea pigs: 25, including Altman. Its co-founders believe Nectome will comply with California’s End of Life Option Act, which legalizes physician-assisted suicide for patients with terminal illnesses.
McIntyre and McCanna may have discovered a way to make cryogenic brain preservation even more ethically nebulous, scientifically unlikely, and morbid than it was. But in the tech world, their preoccupation with life-extension technology is more or less the norm. Billionaire investor Peter Thiel’s alleged fascination with youthful blood transfusions has become the stuff of Silicon Valley legend, and although questions abound as to whether Thiel has gone through with the procedure, his obsession with preserving his own life is well documented. “I’ve always had this really strong sense that death was a terrible, terrible thing,” he told The Washington Post in 2015, a statement reinforced by the reported recent remodeling of his New Zealand bunker. In 2013, Google Ventures C.E.O. Bill Maris spurred the founding of Calico, a top-secret effort to combat aging. And cryogenics company Alcor will freeze your whole body for $200,000. “Our view is that when we call someone dead it’s a bit of an arbitrary line,” said Alcor C.E.O. Max More. “In fact they are in need of a rescue.” It may seem creepy to the rest of us, but for Altman and his ilk it is a fittingly selfless—and self-centered—final act.