The Ship of Theseus is an ancient philosophical problem to get you thinking about what identity means, and it goes like this. Theseus, the mythical king of Athens, took on the Minotaur while renovating his ship one piece at a time. After a while, he had completely repaired the ship with new wooden planks, clean sails, and fresh rigging. But was it the same ship or a different one entirely? And what if Theseus had one ship made out of all the new parts and built another ship with all the old parts? Which one would be the original ship?
The kings and queens of another fantastical world, though this time a contemporary one — Silicon Valley — are pondering a similar question, with the advent of medical technology that they hope will make them live for hundreds of years, and perhaps even forever.
"There are more than 140 biotech companies devoted to researching and reversing the effects of ageing..."
It might sound like the stuff of science fiction, but hundreds of millions of dollars are being poured into the rejuvenation and longevity businesses. In 2018 alone, investors sank $850m (£601m) into the industry, and this number continues to grow. According to one tally, there are more than 140 biotech companies devoted to researching and reversing the effects of ageing (one of them is even called Ship of Theseus, and looks into stem cell therapy).
Investors in this booming field include technology titans like Jeff Bezos and Peter Thiel, as well as Michael Greve, the German internet entrepreneur, and Steve Aoki, the American DJ and heir to the Benihana hibachi restaurant fortune. These big shots all hope that imminent scientific breakthroughs will be able to cure and prevent the diseases and disabilities of ageing, and keep them going for decades to come. Advocates of longevity research hope to perfect and tweak the processes that remove extracellular junk and make cancerous mutations harmless, preventing diseases that come with grey hair. They also say that, depending on your age, there is a decent chance that you — reading this article right now — will be one of the lucky humans who could live to blow out 500 birthday candles.
And so if Theseus were kicking around today, he might have been interested to mull over another question… if Bezos and Thiel replaced their organs with artificial ones, and had their veins transfused with younger blood, or connected their minds to a bespoke robot body, would they still be humans? Or would they be something else, perhaps, as the imagination suggests: unstoppable cyborgs with guns for hands and eyeballs that, instead of registering light, are sensitive to worker productivity?
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