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  • Jan Flynn

The Man Too Rich to Die

Meet the zillionaire whose penis will help him live forever

Photo by Andre Benz on Unsplash

It sounds like the pitch for a near-future sci-fi movie: a guy who’s made zillions in hi-tech startups at a young age devotes his time and fortune not only to trying to fend off aging but to defeat death itself. So he sequesters himself in his mansion with his assistant, a nubile young woman who is also his disciple, where he follows a regimen that is so bizarre it leads us to ponder the questions:

Is he really going to live forever? Or will it just feel like it?

And yes, his penis is involved. Just not in the way you think. We’ll get to that.

This is not a Hollywood screenplay, at least not yet

Charlotte Alter, a correspondent for Time, has written an eye-popping profile of Bryan Johnson (“The Man Who Thinks He Can Live Forever”, Time, September 20, 2023).

As Alter points out, Bryan Johnson is hardly the only stupid-rich guy willing to spend a fortune trying to slow or reverse aging. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Facebook angel Yuri Milner are both investors in Altos Labs in California, whose mission is “to restore cell health and resilience through cellular rejuvenation programming to reverse disease, injury, and the disabilities that can occur throughout life.”

Peter Thiel of Paypal and Palantir fame is also, along with Bezos, a backer of the Methuselah Foundation, a nonprofit whose website logline is “Making 90 the new 50 by 2030.”

If that strikes you as tech-bro hubris, you’re not alone. But at least Bezos and Thiel are working with highly credible research scientists in an effort to improve health and function throughout the human lifespan — a goal that could benefit many (assuming they can afford it) — rather than to extend that lifespan indefinitely.

Not Bryan Johnson. His goal is as simply stated as the slogan on the black T-shirts he and his willowy assistant wear: Don’t Die. And by that they mean, don’t die ever.

In Bryan Johnson’s view, death is optional. He’s opting out

I don’t pretend to follow Johnson’s line of reasoning, but it has to do with AI, which he regards as “clearly the most significant event in this part of the galaxy.” In his logic chain, it therefore follows that the smart thing to do is to outsource the management of his body to an algorithm.

So that’s what he’s done. As Alter writes,

Johnson argues that automating the physical body is a form of evolutionary adaptation to what he believes is an inevitable, AI-dominated future.

He’s spent over $4 million developing Blueprint, “an algorithm that takes better care of me than I can of myself.” Its website encourages visitors to “build your autonomous self.” The idea seems to be that if you can become optimally autonomous, you’ll become such an automaton that you’ll be immortal.

Or at least Bryan Johnson will be. And he’s determined to prove it.

What that means for his daily routine, including his penis

Johnson’s day starts at 4:53 AM, and every minute thereafter is governed by his Blueprint. He takes 111 pills each day. He follows an elaborately regulated daily workout regimen. He wears a baseball cap that shoots red light into his scalp.

He eschews what we mortals would call breakfast, lunch, and dinner in favor of “first meal,” “second meal,” and so on. Alter reports that she had the opportunity to share one “first meal” with Johson and his assistant, a mixture of lentils and vegetables blended until, as she says, “they resemble a mush the color of a sea lion.” He collects his poop for samples for the team of doctors he’s recruited to observe his every bodily metric and emanation.

And his penis? Every night, Johnson (no pun intended) monitors his nighttime erections as he sleeps, through the use of a tiny jet pack attached to his manhood.

Why in God’s name, you ask?

One of Johnson’s (don’t blame me, that’s his name) goals is to automize his 46-year-old body into becoming the biological equivalent of an 18-year-old body. Since nighttime erections, according to Johnson (sorry!) are “a biological age marker for your sexual function,” he’s as intent on measuring this metric as he is on everything else his body does.

I know you want to know, so here’s how Johnson (stop it) is doing on this particular goal: “I have, on average, two hours and 12 minutes each night of erection of a certain quality . . . To be age 18, it would be three hours and 30 minutes.”

I have so many questions. Among them: what constitutes “a certain quality?” Who got to set that standard? But I digress.

As for the erection tracker itself, Alter writes that it :

. . . looks like a little AirPods case with a turquoise strap, like a purse worn by a penis. (No penises were viewed in the reporting of this article.)

She’s a terrific writer. But again, I digress.

Cookies as violence

Anything one does that could possibly accelerate aging — from failing to get enough sleep to partying too hard (or, really, at all) to eating a cookie — is, in Bryan Johson’s universe, “an act of violence.”

Doesn’t he ever long for a cookie, or a latte, or a beer with friends? According to Johnson, giving himself over to his Blueprint algorithm means overcoming what he calls the “rascal mind” and its urges.

Nothing goes into his mouth that isn’t approved by the algorithm. Nor does anything touch his skin that could contribute to his biological clock advancing. That apparently includes sunlight. In all of his photos on his website and in Alter’s article, Johnson has an eerily pale and oddly polished appearance. He has hair on his head but none visible elsewhere. He looks disturbingly doll-like, a human evocation of the uncanny valley.

I’m not the only one who thinks so. When Johnson attended the annual retreat for lifespan researchers last May, the doctors in attendance were taken aback. Dr. Nir Barzilai — who directs the Institute of Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine — told Alter:

“He looked sick. He was pale. I don’t know what he did with his face,” Dr. Barzilai says, adding that he was alarmed by Johnson’s lack of fat, which plays an important role in the body. “All these MDs, we all kind of agreed that he didn’t look so great.”

Johnson didn’t share any details about his own medical team with Alter, nor did he make any of them available for an interview. Other experts in the field of aging and longevity research are highly dubious of Blueprint and Johnson’s claims.

While advances in health may allow us to live longer, we’re not going to live forever, they agree. Alter quotes Dr. Pinchas Cohen, dean of the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology at the University of Southern California: “Death is not optional; it’s written into our genes.”

Dr. Eric Verdin, CEO of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, remarked to Alter, “If you want immortality, you should go to a church . . . If I believed even a little bit that it would be possible, I would be excited. It’s a pipe dream.”

Not only are they skeptical of his quest for literal immortality, they don’t think his approach is necessarily safe. As Dr. Barzilai told Alter, “What he’s doing hasn’t proven to be safe, because some of the treatments he’s taking are actually antagonizing to each other.” Scientists normally research the effects of one drug at a time, not 111 of them all together at once.

But never mind all that. You too can have a Blueprint

Like any self-respecting Silicon Valley prince, Johnson isn’t about to let a lot of naysaying lab-coaters whose minds are stuck in the 21st Century stop him from rolling his Blueprint out to us mortal masses.

Certain that we’re eager to know, Johson shares all his biomarkers online: heart rate, plaque index, and images of the inside of his intestines.

Personally, I don’t see the appeal, but apparently, quite a lot of people do. Millions have viewed his YouTube videos. He’s got a newsletter that garnered 180,000 subscriptions in its first five months, according to his assistant Kate Tolo.

Tolo, by the way, is also the first woman to give herself over fully to a Blueprint algorithm, thereby earning the title of Blueprint XX (because double X chromosomes, get it?).

Blueprint XX is also who, as Alter drily noted during her three-day stay, prepared all the sludge-like meals and cleaned them up.

If you too are eager to get started on your forever, you can avail yourself of the first Blueprint commercial product: olive oil. But very special olive oil, which Johnson consumes as 15% of his diet. The oil is packaged in a spiffy-looking black box with a weirdly red-lit pic of Johnson. Two 25-oz. bottles will set you back $75.00.

As of Alter’s interview, Blueprint XX said they had sold out.

Thanks, but I’ll pass

I’ll pass on the olive oil, on sending a “small bowel camera” up my rear end to check out my innards as Johnson does, and on Blueprint itself. I’ll pass on the obsessive self-monitoring and the desperate self-deprivation.

And one day I’ll pass on, period. Just like every other human and creature that has ever walked, skittered, or swum on Earth (with the technical exception of Turritopsis dorhrnii, a teensy jellyfish that can revert to an earlier stage in its lifecycle and is thus, arguably, biologically immortal).

But what if Bryan Johnson’s experiment pans out? What if he doesn’t die? Unbothered by skeptics, he claims to feel more aligned with the 25th Century than the 21st. What if he really does make it that far, still looking like an over-eager Ken doll?

Well, then I guess he wins. Or does he? He’ll have outlived everyone he’s ever known, including his own children, unless Blueprint XX survives too. And after four hundred years or so, I wonder how they’ll feel about facing another day with each other, eating tasteless slurry and gobbling endless pills.

I’ll never know. My rascal mind and I will have long since drifted away down the timestream. But until that happens, there are martinis and movie nights, cookies and craft beer, and playing with delightfully germ-ridden kids and pets. There is joy and wonder and sorrow and confusion and all the messiness that comes with living life ungoverned by an algorithm until mortality has its way with me.

I’m good with that. As for Bryan Johnson, I wish him well, I guess. If, while I’m still here to know about it, something unforeseen messes with his experiment — God forbid a piano falls on his head or his erection monitor device shorts out — that’ll be too bad.

But my rascal mind will have a giggle.

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