Venture capitalist Dmitry Kaminskiy thinks he has what it takes to lengthen people's life spans: a million-dollar prize, which he will award to the first person to beat the current longevity record and reach his or her 123rd birthday.
Kaminskiy is senior partner at the Hong Kong-based Deep Knowledge Ventures, which invests in early-stage startups with an eye to increasing human longevity (the firm's current slate includes companies working on artificial intelligence, personalized medicine and gerontology). The last time the firm was in the news, it was for appointing an investment-predicting algorithm to its board of directors.
The goal of the prize is twofold: to get the public interested in longevity research and to motivate people to live longer lives. While progress toward the first goal is plausible and even likely with the publicity that may surround the prize, the second is more dubious. There is some evidence for a modicum of "death elasticity" when it comes to financial decisions; a 2003 paper reported that some people seemed to live a bit longer in the face of changes to estate-tax law. But the effect, if there was one, was small, and the authors conceded that the possibility of doctored death dates could not be dismissed entirely.
Why longevity? Why not something toward which competitors can more consciously work? Kaminskiy claims it's because aging is the biggest long-term problem humans face today, and the one with the least predictable consequences. "Everyone has heard about dangerous artificial intelligence due to Elon Musk, but the risks incurred by high life expectancy are not clear yet," he explained via email. "I realized that investing in aging research will have the highest impact on global peace, sustainability and economic growth."
As of this writing, the world's oldest living person is nearly 116 years old, giving Kaminskiy at least seven years before he doles out the cash – and if past records are any indication, it'll be a while longer. The oldest person to have ever lived was France's Jeanne Louise Calment, who died in 1997 at 122 years, 164 days old. Calment famously outlived her lawyer, who bought her old apartment, agreeing to give her money for it each month until her death, on the assumption that she would die first and the domicile would be his.
Could a determination to win this bet of sorts really have contributed to Calment's longevity? Alex Zhavoronkov, author of The Ageless Generation and CEO of Deep Knowledge-funded Insilico Medicine, thinks it may have been a contributing factor. "People compete in everything from sports, wealth, intelligence, beauty, philanthropic endeavors and even asceticism," he says. "But they do not try to compete in longevity and try to set new records."
The million-dollar prize, if bestowed on the record-breaker's 123rd birthday, would amount to $8,130.08 per year of life. That's not chump change, but it's probably not enough on its own to keep the world's current oldest person going for another seven-plus years. Despite Zhavoronkov's belief that "longevity prizes like Dmitry's are the best way to motivate people to try harder to live longer," motivation isn't going to do much for any of the competition's current contenders.
"Centenarians have just as many mutations and bad genetic information as other subjects. They are helped by longevity genes that negate them," explains Nir Barzilai, director of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine's Institute for Aging Research. "It's a bit late to motivate people if this is not their genetic make up."
If Kaminskiy is going to pay up, he's going to have to plan on his first goal, inspiring longevity research, to be wildly successful – not just hope the prize will motivate any current supercentenarians. But with the million-dollar promise made, he's already forging ahead with new ideas. The next prizes, he says, will focus on both health and longevity. His first idea? A sizable sum for the first supercentenarian to run a marathon under a certain time.
The investor also has another long bet in mind. He's currently in the process of recruiting slightly (but only slightly) more youthful participants and "inviting them into our association." The participants will share their stories, but Kaminskiy also hopes to study them to find commonalities, searching for those genetic distinctions but also for qualities that are a little more mutable. As to whether he'll find any, we'll just have to wait a few more years.