In February, the SENS Foundation—a life-extension research institute led by anti-ageing crusader Aubrey de Grey—announced on its website that it would start accepting donations in bitcoins.
The decision was made after SENS started receiving a trickle of messages from bitcoiners willing to invest their cryptocurrency reserves in the institute's quest for eternal youth. Jerri Barrett, SENS's vice-president of outreach and the person who would read those emails, initially answered that they didn't take bitcoins. But requests kept coming.
"I ended up making a file with all the messages." Barrett told me on a Skype call. "I just decided: when I get another mail about giving us bitcoins we'll have to set up something to accept it." So it was.
Bitcoin has caught on everywhere, but the story of SENS's eager Bitcoin donors piqued my interest: It was just the latest in a row of cases linking interest in cryptocurrency with interest in life-extension or other transhumanist projects. It looked like there was an unspoken, long-running connection between the two things.
Bitcoiners and transhumanists are cut from the same cloth.
The link is typified, for instance, by the Lifeboat Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to safely steering humankind to the Singularity by financing ventures such as asteroid shields and brain uploading. In 2013, it published a statement declaring its commitment to cryptocurrency: "We are now working to have the majority of our funding come from 21st century money—money backed not by governments but by algorithms," the post read. "The 21st century money Lifeboat is currently focused on is bitcoins."
The organisation subsequently activated 13 wallets to receive Bitcoin contributions; today its "Bitcoin endowment" has grown to $192,301 as of the time of writing (it was worth much more before Bitcoin's fall earlier this winter.)
Similarly, US cryonics company Alcor has been allowing its patients to pay in bitcoins since late 2012. Alcor's spokesperson told me in an email that as yet only a couple of people have paid that way: one of them was the cypherpunk thinker Hal Finney, who died and was cryopreserved by Alcor in summer 2014. Finney, an inveterate transhumanist, was also the first person to ever receive a Bitcoin transaction back in 2009.
A quick tour around the legion of transhumanist/longevist websites and forums also shows that Bitcoin is an omnipresent topic of discussion, to the point that one of the objectives initially put forward by the UK Transhumanist Party in a preparatory document for its manifesto was "[bringing about a] more sustainable cryptocurrency.
How come people who want to live forever are also likely to pay for it in bitcoins? One common answer is that bitcoiners and transhumanists are cut from the same cloth.
Trace Mayer, a Bitcoin-focused blogger who sits on the economics board of Lifeboat, boils it all down to genius. "The people involved in Bitcoin are some of the smartest in the world. They have very high IQs and are very well read. In the same way, to understand the science of life-extension you have to be very smart, too," he told me in a Skype call. "It's not really a common interest, it's just that they're smart people."
A less self-congratulatory take is that both transhumanism and Bitcoin's creed have a techno-enthusiastic character, and—in the best of hacking tradition—both are about overcoming some sort of constraints. If you are up for screwing biology and living forever, you'll probably dig the idea of using untraceable digital money to subvert the financial system as we know it, too.
"To many transhumanists, digital currency just naturally sounded like the kind of thing they should be interested in."
This can also be seen in history. In the 90s, a preferred term for one type of transhumanism was "extropianism."
"Extropianism's main tenet was that human should always be growing and reaching up for more. Bust your limits and going above and beyond," transhumanist philosopher Amon Twyman told me in a video call. "It was very popular with libertarians, and for some time it seemed to be the case that all transhumanists were libertarian. And when Bitcoin came up, too, it was seen as a very libertarian technology."
Getting rid of banks' and governments' roles in financial transactions, in effect, was key to the extropian project. The concept of a cryptocurrency—dubbed simply "cryp"—surfaced on the main extropian mailing-list in 1992, and several prominent extropians had a crack at devising encrypted payment systems. One of those who made the most promising attempts was Hal Finney—the developer frozen by Alcor. That would later cause speculation that Finney was Satoshi Nakamoto, the person who invented Bitcoin.
Twyman said that even if today's transhumanists are not all necessarily Ayn Rand-style libertarians, some sort of extropian legacy lingers on. "To many transhumanists, digital currency just naturally sounded like the kind of thing they should be interested in." he said.
From a sheerly practical point of view, some think that Bitcoin may help fill the coffers of life-extension research labs much faster. "Bitcoin has the potential to hugely redistribute the wealth of the entire global economy," Trace Mayer said. "And the new holders of that Bitcoin wealth will probably be smart people very interested in life-extension. They'll fund these kind of projects."
Right now, though, there's still no sign that a funding revolution is underway—at least if you ask SENS's Jerri Barrett.
"So far we got about 20 Bitcoin donations, for $700 overall. We convert them straight away to dollars, because of Bitcoin's volatility," she said. "I'll let you know when we get something really large."