19 September 2014

The new future of old age

In an enchanting four minute video, Korean artist Seok Jeong Hyeon, who is also known as Stonehouse, portrays the gradual aging of a baby girl. At first, the changes are slow, but they accumulate as years and then decades pass. The end result is an elderly woman, adorned with lines and wrinkles, who finally stops breathing.

The video is beautiful, and the woman maintains her own elegance to the end. As such, it presents a romantic view of aging. (And the video even hints at another romantic idea, namely reincarnation.)

In reality, as we age, we suffer from increasing numbers of aches and pains. We half-laugh when we say that we’re experiencing a “senior moment” of forgetfulness, but we notice our declining potency. Worse, every extra eight years that we live, past the age of around 35, we become twice as likely to die within the next year. In other words, our mortality rate increases exponentially. This was first observed in 1825 by British actuary and mathematician Benjamin Gompertz. Empirical data continues to support Gompertz, nearly two centuries later. For example, here’s a chart of the exponentially increasing death rate in the USA:


One of the factors underlying this upwards surge of mortality rate is the fact that, as we become older, we become increasingly vulnerable to various horrible diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and lung disorders. Aging researcher Avi Roy of Oxford has collected information from the Office of National Statistics as follows:

Death rates from diseases

These five diseases aren’t random choices, by the way. They’re currently all high up in the list of the current largest causes of death.

The romantic notion of death is that we grow old gracefully, lose our powers almost imperceptibly, and die in our sleep, contented, surrounded by happy thoughts. In all too many cases, alas, death is preceded by viciously nasty diseases.

The Palo Alto prize

One of the deeply cherished visions of potential human progress has been the hope that, one day, we could reverse this state of affairs. Instead of the rate of mortality increasing with chronological age, it could remain constant. The terrible diseases listed, and others like them, which all currently increase their impact the older we get, could be conquered by the development of medicine – much the same as medicine has already made huge inroads against infectious diseases. The best solution would be, not a wide range of individual interventions each targeted at specific diseases, but an intervention that undoes the underlying damage of aging – the damage which accumulates throughout our body, and which makes it more likely that we fall prey to “diseases of old age”.

Until recently, that vision has lain well outside scientific orthodoxy. People have been loath to mention the idea, as it could spell the end of their academic careers.

However, that reticence seems to be changing. No less than eleven research teams from universities around the world have already publicly committed to entering for the recently announced “Palo Alto Longevity Prize”, which has a $1M prize fund. This video provides an introduction to the prize:

This video introduces key personnel from the different teams who are already engaged in developing solutions for contest:


The eleven teams and their leaders are listed in a recent TechCrunch article about the prize:

Doris Taylor, Ph.D.
Texas Heart Institute, Houston, TX
http://paloaltoprize.com/team/team-taylor-lab/ ‎
TEAM NAME: T.H.I. REGENERATIVE MEDICINE (approach: stem cells)

Dongsheng Cai, M.D., Ph.D.
Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York, NY
TEAM NAME: CAI LAB (approach: hypothalamic regulation)

Andreas Birkenfeld, M.D.
Charite University School of Medicine, Berlin, Germany
TEAM NAME: INDY (approach: gene modification)

Jin Hyung Lee, Ph.D.
Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA
TEAM NAME: LEE LAB (approach: neuromodulation)

David Mendelowitz, Ph.D.
George Washington University, Washington, D.C.
TEAM NAME: MENDELOWITZ LAB (approach: oxytocin)

Scott Wolf, M.D.
Mountain View, CA
TEAM NAME: VOLTS MEDICAL (approach: inflammatory tissues)

Irving Zucker, Ph.D.
University of Nebraska Medical Center, Omaha, NE
TEAM NAME: ZUCKER LAB (approach: neuromodulation)

Brian Olshansky, M.D.
University of Iowa Medical Center, Iowa City, IA
TEAM NAME: IOWA PRO-AUTONOMIA (approach: not yet public)

William Sarill, M.A.
Arlington, MA
TEAM NAME: DECO (approach: pituitary hormones)

Steven Porges, Ph.D.
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC
TEAM NAME: POLYVAGAL SCIENCE (approach: optimizing both the left & right vagal branches)

Shin-Ichiro Imai, M.D., Ph.D.
Washington University, St. Louis, MO
TEAM NAME: IMAI LAB (approach: gene modification)

Approaching rejuvenation

AR Cover page v2In the light of all the fascinating developments around the field of increasing healthy longevity, I’ve decided that my next book will focus on that field.

The book is entitled “Approaching rejuvenation: Is science on the point of radically extending human longevity”. My intent is that the book will provide a bird’s eye report from the frontiers of the emerging field of rejuvenation biology:

  • The goals and motivations of key players in this field
  • The rapid progress that has been achieved in the last few years
  • The challenges that threaten to thwart further development
  • The critical questions that need to be faced.

The book will be based around material from interviews with more than a dozen researchers, engineers, entrepreneurs, and humanitarians, who are making it their life’s quest to enable human rejuvenation. I’ve already started doing these interviews.

I’m far from being an expert in any branch of biochemistry or medicine. However, I hope to bring five important angles to this writing task:

  1. My background in history and philosophy of science, wrestling with the question of how to distinguish science from pseudoscience, and the more general dilemma of how to decide whether lines of research are likely to turn out to be misguided dead-ends
  2. My professional career within the smartphone industry, where I saw a lot of similar aspirations (though on a much smaller scale) regarding the breakthroughs that fast-moving technology could enable
  3. My experience as a writer, in which I seek to explain complicated subjects in a relatively straightforward but engaging manner
  4. The six years in which I have had the privilege to organise meetups in London dedicated to futurist, singularitarian, and technoprogressive topics – meetings which have featured a wide variety of different attitudes and outlooks
  5. My aspiration as a humanitarian to probe for both the human upsides and the human downsides of changing technology – in order to set possible engineering breakthroughs (such as rejuvenation biotech) in a broader societal context.

If you have any suggestions or comments about this new book project, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

The new future of old age

The London Futurists event next Saturday (27th September) addresses the same general theme. I close this blogpost with an excerpt from the description of the meetup. Please see the associated meetup page for more information about the speakers, for logistics details, and to register to attend. I hope to see some of you there!

Futurists, life extension advocates, transhumanists and others have been speaking for several decades already about the possibility, desirability, and broader consequences of significantly extending the human healthy lifespan. In this vision, the deteriorating effects of infirmity and old age could be radically postponed, and perhaps abolished altogether, via improvements in regenerative biotechnology.

Forget “70 is the new 50”. We might have the possibility of “150 is the new 50”. And alongside the existing booming cosmetics industry, with huge amounts spent to reduce the visible signs of aging, we might envision a booming rejuvenation industry, reversing the actual underlying biochemical damage that constitutes aging.

Recently, the pace of change in the field of healthy life extension seems to have increased: almost every day there are reports of possible breakthrough treatment methods, unexpected experimental results, new economic analyses of demographic changes, and innovative theoretical ideas. It’s hard to keep up with all these reports.

How can we evaluate this flurry of change?

Held in conjunction with the UN International Day of Older People (which occurs each year on 1st October), this event brings together a panel of expert speakers – William BainsMichael Price, Alex Zhavoronkov, and Sebastian Sethe – who will each give their assessment of “what’s new in the field of old age”:

  • What are some of the most significant research findings and other potential breakthroughs from the last five years?
  • What is the likelihood of significant practical change in healthy longevity within, say, the next 10-20 years?
  • What would be the economic, social, and psychological implications of such changes?
  • Are there any new grounds for scepticism or fear regarding these potential changes?
  • If individuals wish to help accelerate these changes, what should they do?
  • What are the major obstacles that could prevent real progress being made?

FB meeting image



16 April 2014

The future of healthy longevity life extension

There’s a great deal of news these days about potential developments to increase healthy longevity. How can we decide which are the most promising initiatives? What can we do to support faster development and deployment of new treatments? If we want to enable significant increases in healthy longevity for ourselves and our loved ones, what steps should we be taking?

This whole subject – healthy longevity – is complicated by the fact that it’s clouded by a great deal of wishful thinking and misinformation (some deliberate, some unintentional). Companies have products and services they wish to promote. Whole industries have worldviews that they want to maintain. People have engrained personal habits that they wish to justify and rationalise.

And did I mention wish-fulfilment? Here’s an evocative picture posted recently by Vincent Ocasla, a healthy longevity advocate:


(This picture has an interesting provenance. See the footnote at the end of this blogpost.)

Who, if they were honest, would not like to grasp the possibility of the kind of healthy age-reversal depicted here, if it could be provided ethically, for them and their loved ones? But what steps should we take, that would be most likely to accelerate the enablement of such a transformation?

Back in September last year, I organised a London Futurists “Hangout On Air” video event on that topic. This featured as panellists a number life extension activists from around the world – Franco Cortese, Ilia Stambler, Maria Konovalenko, and Aubrey de Grey. You can see the outcome here:

That ninety minute discussion covered a lot of important topics, but it’s far from providing the last word on the matter. To help continue the discussion, I’m holding an “in real life” London Futurists meetup on the afternoon of Saturday 26th April in Birkbeck College, central London. There will be a number of TED-style talks, followed by extended audience Q&A and discussion.

See here for more details about this event – and to RSVP if you’re planning to attend (this helps me to organise it smoothly) .

Meeting Image

The speakers are Phil MicansTuvi Orbach, and Avi Roy. They each have fascinating and well-informed things to say about the subject. I expect those of us in the audience will all be individually challenged and inspired, at various times in this meetup, to rethink our own personal health strategies, and/or to alter our thinking about how to change society’s presently inadequate approach to this topic.

Phil Micans is Founder and Vice President of International Antiaging Systems and Assistant Director at the British Longevity Society.

Phil has been actively involved in the antiaging field since the late 1980’s. He is currently the Editor-in-Chief of the Aging Matters™ Magazine, Chairman of the Monte Carlo Antiaging Congress, and Assistant Editor to the Lifespan Medicine Journal. He holds a masters degree in biochemistry from Canterbury.

Phil will talk about why orthodox medicine must change its approach to longevity, and the need for preventative and regenerative medicine.

His lecture will review data as issued by the US, UK and WHO authorities. It will become clear that ‘orthodox’ medicine cannot continue as-is for much longer and that a different path will need to be taken soon. The talk will also introduce the concept of the optimal health pyramid.

Tuvi Orbach is the chairman of Mindlife UK, and Managing Trustee of HELP Trust – a charity with the purpose to help and inspire people to enhance their lives.

Tuvi has a background as an entrepreneur who has established several companies integrating software, technology and “lifeware”. Products and services provided  by his companies include:

  • An interactive self-help application to cure anxiety and depression
  • Computerised health screening and prevention for long-term conditions.

Tuvi will address combining the use of technology for self-help with better internal (mind-body, optimism etc) and external lifestyle modification. He’ll also talk about the integration of new science with traditional wisdom.

Avi Roy is is a PhD student researching biomarkers of aging, mitochondria, and regenerative medicine at the Institute of Translational Medicine, Buckingham.

Avi currently writes for The Conversation and has previously written for The Guardian. His articles have also been published in the New Statesman and Business Insider.

Avi also heads up the Oxford University Scientific Society, the Oxford Transhumanism and Emerging Technologies society, and organizes talks at the British Science Association Oxford branch.


The above 2014->2063 transformation picture has been adapted from (you guessed it) a similar one which portrayed the transformation in the opposite direction, 1963->2014. That earlier version was published in the Twitter stream for “History in Pictures”. So there’s at least one round of “cosmetic retouching” that has taken place. The online comments for the earlier picture suggest that it has been “faked” too.

Of course, the whole point is to find out what kind of rejuvenation technology (sometimes called “rejuveneering”) is possible, without the subterfuge of Photoshop or similar. I’ll be picking up that theme in a talk I’m giving at the Symposium of the Society of Cosmetic Scientists on May 1st. That Symposium has the theme “Face the future”. My  talk there is the closing keynote, ‘More than skin deep: radical options for human transformation, 2015-2045’:

Vision: Within 30 years, those of us still alive will have the potential to experience profound human enhancement. Detox and rejuvenation therapies that clean out internal biological damage will be able to revitalise us in far-reaching ways. Smartphone technology will be miniaturised and ready for incorporation deep inside our bodies and brains. We’ll be living alongside enchanting, witty robots and other forms of super AIs and virtual companions, who will have deprived most of us of gainful employment. We might even be on the point of merger: human with robot, biology with technology.

But which elements of this vision are science fiction, and which science fact? What factors influence the acceleration of technology? And how can we collectively mould the trajectories ahead, so that human values flourish, rather than us bitterly regretting what we allowed to happen?

17 September 2013

When faith gets in the way of progress

Is it good that we grow old, weak, disease-prone, and eventually succumb, dead, to the ravages of aging?

The rise and fall of our health and vigour is depicted in this sketch from leading biogerontology researcher Alex Zhavoronkov:

Aging Decline

This diagram is taken from the presentation Alex made at a London Futurists event on 31st August. Alex used the same slide in his presentation, several days later, to the SENS6 conference “Reimage aging” at Queens’ College, Cambridge.


My impression from the attendees at SENS6 that I met, over the four days I spent at the conference, is that the vast majority of them would give a resounding ‘No’ as the answer to the question,

Is it good that we grow old, weak, disease-prone, and eventually succumb, dead, to the ravages of aging?

What’s more, they shared a commitment that action should be taken to change this state of affairs. In various ways, they described themselves as “fighters against aging”, “healthy longevity activists”, and as “campaigners for negligible senescence”. They share an interest in the declaration made on the page on the SENS Research Foundation website describing the conference:

The purpose of the SENS conference series, like all the SENS initiatives, is to expedite the development of truly effective therapies to postpone and treat human aging by tackling it as an engineering problem: not seeking elusive and probably illusory magic bullets, but instead enumerating the accumulating molecular and cellular changes that eventually kill us and identifying ways to repair – to reverse – those changes, rather than merely to slow down their further accumulation.

This broadly defined regenerative medicine – which includes the repair of living cells and extracellular material in situ – applied to damage of aging, is what we refer to as rejuvenation biotechnologies.

This “interventionist” approach, if successful, would lead to a line, on the chart of performance against age, similar to that shown in the bright green colour: we would retain our youthful vigour indefinitely. Mechanisms supporting this outcome were explored in considerable technical details in the SENS6 presentations. The SENS6 audience collectively posed some probing questions to the individual presenters, but the overall direction was agreed. Rejuvenation biotechnologies ought to be developed, as soon as possible.

But not everyone sees things like this. SENS6 attendees agreed on that point too. Over informal discussions throughout the event, people time and again shared anecdotes about their personal acquaintances being opposed to the goals of SENS. You can easily see the same kind of negative reactions, in the online comments pages of newspapers, whenever a newspaper reports some promising news about potential techniques to overcome aging.

For example, the Daily Mail in the UK recently published a well-researched article, “Do lobsters hold the key to eternal life? Forget gastronomic indulgence, the crustacean can defy the aging process”. The article starts as follows:

They are usually associated with a life of gastronomic indulgence and heart-stopping excess. But away from the dinner table, lobsters may actually hold the secret to a long, healthy — and possibly even eternal — life.

For this crustacean is one of a handful of bizarre animals that appear to defy the normal aging process.

While the passing years bring arthritis, muscle loss, memory problems and illness to humans, lobsters seem to be immune to the ravages of time. They can be injured, of course. They can pick up diseases. They can be caught and thrown into a pot, then smothered in béchamel sauce.

But rather than getting weaker and more vulnerable over the years, they become stronger and more fertile each time they shed their shells.

The typical lobster weighs 1 to 2 lb. But in 2009, a Maine fisherman landed a colossus of 20 lb, which was estimated to be 140 years old. And that isn’t even the oldest lobster found so far. According to Guinness World Records, a 44 lb leviathan was caught in 1977, with claws powerful enough to snap a man’s arm.

The species belongs to an elite group that appears to be ‘biologically immortal’. Away from predators, injury or disease, these astonishing creatures’ cells don’t deteriorate with age…

For healthy longevity activists, there was lots of good news in the article. This information, however, was too much for some readers to contemplate. Some of the online comments make for fascinating (but depressing) reading. Here are four examples, quoted directly from the comments:

  1. How would humankind cope with tens of millions of extremely old and incredibly crabby people?
  2. People have to die and they’re not dying quickly enough. Soon the earth will run out of water and food for the ever increasing masses.
  3. These “researchers” should watch Death Becomes Her
  4. The only guarantee of eternal life is to read your Bibles. Though even if you don’t, eternal life of another kind exists, though it’s not particularly appealing: “And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever” (Rev 14:11).

To be clear, the goal of project such as those in the SENS umbrella is to extend healthy lifespans (sometimes known as “healthspans”) rather than simply extending lifespans themselves. Rejuvenation technologies are envisioned to undo tendencies towards unwelcome decrepitude, crabbiness, and so on.

As for the reference to the 1992 Hollywood film “Death Becomes Her” featuring Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn in a frightful “living dead” immortality, I’ll get back to that later.

Infinite ResourceThe question of potential over-population has a bit more substance. However, the worry isn’t so much the number of people on the earth, but the rate at which everyone is consuming and polluting. With potential forthcoming improvements in harnessing solar energy, we’ll have more than enough energy available to look after a planet with 10 billion people. Arguably the planet could sustain at least 100 billion people. (That argument is made, in a well-balanced way, by Ramez Naam in his recent book “The infinite resource” – a book I thoroughly recommend. I’ve also covered this question from time to time in earlier blogposts – see e.g. “Achieving a 130-fold improvement in 40 years”.)

However, I believe that there are deeper roots to the opposition that many people have to the idea of extending healthy lifespans. They may offer intellectual rationalisations for their opposition (e.g. “How would humankind cope with tens of millions of extremely old and incredibly crabby people?”) but these rationalisations are not the drivers for the position they hold.

Instead, their opposition to extending healthy lifespans comes from what we can call faith.

This thought crystallised in my mind as I reflected on the very last presentation from SENS6. The speaker was Thomas Pyszczynski of the University of Colorado, and his topic was “Understanding the paradox of opposition to long-term extension of the human lifespan: fear of death, cultural worldviews, and the illusion of objectivity”.

The presentation title was long, but the content was clear and vivid. The speaker outlined some conclusions from decades of research he had conducted into “Terror Management Theory (TMT)”. I’ve since discovered that the subject of “Terror Management Theory” has its own article in Wikipedia:

Terror management theory (TMT), in social psychology, proposes a basic psychological conflict that results from having a desire to live but realizing that death is inevitable. This conflict produces terror, and is believed to be unique to humans. Moreover, the solution to the conflict is also generally unique to humans: culture. According to TMT, cultures are symbolic systems that act to provide life with meaning and value. If life is thought meaningful, death is less terrifying. Cultural values therefore serve to manage the terror of death by providing life with meaning…


Here’s the “paradox” to which Pyszczynski (pictured) referred: people oppose the idea that we could have longer healthy lives, because of the operation of a set of culture and philosophical ideas, which were themselves an adaptive response to the underlying fact that we deeply desire indefinitely long healthy lives. So the opposition is self-contradictory, but the people involved don’t see it like that.

For all of history up until the present age, the idea of having an indefinitely long healthy life was at stark variance to everything else that we saw around ourselves. Death seemed inevitable. In order to avoid collapsing into terror, we needed to develop rationalisations and techniques that prevented us from thinking seriously about our own finitude and mortality. That’s where key aspects of our culture arose. These aspects of our culture became deeply rooted.

Our culture operates, in many cases, below the level of conscious awareness. We find ourselves being driven by various underlying beliefs, without being aware of the set of causes and effects. However, we find comfort in these beliefs. This faith (belief in the absence of sufficient reason) helps to keep us mentally sane, and keeps society functional, even as it prepares us, as individuals, to grow infirm and die.

In case any new ideas challenge this faith, we find ourselves compelled to lash out against these ideas, even without taking the time to analyse them. Our motivation, here, is to preserve our core culture and faith, since that’s what provides the foundation of meaning in our lives. We fight the new ideas, even if these new ideas would be a better solution to our underlying desire to live an indefinitely long, healthy life. The new ideas leave us with a feeling of alienation, even though we don’t see the actual connections between ideas. Our faith causes us to lose our rationality.

Incidentally, similar factors apply, of course, when other things that have profound importance to us are challenged. For example, when we think we may lose a cherished romantic partner, we can all too easily become crazy. When your heart’s on fire, smoke gets in your eyes.

Ending AgingIt turns out that Aubrey de Grey, the chief science officer of SENS, has already written on this same topic. In chapter two of his 2007 book “Ending aging”, he notes the following:

There is a very simple reason why so many people defend aging so strongly – a reason that is now invalid, but until quite recently was entirely reasonable. Until recently, no one has had any coherent idea how to defeat aging, so it has been effectively inevitable. And when one is faced with a fate that is as ghastly as aging and about which one can do absolutely nothing, either for oneself or even for others, it makes perfect psychological sense to put it out of one’s mind – to make one’s peace with it, you might say – rather than to spend one’s miserably short life preoccupied by it. The fact that, in order to sustain this state of mind, one has to abandon all semblance of rationality on the subject – and, inevitably, to engage in embarrassingly unreasonable conversational tactics to shore up that irrationality – is a small price to pay….

Aubrey continues this theme at the start of chapter three:

We’ve recently reached the point where we can engage in the rational design of therapies to defeat aging: most of the rest of this book is an account of my favoured approach to that design. But in order to ensure that you can read that account with an open mind, I need to dispose beforehand of a particularly insidious aspect of the pro-aging trance: the fact that most people already know, in their heart of hearts, that there is a possibility that aging will eventually be defeated.

Why is this a problem? Indeed, at first sight you might think that it would make my job easier, since surely it means that the pro-aging trance is not particularly deep. Unfortunately, however, self-sustained delusions don’t work like that. Just as it’s rational to be irrational about the desirability of aging in order to make your peace with it, it’s also rational to be irrational about the feasibility of defeating aging while the chance of defeating it any time soon remains low. If you think there’s even a 1 percent chance of defeating aging within your lifetime (or within the lifetime of someone you love), that sliver of hope will prey on your mind and keep your pro-aging trance uncomfortably fragile, however hard you’ve worked to convince yourself that aging is actually not such a bad thing after all. If you’re completely convinced that aging is immutable, by contrast, you can sleep more soundly.

Underwood_Mair_2013_smallAnother speaker from the final session of SENS6, Mair Underwood of the University of Queensland, provided some timely advice to the SENS6 community, that dovetails well with the discussion above. Underwood’s presentation was entitled “What reassurances do the community need regarding life extension? Evidence from studies of community attitudes and an analysis of film portrayals”. The presentation pointed out the many ways in which popular films (such as “Death Becomes Her”, mentioned above) portray would-be life extensionists in a bad light. These people, the films imply, are emotionally immature, selfish, frustrated, obstructive, and generally unattractive. This is the pro-death culture at work.

To counteract these impressions, and to help free the broader community from its faith that aging and death are actually good things, Underwood gave the following advice:

  1. Assure that life extension science, and the distribution of life extension technologies, are ethical and regulated, and seen to be so
  2. Assuage community concerns about life extension as unnatural or playing god
  3. Assure that life extension would involve an extension of healthy lifespan
  4. Assure that life extension does not mean a loss of fertility
  5. Assure the community that life extension will not exacerbate social divides, and that those with extended lives will not be a burden on society
  6. Create a new cultural framework for understanding life extension.

This advice is all good, but I suspect that the new few years may see a growing “battle of faiths”, as representatives of the old culture fight harder in opposition to the emerging evidence that we we are on the point of possessing the technological means to extend human healthspans very significantly. This is a battle that may need more tools, to influence the outcome, than mere hard-honed rationality. At the very least, we’ll need to keep in mind how culture works, and the ways in which faith draws strength.

Follow ups: Several forthcoming London Futurists meetups address topics that are directly relevant to the above line of thinking:

  • Futurism, Spirituality, and Faith, in Birkbeck College on Saturday 21st September, discusses ways in which committed technoprogressives can best interact with faith-based movements, without these interactions leading to fruitless irrationality and loss of direction
  • Projects to accelerate radical healthy longevity, a Google Hangout On Air (HOA) on Sunday 29th September, features a panel discussion on the question, “What are the most important ongoing projects to accelerate radical healthy longevity?”
  • Futurists discuss The Transhumanist Wager, with Zoltan Istvan, another Google HOA, on Sunday 20th September, reviews a recently published novel about a possible near-future scenario of a growing battle between the old human culture and an emerging new culture that favours indefinitely long healthspans.
  • Finally, if you’re interested in the question of whether solar energy will be able, as I implied above, to address pending shortages in global energy supplies, even as human population continues to increase, you should make it a priority to attend the London Futurists event on Saturday 5th October, The Energy of Nations, with Jeremy Leggett. The speaker on this occasion is one of the world’s foremost authorities on solar energy, oil depletion, climate change, and dysfunctional investment. The topic of the best energy systems for the decades ahead is, alas, another one in which faith tends to subvert reason, and in which we need to be smart to prevent our thinking being hijacked by adverse factors.

For more information about the evolution of London Futurists, you can take a peek at a new website which is in the process of being implemented, at http://londonfuturists.com/.

19 August 2013

Longevity and the looming financial meltdown

Filed under: aging, books, challenge, converged medicine, Economics, futurist, healthcare, rejuveneering, SENS — David Wood @ 2:12 pm

What kind of transformational infrastructure investment projects should governments prioritise?

In the UK, government seems committed to spending a whopping £42 billion between now and 2032 on a lengthy infrastructure project, namely the “HS2” High Speed rail link which could see trains travelling between London, Birmingham, and six other cities, at up to 250 miles per hour. The scheme has many critics. As Nigel Morris notes in The Independent,

In an analysis published today (Monday), the IEA (Institute for Economic Affairs ) says the scheme’s cost has been vastly underestimated and had failed to take into account changes to routes and extra tunnelling because of local opposition.

Richard Wellings, its author, said: “The evidence is now overwhelming that this will be unbelievably costly to the taxpayer while delivering incredibly poor value for money.”

Supporters of this investment claim that the improved infrastructure will be a boon for business in the UK. Multi-year infrastructure improvement projects are something that the private sector tends not to attempt. Unless there’s coordination from government, this kind of project will not happen.

The BBC news website (here and here) helpfully listed ten alternative infrastructure improvement projects that might be better recipients of portions of the £42B earmarked for HS2. Suggestions include:

  • A new road motorway for the east of Britain
  • A bridge to the Isle of Wight
  • A new Channel tunnel, directly accessible to car drivers
  • Tram systems for Liverpool and Leeds
  • A tunnel between Great Britain and Ireland
  • Aerial cycle highways for London

If it were my decision, I would reallocate a large chunk of this funding to a different kind of multi-year infrastructure improvement project. This is in the area of health rather than the area of transport. The idea is to significantly promote research and deployment of treatments in preventive and regenerative medicine.

Ageless CoverThe argument for this kind of sustained investment is laid out in the book The Ageless Generation: How Advances in Biomedicine Will Transform the Global Economy, by Alex Zhavoronkov, which I’ve just finished reading. It’s a compelling analysis.

Alex will be sharing his views at a forthcoming meeting of the London Futurists, on Saturday 31st July. There are more details of this meeting here. (Note that a number of copies of the speaker’s book will be available free of charge to attendees of this meeting.)

The book contains many eye-opening pointers to peer-reviewed research. This covers the accelerating pace of medical breakthroughs, in areas such as bioartificial organs, stem cell therapies, repairing damaged tissues, fortifying the immune system, and autophagy. The research also covers financial and economic matters.

For example, here’s a snippet from the 2009 report “The Burden of Chronic Disease” (PDF) – which is written from a US point of view, though the implications apply for other countries too:

Our current economic reality reminds us that now more than ever, we need to invest in the backbone of our economy: the American workforce. Without question, the single biggest force threatening U.S. workforce productivity, as well as health care affordability and quality of life, is the rise in chronic conditions…

Further into that report, data is quoted from the Milken Institute report “The Economic Burden of Chronic Disease” (PDF)

By our calculations, the most common chronic diseases are costing the economy more than $1 trillion annually—and that figure threatens to reach $6 trillion by the middle of the century.

The costs include lost of productivity, as well as absenteeism:

The potential savings on treatment represents just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Chronically ill workers take sick days, reducing the supply of labor—and, in the process, the GDP. When they do show up for work to avoid losing wages, they perform far below par—a circumstance known as “presenteeism,” in contrast to absenteeism. Output loss (indirect impacts) due to presenteeism (lower productivity) is immense—several times greater than losses associated with absenteeism. Last (but hardly a footnote), avoidable illness diverts the productive capacity of caregivers, adding to the reduction in labor supply for other uses. Combined, the indirect impacts of these diseases totaled just over $1 trillion in 2003…

In his book, Alex builds on this analysis, focussing on the looming costs to healthcare systems and pensions systems of ever greater portions of our population being elderly and infirm, and becoming increasingly vulnerable to chronic illnesses. Countries face bankruptcy on account of the increased costs. At the very least, we must expect radical changes in the provision of social welfare. The pensionable age is likely to rocket upwards. Families are likely to discover that the provisions they have made for their old age and retirement are woefully inadequate.

The situation is bleak, but solutions are at hand, through a wave of biomedical innovation which could make our recent wave of IT innovation look paltry in comparison. However, despite their promise, these biomedical solutions are arriving too slowly. The healthcare and pharmaceutical industries are bringing us some progress, but they are constrained by their own existing dynamics.

Alex_cover_2_smallAs Alex writes,

The revolution in information technology has irreversibly changed our lives over the past two decades. However, advances in biomedicine stand poised to eclipse the social and economic effects of IT in the near future.

Biomedical innovations typically reach the mass market in much slower fashion than those from information technology. They follow a paradigm where neither demand, in the form of the consumer, nor supply, in the form of the innovator, can significantly accelerate the process. Nevertheless, many of the advances made over the past three decades are already propagating into mainstream clinical practice and converging with other technologies extending our life spans.

However, in the near-term, unless the governments of the debt-laden developed countries make proactive policy changes, there is a possibility of lengthy economic decline and even collapse.

Biomedical advances are not all the same. The current paradigm in biomedical research, clinical regulation and healthcare has created a spur of costly procedures that provide marginal increases late in life extending the “last mile”, with the vast percentage of the lifetime healthcare costs being spent in the last few years of patient’s life, increasing the burden on the economy and society.

There is an urgent need to proactively adjust healthcare, social security, research and regulatory policies:

  • To ameliorate the negative near-term effects
  • To accelerate the mass adoption of technologies contributing positively to the economy.

Now that’s a project well worth spending billions on. It’s a vision of expanded healthspans rather than just of expanded lifespans. It’s a vision of people continuing to be happily productive members of society well into their 80s and 90s and beyond, learning new skills, continuing to expand their horizons, whilst sharing their wisdom and experience with younger generations.

It’s a great vision for the individuals involved (and their families), but also a great vision for the well-being of society as a whole. However, without concerted action, it’s unlikely to become reality.

Footnote 1: To connect the end of this line of reasoning back to its start: If the whole workforce remains healthy, in body, mind, and spirit, for many years more than before, there will be plenty of extra resources and skills available to address problems in other fields, such as inadequate traffic vehicle infrastructure. My own preferred approach to that particular problem is improved teleconferencing, virtual presence, avatar representation, and other solutions based on transporting bits rather than transporting atoms, though there’s surely scope for improved physical transport too. Driverless vehicles have a lot of promise.

Footnote 2: The Lifestar Institute produced a well-paced 5 minute video, “Can we afford not to try?” covering many of the topics I’ve mentioned above. View it at the Lifestar Institute site, or, for convenience, embedded below.

Footnote 3: The Lifestar Institute video was shown publicly for the first time at the SENS4 conference in Cambridge in September 2009. I was in the audience that day and vividly remember the impact the video made on me. The SENS Foundation is running the next in their series of biennial conferences (“SENS 6”) this September, from the 3rd to the 7th. The theme is “Reimagine aging”. I’m greatly looking forward to it!


31 December 2010

Welcome 2011 – what will the future hold?

Filed under: aging, futurist, Humanity Plus, intelligence, rejuveneering — David Wood @ 6:42 pm

As 2010 turns into 2011, let me offer some predictions about topics that will increasingly be on people’s minds, as 2011 advances.

(Spoiler: these are all topics that will feature as speaker presentations at the Humanity+ UK 2011 conference that I’m organising in London’s Conway Hall on 29th January.  At time of writing, I’m still waiting to confirm possibly one or two more speakers for this event, but registration is already open.)

Apologies for omitting many other key emerging tech-related trends from this list.  If there’s something you care strongly about – and if you live within striking distance of London – you’ll be more than welcome to join the discussion on 29th January!

15 August 2010

Seeing probabilities

Filed under: aging, risks, Ultralase — David Wood @ 12:59 am

I thought of entitling this blogpost “Blinded by technology”.  Or, perhaps, “Almost blinded by technology”.  But that would have been unfair.

It’s now just over five weeks since I had my eyes lasered at the Ultralase clinic in Guildford, Surrey.  For more than 40 years, I had worn spectacles, to correct short sightedness.  My hope with the surgery was that I could dispense with spectacles and all the inconvenience that goes with them.

I had an idea what to expect.  Back in 2005, my wife had a similar operation, also from Ultralase, and has been very happy with the result.  I remember her being pleased with the outcome just a few moments after the operation, when, from the room next to the operating theatre, I could hear her excited voice on opening her eyes.  But my own experience turned out different.

One complicating factor is that I received a treatment called “monovision”, in which the two eyes are given treatments that optimise them for different viewing tasks.  My left eye was optimised for short-distance reading (such as computer screens, books, phone screens).  My right eye was optimised for medium-distance and long-distance.

The rationale for monovision is to address a decline in the power of eyes to change the distance where they’re focussing.  This is a condition called “Presbyopia” – sometimes known as “Aging eye”.  To quote from “The Eye Digest“:

A presbyopic eye loses its innate ability to clearly see all objects that are located at different distances. It can see some objects clearly but not all. In individuals who are less than 40 years of age, the eye can be thought of as an ‘auto-focus’  cameras. In an auto-focus camera, all one has to do to get sharp pictures is to point the camera in that direction, the auto-focus mechanism kicks in and you get sharp pictures. After age 40, the presbyopic eye can be thought of as a ‘fixed-focus’ camera. Fixed-focus cameras, the most basic of all cameras, have a nonadjustable lens. In general, a fixed-focus camera can take satisfactory photographs but it may produce a blurred picture if the subject is moving or is less than 6 feet (1.8 meters) away.

The presbyopic eye is also in a more or less ‘fixed-focus’ state. This means that a presbyopic eye will see clearly only at a particular distance. If you correct the presbyopic eye for distance with glasses or contact lenses, then it will clearly see all the distant objects and may read 20/20 on the distance vision eye chart, but there is no way it would be able to clearly read up-close with the distance vision correction. On the other hand if you correct the eye for reading up-close, then you will be able to read clearly, but there is no way you will be able to see distance objects clearly with the same correction. So reading vision is at the cost of distance vision and vice versa.

And as Wikipedia puts it:

Presbyopia is a health condition where the eye  exhibits a progressively diminished ability to focus on near objects with age. Presbyopia’s exact mechanisms are not known with certainty; the research evidence most strongly supports a loss of elasticity of the crystalline lens, although changes in the lens’s curvature from continual growth and loss of power of the ciliary muscles (the muscles that bend and straighten the lens) have also been postulated as its cause.

Similar to grey hair and wrinkles, presbyopia is a symptom caused by the natural course of aging. The first symptoms (described below) are usually first noticed between the ages of 40-50. The ability to focus on near objects declines throughout life, from an accommodation of about 20 dioptres (ability to focus at 50 mm away) in a child, to 10 dioptres at 25 (100 mm), and levels off at 0.5 to 1 dioptre at age 60 (ability to focus down to 1–2 meters only).

The word presbyopia comes from the Greek word presbys (πρέσβυς), meaning “old man” or “elder”, and the Neolatin suffix -opia, meaning “sightedness”.

I can’t deny it: by these measures, I’m aging!  I turned 51 in February.  And I have presbyopia to show for my age.   (Not to mention wrinkles…)

Monovision is one of the options offered to patients with presbyopia.  Not everyone copes well with monovision treatment.  Apparently, some people get headaches, from the two eyes having different preferred focal lengths.  For this reason, Ultralase gave me special spectacles to wear, as an experiment, for six weeks before the intended date of the operation.  These spectacles mimicked the intended outcome of the operation: left eye great for short-distance, right eye great for everything else.  Happily, I had no headache, and was pleased with how these spectacles worked for me.

So I approached the operation itself with high hopes.  And I can report that my left eye has turned out exactly as hoped.  Without glasses, my short-range sight is excellent.

But  my right eye has ended up in a less optimal state.  Subsequent tests by Ultralase, repeated on several occasions, confirm that my right eye is about -0.75 compared to what was intended.  When I look into the middle distance or long distance, without wearing glasses, I see things as much fuzzier than before (when I wore glasses).  To see things more clearly, I have to squint, or stand up and walk closer.  In practical terms, it causes inconvenience when I’m in meetings at work.  I can’t see what’s displayed on screens in conference rooms.  I sometime struggle to see the prices on the menus behind the counter at coffee shops.  And so on.

But to say that I have literally been “blinded by technology” (by the short blast of a laser) would be putting things much too strongly.  I can get by fine, most of the time.

Nor was I figuratively “blinded by technology” – in the sense of being naively over-optimistic about the outcome of a technical fix to address the symptoms of aging.  The Ultralase surgeon had carefully explained matters to me before the operation.  He even got me to fill in some blank paragraphs in a form, using my own words to confirm that I understood the risks associated with the surgery.  One blank paragraph was headed, “Four risks with the operation”.  Another was headed, “How will I cope, if the treatment doesn’t work as well as I hope”.  It was sobering.

I knew, before the operation, that there was a one-in-six chance that I would need a “top up” operation six months (or so) further down the line.  And that looks like what will happen to me.  The risks were significantly higher in my case than for most patients, because of the monovision treatment, and because my eyesight was starting from such a poor threshold (around -8.0).

Medical treatments frequently involve probabilities.  As with many other difficult decisions in life, it’s important to be able to understand probabilities, and to plan ahead for possible unwanted outcomes.

It’s still possible that my right eye will continue to improve by itself.  I read of cases where it took several months, after laser eye surgery, for an eye to completely settle down.  That’s why Ultralase require several months of stability in eyesight before doing any follow-up surgery.  My current guess is that I’ll be visiting the surgery again some time around January.  In the meantime, I’m putting up with some haziness in my middle-distance and long-distance vision.

Has this experience changed my attitude towards the wonder-powers of technology (for example, to address the problems of aging)?

Not really.  I already know, viscerally, from my many years in the hi-tech smartphone industry, that technical solutions frequently fail.  A team can have many thoughtful, experienced, super-smart people, developing new technology in a careful way, but still the results can go wrong.  You can take measures to try to reduce risks, but you can’t make all the risks go away.  And, in many cases,  you shouldn’t seek to make all the risks go away.  That way, you’d miss out many benefits from when risky projects turn out good.  But you should be aware of the risks beforehand, and try to quantify them.

For me, a one in six chance of needing the inconvenience of a second operation was a risk well worth taking.  And I still see things that way.

16 March 2010

Practical measures for personal longevity

Filed under: aging, supplement, UKH+, UKTA — David Wood @ 12:06 pm

What steps do you take, to enhance your personal longevity?

That’s a question I still struggle to answer.  I believe that the next few decades will see  spectacular advances in science, technology, society, art, and culture, and I’d very much like to participate in these – in some cases as an observer, and in some cases as an engineer and activist.  Rationally, therefore, I should be taking steps to make it more likely that I will remain alive, fit, and healthy, throughout these coming decades.  But what are these steps?

That’s the topic of the UKH+ (Extrobritannia) meeting that will be taking place in London on the afternoon of Sunday 28th March: “Aging and dietary supplements – correcting some myths“.  The speaker will be Michael Price, who has been carrying out independent research for 30 years into questions of life extension and futurism.  The meeting is described as follows on the Extrobritannia meetings blog:

This talk will review where we are (and aren’t) with respect to understanding aging. It will cover theories of aging, and the (largely failed) promises of gerontologists and immortalists, past and present. It will then make some suggestions for what we can do now – including a discussion of which dietary supplements may work, which may not, and why dietary supplements are generally discredited.

The idea of a “pill to make you live longer” is alluring, and often drums up tabloid headlines.  A Google search for “pill to make you live longer” returns more than 900,000 results.  Some websites look more credible than others.  In addition to pills, these websites often talk about “superfoods”.  For example, the Maximum Life Foundation recently published an article “Seven Superfoods That Will Keep You Young” and listed the following:

  1. Whey Protein
  2. Raw, Organic Eggs
  3. Leafy Greens
  4. Broccoli
  5. Blueberries
  6. Chlorella
  7. Garlic, the “Stinking Rose”

The same article continues:

The Most Important Way to Slow Aging

Do you know what the number one way to slow aging in your body is? If you’re like most people, you don’t.

Most people don’t understand the importance of optimizing their insulin levels, as insulin is without a doubt THE major accelerant of aging. Fortunately, you can go a long way toward keeping your insulin levels healthy by reducing or eliminating grains and sugars from your diet.

This one crucial step, combined with nutritional typing and the inclusion of nature’s anti-aging miracle foods in your diet, can dramatically improve your health and longevity.

It is also crucial to include a comprehensive exercise program as that is another lifestyle choice that will radically improve the sensitivity of your insulin receptors and help to optimize your insulin levels.

Theories about superfoods, pills, and other dietary supplement, depend in turn on theories of the causes of aging.  Some of these theories remain controversial – and I expect Michael will review the latest findings.  These theories include (to quote from Wikipedia, emphasis added):

  • Telomere theory: Telomeres (structures at the ends of chromosomes) have experimentally been shown to shorten with each successive cell division. Shortened telomeres activate a mechanism that prevents further cell multiplication. This may be an important mechanism of ageing in tissues like bone marrow and the arterial lining where active cell division is necessary. Importantly though, mice lacking telomerase enzyme do not show a dramatically reduced lifespan, as the simplest version of this theory would predict;
  • Free-Radical Theory: The idea that free radicals (unstable and highly reactive organic molecules, also named reactive oxygen species or oxidative stress) create damage that gives rise to symptoms we recognize as ageing.

Given the rich variety of different advice, it may be tempting – especially for people who are still in the first few decades of their lives – to take a different approach to hoping for a long life.  This approach is to trust that technological and medical improvements will happen quickly enough to be usefully applicable to you later in your life.  For example, someone in their twenties today can judge it as likely that significant improvements in anti-aging techniques will be widely available before they reach the age of sixty.

After all, life expectancy continues to rise.  Figures released last year by the UK’s Office of National Statistics (PDF) state that:

  • Life expectancy for males in the UK, at birth, was 73.4 years, in 1991-1993;
  • This figure rose to 77.4 in 2006-2008;
  • That’s a 4.0 year increase in life expectancy over that 15 year period.

People can follow the lead of anti-aging researcher Aubrey de Grey and talk about a future “longevity escape velocity” in which the increase in life expectancy over a 15 year period would be at least 15 years.  That’s an attractive vision, and de Grey makes a persuasive argument that it is credible.  What is far less certain, however, is:

  • The future timescale in which such remedies will become available;
  • Any variability in the performance of these future remedies, which might be influenced by the amount of damage our bodies have accumulated in the meantime.

These reservations increase the importance of addressing personal longevity issues sooner rather than later.  I’m reminded of the quotation that is attributed to Theodore Roosevelt:

Old age is like everything else. To make a success of it, you’ve got to start young

Finally, I’ll return to the question posed at the start of this article:

What steps do you take, to enhance your personal longevity?

At present, here’s my answer:

  • Have an annual medical checkup, to detect early warning signs of impending trouble;
  • Take (on doctor’s prescription) a statin pill in the evening, to lower cholesterol;
  • Take a collection of pills in the morning, including ginseng, mutivitamins, garlic, and ginkgo biloba;
  • “5 a day” portions of fruit and vegetables;
  • Pay attention to gum health, by cleaning between teeth as well as the teeth themselves;
  • Keep fit, by walking, and (increasingly) by spending time on the golf course or golf driving range;
  • Avoid cigarettes and excess alcohol;
  • Avoid dangerous sports.

I may have a different answer, after listening to Michael’s talk at the end of the month.

22 November 2009

Timescales for Human Body Version 2.0

Filed under: aging, Kurzweil, nanotechnology — David Wood @ 7:21 pm

In the coming decades, a radical upgrading of our body’s physical and mental systems, already underway, will use nanobots to augment and ultimately replace our organs. We already know how to prevent most degenerative disease through nutrition and supplementation; this will be a bridge to the emerging biotechnology revolution, which in turn will be a bridge to the nanotechnology revolution. By 2030, reverse-engineering of the human brain will have been completed and nonbiological intelligence will merge with our biological brains.

The paragraph above is the abstract for the chapter by Ray Kurzweil in the book “The Scientific Conquest of Death“.  In that chapter, Ray sets out a vision for a route to indefinite human lifespans.

Here are a few highlights from the essay:

It’s All About Nanobots

In a famous scene from the movie, The Graduate, Benjamin’s mentor gives him career advice in a single word: “plastics.”  Today, that word might be “software,” or “biotechnology,” but in another couple of decades, the word is likely to be “nanobots.”  Nanobots—blood-cell-sized robots—will provide the means to radically redesign our digestive systems, and, incidentally, just about everything else.

In an intermediate phase, nanobots in the digestive tract and bloodstream will intelligently extract the precise nutrients we need, call for needed additional nutrients and supplements through our personal wireless local area network, and send the rest of the food we eat on its way to be passed through for elimination.

If this seems futuristic, keep in mind that intelligent machines are already making their way into our blood stream.  There are dozens of projects underway to create blood-stream-based “biological microelectromechanical systems” (bioMEMS) with a wide range of diagnostic and therapeutic applications.  BioMEMS devices are being designed to intelligently scout out pathogens and deliver medications in very precise ways…

A key question in designing this technology will be the means by which these nanobots make their way in and out of the body.  As I mentioned above, the technologies we have today, such as intravenous catheters, leave much to be desired.  A significant benefit of nanobot technology is that unlike mere drugs and nutritional supplements, nanobots have a measure of intelligence.  They can keep track of their own inventories, and intelligently slip in and out of our bodies in clever ways.  One scenario is that we would wear a special “nutrient garment” such as a belt or undershirt.  This garment would be loaded with nutrient bearing nanobots, which would make their way in and out of our bodies through the skin or other body cavities.

At this stage of technological development, we will be able to eat whatever we want, whatever gives us pleasure and gastronomic fulfillment, and thereby unreservedly explore the culinary arts for their tastes, textures, and aromas.  At the same time, we will provide an optimal flow of nutrients to our bloodstream, using a completely separate process.  One possibility would be that all the food we eat would pass through a digestive tract that is now disconnected from any possible absorption into the bloodstream.


This would place a burden on our colon and bowel functions, so a more refined approach will dispense with the function of elimination.  We will be able to accomplish this using special elimination nanobots that act like tiny garbage compactors.  As the nutrient nanobots make their way from the nutrient garment into our bodies, the elimination nanobots will go the other way.  Periodically, we would replace the nutrition garment for a fresh one.  One might comment that we do obtain some pleasure from the elimination function, but I suspect that most people would be happy to do without it.

Ultimately we won’t need to bother with special garments or explicit nutritional resources.  Just as computation will eventually be ubiquitous and available everywhere, so too will basic metabolic nanobot resources be embedded everywhere in our environment.  In addition, an important aspect of this system will be maintaining ample reserves of all needed resources inside the body.  Our version 1.0 bodies do this to only a very limited extent, for example, storing a few minutes of oxygen in our blood, and a few days of caloric energy in glycogen and other reserves.  Version 2.0 will provide substantially greater reserves, enabling us to be separated from metabolic resources for greatly extended periods of time.

Once perfected, we will no longer need version 1.0 of our digestive system at all.  I pointed out above that our adoption of these technologies will be cautious and incremental, so we will not dispense with the old-fashioned digestive process when these technologies are first introduced.  Most of us will wait for digestive system version 2.1 or even 2.2 before being willing to do dispense with version 1.0.  After all, people didn’t throw away their typewriters when the first generation of word processors was introduced.  People held onto their vinyl record collections for many years after CDs came out (I still have mine).  People are still holding onto their film cameras, although the tide is rapidly turning in favor of digital cameras.

However, these new technologies do ultimately dominate, and few people today still own a typewriter.  The same phenomenon will happen with our reengineered bodies.  Once we’ve worked out the inevitable complications that will arise with a radically reengineered gastrointestinal system, we will begin to rely on it more and more.

Programmable Blood

As we reverse-engineer (learn the principles of operation of) our various bodily systems, we will be in a position to engineer new systems that provide dramatic improvements.  One pervasive system that has already been the subject of a comprehensive conceptual redesign is our blood…

I’ve personally watched (through a microscope) my own white blood cells surround and devour a pathogen, and I was struck with the remarkable sluggishness of this natural process.  Although replacing our blood with billions of nanorobotic devices will require a lengthy process of development, refinement, and regulatory approval, we already have the conceptual knowledge to engineer substantial improvements over the remarkable but very inefficient methods used in our biological bodies…

Have a Heart, or Not

The next organ on my hit list is the heart.  It’s a remarkable machine, but it has a number of severe problems.  It is subject to a myriad of failure modes, and represents a fundamental weakness in our potential longevity.  The heart usually breaks down long before the rest of the body, and often very prematurely.

Although artificial hearts are beginning to work, a more effective approach will be to get rid of the heart altogether.  Designs include nanorobotic blood cell replacements that provide their own mobility.  If the blood system moves with its own movement, the engineering issues of the extreme pressures required for centralized pumping can be eliminated.  As we perfect the means of transferring nanobots to and from the blood supply, we can also continuously replace the nanobots comprising our blood supply…

So What’s Left?

Let’s consider where we are.  We’ve eliminated the heart, lungs, red and white blood cells, platelets, pancreas, thyroid and all the hormone-producing organs, kidneys, bladder, liver, lower esophagus, stomach, small intestines, large intestines, and bowel.  What we have left at this point is the skeleton, skin, sex organs, mouth and upper esophagus, and brain…

Redesigning the Human Brain

The process of reverse engineering and redesign will also encompass the most important system in our bodies: the brain.  The brain is at least as complex as all the other organs put together, with approximately half of our genetic code devoted to its design.  It is a misconception to regard the brain as a single organ.  It is actually an intricate collection of information-processing organs, interconnected in an elaborate hierarchy, as is the accident of our evolutionary history.

The process of understanding the principles of operation of the human brain is already well under way.  The underlying technologies of brain scanning and neuron modeling are scaling up exponentially, as is our overall knowledge of human brain function.  We already have detailed mathematical models of a couple dozen of the several hundred regions that comprise the human brain.

The age of neural implants is also well under way.  We have brain implants based on “neuromorphic” modeling (i.e., reverse-engineering of the human brain and nervous system) for a rapidly growing list of brain regions.  A friend of mine who became deaf while an adult can now engage in telephone conversations again because of his cochlear implant, a device that interfaces directly with the auditory nervous system.  He plans to replace it with a new model with a thousand levels of frequency discrimination, which will enable him to hear music once again.  He laments that he has had the same melodies playing in his head for the past 15 years and is looking forward to hearing some new tunes.  A future generation of cochlear implants now on the drawing board will provide levels of frequency discrimination that go significantly beyond that of “normal” hearing…

And the essay continues.  It’s well worth reading in its entirety.  A short websearch finds a slightly longer version of the same essay online, on Kurzweil’s own website, along with a conceptual illustration by media artist and philosopher Natasha Vita-More:

Evaluating the vision: the questions

Three main questions arise in response to this vision of “Human Body Version 2.0”:

  1. Is the vision technologically feasible?
  2. Is the vision morally attractive?
  3. Within what timescales might the vision become feasible?

Progress: encouraging, but not rocket-paced

A recent article in the New Scientist, Medibots: The world’s smallest surgeons, takes up the theme of nanobots with medical usage, and reports on some specific progress:

It was the 1970s that saw the arrival of minimally invasive surgery – or keyhole surgery as it is also known. Instead of cutting open the body with large incisions, surgical tools are inserted through holes as small as 1 centimetre in diameter and controlled with external handles. Operations from stomach bypass to gall bladder removal are now done this way, reducing blood loss, pain and recovery time.

Combining keyhole surgery with the da Vinci system means the surgeon no longer handles the instruments directly, but via a computer console. This allows greater precision, as large hand gestures can be scaled down to small instrument movements, and any hand tremor is eliminated…

There are several ways that such robotic surgery may be further enhanced. Various articulated, snake-like tools are being developed to access hard-to-reach areas. One such device, the “i-Snake”, is controlled by a vision-tracking device worn over the surgeon’s eyes…

With further advances in miniaturisation, the opportunities grow for getting medical devices inside the body in novel ways. One miniature device that is already tried and tested is a camera in a capsule small enough to be swallowed…

The 20-millimetre-long HeartLander has front and rear foot-pads with suckers on the bottom, which allow it to inch along like a caterpillar. The surgeon watches the device with X-ray video or a magnetic tracker and controls it with a joystick. Alternatively, the device can navigate its own path to a spot chosen by the surgeon…

While the robot could in theory be used in other parts of the body, in its current incarnation it has to be introduced through a keyhole incision thanks to its size and because it trails wires to the external control box. Not so for smaller robots under wireless control.

One such device in development is 5 millimetres long and just 1 millimetre in diameter, with 16 vibrating legs. Early versions of the “ViRob” had on-board power, but the developers decided that made it too bulky. Now it is powered externally, by a nearby electromagnet whose field fluctuates about 100 times a second, causing the legs to flick back and forth. The legs on the left and right sides respond best to different frequencies, so the robot can be steered by adjusting the frequency…

While the ViRob can crawl through tubes or over surfaces, it cannot swim. For that, the Israeli team are designing another device, called SwiMicRob, which is slightly larger than ViRob at 10 millimetres long and 3 millimetres in diameter. Powered by an on-board motor, the device has two tails that twirl like bacteria’s flagella. SwiMicRob may one day be used inside fluid-filled spaces such those within the spine, although it is at an earlier stage of development than ViRob.

Another group has managed to shrink a medibot significantly further – down to 0.9 millimetres by 0.3 millimetres – by stripping out all propulsion and steering mechanisms. It is pulled around by electromagnets outside the body. The device itself is a metal shell shaped like a finned American football and it has a spike on the end…

The Swiss team is also among several groups who are trying to develop medibots at a vastly smaller scale, just nanometres in size, but these are at a much earlier development stage. Shrinking to this scale brings a host of new challenges, and it is likely to be some time before these kinds of devices reach the clinic.

Brad Nelson, a roboticist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EHT) in Zurich, hopes that if millimetre-sized devices such as his ophthalmic robot prove their worth, they will attract more funding to kick-start nanometre-scale research. “If we can show small devices that do something useful, hopefully that will convince people that it’s not just science fiction.”

In summary: nanoscale medibots appear plausible, but there’s still a large amount of research and development required.

Kurzweil’s prediction on timescales

The book “The Scientific Conquest of Death“, containing Kurzweil’s essay, was published in 2004.  The online version is dated 2003.  In 2003, 2010 – the end of the decade – presumably looked a long way off.  In the essay, Kurzweil makes some predictions about the speed of progress towards Human Body Version 2.0:

By the end of this decade, computing will disappear as a separate technology that we need to carry with us.  We’ll routinely have high-resolution images encompassing the entire visual field written directly to our retinas from our eyeglasses and contact lenses (the Department of Defense is already using technology along these lines from Microvision, a company based in Bothell, Washington).  We’ll have very-high-speed wireless connection to the Internet at all times.  The electronics for all of this will be embedded in our clothing.  Circa 2010, these very personal computers will enable us to meet with each other in full-immersion, visual-auditory, virtual-reality environments as well as augment our vision with location- and time-specific information at all times.

Progress with miniaturisation of computers – and the adoption of smartphones – has been impressive since 2003.  However, it’s now clear that some of Kurzweil’s predictions were over-optimistic.  If his predictions for 2010 were over-optimistic, what should we conclude about his predictions for 2030?

The conflicting pace of technological progress

My own view of predictions is that they are far from “black and white”.  I’ve made my own share of predictions over the years, about the rate of progress with smartphone technologies.  I’ve also reflected on the fact that it’s difficult to draw conclusions about the rate of change.

For example, from my “Insight” essay from November 2006, “The conflicting pace of mobile technology“:

What’s the rate of improvement of mobile phones?  Disconcertingly, the answer is both “surprisingly fast” and “surprisingly slow”…

A good starting point is the comment made by Monitor’s Bhaskar Chakravorti in his book “The slow pace of fast change”, when he playfully dubbed a certain phenomenon as “Demi Moore’s Law”.  The phenomenon is that technology’s impact in an inner-connected marketplace often proceeds at only half the pace predicted by Moore’s Law.  The reasons for this slower-than-expected impact are well worth pondering:

  • New applications and services in a networked marketplace depend on simultaneous changes being coordinated at several different points in the value chain
  • Although the outcome would be good for everyone if all players kept on investing in making the required changes, these changes make much less sense when viewed individually.

Sometimes this is called “the prisoner’s dilemma”.  It’s also known as “the chicken and egg problem”.

The most interesting (and the most valuable) smartphone services will require widespread joint action within the mobile industry, including maintaining openness to new ideas, new methods, and new companies.  It also requires a spirit of “cooperate before competing”.  If adjacent players in the still-formative smartphone value chain focus on fighting each other for dominance in our current small pie, it will prevent the stage-by-stage emergence of killer new services that will make the pie much larger for everyone’s benefit.

Thankfully, although the network effects of a complex marketplace can act to slow down the emergence of new innovations, while that market is still being formed, it can have the opposite effect once all the pieces of the smartphone open virtuous cycle have learned to collaborate with maximum effectiveness.  When that happens, the pace of mobile change can even exceed that predicted by Moore’s Law…

And from another essay in the same series, “A celebration of incremental improvement“, from February 2006:

We all know that it’s a perilous task to predict the future of technology.  The mere fact that a technology can be conceived is no guarantee that it will happen.

If I think back thirty-something years to my days as a teenager, I remember being excited to read heady forecasts about a near-future world featuring hypersonic jet airliners, nuclear fusion reactors, manned colonies on the Moon and Mars, extended human lifespans, control over the weather and climate, and widespread usage of environmentally friendly electric cars.  These technology forecasts all turned out, in retrospect, to be embarrassing rather than visionary.  Indeed, history is littered with curious and amusing examples of flawed predictions of the future.  You may well wonder, what’s different about smartphones, and about all the predictions made about them at 3GSM?

With the advantage of hindsight, it’s clear that many technology forecasts have over-emphasised technological possibility and under-estimated the complications of wider system effects.  Just because something is technically possible, it does not mean it will happen, even though technology enthusiasts earnestly cheer it on.  Technology is not enough.  Especially for changes that are complex and demanding, no fewer than six other criteria should be satisfied as well:

  • The technological development has to satisfy a strong human need
  • The development has to be possible at a sufficiently attractive price to individual end users
  • The outcome of the development has to be sufficiently usable, that is, not requiring prolonged learning or disruptive changes in lifestyle
  • There must be a clear evolutionary path whereby the eventual version of the technology can be attained through a series of incremental steps that are, individually, easier to achieve
  • When bottlenecks arise in the development process, sufficient amounts of fresh new thinking must be brought to bear on the central problems – that is, the development process must be both open (to accept new ideas) and commercially attractive (to encourage the generation of new ideas, and, even more important, to encourage companies to continue to search for ways to successfully execute their ideas; after all, execution is the greater part of innovation)…

Interestingly, whereas past forecasts of the future have often over-estimated the development of technology as a whole, they have frequently under-estimated the progress of two trends: computer miniaturisation and mobile communications.  For example, some time around 1997 I was watching a repeat of the 1960s “Thunderbirds” TV puppet show with my son.  The show, about a family of brothers devoted to “international rescue” using high-tech machinery, was set around the turn of the century.  The plot denouement of this particular episode was the shocking existence of a computer so small that it could (wait for it) be packed into a suitcase and transported around the world!  As I watched the show, I took from my pocket my Psion Series 5 PDA and marvelled at it – a real-life example of a widely available computer more powerful yet more miniature than that foreseen in the programme.

As I said, the pace of technological development is far from being black-and-white.  Sometimes it proceeds slower than you expect, and at other times, it can proceed much quicker.

The missing ingredient

With the advantage of even more hindsight, there’s one more element that should be elevated, as frequently making the difference between new products arriving sooner and them arriving later: the degree of practical focus and effective priority placed by the relevant ecosystem on creating these products.  For medibots and other lifespan-enhancing technologies to move from science fiction to science fact will probably require changes in both public opinion and public action.

It’s All About Nanobots

In a famous scene from the movie, The Graduate, Benjamin’s mentor gives him career advice in a single word: “plastics.”  Today, that word might be “software,” or “biotechnology,” but in another couple of decades, the word is likely to be “nanobots.”  Nanobots—blood-cell-sized robots—will provide the means to radically redesign our digestive systems, and, incidentally, just about everything else.

In an intermediate phase, nanobots in the digestive tract and bloodstream will intelligently extract the precise nutrients we need, call for needed additional nutrients and supplements through our personal wireless local area network, and send the rest of the food we eat on its way to be passed through for elimination.

16 November 2009

Essays on unlimited lifespans

Filed under: aging, UKH+ — David Wood @ 1:27 am

In a couple of weekend’s time, on Saturday 28th November, I’ll be chairing a UKH+ meeting,

  • Successes and challenges en route to unlimited human lifespans: Q&A on the Immortality Institute

The main speaker at the event will be Shannon Vyff, Chair of the strikingly-named “Immortality Institute” – which describes its purpose on its website as “advocacy and research for unlimited lifespans”.  I’ve briefly met Shannon a couple of times at conferences, and found her to be articulate and well-informed.  Earlier this year, I read and enjoyed the book Shannon wrote primarily for teenage readers, “21st century kids: a trip from the future to you” (see here for my review).

To prepare myself for the meeting on 28th November, I’ve started reading another book: “The scientific conquest of death: essays on infinite lifespans“.  This book is published by the Immortality Institute and consists of a series of essays by 19 different authors (including a chapter by Shannon).

Here’s an extract from the introduction to the book:

The mission of the Immortality Institute is to conquer the blight of involuntary death. Some would consider this goal as scientifically impossible. Some would regard it as hubris…

Is it possible that scientists – or at least humankind – will “conquer the blight of involuntary death?” If so, to what extent will we succeed? What is in fact possible today, and what do the experts predict for the future? Is such a thing as ‘immortality’ feasible? Moreover, is it desirable? What would it mean from a political, social, ethical and religious perspective?  This book will help to explore these questions…

How would this book be special? After careful consideration, the answer seemed clear: This should be the first truly multidisciplinary approach to the topic. We would discuss not only biological theories of aging, but also biomedical strategies to counter it. Moreover, we would consider alternative approaches such as medical nanotechnology, digitalization of personhood, and cryobiological preservation. But this would only be part of the whole.

We also wanted to tackle some of the questions that are usually left unanswered in the last chapter of scientific books: If we accept that radical life extension is a real scientific possibility, then where does that leave us? Would it create overpopulation, stagnation and perpetual boredom? How would it change our society, our culture, our values and our spirituality? If science allows us to vastly extend our life span, should we do so?

I plan to write another blogpost once I’m further through the book.

In the meantime, I’d like to share a comment I made a few months back on the online letter pages of The Times.  I was writing in response to a leader article “Live For Ever: The promise of more and more life will bring us all problems“, and in particular, to answer a question posed to me by another correspondent.  Here’s my reply:

To answer your question, what do I personally see as the benefits of extending healthy human lifespan?

In short, life is good. Healthy, vibrant life is particularly good. While I have so many things I still look forwards to doing, I don’t want my life to end.

For example, I’d like to be able to share in the wonder and excitement of the scientific, engineering, artistic, and cultural improvements all throughout the present century – especially the development of “friendly super AI”. I’d like to have the time to explore many more places in the world, read many more books, learn much more mathematics, play golf on all the fine courses people talk about, and develop and deepen relations with wonderful people all over the world. I’d like to see and help my grandchildren to grow up, and their grandchildren to grow up.

Extending healthy lifespan will also have the benefit that the living wisdom and creativity of our elders will continue to be available to guide the rest of us through challenges and growth, rather than extinguishing.

In summary, I want to be alive and to actively participate when humankind moves to a higher level of consciousness, opportunity, accomplishment, wisdom, and civilisation – when we can (at last) systematically address the dreadful flaws that have been holding so many people back from their true potential.

I believe that most people have similar aspirations, but they learn to suppress them, out of a view that they are impractical. But science and engineering are on the point of making these aspirations practical, and we need new thinking to guide us through this grand, newly feasible opportunity.

I expect to revisit these topics during the meeting on 28th November.  I’m looking to gather a series of key questions that will highlight the core issues.

10 September 2009

Unimaginative thinking about longer lives

Filed under: aging, Methuselah, vision — David Wood @ 12:21 am

TimesOnline recently carried a piece entitled, “Live For Ever – The promise of more and more life will bring us all problems“.

I believe the article to be small-minded.  It displays a weak imagination.  I submitted an online comment to explain my viewpoint, but the moderator butchered my comment, making it almost unintelligible.  My opinion of the Times has taken a dive.

Here’s what I submitted – referring in each case to text from the original article:

…we will pay a heavy price for our longevity. If we are unable to abolish chronic illness, then the cost of treating an extended span would quickly bankrupt the National Health Service.

Any serious anti-aging program will address chronic illness en route to extending human lifespan.  There’s no need to worry, on this account, about bankrupting the NHS.

If genetic therapy did somehow extend the quality of life into deep old age, then pension provision and social care would be astronomically expensive. The pension age will have to rise in units of a decade.

But what’s the problem about raising the pension age?  Any serious anti-aging program intends to extend youthful (productive) life, rather than frail (unproductive) life.  People who live longer will probably have several different careers, interspersed with periods of voluntary “retirement”.  There are many attractive scenarios to contemplate.

The pressure on resources — housing, schools, employment, food — would soon become intolerable.

Yes, there are challenges in providing food (etc) for larger populations, but there’s nothing insurmountable about these challenges.  For example, the sun emits enormous amounts of energy that we presently fail to tap.  The technology of the next decades should allow us to use this energy to feed a population many times larger than at present.

Life in the eternal future may yet be solitary, poor, nasty and brutish, precisely because it will no longer be short.

Anti-aging programs intend, not only to extend life, but to expand it.  My expectation is that people will gain huge numbers of new interests, new social connections, and ways of spending time that are both enjoyable and valuable.

Footnote: Anyone who finds these arguments of interest will probably benefit from reading at least the earlier chapters of Aubrey de Grey‘s book “Ending Aging: The Rejuvenation Breakthroughs That Could Reverse Human Aging in Our Lifetime“.  Note this is not a light read, but it is well written and makes a strong case.

PS Anders Sandberg also posted comments to the TimesOnline system, but the moderator seems to have deleted these entirely.  See Anders’ own posts “Stupid arguments against life extension” and “Longer life, more trouble?”  I can’t resist quoting an extract of the latter article:

Arguing that longer life should not be pursued because it would mess up pension ages and other current social institutions is like arguing that we should not try to reduce crime – after all, what would the legal system do if there were fewer criminals and victims? The great ills of infirmity, disease and death caused by ageing are significantly greater than the potential social problems their cure would cause. Each of the stated problems can also be overcome if society so wishes – changing the pension system or having to pay a more taxes is a small price to pay for more life and potential happiness.

If the finitude of human life is what makes us happy, how come the generally happiest (as measured by e.g. the World Values Study) countries are the most long-lived? How come countries and populations with shorter lifespans are not happier?

…to assume that [death] gives meaning to life is like arguing that the value of love is entirely due to divorce.

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