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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!

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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.

Elimination

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.

20 March 2009

The industry with the greatest potential for disruptive growth

Filed under: aging, healthcare, UKTA — David Wood @ 11:37 pm

Where is the next big opportunity?

According to renowned Harvard Business School professor and author Clayton Christensen, in a video recorded recently for BigThink:

The biggest opportunities are in healthcare. We are now just desperate to make healthcare affordable and accessible. Healthcare is something that everybody consumes. There are great opportunities for non-consumers to be brought into the market by making things affordable and accessible. I just can’t think of another industry that has those kinds of characteristics where demand is robust, and there’s such great opportunities for disruption.

The healthcare industry has many angles. I’m personally fascinated by the potential of smart mobile devices to play significant new roles in maintaining and improving people’s health.

Another important dimension to healthcare is the dimension of reducing (or even altogether removing) the impacts of aging. In an article on “10 ideas changing the world right now”, Time magazine recently coined the word “amortality” for the growing trend for people who seek to keep the same lifestyle and appearance, regardless of their physical age:

When Simon Cowell let slip last month that he planned to have his corpse cryonically preserved, wags suggested that the snarky American Idol judge may have already tested the deep-freezing procedure on his face. In 2007, Cowell, now 49, told an interviewer that he used Botox. “I like to take care of myself,” he said. Cowell is in show biz, where artifice routinely imitates life. But here’s a fact startling enough to raise eyebrows among Botox enthusiasts: his fellow Brits, famously unconcerned with personal grooming, have tripled the caseload of the country’s cosmetic surgeons since 2003. The transfiguration of the snaggletoothed island race is part of a phenomenon taking hold around the developed world: amortality.

You may not have heard of amortality before – mainly because I’ve just coined the term. It’s about more than just the ripple effect of baby boomers’ resisting the onset of age. Amortality is a stranger, stronger alchemy, created by the intersection of that trend with a massive increase in life expectancy and a deep decline in the influence of organized religion – all viewed through the blue haze of Viagra…

Amortals don’t just dread extinction. They deny it. Ray Kurzweil encourages them to do so. Fantastic Voyage, which the futurist and cryonics enthusiast co-wrote with Terry Grossman, recommends a regimen to forestall aging so that adherents live long enough to take advantage of forthcoming “radical life-extending and life-enhancing technologies.” Cambridge University gerontologist Aubrey de Grey is toiling away at just such research in his laboratory. “We are in serious striking distance of stopping aging,” says De Grey, founder and chairman of the Methuselah Foundation, which awards the Mprize to each successive research team that breaks the record for the life span of a mouse…

Notions of age-appropriate behavior will soon be relegated as firmly to the past as dentures and black-and-white television. “The important thing is not how many years have passed since you were born,” says Nick Bostrom, director of the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford, “but where you are in your life, how you think about yourself and what you are able and willing to do.” If that doesn’t sound like a manifesto for revolution, it’s only because amortality has already revolutionized our attitudes toward age.

Just how feasible is the idea of radical life extension? In part, it depends on what you think about the aging processes that take place in humans. Are these processes fixed, or can they somehow be influenced?

One person who is engaged in a serious study of this topic is Dr Richard Faragher, Reader in the School of Pharmacy and Biomolecular Sciences at the University of Brighton on the English south coast. Richard describes the research interests of his team as follows:

We “do” senescence. Why do we do this? Because it has been suggested for over 30 years that the phenomenon of cell senescence may be linked in some way to human ageing. Senescence is the progressive replicative failure of a population of cells to divide in culture. Once senescent, cells exhibit a wide range of changes in phenotype and gene expression which give them the potential to alter the behaviour of any tissue in which they are found. In its modern form the cell hypothesis of ageing suggests that the progressive accumulation of such senescent cells (as a result of ongoing tissue turnover) may contribute to the ageing process.

Richard is the featured speaker at this month’s Extrobritannia (UKTA) meeting in Central London, this Saturday (21st March). The title for his talk is “One foot in the future. Attaining the 10,000+ year lifespan you always wanted?”:

Dr Richard Faragher, Reader in Gerontology, School of Pharmacy & Biomolecular Sciences, University of Brighton, will review the aging process across the animal kingdom together with the latest scientific insights into how it may operate. The lecture will also review promising avenues for translation into practice over the next few years, and current barriers to progress in aging research will be considered.

I’m expecting a lively but informative discussion!

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