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Reaching for immortality

The quest for immortality goes back to Adam and Eve, but now some smart people are getting serious about actually bringing it within their grasp. And they're getting more attention as well.

Let's take Aubrey de Grey, for example: The British gerontologist has been beating the drum for anti-aging therapies for years. He plays a prominent role in a recently published book on the immortality quest titled "Long for this World," a new documentary called "To Age or Not to Age" and a just-published commentary on the science of aging.

In this week's issue of Science Translational Medicine, de Grey and nine other co-authors urge the United States and other nations to set up a Project Apollo-scale initiative to avert the coming "global aging crisis." The experts' prescription includes a campaign to raise the general public's awareness about lifestyle changes that can lead to longer and healthier lives; a lab-based effort to develop anti-aging medicines; and a push for new techniques to repair, restore or replace the cellular and molecular damage done by age.

"There is this misunderstanding that aging is something that just happens to you, like the weather, and cannot be influenced," another co-author, Jan Vijg of Yeshiva University's Albert Einstein College of Medicine, said in a news release. "The big surprise of the last decades is that, in many different animals, we can increase healthy life span in various ways."

When it comes to translating anti-aging research into real life, however, the experts face at least three types of challenges: First, the basic lifestyle advice is pretty pedestrian: Eat wisely and exercise moderately. Some folks might wonder what the big deal is all about. "To enjoy the fantastic voyage, stay with the tried and true," Jonathan Weiner writes in "Long for this World."

Genetic factors also affect longevity, of course, as pointed out by a recent study (which has come under question, by the way). But it's hard to tease out exactly how those factors interact with each other and with the lifestyle factors. There's no magic bullet ... yet.

The second challenge has to do with anti-aging therapies, which could offer a magic bullet someday. Some substances do seem to extend longevity, and caloric restriction has been found to be a life-extender as well ... for worms and mice. But it's not yet clear how these strategies will work for humans. It could well turn out that what works for mice would make humans sicker, or make life so unpleasant that it's not worth living that much longer.

The third challenge involves the same issue that Adam and Eve faced: Reaching too hungrily for the fruit on the tree of life might make you seem presumptuous. In his review of "To Age or Not to Age," New York Times film critic Stephen Holden complains that the movie "beats the drums so enthusiastically for a pharmaceutical fountain of youth that you have the uncomfortable sensation of being harangued by snake-oil salesmen."

Ray Kurzweil

Ptolemaic Productions

Ray Kurzweil is a prophet of the singularity.

Like de Grey and his colleagues, futurist/inventor Ray Kurzweil has been facing these challenges for years - not as an anti-aging researcher per se, but as a smart guy who has made his name by predicting trends in information technology that bring benefits on an exponential curve rather than a linear progression. He has applied the "law of accelerating returns" to the rise of artificial intelligence, predicting that A.I. will match human intelligence by 2029 and lead to a technological singularity by 2045 - beyond which predictions can't be made.

Extreme longevity is part of Kurzweil's vision for accelerating change in the decades to come. The way he sees it, medical scinece is becoming just another form of information technology, thanks to advances in genetics and molecular biology. And he intends to ride those advances all the way to immortality.

Kurzweil and X Prize co-founder Peter Diamandis have set up an institution called Singularity University at NASA Ames Research Park in California's Silicon Valley to train leaders to deal with accelerating change (at tuition rates ranging from $15,000 to $25,000). Next week, there's a special treat in store for the students and invited guests: a two-night double feature about Kurzweil and his ideas. "The Singularity Is Near" is closely tied to Kurzweil's book with the same title, while "Transcendent Man" focuses more on Kurzweil and his fellow travelers on the path to the singularity.

Kurzweil and I had a wide-ranging conversation about the movies and his visions for the future this week. In fact, the discussion was so wide-ranging that I'm saving some of the quotes for later, when the movies are out in more theaters. But because the quest for immortality is so much in the news, I thought this would be a good time to roll out Kurzweil's perspectives on radical life extension. Here's an edited transcript:

Ray Kurzweil: I've written three health books. The last two have been with a co-author, Terry Grossman, M.D. That's "Fantastic Voyage" and "Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever." We talk about three bridges to radical life extension. Most of the books are devoted to Bridge 1. That's the bridge you can get on right now - basically, aggressively applying today's knowledge to slow down the aging disease processes as much as possible. In fact, you can do that a lot more than people think. ... People say, 'Well, following this lifestyle and taking these supplements [150 pills a day], do you really think that's going to help you live hundreds of years?' The answer is no. The goal of Bridge 1 is just to get to Bridge 2, because it's not a static situation. In fact, Bridge 1 is constantly changing as we get more information. We get new approaches every week now.

Bridge 2 is the full flowering of this biotechnology revolution, where we can really reprogram our genes - turn off genes that promote disease and aging, add new genes that protect us from disease and aging. There's that recent study that showed certain genes, if people have them they live a lot longer. Add those genes. There are many different levels of information processing that underlie biology. It's very much an information process. Craig Venter gave a powerful demonstration of that a few weeks ago by turning a computer file into a living organism. We can reprogram the information that defines our biology. We have 22,000 software programs called genes, and we can change them. There are other ideas as well: regrowing our cells, tissues and organs, using our own DNA. These things are moving along at an exponential pace. They'll be a thousand times more powerful in 10 years, a million times more powerful in 20 years. Fifteen to 20 years from now really will be a different era.

So that's Bridge 2. The goal of Bridge 2 is to get to Bridge 3, which is the full flowering of the nanotechnology revolution. Really going beyond biology, not just reprogramming biology, but rebuilding it. Already there's not a single organ that's not being rebuilt or augmented in some way. As we get to the means of re-engineering things at the molecular level, we can do a much more powerful job of that. Eventually this will provide very dramatic extensions to human longevity.

Cosmic Log: I was just reading in "Long for this World" that although mean life expectancy is dramatically increasing due to improvements in public health, there still seems to be a maximum time limit around 120 years.

Kurzweil: That's not inexorable either. It's for very specific reasons: telomere shortening, increasing rates of genetic errors ... All of these things can be engineered around. There are mitochondrial DNA deletions because they're not protected. They reproduce using single-stranded DNA, which has a high error rate. But you can use gene therapy to put those genes in the nucleus. Each reason why there's a limit of 120 can be engineered around. There's really no absolute limit.

Aubrey de Grey uses the metaphor of a house. How long does a house last? Well, it doesn't last a long amount of time if you don't take care of it. If you kinda take care of it routinely, maybe it'll last longer. But if you're very diligent, and constantly fix everything that goes wrong and occasionally upgrade the house, it can go on indefinitely. It can last a very long time, many centuries. The reason we can't do it with the human body right now is because we don't have all the required tools, or the right level of understanding. But that is exactly what is progressing exponentially, and I make the case that we will have those tools pretty soon.

This is really a wakeup call to my baby-boomer peers. It's not too late for the baby-boomers to aggressively slow down the aging processes so we can be in good shape just 15 years from now when Bridge 2 comes around. It's not like it's going to arrive on one particular day, it'll pick up speed. Starting a decade from now we're going to see some dramatic advances.

Q: I'm sure you hear the criticism every once in a while that this quest promotes a have vs. have-not society. That there'll be one level of society that has access to technology for life extension, and the other level of society will be left out in the cold.

A: Well, my response to that is to say, 'Yeah, like cell phones.' Fifteen years ago, you had to be wealthy to have a mobile phone. When somebody took out a mobile phone at a movie, that was a signal that this person was powerful and a member of the wealthy elite. They actually didn't work very well. It took 10 years to put up the first billion cell phones, and three years to put up the second billion, and 14 months to put up the third billion. We're now at 5 billion cell phones for 6 billion people. A third of the individuals in Africa have cell phones. According to industry projections that they will all be smart phones within two or three years. So everybody in the world is going to have access to the Internet from these extremely inexpensive mobile devices.

The reason for that is that the law of accelerating returns applies approximately a 50 percent deflation rate for information technology. It's true of every form of information technology, whether it's genetic data, DNA, brain data, bits of computing, bits of memory, bits of communication. Every year the cost comes down by about half. Ultimately, by the time these technologies work well, they're extremely inexpensive.

It's also true of health technology. AIDS drugs were about $30,000 per patient per year 15 years ago, and they didn't work very well. Now they actually work pretty well, and they're $100 per patient per year.

So at any one point in time, there is a have / have-not divide, based on the current snapshot of circumstances. When it comes to things like AIDS, we should do more than we're doing. But the technology is moving in the right direction, not the wrong direction. Ultimately these things become almost free, and by that time they're extremely powerful and work very well. It's not the case that these are very expensive interventions. They're expensive at the point where they're experimental and don't actually work.

Q: Another issue that people talk about is whether, evolutionarily speaking, we're putting too much reliance on technology. People might be concerned about being in such a techno-reliant society that when things break down, some sort of crisis comes about that wipes out a whole segment of humanity.

A: What sort of breakdown would wipe out a segment of humanity?

Q: Well, let's say it's the kind of bioterror attack you've talked about. Or maybe ... for example, here in Seattle we had a big windstorm and electrical outage a couple of years ago, and it struck me while we were sitting in the dark how dependent my family was on electricity. It made me think ...

A: My response to that is that technology is definitely moving toward decentralized solutions. Solar power, for example, can be very decentralized. It doesn't have a point of disruption. There are new water technologies emerging that are very localized, like Dean Kamen's water machine, which could sell for $1,000 and meets the water needs of 100 people. These decentralized solutions aren't subject to that kind of centralized breakdown. It's really more the First Industrial Revolution technologies which are centralized and potentially damaging in that way.

That being said, there is intertwined promise and peril in all technologies. That's always been the case. There are dangers in these new technologies that I've talked extensively about. There's no simple pat answer, but the right answer is twofold: Have ethical standards for responsible practitioners, like the Asilomar guidelines for biotech, which have been very successful. And have a rapid-response system for irresponsible practitioners, like terrorists, so we can respond to them and protect ourselves.

We've been a technological species for tens of thousands of years, and it's been the case that the technologically superior species has prevailed. There's discussion now why Cro-Magnon man prevailed over Neanderthals, and it appears to be due to fairly subtle differences in our tool use. Our tools were more advanced than the Neanderthals' and that's always what prevails. We've been a human-machine civilization ever since we picked up a stick to reach a higher branch. We've extended our reach with our tools, physically, mentally. We've already done that with our health. Life expectancy was 23 a thousand years ago. I recently told some gifted middle-school kids that if it hadn't been for this progress they all would be senior citizens.

Q: I wanted to make sure I touched up your efforts to bring the memory of your father back alive, through cloning and artificial intelligence. Some people have portrayed it as a Frankensteinish exercise, but I'm sure you see it differently...

A: It's no more Frankensteiny than people keeping movies and pictures of their loved ones who have passed, which is basically what I'm doing. He was kind of a pack rat like I am. He kept 60 or 70 boxes at his house, all his letters, all his music, he was a great musician. Vinyl records he recorded, old movies, things like that. The scenario is that future A.I.s will be intelligent enough to create avatars that are convincing as people in a virtual-reality environment. Some of these will be imaginative people, like Ramona in my movie. Others will be re-creations, as best as we can do it, of people who have passed, based on the information we have about them. That would include these actual documents of all kinds, video, his works, pictures. It would also include our memories, their DNA if that's available.

Would that sort of avatar be my father? You could certainly make a strong case that it's not. But it would probably be closer to my father than my father would have been had he lived, because he'd be quite different today. He would be 98.

Q: Is the aim of this to create a sentimental memory, or to keep his legacy alive? I'm sure you've thought deeply about the purpose for doing this.

A: Well, this is a good example of the value of information. To me, information is not a dry database. Ultimately, we are information. I believe that we're fundamentally a pattern of information. There's an analogy to water in a stream. The pattern that water makes as it goes around a particular rock can be the same for years, but obviously the water is different from second to second. Am I the same person that you talked to years ago? Actually, the particles are completely different. The pattern isn't exactly the same, either, but the pattern does have continuity.

So we are a pattern of information. And that information, ultimately we'll be able to capture that. That's another aspect of extending our lives. Right now we can back up all the valuable information we have on our computers. But it's not just a poem or a metaphor to say this information in our brains, it's very literally data, but we have no backup for it. Ultimately we'll be able to back it up and retain it.

How valuable is a person? You could say it's the ultimate value. But a person is information. Information is of sacred value. In fact, going back to the origins of my family, knowledge was sacred in a way. My grandfather came back from Europe, and described how he was actually given an opportunity to handle some original document created by Leonardo da Vinci. He described it in reverential terms. These were documents created by a human, but they contained some precious information.

That's really the main point I'm trying to make here. We treasure this information because it's the ultimate value of a human being. We are information - and when I say that, it's not intended to denigrate who we are. It's really intended to elevate the concept of information.

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