In the Episode #16 Part 2 of Future Hacker, our Silicon Humanism Founder Sylvia Gallusser addresses the topics of abolishing aging, rejuvenation biotechnology, ethics in scientific progress, treatment availability and inclusivity, as well as a holistic approach of well-aging.
You will find below the transcript of the conversation.
Our very first international interview was with Dr. Aubrey de Grey about the fight against aging. I understand this is one of your dear topics, as it could improve humanity’s life quality in general by considering aging a disease, which could be somehow preventable. It’s not about treating illnesses after they emerge but preventing chronic diseases from happening in the first place.Could you walk us through the roadmap to abolishing aging?
A dark vision of life-extension is that even if humans achieve to live much longer, their end-of-life condition won’t be a harmonious one, but a declining one. Even if we fight diseases one by one, some believe that we are unable to suppress the effects of the aging process. For centuries of conventional medicine, Aging has remained relatively unstudied while the focus has been on studying and curing individual diseases. But there is now a whole new field of study around the biology of aging itself and “how aging is making diseases more likely”, called Geroscience.
And slowly we’ve been moving from a model of independence among diseases (each of them being treated separately and aging being left aside as incurable) to a more recent model based on causation with aging at the center. This causation model relies on the hypothesis that if we delay aging (the root cause of chronic diseases), we will also suppress the symptoms and manifestations of aging, namely the single chronic diseases. Linked to that is the famous Gompertz Law of Mortality, according to which, after the age of 35, the human mortality rate doubles every 8 years. However, Gompertz Law is not a fixed law of biology. If we succeed in suppressing the roots of aging, we will flatten the curve and consequently decrease the probability and impact of chronic diseases. Some researchers even look to reverse the trend and to completely abolish aging.
One of the most popular and well supported theory is synthesized in The Hallmarks of Aging, a 2013 paper that defined aging as nine distinct categories (called “hallmarks”). The paper also explained how these hallmarks are intertwined and interact with each other to drive the development of age-related diseases. These hallmarks include cellular senescence, telomere attrition, genomic instability, stem cell exhaustion, or epigenetic alterations to name a few.
You were mentioning Aubrey de Grey, and I’m humbled to be speaking after him on the podcast – I’m a huge fan of his work myself, well the SENS Research Foundation (which he created) is an active player in Research Strategy for Aging and rejuvenation biotechnology. Rejuvenation biotechnology is one of the life extension strategies. It consists in reversing the aging processes and thereby restoring youth and health by acting on the hallmarks of aging, for example through stem cell therapy or senolytic agents.
So you are asking me about the roadmap to abolishing aging. A few factors are currently in favor of abolishing aging by 2040, such as economic incentive to longevity, as healthy people are net positive contributors to society. Also, investing in rejuvenation biotechnology will avoid spiraling costs of chronic diseases and end-of-life care. The biggest, most powerful companies in the world are putting more and more effort behind healthy life extension. Crowdfunding has become an alternative way of funding, to support the effort as well. In addition, transformational technologies of the fourth industrial revolution (nanotech, biotech, ITC, cognitive science) are becoming sufficiently mature to sustain the effort. We can also add that one million rejuveneers (engineers in rejuvenation biotechnology) are willing to collaborate. And finally, human beings are eager of equal rights and they demand positive action to counteract aging, as our civilization deeply value human life.
However, Abolishing Aging advocates still need to remove roadblocks. Among these roadblocks: the current unstable environment we live in (environmental disaster, sanitary crises, economic collapse, political chaos, corruption, social breakdown). We might meet Research insufficiency (technical difficulties, lack of funding, or diversion of research effort even bigger since medical research budgets have been reallocated to COVID research). We might also lack positive collaboration with infighting and missed alliances. And most of all, there might be rejection by the public, with many people preferring aging acceptance. They want to minimize risks of social inequity, and the specter of an uncanny valley.
It seems to me that the tech advancements in this field will be accessible to only very few fortunate people, who will be able to afford those treatments. How do you see this becoming something inclusive in which everybody would benefit?
I consider research and social progress as two separate streams. On the one hand, aging and rejuvenating specialists dedicate their effort to solving the aging issue, so here we are talking about scientific progress and human augmentation. On the other hand, social movements, citizen actions, lobbies, political forces fight for making progress more inclusive – here we are talking about social progress. I don’t see well-aging as a topic that demands a specific inclusive effort. I mean, all scientific progress made since the beginning of times, should be accessible to all of us – or so is my belief. And advancements in aging technologies are just another instance of scientific progress that need to spread to all – same as prosthetic limbs, organ transplants, or medically assisted procreation, are becoming mainstream over time.
But we have to be realistic and the model needs to be economically viable as well – at first new enhancements are expensive and we need a few forerunners to pay for and benefit from them until scientific progress reaches all social-economic categories and most of us can afford it.
This is similar with technological progress in other areas such as transportation. At first, new vehicles such as the car were limited to a few. But capitalist processes being at work, when there’s increase in demand, there will most likely be increase in supply, and with economies of scale and competition, prices will ultimately drop, and new technology get democratized. In addition, public policies, insurance policies, and universal healthcare are means to achieve democratization, inclusiveness, and overall social progress.
Do you believe gene editing experiments and other related scientific studies should happen no matter what for the sake of future findings, or regulation and ethics discussions should take place sooner rather than later? The big question regarding investing in discoveries x enhancements – how far can we go here?
While I believe that all of us should enjoy the same available therapies (so social progress), I do not believe that all therapies or treatments are great for humankind (human progress). I believe in having ethical committees composed of multidisciplinary individuals, able to consider the many aspects of the question. I am not, personally, in a position to declare what enhancement is good or bad for humankind – and please note that I didn’t say I support rejuvenation and I didn’t say the opposite either. I profoundly believe in collective intelligence and wisdom of crowd to decide for the direction we want to give humankind. To give you an example related to the pandemic, I was recently part of a think tank dedicated to the reopening of schools in California. The think tank was composed of specialists in hygiene and healthcare, doctors, virologists, of educators, children psychologists, school administrators, and of parents as well. The variety of profiles helped to make a balanced decision and design the most viable reopening plan, taking into account sanitary requirements (social distancing, face coverings, fever control), parents’ constraints (need for child care, worries about their child’s safety), but also the educational and mental health aspects (young children need social interaction and experiential learning). Wise decisions, ethical decisions are better made in small groups of experts, practitioners, but also people who are directly exposed to the situation. In the case you are describing, gene editing, it would be hypocritical to not include people in need of such treatments in the discussion.
Another aspect I would like to mention, is that I don’t consider the topic of aging from the technology perspective only. We need to (re)place well-aging into a more holistic perspective, a multi-disciplinary approach. First of all, everybody can work on postponing their own aging with an appropriate lifestyle, based on nutrition and healthy eating, physical activity and regular exercising, social bonding and enriching community experiences, stimulating intellectual activities, creative and artistic expression, and spiritual openness based on gratitude. Then, only then medicine and nutritive complementation act as a prosthesis, when lifestyle is not enough. Finally advancements in biotechnology, robotics, bionics intervene at a third stage, or for individuals who have specific needs, following a genetic condition, a disease, or an accident. So perhaps, this last stage won’t be available to all of us at first, but there is still a lot we can do to prevent accelerated aging and to help people get empowered over their own condition. Well-aging can be accessible to most of us through awareness campaigns, on-going education, and individualized support to improve our lifestyle. I like to imagine jobs of the future, and I believe one of them could be “Holistic Aging Specialist” or “Well-Aging Life Coach”. These professionals could help us go through the full well-aging checklist and provide customized advice based on individual conditions.
(For people that are interested in knowing more about The Future of Aging, please note that Sylvia is offering a class about it. Stay tuned, at the end of our interview Sylvia is letting us know how to get in touch with her.)
Following that line of thought about how technology can improve and augment human’s life, we get into transhumanism, which is another focus of your studies, correct? As much as we could go back to the discussion about what’s acceptable or not, I do like something that you mentioned in a podcast – that many subjects that were once considered taboos in the past, such as blood transfusion, vaccination, birth control – are nowadays mainstream. Thinking about that, as the technologies evolve, humanity evolves as well. Still, we need to ask questions and provoke discussions (that’s one of the reasons we created Future Hacker after all!). Could you please share innovations in this field that are closer to come to a reality and how it will impact our lives?
That’s a great question. You have certainly heard a few days ago about Deepmind winning this year’s protein-folding competition and solving a 50-year old biology challenge with their AlphaFold2. It is a game-changer for analyzing the cause of diseases and it will definitely open up a brand new field for medicines and biological manipulation. More largely, solving this secret sauce of human body complexity adds to the possibility of reenacting the creation of human life. In other words, such an achievement positions humankind as capable to understand and reproduce its own design, making us closer to Homo Deus.
In addition to this recent piece of news, there are many things going on in different fields linked to transhumanism, but those I find most exciting are probably Space Colonization, Mind Uploading and Cryonics.
Cryonics are about high-fidelity preservation of the human body and brain in anticipation of possible future revival. Cryonics have been very present in our collective imagination for decades and we might get confused about the latest development and state of the art, especially because there are also hoaxes from organizations offering eternal life. If low-temperature freezing and storage of a human corpse is currently possible and even commercialized, the second part (resurrection itself) hasn’t proven feasible so far. Revival would require repairing damage from lack of oxygen, from cryoprotectant toxicity, from thermal stress (fracturing), from freezing in tissues, and finally we would need to be able to reverse the cause of death. Quite a program.
Mind Uploading consists in scanning the physical structure of a brain and copying it to a computer (in digital form). This type of brain emulation opens up a wide range of questions such as: Can we preserve and reproduce someone’s consciousness and sense of identity? What about multiple copies living their own life, do they keep a unique identity? Also: Where is the boundary, who is the most human, between an artificially-enhanced human with robotic prosthesis, a genetically modified human, and a robot with a downloaded human mind? It can become quite vertiginous… Ken Hayworth, the President of the Brain Preservation Foundation, is hoping to achieve the preservation of an entire human brain at death—through chemicals and cryonics. But a full emulation of a human brain is not expected to happen before 50 years, one of the current challenges being to go beyond the capture of static map of neurons, and include electrical activity. So far researchers have been able to reproduce one “connectome” of 300 neurons and 7000 connections. A brain has approximately 90 billion neurons, so I’ll let you appreciate how much work still lies ahead.
A year ago, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said it would take 1000 spaceships and a million tons of vitamin C to make life on Mars sustainable, underlining that a colony would need to be self-sustainable. However, space traveling and terraforming is not enough for successful space colonization. Space Colonization is related to transhumanism in the sense that living on another planet would require us to artificially adapt or upgrade our organism to new conditions, in order to breathe, to get nutrients, to maintain a muscle mass, or to survive to higher or lower temperature and pressure. Philosophically it draws the question of our condition, not only as humans, but as Earthlings, and the potentiality for the development of a new human lineage in a separate environment. Research in the field is not just about how to terraform alternative planets, but also how to cosmoform our human body to be ready for life in space. The topic of evolutionary mechanisms and environmental limits of living beings is currently recognized by the NASA Astrobiology Roadmap as one of the scientific objectives to be addressed. Different approaches developed by the field of synthetic biology, such as genetic engineering or synthetic molecules, could theoretically provide biological tools for a short-term adaptation for spaceflight, but adaptation in multiple space contexts has still some way to go.
Among these three future innovations, I would probably bet on Space Colonization and reengineering of the human body to embrace space life, as most likely to come to life. And this for diverse reasons: more incremental progress, already lots of experimentation done, significant funding in space research, many active private players in the field, and more urgency as we seek alternatives to life on earth given climate change, warfare threats, and pandemics.
Lastly, the question we always ask our guests: do you consider yourself optimistic about our future, and that we will be able to live in an inclusive and sustainable society? Or do you think that the road we are driving today is going towards a darker place?
That’s a great question, Maria. Here I need to split my identities between being a strategic foresight practitioner and being a future fiction writer.
I mentioned earlier that foresight practitioners thrive themselves to consider different scenarios and we need to go through this multiple-futures step constantly, every time we approach a new topic, so that we are not tempted to throw ourselves in the same biased direction all the time. Then I explore all of the scenarios with my clients and we design action plans to prepare for these potential futures, and I help them create their own preferred future. That’s what we like to call “urgent optimism”.
But then as a writer, I have developed an interest in exploring the sweet nostalgia topic: I have been an advocate of technology in many ways, helping numerous startups get their product out, so of course I love technology, but at the same time, I observe in many occurrences that human beings are attached to what I call “tech-free bubbles”. Human beings love to be connected but they also do enjoy very much the disconnecting, the return to nature, and the in-person communion.
Even super high-tech CEOs do like to spend their free time exercising, retreating, connecting with nature. And the pandemic has revealed even more how attached we are to keeping tech-free bubbles in our lives. As soon as we could, we’d rush out to breathe the exterior air, enjoy nature’s resources, lively neighborhood conversations, and practice sports or meditation. Arts creation has never been so flourishing. So I believe in a technology-supercharged world with tech-free bubbles and no-tech lands as I like to name them. That’s the very concept at the core of Silicon Humanism.
Thank you so much Maria. This was a pleasure having this conversation with you and I wish Future Hacker a fruitful and happy future!