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The Alcor Conference on Extreme Life Extension

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    NHNE News List Current Members: 748 Subscribe/unsubscribe/archive info at the bottom of this message. ... THE ALCOR CONFERENCE ON EXTREME LIFE EXTENSION By Ray
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 21, 2002
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      By Ray Kurzweil
      Additional reporting by Sarah Black
      Thursday, November 21, 2002


      On November 15-17, 2002, leaders in life extension and cryonics came
      together to explore how the emerging technologies of biotechnology,
      nanotechnology, and cryonics will enable humans to halt and ultimately
      reverse aging and disease and live indefinitely.

      The idea that death is inevitable, which I call the "death meme," is a
      powerful and pervasive belief held by all humans, with the exception of a
      small but growing group of life extensionists. The thought leaders of this
      movement gathered together this past weekend in Los Angeles to participate
      in the Fifth annual Alcor Conference on Extreme Life Extension and share
      ideas on pushing back the end of life. Bringing together longevity experts,
      biotechnology pioneers, and futurists, the conference explored how the
      emerging technologies of biotechnology, nanotechnology, and cryonics will
      enable humans to halt and ultimately reverse aging and disease and live

      I had the opportunity to participate in this illuminating and stimulating
      conference and I report herein on the highlights.

      Robert Freitas is a Research Scientist at Zyvex, a nanotechnology company,
      and in my view the world's leading pioneer in nanomedicine. He is the author
      of a book by the same name and the inventor of a number of brilliant
      conceptual designs for medical nanorobots. In his first major presentation
      of his pioneering conceptual designs, Freitas began his lecture by lamenting
      that "natural death is the greatest human catastrophe." The tragedy of
      medically preventable natural deaths "imposes terrible costs on humanity,
      including the destruction of vast quantities of human knowledge and human
      capital." He predicted that "future medical technologies, especially
      nanomedicine, may permit us first to arrest, and later to reverse, the
      biological effects of aging and most of the current causes of natural

      Freitas presented his design for "respirocytes," nanoengineered replacements
      for red blood cells. Although much smaller than biological red blood cells,
      an analysis of their functionality demonstrates that augmenting one's blood
      supply with these high pressure devices would enable a person to sit at the
      bottom of a pool for four hours, or to perform an Olympic sprint for 12
      minutes, without taking a breath. Freitas presented a more complex blueprint
      for robotic "microbivores," white blood cell replacements that would be
      hundreds of times faster than normal white blood cells.

      By downloading appropriately updated software from the Internet, these
      devices would be quickly effective against any type of pathogen, including
      bacteria, viruses, fungi, and cancer cells. Freitas also presented a new
      concept of a "chromosome replacement robot," which would be programmed to
      enter a cell nucleus and perform repairs and modifications to a person's DNA
      to reverse DNA transcription errors and reprogram defective genetic
      information. Trillions of such robots could be programmed to enter every
      cell in the body.

      How we will get to this kind of technology was the subject of my [Ray
      Kurzweil] presentation on the law of accelerating returns at the conference.
      Communication bandwidths, the shrinking size of technology, our knowledge of
      the human brain, and human knowledge in general are all accelerating.
      Three-dimensional molecular computing will provide the hardware for
      human-level "strong" AI well before 2030. The more important software
      insights will be gained in part from the reverse-engineering of the human
      brain, a process well under way. The ongoing acceleration of
      price-performance of computation, communication, and miniaturization will
      provide the technologies to create nanobots that can instrument (place
      sensors in) billions of neurons and interneuronal connections, greatly
      facilitating the development of detailed models of how human intelligence

      Once nonbiological intelligence matches the range and subtlety of human
      intelligence, it will necessarily soar past it because of the continuing
      acceleration of information-based technologies, as well as the ability of
      machines to instantly share their knowledge. Intelligent nanorobots will be
      deeply integrated in the environment, our bodies and our brains, providing
      vastly extended longevity, full-immersion virtual reality incorporating all
      of the senses, experience "beaming," and enhanced human intelligence. The
      implication will be an intimate merger between the technology-creating
      species and the evolutionary process it spawned.

      Aubrey de Grey, a researcher at the University of Cambridge, began his talk
      by quoting Bertrand Russell, the English mathematician and philosopher, who
      said, "100,000 people die of age-related causes each day. Some of us think
      this is rather a pity." de Grey described a program he has devised to
      approach the goal of extreme life extension "with a hard-headed, engineering
      frame of mind." de Grey pointed out that at the peak of health, the human
      system works remarkably well, with aging processes relatively inactive,
      calling this a period of "negligible senescence."

      The goal of life extension research should be, therefore, to maintain (or to
      return to) this period of negligible senescence indefinitely. de Grey argued
      persuasively for the feasibility of this goal, and described a multi-faceted
      program to address each known area of aging, including his area of specialty
      in mitochondrial mutations and lysosomal aggregates. He proposed an
      "Institute of Biomedical Gerontology," with a budget of $100 million, to
      promote, coordinate, and fund the focused development of these rejuvenation

      Christine Peterson, cofounder and President of the Foresight Institute,
      provided guidelines on how the lay person can evaluate the often conflicting
      advice and information on health and life extension. Christine pointed out
      that as knowledge becomes increasingly specialized, no one person can be an
      expert in every treatment intervention, so "we are all lay persons" even if
      we have expertise in some particular aspect of health treatment. She pointed
      out the destructive implications of the benign sounding creed of the medical
      profession, "first of all, do no harm." Because of the extremely cautious,
      risk-adverse orientation that this principle fosters, treatments desperately
      needed by millions of people are tragically suppressed or delayed.

      Max More, President of the Extropy Institute, and the Futures specialist at
      ManyWorlds, Inc., presented what he called a "strategic scenario analysis
      for your second life." More described his own culture shock at having moved
      from England to Southern California, which led him to consider the extreme
      adjustment challenge for people (possibly himself) in the future being
      reanimated from cryonic suspension. More pointed out that "to maximize our
      chances of a psychologically successful revival, we have the responsibility
      to prepare ahead of time." Using the discipline of scenario thinking from
      his consulting work, More engaged in a series of thought experiments that he
      would encourage people to engage in who have made the decision to be
      cryonically suspended should they happen to die.

      Michael West, President and CEO or Advanced Cell Technology, Inc. and a
      pioneer of therapeutic cloning, presented a compelling history of the
      science of cellular aging. He emphasized the remarkable stability of the
      immortal germ line cells, which link all cell-based life on Earth. He
      described the role of the telomeres, a repeating code at the end of each DNA
      strand, which are made shorter each time a cell divides, thereby placing a
      limit on the number of times a cell can replicate (the "Hayflick limit").
      Once these DNA "beads" run out, a cell becomes programmed for cell death.
      The immortal germ line cells avoid this destruction through the use of a
      single enzyme called telomerase, which rebuilds the telomere chain after
      each cell division. This single enzyme makes the germ line cells immortal,
      and indeed these cells have survived from the beginning of life on Earth
      billions of years ago.

      This insight opens up the possibility of future gene therapies that would
      return cells to their youthful, telomerase-extended state. Animal
      experiments have shown telomerase to be relatively benign, although some
      experiments have resulted in increased cancer rates. There are also
      challenges in transferring telomerase into the cell nuclei, although the
      gene therapy technology required is making solid progress. West expressed
      confidence that new techniques would provide the ability to transfer the
      telomerase into the nuclei, and to overcome the cancer issue. Telomerase
      gene therapy holds the promise of indefinitely rejuvenating human somatic
      (non-germ line) cells i.e., all human cells.

      West addressed the ethical controversies surrounding stem cell therapies. He
      pointed out a number of inconsistencies in the ethical position of those who
      oppose stem cell therapies. For example, a fetus can divide in two, within
      the first two weeks after conception and prior to implantation in the
      mother's womb, to create identical twins. This demonstrates that a unique
      human life is not defined by a fertilized egg cell, but only by an implanted
      embryo. Stem cell therapies use fetal cells prior to this individuation
      process. West pointed out the dramatic health benefits that stem cell
      therapies promise, including the ability to create new cells and organs to
      treat a wide variety of diseases such as Parkinson's disease and heart
      disease. West also described promising new methodologies in the field of
      "human somatic cell engineering" to create new tissues with a patient's own
      DNA by modifying one type of cell (such as a skin cell) directly into
      another (such as a pancreatic Islet cell or a heart cell) without the use of
      fetal stem cells.

      Greg Fahy, Chief Scientific Officer of 21st Century Medicine, formerly
      director of an organ cryopreservation program at the American Red Cross and
      a similar program for the Naval Medical Research Institute, described
      prospects for preserving organs for long periods of time. He pointed out how
      we now have "the ability to perfuse whole kidneys with cryoprotectants at
      concentrations that formerly were uniformly fatal, but which currently
      produce little or no injury."

      The immediate goal of Fahy's research is to preserve transplant organs for
      substantially longer periods of time than is currently feasible. Fahy
      pointed out that by combining these techniques with the therapeutic cloning
      technologies being developed by Michael West and his colleagues, it will be
      possible in the future for people to keep a supply of replacements for all
      of their organs, to be immediately available in emergencies. He painted a
      picture "of the future when organs are grown, stored, and transported as
      easily as blood is today."

      To suggest a way to make it to that future, I [Ray Kurzweil] had the
      opportunity to present a set of ideas to apply our current knowledge to life
      extension. My earlier presentation focused on the nature of human life in
      the 21st century, whereas this presentation described how we could live to
      see (and enjoy!) the century ahead. These ideas are drawn from an upcoming
      book, A Short Guide to a Long Life, which I am coauthoring with Terry
      Grossman, M.D., a leading longevity expert.

      These ideas should be thought of as "a bridge to a bridge to a bridge," in
      that they provide the means to remain healthy and vital until the full
      flowering of the biotechnology revolution within 20 years, which in turn
      will bring us to the nanotechnology-AI (artificial intelligence) revolution
      ten years after that. The latter revolution will radically redefine our
      concept of human mortality.

      I pointed out that the leading causes of death (heart disease, cancer,
      stroke, diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease) do not appear out of the
      blue. They are the end result of processes that are decades in the making.
      You can understand where you are personally in the progression of these
      processes and end (and reverse) the lethal march towards these diseases. The
      program that Dr. Grossman and I have devised allows you to assess how
      longstanding imbalances in your metabolic processes can be corrected before
      you "fall off the cliff." This information is not "plug and play," but the
      knowledge is available and can be applied through a comprehensive and
      concerted effort.

      The nutritional program that Dr. Grossman and I recommend provides the best
      of the two contemporary poles of nutritional thinking. The Atkins philosophy
      has correctly identified the dangers of a high-glycemic-index diet as
      causing imbalances in the sugar and insulin cycle, but does not focus on the
      equally important rebalancing of omega 3 and omega 6 fats, and cutting down
      on the pro-inflammatory fats in animal products. Conversely, the low-fat
      philosophy of Ornish and Pritikin has not placed sufficient attention on
      cutting down on high-glycemic-index starches. Our program recommends a
      moderately low level of carbohydrates, dramatic reductions in
      high-glycemic-index carbohydrates, as well as moderately low levels of fat,
      with an emphasis on the anti-inflammatory Omega-3 fats found in nuts, fish,
      and flaxseed.

      A study of nurses showed that those nurses who ate at least a handful of
      nuts (one ounce) each day had 75% less heart disease than the nurses who did
      not eat nuts. Our program also includes aggressive supplementation to obtain
      optimal lipid levels, reduce inflammation, correct potential problems with
      the methylation (folic acid) cycle, attain and maintain an optimal weight,
      and maintain glucose and insulin levels in a healthy balance.

      In a rare lecture, Eric Drexler, author of Engines of Creation, the seminal
      book that introduced the field two decades ago, and widely regarded as the
      father of nanotechnology, reflected on the state of the nanotechnology field
      and its prospects. Drexler pointed out that the term "nanotechnology" has
      broadened from his original conception, which was the precise positional
      control of chemical reactions to any technology that deals with measurements
      of less than 100 nanometers. Drexler pointed to biology as an existence
      proof of the feasibility of molecular machines. Our human-designed machines,
      Drexler pointed out, will not be restricted to the limitations of biology.
      He said that although the field was initially controversial, no sound
      criticism has emerged for his original ideas. Drexler dramatically stated,
      "I therefore declare victory by default."

      Drexler cited the powerful analogy relating atoms and bits to nanotechnology
      and software. We can write a piece of software to perform a certain
      manipulation on several numbers. We can then use logic and loops to perform
      that same manipulation billions or trillions of times, even though we only
      have to write the software once. Similarly, we can set up nanotechnology
      systems to perform the same nanoscale mechanical manipulations billions or
      trillions of times and in billions or trillions of locations.

      Drexler described the broad applicability of nanotechnology to revolutionize
      many areas of human endeavor. We will be able to build supercomputers that
      are one thousandth of the size of a human cell. We will be able to create
      electricity-generating solar panels at almost no cost. We will be able to
      build extremely inexpensive spacecraft out of diamond fiber. "The idea that
      our human world is limited to the Earth is going to be obsolete very soon,
      as soon as these technologies become available," Drexler pointed out.
      Indeed, all manufacturing will be revolutionized. Nanotechnology-based
      manufacturing will make feasible the ability to create any customized
      product we can define at extremely low cost from inexpensive raw materials
      and software.

      With regard to our health, nanotechnology will be able to reconstruct and
      rebuild just about everything in our bodies. Nanoscale machines will enter
      all of our cells and proofread our DNA, patch the mitochondria, destroy
      pathogens, remove waste materials, and rebuild our bodies and brains in ways
      unimaginable today. Drexler defined this goal as "permanent health."

      Drexler expressed optimism for the prospects of successful reanimation of
      cryonically preserved people. Nanorobots will be able to assess, analyze,
      and investigate the state of the preserved cells, tissues, and fluids;
      perform microscopic and nanoscopic repairs on every cell and connection, and
      remove cryopreservatatives. He chided other cryonics supporters for making
      the "pessimistic argument" that although cryonics had only a small chance of
      working, this chance was better than the alternative, which provided no
      chance for a second life. Based on our growing knowledge and confidence in
      nanotechnology and emerging scenarios for applying these technologies to the
      reanimation task, Drexler argued that we should be expressing a valid
      optimism about the prospects for a healthy second life after suspension.

      Drexler was asked what he thought of the prospects for optical and quantum
      computing. He replied that optical computers will remain bulkier than
      programmable molecular computers and thus are likely to remain special
      purpose devices. As for quantum computing, there are designs for possible
      room-temperature quantum computers with dozens of qubits, but the prospects
      for quantum computing are still not clear.

      Drexler was pessimistic on the prospects for picotechnology (technology on a
      scale 1000 times smaller than nanotechnology). He explained that one would
      need the conditions of a neutron star to make this feasible, and even then
      there are theoretical problems getting subatomic particles to perform useful
      functions such as computation.

      I would point out that nanotechnology also appeared unlikely until Drexler
      came along and showed how we could build machines that go beyond the
      nanomachines of nature. A future Drexler is likely to provide the conceptual
      designs to build machines that go beyond the picomachines of atomic nuclei
      and atoms.

      I have that penciled in for 2072.  

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