As we close out 2016, if you’ll allow me, I’d like to take a risk and venture into a topic I’m personally compelled to think about… a topic that will seem far out to most readers.
Today’s extraordinary rate of exponential growth may do much more than just disrupt industries. It may actually give birth to a new species, reinventing humanity over the next 30 years.
I believe we’re rapidly heading towards a human-scale transformation, the next evolutionary step into what I call a “Meta-Intelligence,” a future in which we are all highly connected—brain to brain via the cloud—sharing thoughts, knowledge and actions. In this post, I’m investigating the driving forces behind such an evolutionary step, the historical pattern we are about to repeat, and the implications thereof. Again, I acknowledge that this topic seems far-out, but the forces at play are huge and the implications are vast. Let’s dive in…
A Quick Recap: Evolution of Life on Earth in 4 Steps
About 4.6 billion years ago, our solar system, the sun and the Earth were formed.
Step 1: 3.5 billion years ago, the first simple life forms, called “prokaryotes,” came into existence.These prokaryotes were super-simple, microscopic single-celled organisms, basically a bag of cytoplasm with free-floating DNA. They had neither a distinct nucleus nor specialized organelles.
Step 2: Fast-forwarding one billion years to 2.5 billion years ago, the next step in evolution created what we call “eukaryotes”—life forms that distinguished themselves by incorporating biological ‘technology’ into themselves. Technology that allowed them to manipulate energy (via mitochondria) and information (via chromosomes) far more efficiently. Fast forward another billion years for the next step.
Step 3: 1.5 billion years ago, these early eukaryotes began working collaboratively and formed the first “multi-cellular life,” of which you and I are the ultimate examples (a human is a multicellular creature of 10 trillion cells).
Step 4: The final step I want to highlight happened some 400 million years ago, when lungfish crawled out of the oceans onto the shores, and life evolved from the oceans onto land.
The Next Stages of Human Evolution: 4 Steps
Today, at a massively accelerated rate—some 100 million times faster than the steps I outlined above—life is undergoing a similar evolution. In this next stage of evolution, we are going from evolution by natural selection (Darwinism) to evolution by intelligent direction. Allow me to draw the analogy for you:
Step 1: Simple humans today are analogous to prokaryotes. Simple life, each life form independent of the others, competing and sometimes collaborating.
Step 2: Just as eukaryotes were created by ingesting technology, humans will incorporate technology into our bodies and brains that will allow us to make vastly more efficient use of information (BCI) and energy.
Step 3: Enabled with BCI and AI, humans will become massively connected with each other and billions of AIs (computers) via the cloud, analogous to the first multicellular lifeforms 1.5 billion years ago. Such a massive interconnection will lead to the emergence of a new global consciousness, and a new organism I call the Meta-Intelligence.
Step 4: Finally, humanity is about to crawl out of the gravity well of Earth to become a multiplanetary species. Our journey to the moon, Mars, asteroids and beyond represents the modern-day analogy of the journey made by lungfish climbing out of the oceans some 400 million years ago.
The 4 Forces Driving the Evolution and Transformation of Humanity
Four primary driving forces are leading us towards our transformation of humanity into a meta-intelligence both on and off the Earth:
We’re wiring our planet
Emergence of brain-computer interface
Emergence of AI
Opening of the space frontier
Let’s take a look.
1. Wiring the Planet: Today, there are 2.9 billion people connected online. Within the next six to eight years, that number is expected to increase to nearly 8 billion, with each individual on the planet having access to a megabit-per-second connection or better. The wiring is taking place through the deployment of 5G on the ground, plus networks being deployed by Facebook, Google, Qualcomm, Samsung, Virgin, SpaceX and many others. Within a decade, every single human on the planet will have access to multi-megabit connectivity, the world’s information, and massive computational power on the cloud.
2. Brain-Computer Interface: A multitude of labs and entrepreneurs are working to create lasting, high-bandwidth connections between the digital world and the human neocortex (I wrote about that in detail here). Ray Kurzweil predicts we’ll see human-cloud connection by the mid-2030s, just 18 years from now. In addition, entrepreneurs like Bryan Johnson (and his company Kernel) are committing hundreds of millions of dollars towards this vision. The end results of connecting your neocortex with the cloud are twofold: first, you’ll have the ability to increase your memory capacity and/or cognitive function millions of fold; second, via a global mesh network, you’ll have the ability to connect your brain to anyone else’s brain and to emerging AIs, just like our cell phones, servers, watches, cars and all devices are becoming connected via the Internet of Things.
3. Artificial Intelligence/Human Intelligence: Next, and perhaps most significantly, we are on the cusp of an AI revolution. Artificial intelligence, powered by deep learning and funded by companies such as Google, Facebook, IBM, Samsung and Alibaba, will continue to rapidly accelerate and drive breakthroughs. Cumulative “intelligence” (both artificial and human) is the single greatest predictor of success for both a company or a nation. For this reason, beside the emerging AI “arms race,” we will soon see a race focused on increasing overall human intelligence. Whatever challenges we might have in creating a vibrant brain-computer interface (e.g., designing long-term biocompatible sensors or nanobots that interface with your neocortex), those challenges will fall quickly over the next couple of decades as AI power tools give us ever-increasing problem-solving capability. It is an exponential atop an exponential. More intelligence gives us the tools to solve connectivity and mesh problems and in turn create greater intelligence.
4. Opening the Space Frontier: Finally, it’s important to note that the human race is on the verge of becoming a multiplanetary species. Thousands of years from now, whatever we’ve evolved into, we will look back at these next few decades as the moment in time when the human race moved off Earth irreversibly. Today, billions of dollars are being invested privately into the commercial space industry. Efforts led by SpaceX are targeting humans on Mars, while efforts by Blue Origin are looking at taking humanity back to the moon, and plans by my own company, Planetary Resources, strive to unlock near-infinite resources from the asteroids.
The rate of human evolution is accelerating as we transition from the slow and random process of “Darwinian natural selection” to a hyper-accelerated and precisely-directed period of “evolution by intelligent direction.” In this post, I chose not to discuss the power being unleashed by such gene-editing techniques as CRISPR-Cas9. Consider this yet another tool able to accelerate evolution by our own hand.
The bottom line is that change is coming, faster than ever considered possible. All of us leaders, entrepreneurs and parents have a huge responsibility to inspire and guide the transformation of humanity on and off the Earth. What we do over the next 30 years—the bridges we build to abundance—will impact the future of the human race for millennia to come. We truly live during the most exciting time ever in human history.
An international team of 63 scientists in 14 clinical departments have identified a unique “breathprint” for 17 diseases with 86% accuracy and have designed a noninvasive, inexpensive, and miniaturized portable device that screens breath samples to classify and diagnose several types of diseases, they report in an open-access paper in the journal ACS Nano.
As far back as around 400 B.C., doctors diagnosed some diseases by smelling a patient’s exhaled breath, which contains nitrogen, carbon dioxide, oxygen, and a small amount of more than 100 other volatile chemical components. Relative amounts of these substances vary depending on the state of a person’s health. For example, diabetes creates a sweet breath smell. More recently, several teams of scientists have developed experimental breath analyzers, but most of these instruments focus on one disease, such as diabetes and melanoma, or a few diseases.
Detecting 17 diseases
The researchers developed an array of nanoscale sensors to detect the individual components in thousands of breath samples collected from 1404 patients who were either healthy or had one of 17 different diseases*, such as kidney cancer or Parkinson’s disease.
The team used mass spectrometry to identify the breath components associated with each disease. By analyzing the results with artificial intelligence techniques (binary classifiers), the team found that each disease produces a unique breathprint, based on differing amounts of 13 volatile organic chemical (VOC) components. They also showed that the presence of one disease would not prevent the detection of others — a prerequisite for developing a practical device to screen and diagnose various diseases.
Based on the research, the team designed an organic layer that functions as a sensing layer (recognition element) for adsorbed VOCs and an electrically conductive nanoarray based on resistive layers of molecularly modified gold nanoparticles and a random network of single-wall carbon nanotubes. The nanoparticles and nanotubes have different electrical conductivity patterns associated with different diseases.**
** During exposure to breath samples, interaction between the VOC components and the organic sensing layer changes the electrical resistance of the sensors. The relative change of sensor’s resistance at the peak (beginning), middle, and end of the exposure, as well as the area under the curve of the whole measurement were measured. All breath samples identified by the AI nanoarray were also examined using an independent lab-based analytical technique: gas chromatography linked with mass spectrometry.
Abstract of Diagnosis and Classification of 17 Diseases from 1404 Subjects via Pattern Analysis of Exhaled Molecules
We report on an artificially intelligent nanoarray based on molecularly modified gold nanoparticles and a random network of single-walled carbon nanotubes for noninvasive diagnosis and classification of a number of diseases from exhaled breath. The performance of this artificially intelligent nanoarray was clinically assessed on breath samples collected from 1404 subjects having one of 17 different disease conditions included in the study or having no evidence of any disease (healthy controls). Blind experiments showed that 86% accuracy could be achieved with the artificially intelligent nanoarray, allowing both detection and discrimination between the different disease conditions examined. Analysis of the artificially intelligent nanoarray also showed that each disease has its own unique breathprint, and that the presence of one disease would not screen out others. Cluster analysis showed a reasonable classification power of diseases from the same categories. The effect of confounding clinical and environmental factors on the performance of the nanoarray did not significantly alter the obtained results. The diagnosis and classification power of the nanoarray was also validated by an independent analytical technique, i.e., gas chromatography linked with mass spectrometry. This analysis found that 13 exhaled chemical species, called volatile organic compounds, are associated with certain diseases, and the composition of this assembly of volatile organic compounds differs from one disease to another. Overall, these findings could contribute to one of the most important criteria for successful health intervention in the modern era, viz. easy-to-use, inexpensive (affordable), and miniaturized tools that could also be used for personalized screening, diagnosis, and follow-up of a number of diseases, which can clearly be extended by further development.
Life at the edge of death Murray Ballard, from the book The Prospect of Immortality
By Helen Thomson
“WE’RE taking people to the future!” says architect Stephen Valentine, as we drive through two gigantic gates into a massive plot of land in the middle of the sleepy, unassuming town that is Comfort, Texas. The scene from here is surreal. A lake with a newly restored wooden gazebo sits empty, waiting to be filled. A pregnant zebra strolls across a nearby field. And out in the distance some men in cowboy hats are starting to clear a huge area of shrub land. Soon the first few bricks will be laid here, marking the start of a scientific endeavour like no other.
After years of searching, Valentine chose this site as the unlikely home of the new Mecca of cryogenics. Called Timeship, the monolithic building will become the world’s largest structure devoted to cryopreservation, and will be home to thousands of people who are neither dead nor alive, frozen in time in the hope that one day technology will be able to bring them back to life. And last month, building work began.
Cryonics, the cooling of humans in the hope of reanimating them later, has a reputation as a vanity project for those who have more money than sense, but this “centre for immortality” is designed to be about much more than that. As well as bodies, it will store cells, tissues and organs, in a bid to drive forward the capabilities of cryogenics, the study of extremely low temperatures that has, in the last few years, made remarkable inroads in areas of science that affect us all; fertility therapy, organ transplantation and emergency medicine. What’s more, the cutting-edge facilities being built here should break through the limitations of current cryopreservation, making it more likely that tissues – and whole bodies – can be successfully defrosted in the future.
Timeship is the brainchild of Bill Faloon and Saul Kent, two entrepreneurs and prominent proponents of life extension research. Their vision was to create a building that would house research laboratories, DNA from near-extinct species, the world’s largest human organ biobank, and 50,000 cryogenically frozen bodies. Kent called it “all part of a plan to conquer ageing and death”.
In 1997, Kent asked Valentine, an architect based in New York, whether he could design a building that was stable enough to operate continuously for 100 years with minimal human input. It needed to withstand earthquakes, to be protected from natural disasters and acts of violence, and to survive without the main power supply for months on end. It was a list of demands that no building in the world currently satisfies.
Valentine spent months drawing up proposals for the building, together with advice from engineers who had previously worked for NASA and security experts from around the world. “We had to address everything from pandemics and cyberattacks to snipers and global warming,” says Fred Waterman, a risk mitigation expert on the Timeship team. The designs were approved by Kent but immediately put on ice. He believed the technology that would make the building worthwhile was not yet advanced enough to warrant its construction.
At body temperature, cells need a constant supply of oxygen. Without it they start to die and tissues decay. At low temperatures, cells need less oxygen because the chemical activity of metabolism slows down. At very low temperatures, metabolism stops altogether. The problem faced when trying to preserve human tissue by freezing it is that water in the tissue forms ice and causes damage. The trick is to replace the water with cryoprotectants, essentially antifreeze, which prevent ice from forming. This works well for small, uncomplicated structures like sperm and eggs. But when you try to scale it up to larger organs, damage still occurs.
But in 2000, Greg Fahy, a cryobiologist at 21st Century Medicine in Fontana, California, made a breakthrough with a technique called vitrification. It involves adding cryoprotectants then rapidly cooling an organ to prevent any freezing; instead the tissue turns into a glass-like state. Fahy later showed that you could vitrify a whole rabbit kidney that functioned well after thawing and transplantation. This was the breakthrough Kent and Faloon had been waiting for.
Cold comfort farm
The pair gave Valentine a multimillion-dollar budget and told him to find land on which to build Timeship. Valentine spent five years scouring the US, believing it to be the country most likely to remain politically stable for the next 100 years. He homed in on four states that fitted his exacting criteria. And after evaluating more than 200 sites in Texas alone, Valentine ended up in Comfort. Here he discovered the Bildarth Estate, which came with acres of land, a 1670-square-metre mansion and even a few zebras.
“There’s an urgent need to be able to store whole organs for longer”
Since then, Valentine, together with a team of specialists, has fine-tuned the project. Timeship’s architectural plans make it look like something between a fortress and a spaceship. The central building is a low-lying square with a single entrance. This sits inside a circular wall surrounded by concentric concrete rings. Inside are what Valentine calls “neighbourhoods”, collections of thermos-like dewars that will store the cryopreserved DNA, organs and bodies (see “Cool design”).
Parts of the project are somewhat theatrical – backup liquid nitrogen storage tanks are covered overhead by a glass-floored plaza on which you can walk surrounded by a fine mist of clouds – others are purely functional, like the three wind turbines that will provide year-round back-up energy.
The question is, do we need Timeship? Such an extravagant endeavour might not be vital, but it looks as if something similar will be necessary sooner or later. In fact, the strongest argument for such a facility, and the technological developments it promises, might have nothing to do with the desire to be frozen for the future.
We already have small biobanks for storing bones from human donors, as well as tendons, ligaments and stem cells. But with rapid advances in regenerative medicine, there is a growing need for large-scale facilities in which we can store more cryogenically frozen biological material.
Stem cells, for instance, are increasingly cryopreserved after being extracted and grown outside the body for use in regenerative therapies. “Beyond the age of 50, it’s harder to isolate stem cells for regenerative medicine,” says Mark Lowdell at University College London. “If I were in my 30s, I would certainly be cryopreserving some bone marrow for future tissue to fix my tennis injuries.” Lowdell will soon do the first transplant of a tissue-engineered larynx created from a donor larynx that has been seeded with cryopreserved stem cells to reduce the risk of rejection.
Then there’s the problem of organ shortage. In the US, almost 31,000 transplants were carried out in 2015, but at least six times as many people are on the waiting list – each day 12 people die before they can get a kidney. To make matters worse, many organs go to waste because their shelf life is too short to find a well-matched patient. Nearly 500 kidneys went unused in the US last year because the recipient couldn’t get the organ in time.
So there’s an urgent need to be able to store whole organs for longer. The issue is so important that the US government this month pledged to start funding research into this very area. We can already reversibly cryopreserve small bundles of cells – many thousands of babies have been born from vitrified human embryos. Doing the same with large organs, like kidneys or hearts, is harder, but not impossible. Over the past decade, for instance, several babies have been born from ovarian tissue that was removed before chemotherapy, cryopreserved and later replaced. Similarly, rabbit kidneys and rat limbs have been cryopreserved, thawed and placed in a new body. Fahy says his team is well on its way to the first human trial of a cryogenically frozen organ. “After decades of research, we’re now at a tipping point,” he says. Having improved both the vitrification technique and the cryoprotectant solution, they are moving to trials in pigs, and human trials could follow within five years, he says.
That might help prevent wastage, but we would still have a shortage of organs for transplant. Another solution is to grow them from scratch using our own stem cells, and keep them until we need them. So far, tiny 3D heart-like organs have been made from stem cells alone, as well as mini kidneys and livers, all with the ultimate aim of bioengineering replacement organs for transplantation.
Once organs can be produced like this, we will need a way of storing either the raw material or the organs themselves. “I’m not enthusiastic about the notion of freezing whole heads, but I can certainly imagine people needing to freeze cells, or ‘starter kits’ for the development of tissues, or even whole organs – and in the not-so-distant future,” says Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University Langone Medical Center.
Like Caplan, most scientists I spoke to said it was becoming more likely that we could bring individual cryopreserved organs back to life, but were less convinced by the idea of freezing whole bodies. So I decided to visit Alcor Life Extension Foundation, the world’s biggest cryonics facility, in Scottsville, Arizona, to find out what happens when a body is put on ice.
Alcor’s lobby has the feel of a doctor’s waiting room, except that lining the walls are portraits of men, women, children and the occasional dog. The people in the pictures are preserved there, some alongside their beloved pets.
Aaron Drake, head of Alcor’s medical response team, says the company has more than 1000 clients signed up worldwide – 99 per cent are healthy, but 1 per cent have a terminal disease. Some of them want to freeze their whole body, others – known as “neuros” – opt for just the head.
Drake admits that the techniques his firm uses aren’t perfect, which is why they continue to research the process. Recently, Alcor scientists placed acoustical devices on the brains of neuros as they were lowered into liquid nitrogen, listening as the heads cooled to -196 °C. The colder they got, the more frequently the team heard acoustical anomalies, which they attribute to micro-fracturing of the tissue. “That’s damage happening,” says Drake. It’s difficult to say what effects this might have. “It’s not universal or consistent, but it’s something we know doesn’t happen at around -140 °C.”
The problem is, to store a person at -140 °C, you have to keep them warmer than nitrogen’s boiling point, which is incredibly hard to do – certainly much harder than placing a body in a giant thermos full of liquid nitrogen, letting it boil and occasionally topping it up.
But at Timeship, Valentine thinks he’s cracked the problem. After years of experimentation, he has designed a system called a Temperature Control Vessel (TCV), a dewar that houses cryogenically preserved bodies, heads or tissues. Inside the dewar are moving rods that can be dipped into a pool of liquid nitrogen whenever a sensor notes that the temperature has risen from -140 °C. This would provide a relatively autonomous way of maintaining the contents at an ideal temperature (see “Cool design”).
Each TCV can carry hundreds of samples of tissue and organs, or four bodies and five heads.They are designed to be stacked together in a tessellating pattern that forms the neighbourhoods within the main building.
This should reduce some of the damage to brain tissue that the Alcor team heard. But even with that technology, is there any hope of reanimating a brain?
There is some evidence to suggest that certain properties of the mind – memories, for instance – can survive cryopreservation. In 2015, researchers trained worms to recognise a smell, then froze them. On thawing, the worms retained the smell memories. And this year, Fahy’s team cryopreserved a rabbit brain in a near-perfect state. Although the group used a chemical fixative that is not yet used in human preservation, the thawed rabbit brain appeared “uniformly excellent” when examined using electron microscopy.
“These kinds of experiments show that it’s not such a massive leap of faith to think that we could preserve the human mind,” says Max More, president and CEO of Alcor. But not everyone is convinced. Even if you could preserve the delicate structures of the human brain, the cryoprotectants themselves are toxic. “No matter how smart scientists are in the future, you can’t change mush into a functional brain,” says Caplan, “and I just don’t think that what we’re able to do right now to preserve the brain is good enough to ever bring it back to life.”
There are precedents for the idea that the human brain can be revived after being cooled, however. In 1986, two-and-a-half-year-old Michelle Funk fell into an icy creek where she was submerged for just over an hour. Despite showing no signs of life, doctors spent 2 hours warming her blood through a heart-lung machine. Eventually, she recovered fully. Her doctors figured that the sudden cooling of her brain must have slowed the organ’s need for oxygen, staving off brain damage.
“What we are doing is just an extension of emergency medicine – we are stretching time“
Funk’s recovery was so remarkable it spurred researchers to repeat the scenario experimentally in pigs and dogs – cryopreserving them for hours before bringing them back to life. The same procedure is now being tested in humans in a groundbreaking trial by surgeons at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There they are placing patients in suspended animation for a few hours, to buy time to fix injuries that would otherwise be lethal, such as gunshot wounds. The technique involves replacing the person’s blood with a cold saline solution and cooling the body. They will then try to fix the injuries and bring the patient back to life by slowly warming the body with blood.
That’s not so different from what goes on at Alcor, says More. “What we’re doing is trying to stretch the time in which the person is suspended. It’s just an extension of emergency medicine.” I ask More whether he really believes that his members will be brought back to life. “I don’t know if it will ever happen,” he says, “but we’re breaking no laws of physics here. Who is to say that in 100 years we won’t have the medical tools – some kind of nanotechnology perhaps – that can fix cells at an individual level and repair what’s necessary to revive someone in good health.”
This is the central argument in favour of cryonics – the possibility, no matter how slim, that it offers a chance of survival. “We think of cryonics as a scientific experiment,” says More. “People that are buried or cremated are our control group, and so far, everyone in the control group has died.”
Facing the future
It is an expensive experiment, however. Cryopreserving your body will set you back up to $220,000, payable on death – often via life insurance, with Alcor as the beneficiary.
“People often say that the money would be better spent on family or given to charity,” says Ole Moen, a philosopher and ethicist at the University of Oslo, Norway. “But what’s strange about this is that nobody complains when people spend money on expensive cancer treatments or long-term care – people drain the public healthcare budget trying to stay alive all the time,” he says. “So why complain when people want to spend their own money trying to live longer via cryonics?”
If you’re happy to fork out, there’s the big question of what kind of future you’d wake up to. “Even if you could get this technique up and running by some magical future science I believe you’d be a freak – you’d be so far out of it culturally, so lost, that you’d be at risk of being driven mad,” Caplan says.
With so many big unknowns, I leave Alcor and Timeship undecided on the utility of cryonics. What’s clear, though, is that the underlying research into cryopreservation is worthwhile. Whether it’s to help me have children, fix a future tennis injury or potentially even provide me with a new heart, I’d be first in line to freeze cells and tissues today that might help my future self live longer, and healthier.
On my way out of Alcor, I ask Drake whether he wants to be frozen, given that he has cryopreserved so many others. “Yes,” he says. “Not because I want to be immortal, I don’t think that’s possible. I just want to see if all this work was futile. I was the last person these people saw before they took their last breath. Will they see me again? Will they thank me? I don’t know if that will ever happen. But wouldn’t that be nice?”
What is death?
Death has been redefined several times over the past century. It was once considered the cessation of a heartbeat and breathing. Today it includes other scenarios, such as the cessation of brain activity. But even that’s not good enough for some.
“Death is a process, not a switch,” says Max More, president and CEO of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona. “If you go back 100 years and someone falls over in the street and stops breathing, doctors would say ‘this person is dead’. Today we can do CPR and defibrillation to restart their heart and they can be brought back to life. So when that doctor declared them dead, were they? With today’s standards, no they weren’t.” Instead, says More, what we’re really saying is “given today’s technology and the medicine I have available to me right now, there’s nothing more I can do for you”.
A definition that emerged in the 1990s in response to this problem is the information-theoretic definition of death. It states that a person is dead only when the structures that encode memory and personality are so disrupted that it is no longer possible in principle to restore them.
Therefore a person who is cryogenically frozen, with brain structures preserved in a state close to what they were before the pronouncement of clinical death, is not by this definition, actually dead. So if the people frozen at Alcor aren’t dead, what are they? “There’s no good word for what they are,” says More (see Interview “I want to put your death on ice so that you can live again“). “Some people say they are de-animated.”
This article appeared in print under the headline “The big freeze”
Wrinkles, grey hair and niggling aches are normally regarded as an inevitable part of growing older, but now scientists claim that the ageing process may be reversible.
The team showed that a new form of gene therapy produced a remarkable rejuvenating effect in mice. After six weeks of treatment, the animals looked younger, had straighter spines and better cardiovascular health, healed quicker when injured, and lived 30% longer.
Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, who led the work at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California, said: “Our study shows that ageing may not have to proceed in one single direction. With careful modulation, ageing might be reversed.”
The genetic techniques used do not lend themselves to immediate use in humans, and the team predict that clinical applications are a decade away. However, the discovery raises the prospect of a new approach to healthcare in which ageing itself is treated, rather than the various diseases associated with it.
The findings also challenge the notion that ageing is simply the result of physical wear and tear over the years. Instead, they add to a growing body of evidence that ageing is partially – perhaps mostly – driven by an internal genetic clock that actively causes our body to enter a state of decline.
The scientists are not claiming that ageing can be eliminated, but say that in the foreseeable future treatments designed to slow the ticking of this internal clock could increase life expectancy.
“We believe that this approach will not lead to immortality,” said Izpisua Belmonte. “There are probably still limits that we will face in terms of complete reversal of ageing. Our focus is not only extension of lifespan but most importantly health-span.”
Wolf Reik, a professor of epigenetics at the Babraham Institute, Cambridge, who was not involved in the work, described the findings as “pretty amazing” and agreed that the idea of life-extending therapies was plausible. “This is not science fiction,” he said.
The rejuvenating treatment given to the mice was based on a technique that has previously been used to “rewind” adult cells, such as skin cells, back into powerful stem cells, very similar to those seen in embryos. These so-called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells have the ability to multiply and turn into any cell type in the body and are already being tested in trials designed to provide “spare parts” for patients.
The latest study is the first to show that the same technique can be used to partially rewind the clock on cells – enough to make them younger, but without the cells losing their specialised function.
“Obviously there is a logic to it,” said Reik. “In iPS cells you reset the ageing clock and go back to zero. Going back to zero, to an embryonic state, is probably not what you want, so you ask: where do you want to go back to?”
The treatment involved intermittently switching on the same four genes that are used to turn skin cells into iPS cells. The mice were genetically engineered in such a way that the four genes could be artificially switched on when the mice were exposed to a chemical in their drinking water.
The scientists tested the treatment in mice with a genetic disorder, called progeria, which is linked to accelerated ageing, DNA damage, organ dysfunction and dramatically shortened lifespan.
After six weeks of treatment, the mice looked visibly younger, skin and muscle tone improved and they lived 30% longer. When the same genes were targeted in cells, DNA damage was reduced and the function of the cellular batteries, called the mitochondria, improved.
“This is the first time that someone has shown that reprogramming in an animal can provide a beneficial effect in terms of health and extend their lifespan,” said Izpisua Belmonte.
Crucially, the mice did not have an increased cancer risk, suggesting that the treatment had successfully rewound cells without turning them all the way back into stem cells, which can proliferate uncontrollably in the body.
The potential for carcinogenic side-effects means that the first people to benefit are likely to be those with serious genetic conditions, such as progeria, where there is more likely to be a medical justification for experimental treatments. “Obviously the tumour risk is lurking in the background,” said Reik.
The approach used in the mice could not be readily applied to humans as it would require embryos to be genetically manipulated, but the Salk team believe the same genes could be targeted with drugs.
“These chemicals could be administrated in creams or injections to rejuvenate skin, muscle or bones,” said Izpisua Belmonte. “We think these chemical approaches might be in human clinical trials in the next ten years.”
The findings are published in the journal Cell.
This article was amended on 16 December 2016. A previous version erroneously gave Wolf Reik’s affiliation as the University of Cambridge. This has now been corrected to the Babraham Institute, Cambridge.
Microsoft has vowed to “solve the problem of cancer” within a decade by using ground-breaking computer science to crack the code of diseased cells so they can be reprogrammed back to a healthy state.
In a dramatic change of direction for the technology giant, the company has assembled a “small army” of the world’s best biologists, programmers and engineers who are tackling cancer as if it were a bug in a computer system.
This summer Microsoft opened its first wet laboratory where it will test out the findings of its computer scientists who are creating huge maps of the internal workings of cell networks.
Microsoft opened its first ‘wet’ laboratory this summer
The researchers are even working on a computer made from DNA which could live inside cells and look for faults in bodily networks, like cancer. If it spotted cancerous chances it would reboot the system and clear out the diseased cells.
Chris Bishop, laboratory director at Microsoft Research, said: “I think it’s a very natural thing for Microsoft to be looking at because we have tremendous expertise in computer science and what is going on in cancer is a computational problem.
“It’s not just an analogy, it’s a deep mathematical insight. Biology and computing are disciplines which seem like chalk and cheese but which have very deep connections on the most fundamental level.”
The biological computation group at Microsoft are developing molecular computers built from DNA which act like a doctor to spot cancer cells and destroy them.
Andrew Philips, head of the group, said: “It’s long term, but… I think it will be technically possible in five to 10 years time to put in a smart molecular system that can detect disease.”
The programming principles and tools group has already developed software that mimics the healthy behavior of a cell, so that it can be compared to that of a diseased cell, to work out where the problem occurred and how it can be fixed.
The Bio Model Analyser software is already being used to help researchers understand how to treat leukemia more effectively.
Dr Jasmin Fisher, senior researcher and an associate professor at Cambridge University, said: “If we are able to control and regulate cancer then it becomes like any chronic disease and then the problem is solved.”
“I think for some of the cancers five years, but definitely within a decade. Then we will probably have a century free of cancer.”
She believes that in the future smart devices will monitor health continually and compare it to how the human body should be operating, so that it can quickly detect problems.
“My own personal vision is that in the morning you wake up, you check your email and at the same time all of our genetic data, our pulse, our sleep patterns, how much we exercised, will be fed into a computer which will check your state of well-being and tell you how prone you are to getting flu, or some other horrible thing,” she added.
“In order to get there we need these kind of computer models which mimic and model the fundamental processes that are happening in our bodies.
“Under normal development cells divide and they die and there is a certain balance, the problems start when that balance is broken and that’s how we had uncontrolled proliferation and tumours.
“If we could have all of that sitting on your personal computer and monitoring your health state then it will alert us when something is coming.”
Improved scanning technology offers hope
Patients undergoing radiotherapy could see treatment slashed from hours to just minutes with a new innovation to quickly map the size of a tumour.
Currently radiologists must scan a tumour and then painstakingly draw the outline of the cancer on dozens of sections by hand to create a 3D map before treatment, a process which can take up to four hours.
They also must outline nearby important organs to make sure they are protected from the blast of radiation.
But Microsoft engineers have developed a programme which can delineate a tumour within minutes, meaning treatment can happen immediately.
The programme can also show doctors how effective each treatment has been, so the dose can be altered depending on how much the tumour has been shrunk.
“Eyeballing works very well for diagnosing,” said Antonio Criminisi, a machine learning and computer vision expert who heads radiomics research in Microsoft’s Cambridge, UK, lab.
“Expert radiologists can look at an image – say a scan of someone’s brain – and be able to say in two seconds, ‘Yes, there’s a tumor. No, there isn’t a tumor. But delineating a tumour by hand is not very accurate.”
The system could eventually evaluate 3D scans pixel by pixel to tell the radiologist exactly how much the tumor has grown, shrunk or changed shape since the last scan.
It also could provide information about things like tissue density, to give the radiologist a better sense of whether something is more likely a cyst or a tumor. And it could provide more fine-grained analysis of the health of cells surrounding a tumor.
“Doing all of that by eye is pretty much impossible,” added Dr Criminisi.
The images could also be 3D printed so that surgeons could practice a tricky operation, such as removing a hard-to -reach brain tumour, before surgery.
Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, on Wednesday announced a $3 billion effort to accelerate scientific research with the wildly ambitious goal of “curing all disease in our children’s lifetime.”
The many components of the initiative include creating universal technology “tools” based on both traditional science and engineering on which all researchers can build, including a map of all cell types, a way to continuously monitor blood for early signs of illness, and a chip that can diagnose all diseases (or at least many of them). The money will also help fund what they referred to as 10 to 15 “virtual institutes” that will bring together investigators from around the world to focus on individual diseases or other goals — an idea that has the potential to upend biomedical science.
Being a scientist in academia today can often be a solitary endeavor as the system is set up to encourage colleagues to keep data exclusive in the hopes that this strategy helps them be more competitive at getting publications and grants. But as more Silicon Valley entrepreneurs like Zuckerberg are seeking to make their mark in the biological sciences, they are emphasizing the power of collaboration and openness.
A centerpiece of the new effort, called Chan Zuckerberg Science, involves creating a “Biohub” at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF) Mission Bay campus that will bring together scientists from Stanford, the University of California at Berkeley and UCSF.
Zuckerberg and Chan, among the world’s 10 wealthiest couples, with a net worth of $55.2 billion, emphasized that their timeline is long — by the end of the century.
“We have to be patient. This is hard stuff,” Zuckerberg said.
Chan said, “That doesn’t mean no one will ever get sick, but it means our children and their children should get sick a lot less.”
Many of themes articulated by Zuckerberg and Chan on Wednesday in San Francisco echo ideas furthered by other technology philanthropists who have donated substantial amounts of money to medical science. Sean Parker, a Napster co-founder, earlier this year set up a multi-center, $250 million effort to bring together top researchers from around the country to focus on immunotherapy for cancer. Microsoft’s Paul Allen has already invested $100 million in a cell-biology institute to try to create models of the fundamental building blocks of life.
Japanese scientists have reported the first successful skin-to-eye stem cell transplant in humans, where stem cells derived from a patient’s skin were transplanted into her eye to partially restore lost vision.
The researchers took a small piece of skin from her arm (4 mm in diameter) and modified its cells, effectively reprogramming them into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC).
Pluripotent stem cells have the ability to differentiate into almost any type of tissue within the body, which is why skin cells taken from an arm can be repurposed into retinal tissue.
Once the cells were coaxed to develop into retinal pigment epithelium (RPE), they were cultured in the lab to grow into an ultra-thin sheet, which was then transplanted behind the retina of the patient.
“I am very pleased that there were no complications with the transplant surgery,” said project leader Masayo Takahashi from the Riken Centre for Developmental Biology in 2014. “However, this is only the first step for use of iPSC in regenerative medicine. I have renewed my resolve to continue forging ahead until this treatment becomes available to many patients.”
While it’s definitely still early days for this experimental procedure, the signs so far are promising.
The team held off on reporting their results until now to monitor the patient’s progress and gauge how successfully the modified cells lasted, but they’ve just reported that the transplanted cells survived without any adverse events for over a year, resulting in slightly improved vision for the patient.
“The transplanted RPE sheet survived well without any findings [or] indication of immune rejections nor adverse unexpected proliferation for one and a half years, achieving our primary purpose of this pilot study,” the team said in a statement this week.
“I am glad I received the treatment,” the patient told The Japan Times last year. “I feel my eyesight has brightened and widened.”
While it’s not a complete restoration of the patient’s vision, the study shows a significant step forward in the use of induced pluripotent stem cells – which scientists think might be used to treat a range of illnesses, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, not just vision problems.
A number of other studies are also showing positive results in restoring sight with stem cell treatments. Earlier in the year, researchers in China and the US were able to improve the vision of babies with cataracts by manipulating protein levels in stem cells.
Even more remarkably, a woman in Baltimore who was blind for more than five years had some of her vision restored after stem cells were extracted from her bone marrow and injected into her eyes. While many questions remain about that particular treatment, there’s no denying that stem cell research is a hugely exciting field of study.
Of the 4,000 Americans waiting for heart transplants, only 2,500 will receive new hearts in the next year. Even for those lucky enough to get a transplant, the biggest risk is the their bodies will reject the new heart and launch a massive immune reaction against the foreign cells. To combat the problems of organ shortage and decrease the chance that a patient’s body will reject it, researchers have been working to create synthetic organs from patients’ own cells. Now a team of scientists from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School has gotten one step closer, using adult skin cells to regenerate functional human heart tissue, according to a study published recently in the journal Circulation Research.
Ideally, scientists would be able to grow working hearts from patients’ own tissues, but they’re not quite there yet. That’s because organs have a particular architecture. It’s easier to grow them in the lab if they have a scaffolding on which the cells can build, like building a house with the frame already constructed.
In their previous work, the scientists created a technique in which they use a detergent solution to strip a donor organ of cells that might set off an immune response in the recipient. They did that in mouse hearts, but for this study, the researchers used it on human hearts. They stripped away many of the cells on 73 donor hearts that were deemed unfit for transplantation. Then the researchers took adult skin cells and used a new technique with messenger RNA to turn them into pluripotent stem cells, the cells that can become specialized to any type of cell in the human body, and then induced them to become two different types of cardiac cells.
After making sure the remaining matrix would provide a strong foundation for new cells, the researchers put the induced cells into them. For two weeks they infused the hearts with a nutrient solution and allowed them to grow under similar forces to those a heart would be subject to inside the human body. After those two weeks, the hearts contained well-structured tissue that looked similar to immature hearts; when the researchers gave the hearts a shock of electricity, they started beating.
While this isn’t the first timeheart tissue has been grown in the lab, it’s the closest researchers have come to their end goal: Growing an entire working human heart. But the researchers admit that they’re not quite ready to do that. They are next planning to improve their yield of pluripotent stem cells (a whole heart would take tens of billions, one researcher said in a press release), find a way to help the cells mature more quickly, and perfecting the body-like conditions in which the heart develops. In the end, the researchers hope that they can create individualized hearts for their patients so that transplant rejection will no longer be a likely side effect.
Dr. Chris Faulkes is standing in his laboratory, tenderly caressing what looks like a penis. It’s not his penis, nor mine, and it’s definitely not that of the only other man in the room, VICE photographer Chris Bethell. But at four inches long with shrivelled skin that’s veiny and loose, it looks very penis-y. Then, with a sudden squeak, it squirms in his hand as if trying to break free, revealing an enormous set of Bugs Bunny teeth protruding from the tip.
“This,” says Faulkes, “is a naked mole rat, though she does look like a penis with teeth, doesn’t she? Or a saber-tooth sausage. But don’t let her looks fool you—the naked mole rat is the superhero of the animal kingdom.”
I’m with Faulkes in his lab at Queen Mary, University of London. Faulkes is an affable guy with a ponytail, telltale tattoos half-hidden under his T-shirt sleeve, and a couple of silver goth rings on his fingers. A spaghetti-mess of tubes weave about the room, like a giant gerbil maze, through which 12 separated colonies of 200 naked mole rats scurry, scratch, and squeak. What he just said is not hyperbole. In fact, the naked mole rat shares more than just its looks with a penis: Where you might say the penis is nature’s key to creating life, this ugly phallus of a creature could be mankind’s key to eternal life.
“Their extreme and bizarre lifestyle never ceases to amaze and baffle biologists, making them one of the most intriguing animals to study,” says Faulkes, who has devoted the past 30 years of his life to trying to understand how the naked mole rat has evolved into one of the most well-adapted, finely tuned creatures on Earth. “All aspects of their biology seem to inform us about other animals, including humans, particularly when it comes to healthy aging and cancer resistance.”
Similarly sized rodents usually live for about five years. The naked mole rat lives for 30. Even into their late 20s, they hardly seem to age, remaining fit and healthy with robust heartbeats, strong bones, sharp minds, and high fertility. They don’t seem to feel pain, and, unlike other mammals, they almost never get cancer.
In other words, if humans lived as long, relative to body size, as naked mole rats, we would last for 500 years in a 25-year-old’s body. “It’s not a ridiculous exaggeration to suggest we can one day manipulate our own biochemical and metabolic pathways with drugs or gene therapies to emulate those that keep the naked mole rat alive and healthy for so long,” says Faulkes, stroking his animal. “In fact, the naked mole rat provides us the perfect model for human aging research across the board, from the way it resists cancer to the way its social systems prolong its life.”
Over the centuries, a long line of optimists, alchemists, hawkers, and pop stars have hunted various methods of postponing death, from drinking elixirs of youth to sleeping in hyperbaric chambers. The one thing those people have in common is that all of them are dead. Still, the anti-aging industry is bigger than ever. In 2013, its global market generated more than $216 billion. By 2018, it will hit $311 billion, thanks mostly to huge investment from Silicon Valley billionaires and Russian oligarchs who’ve realized the only way they could possibly spend all their money is by living forever. Even Google wants in on the action, with Calico, its $1.5 billion life-extension research center whose brief is to reverse-engineer the biology that makes us old or, as Time magazine put it, to “cure death.” It’s a snowballing market that some are branding “the internet of healthcare.” But on whom are these savvy entrepreneurs placing their bets? After all, the race for immortality has a wide field.
In an office not far from Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, with a beard to his belt buckle and a ponytail to match, British biomedical gerontologist Aubrey De Grey is enjoying the growing clamor about conquering aging, or “senescence,” as he calls it. His charity, the SENS Research Foundation, has enjoyed a bumper few years thanks to a $600,000-a-year investment from Paypal co-founder and immortality motormouth Peter Thiel (“Probably the most extreme form of inequality is between people who are alive and people who are dead”). Though he says the foundation’s $5.75 million annual budget can still “struggle” to support its growing workload.
According to the Cambridge-educated scientist, the fundamental knowledge needed to develop effective anti-aging therapies already exists. He argues that the seven biochemical processes that cause the damage that accumulates during old age have been discovered, and if we can counter them we can, in theory, halt the aging process. Indeed, he not only sees aging as a medical condition that can be cured, but believes that the “first person to live to 1,000 is alive today.” If that sounds like the ramblings of a crackpot weird-beard, hear him out; Dr. De Grey’s run the numbers.
“If you look at the math, it is very straightforward,” he says. “All we are saying here is that it’s quite likely that within the next twenty or thirty years, we will develop medicines that can rejuvenate people faster than time is passing. It’s not perfect yet, but soon we’ll take someone aged sixty and fix them up well enough that they won’t be sixty again, biologically, for another thirty years. In that period, therapies will improve such that we’ll be able to rejuvenate them again, so they won’t be sixty for a third time until they are chronologically one hundred fifty, and so on. If we can stay one step ahead of the problem, people won’t die of aging anymore.”
“Like immortality?” I ask. Dr. De Grey sighs: “That word is the bane of my life. People who use that word are essentially making fun of what we do, as if to maintain an emotional distance from it so as not to get their hopes up. I don’t work on ‘curing death.’ I work on keeping people healthy. And, yes, I understand that success in my work could translate into an important side effect of people living longer. But to ‘cure death’ implies the elimination of all causes, including, say, dying in car accidents. And I don’t think there’s much we could do to survive an asteroid apocalypse.”
So instead, De Grey focuses on the things we can avoid dying from, like hypertension, cancer, Alzeimer’s, and other age-related illnesses. His goal is not immortality but “radical life extension.” He says traditional medicines won’t wind back the hands of our body clocks—we need to manipulate our makeup on a cellular level, like using bacterial enzymes to flush out molecular “garbage” that accumulates in the body, or tinkering with our genetic coding to prevent the growth of cancers, or any other disease.
Chris Faulkes knows of one magic bullet to kill cancer. And, back at Queens, he is making his point by pulling at the skin of a naked mole rat in his hand. “It’s the naked mole rat’s elasticky skin that’s made it cancer-proof,” he says. “The theory—first discovered by a lab in America—is that, as an adaptation to living underground in tight tunnels, they’ve developed a really loose skin so they don’t get stuck or snagged. That elasticity is a result of it producing this gloopy sugar [polysacharide], high-molecular-weight hyaluronan (HMW-HA).”
While humans already have a version of hyaluronan in our bodies that helps heal wounds by encouraging cell division (and, ironically, assist tumor growth), that of the naked mole rat does the opposite. “The hyaluronan in naked mole rats is about six times larger than ours,” says Faulkes. “It interacts with a metabolic pathway, which helps prevent cells from coming together to make tumors.”
But that’s not all: It is believed it may also act to help keep their blood vessels elastic, which, in turn, relieves high blood pressure (hypertension)—a condition that affects one in three people and is known in medical circles as “the silent killer” because most patients don’t even know they have it. “I see no reason why we can’t use this to inform human anti-cancer and aging therapies by manipulating our own hyaluronan system,” says Faulkes.
Then there are the naked mole rat’s cells themselves, which seem to make proteins – the molecular machines that make bodies work—more accurately than ours, preventing age-related illnesses like Alzheimer’s. And the way they handle glucose doesn’t change with age either, reducing their susceptibility to things like diabetes. “Most of the age-related declines you see in the physiology in mammals do not occur in naked mole rats,” adds Faulkes. “We’ve only just begun on the naked mole rat story, and already a whole universe is opening up that could have a major downstream effect on human health. It’s very exciting.”
Of course, the naked mole rat isn’t the only animal scientists are probing to pick the lock of long life. “With a heart rate of 1,000 beats a minute, the tiny hummingbird should be riddled with rogue free radicals [the oxygen-based chemicals that basically make mammals old by gradually destroying DNA, proteins and fat molecules]… but it’s not,” says zoologist Jules Howard, author of Death on Earth: Adventures in Evolution and Mortality. “Then there are pearl mussel larvae that live in the gills of Atlantic salmon and mop up free radicals, and lobsters, which seem to have evolved a protein which repairs the tips of DNA [telomeres], allowing for more cell divisions than most animals are capable of. And we mustn’t forget the 2mm-long C. elegans roundworm. Within these 2mm-long nematodes are genetic mechanisms that can be picked apart like cogs and springs in an attempt to better understand the causes of aging and ultimately death.”
But there is one animal on Earth that may hold the master key to immortality: the Turritopsis dohrnii, or Immortal Jellyfish. Most jellyfish, when they reach the end of life, die and melt into the sea. Not the Turritopsis dohrnii. Instead, the 4mm sea creature sinks to the bottom of the ocean floor, where its body folds in on itself—assuming the jellyfish equivalent of the fetal position—and regenerates back into a baby jellyfish, or polyp, in a rare biological process called transdifferentiation, in which its old cells essentially transform into young cells.
There is just one scientist who has been culturing Turritopsis polyps in his lab consistently. He works alone, without major financing or a staff, in a poky office in Shirahama, a sleepy beach town near Kyoto. Yet professor Shin Kubota has managed to rejuvenate one of his charges 14 times, before a typhoon washed it away. “The Turritopsis dohrnii is a miracle of nature,” he says over the phone. “My ultimate purpose is to understand exactly how they regenerate so we can apply its mechanisms to human beings. You see, very surprisingly, the Turritopsis’s genome is very similar to humans’—much more so than worms. I believe we will have the technology to begin applying this immortal genome to humans very soon.”
How soon? “In 20 years,” he says, a little mischievously. “That is my guess.”
If PKubota really believes his own claim, then he’s got a race on his hands; he’s not the only scientist with a “20-year” prophesy. The acclaimed futurist and computer scientist Ray Kurzweil believes that by the 2030s we’ll have microscopic machines traveling through our bodies, repairing damaged cells and organs, effectively wiping out diseases and making us biologically immortal anyway. “The full realization of nanobots will basically eliminate biological disease and aging,” he told the world a few years back.
It’s a blossoming industry. And, in a state-of-the-art lab at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, at Bristol University, Dr. Sabine Hauert is on its coalface. She designs swarms of nanobots—each a thousand times smaller than the width of a hair—that can be injected into the bloodstream with a payload of drugs to infiltrate the pores of cancer cells, like millions of tiny Trojan Horses, and destroy them from within. “We can engineer nanoparticles to basically do what we want them to do,” she tells me. “We can change their size, shape, charge, or material and load them with molecules or drugs that they can release in a controlled fashion.”
While she says the technology can be used to combat a whole gamut of different illnesses, Dr. Hauert has trained her crosshairs on cancer. What’s the most effective nano-weapon against malignant tumors? Gold. Millions of swarming golden nanobots that can be dispatched into the bloodstream, where they will seep into the tumor through little holes in its rapidly-growing vessels and lie in wait. “Then,” she says, “if you heat them with an infrared laser they vibrate violently, degrading the tumour’s cells. We can then send in another swarm of nanoparticles decorated with a molecule that’s loaded with a chemotherapy drug, giving a 40-fold increase in the amount of drugs we can deliver. This is very exciting technology that is already having a huge impact on the way we treat cancer, and will do on other diseases in the future.”
The next logical step, as Kurzweil claims, is that we will soon have nanobots permanently circulating in our veins, cleaning and maintaining our bodies indefinitely. They may even replace our organs when they fail. Clinical trials of such technology is already beginning on mice.
The naked mole rat colony in Chris Faulkes’s lab
The oldest mouse ever to live was called Yoda. He lived to the age of four. The oldest ever dog, Bluey, was 29. The oldest flamingo was 83. The oldest human was 122. The oldest clam was 507. The point is, evolution has rewarded species who’ve worked out ways to not get eaten by bigger species—be it learning to fly, developing big brains or forming protective shells. Naked mole rats went underground and learned to work together.
“A mouse is never going to worry about cancer as much as it will about cats,” says Faulkes. “Naked mole rats have no such concerns because they built vast networks of tunnels, developed hierarchies and took up different social roles to streamline productivity. They bought themselves time to evolve into biological marvels.”
At the top of every colony is a queen. Second in rank are her chosen harem of catamites with whom she mates for life. Beneath them are the soldiers and defenders of the realm, the biggest animals around, and at the bottom are the workers who dig tunnels with their teeth or search for tubers, their main food source. They have a toilet chamber, a sleeping chamber, a nursing chamber and a chamber for disposing of the dead. They rarely go above ground and almost never mix with other colonies. “It’s a whole mosaic of different characteristics that have come about through adapting to living in this very extreme ecological niche,” says Faulkes. “All of the weird and wonderful things that contribute to their healthy aging have come about through that. Even their extreme xenophobia helps prevent them being wiped out by infectious diseases.”
Still, the naked mole rat is not perfect. Dr. Faulkes learned this the hard way one morning in March last year, when he turned the light on in his lab to a grisly scene. “Blood was smeared about the perspex walls of a tunnel in colony N,” he says, “and the mangled corpse of one of my mole rats lay lifeless inside.” There was one explanation: A queen had been murdered. “There had been a coup,” he recalls. “Her daughter had decided she wanted to run the colony so she savaged her mother to death to take over. You see, naked mole rats may be immune to death by aging, but they can still be killed, just like you and me.”
That’s the one issue that true immortalists have with the concept of radical life extension: we can still get hit by a bus or murdered. But what if the entire contents of your brain—your memories, beliefs, hopes, and dreams—could be scanned and uploaded onto a mainframe, so when You 1.0 finally does fall down a lift shaft or is killed by a friend, You 2.0 could be fed into a humanoid avatar and rolled out of an immortality factory to pick up where you left off?
Dr. Randall Koene insists You 2.0 would still be you. “What if I were to add an artificial neuron next to every real neuron in your brain and connect it with the same connections that your normal neurons have so that it operates in exactly the same way?” he says. “Then, once I’ve put all these neurons in place, I remove the connections to all the old neurons, one by one, would you disappear?”
When someone asks me what I do, and I tell them that I’m a futurist, the first thing they ask “what is a futurist?” The short answer that I give is “I use current scientific research in emerging technologies to imagine how we will live in the future.”
However, as you can imagine the art of futurology and foresight is much more complex. I spend my days thinking, speaking and writing about the future, and emerging technologies. On any given day I might be in Warsaw speaking at an Innovation Conference, in London speaking at a Global Leadership Summit, or being interviewed by the Discovery Channel. Whatever the situation, I have one singular mission. I want you to think about the future.
How will we live in the future? How will emerging technologies change our lives, our economy and our businesses? We should begin to think about the future now. It will be here faster than you think.
Let’s explore seven current emerging technologies that I am thinking about that are set to change the world forever.
1. Age Reversal
We will see the emergence of true biological age reversal by 2025.
It may be extraordinarily expensive, complex and risky, but for people who want to turn back the clock, it may be worth it. It may sound like science fiction but the science is real, and it has already begun. In fact, according to new research published in Nature’s Scientific Reports, Professor Jun-Ichi Hayashi from the University of Tsukuba in Japan has already reversed ageing in human cell lines by “turning on or off”mitochondrial function.
Another study published in CELL reports that Australian and US researchers have successfully reversed the aging process in the muscles of mice. They found that raising nuclear NAD+ in old mice reverses pseudohypoxia and metabolic dysfunction. Researchers gave the mice a compound called nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide or NAD for a week and found that the age indicators in two-year-old mice were restored to that of six-month-old mice. That would be like turning a 60-year-old human into a 20-year-old!
How will our culture deal with age reversal? Will we set limits on who can age-reverse? Do we ban criminals from this technology? These are the questions we will face in a very complex future. One thing is certain, age reversal will happen and when it does it will change our species and our world forever.
2. Artificial General Intelligence
The robots are coming and they are going to eat your job for lunch. Worldwide shipments of multipurpose industrial robots are forecast to exceed 207,000 units in 2015, and this is just the beginning. Robots like Care-o-bot 4 and Softbank’s Pepper may be in homes, offices and hotels within the next year. These robots will be our personal servants, assistants and caretakers.
Amazon has introduced a new AI assistant called ECHO that could replace the need for a human assistant altogether. We already have robots and automation that can make pizza, serve beer, write news articles, scan our faces for diseases, and drive cars. We will see AI in our factories, hospitals, restaurants and hotels around the world by 2020.
3. Vertical Pink Farms
We are entering the techno-agricultural era. Agricultural science is changing the way we harvest our food. Robots and automation are going to play a decisive role in the way we hunt and gather. The most important and disruptive idea is what I call “Vertical PinkFarms” and it is set to decentralise the food industry forever.
The United Nations (UN) predicts by 2050 80% of the Earth’s population will live in cities. Climate change will also make traditional food production more difficult and less productive in the future. We will need more efficient systems to feed these hungry urban areas. Thankfully, several companies around the world are already producing food grown in these Vertical PinkFarms and the results are remarkable.
Vertical PinkFarms will use blue and red LED lighting to grow organic, pesticide free, climate controlled food inside indoor environments. Vertical PinkFarms use less water, less energy and enable people to grow food underground or indoors year round in any climate.
Traditional food grown on outdoor farms are exposed to the full visible light spectrum. This range includes Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue and Violet. However, agricultural science is now showing us that O, Y, G and V are not necessary for plant growth. You only need R and B.LED lights are much more efficient and cooler than indoor florescent grow lights used in most indoor greenhouses. LED lights are also becoming less expensive as more companies begin to invest in this technology. Just like the solar and electric car revolution, the change will be exponential. By 2025, we may see massive Vertical PinkFarms in most major cities around the world. We may even see small Vertical PinkFarm units in our homes in the future.
By 2035, even if a majority of humans do not self-identify as Transhuman, technically they will be. If we define any bio-upgrade or human enhancement as Transhumanism, then the numbers are already quite high and growing exponentially. According to a UN Telecom Agency report, around 6 billion people have cell phones. This demonstrates the ubiquitous nature of technology that we keep on or around our body.
As human bio-enhancements become more affordable, billions of humans will become Transhuman. Digital implants, mind-controlled exoskeletal upgrades, age reversal pills, hyper-intelligence brain implants and bionic muscle upgrades. All of these technologies will continue our evolution as humans.
Reconstructive joint replacements, spinal implants, cardiovascular implants, dental implants, intraocular lens and breast implants are all part of our human techno-evolution into this new Transhuman species.
5. Wearables and Implantables
Smartphones will fade into digital history as the high-resolution smart contact lens and corresponding in-ear audio plugs communicate with our wearable computers or “smart suits.” The digital world will be displayed directly on our eye in stunning interactive augmented beauty. The Ghent University’s Centre of Microsystems Technology in Belgium has recently developed a spherical curved LCD display that can be embedded in contact lenses. This enables the entire lens to display information.
The bridge to the smart contact starts with smart glasses, VR headsets and yes, the Apple watch. Wearable technologies are growing exponentially. New smart augmented glasses like Google Glass, RECON JET, METAPro, and Vuzix M100 Smart Glasses are just the beginning. In fact, CastAR augmented 3D glasses recently received over a million dollars in funding on Kickstarter. Their goal was only four hundred thousand. The market is ready for smart vision, and tech companies should move away from handheld devices if they want to compete.
The question of what is real and augmented will be irrelevant in the future. We will be able to create our reality with clusters of information cults that can only see certain augmented information realities if you are in these groups. All information will be instantaneously available in the augmented visual future.
6. Atmospheric Water Harvesting
California and parts of the south-west in the US are currently experiencing an unprecedented drought. If this drought continues, the global agricultural system could become unstable.
Consider this: California and Arizona account for about 98% of commercial lettuce production in the United States.Thankfully we live in a world filled with exponential innovation right now.
An emerging technology called Atmospheric Water Harvesting could save California and other arid parts of the world from severe drought and possibly change the techno-agricultural landscape forever.
Traditional agricultural farming methods consume 80% of the water in California. According to the California Agricultural Resource Directory of 2009, California grows 99% of the U.S. almonds, artichokes, and walnuts; 97% of the kiwis, apricots and plums; 96% of the figs, olives and nectarines; 95% of celery and garlic; 88% of strawberries and lemons; 74% of peaches; 69% of carrots; 62% of tangerines and the list goes on.
Several companies around the world are already using atmospheric water harvesting technologies to solve this problem. Each company has a different technological approach but all of them combined could help alleviate areas suffering from water shortages.
The most basic, and possibly the most accessible, form of atmospheric water harvesting technology works by collecting water and moisture from the atmosphere using micro netting. These micro nets collect water that drains down into a collection chamber. This fresh water can then be stored or channelled into homes and farms as needed.
A company called FogQuest is already successfully using micro netting or “fog collectors” to harvest atmospheric water in places like Ethiopia, Guatemala, Nepal, Chile and Morocco.
Will people use this technology or will we continue to drill for water that may not be there?
7. 3D Printing
Today we already have 3D printers that can print clothing, circuit boards, furniture, homes and chocolate. A company called BigRep has created a 3D printer called the BigRep ONE.2 that enables designers to create entire tables, chairs or coffee tables in one print. Did you get that?
You can now buy a 3D printer and print furniture!
Fashion designers like Iris van Herpen, Bryan Oknyansky, Francis Bitonti, Madeline Gannon, and Daniel Widrig have all broken serious ground in the 3D printed fashion movement. These avant-garde designs may not be functional for the average consumer so what is one to do for a regular tee shirt? Thankfully a new Field Guided Fabrication 3D printer called ELECTROLOOM has arrived that can print and it may put a few major retail chains out of business. The ELECTROLOOM enables anyone to create seamless fabric items on demand.
So what is next? 3D printed cars. Yes, cars. Divergent Microfactories (DM) has recently created a first 3D printed high-performance car called the Blade. This car is no joke. The Blade has a chassis weight of just 61 pounds, goes 0-60 MPH in 2.2 seconds and is powered by a 4-cylinder 700-horsepower bi-fuel internal combustion engine.
These are just seven emerging technologies on my radar. I have a list of hundreds of innovations that will change the world forever. Some sound like pure sci-fi but I assure you they are real. Are we ready for a world filled with abundance, age reversal and self-replicating AI robots? I hope so.
Image #2: This “pinkhouse” at Caliber Biotherapeutics in Bryan, Texas, grows 2.2 million plants under the glow of blue and red LEDs.
Courtesy of Caliber Therapeutics