Flying cars, that perennial dream for futurists that always seem to be at least five years away, may be a little closer to reality than we realize. A lot of prototypes have been showcased recently, and a lot of money is being tossed around. More people than ever seem to buy into the crazy notion that in the near future we’ll be buzzing between rooftops in private, autonomous drones. Today, Munich-based Lilium Aviation announced an important milestone: the first test flight of its all-electric, two-seater, vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) prototype.
In a video provided by the Munich-based startup, the aircraft can be seen taking off vertically like a helicopter, and then accelerating into forward flight using wing-borne lift.
The craft is powered by 36 separate jet engines mounted on its 10-meter long wings via 12 movable flaps. At take-off, the flaps are pointed downwards to provide vertical lift. And once airborne, the flaps gradually tilt into a horizontal position, providing forward thrust.
During the tests, the jet was piloted remotely, but its operators say their first manned flight is close-at-hand. And Lilium claims that its electric battery “consumes around 90 percent less energy than drone-style aircraft,” enabling the aircraft to achieve a range of 300 kilometers (183 miles) with a maximum cruising speed of 300 kph (183 mph).
In many ways, electric-powered aviation is still in its infancy. Electric cars with thousand-pound batteries generally max out at 300 miles per charge. The most sophisticated electric aircraft today can barely muster an hour aloft at 99 mph — and that’s without vertical take-off and landing. But Patrick Nathen, co-founder of Lilium Jet and the startup’s head of calculation and design, said their battery technology will get the job done.
“It’s the same battery that you can find in any Tesla,” Nathen told The Verge. “The concept is that we are lifting with our wings as soon as we progress into the air with velocity, which makes our airplane very efficient. Compared to other flights, we have extremely low power consumption.”
Safety is a major emphasis at Lilium, Nathen added. While the startup is working toward having its aircraft piloted autonomously, it intends to use human pilots in the meantime. There will be parachutes on board, and something called the “Flight Envelope Protection System” will prevents the pilot from performing maneuvers or flying the aircraft beyond safe flight parameters.
The plan is to eventually build a 5-passenger version of the jet. So anyone who dreams of a minivan version of the Jetsons’ flying car, this craft is for you. And naturally, Lilium envisions its aircraft used in dense, urban areas in an on-demand capacity. Pull out your smartphone, book a seat, and make your way to the nearest launchpad, which can be found at street level or on a nearby rooftop. Like Uber, but for flying cars (even though Uber is already working on its own version).And before you dismiss this as another luxury mode of transportation for the super-rich, Nathen insists the goal is to get the cost low enough so everyone can use it. A 55-minute taxi ride from Midtown Manhattan to JFK airport, with a fare of $55, becomes a breezy 5 minute flight in a Lilium jet, for as low as $6.
If it seems fantastical, it’s probably because it is. Flying cars, of course, are ridiculous. Wild-eyed inventors have been pursuing the idea for decades, with little to show for it. Many have gone broke, and some have died, trying to turn their fever dreams into reality. The fact that flying cars act as a stand-in for some distant, unattainable future isn’t a mistake. There are many things about flying cars that make them impractical, unworkable, and even wrongheaded. The problem is that these aircraft don’t solve any problems for normal human beings, nor do they even gesture toward a meaningful impact in the distant future. But that hasn’t stopped many from trying. And with better materials, autonomous navigation systems, and other technical advances, dozens of well-heeled investors are convinced that we’re on the cusp of seeing flying cars — or at least small, electric, autonomously flown commuter planes — take to the skies.
“We are right now at the magical point,” Nathen said. “We have without a doubt started at the perfect time… This is why you can see a lot of different projects from all over the world.”
2016 was an incredible year for technology, and for humanity.
Despite all the negative political-related news, there were 10 tech trends this year that positively transformed humanity.
For this “2017 Kick-Off” post, I reviewed 52 weeks of science and technology breakthroughs, and categorized them into the top 10 tech trends changing our world.
I’m blown away by how palpable the feeling of exponential change has become.
I’m also certain that 99.99% of humanity doesn’t understand or appreciate the ramifications of what is coming.
In this post, enjoy the top 10 tech trends of the past 12 months and why they are important to you.
Let’s dive in…
1. We Are Hyper-Connecting the World
In 2010, 1.8 billion people were connected. Today, that number is about 3 billion, and by 2022 – 2025, that number will expand to include every human on the planet, approaching 8 billion humans.
Unlike when I was connected 20 years ago at 9,600 baud via AOL, the world today is coming online at one megabit per second or greater, with access to the world’s information on Google, access to the world’s products on Amazon, access to massive computing power on AWS and artificial intelligence with Watson… not to mention crowdfunding for capital and crowdsourcing for expertise.
a) Google’s 5G Solar Drones Internet Service: Project Skybender is Google’s secretive 5G Internet drone initiative. News broke this year that they have been testing these solar-powered drones at Spaceport America in New Mexico to explore ways to deliver high-speed Internet from the air. Their purported millimeter wave technology could deliver data from drones up to 40 times faster than 4G.
b) Facebook’s Solar Drone Internet Service: Even before Google, Facebook has been experimenting with a solar-powered drone, also for the express purpose of providing Internet to billions. The drone has the wingspan of an airliner and flies with roughly the power of three blowdryers.
c) ViaSat Plans 1 Terabit Internet Service: ViaSat, a U.S.-based satellite company, has teamed up with Boeing to launch three satellites to provide 1 terabit-per-second Internet connections to remote areas, aircraft and maritime vehicles. ViaSat is scheduled to launch its satellite ViaSat2 in early 2017.
d) OneWeb Raises $1.2B for 900 Satellite Constellation: An ambitious low-Earth orbit satellite system proposed by my friends Greg Wyler, Paul Jacobs and Richard Branson just closed $1.2 billion in financing. This 900-satellite system will offer global internet services as soon as 2019.
e) Musk Announces 4,425 Internet Satellite System: Perhaps the most ambitious plan for global internet domination was proposed this year by SpaceX founder Elon Musk, with plans for SpaceX to deploy a 4,425 low-Earth orbit satellite system to blanket the entire planet in broadband.
In December, the World Economic Forum reported that solar and wind energy is now the same price or cheaper than new fossil fuel capacity in more than 30 countries.
“As prices for solar and wind power continue their precipitous fall, two-thirds of all nations will reach the point known as ‘grid parity’ within a few years, even without subsidies,” they added.
This is one of the most important developments in the history of humanity, and this year marked a number of major milestones for renewable energy.
Here’s 10 data points (stories) I’ve hand-picked to hammer home the historic nature of this 2016 achievement.
a) 25 percent of the World’s Power Comes From Renewables: REN21, a global renewable energy policy network, published a report showing that a quarter of the world’s power now comes from renewable energy. International investment in renewable energy reached $286 billion last year (with solar accounting for over $160b of this), and it’s accelerating.
e) Coal Will Never Recover: The coal industry, once the backbone of U.S. energy, is fading fast on account of renewables like solar and wind. Official and expert reports now state that it will never recover (e.g., coal power generation in Texas is down from 39% in early 2015 to 24.8% in May 2016).
j) Tesla’s Gigafactory: Tesla’s $5 billion structure in Nevada will produce 500,000 lithium ion batteries annually and Tesla’s Model III vehicle. It is now over 30 percent complete… the 10 million square foot structure is set to be done by 2020. Musk projected that a total of 100 Gigafactories could provide enough storage capacity to run the entire planet on renewables.
3. Glimpsing the End of Cancer and Disease
Though it may seem hard to believe, the end of cancer and disease is near.
Scientists and researchers have been working diligently to find novel approaches to combating these diseases, and 2016 saw some extraordinary progress in this regard.
Here’re my top 10 picks that give me great faith about our abilities to cure cancer and most diseases:
a) Cancer Immunotherapy Makes Strides (Extraordinary Results): Immunotherapy involves using a patient’s own immune system (in this case, T cells) to fight cancer. Doctors remove immune cells from patients, tag them with “receptor” molecules that target the specific cancer, and then infuse the cells back in the body. During the study, 94% of patients with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) saw symptoms vanish completely. Patients with other blood cancers had response rates greater than 80%, and more than half experienced complete remission.
b) In China, CRISPR/Cas9 used in First Human Trial: A team of scientists in China (Sichuan University) became the first to treat a human patient with an aggressive form of lung cancer with the groundbreaking CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technique.
c) NIH Approves Human Trials Using CRISPR: A team of physicians at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine had their project of modifying the immune cells of 18 different cancer patients with the CRISPR-Cas9 system approved by the National Institute of Health. Results are TBD.
f) New Treatment Causes HIV Infected Cells to Vanish: A team of scientists in the U.K. discovered a new treatment for HIV. The patient was treated with vaccines that helped the body recognize the HIV-infected cells. Then, the drug Vorinostat was administered to activate the dormant cells so they could be spotted by the immune system.
g) CRISPR Cures Mice of Sickle Cell Disease: CRISPR was used to completely cure sickle cell by editing the errant DNA sequence in mice. The treatment may soon be used to cure this disease, which affects about 100,000 Americans.
h) Eradicating Measles (in the U.S.): The World Health Organization (WHO) announced that after 50 years, they have successfully eradicated measles in the U.S. This is one of the most contagious diseases around the world.
i) New Ebola Vaccine Proved to be 100% Effective: None of the nearly 6,000 individuals vaccinated with rVSV-ZEBOV in Guinea, a country with more than 3,000 confirmed cases of Ebola, showed any signs of contracting the disease.
j) Eradicating Polio: The World Health Organization has announced that it expects to fully eradicate polio worldwide by Early 2017.
4. Progress on Extending Human Life
I am personally convinced that we are on the verge of significantly impacting human longevity. At a minimum, making “100 years old the new 60,” as we say at Human Longevity Inc.
This year, hundreds of millions of dollars were poured into research initiatives and companies focused on extending life.
Here are five of the top stories from 2016 in longevity research:
a) 500-Year-Old Shark Discovered: A Greenland shark that could have been over 500 years old was discovered this year, making the species the longest-lived vertebrate in the world.
b) Genetically Reversing Aging: With an experiment that replicated stem cell-like conditions, Salk Institute researchers made human skin cells in a dish look and behave young again, and mice with premature aging disease were rejuvenated with a 30% increase in lifespan. The Salk Institute expects to see this work in human trials in less than 10 years.
d) Funding for Anti-Aging Startups: Jeff Bezos and the Mayo Clinic-backed Anti-Aging Startup Unity Biotechnology with $116 million. The company will focus on medicines to slow the effects of age-related diseases by removing senescent cells (as mentioned in the article above).
e) Young Blood Experiments Show Promising Results for Longevity: Sakura Minami and her colleagues at Alkahest, a company specializing in blood-derived therapies for neurodegenerative diseases, have found that simply injecting older mice with the plasma of young humans twice a week improved the mice’s cognitive functions as well as their physical performance. This practice has seen a 30% increase in lifespan, and increase in muscle tissue and cognitive function.
A 14-year-old girl who said before dying of cancer that she wanted a chance to live longer has been allowed by the high court to have her body cryogenically frozen in the hope that she can be brought back to life at a later time.
The court ruled that the teenager’s mother, who supported the girl’s wish to be cryogenically preserved, should be the only person allowed to make decisions about the disposal of her body. Her estranged father had initially opposed her wishes.
During the last months of her life, the teenager, who had a rare form of cancer, used the internet to investigate cryonics. Known only as JS, she sent a letter to the court: “I have been asked to explain why I want this unusual thing done. I’m only 14 years old and I don’t want to die, but I know I am going to. I think being cryo‐preserved gives me a chance to be cured and woken up, even in hundreds of years’ time.
“I don’t want to be buried underground. I want to live and live longer and I think that in the future they might find a cure for my cancer and wake me up. I want to have this chance. This is my wish.”
Following the ruling, in a case described by the judge as exceptional, the body of JS has now been preserved and transported from where she lived in London to the US, where it has been frozen “in perpetuity” by a commercial company at a cost of £37,000.
The girl’s parents are divorced. She had lived with her mother for most of her life and had had no face-to-face contact with her father since 2008. She resisted his attempts to get back in touch when he learnt of her illness in 2015.
The judge, Mr Justice Peter Jackson, ruled that nothing about the case should be reported while she was alive because media coverage would distress her. She was too ill to attend the court hearing but the judge visited her in hospital.
Jackson wrote: “I was moved by the valiant way in which she was facing her predicament. It is no surprise that this application is the only one of its kind to have come before the courts in this country, and probably anywhere else. It is an example of the new questions that science poses to the law, perhaps most of all to family law … No other parent has ever been put in [the] position [of JS’s father].”
He added: “A dispute about a parent being able to see his child after death would be momentous enough on its own if the case did not also raise the issue of cryonic preservation.”
Since the first preservation by freezing in the 1960s the process has been performed only a few hundred times. The body has to be prepared shortly after death, ideally within minutes. Arrangements then have to be made for the body to be transported by a registered funeral director.
“The scientific theory underlying cryonics is speculative and controversial, and there is considerable debate about its ethical implications,” Jackson said. “On the other hand, cryopreservation, the preservation of cells and tissues by freezing, is now a well-known process in certain branches of medicine, for example the preservation of sperm and embryos as part of fertility treatment. Cryonics is cryopreservation taken to its extreme.”
The judge said the girl’s family was not well off but that her mother’s parents had raised the money. A voluntary UK group of cryonics enthusiasts, who were not medically trained, had offered to help make arrangements.
Co-operation of a hospital was required. “This situation gives rise to serious legal and ethical issues for the hospital trust,” the judge observed, “which has to act within the law and has duties to its other patients and to its staff.”
The hospital trust in the case was willing to help although it stressed it was not endorsing cryonics. “On the contrary, all the professionals feel deep unease about it,” the judge said.
The Human Tissue Authority (HTA), which regulates organisations which remove, store and use human tissue, had been consulted but said it had no remit to intervene in such a case.
“The HTA would be likely to make representations that activities of the present kind should be brought within the regulatory framework if they showed signs of increasing,” Jackson said.
The HTA said: “We are gathering information about cryopreservation to determine how widespread it is currently, or could become in the future, and any risks it may pose to the individual, or public confidence more broadly. We are in discussion with key stakeholders … and the possible need for regulatory oversight.”
The government may need to intervene in future, Jackson said: “It may be … events in this case suggest the need for proper regulation of cryonic preservation in this country if it is to happen in future.”
Inquiries made of American authorities revealed that there was no prohibition on human remains being shipped to the US for cryonic preservation, providing certain provisions were made.
During the course of the 14-year-old’s case, the father changed his mind and told the court: “I respect the decisions [my daughter] is making. This is the last and only thing she has asked from me.”
A child cannot make a will and the court had to decide where the girl’s best interests lay. The judge concluded that allowing the mother to make a decision about her daughter would be in her best interests. The girl died peacefully knowing that her body would be frozen, the judge recorded.
The Department of Health said: “Cases such as this are rare. Although there are no current plans for legislative change in this area, this is an area we will continue to keep under review with the Human Tissue Authority.
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”
When I published Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think in February 2012, I included about 80 charts in the back of the book showing very strong evidence that the world is getting better.
Over the last five years, this trend has continued and accelerated.
This blog includes additional “Evidence for Abundance” that you can share with friends and family to change their mindset.
We truly are living in the most exciting time to be alive.
By the way, if you have additional ‘Evidence for Abundance’ (charts, data, etc.) that you’ve encountered, please email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Why This Is Important
Before I share the new “data” with you, it’s essential that you understand why this matters.
We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded by negative news from every angle. If you turn on CNN (what I call the Crisis News Network), you’ll predominantly hear about death, terrorism, airplane crashes, bombings, financial crisis and political scandal.
I think of the news as a drug pusher, and negative news as their drug.
There’s a reason for this.
We humans are wired to pay 10x more attention to negative news than positive news.
Being able to rapidly notice and pay attention to negative news (like a predator or a dangerous fire) was an evolutionary advantage to keep you alive on the savannas of Africa millions of years ago.
Today, we still pay more attention to negative news, and the news media knows this. They take advantage of it to drive our eyeballs to their advertisers. Typically, good news networks fail as businesses.
It’s not that the news media is lying — it’s just not a balanced view of what’s going on in the world.
And because your mindset matters a lot, my purpose of my work and this post is to share with you the data supporting the positive side of the equation and to give you insight to some fundamental truths about where humanity really is going…
The truth is, driven by advances in exponential technologies, things are getting much better around the world at an accelerating rate.
NOTE: This is not to say that there aren’t major issues we still face, like climate crisis, religious radicalism, terrorism, and so on. It’s just that we forget and romanticize the world in centuries past — and life back then was short and brutal.
My personal mission, and that of XPRIZE and Singularity University, is to help build a “bridge to abundance”: a world in which we are able to meet the basic needs of every man, woman and child.
So, now, let’s look at 10 new charts.
More Evidence for Abundance
Below are 10 powerful charts illustrating the positive developments we’ve made in recent years.
1. Living in Absolute Poverty (1981-2011)
Declining rates of absolute poverty (Source: Our World in Data, Max Roser)
Absolute poverty is defined as living on less than $1.25/day. Over the last 30 years, the share of the global population living in absolute poverty has declined from 53% to under 17%.
While there is still room for improvement (especially in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia), the quality of life in every region above has been steadily improving and will continue to do so. Over the next 20 years, we have the ability to extinguish absolute poverty on Earth.
2. Child Labor Is on the Decline (2000-2020)
Child Labor on the decline (Source: International Labor Organization)
This chart depicts the actual and projected changes in the number of children (in millions) in hazardous work conditions and performing child labor between 2000 and 2020.
As you can see, in the last 16 years, the number of children in these conditions has been reduced by more than 50%. As we head to a world of low-cost robotics, where such machines can operate far faster, far cheaper and around the clock, the basic rationale for child labor will completely disappear, and it will drop to zero.
3. Income Spent on Food
Income spent on food (Source: USDA, Economic Research Service, Food Expenditure Series)
This chart shows the percent per capita of disposable income spent on food in the U.S. from 1960 to 2012.
If you focus on the blue line, ‘Food at home,’ you can see that over the last 50 years, the percent of our disposable income spent on food has dropped by more than 50 percent, from 14% to less than 6%.
This is largely a function of better food production technology, distribution processes and policies that have reduced the cost of food. We’re demonetizing food rapidly.
4. Infant Mortality Rates
Infant Mortality Rate (Source: Devpolicy, UN Interagency Group for Child Mortality Est. 2013)
This chart depicts global under-five-years-old mortality rates between 1990 and 2012 based on the number of deaths per 1,000 live births.
In the last 25 years, under-five mortality rates have dropped by 50%. Infant mortality rates and neonatal mortality rates have also dropped significantly.
And this is just in the last 25 years. If you looked at the last 100 years, which I talk about in Abundance, the improvements have been staggering.
5. Annual Cases of Guinea Worm
Guinea worm cases (Source: GiveWell, Carter Center)
Guinea worm is a nasty parasite that used to affect over 3.5 million people only 30 years ago. Today, thanks to advances in medical technologies, research and therapeutics, the parasite has almost been eradicated. In 2008, there were just 4,647 cases.
I’m sharing the chart above because it represents humanity’s growing ability to address and cure diseases that have plagued us for ages. Expect that through technologies such as gene drive/CRISPR-Cas9 and other genomic technologies, we will rapidly begin to eliminate dozens or hundreds of similar plagues.
6. Teen Birth Rates in the United States
Teen birth rates (Source: Vox, Centers for Disease Control)
The chart above shows the dramatic decline in the number of teen (15 to 19 years old) birth rates in the United States since 1950. At its peak, 89.1 out of 1,000 teenage women were giving birth. Today, it’s dropped under 29 out of 1,000.
This is largely a function of the population becoming better educated, the cost of birth control being reduced and becoming more widely available, and cultural shifts in the United States.
7. Homicide Rates in Western Europe
Homicide rates in Europe (Source: Our World in Data, Max Roser & Manuel Eisner)
The chart above shows the number of homicides per 100,000 people per year in five Western European regions from 1300 to 2010.
As you can see, Western Europe used to be a very dangerous place to live. Over the last 700+ years, the number of homicides per 100,000 people has decreased to almost zero.
It is important to look back this far (700 years) because we humans lose perspective and tend to romanticize the past, but forget how violent life truly was in, say, the Middle Ages, or even just a couple of hundred years ago.
We have made dramatic and positive changes. On an evolutionary time scale, 700 years is NOTHING, and our progress as a species is impressive.
8. U.S. Violent Crime Rates, 1973 – 2010
U.S. violent crime rates (Source: Gallup, Bureau of Justice Statistics)
In light of the recent terrorist shooting in Orlando, and the school shootings in years past, it is sometimes easy to lose perspective.
The truth is, in aggregate, we’ve made significant progress in reducing violent crimes in the United States in the last 50 years.
As recent as the early 80s and mid-90s, there were over 50 violent crime victims per 1,000 individuals. Recently, this number has dropped threefold to 15 victims per 1,000 people.
We continue to make our country (and the world) a safer place to live.
9. Average Years of Education, 1820-2003
Average years of education (Source: Our World in Data, Max Roser)
I love this chart. In the last 200 years, the average number of ‘years of education’ received by people worldwide has increased dramatically.
In the U.S. in 1820, the average person received less than 2 years of education. These days, it’s closer to 21 years of education, a 10X improvement.
We are rapidly continuing the demonetization, dematerialization and democratization of education. Today, I’m very proud of the $15 million Global Learning XPRIZE as a major step in that direction.
Within the next 20 years, the best possible education on Earth will be delivered by AI for free — and the quality will be the same for the son or daughter of a billionaire as it is for the son or daughter of the poorest parents on the planet.
10. Global Literacy Rates
Global literacy rates (Source: Our World in Data, Max Roser)
Along those same lines, the extraordinary chart above shows how global literacy rates have increased from around 10% to close to 100% in the last 500 years.
This is both a function of technology democratizing access to education, as well as abundance giving us the freedom of time to learn.
Education and literacy is a core to my abundance thesis — a better-educated world raises all tides.
Again, if you have other great examples of abundance (charts and data), please send them to me at email@example.com.
We live in the most exciting time to be alive! Enjoy it.
Honeybees, which pollinate nearly one-third of the food we eat , have been dying at unprecedented rates because of a mysterious phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder (CCD). The situation is so dire that in late June the White House gave a new task force just 180 days to devise a coping strategy to protect bees and other pollinators. The crisis is generally attributed to a mixture of disease, parasites, and pesticides.
Other scientists are pursuing a different tack: replacing bees. While there’s no perfect solution, modern technology offers hope.
Last year, Harvard University researchers led by engineering professor Robert Wood introduced the first RoboBees, bee-size robots with the ability to lift off the ground and hover midair when tethered to a power supply. The details were published in the journal Science. A coauthor of that report, Harvard graduate student and mechanical engineer Kevin Ma, tells Business Insider that the team is “on the eve of the next big development.” Says Ma: “The robot can now carry more weight.”
The project represents a breakthrough in the field of micro-aerial vehicles. It had previously been impossible to pack all the things needed to make a robot fly onto such a small structure and keep it lightweight.
The researchers believe that as soon as 10 years from now these RoboBees could artificially pollinate a field of crops, a critical development if the commercial pollination industry cannot recover from severe yearly losses over the past decade.
The White House underscored what’s at stake, noting that the loss of bees and other species “requires immediate attention to ensure the sustainability of our food production systems, avoid additional economic impact on the agricultural sector, and protect the health of the environment.” Honeybees alone contribute more than $15 billion in value to U.S. agricultural crops each year.
But RoboBees are not yet a viable technological solution. First, the tiny bots have to be able to fly on their own and “talk” to one another to carry out tasks like a real honeybee hive.
“RoboBees will work best when employed as swarms of thousands of individuals, coordinating their actions without relying on a single leader,” Wood and colleagues wrote in an article for Scientific American. “The hive must be resilient enough so that the group can complete its objectives even if many bees fail.”
Although Wood wrote that CCD and the threat it poses to agriculture were part of the original inspiration for creating a robotic bee, the devices aren’t meant to replace natural pollinators forever. We still need to focus on efforts to save these vital creatures. RoboBees would serve as “stopgap measure while a solution to CCD is implemented,” the project’s website says.
Harvard’s Kevin Ma spoke to Business Insider about the team’s progress in building the bee-size robot since publishing its Science paper last year.
Following is an edited version of that interview.
Business Insider: Where are you a little over a year after it was announced that the first robotic insect took flight?
Kevin Ma: We’ve been continuing on the path to getting the robot to be completely autonomous, meaning it flies without being tethered and without the need for anyone to drive it. We’ve been building a larger version of the robot so that it can can carry the battery, electronic centers, and all the other things necessary for autonomous flight.
BI: Last month, Greenpeace released a short video that imagines a future in which swarms of robotic bees have been deployed to save our planet after the real insects go extinct. It’s a cautionary story rather than one of technological adaptation. What is your reaction to that?
KM: Having a multitude of options to deal with future problems is important. It’s hard to predict what exact solution we would need in the future. Flexibility is key.
BI: Will robot bees eventually be able to operate like honeybee hives to pollinate commercial crops?
KM: Yes. You could replace a hive of honeybees that would otherwise be working on a field of flowers. They would be able to perform the same task of going from flower to flower picking up and putting down pollen. They wouldn’t have to collect nectar like real bees. They would just be transmitting pollen. But to do this the robots first need to fly on their own and fly very well. In theory, they would just have to come back to something to recharge their batteries. But we’re very early on in working this out.
BI: When can we see RoboBees pollinating flowers?
KM: With continued government funding and research we could see this thing functional in 10 to 15 years.
BI: What’s next?
KM:We’re on the eve of the next big development. Something will be published in the next few months. The robot can now now carry more weight. That’s important for the battery and other electronics and sensors.
Once the robot can stay aloft on its own, we would be working on things like allowing it to perform tasks, increasing its battery life, and making it fly faster. Then there are a whole host of issues to work out dealing with wireless communications.
University of Pittsburgh researchers have modeled the design of a “material that computes” — a hybrid material, powered only by its own chemical reactions, that can recognize simple patterns.
The material could one day be integrated into clothing and used to monitor the human body, or developed as a skin for “squishy” robots, for example, according to the researchers, writing in the open-access AAAS journal Science Advances.
A computer that combines gels and piezeoelectric materials
The computations (needed to design the hypothetical material) were modeled utilizing Belousov-Zhabotinsky (BZ) gels, a substance that oscillates in the absence of external stimuli, combined with an overlaying piezoelectric (PZ) cantilever, forming “BZ-PZ” (as in “easy peasy”). The BZ gels oscillate periodically, triggered by chemical stimulation, without the need for external driving stimuli. Piezoelectric (PZ) materials generate a voltage when deformed and, conversely, undergo deformation in the presence of an applied voltage.
Two BZ-PZ oscillator units connected with electrical wires. Triggered by the chemical oscillations, the BZ gels (green) expand in volume, generating a force (F1 and F2) and thereby cause the deflections ξ1 and ξ2 of the PZ cantilevers (orange and blue layers) , which generate an electric voltage U. That voltage then deflects the cantilevers (the inverse PZ effect), which then compress the underlying BZ gels and thereby modify the chemomechanical oscillations in these gels. The end result is the components’ response to self-generated signals (sensing), volumetric changes in the gel (actuation), and the passage of signals between the units (communication). For computation, the communication also leads to synchronization of the BZ gel oscillators. (credit: Yan Fang et al./Science Advances)
“By combining these attributes into a ‘BZ-PZ’ unit and then connecting the units by electrical wires, we designed a device that senses, actuates, and communicates without an external electrical power source,” the researchers explain in the paper.*
The result is that the device can also be used to perform computation. To use that for pattern recognition, the researchers first stored a pattern of numbers as a set of polarities in the BZ-PZ units, and the input patterns were coded with the initial phase of the oscillations imposed on these units.
Multiple BZ-PS units wired in serial and parallel configurations to form a network (credit: Yan Fang et al./Science Advances)
With multiple BZ-PZ units, the oscillators can be wired into a network formed, for example, from units that are connected in parallel or in series. The resulting transduction between chemomechanical and electrical energy creates signals that quickly propagate and thus permits remote coupled oscillators to communicate and synchronize. This synchronization behavior in BZ-PZ network can be used for oscillator-based computing.
The computational modeling revealed that the input pattern closest to the stored pattern exhibits the fastest convergence time to the stable synchronization behavior, and is the most effective at recognizing patterns. In this study, the materials were programmed to recognize black-and-white pixels in the shape of numbers that had been distorted.
The researchers’ next goal is to expand from analyzing black-and-white pixels to grayscale and more complicated images and shapes, as well as to enhance the devices storage capability.
Perfect for monitoring human and robot bodies
Compared to a traditional computer, these computations are slow and take minutes. “Individual events are slow because the period of the BZ oscillations is slow,” said Victor V. Yashin, Research Assistant Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering. “However, there are some tasks that need a longer analysis, and are more natural in function. That’s why this type of system is perfect to monitor environments like the human body.”
For example, Dr. Yashin said that patients recovering from a hand injury could wear a glove that monitors movement, and can inform doctors whether the hand is healing properly or if the patient has improved mobility. Another use would be to monitor individuals at risk for early onset Alzheimer’s, by wearing footwear that would analyze gait and compare results against normal movements, or a garment that monitors cardiovascular activity for people at risk of heart disease or stroke.
Since the devices convert chemical reactions to electrical energy, there would be no need for external electrical power. This would also be ideal for a robot or other device that could utilize the material as a sensory skin.
The research is funded by a five-year National Science Foundation Integrated NSF Support Promoting Interdisciplinary Research and Education (INSPIRE) grant, which focuses on complex and pressing scientific problems that lie at the intersection of traditional disciplines.
“This work at the University of Pittsburgh … is an example of this groundbreaking shift away from traditional silicon CMOS-based digital computing to a non-von Neumann machine in a polymer substrate, with remarkable low power consumption,” said Sankar Basu, NSF program director.
* This continues the research of Anna C. Balazs, Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering, and Steven P. Levitan, the John A. Jurenko Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering.
Abstract of Pattern recognition with “materials that compute”
Driven by advances in materials and computer science, researchers are attempting to design systems where the computer and material are one and the same entity. Using theoretical and computational modeling, we design a hybrid material system that can autonomously transduce chemical, mechanical, and electrical energy to perform a computational task in a self-organized manner, without the need for external electrical power sources. Each unit in this system integrates a self-oscillating gel, which undergoes the Belousov-Zhabotinsky (BZ) reaction, with an overlaying piezoelectric (PZ) cantilever. The chemomechanical oscillations of the BZ gels deflect the PZ layer, which consequently generates a voltage across the material. When these BZ-PZ units are connected in series by electrical wires, the oscillations of these units become synchronized across the network, where the mode of synchronization depends on the polarity of the PZ. We show that the network of coupled, synchronizing BZ-PZ oscillators can perform pattern recognition. The “stored” patterns are set of polarities of the individual BZ-PZ units, and the “input” patterns are coded through the initial phase of the oscillations imposed on these units. The results of the modeling show that the input pattern closest to the stored pattern exhibits the fastest convergence time to stable synchronization behavior. In this way, networks of coupled BZ-PZ oscillators achieve pattern recognition. Further, we show that the convergence time to stable synchronization provides a robust measure of the degree of match between the input and stored patterns. Through these studies, we establish experimentally realizable design rules for creating “materials that compute.”
While traveling in Western Samoa many years ago, I met a young Harvard University graduate student researching ants. He invited me on a hike into the jungles to assist with his search for the tiny insect. He told me his goal was to discover a new species of ant, in hopes it might be named after him one day.
Whenever I look up at the stars at night pondering the cosmos, I think of my ant collector friend, kneeling in the jungle with a magnifying glass, scouring the earth. I think of him, because I believe in aliens—and I’ve often wondered if aliens are doing the same to us.
Believing in aliens—or insanely smart artificial intelligences existing in the universe—has become very fashionable in the last 10 years. And discussing its central dilemma: the Fermi paradox, has become even more so. The Fermi paradox states that the universe is very big—with maybe a trillion galaxies that might contain 500 billion stars and planets each—and out of that insanely large number, it would only take a tiny fraction of them to have habitable planets capable of bringing forth life.
Whatever you think, the numbers point to the insane fact that aliens don’t just exist, but probably billions of species of aliens exist. And the Fermi paradox asks: With so many alien civilizations out there, why haven’t we found them? Or why haven’t they found us?
The Fermi paradox’s Wikipedia page has dozens of answers about why we haven’t heard from superintelligent aliens, ranging from “it is too expensive to spread physically throughout the galaxy” to “intelligent civilizations are too far apart in space or time” to crazy talk like “it is the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself.”
Millions of singularities have already happened, but we’re similar to blind bacteria in our bodies running around cluelessly
Given that our planet is only 4.5 billion years old in a universe that many experts think is pushing 14 billion years, it’s safe to say most aliens are way smarter than us. After all, with intelligence, there is a massive divide between the quality of intelligences. There’s ant level intelligence. There’s human intelligence. And then there’s the hypothetical intelligence of aliens—presumably ones who have reached the singularity.
The singularity, David Kelley, co-founder of Wired Magazine, says, is the point at which “all the change in the last million years will be superseded by the change in the next five minutes.”
If Kelley is correct about how fast the singularity accelerates change—and I think he is—in all probability, many alien species will be trillions of times more intelligent than people.
Put yourself in the shoes of extraterrestrial intelligence and consider what that means. If you were a trillion times smarter than a human being, would you notice the human race at all? Or if you did, would you care? After all, do you notice the 100 trillion microbes or more in your body? No, unless they happen to give you health problems, like E. coli and other sicknesses. More on that later.
One of the big problems with our understandings of aliens has to do with Hollywood. Movies and television have led us to think of aliens as green, slimy creatures traveling around in flying saucers. Nonsense. I think if advanced aliens have just 250 years more evolution than us, they almost certainly won’t be static physical beings anymore—at least not in the molecular sense. They also won’t be artificial intelligences living in machines either, which is what I believe humans are evolving into this century. No, becoming machine intelligence is just another passing phase of evolution—one that might only last a few decades for humans, if that.
Truly advanced intelligence will likely be organized intelligently on the atomic scale, and likely even on scales far smaller. Aliens will evolve until they are pure, willful conscious energy—and maybe even something beyond that. They long ago realized that biology and ones and zeroes in machines was literally too rudimentary to be very functional. True advanced intelligence will be spirit-like—maybe even on par with some people’s ideas of ghosts.
On a long enough time horizon, every biological species would at some point evolve into machines, and then evolve into intelligent energy with a consciousness. Such brilliant life might have the ability to span millions of lights years nearly instantaneously throughout the universe, morphing into whatever form it wanted.
Like all evolving life, the key to attaining the highest form of being and intelligence possible was to intimately become and control the best universal elements—those that are conducive to such goals, especially personal power over nature. Everything else in advanced alien evolution is discarded as nonfunctional and nonessential.
All intelligence in the universe, like all matter and energy, follows patterns—based on rules of physics. We engage—and often battle—those patterns and rules, until we understand them, and utilize them as best as possible. Such is evolution. And the universe is imbued with wanting life to arise and evolve, as MIT physicist Jeremy England, points out in this Quanta Magazine article titled A New Physics Theory of Life.
Back to my ant collector friend in Western Samoa. It would be nice to believe that the difference between the ant collector and the ant’s intelligence was the same between humans and very sophisticated aliens. Sadly, that is not the case. Not even close.
The difference between a species that has just 100 more years of evolution than us could be a billion times that of an ant versus a human—given the acceleration of intelligence. Now consider an added billion years of evolution. This is way beyond comparing apples and oranges.
The crux of the problem with aliens and humans is we’re not hearing or seeing them because we don’t have ways to understand their language. It’s simply beyond our comprehension and physical abilities. Millions of singularities have already happened, but we’re similar to blind bacteria in our bodies running around cluelessly.
The good news, though, is we’re about to make contact with the best of the aliens out there. Or rather they’re about to school us. The reason: The universe is precious, and in approximately a century’s time, humans may be able to conduct physics experiments that could level the entire universe—such as building massive particle accelerators that make the God particle swallow the cosmos whole.
Like a grumpy landlord at the door, alien intelligence will make contact and let us know what we can and can’t do when it comes to messing with the real estate of the universe. Knock. Knock.
Zoltan Istvan is a futurist, journalist, and author of the novel The Transhumanist Wager. He writes an occasional column for Motherboard in which he ruminates on the future beyond natural human ability.
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?”