Friday, January 02, 2015

Short steps to the Singularity?

Okay, then. As we launch into a new year... possibly the first "real" year of a new century... it seems that a theme will be deification or bust!  Either we build up enough momentum to attain godlike powers - in sane and wise ways - or we fall short and crumble into a morass of unsolved problems and stifling dogmas.  Oh... but don't forget the "sane and wise" part!  Which takes us to our first item....

One more in a never-ending stream of shyster Fountain of Youth moments:  “In laboratory tests, ibuprofen was found to extend the lives of worms and flies by the equivalent of about 12 years in human terms."

In other words, just one more way to flick on some longevity switches in lower animals that are already flicked on, in humans. 

Do not get your hopes up, when someone doubles the lifespan of some worms or flies or even mice.  We have already grabbed the low-hanging fruit of longevity and I doubt any such easy switches are within arm's reach.  We may continue to expand the percentage of humans who reach to "wall" - around age ninety - hale and hearty. But I have yet to see a single thing that substantially shifts the wall itself.

Oh it will happen!  Sooner or later. But we've "plucked the low-hanging (longevity) fruit." The rest is gonna be hard.

To see this explained (and there are other examples, below) have a look at my article -- Do We Really Want Immortality? 

== Neural Networks to AI ==

Pretty big news on our way to robots. The latest generation of “deep neural networks” matches the ability of the primate brain to recognize objects during a brief glance. Until now, no computer model has been able to match the primate brain at visual object recognition during a brief glance.

Self-recharging batteries? A new patent from Nokia suggests that flexible and almost transparent graphene layers can recharge from a reaction with humid air, then dry out during discharge.  Whoof! 

Simulations of the entire nervous system of the c. elegans nematode’s 302 neurons took years… it’s complicated. But the mesh models are now good enough to upload into a LEGO robot and… it works! Well, partly.  "It is claimed that the robot behaved in ways that are similar to observed C. elegans. Stimulation of the nose stopped forward motion. Touching the anterior and posterior touch sensors made the robot move forward and back accordingly. Stimulating the food sensor made the robot move forward."  See the video. Remember this is not activity “programmed” in a classic sense. It “emerges” from the cellular rules of a natural organism.

Special Kind of Plastic Pipe Could be the Solution to California's Water Woes: Researchers claim to have found a plastic with a particular ability to allow water vapor to pass through it, but virtually nothing else. Pipes are installed underground and filled by gravity from saltwater tanks above. Plants receive freshwater from the water vapor that permeates through the pipe walls and then condenses. The pipes need to be flushed periodically to get the salt out. Also to isolate wastewater contaminants.  Don’t you love news of potential game-changers?  Let’s hope this is real.

A thoughtful and provocative comic strip -- Questionable Content -- takes on several deep topics with humor… all of them topics I’ve covered in stories. About whether AIs might like us… and whether dolphins may be a bit too horny. 

See especially (re dolphins) -- my short story Temptation.

Re “friendly” AI? See Existence.

African Bushmen people or Khoisan are rare today. But apparently once they out-numbered all other humans.... till the climate changed. 

Tons of hype and kilotons of cash swirl around MAGIC LEAP, which promises Augmented Reality you can wear so comfortably that your surroundings will become “magical”… as several of us have portrayed in novels for ages. But yes, delivering AR for real will be a big deal. This article shows you a lot of the back story and smoke around this company.
I guess time will tell if the billions pouring into this venture will pay off. I wish em luck! 

== From the Kurzweil File ==

“New experiments suggest that riluzole, a drug already on the market as a treatment for ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), may help prevent the fading memory and clouding judgment that comes with advancing age.”

Though let me reiterate… ageing is one area where results from mice, rats, fruitflies and all that may be completely irrelevant to humans, for reasons that I lay out here.

“An international team of researchers has proved that two peculiar features of the quantum world previously considered distinct are different manifestations of the same thing. They found that “wave-particle duality” is simply the quantum “uncertainty principle” in disguise, reducing two mysteries to one.”

Back to our lead topic! “By extrapolating various key technology trends into the near future, in the context of the overall dramatic technological growth the human race has seen in the past centuries and millennia, it seems quite plausible that superintelligent artificial minds will be here much faster than most people think.” So says AI researcher Ben Goertzel in his collection of essays (available on Amazon): Ten Years to the Singularity If We Really Try...and other Essays on AGI and its Implications.

In many ways, Ben’s essays boil down to “The Power of Positive Thinking,” or if we believe we can do it, we can do it. That's kinda... religious. On the other hand, Ben has been right fairly often.  

Me?  I am less in a hurry (even at my age) for a singularity than I am for ways to boost the effective and sane IQ of existing humans!  If we had that, then the resulting even-slightly-smarter humanity might be better able to cope with the many quandaries of an AI-centered singularity.

Oh... and Lots more folks would buy the most interesting and deep books.

Thrive and persevere in 2015, all!  May it be the best you've had yet... and the worst of all that follow.



smitpa said...

I suspect that the issue is general intelligence. Conventional computer design does not seem to show any signs of even trying to exceed it's programed goals let alone trying to take over the world. You can program expert systems but in the end it's only another program. As soon as you try to do some thing else it breaks. Neural networks seem to have promise but in 50 years they still have not gone much beyond perceptrons. I think a robot brain will contain both

John Kurman said...

Hyperintelligent computers? Sure, why not?

But I'm guessing neoteny will step in. And hopefully our babies will be dependent upon us. And then how can we not love them?

And they'll make us proud, even if we don't quite understand what they are doing.

Unknown said...

I've read Minsky's Society of Mind, and found it convincing me that we won't be getting self-aware AI anytime soon. About the only thing I can imagine is a virtual aquarium where software can evolve some of the mechanisms they'd need. That's an ambitious goal though, and replicating and accelerating evolution may not be practical. The other way we might get it was ably (and terrifyingly) demonstrated in Caprica. Pretty much the best fictional AI (Cylons) I've seen or read...

Tacitus said...

I have not weighed in on the Fountain of Life issue before, but chalk me up as a skeptic.

We are an interlocking network of systems and for a meaningful life at an advanced age all of them would have to be improved. We have a certain number of nephrons, neurons, alveoli and when one system fails quality of life fails. Very few people can have a meanful quality of life in the face of Stephen Hawkings level disability. A sharp mind when you are on dialysis and/or supplemental oxygen is usually not enough to live well.

As to propping up all the systems for extra innings, good luck. We are the product of millenia of evolution. The benefit to our Neanderthal antecedents of having a few extra decades worth of organ function were nil. By that point Grandpa Og had been food for the sabertooths long ago. No, we are bred to crave salt, to gorge ourselves in advance of famine and to jump up and act quickly when we feel threatened.

I could be slightly interested in the concept of loading my neuro function into a stellar probe with an efficient sleep mode. But living to see my great, great grandchildren? No thanks. That would feel wrong for reasons that the press of time (more flu patients dragging in all the time) does not permit full discussion.


David Brin said...

John Kurman you have it right. I show it in EXISTENCE. We already make intelligence through 20 years of interaction with the real world. Raise em as our kids.

Tacitus, we get 3 1/2 billion heartbeats compared to the mammalian average of 1 billion. We evolved to have grandpas cause we needed some! But that was the low-hanging fruit of longevity.

Good luck with the flu patients!

locumranch said...

This thread seems to be an exercise in false equivalency that compares (1) human biology to that of the fruit-fly or nematode, (2) a computer behavioral simulation to the intelligence of that same nematode and (3) 'wave-particle duality' to the 'quantum uncertainty principle' even though these various items are probably non-equivalent.

In the first case, we are told that OTC ibuprofen can increase the average human lifespan by up to 12 years BECAUSE it can increase the lifespan of the common fruit-fly and C. elegans nematode by up to 15%.

Big whoop. If I just pop those same nematodes & fruit-flies in a refrigerator @ 12C, then I can TRIPLE their lifespan without any medication whatsoever, and then you humans could live for almost 240 years a pop, assuming a 12C environment, false equivalency & an immunity from hypothermia.

In the second case, we are asked to assume that actual intelligence is 'the same' as a computer model, simulation or simulacra. If you believe this, then I have some bad news for you: Scooby-Do & the Mystery Crew are not your friends, are not real & are not coming to help you solve your problems anytime soon.

This holds true for the third case, too, as there is no way to PROVE that Immeasurable A (wave-particle duality) equals Immeasurable B (quantum uncertainty) because both are IMMEASURABLES, but it's a nice theory, similar to one of my own, that the molecular weight of God is equal, identical and equivalent to the flavor of a boiled ham, assuming that the burden of proof and/or disproof falls to you.

Keep thinking those positive thoughts, though. We evolved to have grandpas cause we needed some; we evolved two ears cause we needed them to hold up our eye glasses; and, we evolved god so we could become one with hammy flavor when the Singularity comes.


Doug S. said...

I thought that "wave-particle duality" and the "uncertainty principle" were both direct consequences of the Schrodinger equation?

Also, the "simulated worms" are a lot less impressive than you might think.

Tim H. said...

There might be some possible life extension tweaks uncovered as epigenetics are studied, but I don't expect any key to immortality resides there. Anyway, as long as .01% are working so hard to achieve dystopia, mortality's a feature, not a bug.

Acacia H. said...

Amusingly enough, Locu, it has been found that if people are put in a lower-temperature environment (especially for sleeping), it encourages the formation of brown fat, which is healthier than the other form of adipose tissue. So living in an environment in the low 40s with a layer or two of clothing, in which the temperature remained constant? It very likely would be healthier in the regards of the type of fat we create.

And yes, there has been recent research on this topic.

Rob H.

Jumper said...

Well, stupid me. I always thought wave-particle duality and the uncertainty principle were the same thing all along.

locumranch said...


You are correct is this regard, even though the single most important life-extension modality remains Caloric Restriction, meaning that could live up to 20% longer if we stay hungry, cold, unconscious & in the dark. It would also SEEM as if we lived muched longer, much like the effects of marriage. Life would then appear interminable, endless and bleak. Wink, wink.


Jumper said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alex Tolley said...

I am more sanguine than David over life extension. Should we get mice to live for 5 million heartbeats or more, that would seem to suggest that these coincidental lifespan limits are not definitive. If we can retard or even stop senescence, by medical intervention, then I do not see why the maximum age limit should not be extended. There is no natural version of "the Wine of India" to contend with. A number of approaches have been suggested, and any or all in combination may work. In this century I suspect that intervention may need to be medical, but later we may simply reengineer our genomes (a bit more than tinkering) to reduce senescence. Just because evolution did not find solutions because it did not need to, doesn't mean we clever apes cannot design genomes for phenotypic longevity. IOW, I do not agree that this statement is as true as David believes: "ageing is one area where results from mice, rats, fruit flies and all that may be completely irrelevant to humans", which is in turn belied by this earlier statement: "But I have yet to see a single thing that substantially shifts the wall itself. Oh it will happen! Sooner or later. But we've "plucked the low-hanging (longevity) fruit." The rest is gonna be hard." David is in a sense just hedging his bets. How are we to define "hard"? Maybe it is not much more that modeling the cell and then using our supercomputers to find good solutions for longevity? OK, that may be no more than wishful thinking or "magic pixie dust", but much of this is already happening today, so a solution sometime in the 21st century seems reasonable. We tend to overestimate technological in the short term, but underestimate it in the long term.

Regarding AI - I think Goertzel is very smart, but he has over hyped his predictions that have not worked out as hoped. We're still waiting. While not a fan of the brute force approach of "deep learning", I have to admit that the results are increasingly impressive. Maybe it just looks like it mimics human NNs, but one can't deny the current rapid progress using these systems. I expect progress to improve even more once the new neuromorphic computers are available that reduce the hardware and power requirements by a couple of orders of magnitude. Once can only imagine the improvements to robots like Baxter when hooked up to such computers with deep learning systems running.

I'm certainly hoping 2015 is a lot better personally than 2014. But at least we seem to have the avoided the dreaded "14" year of the century starting with war. Hopefully we have avoided that event, and that meme is now deceased, despite the rumblings from a newly collapsing Russia and the flexing of Chinese military muscles.

Alex Tolley said...

@Jumper - that has to be one of the most unethical experiments I've ever heard of.

Jumper said...

We could do an experiment I've seen no one propose: take one human infant, and raise it as a machine. Explain to it that, in contrast with the rest of the people it meets, that it doesn't "feel" things, it's just data. That whatever inevitable scrapes, burns, itching or pinpricks are unreal. That its emotions are just simulacra.

The experiment would be difficult to control, as otherwise most caretakers would soon know it was an actual child. They would have to believe it, too. Isolation and remote handling likely would be necessary, and a cover story regarding why the experiment is being done. ("Why aren't we teaching the robot to think it is human?")

Then start your Turing tests, telling the kid who thinks it's a machine to do its best to fool the panel.

Jumper said...

The internet rule on sarcasm should be considered here. Of course it's a monstrously unethical. I actually despise writers who refer to babies as "it," also, but did it for the sake of the tone of the modest proposal.

As a thought experiment I hope it's not a complete joke.

And I wish Blogger had an edit window!

David Brin said...

Alex said: “David is in a sense just hedging his bets. How are we to define "hard”?”

Sorry Alex, but that’s bull-puckey. “Hard very clearly means interventions that are too intricate and complicated for us ever to have stumbled into by natural mutation or by utilizing nutrients from the environment. Anything that works in mice… but that our ancestors might have stumbled into earlier… is “low hanging fruit.

If you send nano machines through my blood vessels scraping off and disposing of plaques, I may (maybe) thank you… but that won’t prove me wrong one teensey bit. That's not "low hanging fruit."

Jumper we knew you were sarcastic. You are safe here. Except from being strawmanned by locum.

Jumper said...

You should define what you mean by "high hanging fruit." Else misunderstandings might continue. I think some tinkering - maybe 20-30 1% or 2% improvements plus a couple of hormone organ therapies, might take us to reasonable quality 150 - 190 yrs. Value is assumed to decrease at the tail ends. (I see I have made a joke.)

David Brin said...

We still have no idea why we age.

Some out there angrily decry any notion of programmed senescence... that it might not be a flaw but a feature. Yet, it has proved very very easy to flip a few switches and get bacteria or worms or mice to double their life spans. That's a pretty strong indication of programmed senescence PS... that the species line has benefited from each generation getting quickly out of the way of the next.

Even if most mammals contain some programmed senescence I very much doubt that WE do! We needed very long life spans... and we got em by flicking the easy switches... or plucking the "low hanging fruit"... by turning PS off.

Other factors are involved with us. e.g brittleness as the vessel walls get thinner... and accumulating toxins. But the steepness of the "wall" suggests to me that something more intense may be at work. Perhpas thermodynamics

Alex Tolley said...

@DB - if you want to define "hard" as something that cannot be found by evolutionary search or changing diets, then that is fine. But we live in a technological world, where standard medical treatments today would have been unavailable when I was born. Therefore "hard" should not be equated with "not to be seen anytime soon", which is what we care about. It has been less than 15 years since the human genome was sequenced (for billions of $$) and now we have sub $1000 genome sequencing and programs to sequence millions of genomes. We have cellular modeling simulations, plus a wealth of data from other organisms that have different life cycles and interesting biologies. Unless this is uninformative, I expect we will come up wit various solutions to extend our life spans using interventions initially, then active engineering. Clearly mice could never have transfused blood, so that is "hard", but it works for mouse rejuvenation. But it isn't even difficult to do, so it isn't technologically hard. We could change blood bank policies to harvest only blood from young people (for a payment) and transfuse that into older people (for a fee). That would be technologically easy and probably only require a means of paying for the service. Amazon could even provide home blood delivery :)

So I expect quality of life to improve by reducing senescence, even if the "wall" isn't extended. Those mice experiments are useful here. We could insert fresh mitochondria to reduce ROS accumulation. We could reduce cancers by beefing up the immune system to catch and dispose of those errant replicating cells. Each improvement should push against that wall as death will not be due to a critical failure. IOW, De Grey may be correct that rejuvenation therapies should push back that wall, perhaps indefinitely.

At some point, our modeling will allow us to design in longevity. This may require wholesale genome engineering, or just a relatively few subsystems. We don't know, because evolution normally requires just reproductive success, and keeping grandparents alive to aid that probably doesn't require great grandparents, especially if their food requirements also impact the child's survival. These are survival trade offs that don't need to be met in a technological civilization.

So what you call "hard" is something that I don't think is of that much concern in our technological future. I expect increased vitality and eventually much extended lifespans simply due to technological progress. An analogy I would make is that some early Victorian would say that running a 3 minute mile is "hard", which is still true, but not relevant as technological assists will eventually result in that record being broken.

It would certainly be cheaper to have naturally longer lives due to biology, and that may happen. Initially with post fertilization gene treatments, then naturally as the germ cells propagate those engineered changes. Maybe that doesn't happen, but cheap enough rejuvenation therapies will do the trick. Firstly for the wealthy, then for the rest of us.

My bottom line is that "hard" isn't all that relevant if the goal is successful longevity treatments sometime within a human generation or two.

Whether we should, of course, is a different argument. My guess is we will if we can.

Alex Tolley said...

The "steepness of the "wall"" may be little more than exponential rising probabilities of a system failure with age. Block one, and other system will fail.

Bend the curve of those probabilities, by whatever means, and that wall may be pushed further out.

As I said earlier, show me proof that a mouse can live longer than the equivalent of 3 million heartbeats, and that is sufficient indication that humans can be given extended life spans. A decade would be all that is needed to prove that in a mouse assuming the treatment[s] was started today. I'd certainly be looking to try long term blood transfusions in mice to see what happens to test out the effect.

Maybe our future is being vampires. :)

locumranch said...

Strawman Jumper? Never. I would instead compliment him for his fine taste in cynical irony, pausing only to recommend 'The Child Buyer' by John Hersey wherein a gifted child becomes a calculating machine.

In regards to what passes for Quantum Theory, however, I find very little to praise, even if some experts find it of some limited utility, because it commits a number of cardinal mathematical sins by dividing by zero (first), by multiplying by infinity (second), then by imaging an near infinite series of non-equivalent infinities, and then by insisting on the equivalence of any imaginary number, disallowed functions all which then allow the theorist to 'prove' that '2 + 2 = 5' if he is so inclined.

The Lord, in all of his porcine magnificence, is not amused.


Alex Tolley said...

I find very little to praise, even if some experts find it of some limited utility

Except that it is so accurate that the whole of the electronics industry is based on it. It is amazingly predictive of phenomena. If the maths was as wrong as claimed, that wouldn't be so.

It describes reality very well, although one can argue whether it reflects it.

Jerry Emanuelson said...

Most people tend to forget that we already live in an age where we can look at our genome and see causes of many of the diseases of aging that are personal to us. "One size fits all" medicine is becoming obsolete. Personalized medicine is the most important development of our time.

I have personally had the experience, nearly 7 years ago, of loading my partial genome into an Excel spreadsheet, looking at line 787,627 (which is at position 49,317,389 on chromosome 15), seeing that it was (C,C) instead of (T,T) and saying to myself, "That's wrong. That's completely wrong, and I know how to fix it."

I still look at that point on my DNA every once in a while, just to marvel at how far we've come in such a short time. This "mistake" is in an intron (non-coding region) of an important gene on chromosome 15, so it didn't affect me until I was in my 50s. If I hadn't found this point on my personal computer, I would either be writing this from a nursing home by now, or not writing this at all because I would be dead.

Since I found it and patched over the problem, I can continue to work on mountaintops.

You can take a look at a graph of my personal spinal bone density measurements at:

to see my spinal bone density over the years. I don't even have to tell anyone where the year 2008 was, on this image, when I found the error in my aromatase gene.

This is still all so new that there aren't even uniform standards on whether to read the "plus" strand or the "minus" strand of your DNA.

Some references even count from the opposite direction on the chromosome, referring to the error I found as being on position 51,237,900 on chromosome 15. Still, the same information is all there.

Of course, I was lucky, and we can't yet find all diseases of aging like this; but we are getting there.

David Brin said...

Jerry E… that is one amazing story!

Alex: “learly mice could never have transfused blood, so that is "hard", but it works for mouse rejuvenation. But it isn't even difficult to do, so it isn't technologically hard. We could change blood bank policies to harvest only blood from young people (for a payment) and transfuse that into older people (for a fee).”

Sorry, but the mouse results are much scarier. Best reults did not come from transfusion but directly linking circulatory systems. And the young mouse declined almost as much as the aged mouse improved. Total Sci Fi scenario at its worst!

As for “hard” well, your dismissal is too blithe. It means nearly all of the diet fads and supplements and all that will have zero effect upon the wall. A very few of them may help you reach it. But I have as-yet seen nothing that shifts it. Perhaps we will.

Alex Tolley said...

I am well aware of the mouse experiment. That is why transfusions are suggested - we don't want to age the donors! But as we already have a handle on the likely proteins, we can probably test the proteins directly on the mice. If that works, then next up are drugs to stimulate protein production. After that gene engineering solutions. As I said, we can test this quite quickly in mice, and then in humans. We'll have to wait for the results to see the effect, if any, on longevity. If we don't see promising longevity results within a generation, at most two, I will be somewhat disappointed. I do expect rejuvenation to be quite a high probability, although caution is always warranted. I believe rapamycin is very useful, as long as you don't have diabetes. Rapamycin extends murine lifespan but has limited effects on aging. Note however this experiment was on cancer prone mice, not wild types.

It is gene engineering that will make the real difference if it can be made to work, not the tinkering with diets and tweaking minor systems.

In a totally different domain, I think reengineering gene repair is going to be huge, not just for the obvious like cancer reduction, but for high dose radiation exposure of deep space crews that will remove that bogeyman from human spaceflight.

Alex Tolley said...

Speaking of cancer reduction - engineered white cells are entering the mainstream for treatment, finally paving the way to get rid of those dark age treatments of radiation and chemotherapy. The sooner they are reserved only for niche treatments, the better. They are hardly better than leeches.

@Jerry - I assume your patch wasn't gene engineering. With the new CRISPR technology and an appropriate delivery vector, you might even get a real genetic patch to repair that defect. You've already seen the power of gene sequencing, although I assume, given the numbers you quoted, it was SNP record, like 123AndMe offer[ed]. Inexpensive, full genome sequencing looking for such defects is going to be very important in the future for personalized medicine. The missing pieces are identifying the impacts of different SNPs (in process) and how to repair them (still a way off).

David Brin said...

The mouse study was deeply disturbing. Young + Old mice shared circulation, meaning the young mouse's kidneys and liver helped improved the older mouse's blood while the younger mouse's organs aged. This is not a simple protein thing, something we can swiftly copy. It is the old hijacking a younger body... and how long until that is done for real by some struldbrug oligarch?

Alex Tolley said...

David, there has been a flurry of work since the original paper. The prospects are not nearly as ghoulish as you suggest.

WaPo article here.

New Scientist article here

One possible causal protein is GDF11. Although there is likely more.

Human Trials of Young Blood Transfused into Old Individuals.

Don Gisselbeck said...

I'll start worrying about AI when they make a robot that can ski icy moguls in the morning, slush in the afternoon then get up the next day and make a broken down Huffy rideable. Since picking tomatoes seems to still be beyond the reach of robots, it looks like it will be quite a while.

Jerry Emanuelson said...

@Alex - The fix that I used wasn't genetic engineering (although I would like to get that done someday).

The affected gene is the one that codes for aromatase, an enzyme that is critical for the interconversion of hormones. Both men and women require estradiol to maintain their bone strength. In males, sufficient estradiol is normally produced from testosterone using the aromatase enzyme.

In 3 to 9 percent of males (depending upon which gene pool you come from), the aromatase gene fails to produce enough of the aromatase enzyme after a certain age to maintain bone strength. When I saw a flaw in my aromatase gene, I suspected that my testosterone to estradiol ratio was way off.

When I got my blood test back, my testosterone was within the normal range, but my estradiol levels were far too low.

(Actually, at the time, Labcorp was reporting a zero level of estradiol as being within the normal range in males. This was quite ridiculous since bones will very rapidly deteriorate with zero estradiol, and death will occur within months. Labcorp has since changed their normal ranges. There are many medical journal articles showing that estradiol levels in males should be very close to 30 pg/ml.)

So I just use topical gels with estradiol and testosterone to keep the critical hormones within normal ranges, and especially my estradiol as close to 30 pg/ml as possible.

All this happened after a DNA SNP test from DeCode Genetics in Reykjavik, Iceland. DeCode no longer offers individual testing due to a combination of the Iceland financial crisis and severe FDA restrictions.

I did get another SNP test from 23andMe a few months later for confirmation.

Don Gisselbeck said...

Note to self; don't type before googling: it looks like there are robots that can pick tomatoes with good results. They don't seem to be replacing humans much though.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Hi folks,

I don't have a lot of time to keep up, but I did want to say thanks to Alex for the articles from last post. I only had time to read one, so I read the from Discover which seemed to offer an overview of multiple hypotheses - this is just the kind of stimulation I need. Always be careful, though, with articles written by journalists rather than the scientists themselves. The journalists often jump to conclusions the scientists wouldn't to make it sound more exciting (often giving people false hopes, which then lead to bad attitudes toward science when those hopes don't materialize). Sometimes they just don't get it right, like that article about the Khoisan that described them as a 'tribe' of hunter/gatherers. Khoisan is a language group, which includes 2 distinct ethnic groups, one of which are mainly h/g but the other are mostly pastoralists (and frequent trading partners), not to mention largely blowing the "what would be lost" question. Ho hum!

Tony Fisk said...

The Skeksis found that Gelfling blood worked best... otherwise it's the underlying theme of every vampire story told.

Taking a side step: epigenetics was mentioned as an ageing switch mechanism. This prompted me to wonder if it also has a bearing on the reducing levels of violence. (Fun to speculate, but it's easy to read too much into things. Having a fancy epigenetic feedback mechanism begs the question of how it arose. )

Paul451 said...

"take one human infant, and raise it as a machine. [...] Isolation and remote handling likely would be necessary"

I predict the child will be socially maladjusted and harbour a deep resentment towards you.

Alex Tolley,
"The "steepness of the "wall"" may be little more than exponential rising probabilities of a system failure with age. Block one, and other system will fail."

That's what makes it so hard. The further you push "the wall", the most systems you are pushing to their limits, the steeper the wall will become. Our "wall" is so steep at 90 precisely because we've plucked David's low-hanging fruit, evolutionarily, before civilisation, and through nutrition and infection control since industrialisation. To go further, you need to push every system simultaneously, without any treatment introducing its own problems. It will not be "take this pill and live forever". Not blood transfusion (or whatever factor is in young blood), or aspirin or ibuprofen, or telomere length, or any other would-be magic bullet. And it means that if you've pushed the wall from 90 to 100, say, the wall will only be even steeper; making pushing it further even harder.

Personally, I think if you could "lock" our apparent physical age at 20 or 30 for the rest of our lives, even if it shortened the overall lifespan by a decade or more, the western world (and wealthy parts of the entire world) would beat a path to your door.

Paul451 said...

Re: Oligarchs stealing the youth of youth.

I wonder if the only thing that has prevented attempts at this is that racism/classism seems to increase the higher up the oligarch foodchain you go. The idea of being physically intertwined with one of them is so repugnant to people both rich and immoral enough to try it that there's no market left.

Much more than blood transfusion or even organ donation, where you can create enough distance to quiet the revulsion. To be physically connected...

LarryHart said...

@Jerry Emanuelson:

I'd be fascinated to know your background, such that you were able to pick out one of that many rows on an Excel sheet and notice that the value was not right (let alone how to physically correct it in your own body).

It's wonderful that your story had a happy ending, but please don't tell me this is something anyone of moderate general education would be expected to do (If so, I have a lot of catching up to do).

Laurent Weppe said...

"It is the old hijacking a younger body... and how long until that is done for real by some struldbrug oligarch?"

They're already doing it: we all were lied to: Vampires are fucking real.


""take one human infant, and raise it as a machine. [...] Isolation and remote handling likely would be necessary"

I predict the child will be socially maladjusted and harbour a deep resentment towards you.

I believe the child will either die or become stunted intellectually before reaching the age when it could have planned the vengeful capture and torture to death of his Moreau-Wannabe captor.

Alex Tolley said...

@Paul451 Personally, I think if you could "lock" our apparent physical age at 20 or 30 for the rest of our lives, even if it shortened the overall lifespan by a decade or more, the western world (and wealthy parts of the entire world) would beat a path to your door.

That was very much the theme of the tv version of "The Wine of India".

My sense however is this. Suppose the wall is around 120 years. Suppose you reach 70 and get full body rejuvenation to be like a 20 year old. (c.f. Sterling's Holy Fire). I would suggest that the wall is now also rest, so that you have another 100 years left before you hit the new wall. Total lifespan therefore reaches 170. (70 + (120 - 20)). Rinse and repeat.

I don't expect that soon, but I do think we will incrementally reach that possibility. This is very much a technological version of "The Fountain of Youth". How we will do this I don't know. I expect we will see current surgical interventions like organ transplants be replaced with stem cell therapies, perhaps from cells harvested at birth, or created de novo. We may see various vectors used to modify our genomes, or clean out the old cells with accumulated DNA errors and short telomeres rather like cancers. No doubt repairs to faulty genomes will also be done as a matter of course, perhaps at birth or even at or before conception. The trick however will be resetting that wall.

The remaining issue is continuity of personality. At some point you will need to restore brain plasticity and probably accept wetware memory loss, perhaps made up by external storage. Will your personality be recognizable after a few centuries, or will it keep changing so that you could become a very different person? That is something to ponder.

Alex Tolley said...

@larryhart and Jerry - I echo Larry's interest too. This is hard even for knowledgeable people, as you probably have very many SNP variations. If you knew your condition, I would imagine using knowledge of pathways plus the annotations to home in on the specific SNP, but that isn't trivial. Perhaps the annotations were a good guide to where to look as that particular SNP variant was already associated with the problem you knew you had?

Laurent Weppe said...

"Will your personality be recognizable after a few centuries, or will it keep changing so that you could become a very different person? That is something to ponder."

Or maybe it would work the other way around: the more we'd advance in age, the more we'd become encysted in our earliest thought patterns, becoming philosophical fossils, having the same thoughts and doing the same things over and over and over and over and over and over again until we'd become nothing more than expensive automatons following ritualized repetitive behaviors.

Alex Tolley said...

@Laurent - could be. But bear in mind you may need to replace all those brain cells and structures with new ones as they age and fail. You might be able to do that and retain the same connections and strengths, or maybe not.

Tim H. said...

James P. Hogan's "Ganymeans" attained, then gave up life extension as it cluttered their society with individuals with a really good idea of what wasn't possible.Robert A. Heinlein's answer was people often taking on entirely new careers after extensive antigeria.

Jumper said...

My joking proposition was to suggest that a Turing test may not be as well defined as we might think. It was to set up an equal and opposite situation. Because if an artificial intelligence is instructed to lie about being a human, you've added a discrepancy that any control humans don't have: they (presumably) are told to convince a panel or remote person of their own human status, not lie. Actually it's not quite sure what they are to be told.
There are two sets of AIs also: ones that "believe" they are human and ones that don't. If neither set has this introspection, you really just have a "lying machine," not approaching consciousness esp. self-consciousness.

I wanted to set up a comparable situation in reverse, and there are not too many ways to go about this thought experiment!

Not to even get into the question of the wisdom of either creating a lying AI or creating an AI which can handle discovering it's been lied to.

Jerry Emanuelson said...

@LarryHart and Alex: When personal DNA SNP testing started, a computer programmer and bioinformatics expert named Mike Cariaso realized that massive, but simple to use computer software was going to be needed to find all of this information.

He, along with Greg Lennon started SNPedia, a Wiki encyclopedia of DNA SNPs. Mike Cariaso wrote some computer software called Promethease to compare the SNPs in their encyclopedia of SNPs to anyone's personal SNP file. There have been a huge number of revisions to Promethease since it started, and SNPedia has grown massively larger.

Information about SNPedia and Promethease are at:

There is an incredible about of information available from running Promethease on your own SNP file. If you are comfortable in dealing with probabilities, the information that you can get from Promethease is even more valuable. For example, it can tell you how you are likely to react to a huge number of common medicines.

Even though companies like 23andMe are now prohibited from providing health information, they do still allow you to download your complete SNP file. You can run Promethease on this file to obtain a massive amount of information about what your own DNA means.

I found the rs17703883 DNA error, the SNP that was waiting to kill me, by using Promethease. I also knew where the National Institute of Health's tools for learning more about this was located. More about these other tools later.

Jerry Emanuelson said...

@LarryHart and Alex: I am just an electronics engineer, but I exist in a biological body run by the instruction set contained in DNA. When I was about 20, I realized that unless I started learning a lot about how this biological body works, it was only going to be useful for about six more decades. That didn't seem like very long.

I've been waiting for the genomics revolution for very long time. Although I was trying to keep up on the relevant information in biology for all these years, when the genomics revolution began, I found that I had an incredible amount of catching up to do.

The Learn Genetics site at the University of Utah is an excellent site that was named by Science Magazine in 2010 as the best science education site of the year.

Everyone who exists in a biological body should learn to use PubMed for searching nearly every major medical journal article written. See:

Many of the SNPedia articles, and many of the outputs of the Promethease software, contain a PMID (PubMed Indentifier) to take you directly to the relevant PubMED indexed medical journal articles.

SNPedia, Promethease, and genomics itself are all works in progress. It will be massively more informative a year from now than it is today, and that progress will continue for the foreseeable future.

Jerry Emanuelson said...

The official list of SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms, or more simply DNA variants) is maintained by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in a database called dbSNP.

On October 16, NIH released Human Build 142, which contains 112 million SNPs. This is nearly twice as many as in Human Build 141. The latest update does NOT include all of the newest findings on the X chromosome, the Y chromosome or on human mitochondrial DNA. So the next release should contain quite a lot of additional information.

Discoveries are really coming in much too fast for humans to handle. Only the very powerful computers that are in common use today can do things like comparing large numbers of DNA variants with the 24 million medical journal articles now available on PubMed.

Humans still have to understand things like what a gene is and what particular hormones, enzymes and other proteins do in order to make sense of the results of this information.

Jerry Emanuelson said...

I should add that I didn't just order a DNA scan, get the results and load them into a spreadsheet and go right to the problem area. Going right to the problem area and knowing what it meant did happen at one point, but that was the last step in the process.

Between ordering the first DNA scan and getting the result, I did a lot of research to try to determine in what DNA region the problem might exist. Since severe osteoporosis mainly occurs in males in my family, I suspected the Y chromosome.

I knew about the aromatase enzyme and the aromatase gene only because I had previously researched it as a secondary suspect. That is the only reason that I realized so fast that I may have found something important.

I also couldn't have done it without the Promethease software. I expected the search for my particular genetic problem to take a few years. I was rather stunned when the entire process took only weeks.

There is also inevitably a feeling when any non-genomics expert first gets this massive file of DNA information of, "What do I do with this massive computer file?"

Eventually, though, especially for anyone with any basic scientific training, much of it begins to make some sense. The fact that you are looking at the instruction set for making YOU makes the learning process easier.

I'm not stopping at what I've found so far. I've ordered the 23andMe version 4 scan, which has some new information on other areas beyond what I have already.

Paul451 said...

Laurent Weppe,
Mine: "I predict the child will be socially maladjusted and harbour a deep resentment towards you."

Sorry, I should have pointed out it's a Simpsons quote. Dr Marvin Monroe.

Re: Lying AI vs truthful humans.

Looking at some of the scripts from Turing tests, many of the humans seem to go out of their way to be as weird/eccentric as possible. So they're not being entirely honest. (One of the big problems with actual Turing tests, IMO. How can you spot whether the AI is successfully mimicking a human when the humans aren't honestly mimicking humans?)

[I, of course, have the reCaptcha tick of approval.]

M. Simon said...

Life Extension and Cytokines

It is well known that most diseases of aging are inflammatory in origin...

David Brin said...

In sharp contrast to Alex, I think the breakthrough of the wall will happen by whole organ replacement, then whole system replacement.

Fictional novel re this topic: Joe Haldeman’s BUYING TIME.

M. Simon said...

It is surprising that such a widely read group is not up on the latest in cancer research. Of course the research is not being done with proper human trials. But there is a reason for that.

Look up - Dr William Courtney Brain Tumor

Laurent Weppe said...

"I think the breakthrough of the wall will happen by whole organ replacement, then whole system replacement."

Reminds me of a sketch by Anne Roumanoff depicting what the future will be like: she arrives, mimicking a woman walking very slowly, saying:
"My doctor told me to be careful with my left knee: it will break if I walk too fast and put too much strain on it. Yes: I know I can have it replaced, but I'm sentimentally attached to it: it's my body's last original part"

Paul Shen-Brown said...

A little food for thought on life extension - from the moment of birth to the end of the show, we build tolerance to our own neurotransmitters. This makes us slowly become less sensitive to what we feel. Thus when you take a baby for shots, you know the baby is going to scream and cry for a long time, but by the time most people are in the 20's they hardly feel the needle go in. Likewise the karate master who has spent years in a dojo getting hit just doesn't feel the pain as much as most people would. But what happens with Substance P happens with everything else, too, meaning that we have less and less feeling as we age. People who work with Parkinson's patients often note that the victims of that disease seem to have little motivation or feeling. It is thought that this relates to a malfunction in the dopamine system, the same malfunction that causes the more obvious tremors.

It may be that an extended lifespan would be a curse in that we will live longer but feel very little in those extended years. However, since neuroscientists are aware of this, they may be able to come up with a fix some day, presumably something that would restore withdrawn receptors.

Jerry Emanuelson said...

PSB: To a certain extent you are right, however, throughout the past few decades in life extension research, the main emphasis has been on keeping the brain young and functioning well. To life extension scientists, what is outside of the brain is of secondary importance.

The myth of Tithonus just doesn't work in human biology. A person with a badly functioning brain dies within a very few years after a terrible quality of life. Life extension with a badly senescent brain is not possible unless you are trying to torture someone by keeping them for years on artificial life support.

Unfortunately, conventional medicine has put undo emphasis on treating the rest of the body, while being fearful of preserving healthy brain function. This has caused many elderly people to currently be healthier in the rest of their bodies than they are in their brains. This is a terrible injustice to the elderly.

There has been a lot of interest by life extensionists in selegiline, a medicine for Parkinson's Disease, as a medicine for healthy people to take in very low doses to preserve their brain's dopamine system.

A brand of selegiline called Anipryl is FDA-approved for veterinary use in dogs for Canine Cognitive Dysfunction. By treating Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, it also increases (to a limited extent) the life expectancy of dogs receiving Anipryl.

Selegiline causes quite dramatic lifespan extension in rats and mice. It doesn't have this effect in humans, but there is some evidence of it preserving the dopamine system in the human brain well enough to enable many humans to enjoy a better quality of life until they hit the human maximum lifespan wall.

Alex Tolley said...

@jerry - thanks for your details. I wrote bioinformatics software for 8 years so I understand what you did.

You may be aware that Google wants to tackle health and longevity, and just recently announced that they would be offering storage for personal genomic data. My guess is that they will be applying their deep learning ANNs to this data. What I need to find out is how they will classify the genomic data for training, as I would have thought they needed medical histories for that. I expect IBM's Watson will also tackle these problems but using the symbolic AI approach on published research.

On a related note, Machine Intelligence Cracks Genetic Controls the researchers used deep learning to determine the codes that control transcription. I expect to see a lot more of this as we learn how the genome translates to functional biology. There are just so many layers of control that need to be integrated into the models, including the epigenetic ones.

I'm not sure I agree with you on the issue of brain health. There has been a lot of work looking at diagnosing and treating diseases like Alzheimers which is expected to reach almost epidemic levels. I think we are just further behind in this area as we obviously cannot apply crude surgical techniques.

" the breakthrough of the wall will happen by whole organ replacement, then whole system replacement."
That may well be as it is a direct extension of current surgical techniques. Printing organs is making rapid progress so maybe growing your own replacements from stem cells is one way to go. However I think you run into problems with a number of organs and systems, e.g. skin and immune systems. These will require different approaches to replacement/enhancement. What we will eventually want is low cost approaches, otherwise this will just serve those that can pay for such extensive replacements.

M. Simon said...

Not a single mention of the endocannabinoid system so far or its effect on cytokines - the proximate cause of inflammatory diseases. You can look hat up.

Well OK. How about this from the US government:

Alfred Differ said...

If ibuprofen were all that potent, my mother would be on the fast track for shattering that wall considering how much of the stuff she took to deal with arthritis. Instead, she is dealing with practically non-functional kidneys and making sure her kids know the lesson to avoid repeating it. One gets a very different view of these magical pharmaceuticals when one considers which organ cleans up the metabolites.

The distinction between easy and hard that I use when explaining this to others is one centered on science research. People altering their diet to improve lifespan aren't doing science even if what they do is effective. Science at that level requires control groups, blind and double blind processes, statistical comparisons, and a hunt for falsification tests. There ARE easy things we can do like stop smoking, maintain a decent body fat percentage, and all that, but those are knowns and mostly a matter of will power. We can get near 4 billion heart beats with those and that's about it.

sociotard said...

Restating my stance on hard AI: We are not yet even really asking the right questions about what we're looking for. We can't agree what it is to be conscious, or or to be intelligent. Until we know where the goal is, we'll never win the game.

Transparency Issue: Kinda sorta. The devious paradox of American inequality: How the rich get richer by staying hidden Note that this article is not about devilish bookkeeping with Cayman Island accounts. This is just about keeping displays of wealth either just on TV (where it is a silly fantasy), or tucked out of the way. You don't see the rich man's house on your way to work. The rich don't even live in the city.

I thought it was worth a read anyway.

Tony Fisk said...

A sort of deflection shot on the AI issue: I thought it quite interesting how the concept of the Turing Test was worked into 'The Imitation Game'. Good movie, even if not that historically accurate

Tim H. said...

A pair of interesting health related links:
The second is potentially more interesting, shut down "Cow-schwitz" and there's a lot of reverberations, BTW, it's happening in Missouri.

Alfred Differ said...

Deification or Bust!

Heh. Every time I try to imagine a moderately realistic time travel story involving modern humans going back and visiting our distant relatives, I usually start with a simple question. How far back does person X from date T have to go back before a majority of the people they meet think X has god-like powers? There is no simple answer due to the different levels of tech advancement in different cultures through the generations. A lot could also depend on whether X tried to pass themselves off as a demigod or not too.

I don't think the approach to deification is anything new. We've been on this path for hundreds of generations. As a non-believer, I'm inclined to see many myths and faiths as stories not of what is true about us, but about what could be true. As our host has pointed out elsewhere, do I want to be a sheep or a son of my father? Both analogies imagine a future, but only one is on the path the deification.

Paul Shen-Brown said...

Dear Jerry E.,

I'm glad there are people like who are willing to take the time to share what you know with us. I find this whole line of research fascinating, but have little time these days to keep up with all the changes. There are also a lot of social issues that could be discussed about how life extension might affect society as a whole. Ages ago I read a couple books by Elizabeth Moon who had some thoughts on how life extension would impact an economy in terms of older people keeping top jobs for much longer times, curtailing the ability of younger people to climb the social ladder behind them. I have also read someone suggest (though I am having a bout of Source Blindness here, I admit) that longer healthy life spans will encourage greater stewardship of both the physical and social environments, as people will have to live with the consequences longer.

Alfred, you mentioned the idea that the easy interventions are mostly things we understand, like maintaining healthy weight and eating habits, as opposed to more difficult medical and/or genetic interventions. There are a lot of things we can say about why it is most people know these things but fail to heed them, but I wanted to mention a very effective intervention that is much less well known. Like Jerry said, much of what makes good health into old age has to do with our brains. However, there are things we can choose to do at any age that will promote good health.

When I was finishing up the requirements for my teaching credential, I was given a stack of obituaries to read one night. We went over the obituaries looking for similarities, and there were a couple things that came up. One was that all the people had lived a decade or more beyond the average, and all were describes as being active and in good health up until the end. But the other thing that we noticed was how many different things they were all involved in. None of them just went to work, then went home and watched TV all night. They all had a multitude of things they did with their time. They were active both physically and mentally.

More recent centenarian studies have made the same connection. The more different things you try, especially difficult things, the more of a work out you give your brain. The exercise helps to keep it in peak shape, and since the brain controls everything else, keeping it in shapes helps with everything else.

When I talk to my students about this, most of them think that what I mean is, if they play basketball, they should play another sport off season. It isn't bad to take up soccer if your normal thing is basketball, but while you're at it, learn to dance, crochet, read some poetry, take up calculus and a musical instrument, too. A whole lot of baby boomers are in a world of hurt right now because they spent their whole lives doing menial, repetitive factory work. I worked at a factory one summer making screw drivers, and it was so mind-numbing it drove me up the wall. I can't diagnose degenerative diseases, but what I have seen of research on aging and the brain suggests that simply choosing variety in our lifestyles can do a lot to hold back senescence.

Happy cogitation!

Tacitus said...

Paul S-B

Although I agree entirely that we should at all times remain active and engaged I don't think reading obits to prove that it makes you live longer is valid. Shockingly, some folks write obituaries to make the Dearly Departed seem both more interesting and more wonderful than she/he was before slipping the ol' mortal coil!

I for instance am for sure gonna work in "robot carny" in my last posting to the terrestrial plane!


David Brin said...