Aubrey de Grey on the Singularity

Tom James @ 29-09-2009

pebblesGerontologist Aubrey de Grey gives his thoughts on the technological singularity (subtypes: intelligence explosion and accelerating change) in this interview in h+ Magazine:

I can’t see how the “event horizon” definition of the Singularity can occur other than by the creation of fully autonomous recursively self-improving digital computer systems. Without such systems, human intelligence seems to me to be an intrinsic component of the recursive self-improvement of technology in general, and limits (drastically!) how fast that improvement can be.

I’m actually not at all convinced they are even possible, in the very strong sense that would be required. Sure, it’s easy to write self-modifying code, but only as a teeny tiny component of a program, the rest of which is non-modified. I think it may simply turn out to be mathematically impossible to create digital systems that are sufficiently globally self-modifying to do the “event horizon” job.

My view, influenced by observation of the success of natural selection[1], is that “intelligence” is overrated as a driver of strictly technical progress. I would say that most technological advances come about as a result of empirical tinkering and application of social processes (like free markets and the scientific method), rather than pure thinkism and individual brilliance.

I can’t speak to the possibility of the globally self-modifying AI issue.

de Grey goes on to discuss Kurzweil’s accelerating change singularity subtype:

I think the general concept of accelerating change is pretty much unassailable, but there are two features of it that in my view limit its predictive power.

Ray acknowledges that individual technologies exhibit a sigmoidal trajectory, eventually departing from accelerating change, but he rightly points out that when we want more progress we find a new way to do it and the long-term curve remains exponential. What he doesn’t mention is that the exponent over the long term is different from the short-term exponents. How much different is a key question, and it depends on how often new approaches are needed.

Again, interesting, the tendency to assume that “something will show up” if (say) Moore’s law peters out is all very well, but IRL companies and individuals and countries can’t base their future welfare on the assumption that some cool new tech will show up to save us all.

Anyway, there’s more from de Grey in the interview.


[1]: The Origin of Wealth is a brilliant overview of the importance of evolutionary methods in business, technology, and the economy.

[image from sky#walker on flickr]


Long lived flies

Tom James @ 15-07-2009

flyA company called Genescient is developing a method for finding genes that affect human longevity using the power of the gene:

Genescient has identified over 100 gene networks (∆’s) that are altered in long lived strains of Drosophila melanogaster and that are also linked to longevity and age-related diseases in humans.

Genescient has sophisticated software that cross links gene function in Drosophila with possible human therapeutics for age-related diseases. Drosophila is an excellent model system of aging and age-related disease that has many genetic pathways that are highly conserved in humans. Therefore, therapeutic substances that act on genetic pathways in Drosophila often work similarly in humans.

It is truly exciting to live in this era when increasing human longevity is a serious area of research.

[via Next Big Future][image from AmpamukA on flickr]


Achieving longevity

Tom James @ 08-07-2009

moai_profileThere always seems to be some intriguing news on progress in extending lifespans, or achieving what Aubrey De Grey calls engineered negligible senescence. From Physorg we have news that a compound called rapamycin, first discovered on Easter Island, can increase the lifespans of laboratory mice:

The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and two collaborating centers reported that the Easter Island compound – called “rapamycin” after the island’s Polynesian name, Rapa Nui – extended the expected lifespan of middle-aged mice by 28 percent to 38 percent. In human terms, this would be greater than the predicted increase in extra years of life if cancer and heart disease were both cured and prevented.

Protein folding in certain species of bats has been found to lead to an increase in their lifespans:

Asish and colleagues made their discovery by extracting proteins from the livers of two long-lived bat species (Tadarida brasiliensis and Myotis velifer) and young adult mice and exposed them to chemicals known to cause protein misfolding. After examining the proteins, the scientists found that the bat proteins exhibited less damage than those of the mice, indicating that bats have a mechanism for maintaining proper structure under extreme stress.

And finally the curious case of Brooke Greenberg: who is the size of an infant, with the mental capacity of a toddler, but turned 16 in January:

In a recent paper for the journal “Mechanisms of Ageing and Development,” Walker and his co-authors, who include Pakula and All Children’s Hospital (St. Petersburg, Fla.) geneticist Maxine Sutcliffe chronicled a baffling range of inconsistencies in Brooke’s aging process. She still has baby teeth at 16, for instance. And her bone age is estimated to be more like 10 years old.

“There’ve been very minimal changes in Brooke’s brain,” Walker said. “Various parts of her body, rather than all being at the same stage, seem to be disconnected.”

A substantial increase in human lifespans would be a huge, world-changing, medical and technological achievement, but could well lead to many social problems. An excellent exploration of the effects of longevity is Bruce Sterling‘s sublime Holy Fire.

[from Physorg and abcnews][image from anoldent on flickr]


Enzyme linked to longevity

Tom James @ 24-06-2009

enzyme_WWP-1Researchers have discovered a key enzyme – WWP-1 – that forms part of the process by which caloric restriction leads to longer lifespans in roundworms:

“The only other known factor regulating longevity in response to diet restriction operates at the very end of the signaling cascade,” said Howard Hughes Medical Investigator and senior author Andrew Dillin, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Molecular and Cell Biology Laboratory. “These two enzymes are further up the ladder, bringing us closer to the receptor that receives the signal for throwing the switch to promote a healthy lifespan.”

Identifying the receptor may allow researchers to design drugs that mimic the signal and could lead to new treatments for age-related diseases. This could enable us to reap the health benefits of calorie restriction without adhering to extreme diets in which the satisfying feel of a full stomach is strictly off limits.

The kind of medicine described is definitely near the top of my plausible future technologies that may emerge in my lifetime.

[at Physorg][image from Physorg]


Longevity personality traits

Tom James @ 06-04-2009

personalityTo those of us with an interest in living long enough to live forever any indicator of exceptional longevity is of interest. Here researchers have identified particular personality traits associated with longevity:

Because personality traits have been shown to have substantial heritable components, the researchers hypothesized that certain personality features may be important to the healthy aging observed in the offspring of centenarians.

Both the male and female offspring of centenarians scored in the low range of published norms for neuroticism and in the high range for extraversion. The women also scored comparatively high in agreeableness. Otherwise, both sexes scored within normal range for conscientiousness and openness, and the men scored within normal range for agreeableness.

Obviously you can’t do much to change your personality, but the conclusions are interesting.

[from Physorg][image from kol on flickr]


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