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]


The regeneration game

Paul Raven @ 04-07-2009

salamanderExciting results from the world of biology, with implications for human medicine: researchers looking at the limb regeneration process in salamanders have discovered that it works in a different way to what they thought previously. [image by jurvetson]

Rather than having their cellular clocks fully reset and reverting to an embryonic state, cells in the salamanders’ stumps became slightly less mature versions of the cells they’d been before. The findings could inspire research into human tissue regeneration.

“The cells don’t have to step as far back as we thought they had to, in order to regenerate a complicated thing like a limb,” said study co-author Elly Tanaka, a Max Planck Institute cell biologist. “There’s a higher chance that human or mammalian cells can be induced into doing the same thing.”

[…]

They found that salamander regeneration begins when a clump of cells called a blastema forms at the tip of a lost limb. From the blastema come skin, muscle, bone, blood vessels and neurons, ultimately growing into a limb virtually identical to the old one.

Researchers, many of whom hoped their findings could someday be used to heal people, hypothesized that as cells joined blastemas, they “de-differentiated” and became pluripotent — able to become any type of tissue. Embryonic stem cells are also pluripotent, as are cells that have been genetically reprogrammed through a process called induced pluripotency.

Such cells have raised hopes of replacing lost or diseased tissue. They’re also difficult to control and prone to turning cancerous. These problems may well be the inevitable growing pains of early-stage research, but could also represent more fundamental limits in cellular plasticity.

If Tanaka’s right that blastema cells don’t become pluripotent, then the findings raise another possibility — not just for salamanders, but for people. Rather than pushing cellular limits, perhaps researchers could work within nature’s parameters.

Another step towards transhuman immortality, perhaps? It’s fun seeing such science fictional subjects in ‘regular’ news venues, if only to watch journalists asking the sort of questions science fiction has always hinged on – like Khaled Diab at The Guardian, for example, trying to imagine what the world would be like if Aubrey De Grey is right about the immortality singularity:

Should people’s lives be extended indefinitely? If not, should society or the individual choose when to pull the plug? Should a 250-year-old physical teen be treated as an adult and served alcohol or not? Would society take long-term threats, such as the environment, more seriously because people will actually live to see the consequences? Does living so long rob future generations of their right to life? Would you like to live in a society without death?

I figure that, if it happens, we’ll work out a way to cope during the journey – much like Jamais Cascio suggests we’ll cope fine with intelligence augmentation, because it’s an iterative process rather than a momentary leap of change.

Of course, De Grey has already secured himself one form of immortality – the only form of it in which I’d be interested, anyway. I’m sympathetic to the transhumanist project, but the thought of living forever just doesn’t appeal to me. I’ve always theorised that without the ticking clock of mortality we’d have very little to motivate us to create anything new or unique; you struggle to produce a legacy to fill the void of your leaving, if you will. Of course, my attitudes may change as I get older… but even so, if offered the choice right now I’d settle for a standard lifespan minus the gradual decline into senescence and frailty at the end. Death doesn’t scare me, but dying slowly sure does.

Should people’s lives be extended indefinitely? If not, should society or the individual choose when to pull the plug? Should a 250-year-old physical teen be treated as an adult and served alcohol or not? Would society take long-term threats, such as the environment, more seriously because people will actually live to see the consequences? Does living so long rob future generations of their right to life? Would you like to live in a society without death?

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New transhumanist magazine! Squee!

Tom James @ 17-10-2008

Web/SF/transhumanist-crossover titans such as Warren Ellis, Charles Stross, and gerontologist Aubrey de Grey are interviewed in this free 1st edition pdf of H+ Magazine.

Whatever your thoughts on transhumanism, it’s all well worth reading.

[via Boing Boing][image from the front cover]