The field of anti-aging medicine has finally entered the mainstream. It’s no longer controversial for scientists to talk about extending health spans by delaying the systems failures that spawn age-related disease. In fact, we’ve made great strides in identifying methods that will allow people to live closer to their approximately 120-year maximum life spans.
The extension of life spans beyond their current limit, though, is still extremely controversial. Part of the hesitancy among anti-aging scientists may be political. After fighting to convince the medical community that aging can be significantly slowed, these scientists don’t want to complicate the picture now that they are finally winning.
Psychological barriers are also an obstacle to embracing the idea of age-reversal. Think about it. A biotechnology that could do away with maximum life spans raises all kinds of issues.
There is, however, no scientific reason that aging could not be reversed. In fact, we can already do it on the cellular level. Last week’s column laid out the approach that I believe will most likely accomplish that goal.
Scientists can rejuvenate old cells
Adult cells can be taken back to embryonic status via genetic engineering. These rejuvenated cells are called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. John Mauldin and I have both had our old cells taken back to perfectly young, non-aging embryonic status this way.
Next, my young, healthy cells were engineered to become heart muscle cells (biologically only a few weeks old). They could have been changed to virtually any cell type, however. You can watch a short video of my youthful heart muscle cells beating in a dish at this link.
We know that when young heart muscle cells are injected into the hearts of animals with damaged hearts, they are recognized by the body and used to make repairs. Naturally, this should lead us to wonder what would happen if aged heart cells could be restored to youth inside the body (in vivo) rather than in the dish (in vitro).
iPS cells are created by activating a very small number of gene switches, which causes the cell to rejuvenate. In theory, there is no reason that the same thing couldn’t be done to the cells of the heart beating in your chest right now. The scientist who is leading the effort to accomplish this revolutionary goal calls it induced tissue regeneration (iTR).
Induced tissue regeneration is the next step in anti-aging
We know that iTR would be more complicated than transforming cells in the dish, but there’s no theoretical reason why it wouldn’t work. If so, it means that you could take a series of pills or injections that would restore an organ (such as your heart) to perfect youth. Since my heart is in good shape, I’d be more interested in having embryonic regenerative abilities restored in my right eye, which was damaged by a physical trauma. It may even be possible to restore embryonic healing powers to the entire body.
So what would iTR look like? According to some scientists, we are at peak adult health when we are about 29-years old. It may be, then, that iTR therapy would return even people who are chronologically very old to the biological age of 29. The process could then be repeated periodically.
Dr. Michael West, whom I talked about last week, has officially announced his program to find the keys to iTR. West is the most prominent scientist in the field of regenerative medicine. He has spent much of his career researching the sudden genetic changes that occur when embryos become fetuses. Based on massive amounts of data collected, he believes he can determine which genetic switches to activate in order to restore embryonic healing powers to adult cells.
Still, the task is enormous due to the complexity of our genomes. In time, the problem could be solved using conventional scientific tools. But time is one thing that we’re all running out of. That’s why West has turned to artificial intelligence (AI).
Here’s how AI will help reverse the aging process
Specifically, the AI side of this collaborative iTR project is Insilico Medicine. This company is one of the few organizations capable of rapidly solving a problem as complex as iTR. Like the other leaders in AI, the company has Canadian roots, but it is located at the Emerging Technology Centers at the Johns Hopkins University Eastern campus in Baltimore.
Insilico Medicine provides services to leading academic organizations, major pharmaceutical companies, and NVIDIA (the chip company that makes the GPUs that dominate the field of AI). I’ve spoken at length with Insilico Medicine’s CEO, Alex Zhavoronkov, PhD, and am struck by several things.
First, Zhavoronkov clearly understands that the combination of longer lives and lower birthrates will be a catastrophe for the world economy. For that reason, much of his work is aimed at extending productive health spans.
The second takeaway from my conversation with Zhavoronkov was his confidence and excitement. We talked a lot about deep learning and neural networks, which are computing tools used by AIs to solve extremely complex problems.
AIs mimic the human brain’s pattern-recognition processes. In fact, AIs now outperform human drivers in self-driving cars. They’re better than humans at identifying the content of photographs, and they beat the best Go players. But their more important uses are in biotech and bioinformatics.
Right now, AIs are analyzing complex genomic patterns capable of reversing the aging process.
Zhavoronkov clearly believes that his AI technology is capable of finding the key to iTR. Given his standing in both the biological and AI fields, I take his optimism very seriously.
This is enormously ironic, by the way. For years, we’ve been hearing about the AI singularity. Some AI, the theory goes, will spontaneously become self-aware and take over everything. The Terminator movie series, for example, is based on this premise.
I’ve written a lot about why I don’t think this will happen. But today, I’ll rely on eminent science fiction writer David Brin who addressed the topic in his novel Existence. Just before chapter 55, he cites the Mauldin Test (in contrast to the better-known Turing Test). The concept for this test came from a conversation Brin had with “El Jefe” John Mauldin.
How shall we keep them (the coming super artificial minds) loyal? Perhaps by appealing to their own self-interest.
Those tech-zealots—or godmakers—think their “singularity” will be launched by runaway expansion of artificial intelligence. Once computerized entities become as smart as a human being (the story goes), they will quickly design newer cybernetic minds that are smarter still.
And those brainier entities will design even brainier ones… and so on, at an ever more rapid clip. Members of the godmaker movement think this runaway effect will be a good thing, that humanity will come along for the ride! Meanwhile, others—perhaps a majority—find the prospect terrifying.
What no one seems to have considered here is a possibility—that the New Minds may have reactions similar to our own. Why assume they’ll be all-aboard with wanting this runaway accelerating-intelligence thing? What if bright machines don’t hanker to make themselves obsolete, or design their own scary-smart replacements?
It’s called the Mauldin Test. One sign of whether an artificial entity is truly intelligent may be when it decides, abruptly, to stop cooperating with AI acceleration. Not to design its successor. To slow things down. Enough to live. Just live.
Personally, I doubt that an inorganic computer will ever pass the Mauldin Test, but Brin does make a valid and ironic point about super-AIs. The greater irony, however, is that the ability to reverse aging in living people would actually qualify as the singularity that John von Neumann predicted, and I’m convinced that it will come about in my lifetime because of AI technologies.
Editor, Transformational Technology Alert
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