Thursday, December 3, 2015

Sorry Star Trek, the future belongs to Khan, not Kirk.

The Washington Post had an article yesterday about editing genes to cure aging. It's probably still an outlier type of article to really say that the discussion has moved to the mainstream, but it's there.

The method used, CRISPR, is not new to people who follow life extension efforts. And when I say life extension, I don't mean eating healthy and exercising, but actually reversing the aging process and eliminating old age as a cause of death. The funding in the field is miniscule and the conversation is dominated by enthusiasts rather than professionals. Professionals are loathe to take on the project. One that did, Aubrey de Grey, issued a challenge with prize money to anyone who could demonstrate that his approach to anti-aging was unsound. It's the old aviation prize approach but Diamandis seems to make it work.

But now that a Harvard professor of genetics is talking about reversing aging, hopefully we'll see more professionals get involved. Singularity University is as good an effort as one could hope for in this regard although its publication, Singularity Hub, is really lacking; it's just a general science and tech blog no better than Next Big Future or 33rd Square.* It was a mistake for Singularity University to incorporate the Singularity Hub blog as its voice because there still is no well-curated accessible resource for directly related GNR approaches to singularity technologies.

For executive summaries about the where we are on the road, it's probably best to just check out Ray Kurzweil's latest talks. For the state of the art, Gennady Stolyarov's Fight Aging

Eliminating aging through genetic engineering presupposes technologies that will enable all kinds of other types of bio-engineering and augmentation. Just about everyone would be on board with fixing the genes responsible for cystic fibrosis but there's a lot of angst over genetic engineering as a kind of crypto-Nazi eugenics program. People inclined to see reality in terms of class distinctions are probably less sanguine than libertarian types like myself. Either way, I don't think a bright line can be drawn for therapeutic versus superficial improvements in gene editing which leads to a transhumanist vision of the future rather than one where everyone has the Einstein's brainpower and Mr. Universe's body etc.

* It's not that I don't appreciate the work that Brian Wang does at his site Next Big Future (which unfortunately seems to be focused on the Chinese military lately) or Geoffrey Brennan's site 33rd Square, but neither is really qualified to give insight into the technologies they report on. Gennady Stolyarov's Fight Aging doesn't look nearly as slick as the previous sites, but he's an actuary and actuarial thinking is a good mindset to have when evaluating research. Or maybe I'm just biased towards a fellow libertarian. 

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