Why No Healthy Life Extension Grand Challenge?

Given the members of the advisory committee for the Grand Challenges for Engineering, there appears to be a large and obvious hole in the list of challenges offered for consideration. Researcher Attila Chordash asks the obvious question:

Why was life extension ruled out of the 14 Grand Engineering Challenges?


It is a big challenge to learn how could healthy lifespan extension as a big and realistic challenge have been left out? Why did Kurzweil (author of the book Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever) not stand up for it? Why nobody out of the luminaries thought that regenerative medicine and stem cells worth discussing more than a tiny side note? And what about Venter, whom I still like to be interview as there are many points in his activity suggesting a life extension connection. Somebody in the committee was clearly against it?

I was also surprised, given the tenor of press articles on the Grand Challenges, most of which focused on Ray Kurzweil and his views on the future of radical life extension and other transhumanist technologies. Given a committee, it seems, you can water down any set of ambitions to thin gruel indeed.

American inventor and futurologist Ray Kurzweil said mankind is on the brink of radical advances in computer science and medicine that will see tiny robots or "nanobots" embedded in people's bodies, fending off disease and boosting our intelligence. Breakthroughs in technologies such as RNA interference, involving inhibiting the functioning of genes, and gene therapy will allow us to flick genetic switches on and off and add new ones - putting an end to many illnesses and expanding lifespans, he added.

Precious little of that in the Grand Challenges themselves. Chordash offers some opinions collected from his network; it boils down to the conservatism of the any old guard, scientific community or otherwise. But there is no debate on the feasibility of healthy life extension in the gerontological community these days; the arguments are all over how the goal will be accomplished, how much can be done, and how long it will take. When you put together a Grand Challenge for Engineering on medicine and manage to completely leave out extending the healthy human life span, you make yourself irrelevant to what is actually taking place in the laboratories and research communities today.


You also end up in the situation our major pharmacuetical companies are in. You've got all the low hanging fruit, now you are looking at obscure targets. And areas with diminishing returns. Like curing Alzheimers so the person can live another 2 years before they die of old age.

Not surprisingly Pharmacuetical company revenues are now falling, and look set to fall for the foreseeable future. Which I predicted based simply on the low hanging fruit argument. Compare that to the boom of the 80's then the commercial success in the 90's mainly on those 80's drugs.

Even if we cured all disease and cancer and everything we are trying for we'd only add 12 years to the average human life expectancy. And for most people those 12 years would be during their elder years, like living to 92 instead of 80. Not exactly breathtaking, and not exactly something people are going to be eager to pay hundreds of billions of dollars for.

On the other hand our medical industry needs to make the jump to all sorts of adult stem cells, gene therapy, extracellular junk breakers, inside cell cleaners, and so forth. I imagine there are many types of extracellular cross links, all needing different chemicals to break them, and taking those chemicals for perhaps months. Each drug you took could cost thousands and people would pay it.

Same with adult stem cells, extracting, testing for the purest, making millions, re-implanting in the right place.. this is something that will take thousands of researchers constantly improving and hundreds of thousands of workers to carry out.. And that is just for one organ of the body!

Its pretty obvious to see this could employ millions upon millions of people, be worth trillions in sales.. say a portfolio of 100 treatments to ameriolate aging damage.. each one by itself having a small but significant rejunivation impact. But together rejuvinating a person from the age of like 75 to say 35.

Big scary thinkers like Henry Ford build economies and change the world. His company directly employed 1 million people at the peak.

Posted by: aa2 at February 23rd, 2008 7:46 PM

Yes, it's fun to dream about being a doctor with a treatment so effective. The hit or miss nature of medicine and it's philosophy of fixing only after the damage is done was incredibly demotivating to me. So maybe I could do neuroscience, i thought.I read an article from a professor about how being a scientist sucks because the demand for researchers is very low (not of course computer science/engineering). And with all my hope drained, I realized I wasn't brilliant anyway and no amount of motivation could change that.

OF course, I am not an active immortalist. But I applaud the effort.

Posted by: Matthew at February 25th, 2008 8:43 PM

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