The False Expectation of a Gentle Upward Slope

People generally expect the future to be much like the present, but with shinier toys. They expect their lives to look like the lives of their parents, albeit with those shinier toys, and are deeply skeptical of predictions of radical change. At one and the same time, these folk take for granted the radical change that has taken place across their lives to date, and that was neither forseen nor expected by their parents:

While going through old SF magazines, I found mention of Atlantic Richfield's ad campaign requesting vision statements from Americans of what life might be like in the Tricentennial [in 2076]. ARCO received some 60,000 responses and in 1977 published an 80-page booklet summarizing those visions. The SF reviewer stated that most of the visions listed therein would have seemed old-hat to SF fans in the 70s. As in 20 to 30 years out of date.


In short, [people predicted that] life would be like 1976 in 2076, only more so.

No hint of the telecommunications revolution that was already well underway in 1976. No hint of the things young men named Gates and Jobs were up to. Nor any discussion about what that then newfangled computer network, the Arpanet, might grow into.

Curiously enough, when discussing the idea of a Technological Singularity on most public discussion boards today, I find most participants wear the same blinders the American people did 1/3 of a century ago.

The present day US stands a world and a culture away from from the US of 40 years ago. It is a profoundly transformed society, capably employing the technologies that enabled that transformation - such as ubiquitous, next-to-free instant communication and mass publishing, or more low-cost computing power than most people seem to know what to do with.

Today the trajectory of biotechnology is arguably more obvious than the trajectory of computer hardware and software in 1976. It's in many ways more of the same: bigger and better hardware driving ever greater capabilities in an information-based field. Yet people expect the past gentle trends in life expectancy or the introduction of new medical therapies to continue much as they have. This is, on the face of it, ridiculous, but convincing folk that other futures are possible and plausible if they'd just pitch in and help remains an uphill battle.


I agree with you on the potential of biotechnology, but there is one significant difference between technological revolution you mentioned and today's biotechnology. In the 1976 computers were accessible to _anyone_ who wanted to buy them. Enthusiasts used computers, started creating small interconnections (early modems, later simple networks). After slow accumulation of computer usage, a "turning point" was reached when computers became mainstream. Thus, to briefly conclude, if we want biotechnology to achieve the same revolution as "ordinary" computer and telecommunications technology did, then biotechnological devices _must be accessible_ to ordinary people. Ordinary people must be able to "play" with genes, DNA, etc. Otherwise, biotechnology will remain in several dedicated industry labs and universities. If this happens, then the progress of biotechnology is questionable, because it will depend on (dirty) business rules of non-mainstream, exclusive technologies.

On another note, while I still have time for writing comments - one comment regarding recent posts (thank you for them!) about autophagy. Why is research regarding autophagy limited only to calorie restriction effects (and here why the effect of different types of nutrients isn't investigated - CHO/Fat/Proteins, low-AGE/high-AGE intake; to use the phrase from my profession: "junk in - junk inside - junk out") and EOTD feeding/fasting. As I understand metabolism, autophagy is truly happening when the body is running on "internal energy" - or to put it simply, when the body _starves_ (it's an awful term, but the most appropriate here). To conclude shortly, although I'd like to have more time to put more arguments here - why isn't there a research of effects of iterative "rational fasting/starvation" on longevity. Let's say I have a very strong "hunch" that "rational starvation" effects would have significantly better results (in terms of longevity) than EOTD fasting and calorie restriction.

Regarding the question "why do humans live so long?" that is present in mainstream science and that I saw on your site a few months ago - why is this question formulated in such manner? From my perspective, the question should be "why do humans live so _short_?", especially if taken into consideration how certain types of mammals live longer than we do in absolute terms (certain types of whales, elephants). To cut short (there are plenty of arguments here, pro and contra), we are the only mammal that has created civilization - others did not. Thus, why the evolution didn't take care of it's most advanced mammal (us) by protecting it with long lifespan? (there are plenty of examples how more advanced species, in terms of intelligence, social structrues etc., live longer than less developed species)

Posted by: Sense at October 16th, 2009 5:22 AM

"Thus, why the evolution didn't take care of it's most advanced mammal (us) by protecting it with long lifespan? (there are plenty of examples how more advanced species, in terms of intelligence, social structrues etc., live longer than less developed species)"

I think you have a fundamental misunderstanding of how evolution works. I would recommend that you read some Dawkins, George C. Williams, or maybe this series of posts by Eliezer Yudkowsky:

Posted by: Michael G.R. at October 16th, 2009 10:55 AM

Sense: the tools of basic biotechnology are fairly accessible to normal people, but the community is as yet young and growing only slowly. See, for example:

The biggest threat - and difference from the early days of home computing - is that regulators will simply shut down this access once it starts to get more popular.

With regard to autophagy and low-food-intake research, you should assume there's more going on out there than I mention. I'm certainly not conducting an exhaustive survey of scientific efforts to this end.

Posted by: Reason at October 16th, 2009 3:22 PM

I am a realist ,not an optimist.

Biomedicacal research is slow. There are at least a dozen foundations whose aim is to cure a chronic disease. In the last 50 years not even one closed down because they found a cure.
And the biggest of the current chronic illnesses is aging.
In 1950's the U.S. government decided death because of aging be not written on death certificate. And FDA doesn't consider aging -- a disease that needs a cure. So the governments and the establishment are the biggest obstacles in research to find a cure. And even if a cure is found it will not be likely to be covered by government or private insurance, which means it will be available only for the wealthy. So realistically most humans alive now will die of aging or other chronic diseases.

Posted by: nikki at October 16th, 2009 5:38 PM

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