Overestimating the Near Future

It is a truism that, in general, people who look ahead to the future both greatly overestimate predicted progress in the near term of twenty years or less and greatly underestimate predicted progress across longer timeframes. One might argue that this is due in part to most memorable predictions being made about industries and technologies in the early stages of an exponential curve - not much happens for many years as people experiment, persuade, bootstrap support and funding, and then a lot happens in a comparatively short period of time after someone hits the big time, gets it right, and the mainstream wakes up to the latest new new thing. But that's an oversimplification; there are many factors at work here, such as the many variants of hopeful but ultimately self-deluding optimism in the advocacy and technology development communities.

So it is a useful exercise to temper our own predictions of what lies ahead with a look back at earlier well-thought-out and detailed predictions of past progress, to see where they fell down. Here's an example via New Cryonet, written in 1987, and making a set of predictions that, in many cases, have yet to come to pass despite being fairly reasonable - we are not as far along as we'd like to be:

Fairly predictive tests for Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia, depression, some malignancies, heart disease, and most of the rest of the major killers and disablers will probably be in place by 2000 to 2010. Many if not most of these ailments will be assessable in terms of a very sophisticated genetic risk profile which it will be possible to generate in infancy or childhood (or in utero).


Tissue rejection will be amenable to treatment in almost all cases by highly selective destruction or inhibition of certain parts of the immune system without the negative consequences of today's immunosuppressive drugs. Monoclonal and synthetic antibodies carrying toxins or regulatory molecules will be used to turn off or destroy the fraction of immune cells which initially respond and proliferate when a transplant is carried out. More widespread transplantation of tissues will be undertaken, including transplantation of limbs and scalp. Xenografts will be used increasingly in the mid to late 1990's and it will not be uncommon for people to have pancreatic tissue from bovine or porcine sources and perhaps hearts, lungs, and livers from other animals. Expect the first workable transplants to be from great apes (chimps, gorillas, orangutans), with porcine and bovine grafts coming later.


By the early decades of 2000, significant rejuvenation and geroprophylaxis of skin, bone, immune, and other "high turn- over" tissues will be possible as the natural regulatory molecules which control these systems are understood and applied. Expect several significant synthetic compounds to be discovered with these kinds of properties as well. There will be the possibility of profound improvement in personal appearance and general health as these agents enter the marketplace. By the early years of the 21st century the first generation of compounds effective at "rejuvenating" (i.e., restoring some degree of normal maintenance and repair to existing brain cells) the central nervous system will be available. These drugs will work by turning on protein synthesis and stimulating natural repair mechanisms.

Many of the specific predictions in the article were in fact demonstrated in the laboratory to some degree, and were technically feasible to develop as commercial products by the year 2000, and in some cases earlier but at much greater expense. Certainly there are partial hits for many of the predictions by 2010, in the sense of it being possible, somewhat demonstrated, or in the early stages of being shown to be a practical goal. Yet the regulatory environment in much of the developed world essentially rules out any form of adventurous, rapid, highly competitive development in clinical medicine - such as exists in the electrical engineering, computing, and other worlds. We are cursed therefore with the passage of many years between a new medical technology being demonstrated possible and then attempted in the marketplace ... if it ever makes it to the marketplace at all. This must change if we are to see significant progress.


Thanks for your thoughtful review both of my posting on Cryonet, and of the original article. I agree that things must change and change quickly if we are to gain control of aging - or even to survive (even with our current life spans).

I've been going over my original manuascript and surfing the web for specific applications (approved or in process) which meet the criteria of my predictions of 24 years ago. While many of my "lesser" predictions are in fact being realized (often in ways totally unforeseen by us when we wrote the article) overall it is a profoundly depressing experience.

Perhaps nowhere has that been more true than in the areas of aging and cerebral resuscitation - two fields of endeavor I've spent a lifetime working on, or intimately involved with those who are. In 1999, we announced that we had achieved repeatable recovery of dogs following 16+ minutes of whole body noromothermic cardiac arrest with no neurological deficit. The enabling molecules and techniques (principally a combination of melatonin, alpha-phenyl-n-tert-butyl-nitrone (PBN), and mild post-cardiac arrest therapeutic hypothermia)all seemed eminently applicable in the (then)immesdiate future. Indeed, an analog of PBN, 2,3-dihydroxy-6-nitro-7-sulfamoyl-benzo(F)quinoxaline (NBQX) had passed Phase I and II clinical trials for the trsatment of stroke with flying colors, and seemed destined for approval.

That was 13 years, ago, and there is still not a single drug available (approved or otherwise) anywhere in the world to treat cerebral ischemia-reperfusion injury - the real killer in cardiac arrest and stroke! Do a literature search on Pubmed for melatonin + cerebral ischemia and you will get ~130 hits - almost all of them dramatically positive. Melatonin is a naturally occuring bioregulatory molecule which is inexpensive and freely acvailable as an over the counter "nutrient." Even as a stand alone molecule, melatonimn is powerfully protective in both global and regional cerebral ischemia, and yet no human application has been forthcoming. It's been 15 years since our patent on melatonin and other cerebroprotective molecules was issued, 17 years since the patent was applied for, and over 20 years since I made the discovery!Indeed, mild therapeutic hypothermia, made the supposed standard of care for post cardiac arrest neuroinjury nearly a decade ago, is still largely ignored and is used well in only a handful of hospitals worldwide.

What kind of black irony is it that I live in terror of stroke and cardiac arrest (for both myself and my loved ones) and yet the very molecules I discovered to combat them are as unavailable as if they had never been found?

Change? Yes, change is certainly needed, and soon.

Posted by: Mike Darwin at December 21st, 2011 10:10 PM

Didn't you write this last year?

Posted by: Mike at December 22nd, 2011 1:48 AM

@Mike: Probably. There are more days in the year than general themes on which to post.

Posted by: Reason at December 22nd, 2011 5:34 AM

At 27 - and about to apply for a new time-consuming and demanding job- I find this as revealing as it is depressing.

As I wade deeper into the swamp, attempting to shed light on the feasibility of the scientific community achieving the knowledge necessary for indefinite life extension within my lifetime, I oftentimes stumble upon the thread that you have clearly described here: research gets there, but the backwards thinking and pig-headedness of the medical establishment tramples most predictions of applicability. We are, as a result, set backwards many years and millions of lives are lost in the process. This is not an encouraging prospect for our own survival.

It is not death I dread as much as the progressive decay of my own faculties. The truth of the adage "youth is wasted on the young" is not lost on me; just as we young people have accrued some life-experience and proficiency at one or more tasks, it all starts to go downhill. It might not be noticeable in my own case in the next ten years, as I am taking the requisite care of myself, but I KNOW I will be feeling it in fifteen - as early as 2026, and what will be accomplished by then? If I were a betting man, I'd wager that not as much as I'd like.

This is something that occupies some part of my thoughts each day. Sometimes, I look forward to the future with the wide-eyed confidence and naive optimism of those who have not yet lost much, and I believe that by the time I'm 48, or maybe 53, some rough, fledgling treatements will already be available, just in time for me to avoid dramatically aging.

Then, I realise how true the Maes-Garreau Law is, and this line of thought is revealed for the narcissistic fantasy it really is. It is terrifying, not just because of the status quo of having to age and die, but because of something amazing that is very much within the realm of possibility and that might enrich all our lives, and yet might not happen (soon enough to matter to us).

Sometimes, as today, when I read about the non-acceptance or, worse, ignorance of EXISTING treatements and drugs such as those discovered by Mr. Darwin in the above post... well, I'm just disgusted.

And I despair.

Posted by: Emiliano at December 22nd, 2011 6:53 AM

On a lighter note, I have a question for you, Reason: what do you personally believe is more likely to be done in the next 20 to 25 years? How much will we advance in this matter? As we know, predictions are notably inaccurate, no matter how informed, but I'd still like your personal view. Much CAN be done, but between possibility and actuality is a large chasm. Nothing new to your, of course, I just like hearing more informed opinions than my own wishful thinking.

Posted by: Emiliano at December 22nd, 2011 11:30 AM

I'm already 55 and beginning to stare at the abyss yet my thoughts and hopes are just Ike yours.
Being a baby boomer and watching the incredible scientific advancements since my birth I really find it hard to believe science won't advance sufficiently to allow us to reach escape velocity by 2026, so far in my lifetime I have seen the introduction of Television,Transistors, Commercial jet aircraft, Nuclear power, Solar power, Man landing on the moon, Mainframe,Mini,Micro, Laptop, IPad and IPhone to name a very few advancements in our everyday lives. In medicine progress had been much slower but it's now beginning to show signs of true rapid progress, last week I had stem cell therapy on my left knee. It was only a dream a few years ago but reality today.

Like you I would also like to know reasons personal predictions for the next 15 to 25 years.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

Posted by: Mike at December 23rd, 2011 7:57 PM

Anything can change overnight. Perhaps not in the US but in other places, like China, biotechnology and others are rapidly advancing.

We just do not know what may happen, but we should do our part in any small way possible to increase the chance of making agelessness happen in our lifetime.

Posted by: Jason at December 24th, 2011 3:53 AM
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