Reporting on the 2012 Singularity Summit

Videos of the presentations given at this year's Singularity Summit have yet to emerge online, but while we're waiting here is a report on the event:

Kurzweil took the stage on Saturday afternoon to deliver the summit's keynote address. "The singularity is near," he began quietly, a grin slowly spreading across his face. "No, it isn't here yet, but it's getting nearer," he said to laughs and applause. He spoke extemporaneously for over an hour, his presentation a mix of statistics, time series graphs, personal anecdotes, and predictions.

Computing ability and technological innovation have been increasing exponentially over the past few decades, he argued, alongside similar increases in life expectancy and income. "All progress stems from the law of accelerating returns," he proclaimed. He discussed his latest project - an attempt to reverse-engineer the human brain. "Intelligence is at the root of our greatest innovations: genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics. Once we master artificial intelligence, unimaginable new frontiers will open up."

After his talk, a man stood up and looked Kurzweil in the eye. "I'm in my 60s like you," he said, his voice faltering. "Do you think we'll make it?" It took me a few seconds to realize they were talking about immortality and I felt chills in that moment. "Life expectancy tables are based on what happened in the past," responded Kurzweil without skipping a beat. "In 25 years, we'll be able to add one year of life for every year that passes. We have a very good chance of making it through."

I should note that I believe Kurzweil's timelines for rejuvenation biotechnology are only possible if $300 million or more in dedicated research funding turns up at the SENS Foundation's front door tomorrow, thereby ensuring a good shot at demonstrating rejuvenation in old laboratory mice by the mid-2020s. As things stand progress towards the necessary technologies is far slower - not because it cannot be done, but because there is comparatively little interest in doing it, and therefore little funding.

One of the deep puzzles of our age is how a multi-billion-dollar "anti-aging" industry, full of enthusiasm but providing nothing that significantly impacts aging, can exist alongside the near absence of interest in funding research that will produce therapies capable of reversing the progression of aging. There are strange tides at work in the psychology surrounding aging and longevity.



The issue with this type of prediction of the future of rejuvenation medicine in broad timescales like this, is that it arguably damages the prospects by undermining credibility because there is little discussion on the detail of how the challenges will be overcome.

The issue is not so much funding for research in our view. Consider the advances in technology they are talking about would allow rapid and cheap computer led research of biological systems to understand how to rejuvenate. This is not expensive and the vast majority of cost in pharmaceutical R&D relates to clinical drug development. Plus capital will readily be attracted once the enormous commercial opportunities associated with rejuvenation appear credible to the investment community.

The assumption underlying seems to be that computing power increasing, money and stem cell science are going to do. Not if the lessons of the pharmaceutical industry and its errors on the science are any guide.

Stem cells and other methods of rejuvenation exist within nature but to harness them you need to understand how the biological systems operate. Otherwise you are poking around in the dark on a wing and prayer (enter most genetics based drug discovery programs) or hoping a positive provocation of stem cell activity or immune response related therapies will not result in unintended adverse consequences (e.g. provocation of cancer). This looks a long, slow road which will be littered with the bodies of failed projects.

Alternatively what is needed is an understanding for example of how adult stem cells are activated on a selective basis; how histones work as the link between DNA and cell activity; the different systems within cells errors in which create cancer e.g. apoptosis errors, DNA damage, mitochondria error, angiogenesis to name but a few.

All these things have something in common, they the biological functional output of biological systems largely driven proteomics although the proteomics obviously have a link to genomics. Interpret how such systems work and you are well on the way to tackling the issues and unlocking the promise. What is therefore needed is inter and intra cellular proteomic data, new physics capabilities to measure things like conformation dynamically in situ and complex systems maths to interpret the biological systems at the systems level.

Some of this exists, some does not (mainly the physics instruments). If for instance Aubrey De Grey's 7 aspects of ageing are ever to be explored beyond the theory level then the approach taken will be critical. The tools exist but it depends on where they steer the ship

Posted by: Network Pharmacology Blog at October 26th, 2012 5:06 AM

While I have read several of Kurzweil's books, including the Singularity is Near, I have to say I'm, at this point, dubious about his predictions. It seems he is a victim of the never waivering proclaimation that whatever he wants to happen - in his case The Singularity, and therefore Immortality, is just at the horizon of his likely lifetime. He is 64 now, so he claims that there is a good chance that in the next 25 years the Singularity is likely to occur. Well... the problem is that it is not natural for the human brain to be able to predict the completion of a complex problem that has many parts, many of which are unknown to that brain.

Considering the rate of progress to this point - I'm starting to think Ray is not going to make it through. In fact, I'm thinking my chances at 38 to be less likely the more time goes by without some "milestone" achievement. I'm speaking more about the SENS approach here, rather than the Singularity.

Posted by: Dan C at October 29th, 2012 10:14 AM

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