Foresight co-founder on the future of the human lifespan

Credit: The Optimized Geek and Stephan Spencer

The October 1, 2015 podcast of The Optimized Geek: Reboot Your Life, with host SEO expert, author, and professional speaker Stephan Spencer featured Foresight Co-Founder and Past President Christine Peterson: A Glimpse at the Future Lifespan of Humans (55 minutes).

Christine explained the development of nanotechnology in three stages. Currently we are moving from the first stage focus on nanomaterials, like stain-resistant pants, into the second phase, dominated by nanoscale devices. The most exciting change will come with the third stage, in which systems of molecular machines will operate with atomic precision.

In responding to a question from Spencer on what we might see in the next ten years, Peterson suggested that although nanotechnology in that time frame would still be mostly about nanomaterials and simple nanodevices, one of the most interesting applications would be in health, giving the example of more effective diagnosis, imaging, and treatment of cancer through the enhanced targeting specificity of nanomaterials and nanodevices.

What might advanced nanotechnology look like 30 years from now? Peterson began with the question: What limits do the laws of physics set on what we can build with systems of molecular machines able to build with atomic precision, including inside the human body? One of many applications would be correcting DNA mistakes and mutations cell by cell. Other targets could be damaged proteins and plaques from Alzheimers, etc.

With this level of technology, lifespans would not be limited by aging or traditional diseases, but only by accidents that destroyed the brain, leading to estimated lifespans on the order of 10,000 years. With technology to record the molecular structure of brain, back-up copies of individual brains could be made, eliminating even the 10,000 year limit.

Turning to the topic of the Singularity, Peterson chose to define it in terms of when artificial intelligence technologies reach the level beyond an individual human being so that trying to predict what the world looks like after that point becomes extremely difficult. While acknowledging a range of opinions on when the Singularity could occur, Peterson leaned toward it becoming a reality within our lifetimes. She encouraged the audience to check out the web site of MIRI, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute: for people working to prevent powerful non-human intelligences from posing a threat to humanity.

Continuing with potential threats of out-of-control powerful technologies, Spencer brought up the problem of “grey goo” in nanotechnology. Peterson explained how that the possible threat of nanomachinery self-replicating and devouring the environment, derived from the way biological organisms reproduced and spread in the absence of control by predators, etc., seemed a reasonable thought during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when it was first formulated, but that thinking about potential problems of advanced nanotechnology had moved on past that idea, from accidental proliferation to deliberate weaponization of molecular machinery. Such threats are similar to today’s threats from chemical and bio-weapons, so today’s efforts to control chemical and bio-weapons are useful models to control nano-weapons in the future.

Returning to medical issues, Spencer pointed to the increased prevalence of Alzheimers and autism, positing that an environmental toxin might be the cause. Peterson noted that these are complex problems with, for now, ill-defined causes, noted some progress, but does not see nanotechnology at this time playing a prominent role in treating these conditions.

What are the biggest environmental stressors, and what are some solutions to mitigate their effects? One problem noted was mold in the food supply Not only do processed foods lose nutrients, but the more the food is processed, the more likely it is to contain mold. Unless chemical tests are done on the food, there is no way to know whether processed foods contain mold. She encouraged those concerned about longevity to go to the trouble of buying raw food and processing it yourself, even growing your own garden. “Once you’ve gone to the trouble, it is really hard to go back!” (because it tastes so much better).

Peterson placed her interest in food quality as part of the “Quantified Self” movement for anyone really interested in health and longevity, and recommended the Quantified Self Conferences for those interested in ways to obtain the knowledge necessary to improve health and longevity. Spencer commented that he has also experimented with a device to monitor sleep quality. The theme of these efforts is “What gets measured, gets managed”.

Turning from “The Quantified Self” to “Biohacking”, Peterson described it as taking an engineering approach to making changes and improvements in our bodies. Approaches range from the traditional, like diet, exercise, and stress reduction, to the more exotic, like supplements to improve brain chemistry, or to improve health and longevity. Peterson cautions however, that while taking supplements is easy, figuring out which supplements to take is difficult. She considers them most useful to fix a specific problem that you’ve identified in your biochemistry, for example through a quantified self approach and ordering your own blood chemistry tests. To improve brain function, she recommended the web site, which surveys the medical and scientific literature for supplements to recommend.

Another variety of biohacking is sleep hacking. Quality of sleep is crucial because during those hours your body repairs itself. Failing to fix bad sleep accelerates aging and can cause a variety of diseases. Peterson went as far as to recommend working on your sleep if it is bad as the first place to start on a longevity program, even before taking supplements. One good place to start is blood, urine, and saliva tests for hormones. For example, many people have unhealthy cortisol levels, which can only be detected by saliva tests four times per day.

If hormone problems are responsible for poor sleep, it will be necessary to work with a physician to correct them. Finding a knowledgeable physician can be problematic. Terms used by informed physicians include “functional” or “integrative”. Another option is to ask friends in the quantified self movement, or for serious problems, she mentioned nationally known physicians, such as Terry Grossman.

Although not of immediate use for those who want to take action now to improve their health and longevity, for those who want to advance research in longevity, Peterson recommended Aubrey de Grey’s SENS Research Foundation.

For those who, due to illness or advanced age, will not be able to survive until the future when aging is cured and disease eliminated, but who would love to travel forward in time and take advantage of the technologies we will have a few decades from now, Peterson addressed the question of whether there is available today some form of suspended animation to maintain a body until it can be repaired. In the early days of “cryonics”, recently deceased bodies were placed at low (liquid nitrogen) temperatures for preservation. Later, certain chemicals were introduced as antifreeze to reduce biological damage caused by freezing. More recent technology has introduced improvements that have been tested on donated organs that are reversible; that is, a viable organ can be recovered from low temperature preservation. Arrangements can be made with cryonics organizations—the largest one is Alcor Life Extension Foundation—to implement for you the best suspended animation technology available at the time that you need it. Peterson shared that she is signed up for it because “I do not see a down side.”

Spencer brought up the topic of “Hacking your love life”. Peterson responded that she is currently working on a book tentatively titled “Finding Love in a Life Partner” (using science and technology). One of the biggest factors in longevity is personal relationships—how happy are you at home. Speaking of lessons she learned a few years go in the process of finding a new life partner, she noted that it is basically a matter of chemistry, and you are therefore triggering these chemical processes to occur. She found there are certain things that can be done that indirectly manipulate these processes in the desired direction, and other things that people do are not useful for forming tight bonds.

The final topic addressed was Ray Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns. While Kurzweil has provided examples of exponential technological progress, Peterson pointed out Peter Thiel’s observation that technological change is slowing due to regulatory issues, problems in funding science, and issues with respect to where venture capital is going. So, in thinking about the future, it is necessary to look at both sides of these issues—if we did not have to worry about regulatory barriers and could throw as much money as we wanted at science, then we could see exponential growth in a lot of areas. For areas like medicine there are huge institutional barriers to progress and even huge legal barriers. Peterson concludes she has to agree with Ray on some areas and with Peter on others.

Detailed show notes and a transcript are available.
—James Lewis, PhD

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