Submitted in response to Technology Review’s interview with Leonard Hayflick. See “Can Aging Be Solved?”
is not the most fruitful perspective from which to view aging. There are
varying error rates in biological information processes depending on the cell
type, and this is part of biology’s paradigm. We have means already of
determining error-free DNA sequences even though specific cells will contain
DNA errors, and we will be in a position to correct those errors that matter.
The most important perspective in my view is that health, medicine, and biology is now an information technology, whereas it used to be hit or miss. We not only have the (outdated) software that biology runs on (our genome), but we have the means of changing that software (our genes) in a mature individual with such technologies as RNA interference and new forms of gene therapy that do not trigger the immune system. (I am a collaborator with a company that performs gene therapy outside the body, replicates the modified cell a million-fold, and reintroduces the cells to the body, a process that has cured a fatal disease–pulmonary hypertension–and is undergoing human trials.)
We can design interventions on computers and test them out on increasingly sophisticated biological simulators. One of my primary themes is that information technology grows exponentially, in sharp contrast to the linear growth of hit or miss approaches that have characterized medicine up until recently. As such, these technologies will be a million times more powerful in 20 years (by doubling in power and price performance each year). The genome project, incidentally, followed exactly this trajectory.
Hayflick cites the automobile as an example to support his thesis that you cannot stop aging. Yes, automobiles will wear out if you don’t maintain them adequately. However, we do have the knowledge to perfectly maintain automobiles and completely prevent aging. There are century-old
automobiles around in vintage (perfect) condition that are still driven around.
That is because the maintenance was sufficiently aggressive for those cars.
Most people don’t think it’s worth the trouble with regard to an
automobile, but it will be worth the trouble for our bodies. With regard to
automobiles, we have all of the knowledge and tools needed to completely stop aging. We do not yet have all of the knowledge and tools to do this with the human body, but that knowledge is growing exponentially.
As for the implications of radical life extension, Hayflick assumes that nothing else would change. But the same technologies that will bring radical life extension will also bring radical expansion of resources (nanoengineered solar panels, water and food technologies) and radical life expansion (merging with the intelligent machines that we are creating, virtual reality from within the nervous system, etc.). We have already democratized the tools of creativity so that kids in their dorm room can create a full-length high-definition motion picture or write software that results in disruptive change (e.g., Google). Hayflick has not considered the implications of these recent developments. We don’t have to do any of these things perfectly (and there is no such thing as perfection in the real world)–just well enough to stay ahead of the curve.
Our intuition is linear, so many scientists, such as Hayflick, think in linear terms and expect that the slow pace of the past will characterize the future. But the reality of progress in information technology is exponential, not linear. My cell phone is a billion times more powerful per dollar than the computer we all shared when I was an undergrad at MIT. And we will do it again in 25 years. What used to take up a building now fits in my pocket, and what now fits in my pocket will fit inside a blood cell in 25 years.
With regard to Hayflick’s own limit, he acts as if that limit is impossible to engineer. Just in recent years we have discovered that just one enzyme controls the telomeres and that cancer cells use telomerase to become immortal. Now, I realize that it is not a simple matter to just apply telomerase to overcome this particular aging limit, as we have to figure out how to administer it, and we don’t want to encourage cancer, but these are all solvable engineering problems.