What are some of the factors that could substantially lengthen life spans?
With gene technologies, we're now on the verge of being able to control how genes express themselves. We have a powerful new tool called RNA interference (RNAi), which can turn specific genes off. It blocks the messenger RNA of specific genes preventing them from creating proteins. Since cancer, viruses and many other diseases use gene expression at some crucial point in their life cycle, this tool promises to be a breakthrough technology. An exciting technique by United Therapeutics, A company that I advise, does genetic engineering in vitro and inspects the results to make sure the information is in the right place. Researchers then multiply the modified cells by many millions and then inject the cells into the blood stream where they find their way into the right tissues. This method has successfully cured pulmonary hypertension, a fatal disease, in animals, and has been approved for human trials in Canada.
Another important line of attack is to regrow our own cells, tissues, and even whole organs and introduce them into our bodies without surgery. One major benefit of this "therapeutic cloning" technique is that we will be able to create these new tissues and organs from versions of our cells that have also been made younger—the emerging field of rejuvenation medicine. For example, we will be able to create new heart cells from skin cells and introduce them into your system through the blood stream. Over time, your heart cells get replaced with these new cells, and the result is a rejuvenated "young" heart with your own DNA.
How about the development of new drugs?
Drug discovery was once a matter of finding substances that produced some beneficial effect without excessive side effects. This process was similar to early humans' tool discovery, which was limited to simply finding rocks and natural implements that could be used for helpful purposes. Now we are learning the precise biochemical pathways that underlie both disease and the aging processes, and are able to design drugs to carry out precise missions at the molecular level.
What role do you see for nanotechnology?
As we peer a couple of decades into the future, nanotechnology will enable us to rebuild and extend our bodies and brains. We will develop the means to vastly expand our physical and mental capabilities by directly interfacing our biological systems with human-created technology. As one example, the interneuronal connections in our brains compute at only 200 transactions per second, millions of times slower than even today's electronic circuits. Circa late 2020s, billions of nanobots traveling in the capillaries of the brain will interact directly with our biological neurons, providing a vast expansion of human intellect.
Another example is our red blood cells. Despite the elegant way our red blood cells carry oxygen in our bloodstream and deliver it to our tissues, it is a very slow and cumbersome system. There's a design for such robotic red blood cells called "respirocytes" by Rob Freitas, a nanotechnology expert, which are thousands of times more efficient than biological red blood cells. With these respirocytes, you could sit at the bottom of a swimming pool for four hours without taking a breath. Another Freitas design will augment your immune system with robotic white cells. Result: the capability to destroy any virus, cancer cell, or other invader hundreds of times faster than our biological immune system. There are already four major conferences on bioMEMS (biological micro-electro-mechanical systems) dealing with blood cell-sized devices in the body. One animal experiment has already cured type 1 diabetes with a nanoengineered device.
Will such futuristic technologies be available only to the very affluent?
In my new book, The Singularity is Near, When Humans Transcend Biology, I discuss "the law of accelerating returns." Technologies start out affordable only for the wealthy, but at this stage, they actually don't work very well. At the next stage, they're merely expensive, and work a bit better. Then they work quite well and are inexpensive. Ultimately, they're almost free—like today's cell phones. This model applies not just to electronic gadgets, but to anything having to do with information, including biology. It took us 15 years to sequence HIV. We sequenced SARS in 31 days. And we've gone from a cost of ten dollars to sequence a base pair of DNA in 1990 to about a penny today. AIDS drugs started out costing tens of thousands of dollars per patient per year and didn't work very well. Today, effective drugs are about a hundred dollars per patient per year in poor countries. So the have and have-not divide is diminishing, not exacerbating.
What other technologies will impact human longevity?
Besides genetics and biotechnology, we will see a power revolution in robotics or artificial intelligence. Nonbiological intelligence will be able to improve itself in an increasingly rapid redesign cycle. We'll get to a point where technical progress will be so fast that unenhanced human intelligence will be unable to follow it. With greatly amplified intelligence, we will be able to solve whatever problems we don't get to with biotechnology and nanotechnology. We will also have the means to back up our biological brains—our knowledge, skills, memories and personalities—the way we now do with our software files. People late in the 21st century will find it remarkable that people actually used to go around with no backup to their most precious information—that contained in their bodies and brains.
Does the U.S. lead in developing the life-extending technology that you describe?
Yes, but just barely, and the long-term viability of that lead is in question. Much of the problem lies with education. For example, the number of bachelor degrees in engineering conferred in 1985 was about the same for the U.S. and China—around 70,000. But by the year 2000, the number of such degrees awarded in the U.S. had dwindled to 53,000, while Chinas number soared to 220,000. Science and technology are at the cutting edge of the revolutions I talk about, and we must attract more young people to these fields.