The Alcor Conference on Extreme Life Extension

November 21, 2002 by Ray Kurzweil

On November 15-17, 2002, leaders in life extension and cryonics came together to explore how the emerging technologies of biotechnology, nanotechnology, and cryonics will enable humans to halt and ultimately reverse aging and disease and live indefinitely.

Published on Nov. 22, 2002. Additional reporting by Sarah Black.

The idea that death is inevitable, which I call the "death meme," is a powerful and pervasive belief held by all humans, with the exception of a small but growing group of life extensionists. The thought leaders of this movement gathered together this past weekend in Los Angeles to participate in the Fifth annual Alcor Conference on Extreme Life Extension and share ideas on pushing back the end of life. Bringing together longevity experts, biotechnology pioneers, and futurists, the conference explored how the emerging technologies of biotechnology, nanotechnology, and cryonics will enable humans to halt and ultimately reverse aging and disease and live indefinitely.

I had the opportunity to participate in this illuminating and stimulating conference and I report herein on the highlights.

Robert Freitas is a Research Scientist at Zyvex, a nanotechnology company, and in my view the world’s leading pioneer in nanomedicine. He is the author of a book by the same name and the inventor of a number of brilliant conceptual designs for medical nanorobots. In his first major presentation of his pioneering conceptual designs, Freitas began his lecture by lamenting that "natural death is the greatest human catastrophe." The tragedy of medically preventable natural deaths "imposes terrible costs on humanity, including the destruction of vast quantities of human knowledge and human capital." He predicted that "future medical technologies, especially nanomedicine, may permit us first to arrest, and later to reverse, the biological effects of aging and most of the current causes of natural death."

Freitas presented his design for "respirocytes," nanoengineered replacements for red blood cells. Although they are much smaller than biological red blood cells, an analysis of their functionality demonstrates that augmenting one’s blood supply with these high pressure devices would enable a person to sit at the bottom of a pool for four hours, or to perform an Olympic sprint for 12 minutes, without taking a breath. Freitas presented a more complex blueprint for robotic "microbivores," white blood cell replacements that would be hundreds of times faster than normal white blood cells.

By downloading appropriately updated software from the Internet, these devices would be quickly effective against any type of pathogen, including bacteria, viruses, fungi, and cancer cells. Freitas also presented a new concept of a "chromosome replacement robot," which would be programmed to enter a cell nucleus and perform repairs and modifications to a person’s DNA to reverse DNA transcription errors and reprogram defective genetic information. Trillions of such robots could be programmed to enter every cell in the body.

How we will get to this kind of technology was the subject of my [Ray Kurzweil] presentation on the law of accelerating returns at the conference. Communication bandwidths, the shrinking size of technology, our knowledge of the human brain, and human knowledge in general are all accelerating. Three-dimensional molecular computing will provide the hardware for human-level "strong" AI well before 2030. The more important software insights will be gained in part from the reverse-engineering of the human brain, a process well under way. The ongoing acceleration of price-performance of computation, communication, and miniaturization will provide the technologies to create nanobots that can instrument (place sensors in) billions of neurons and interneuronal connections, greatly facilitating the development of detailed models of how human intelligence works.

Once nonbiological intelligence matches the range and subtlety of human intelligence, it will necessarily soar past it because of the continuing acceleration of information-based technologies, as well as the ability of machines to instantly share their knowledge. Intelligent nanorobots will be deeply integrated in the environment, our bodies and our brains, providing vastly extended longevity, full-immersion virtual reality incorporating all of the senses, experience "beaming," and enhanced human intelligence. The implication will be an intimate merger between the technology-creating species and the evolutionary process it spawned.

Aubrey de Grey, a researcher at the University of Cambridge, began his talk by citing the fact that 100,000 people die of age-related causes each day, and then quoted Bertrand Russell’s statement that "some of us think this is rather a pity." (Albeit Russell was talking about nuclear war rather than aging.) de Grey described a program he has devised to approach the goal of extreme life extension "with a hard-headed, engineering frame of mind." He described his goal as "engineered negligible senescence," referring to the term "negligible senescence" that Tuck Finch introduced in 1990, defined as "the absence of a statistically detectable inverse correlation between age and remaining life expectancy."

Human society takes for granted the existence of this inverse correlation (between age and remaining life expectancy), but de Grey explained why he feels we have the knowledge close at hand to flatten out this curve. His program (to develop engineered negligible senescence) "focuses mainly on those subtle changes, the ones that accumulate throughout life and only snowball into pathology rather late. That’s why ‘engineered negligible senescence’ is an accurate term for my goal—I aim to eliminate those subtle changes, so allowing the cell/organ/body to use its existing homeostatic prowess to maintain us in a physically un-deteriorating state indefinitely."

de Grey argued persuasively for the feasibility of this goal and described a multi-faceted program to address each known area of aging, including his area of specialty in mitochondrial mutations and lysosomal aggregates. He proposed an "Institute of Biomedical Gerontology," with a budget of $100 million, to promote, coordinate, and fund the focused development of these rejuvenation biotechnologies.

Christine Peterson, cofounder and President of the Foresight Institute, provided guidelines on how the lay person can evaluate the often conflicting advice and information on health and life extension. Christine pointed out that as knowledge becomes increasingly specialized, no one person can be an expert in every treatment intervention, so "we are all lay persons" even if we have expertise in some particular aspect of health treatment. She pointed out the destructive implications of the benign sounding creed of the medical profession, "first of all, do no harm." Because of the extremely cautious, risk-adverse orientation that this principle fosters, treatments desperately needed by millions of people are tragically suppressed or delayed.

Max More, President of the Extropy Institute, and the Futures specialist at ManyWorlds, Inc., presented what he called a "strategic scenario analysis for your second life." More described his own culture shock at having moved from England to Southern California, which led him to consider the extreme adjustment challenge for people (possibly himself) in the future being reanimated from cryonic suspension. More pointed out that "to maximize our chances of a psychologically successful revival, we have the responsibility to prepare ahead of time." Using the discipline of scenario thinking from his consulting work, More engaged in a series of thought experiments that he would encourage people to engage in who have made the decision to be cryonically suspended should they happen to die.

Michael West, President and CEO of Advanced Cell Technology, Inc. and a pioneer of therapeutic cloning, presented a compelling history of the science of cellular aging. He emphasized the remarkable stability of the immortal germ line cells, which link all cell-based life on Earth. He described the role of the telomeres, a repeating code at the end of each DNA strand, which are made shorter each time a cell divides, thereby placing a limit on the number of times a cell can replicate (the "Hayflick limit"). Once these DNA "beads" run out, a cell becomes programmed for cell death. The immortal germ line cells avoid this destruction through the use of a single enzyme called telomerase, which rebuilds the telomere chain after each cell division. This single enzyme makes the germ line cells immortal, and indeed these cells have survived from the beginning of life on Earth billions of years ago.

This insight opens up the possibility of future gene therapies that would return cells to their youthful, telomerase-extended state. Animal experiments have shown telomerase to be relatively benign, although some experiments have resulted in increased cancer rates. There are also challenges in transferring telomerase into the cell nuclei, although the gene therapy technology required is making solid progress. West expressed confidence that new techniques would provide the ability to transfer the telomerase into the nuclei, and to overcome the cancer issue. Telomerase gene therapy holds the promise of indefinitely rejuvenating human somatic (non-germ line) cells i.e., all human cells.

West addressed the ethical controversies surrounding stem cell therapies. He pointed out a number of inconsistencies in the ethical position of those who oppose stem cell therapies. For example, a fetus can divide in two, within the first two weeks after conception and prior to implantation in the mother’s womb, to create identical twins. This demonstrates that a unique human life is not defined by a fertilized egg cell, but only by an implanted embryo. Stem cell therapies use fetal cells prior to this individuation process. West pointed out the dramatic health benefits that stem cell therapies promise, including the ability to create new cells and organs to treat a wide variety of diseases such as Parkinson’s disease and heart disease. West also described promising new methodologies in the field of "human somatic cell engineering" to create new tissues with a patient’s own DNA by modifying one type of cell (such as a skin cell) directly into another (such as a pancreatic Islet cell or a heart cell) without the use of fetal stem cells.

Greg Fahy, Chief Scientific Officer of 21st Century Medicine, formerly director of an organ cryopreservation program at the American Red Cross and a similar program for the Naval Medical Research Institute, described prospects for preserving organs for long periods of time. He pointed out how we now have "the ability to perfuse whole kidneys with cryoprotectants at concentrations that formerly were uniformly fatal, but which currently produce little or no injury."

The immediate goal of Fahy’s research is to preserve transplant organs for substantially longer periods of time than is currently feasible. Fahy pointed out that by combining these techniques with the therapeutic cloning technologies being developed by Michael West and his colleagues, it will be possible in the future for people to keep a supply of replacements for all of their organs, to be immediately available in emergencies. He painted a picture "of the future when organs are grown, stored, and transported as easily as blood is today."

To suggest a way to make it to that future, I [Ray Kurzweil] had the opportunity to present a set of ideas to apply our current knowledge to life extension. My earlier presentation focused on the nature of human life in the 21st century, whereas this presentation described how we could live to see (and enjoy!) the century ahead. These ideas are drawn from an upcoming book, A Short Guide to a Long Life, which I am coauthoring with Terry Grossman, M.D., a leading longevity expert.

These ideas should be thought of as "a bridge to a bridge to a bridge," in that they provide the means to remain healthy and vital until the full flowering of the biotechnology revolution within 20 years, which in turn will bring us to the nanotechnology-AI (artificial intelligence) revolution ten years after that. The latter revolution will radically redefine our concept of human mortality.

I pointed out that the leading causes of death (heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease) do not appear out of the blue. They are the end result of processes that are decades in the making. You can understand where you are personally in the progression of these processes and end (and reverse) the lethal march towards these diseases. The program that Dr. Grossman and I have devised allows you to assess how longstanding imbalances in your metabolic processes can be corrected before you "fall off the cliff." This information is not "plug and play," but the knowledge is available and can be applied through a comprehensive and concerted effort.

The nutritional program that Dr. Grossman and I recommend provides the best of the two contemporary poles of nutritional thinking. The Atkins philosophy has correctly identified the dangers of a high-glycemic-index diet as causing imbalances in the sugar and insulin cycle, but does not focus on the equally important rebalancing of omega 3 and omega 6 fats, and cutting down on the pro-inflammatory fats in animal products. Conversely, the low-fat philosophy of Ornish and Pritikin has not placed sufficient attention on cutting down on high-glycemic-index starches. Our program recommends a moderately low level of carbohydrates, dramatic reductions in high-glycemic-index carbohydrates, as well as moderately low levels of fat, with an emphasis on the anti-inflammatory Omega-3 fats found in nuts, fish, and flaxseed.

A study of nurses showed that those nurses who ate at least a handful of nuts (one ounce) each day had 75% less heart disease than the nurses who did not eat nuts. Our program also includes aggressive supplementation to obtain optimal lipid levels, reduce inflammation, correct potential problems with the methylation (folic acid) cycle, attain and maintain an optimal weight, and maintain glucose and insulin levels in a healthy balance.

In a rare lecture, Eric Drexler, author of Engines of Creation, the seminal book that introduced the field two decades ago, and widely regarded as the father of nanotechnology, reflected on the state of the nanotechnology field and its prospects. Drexler pointed out that the term "nanotechnology" has broadened from his original conception, which was the precise positional control of chemical reactions to any technology that deals with measurements of less than 100 nanometers. Drexler pointed to biology as an existence proof of the feasibility of molecular machines. Our human-designed machines, Drexler pointed out, will not be restricted to the limitations of biology. He said that although the field was initially controversial, no sound criticism has emerged for his original ideas. Drexler dramatically stated, "I therefore declare victory by default."

Drexler cited the powerful analogy relating atoms and bits to nanotechnology and software. We can write a piece of software to perform a certain manipulation on several numbers. We can then use logic and loops to perform that same manipulation billions or trillions of times, even though we only have to write the software once. Similarly, we can set up nanotechnology systems to perform the same nanoscale mechanical manipulations billions or trillions of times and in billions or trillions of locations.

Drexler described the broad applicability of nanotechnology to revolutionize many areas of human endeavor. We will be able to build supercomputers that are one thousandth of the size of a human cell. We will be able to create electricity-generating solar panels at almost no cost. We will be able to build extremely inexpensive spacecraft out of diamond fiber. "The idea that our human world is limited to the Earth is going to be obsolete very soon, as soon as these technologies become available," Drexler pointed out. Indeed, all manufacturing will be revolutionized. Nanotechnology-based manufacturing will make feasible the ability to create any customized product we can define at extremely low cost from inexpensive raw materials and software.

With regard to our health, nanotechnology will be able to reconstruct and rebuild just about everything in our bodies. Nanoscale machines will enter all of our cells and proofread our DNA, patch the mitochondria, destroy pathogens, remove waste materials, and rebuild our bodies and brains in ways unimaginable today. Drexler defined this goal as "permanent health."

Drexler expressed optimism for the prospects of successful reanimation of cryonically preserved people. Nanorobots will be able to assess, analyze, and investigate the state of the preserved cells, tissues, and fluids; perform microscopic and nanoscopic repairs on every cell and connection, and remove cryopreservatives. He chided other cryonics supporters for making the "pessimistic argument" that although cryonics had only a small chance of working, this chance was better than the alternative, which provided no chance for a second life. Based on our growing knowledge and confidence in nanotechnology and emerging scenarios for applying these technologies to the reanimation task, Drexler argued that we should be expressing a valid optimism about the prospects for a healthy second life after suspension.

Drexler was asked what he thought of the prospects for optical and quantum computing. He replied that optical computers will remain bulkier than programmable molecular computers and thus are likely to remain special purpose devices. As for quantum computing, there are designs for possible room-temperature quantum computers with dozens of qubits, but the prospects for quantum computing are still not clear.

Drexler was pessimistic on the prospects for picotechnology (technology on a scale 1000 times smaller than nanotechnology). He explained that one would need the conditions of a neutron star to make this feasible, and even then there are theoretical problems getting subatomic particles to perform useful functions such as computation.

I would point out that nanotechnology also appeared unlikely until Drexler came along and showed how we could build machines that go beyond the nanomachines of nature. A future Drexler is likely to provide the conceptual designs to build machines that go beyond the picomachines of atomic nuclei and atoms.

I have that penciled in for 2072.