Cracking The Code Of Human Longevity

The Intersection of Computer Science, Software, and Biology

a16z podcast: Defeating Aging

On this a16z podcast, Michael Copeland discusses aging with Gerontologist and Computer Scientist, Aubrey de Grey. Copeland helps clarify the misconception that de Grey is seeking a cure to mortality. Instead, de Grey’s work at The SENS Research Foundation is focused on understanding the links between metabolism, aging damage, and age-related disease and disability.

de Grey explains that aging and its related diseases and disabilities are caused by the accumulation of damage in our tissues over time.

“During our first two to three decades of life, developmental programs build out our growing bodies, laying down the cellular and molecular structures of our tissues in exquisite fidelity to the instructions carried in our genetic code. From form flows function: the pristine condition of microscopic machinery of life ensures its silent, unimpeded functioning, manifested in the health and vigor of youth.”

As humans age, we experience a decline in tissue function. This breakdown begins in our forties or fifties.

“The cushioning of our joints becomes thinner and weaker; our kidneys become progressively less effective at filtering our blood; our immune systems weaken, leaving us vulnerable to infections that we would once have dismissed with a few sniffs. Ultimately, minor aches and mysterious malaise devolve into clinical diagnoses. Atherosclerosis. Cataracts. Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Parkinson’s disease. Cancer.”

de Grey’s research is exploring the potential of rejuvenation biotechnologies to repair damage vs. the current pharmaceutical paradigm where medicines are used to “manage” age-related diseases rather than cure them. He argues that while medicines are succeeding in extending life expectancies, they do nothing to prevent the endgame of their related processes.

Copeland asks de Grey how his beliefs on improving health compare to notable Futurist, Ray Kurzweil’s ideas.

In his book, The Singularity Is Near, Kurzweil proposes that part of man’s evolutionary process will be the union of human and machine. From this work, the idea of whole brain emulation (WBE) or mind uploading was conceived.

de Grey references Kurzweil’s idea of Three Bridges and describes them as:

  1. Things that you can do today that will postpone the ill health of old age somewhat.
  2. The use of high-tech biotechnology to repair damage.
  3. Increasing use of non biological solutions to medical problems. Especially focusing on the more miniaturized stuff like nano technology, and then eventually perhaps even on transferring consciousness to a different substrate — “mind uploading”

How might these ideas influence the development of new healthcare businesses?

  1. The nascent digital health space incorporates computer science and is beginning to tackle biological problems. These early efforts are encouraging but are largely directed towards behavior modification. As “digital wearables” evolve into “digital implantables” more ambitious ideas such as cellular waste removal and repair could be attempted.
  2. Measuring the extent of cellular degeneration and damage accumulation could result in the emergence of important diagnostic tools designed to inform the application of therapeutic nano technologies.
  3. Early attempts at mind uploading could lead to the development of commercial cognitive neural prosthetics. This intermediary step would explore initial use cases for uploading and be a natural extension of always on, always accessible, broadband connected mobile devices.