Forever Young

Greg Cochran has a short post up soliciting opinions on what will be the next big thing in science and technology. He is not fishing for the next smartphone app or medical cure. I think he means the big new field of study or technological advancement. It is one of those posts that is not intended to be interesting, but to get the readers noodling over the question. Judging from the comments thus far, that is the way his readers have read the post. It seems to be another stab at the topic he started the other day.

It is an interesting question as we do seem to have reached the point of diminishing returns with the microprocessor. E-mail was a huge game changer. The mobile phone was another big leap into the unknown. The web probably comes in third, but it still had an enormous impact on humanity. These inventions have changed the way humans interact with one another and continue to put stress on the organizational systems we have had in place since the Enlightenment. Donald Trump just won an election by mastering Twitter.

We have reached peak chip, so to speak. The low hanging fruit has been picked and we’re well on the way to commodification of technology. That’s not to say there is no more work to be done in tech. It’s just that the boom years are over and the industry is now mature. The next big ideas, the stuff that could alter society, will be coming from somewhere else. The temptation is to think it will be some new technology like genetics or nanotechnology. Those fields have the futuristic vibe futurists like.

Genetics does have the prospect of being highly disruptive. Just take a look at how 23andMe or sell their products. Implicit in their pitch is that race and ethnicity are in your DNA. That means race is not a social construct. Ancestry disguises this by using multi-racial actors, but the implication is clear. Similarly, the ability to predict things about people at an early age, based on examining their DNA, could be very disruptive. Imagine what happens to insurance when you can test for risk of heart attack.

The thing is, a lot of this information has been available to us through other means. Humans have known for a long time that people are not the same across race or ethnicity and most people still know it, even if they don’t say it. Even so, it has no impact on public policy or on the howling of the multiculturalists. We’ve also known that the apple does not fall far from the tree. If the kid is born to losers, the kid will probably be a loser. How the kid is raised has little to do with it, but we still preach the morality of parenting.

A more promising area where something game changing could come is in the field of aging. Humans live longer and are healthier than ever and it has already had a huge impact on society. All of our pension and insurance schemes are broken mostly because people live too long. Long living has resulted in children maturing more slowly, in terms of social status. A century ago, a man went to work as a teen and had a family by the time he hit 20. Today, men live at home until 30 and start families well into their 30’s.

Imagine what happens if science finds a way to push the expiry date out a few more decades. Imagine if 100 becomes the new 65, in that the 100 year old is as vigorous as the typical 65 year old. Imagine that the golden years of retirement start at 110. This is standard stuff in science fiction, but it may not be too far off in reality. British researchers have figured out how to drastically slow the aging of mice. That opens the door for not only slowing the process, but arresting it. Forever young may not be too far off.

Even if that is beyond the pale, think about the impact of Viagra. Invent a pill to keep the needle pointing north and the world beats a path to your door. Imagine a pill to end gray hair or crow’s feet. Even if people don’t live to 150, just being healthier and more vigorous late into life could have a huge impact on society. Retirement, for example, would make a lot less sense if you had plenty of juice well into your senior years. Of course, retirement would become something radically different too. Our view of aging would radically change.

The reason to think that life extension and aging is the place to see great innovation in the near term is mostly economic. Penis pills made their makers very rich. A gray hair pill or a wrinkle cure would similarly make their makers billions. Just look at the number of men seeking out HGH from black market sources. The market for anything that extends life or extends youthful vitality is the market of all people. Is there anyone who would not buy a pill that makes you look as good as you looked in the flower of youth?

46 thoughts on “Forever Young

  1. And who gets and distributes the longevity drug?

    That’s the sort of thing that can start wars and coups.

    What happens if it’s just for the super elite like Zuckerberg, Gates, Gulf Oil sheiks, etc?

    Afterwards the world will get even uglier as such a drug can be used for leverage on the masses. Others don’t fare well either, imagine if you’re a son of wealthy parents, are you going to wait a 120 years for your inheritance? Probably not, you might just find a way to ease dear mom and dad into the next life. Same in the political and corporate arena. Assassin maybe become a valid career choice in such society.

    And really how many of us have jobs we really like to the point we’d do them for a century, you really want to commute to some cube farm or call center for a 80 years. I don’t, that’s getting pretty close to the definition of hell.

    Genetic profiling of patients? A swell idea for accountants who can then cherry pick who they want on their plan. The rest get some sort of plan where they’re given a copy of “Final Exit” and “A Barefoot doctors guide to medicine”. Look prior to Obamacare it was nearly impossible for a person to get a health on their own, I don’t care it it was a broken arm or getting stitched up after a hiking accident, you’re marked, and god help you if you’re hospitalized with something more serious. I know it happened to me, I couldn’t get a medical plan on my own, I had to get one through my employer.

    Now. a simple blood sample determines if you’re part of the elect or the castoffs.

  2. I’m not sure what the next great leap forward in technology is going to be, but I think it will be several fledgling technologies all leaping forward together caused by one great catalyst – war. Think about the technologies that were in place, but in their infancy, in 1939. And then think about those same technologies just ten years later in 1949.

    I think we are on the cusp of another great world-girding cataclysm that will be triggered by the collapse of the world economy.

    I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think I am.

  3. The odds we will find a way to be forever young are poor. We may find ways to add a few more years to lifespan and make those years more productive but we are biologically program to die eventually.

    The ‘next big thing’ is the EM drive that will allow us to travel at meaningful speed inside our solar system
    and make use of the resources available to us. EM drives could cut transit times to places like Mars from
    18 months to a few weeks. That makes exploring the solar system viable for manned craft. EM drives won’t
    make interstellar travel for humans practical but it could mean we could visit other stars with drone craft
    in a time frame where we could receive information from these drones after just a few decades instead of
    centuries or milleniaa.

  4. Biotech to make actually switching physical manifestations of sex painless and easy, right down to internal parts.

    The genes presumably would show otherwise, but that would be elided.

    Although it would not go as far as current concepts of gender fluidity- no one would go through that more than once.

    • Relatively painless and easy, I should have said. Still talking majorly invasive.

      There will be a Manhattan-level project devoted to this at some point.

  5. robotics(the scifi kind), nano tech, virtual reality, genetic engineering, and of course longevity. Without a free market system, how we’ll allocate those resource is currently a mystery, but nature abhors a vacuum*.

    * You hear that saying a lot, but most of the physical space in the universe is actually filled, or should I say unfilled, with a vacuum. Nature seems to like a vacuum just fine.

  6. I don’t know, times are changing I guess. My cell phone bill runs less than $10 per year; most of the time it sits in my desk drawer on top of its battery. I’m too cheap to make a glass case for it that reads ‘Break glass in case of emergency’.

    Hospitals are the most dangerous places on Earth, I’m seventy years old and haven’t had a checkup since my discharge from the Marines back in 1968. Doctors certainly are well educated and informed, but nevertheless, their literature is filled with assumptions half truths. Giving them control over my health is still pretty much a crap shoot.

    There is no longer any real option remaining for a computer operating system that is well supported but distinct from marketing networks such as Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, etc. Linux works, but most of the code is such a hack job that it cannot be trusted; still, I use it, knowing that it may be all that’s left.

    Self driving cars rank right up there with cell phones in my estimation. I like driving cars, but I hate riding in cars. No matter where I go, there I am; it isn’t going someplace that’s enjoyable, the challenge is enjoying where you are. Being trapped with a cell phone in a robotic vehicle simply fails to fulfill my romantic aspirations.

    Television and radio have long ago lost their appeal, primarily due to advertising. The Internet is rapidly falling in line behind the radio and TV. Email, usenet and some blogs are still useful, but I don’t see a great future their either.

    Space travel is the next great adventure. Freeing ourselves from the constraints of the planet Earth is really the next horizon to be conquered. We all know that the Sun, Earth, planets and moons in our solar system have a finite lifetime and that if we don’t move on, mankind will cease to exist. Instead, we focus on population control, automated transportation, required health maintenance and many other constraints due to overcrowding. Freedom, individuality, self-expression and adventure are all suffering as we shove ourselves into our little automated boxes with attached tubes for air, water, food and waste removal.

    We need to do more of what we have always done; pull up our pants, put on our boots, rocket ourselves to Mars and see what kind of world we can make for ourselves there, Meeting and succeeding unknown challenges brings its own rewards; facing challenges we create for ourselves is OK, but kind of like dating your sister, it will get you no where.

  7. George Carlin paraphrased Russel Kirk when he said that most people work just hard enough to not get fired, and get paid just enough not to quit. Alfred E Neuman is always waiting just around the corner. When we see lifespans double we will also see half the effort. Civilizations advance in urgency, die in leisure.

  8. I’ve read they know what causes gray hair & will be able to do something about it. According to the article:

    Our hair turns gray only because the hair follicle begins bleaching our hair with Hydrogen Peroxide the follicle creates as we age. Turn that off & the hair grows its natural color. They also have some positive results in tests of drugs expected to counter that. One or more drugs used to treat Vitiligo.

  9. It doesn’t have to be anything so miraculous as endless youth in a pill. There is untold wealth to be had for the wizard who invents the potions that will : A) cause hair growth. B) prevent hair growth.


    • We have that, jwm. It’s called testosterone gel. It causes growth of facial and body hair, and loss of scalp hair. But it does that for women. Oh, that wasn’t what you had in mind? Crap; I was planning a music project called Songs of The Hairy Celtic Women.

  10. Oh Great! That pill to keep you young will cost a fortune. Only our moneyed “elite” will be able to afford it. Thus the return of the political and ruling masters and peeons to slave and die off much younger. Of course they can save on not educating and no health insurance for the peeons.

  11. Transportation/logistics are the next big area of landscape-changing innovation. The Post Office is a leading indicator of the anachronism that is 20th century logistics and transport. I suspect that shopping malls will be converted into tree lined parks and entertainment complexes (mini Disney’s) in my lifetime.

    What made the iPod and iPhone into the globe-shattering tech phenomena that they are? They took 6 devices and collapsed them into one…which worked better than any of the six except cameras for a short time, but that has been surpassed as well. They also completely democratized software, media, etc. It’s a device that operates entirely on my terms.

    The physical consumer-word is still collapsing, but the real value of land and property still exists. It’s just sitting there waiting for somebody to figure out how to abandon 20th century mindsets of destination shopping and become the plug and play cruise ships that don’t go anywhere. The person who figures out the logistics, security, entertainment, food, lodging, etc to take that half empty mall-of-crap, and turn it into Mainstreet USA complete with nostalgia, food, shopping.entertainment, a place people can go to get what they want in their terms but without having to defeat six consumer logistics hurdles (air/ground transportation, lodging, meals, entertainment (thrills, experiences), family management, security). There are places trying (Dave and Busters, for example), but these places suffer from high turnover due to poor logistics and low quality…and you’re still stuck with the stuff they want to provide…not the stuff everybody wants to do.

    When I got my first iPod in 2007, overnight I no longer needed: CDs/player, something to carry them in, a larger bag, GPS device, laptop for web/email, separate phone, separate chargers and batteries for everything, etc.).

    The all-inclusive resorts and cruises have the right idea, but their logistics to operate…and more importantly the traveler-logistics to GET TO these locations…is prohibitive. A friend of mine is a DVC member, but when it comes to the resorts, she has reached Peak Disney. It’s such a hassle now, and the crowds are so bad, that she is probably not going to renew.

    The innovator who figures how to bring the climate (sun, beaches, etc) of a destination resort to the customer – and can defeat the logistics demon (power, especially) necessary to sustain profitability – wins.

    And don’t leave energy out of the equation. It’s really central to everything. Fracking is every bit the earth-shattering technology we hope it would be. It has brought OPEC and the Saudis to their knees. It has brought down the Marxist/fascist government in Venezuela. As a country, buying energy from other parts of the world is now unnecessary…basically charity.

    But, as we are seeing in places like North Dakota, logistics rule the day. Everybody in America would have an electric car but for two reasons: not enough power plants, and a rickety logistics distribution system, bulwarked by a monopolized (Government) public utilities infrastructure which has little or no incentive to modernize, and which is hostage to the Greens.

    The two greatest technological and logistics advances of my lifetime happened within 5 years of a major government deregulation: the airlines, and breaking up Ma Bell. The first one broke down huge cost barriers to travel, airlines proliferated, safety improved, UPS, FEDEX, etc…all flowed from deregulation.

    And breaking up Ma Bel led to wireless communications, and the entirety of the internet.

    We do that with energy and healthcare…look out.

  12. Two thoughts.

    On Nanotech – you have to improve optics and be able to somehow visualize the tiny particles so that you can completely manipulate nano-scale materials.

    On Genetics/ Biotech – you need victims/subjects to do actual moderate to high risk research on human beings to make the scientific knowledge sufficiently detailed to get approved products on the market.

  13. Genetics, disease, and personalized medicine. We’re only beginning to understand the connections between a person’s genetic makeup, the types of diseases they will develop, and how to treat the disease.

    Different types of cancer use different techniques to hide from the host body’s immune system. We will likely all develop some form of cancer if we live long enough. The particular type of cancer a person develops is in large part a function of their genetic makeup, as is the effectiveness of a particular treatment. Keytruda (pembrolizumab) cured Jimmy Carter’s cancer, but is ineffective for other people, most likely due to a combination of the form of cancer and the person’s genetic makeup.

    We’re in the initial phases of mapping cancer data against genetic data to determine the genetic markers which indicate what type of cancer a person is likely to develop and what checkpoint inhibitors might be useful in treating their cancer. Cancer will become a treatable illness rather than a death sentence.

  14. The odd thing about the “23 and me” deal is that it refutes all the CSI crapola in TV, movies, and books. My wife sent in their spit-cup-full of saliva for her test and it was rejected as “not enough DNA”. When all the fictional DNA analyses work on one hair. The saliva on a cigarette butt.

    Just goes to show how easy science really is when you know the answer you want and work backwards to the evidence. Climate change science is easy in the same way.

    • My favorite in this regard is when the cops find some brass as a crime scene or pull a slug from a body. magically, they locate the exact gun and owner. The female coroner always says something like, “Your shooter used a Ruger purchased in New Jersey last week.” In reality, no crime has ever been solved using a slug or shell casing. The most you can tell is the probability that the slug came from a gun that you found and believe is the weapon used in the crime. But, you have to actually have the gun first and in those cases, you have the guy anyway.

      • And most of those writers have never dug bullets (or the pieces) out of large bodied mammals…and seen what condition most are in. You can usually tell caliber and might have some decent markings from the lands…maybe. Often just shreds of jacketing and a lump of lead.

      • If you want a laugh, watch old episodes of Perry Mason where they convict people based on blood type! And just about every desk drawer has a gun in it!

      • I loved my mom very much but she used to watch those shows. I figured she should know better no police work is done that way. Somebody always talks.

  15. I don’t have a big desire to live longer than average. I would, however, pay significant money to remain strong, alert, and active during the next 25 or 30 years. (I’m 50) There are a lot of things I’d still like to do that require cooperation from my body.

    It would be a nice change of pace just to exercise until my muscles are exhausted instead of going until my joints are sore.

  16. How about a chip implanted near the brain at birth that lets us communicate with each other telepathically?

  17. Interesting point about insurance. My wife has Huntington’s disease in her family. At one point, after the third of her 3 brothers was diagnosed with HD we went through the testing protocols- our results were good, thankfully. One thing the doctor said that caught my attention, and this was nearly 20 years ago, was that HD testing was the thin end of the wedge, and that soon (dunno what soon means, exactly) they’d be able to predict a person’s medical future with a high degree of certainty. In that case, hello National Health Service!

    As for the robot future, we know that “something will go horribly wrong…”

    • Health insurance is mostly just a inter-generational lay-a-way plan these days, but the concept of health insurance will not survive the genomic age. We’re not far from the point where a simple test can determine your probability of getting cancer, heart disease, dementia, etc. From there it is just a matter of putting a price tag next to each risk and figuring your probable health costs over a lifetime. At that point, we’re no longer talking about insurance. It’s a matter of allocating funds from you or society in order to cover your maintenance and repair costs.

      The next great public policy debate with regards to health care will not be over insurance. We’re just waiting for people to realize that insurance in a myth. The next debate is over how to reduce the price of health services. That means deregulation of health services so supply can shoot up and prices can fall.

      • It’s not just the tests, it’s the treatments which are just mind bogglingly effective. You talk to old doctors today, guys in their 70’s, they’ll tell you how boring medicine is today in many general practice types of fields. Most of the big issues have been solved. They spend most of their time dealing with hypochondriacs and other mental cases. Really tough issues are usually genetic in nature or by-products of our overabundance of things like food, easy access to drugs, and over-allocation of psychotropic medications. They spend a fair amount of time titrating people’s lithium drips…for things that people just learned to live with.

        I have a medicine for my occasional outbreaks of basil cell carcinoma which is basically just a topical cream. It’s like something out of Star Trek, no surgery. Migraines? I have a pill for that. 15 minutes…aaaaand…it’s gone. 20 years ago, the migraines might go on for 3 days and kill my weekend.

        Insurance is probably heading more towards (or back to) the automobile model of insurance. You pay it in case you have a wreck, but all the other stuff about your car you just go to the mechanic to pay for yourself, or you just put a rag in the gas tank and duct tape the windows and keep driving…

        • “Most of the big issues have been solved” Whaaaa?! Medical science is stalled out like all the other sciences. As of now we still can’t cure a virus, and cancer rates are through the roof.

      • Well, the interesting thing is on the P&C side, when we look at a portfolio of say, 50,000 dwelling units, we know far more from location, age, construction, elevation, roof type, occupancy etc about the probabilities of loss across the pool and can assign fairly specific rates to different tranches of risk. And the available data just gets richer each year. In fact we really can’t evolve modeling fast enough to account for new available factors. From what I know of the health side of the business, there is a paucity of similar data–they can’t really see that deeply into individual risk, especially with the high turnover rates in the exposure base (conversely we might turn a portfolio of high end homes at only 6-7% per year). Privacy is the big barrier to a free flow of information (for obvious reasons). However, genetic data would allow for calculation of “cost of ownership” and I suppose an equitable premium could be worked out to cover excess or fortuitous (think accidents) losses. A few years ago had an interesting dinner discussion with some members of the Watson team that worked on the first cancer treatment models. I asked how hard it would be to tune the recommendation algorithms for treatment to include a version of economic value added based on estimated additional lifespan, patient profession etc. “Not that hard” was the answer. Followup question was “do you have an ethicist on your project team”. Answer, “no”.

  18. Along with declining fertility rates in much of the world (….excepting sub-saharan Africa……) advancing robotics and A.I….

    Oy vey…….

    • Well, rock-bottom fertility is thanks to the death of Patriarchy. And it isn’t really declining; it’s already been at rock-bottom for 40-odd years.

  19. Eh, I think the fountain of youth stuff is vain and temporary. It is all ego and full of downsides with little in the way of redeeming value. Thinking man can alter God’s creation and plan is a bit much for this guy. Like the old margarine commercial said “It’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature!”

    When you broached this subject, my first thought was energy. We, as a world, are still in need of a major overhaul, major innovation in energy production. Cheap energy that would be widely available and eliminate lots of conflicts around the world. Then water. Clean water, especially in places that lack abundant natural sources. I have always believed that historically peoples moved to where these key resources where and did not have “roots” to geography that they would die for through drought and thirst. You move to where the water is. But with so many people, that is not as possible. And then the issue becomes clean, potable water in quantities to support large populations.

    Technologies in these two areas are daunting and ripe for technological challenge and innovation and investment. Never mind going to Mars, however, some of these problems just might find solutions in that effort. So you never know. Scientific discovery is kinda of serendipitous in that regard. You never really know what you’re gonna get. If only the Climate Change prophets could deal with real world science, their goal of solving environmental problems would take a huge step forward. Taxing our way out of things is not the way to do it. Or enriching a few playing a scam is not a good deal either, i.e. Al “I invented the internet” Gore.

    • Water! My 36 yr old engineer son did 6 yrs on an offshore oil drilling platform and has just launched a water systems biz, well-drilling being the main component. We’ve been planning this for years. We’re convinced it’ll be more and more of the coming thing, especially in the Southern Cone, where it’s badly needed.

  20. “Is there anyone who would not buy a pill that makes you look as good as you looked in the flower of youth?”

    Present and accounted for! No pills, no surgery, no hair dye. B.B. King had it right: “Now Father Time is catching up with me/ Gone is my youth/ I look in the mirror everyday/ And let it tell me the truth”.

    The great rewards of old age are wisdom and serenity if one allows passions to subside per the natural course of events.

    • Pill or no pill, some of us didn’t look that good to start with. I did, of course, 😉 but some of us, no. Since you brought up B. B. King: if one allows the passions to subside there is no blues.

    • I agree on the cosmetic front, although I’m 62 and barely going gray, much less losing my hair, and not too many wrinkles, so I may not be the one to ask. As for fixing my chassis, I’d sign up. My eyes are bad- I’d be happy with the ones I had when I was 20. I still enjoy playing hockey and golf, and if I could fix stuff to continue I would.

      • I lucked out. Never good looking, went mostly bald in my late 20s, and not great socially. But started off physically near perfect, and it lasted until I was near 80. Enabled me to have and support a fine family, enjoy career as an aviator, and have a long post-retirement consultantship which brought in a fair amount of change. Only in my mid-80s have things begun to go downhill a little. Last spring I had to hire out my lawncare. Broke my heart.

    • Check out Fred Turner’s new (his third!) sci-fi epic poem Apocalypse. Many interesting angles on the future!

      • HBO’s Westworld is a very creepy vision of a possible robot future.

        As for future tech, I would think the next big leap for mankind would be teleportation. You can only make an aircraft or trains so big and so fast and even self driving cars are prone to traffic jams. Even space travel doesn’t seem to be such much of a challenge given we can get things on Mars on a more or less routine basis.

        If the current generation can get past their narcissist iPhone/Smartphone addiction, anything is possible.

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