Solving an Old Age Problem
What will the world look like in 10-20-30 years? What might future technological advances allow us to do? What will medicine look like? Can we solve the age old problems of food shortages and disease? How will we solve the problems of environmental clean-up? Where will we get our energy? How will we communicate? Travel? Research? Invest?
And speaking of investing, which is the usual subject of my weekly missive, is there an investment theme in all of this? Is there a way we can better our bottom lines as we better our technology?
Last week I started a series on Ray Kurzweil's new book, "The Singularity is Near." Sub-titled "When Humans Transcend Biology." (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0670033847/frontlinethou-20) We are going to continue looking at his view of the future for the next two letters. This week we are going to look at the positive side of his view of the future. Warning: it is beyond your wildest science fiction dreams, and seems so far out there that you will wonder if I have taken leave of my senses to take this seriously. But as I note below, there are reasons you should take Kurzweil very, very seriously. Next week we look at the dark side of the future. It will not be as much fun. I suggest you remove sharp objects from the vicinity before you read it.
This e-letter is derived from the book, published articles and interviews, Ray's lectures from a conference I attended last weekend and a private conversation when I was fortunate enough to be asked to lunch with Ray by John Smart. (Thanks a lot, John!) Quotes or comments from the book are followed by page numbers.
(One quick note. If you are a senior hedge fund research executive and would be interested in moving to the West Coast, check out the information at the end of the letter.)
You can learn more about who Kurzweil is by going to http://www.kurzweilai.net/. To say he is a genius is an understatement. He invented the first machine which could read books for the blind, optical character recognition, music synthesizers, speech recognition and a lot more, mostly based around his work on pattern recognition. Inc. Magazine named him one of the most 26 fascinating entrepreneurs this last April, calling him the rightful heir to Thomas Edison.
Kurzweil has been tracking the progress of technology, and predicting its advances fairly accurately for almost 3 decades. He has some 18 staff members who track technological progress and keep tabs on research in a very broad arena of science and technology. He is on top of the progress we are making in a wide variety of fields. While his book is optimistic about the future of progress, it is also grounded in 150 pages of footnotes and indexes. He spends a considerable portion of the end of the book dealing with each of the arguments of various critics. He is not Pollyanna.
For those who missed last week's letter, I would suggest you go back and read the last half of the letter (http://www.2000wave.com/article.asp?id=mwo092305) where I introduce the topic of accelerating change. Basically, the premise is that we will see as much change in the next 14 years as we saw all of last century, and that much change again in the following 7 years. In the next 21 years, give or take a few, Kurzweil projects we will see twice as much progress in human knowledge as we saw in the entire 20th century. And the pace will accelerate.
As one quick example from last week, when the Human Genome Project was started in 1990, critics pointed out that it would take thousands of years to map the human genome at the current rate of technology. 8-9 years into the project, mapping technology had improved dramatically, but still far less than 10% of the genome had been mapped. Yet one company started in 2001 and finished 2 years later, as did the government project by 2003. In another example, it took 14 years to map the genome for AIDS. SARS was done in 39 days. It will take even fewer days the next time. Within a decade, you will be able to get your personal genome done in a day or so for around $1,000.
That is what we mean by an accelerating pace of technology. Things get faster and cheaper and more sophisticated. More and better research is done. This is true whether it is chip speeds, transistors, internet, wireless, bio tech patents, software applications or nanotech papers. Kurzweil spends the first chapter in the book documenting the increased pace of change.
Biotechnology - Solving the Problems of Aging
Kurzweil suggests that technology will advance along three broad fronts: Genetics (biotechnology), Nanotechnology and Robotics, or GNR. Let's take a look at each of these fronts and see what Kurweil thinks is in store for us.
A great deal of the analysis of the aging process is by Aubrey de Grey,a scientist in the department of genetics at Cambridge University. De Grey believes we age because of seven specific factors, all of which he believes are "fixable." The areas he has isolated are: DNA mutations, toxic cells, mitochondrial mutations, intracellular aggregates, extracellular aggregates, cell loss and atrophy. (You can read more about these on pages 212 and following.)
"De Grey describes his goal as 'engineered negligible senescence' - stopping the body and brain from becoming more frail and disease prone. As he explains, "All the core knowledge needed to develop engineered negligible senescence is already in our possession - it mainly needs to be pieced together. De Grey believes that we will demonstrate 'robustly rejuvenated' mice - mice that are functionally younger than before being treated and with the life extension to prove it - within ten years, and he points out this achievement will have a dramatic affect upon public opinion. Demonstrating that we can reverse the aging process in an animal that shares 99 percent of our genes will profoundly challenge the common wisdom that aging and death are inevitable. Once robust rejuvenation is confirmed in an animal, there will be enormous competitive pressure to translate these results into human therapies, which should appear five years later." (page 213)
Last month, researchers in Dallas, not far from me, announced they were able to extend the life of a mouse by 30%, and not just 30% longer, but functionally younger through what was formerly old age. They simply were adding a normal hormone to the mouse, which seems to increase his life span. Interestingly, we humans have this same hormone. Think we will see human trials soon? "For example, by modifying genes in the C. elegans worm that control its insulin and sex-hormone levels, the lifespan of the test animals was expanded six-fold, to the equivalent of a five hundred year life span for a human." (page 221)
Dr. Michael Roizen and I had dinner in Chicago a few weeks ago. He is one of the premier anti-aging doctors in the world. (He wrote the RealAge book series and the recent blockbuster best-seller (1,000,000+ sold) called "You - The Owner's Manual."
I was going through an intense set of tests the next day (normal check-up, no real problems). I asked him about the speculation on whether we could stop the aging process, or at least really extend it. Mike is pretty sober-minded, so I was expecting him to tell me to temper my enthusiasm. Interestingly, he thinks it is quite possible we stop the aging process in 10 or at least 15 years. Then he looked at me and gave me some very sobering advice. "John, it won't do you any good if we stop the aging process if your arteries are clogged and you have a body which is falling apart. That is what we are going to work on tomorrow and over the next year. We need to keep your body as young as possible so that it will work when we can halt the aging process."
As an aside, Mike has me off salad dressing (I used to eat a LOT, salads are healthy, right?) and much less wine. (Bummer.) But I am losing weight. He calls me 2-3 times a week to check up on me. (Mike, I am sitting in the Houston airport, eating a salad with no dressing and just salsa as I write this letter. Let's see if I can continue to lose weight in Europe. That will be hard.)
The Fountain of Youth
There are numerous therapies in research which are designed to combat heart disease, attack cancer, and reverse degenerative diseases. There has been significant progress using gene therapy to stop cancer in mice.
But Kurzweil, de Grey and others think we will actually be able to reverse the aging process by the beginning to middle of the third decade.
Essentially, they think we are going to be able to re-program our DNA. The odds are quite high you are reading this on or got it from a computer. We all regularly change and update our computer software as well as new hardware (I am writing this on a new Fujitsu Nseries Lifebook - amazing screen quality). We would think it odd if we were required to live with 10 year old software.
Yet our genes are basically software transference mechanisms. We are stuck with the software of our ancestors, some of which does not work very well from our modern perspective. The fat storage gene, which once was useful as we needed to store fat because there were frequent hard times, is now creating an obesity epidemic.
But relief may be in sight. Researchers at a firm south of Dallas, now allied with Texas A&M, have figured out how to turn off the fat gene in mice. They can eat 3 times what they normally eat and not gain weight. I see a future where I can once again eat bread, ice cream and pie at will. It can't happen to soon.
But while re-programming our DNA is one approach, it is not the only way to improve upon what Ray calls the 1.0 version of our body.
"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 your skin cells and introduce them into your system through the bloodstream. Over time, your heart cells get replaced with these new cells, and the result is a rejuvenated 'young' heart with your own DNA.
"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 finding rocks and natural implements that could be used for helpful purposes. Today, we are learning the precise biochemical pathways that underlie both disease and aging processes, and are able to design drugs to carry out precise missions at the molecular level. The scope and scale of these efforts is vast.
"But perfecting our biology will only get us so far. The reality is that biology will never be able to match what we will be capable of engineering, now that we are gaining a deep understanding of biology's principles of operation." (interview)
You, Too, Can Be a Rock Star
Kurzweil envisions a world of cloning, but not human cloning, which he considers impractical. But cloning of organs? Cloning of meat proteins and useful foods as a way to combat hunger? Most definitely.
Roizen agrees if we can develop stem cell research he thinks reversing the aging process is possible. You can bet such research is going to go on in universities and laboratories around the world. This is one area where the US government needs to get with the program. I am fully aware that the US government does not ban stem cell research. It needs to be promoting it. Interestingly, new work done in Florida suggests the ban may be obsolete within a few years, as science moves past using stem cells from the usual sources and creates their own from your cells. They are now growing functioning neurons! Scientists there are suggesting that within five years, there may be amazing progress with Alzheimer's and other brain related illnesses.
As an aside, if things progress the way Ray thinks, human cloning will be a mute point within 40 years. Who would want to clone an old inferior body? Ray is not talking about designer babies, but Designer Baby Boomers. Ray laughingly suggests he wants to come back as a 24 year old female rock star. Better than coming back as Keith Richards. Now there's a guy in need of some serious designer genes.
The next front in the march to the Singularity (more on that below) is nanotechnology. This starts to kick in during the 2020s. Biotechnology gets us to human body 2.0. Nanotechnology gets us to 3.0. Nothing happens all at once, but we start augmenting our bodies with small cellular machines called nanobots. Something called a respirocyte is already being thought about which would be an improvement on our normal red blood cells in delivering oxygen. Just a small portion, percentage wise, in your bloodstream and your body would have greatly enhanced physical ability. At some point, well, let's let Ray share:
"Our biological brains use chemical signaling, which transmit information at only a few hundred feet per second. Electronics is already millions of times faster that this. In the book, I show how one inch of nanotube circuitry would be one hundred million times more powerful than the human brain. So we'll have more powerful means of instantiating our intelligence than the extremely slow speeds of our interneuronal connections.
"I see this starting with nanobots in our bodies and brains. The nanobots will keep us healthy, provide full-immersion virtual reality from within the nervous system, provide direct brain-to-brain communication over the internet, and otherwise greatly expand human intelligence. But keep in mind that the nonbiological intelligence is doubling in capability each year, whereas our biological intelligence is essentially fixed in capacity. As we get to the 2030s, the nonbiological portion of our intelligence will predominate."
Kurzweil does not see this happening all at once. It starts slowly with a modification here, an enhanced ability there.
We have these small molecular machines replicating all sorts of food, materials and objects. Can't be done? Just remember that you and I start with two cells, from which the entire code for our bodies is held. And we won't be building anything as complicated as bodies.
So when someone asks won't there be a problem if we are all living longer, Ray suggests that if we get to that point, we will have other technologies which will solve the problems of basic necessities.
Reverse Engineering the Brain
The final front is robotics and artificial intelligence. Ray does not necessarily see human looking robots but he does see what he called Strong AI or strong Artificial Intelligence. We are talking about computers that pass what is called a Turing Test, in that someone talking to the computer could not tell the difference. In talking with George Gilder about this, we both wonder what is so impressive about passing a Turing Test and whether if (or when) some computer does so that means it is self aware.
How do we get to such powerful software, as our past performance does not suggest such future results. Ray thinks we do it by reverse engineering the brain. We have the model, so let's figure out what algorithms work and then use them on a "substrate" (like a computer) that is faster as a processor.
We will have that computer power by the end of the next decade which is a decade or so before we can reverse engineer the brain. Can we do it? Is this even rational?
Brain imaging power and magnification are doubling every year, much like computer chip speeds and power. We have seen this movie before. Just like 1990 and the human genome project, if we look at today's speed and image quality, it is totally unrealistic. But if progress in imaging keeps up at the same pace? Simply saying that something cannot be done because it is beyond our technical grasp today is not an argument against something happening.
(Some time in the next few weeks, I will comment on Jeff Hawkins' new book called "On Intelligence" about the structure of the human brain. He has some different thoughts on the matter.)
So What is the Singularity?
Within a quarter century, says Kurzweil, nonbiological intelligence will match the range and subtlety of human intelligence. It will then 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 our bodies, our brains, and our environment, overcoming pollution and poverty, providing vastly extended longevity, full-immersion virtual reality incorporating all of the senses (like "The Matrix"), "experience beaming" (like "Being John Malkovich"), and vastly enhanced human intelligence. The result will be an intimate merger between the technology-creating species and the technological evolutionary process it spawned.
But that's not the Singularity. That's just the precursor. Nonbiological intelligence will have access to its own design and 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. That will mark the Singularity.
When will that occur? Kurzweil "...sets the date for the Singularity - representing a profound and disruptive transformation in human capability - as 2045. The nonbiological intelligence created in that year will be one billion times more powerful than all human intelligence today."
Why is this called Singularity? "The term 'Singularity' in my book is comparable to the use of this term by the physics community. Just as we find it hard to see beyond the event horizon of a black hole, we also find it difficult to see beyond the event horizon of the historical Singularity. How can we, with our limited biological brains, imagine what our future civilization, with its intelligence multiplied trillions-fold, be capable of thinking and doing? Nevertheless, just as we can draw conclusions about the nature of black holes through our conceptual thinking, despite never having actually been inside one, our thinking today is powerful enough to have meaningful insights into the implications of Singularity. That's what I've tried to do in this book."
I know many, if not most, readers will roll their eyes. This guy is just crazy. But go back to 1965. The wild-eyed optimists, except for a few sci-fi writers like Isaac Asimov, had no concept of 2045, and what they did project was nowhere near what we have now. Yes, there were the crazy predictions about specific technologies, many of which did not come to pass.
But the accelerating trend of human knowledge and of Moore's Law were not really discussed. Will a lot of what Kurzweil predict be wrong? Absolutely. But while some specifics may be wrong, and who really knows as to timing, that is not the point.
The key is that I think he has the direction right. We are going toward that mountain way over there. Maybe he is an optimist. We only see as much progress in 20 years as we saw last century instead of twice that much. That will still represent a profound cycle of change in human discourse. It is still going to mean a lot of opportunity.
Next week we look at the dark side of the singularity. This type of technological progress is not all sweetness and light. And if there is time, we being to look at some of the implications for our portfolios. If not, we will do so the week after. I hope you are enjoying this foray into the future. It is different than what I normally write, but I think it is important that we have an idea of the general direction the world of technology is taking us.
Also, a lot of you are asking questions. "What about this or that?" I can't answer them. But Ray does. Get the book and read it, or go to your local bookstore, use the index and find your answer. But I really think you should try and read the book. (http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0670033847/frontlinethou-20) Order "On Intelligence" with it and get free shipping.
London, Malta, Copenhagen and Brussels
Toronto and Houston were fun this week, but I finish this letter back in my office, where my twins are down with friends for the last weekend of Texas Ranger baseball. I am working hard to finish, as I can deal with a baseball game outside the office window, but college kids watching the game from my balcony can be a bit distracting. And visiting with them will be fun.
I leave for London tomorrow, do Malta on Monday and then Copenhagen the next two days, back in London for the weekend, writing and meeting clients, and working with my London partners (Absolute Return Partners) at their new offices. We get to do dinner on the next Monday with Charles and Louis Gave, and then on to Brussels to speak on Tuesday night at the Swedish Investment Club (long story, but a fun one). I fly back the next morning, with a four hour layover at JFK and then I am home for a few days, with my next trip to Denver October 20. Details on that speaking appearance to follow, as it will be open to the public.
I will be speaking at the Value Investing Conference in New York November 15-16. There are some really great speakers and I am excited to be part of it. If you are interested, you can go to http://www.valueinvestingcongress.com/ and register. My readers can put in the code RVICJM and you will get an extra $100 off the registration price.
My friends and business associates from Altegris Investments will be in New York as well. Jon Sundt (president), Matt Osborne and Dick Pfister from Altegris Investments will be there to meet clients and potential clients. Basically, we help clients develop portfolios of hedge funds, commodity funds and other alternative investments. If you would like to know more about what we do, you can go to http://www.accreditedinvestor.ws/ and sign up for my free letter on hedge funds that is just for accredited investors (essentially net worth of $1,000,000 or more). If you want to be able to go into specifics about your portfolio with me and Jon, Matt or Dick in New York, you must sign up soon and start a conversation with a representative from Altegris at least 30 days prior to the conference. We will not go into specifics with anyone with whom we have not had a substantive relationship for at least 30 days. Those are the rules and we follow them.
(In this regards, I am president and a registered representative of Millennium Wave Securities, LLC, which is a member of the NASD. Please see the specific risk disclosures which follow below as well as those on the website.) Jon and Matt at Altegris are looking for some very senior, and very experienced, hedge fund research personnel. If you are looking to make a switch to a rapidly growing, well run firm and move to the best weather on the west coast (La Jolla), drop me a note and your resume and I will forward it on to Matt. This is a great opportunity for the right person.
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It is time to hit the send button. I hope you enjoy your week. Don't tell Mike, but I think I am ready for a really big steak before Europe. I see a big filet in my immediate future.