Why was life extension ruled out of the 14 Grand Engineering Challenges?

questionmark1I emailed some of my life extension supporter friends because I think we have a ‘future’ situation:

Healthy life extension is not 1 out of the 14 Grand Engineering Challenges…that can be realistically met, most of them early in this century according to the Committee on Grand Challenges for Engineering with members such as Larry Page, Dean Kamen, Craig Venter, Robert Langer and …lifestyle life extensionist, nanovisionary Ray Kurzweil. There is a challenge though called Engineer better medicines and the essay behind looks as if it had been hacked together by Kurzweil and Venter themselves during a sunny Californian Soy Beer Baby Boomer Beach Party. It is about personalized medicine in large and the only hint – I was able to find – to a recent discipline named regenerative medicine is a paragraph, not on, say the challenge of systemic regmed, but on synthetic biology.

It is a big challenge to learn how could healthy lifespan extension as a big and realistic challenge have been left out? Why did Kurzweil (author of the book Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever) not stand up for it? Why nobody out of the luminaries thought that regenerative medicine and stem cells worth discussing more than a tiny side note? And what about Venter, whom I still like to be interview as there are many points in his activity suggesting a life extension connection. Somebody in the committee was clearly against it?

One friend told me that he is not surprised by this, because it was announced at the AAAS meeting, which is very conservative. Out of the committee members Ray Kurzweil, Daniel Hillis, and maybe Dean Kamen would have been supporters of including LE as a challenge.


The other friend suggested that such “joint” statements usually are a rugby scrum that results in many things getting cut out. On the other hand he personally heard R. Kurzweil profess that life extension escape velocity would be achieved 15 years from now.

According to Wired Science:

They (the committee members) felt it more important to outline broad objectives that might influence research funding and governmental policy.

And here is the point: life extension should be a private business and not something left to governmental policies and think thanks.

And when the Google founders are getting old within a couple of years (just like all of us) they will still have the chance to move in and support everything healthy and biotech (beyond personal genomics and 23andMe). Larry will ask Lucy, and Sergey will ask Anne again. (I am serious here, but I’ll explain later why and how Google – a company, not a government – could be the decisive player in life extension technology.) But that is another story.

Update: the post with the question marks was sent to Mr. Kurzweil by Amara D. Angelica, editor of KurzweilAI.net

4 thoughts on “Why was life extension ruled out of the 14 Grand Engineering Challenges?

  1. life extension should be a private business and not something left to governmental policies and think thanks

    I’d be interested to hear more of your thoughts about this. It seems to me that there’s a place for both state-supported research and private enterprise in this field. Certainly, I don’t see biotech industry forgoing the huge subsidy in both risk and training that is currently assumed by the government.

    Clearly, both sectors have structural shortcomings, and unfortunately one of them is common to both — in particular, both have strong incentives to focus on the short term. Governments look ahead to the next election; corporations look ahead to the next board meeting.

    Therefore, one question I constantly ask myself is: How might be best create and maintain the incentives to take the long-term view necessary to generate real progress in anti-aging therapeutics?

    On a related note: Is the decision really either-or, government or corporation? Or should we seek hybrid models, or something altogether outside the box?

  2. Chris, for me, the bolded sentence seemed to be the conclusion suggested by the committee members themselves by ignoring life extension technologies as a realistic challenge.

    I’d be satisfied with any large-scale LE efforts independently from the type of institutes involved although I have my own worries on both the governmental and the corporation-based versions. A good analogy of this could be the story of the Human Genome Project, Collins vs Venter, National Human Genome Research Institute vs Celera.

    And as I’ve made a hint to that in the post: Google is not a corporation that just “looks ahead to the next board meeting”. I mean these guys have clearly long term goals and sources to achieve those long term goals. They are thinking in decades forward (think of the Schmidt case) and most importantly (but this is now an argument out my coming Google and LE essay) their main concern is scalability and scalability is the most fundamental question of any LE technology that aims to fix (repair, regenerate) the complete human body, that is the organization of trillions of cells.

    So whether Google is a hybrid model or something altogether outside the box? I don’t know.

    But Google’s real corporate mission is to make “formerly impossible things possible”.
    And Google’s growing inter-industrial power is real.

    On the other hand, as you highlighted the recent Economist piece: “I love the subhead: “It looks unlikely that medical science will abolish the process of ageing. But it no longer looks impossible”.”

    So the real challenge is to turn the unlikely to likely and then the likely for granted.

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