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Rick's Blog

Arresting Aging: an Existential Threat

Scientists are closing in on the Holy Grail of aging research: the capacity to arrest aging and extend the lifespan to hundreds of years. Recent genetic studies have identified mutations in a pair of genes that humans share with roundworms, each of which modestly extends the lifespan of the roundworm, but which work synergistically to magnify the effect. Drugs are in the early stages of development to alter the cellular pathways governed by these genes. If successful, people could remain youthful and healthy for centuries, with reduction or elimination of a host of age-related diseases, including heart disease, cancer, and dementia. Among the benefits would be the capacity for long distance space travel and the ability to accumulate vast knowledge with extended lifelong learning.


But with noble pursuits often come unintended consequences with dark implications. An early effect could be a striking increase in the divide between the rich and the poor. Such treatments are likely to be costly and, at least at the beginning, available only to the wealthy. So added to differences in quality of life would be a priceless difference in longevity. This raises both moral issues and the likelihood of intensifying class warfare and social disorder.


Extending the lifespan of even a fraction of the population would eventually lead to unsustainable demands upon resources and the environment. Even with advances in food technology, feeding everyone would eventually become impossible. The poor would be the first to suffer, but eventually everyone would be at risk of starvation. And as we continue to consume all manner of goods, the mountains of waste we create will grow huge, even if we master the arts of recycling and creating biodegradable products. We will increasingly risk polluting our waters and food sources, impacting health in unforeseen ways that could introduce terrible new chronic diseases and disabilities that could last as long as we do.


Assuming that we don't all agree to stop reproducing, an outcome with its own dreadful implications, the population will inevitably find ways to curb itself. One obvious outcome would be a drastic increase in violent conflict, including international warfare, civil wars, class wars, and genocide, perhaps inflicted by the privileged upon the poor in order to retain the resources to sustain their vastly extended lives. And if we fail to keep our numbers in control, the earth will inevitably develop an immune response to fight our infestation, perhaps in the form of more robust infectious diseases to which even the superhuman among us would succumb.


Even if we succeed, against all probability, in navigating the solutions to these problems, how would we adapt to life without end? Would there be some point for most of us, once we've run through our "bucket lists" to our satisfaction, that we would decide that enough is enough? Endless life might not be all that we would envision and could eventually become a burden that we would yearn to end. In the prescient 1973 science fiction film "Soylent Green," teeming humanity has outgrown the limits of its resources, euthanasia has become the universal prescription for ending lives, and recycling human bodies as food has become a key strategy for preventing starvation.


Our capacity for innovation is increasing exponentially. Are we about to outsmart ourselves into oblivion or will we learn to predict the consequences of our discoveries and choose wisely what we pursue?

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Genomic SETI

Building future worlds for science fiction requires flights of imagination tempered by knowledge about how the world really works. The optimal result is a technological world that is both dazzlingly fantastic and scientifically plausible. The Internet, of course, provides considerable opportunity to validate concepts as well as to determine their novelty.

While writing A Stand-in for Dying, I enjoyed discovering some of the stunning advances that the near future might bring. One such example, vacuum tube transport, came to me one day while driving up to the teller at my bank. As I watched my credentials whoosh through the transparent tubes, I wondered "Why can't everything travel this way...even people?" A quick Google search found that the idea was neither outrageous nor novel. A company had already been formed based upon this technology that proposed to build out a nationwide transportation network. And a year after I wrote the technology into my manuscript, Elon Musk embraced it, propelling it into the popular media. I had mixed feelings about real life catching up to my future world before my work was even in print.

Another flight of fancy led to an idea that seemed beyond all limits of credibility, yet sufficiently tantalizing to include anyway. It was so fantastic that I never tried to validate it. Perhaps our "junk DNA," the extensive sequences of nucleotide pairs on our chromosomes that do not code for any known functions, contained coded messages from an advanced civilization, put there either in the course of designing life on earth or inserted later. I had no idea whether or not these sequences were sufficiently abundant or sufficiently stable to convey an intelligible message, but was sufficiently enamored of the notion to include it on faith and hope that more knowledgeable readers would be kind. This novel form of intelligent design would become the basis of a new religious movement that based faith upon scientific discovery. And my designers hailed not just from another world, but from another universe.

A 2014 episode of Morgan Freeman's "Through the Wormhole" speculated about our first encounters with aliens. Imagine my astonishment when, toward the end of the episode, he discussed current scientific inquiry into the very idea that messages from an advanced civilization could be embedded in the non-functional sequences within our DNA. First conceived way back in the seventies and revived over the past several years, Genomic SETI (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence) is the quest for evidence of other civilizations within the code of our DNA.

Underlying the inquiry is an understanding of the structure of language and patterns of code that are compatible with communicating coherently. At least one scholarly article makes the case that our DNA contains a level of orderliness that is more consistent with deliberately constructed symbolic language than with the random effects of biology.

So as a writer, I have mixed feelings. While pleased to have validation for the most speculative of my fantasies, I'm also chagrined to have overlooked the work of others that has apparently been going on for years. If only I had a MELD chip….

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