At Ending Age-Related Diseases 2021, Elena Milova interviewed Allison Duettmann on how far rejuvenation biotechnology has come and what can be done to accelerate its development.
Elena: Greetings to the participants of Ending Age-Related Diseases 2021. This conference brings together thought leaders and researchers working on rejuvenation biotechnology with the goal of extending healthy human life.
The path towards healthy longevity for all is not an easy one. Nobody has a secret sauce available that would ensure success in the short term. There is no proven strategy, because humanity has not done that before. This is a unique medical and social project, and what we are witnessing is unprecedented.
What we can do is look at the experience from other fields introducing innovations and try to distill particular approaches, toolkits, and skill sets that would increase our chances of succeeding.
Today, I am speaking about it with Allison Duettmann, the President of the Foresight Institute, a non-profit advancing biotech, nanotech, computing and other modern technologies for improving human life.
Elena: Hi, Allison, how are you?
Allison: Hi, I’m thrilled to be here. Thank you so much for having me on.
So I wanted to begin our discussion with a question about your project, ExistentialHope.com.
Could you please share what pushed you to start working in this direction and what you mean by existential hope?
Basically, the ideas that we often tend to focus on the negative bits, either in our personal futures or in the futures of civilization at large if we even think about them. Instead of thinking about thinking why it would be so bad if certain things happen, it could be also really good to think about the counterfactual; for example, I think death really is such a tragedy, because life, on the other hand, is so amazing. That holds for our individual lives, but it also holds for civilization and life at large.
On a more personal level, it has kind of two facets. Since I can almost remember, one of my first memories is a longing to not die. Since I was a child, I could never really understand why that wasn’t on everyone’s minds all the time, just the sheer fact that life is so amazing, and wouldn’t it be great if we had more of it for more people? Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could continue that, the amazing projects that many of us are taking on?
To come to terms with that, I started exploring philosophy a lot, and through that, mostly existentialism. Existentialism has this somewhat useful angle of trying to look at the finitude of life and seeing what kind of meaning can we create, even in the finite constraints of our lives. I think that was useful somewhat.
We had come up with the myth of Sisyphus; we should still consider us as happy people, even if we roll the stone up the hill and we know it always falls down, so all of our projects ultimately become meaningless on a larger scale. I thought that was somewhat comforting, but not all the way.
Luckily, I eventually discovered transhumanist philosophy and through that, I discovered the philosophy of science and technology as a larger field. Instead of taking our boundaries of limited life as a given and trying to create meaning within those arbitrary boundaries, there’s a community of people that are actually seeking to push those boundaries and seeking to create larger visions for humanity and actually making them real.
I think this holds true for a longevity angle but also very much for civilization at large. I think that oftentimes, we think in terms of our current limitations, and even if things seem bleak on a momentary level, looking out there and just grasping the sheer sense of what’s possible is actually mind boggling. By focusing on that more, it would yield tremendous benefits.
I completely agree with you on that. While you were telling this fascinating story, I was thinking about a study that I had read a few years ago. The study was focused on identifying how mindset, positive or negative, will affect people’s decision making. It was actually measured with IQ points, even though IQ points are not considered a very reliable method of measuring intelligence.
What’s interesting is that the people who were depressed because of certain circumstances in life, their level of IQ dropped by 13 or 14 points, which stands for the difference between a scholar and a PhD candidate. So that’s quite a huge difference.
If you think about it on a wider range, you can see that if you can improve decision making just by staying positive, it means that you will be most likely able to achieve more and build a better future for yourself and for those around you, compared to the future that you can build if you’re depressed and minus 14 IQ points at once because of that.
It’s not that I think that everyone should want this. Oftentimes, what people misunderstand about this quest is that anyone is trying to impose anything onto anyone here at all. I think it is kind of unfortunate that we say, at least, that we care about freedom to choose, and about our freedoms into most aspects in our lives, but not an aspect that is the foundation for many of the aspects of the other freedoms to matter. That is on whether or not we want to continue to live.
I think it has to go both ways. I think opting out should be an option. I think opting for longer life should be an option. It’s not that there should be an imposition on anyone, and there are those who really found that it’s not an attractive option. That is certainly an availability, but I think that it is, to some extent, creating more freedoms further down the line. I think focusing on this freedom first has a strong multiplier effect for everything that people could want in the future. At least for me, it is something that I think is worthwhile doing.
Absolutely. This part about freedom is incredibly important. We don’t really discuss public concerns as much as we probably should, just to make sure that we remove those obstacles in people’s minds.
Sometimes, those obstacles have absolutely no grounds, for instance, the fears related to overpopulation or that the drugs are going to be available only for the rich. A lot of the longevity drugs that are currently in development, it’s very likely that they’re going to be quite affordable and people will be able to buy it in literally any pharmacy, after, of course, the period of the very first stage of development, when it’s probably going to be more expensive to compensate for the efforts that were invested in developing and testing the drug.
I think one of the factors that is affecting the perception of healthy life extension ideas is that we rarely discuss the positive sides of it. I don’t necessarily mean direct positives like better health or longer life, but rather positive changes that we can experience as a human civilization in the long term.
After the multiple Foresight sessions focused on rejuvenation biotechnology, what are the key benefits that you feel are the most valuable to discuss in this regard?
One thing that I personally realized was that when starting to think that it could be possible for humans to live longer, I think the second thought that everyone has immediately is that doesn’t really work if civilization won’t be around. An interesting thing here is that you immediately have a larger outlook on life.
At first, I thought maybe my wish for living longer is just a puberty version, almost of a larger version of life as a thing in itself to continue. I think that’s certainly true. Now I’ve come more and more to think that it’s also the other way round, so that there’s a two-way road in the sense that by working on longevity, and by hastening, by bringing about escape velocity and longevity, we can actually solve many of the other existential risks that we’re worried about.
I don’t mean we will have solved them in a moment, but we are creating a strong multiplier effect for us to work on them. Why do I think that? I think that we would like to think of ourselves altruistically enough to think about the very long future. Ultimately, we are not always at our best.
Haldane, who worked on the mathematics of kin selection, joked that he would be willing to lay down his life for two brothers or cousins. That is one way to look at it, but I think it also holds true intergenerationally; you’re probably willing to sacrifice a lot for your kids, you’re probably willing to sacrifice a lot for your grandkids.
But then the further you go down the line, how much are you actually willing to sacrifice for the next generations, for those after and for those after that, and so the further you go, the more impersonal it becomes. By bringing about escape velocity in longevity, and actually feeling that we can continue to exist, you’re creating an incredible skin in the game. That is an effect that is really not to be underestimated.
Even if we like to say that we care in altruistic terms, this is an effect that picks even those folks up who would not care otherwise about a long-term future for civilization. Rather than just framing our quest in terms of quality-adjusted life years saved by just focusing on aging, which is already a really great thing in itself even if you just care about people alive today. I think even if you care about future generations, actually making sure that people have skin in the game is a really great aspect.
I’m not saying we’re perfect; I still discount my future self so much. We all do that to some extent, and maybe that’s rational because we have more local knowledge about what benefits are now. I’m just saying that if you care about the long-term future, making it really easy for others to care too could have major implications for the way that Prisoner’s Dilemmas currently are solved right now.
That’s actually a great point. I often think to myself why those around me who do not share the ideas of healthy life extension are willing to sacrifice their lives even now by living a lifestyle that is hurting their health. Right now, we’re already considering a future where we’re going to have such enormously long lives.
In my view, when you live only to 80 years old, the amount of time that you sacrifice, the amount of achievement that you sacrifice is limited. But if you think about several hundreds of years, several thousands of years, then would you be willing to sacrifice the same thing? For me, an important factor is also the acquisition of intelligence of additional knowledge, of wisdom.
I am 42, and I cannot say that I already progressed as a human being. I would definitely like to have more time, to learn more things, to have another profession to try myself, to travel, to do a lot of other stuff that I am not capable of doing right now, just because I’m only here where I am. Having those additional decades of life is something that reduces the stress that I have.
Currently, I’m struggling, always making choices between something and something. I’m very interested in music, I really would like to be a composer as my regular activity. I really like music, I spent years in music school, but I have never proceeded with this kind of career. Yet, I feel that my soul is suffering. I really want that, but I don’t have the time for it.
If we develop rejuvenation biotechnologies, then I will not have to choose between those things, because I will have time for all of them. It’s tied with the concept of deliberate practice. To master any kind of activity, you need around 10,000 hours invested in the activity, and generally, it happens over a period of several years, at the very least. Eventually, I’ll have more sloughs of several years that I can invest and master something.
If you look at it, people often tend to look at their life as a narrative arc of one story with some kind of inflection point, and then it kind of tapers off and goes to a hopefully happy ending. This also doesn’t come from me, but if you think more of your life as like a book with many short stories, there will be so many different types of chapters that you would want to have, even within the short story. Then the whole life as a whole could entail many, many more of those short stories.
Sticking with the metaphor of books for a second, it really just occurred to me how much is available. I remember as a child that there was a time when I made a list of all of the books I really wanted to read. I thought that I could probably go through them in a few years. Obviously, as you start reading, more books come on the list. Meanwhile, more books get written. That’s the first time when it occurred to me that it’s really unlikely that one lifetime will be enough for the books I want to read.
There’s that moment that you also realize that there’s not only books to read but there’s many, many other things to do. Very likely, over your lifetime, also other things, even other categories of things invented, you could then also become great at. It just seems like that 80 or 90 years is an arbitrary number for wanting to go through all of this. I’m not saying that it cannot ever be exhausted, maybe it will be, but I think that with the current limits, it’s unlikely that by that time, we will get through the things that we would like to do, ideally.
I think the same applies for civilization at large as well. If you look on a civilizational timeline, we have really just only become intelligent, we have barely the wits as a civilization to even remain alive. Peering around the corner, many folks are gearing up for space, at least exploration at the moment. After a 50-year lag, somehow now it’s happening again. I think it would be really a shame if, on a civilizational level, we stopped now. Again, not everyone would have to want this at all, but we’re just getting started on a civilizational level, like with brain computer interfaces. I know that this still sounds sci-fi, but people are working on them, space exploration, people are working on them. There’s so much potential available.
We have only discovered that there is potential on a civilizational scale, that I think it would be really premature if we destroy ourselves now, either individually or as a civilization at large. Again, it goes both ways: there’s no civilization without humans alive, but there’s also no humans alive without civilization.
I would like to know more about the strategy for accelerating longevity therapeutics development that you are currently trying to foster at Foresight Institute.
Can you please share a little bit more about the current projects that you have?
Happy to; the first one is we have this group that is already creating what are sometimes called the corridors between conferences, where the work actually gets done and where the conversations actually happen. It’s really like a living, breathing container that because of the virtual world just continues to grow. People get onboarded, I interview about two people per day.
Obviously I’ll take them on, but we try to gradually onboard so we remain high trust while we onboard new investors, entrepreneurs, scientists into the container. This year, we had a fellowship and then also going into an accelerator, because many of the projects are actually at a stage where they can hit the ground running.
While usually the whole group already helps each other a lot, we have a few projects that we pick out that we think are especially highly promising and that we hook up with mentors in the field. Much of that can be found on our program website.
We have two fantastic projects here already, which is Jean Hebert from the Albert Einstein School of Medicine and his project on brain cell replacement. Daniel Ives from Shift just gave an incredible presentation on his work on driver clocks for rejuvenation. Those are just two tokens. I’m saying this because in the next year, I think we will focus much more on keeping the container flowing but then also supporting individual projects that are seeking stronger mentorship support, that are already working. This is kind of the crux on really hastening escape velocity in longevity.
What Foresight is good at is taking on other projects that may still be a little bit too high risk, high reward or too niche for other organizations to take on. If you’re working on something that is out there, but that has a chance of succeeding and would really make a difference if it does, we may be the right venue for you. You could find it interesting to become a fellow.
I cannot say this without also pointing out that nothing less but an inspiring number of projects are currently popping up in the ecosystem. It’s really a blessing. We have Nathan Cheng with the Longevity Fellowship that is onboarding people from a really large panel, and it has fantastic mentors there as well.
Starting very soon, we have a longevity hackathon going on. VitaDAO is trying to do more of a blockchain-based approach to approach longevity. It’s basically a very stakeholder-friendly approach. If you really want to get involved in it, that may be the right structure.
There’s lots of really exciting work in this space. This is my first best guess, you can correct me or give me your own view of why I think that is, but I think it’s a conglomeration of three factors that have recently kicked off that now make work now very high impact.
They all are a blessing in disguise, COVID related. First, obviously, biotech has exploded thanks to vaccine development, and thanks to the booster of the mRNA vaccine total, like magic really. Also, the regulatory ecosystem has become a little bit more friendly towards biotechnology progress. People, in general, since they saw the incredible success of the vaccines. So I think biotech has generally sped up.
Generally, just that connection between aging and and the risk factors that you have with all those other things that become very obvious with COVID. So, first one, biotech.
Second one is the AI that we have, really exciting, also somewhat conditional onto COVID, because many folks actually moved into cyberspace. Software was one of the really big factors that wasn’t negatively impacted by a lockdown in the sense that developers can mostly work from everywhere, and machine learning and researchers, the same.
I think software really sped up and became our second skin during this time. I think that the kind of progress in AI. If you think about AI, it’s intelligence, which is a multiplying factor for every other problem. That intersection between biotech and AI is really exciting, and lots of things are coming out of it, especially for example, a topic that I’m super interested in is privacy-preserving machine learning, because many people have during COVID, during the biotech boom, started tracking their health, for example, wearing and whatnot.
If you can have a way in which you could apply privacy-preserving machine learning to that data, and then more people could share it, it will become much more obvious, you could collect more data, you wouldn’t really have to so much rely on very expensive trials anymore, maybe it would be enough to do that, individually, at least at first. It would unlock a whole silo of data that otherwise is really hard to share.
The last boost that I want to mention is crypto. If you look at the crypto boom that happened in December, and many of the coins doubled or more. That must make a difference in the sense that people interested in that space are already comfortable in thinking thoughts that may not be supported by much of society yet.
They’re used to thinking outside of the box a little bit. With many of those people now coming into a more financially secure and a financially very potentially generous position, combining and onboarding more folks in this area into this quest, because many of them, frankly, they already get it, there’s not really much messaging to do.
The convergence of those two factors is super exciting for the space right now. We need to do a better job at onboarding people on an individual level and allowing them to become part of this ecosystem, making them really feel a part of it.
Then, usually what happens with every boom, and maybe also with the current boom, is that there will be hype cycles. In three years, there’ll be a time when things don’t work out the way that some people promise and interest in the field will wither. Hopefully, at that point, we won’t have very much snake oil. What I mentioned before about the ecosystem is quite special, because many people have been in it for a long time.
Hopefully, we find a mechanism by which we can at least hold each other accountable so that those tapering offs in the hype cycle aren’t accelerated or aren’t strained too much by the fact that much snake oil got sold. Just doing due diligence, and making sure that people can have real conversations, that even the conflict of interest that definitely exists when companies are around isn’t too much of a problem, I think is really useful. It’s really on all of us, and there’s much work to be done, but also incredible projects that are happening.
One other thing, more coordination around our groups would be great. You have a fantastic, incredible community; we’re getting started with one, there’s lots of others, not only space-based but also virtual now. Maybe getting acquainted, mixing those communities and just growing an ecosystem together in the long run will let people coordinate more on the longer-term goals. The money that is needed is still a lot, and sometimes, it’s useful to know that others do it too.
Maybe you can even coordinate on the really big goals together and say, “Look, we’re going to fund this area over here, so you focus on this.” Actually having conditions on your funding will be really great. Over the long run, I hope that we can tackle the really high-hanging fruits together that require more coordination, high trust, larger sums of money. We’re definitely in the process of building this, and many others are too. Just continuing to plow away and coordinating more will be great.
Wow, that was a shower of great ideas. Thank you so much for sharing your view on this. I agree with you a lot when it comes to the COVID situation accelerating the field of biotechnology, but I also have three more factors that I believe lead to the accumulation of steam and us being very close to the breaking point when rejuvenation biotechnology is going to be seen by society at large as something really serious, interesting, and useful.
I think three more factors I would mention. First, the number of scientists working on the problem since the publication of the Hallmarks of Aging in the early paper by Aubrey de Grey, obviously, there were many more people interested in this field because they started to realize that this is something real, it is okay to work on extending healthy human life and eventually beating the diseases of aging.
And we started to get into the field and work on the problem and the number of scientists that are currently involved, I believe that it grew significantly over the last years. Obviously, this leads directly to having many more scientific publications to be released. Another factor concerns how people get interested and the problem of snake oil a little bit too.
Even 10 years ago, there were not so many wearable devices in general, medical devices that can be used at home that people could have access to. Right now, even a simple fitness tracker can track so many things in relation to your health. You can get yourself a tool to measure the glucose level in your blood or some other parameters.
We’re in this very interesting phase when there is a lot of diagnostic labs, and they are offering huge panels of biomarkers for a relatively affordable price. That actually leads to a very interesting thing. If before we had to think hard and analyze scientific literature when we wanted to understand if something is snake oil or not, right now, you can just make the test before you take the treatment, make the test tougher, and see if it’s snake oil for yourself or not.
That changes a lot. I am very enthusiastic about it because I started to notice that a biotechnology company is currently working on drugs or supplements for aging, they themselves started offering the tests as one of the services to the clients that are buying their product.
That, for me, is a marker of a very-well thought approach to building trust with the early adopters of those therapies and eventually with all the other people who will come after them. The snake oilers cannot really do such a thing; they may offer, but after measuring the results before and after, you can see what happens, right?
If the therapy doesn’t work, if the supplement doesn’t work, and people don’t see any changes to their biological age, and by the way, measuring your biological age, even through epigenetic clocks, is currently quite affordable; you can already start doing this. If you don’t see any changes, then why take a particular treatment?
That means that the companies that have good medical practice, and good research practices, they are going to be at an advantage compared to the companies that are offering some sort of snake oil. Eventually, those offering snake oil may find themselves without any sort of income and die off quite naturally, which will be a good thing for the community because nobody wants that, we want real longevity, not the fake one.
Privacy-preserving machine learning could really move the dial, because imagine if you do that with yourself, you need a lot of time with a lot of experiments, some things don’t pan out for a long time. You may be a very particular case, but you could definitely speed up your insight into all of those biomarkers. If you have more folks work on it, and if you were able to benefit from their data, and their particular idiosyncratic conditions, that helps as well. Totally agree, I think that much more could even be possible if we found a way to collaborate on this.
Is there a message that you would like to send to the attendees of our conference? Maybe some advice, maybe some call to action, what to do to accelerate the development of rejuvenation biotechnologies?
There’s lots of scientific areas that you can explore. For the scientists out there, maybe our fellowship is for you, maybe someone else’s fellowship is. Go out and look at it, contact people, they’re probably willing to help.
On a larger level, it’s a really peculiar time, from my local angle, at least, it’s now suddenly okay. It’s because of the convergence of biotech, AI, and crypto to talk really openly, in a much more open setting than before, about escape velocity. People are like, I think we’re at the point where maybe people can already dip in.
It may be psychologically safe for others to join, because of the crusade, so explore lightly with others around you why you think that’s a good idea, obviously not pressuring anyone to do anything that they actually, by their preferences, really don’t want to do.
It’s a good time; we can aim much, much higher. Oftentimes, when I go back into Foresight’s archives, Foresight has existed for 35 years, back in the day, people were ambitious on longevity. We have all these founding documents in the book that founded Foresight, and people really predicted much shorter time horizons on getting us to escape velocity, and then nothing happened for a long time.
I feel like we’re finally on the cusp again. Leveraging the moment and making it easy for people to ask you the questions and to just join would be really fantastic. I think it’s a pretty special time, and so much is on the line.
Reading Nick Bostrom’s Fable of the Dragon Tyrant, even moving the needle by one year has huge implications for the benefit of life, hastening escape velocity of one year, driving it closer by one year is incredible. Doing that has a big effect.
If you want to get a feel of a few of all of the different things that the future could entail that I think are positive, I have a website, ExistentialHope.com, which is mostly a volunteer-run effort by which I try to collect lots of different links in aging and newer tech, in nanotechnology, in space development, just about why the future’s exciting.
So, if you want to dip your feet in there, that may be a cool website to check out. I’m just super happy we’re alive at the moment, and I think it’s a good time.
Wonderful. Alison, thank you so much for joining me today. That was an awesome conversation. Thank you for sharing all your numerous insights and advice concerning various aspects of accelerating the development of longevity technologies. Well, then, stay healthy, and I hope that you enjoy the rest of the conference. Thank you.
Thank you so much. See you in the chat.