Research Scientist

Aubrey de Grey: Aging and Overcoming Death

Editor’s Note: Dr. Aubrey de Grey is a true maverick. He challenges the most basic assumption underlying the human condition – that aging is inevitable. He argues instead that aging is a disease – one that can be cured if it’s approached as “an engineering problem.”

He is a biomedical gerontologist based in Cambridge, UK, and is the Chief Science Officer of SENS Foundation, a non-profit charity dedicated to combating the aging process. He is also Editor-in-Chief of Rejuvenation Research, the world’s only peer-reviewed journal focused on intervention in aging. His research interest encompass the causes of all cellular side-effects of metabolism (“damage”) that constitute mammalian aging and the design of interventions to repair and /or obviate that damage. You can read his full bio from here here here and here.

eTalk’s Niaz Uddin has interviewed Aubrey de Grey recently to gain insights about his ideas, research and works in the field of aging which is given below.

Niaz: Dear Aubrey, I know you are a very busy man and I really appreciate you for taking time out of your schedule to join me. We are very thrilled and honored to have you at eTalks.

Aubrey: My pleasure.

Niaz: At the beginning of our interview, could you please say a few words about your background and the positions that you hold today?

Aubrey: I was initially trained as a computer scientist, but I switched to the biology of aging at around 30 when I discovered, to my astonishment, that very few researchers were really working on doing anything about aging. Currently I’m the Chief Science Officer of SENS Research Foundation, a California-based biomedical research charity focused on developing the strategy for defeating aging that I proposed back in 2000.

Niaz: That’s really interesting. What did first attract you to the idea of physical immortality?

Aubrey: First, let’s be totally clear that I don’t work on “immortality”, or any variations on that theme. I work on health: I want to let people stay fully healthy, i.e. functioning both physically and mentally as well as a young adult, at any age. Once this is achieved, it is very likely that there will be a dramatic side-benefit in terms of how long people live – but that’s what it is, a side-benefit. I do not work on longevity for longevity’s sake. So, to answer what your question should have been: what attracted me to the crusade to bring aging under medical control was simply that it was obviously humanity’s worst problem but hardly anyone was working on it.

Niaz: What’s so wrong with getting old? Is getting old the biggest health crisis facing the world?

Aubrey: The way you phrase the question incorporates most of the answer. Most people have a totally distorted idea of what aging is: they think of it as distinct from the diseases of old age, and as something natural and inevitable, like the passage of time. So “getting old” is used pretty much interchangeably as either getting chronologically old or getting frail. WTF?! We don’t ask what’s so wrong with getting Alzheimer’s, so it makes no sense to ask what’s so wrong with going downhill in all ways.

Niaz: You’re a true maverick and you challenge the most basic assumption underlying the human condition — that aging is inevitable. You argue instead that aging is a disease – one that can be cured if it’s approached as “an engineering problem.” Before we focus on your efforts to understand the aging process, perhaps we should first say a few words about aging itself. Why do organisms age, and die?

Aubrey: Aging is far less mysterious than most people assume. In its essence, aging of a living organism is no different than aging of a simple, man-made machine – which should be no surprise, since after all the body is a machine (whatever one’s view may be as regards any non-physical elements that combine with the body to form the human being). Thus, it’s totally reasonable – I would say obvious, but apparently it isn’t obvious to everyone – to look at how we already succeed in extending the healthy longevity of cars or aeroplanes waaay beyond how long they were designed to last, and apply the same principles to human aging. And those principles come down, in a nutshell to just one idea: preventative maintenance, i.e. repairing pre-symptomatic damage before symptoms emerge.

Niaz: So does the process of aging serve some evolutionary purpose — and if it does, will we run into trouble if we attempt to counteract it?

Aubrey: It does not. From the 1880s or so until the 1950s it was thought that aging helped species to be more nimble in responding evolutionarily to changing environments, but then Medawar pointed out that mortality from causes that aren’t related to age is so high in the wild that there are too few frail individuals to drive natural selection for aging even if in principle it would be a good thing for the species. Medawar’s observation was somewhat over simplistic, but today almost all gerontologists agree that his basic idea was correct and that there are no “genes for aging”.

Niaz: You are the Chief Science Officer of the SENS Foundation. What that acronym stands for and what the organization does? 

Aubrey: Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence, but I know that’s a bit of a mouthful. We do biomedical research to develop regenerative medicine against aging, i.e rejuvenation biotechnology that will restore people’s physical and mental function (and appearance, yes!) to that of a young adult.

Niaz: What’s been the most striking piece of data to support your hypotheses?

Aubrey: That’s not really the right question: I don’t have a “hypothesis”. What I have is a technological plan – a proposal for how to manipulate an aspect of nature – whereas hypotheses are conjectures about how nature works in the absence of manipulation. The reason I need to make this ostensibly nit-picking distinction is that pioneering technology does not proceed by the accumulation of data: rather, it consists of a leap of faith that putting established technologies together will deliver more than the sum of the parts. So we (and others) have certainly been making great progress in developing the component technologies that will in due course combine to defeat aging, but calling those advances “support for a hypothesis” is a misuse of terms.

Niaz: As you know, now we are living in an exciting era of bioinformatics and big data. What do you think about the role of bioinformatics and big data in this field?

Aubrey: The relevance of big data to biomedical gerontology is pretty much the same as throughout biology. It speeds up a huge variety of bench experiments, but it doesn’t derive many big ideas itself.

Niaz: Some people regard aging research, and efforts to extend lifespan, with suspicion. Why do you think that is? What is your response to those concerns?

Aubrey: It’s embodied in your question: people who recoil at this work do so because they regard “aging research” and “efforts to extend lifespan” as synonymous, when in fact “aging research” and “efforts to eliminate age-related disease and disability” are synonymous. The tragedy is that this misconception is so entrenched: even though gerontoogists have been correcting this error since decades before I came along, but no one wants to hear it, probably mainly because they don’t want to get their hopes up. I think this is finally changing now, but I’m not slowin down my advocacy efforts.

Niaz: You regard cancer as the greatest potential threat to your longevity program, but couldn’t mutant viruses represent an even greater threat?

Aubrey: Viruses are a huge issue, but they are small (they don’t have many genes), whereas cancer has the entire human genome at its mutational disposal. Pandemics are a problem mainly because we aren’t putting enough money into vaccine development: if we can just get our priorities right, the chances of any pandemic really taking off are infinitesimal.

Niaz: What are the other key problems in aging research?

Aubrey: Well, basically most non-SENS research revolves around identifying simple interventions (drugs, genes, diet) that can in some harmonious unitary way slow aging down. I support such research, because it may in many cases make a dent in aging far sooner than SENS will – but its impact will be far less than what SENS will do once it exists. As such, the way to save the most lives and alleviate the most suffering is to pursue both approaches.

Niaz: One of the important consequences of successful SENS research is that we will no longer lose creative, inventive individuals and their priceless gifts to humanity. It will really be exciting. You have assigned $13 million dollars out if $16.5 million dollars that you inherited from your mom to SENS. In addition, you have dedicated your life, all your time and money to this mission. Do you think you’re going to be successful as well as going to find out the ways to overcome death? What is the timeframe?

Aubrey: As a researcher, I intrinsically accept that I don’t know whether my work will succeed, but I am sufficiently motivated by the knowledge that it MAY succeed. I don’t think of myself as a betting man, but in that sense I suppose I am. As for timeframes, I think there is a 50% (at least) chance that this research will get us to what I’ve called “longevity escape velocity” within 20-25 years.

Niaz: WOW! That’s going to be incredible. Can the planet cope with people living so long?

Aubrey: People are incredibly bad at understanding the influences of the trajrctory of global population and how it would be altered by the defeat of aging, which is why we are funding a very prestigious group in Denver to analyse it authoritatively. The short answer is yes, we believe that the planet can certainly cope, partly because the currently-observed falling fertility rates and rising age at childbirth will continue, but also becaue new technologies such as renewable energy and nuclear fusion will greatly increase the planet’s carrying capacity.

Niaz: Google’s CEO, Larry Page, said: “Illness and aging affect all our families. With some longer term, moonshot thinking around healthcare and biotechnology, I believe we can improve millions of lives.” And very recently Google has announced a new company called Calico that will focus on health and well-being, in particular the challenge of aging and associated diseases.  What do you think about this move by Google?

Aubrey: It’s the single best piece of news in all the time I’ve been working in this field. Even though Calico is taking its time to determine its research priorities, I’m very confident that it will make huge contributions to hastening the defeat of aging.

Niaz: Now, as the editor of the journal of rejuvenation, obviously you have a lot of information coming across your desk all the time. I was wondering is there any particular research that excites you at the moment?

Aubrey: I really don’t want to single anything out. SENS is a divide-and-conquer strategy, and all its strands are moving forward very promisingly.

Niaz: You are exceptionally well connected with other scientists. I have seen you at TEDMED 2012 Conference. About how many scientific conferences do you attend each year? What is your main means of becoming acquainted with other scientists?

Aubrey: I give about 50 talks a year, at conferences, universities and elsewhere. I meet scientists there, of course, but also by contacts based on reading publications. In that regard I’m no different than any other scientist.

Niaz: What are your goals for the next decade?

Aubrey: To become obsolete. My goal is that by 2020 or so there will be people involved in this mission who are much better than me at all the tasks I’m good at and that currently the mission relies on me to perform.

Niaz: Is there anything else you would like for readers of eTalks to know about your work?

Aubrey: The main thing I want to communicate is that shortage of funding is delaying the defeat of aging by many years. My current estimate is that we could be going about three times faster if funding were not limiting – and the tragedy is that even a ten-fold increase, to something like $100m per year (way under 1% of the NIH’s butget), would pretty much eliminate that slowdown. We have a solid plan, and we have the world’s best researchers waiting and eager to get on and implement. All we need is the resources to let them get on with it.

Niaz: Dear Aubrey, thanks a lot for giving us time and sharing us your invaluable ides. We are wishing you very good luck for your tremendous success. Please take very good care of yourself.

Aubrey: My pleasure. Many thanks for the invitation.

Ending Note: It’s been more than a decade since Dr. Aubrey de Grey has established the principles behind SENS. You can visit sens.org and look at the summary of the principles over there. Also, of course, Dr. Aubrey recommends you his book “Ending Aging” which covers the strategy in lots of detail.

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Further Reading:

1. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger on Big Data Revolution

2. Gerd Leonhard on Big Data and the Future of Media, Marketing and Technology

3. Ely Kahn on Big Data, Startup and Entrepreneurship

4. Brian Keegan on Big Data

5. danah boyd on Future of Technology and Social Media

6. Irving Wladawsky-Berger on Evolution of Technology and Innovation

7. Horace Dediu on Asymco, Apple and Future of Computing

8. James Allworth on Disruptive Innovation

9. James Kobielus on Big Data, Cognitive Computing and Future of Product

Horace Dediu: Asymco, Apple and Future of Computing

Editor’s Note: Horace Dediu, one of the most well respected watchers of the mobile industry, and Apple in particular, is the founder and author of the market intelligence site Asymco.com. He is also an independent analyst and adviser to telecom incumbents and entrants on mobile platform strategy. Fortune Magazine declared him as the “King of Apple Analysts“.

Horace has eight years of experience as an industry analyst and business development manager at Nokia, preceded by six years of software development and management in a startup environment, two years of IT management and five years of computer science research in an industrial laboratory. As a business analyst he has a proven track record of achieving/exceeding predictive goals and objectives. He has been a resource for Bloomberg, The Financial Times, The Economist, Forbes and has been cited over 350,000 times.

Dediu also writes for the Harvard Business Review Blog. Recently he was interviewed by Forbes. He is often interviewed by other news sources as an Apple expert.

Horace has an MBA from Harvard Business School and MS Engineering from Tufts University. To learn more about his work please visit Asymco.com. You can also find him on Twitter, LinkedIn and Wikipedia.

eTalk’s Niaz Uddin has interviewed Horace Dediu recently to gain insights about Asymco, Apple and Future of Computing which is given below.

Niaz: Dear Horace, thank you so much for joining us in the midst of your busy schedule. We are very honored and thrilled to have you at eTalks. At the beginning of our interview, can you please tell us more about Asymco?

Horace: Asymco is a web site where I write what I think and where people respond through comments. The idea is very simple and I find it useful because I received over 40,000 comments, something which would be hard to obtain through any other way of writing. Of course what matters is to have good comments, but good comments come if you have interesting things to say and you say them in a way that encourage discussion.  The other aspect of Asymco is that the audience is mostly self-selected. They have not been enticed to visit via any incentives other than their interest in the material. That makes the audience more valuable to me than one which comes by way of being herded from another place.

Niaz: What do you do as an independent consultant and analyst? What is your future plan? And where will be position of Asymco after 10 years?

Horace: I read a lot and write a little. I have no future plans and could not presume to guess what Asymco will be in 10 years. I could not have predicted where it is now so my ability to make predictions on this topic is zero.

Niaz: You’ve declared as the “King of Apple Analysts” by Fortune Magazine.  What does make you very passionate about Apple?

Horace: Apple is an interesting company to study because its success comes from being a serial disruptor. This is a very rare type of success formula. I am trying to “reverse engineer” its operating model and I hope that such a model is one which others might learn from if they were to emulate it. The trouble is that very few others seem to want to emulate Apple. Why that is also an interesting question.

Niaz:  You’ve been resource for Bloomberg, The Financial Times, The Economist, Forbes and have been cited over 350,000 times. You’ve been analyzing Apple’s business strategy and predicting their financials for long time.   So many people in the industry now believe that Apple has lost its image. Fundamentally, Apple is a company that was built to innovate and to make great products. What do you think about the current performance of the company? Do you think apple has lost its image that it has created over the years as a center of innovation and building excellent products?

Horace: I cannot comment on how Apple’s image is measured by people in the industry. I have been listening to commentary on Apple for about a decade and I have never seen any change in pattern. The company has always been perceived as a failure by a majority of observers. With respect to its products, I also do not see a change in the pattern established over the last decade.

Niaz: What’s your evaluation on the performance of Apple CEO Tim Cook? Do you think he is a visionary leader? Will he be able to keep running Apple as the way it should be run?

Horace: I think Tim Cook is the best CEO Apple ever had. During the period of Steve Jobs as CEO, Tim Cook was doing the work which might be considered CEO and Jobs was head of product, culture and many other details. The Jobsian approach of micromanagement is the antithesis of sustainable organizational management. The only reason Apple survived was that Jobs outsourced operations to Cook. Regarding Vision: Vision is not a function that needs to reside in one person and it depends greatly on the process for decision making and the organizational structure. Apple’s functional structure means that vision is developed through a coordinated weekly process. It’s a constant refinement of many ideas rather than a single target that’s set once.

Niaz: As you know, the biggest change in the history of iOS is iOS7. Apple has also launched iPhone 5C and 5S on Sept 10th event. As far as I believe iPhone 5S is the next big thing that will be the door of opportunities for the future of mobile computing, gaming, personal cloud and so on and on. What is your take on iOS 7, iPhone 5C and iPhone 5S?

Horace: The iPhone is maturing nicely and it seems to be entering a new phase of later adoption. It’s now clear to me that after 7 iterations, the iPhone business model is a part of a larger transition in how Apple is building a multi-modal platform with iOS. iOS has turned out to be a very flexible idea which is being adapted to many usage contexts. It is however only one piece of a far larger puzzle where services, devices, and ecosystems are inter-dependent.

Niaz: Over the last 12 months, Google Android devices have outsold iOS by about 3 to 1. There are now perhaps 775m-800m ‘official’ Android devices in use, versus perhaps 415m iOS devices. This is without counting sales of the Amazon Kindle Fire or the (very) many Android devices sold in China that are not connected to Google services – these may be a further 150-200m active devices now (or more). So, the Android install base is more than double the size of iOS. If you look just at phones, there are may be 250m iPhones in use and perhaps 700m ‘official’ Android phones alone.  How do you see iOS vs. Android war? Is android is a threat for iOS (directly or indirectly)? Who is actually winning?

Horace: Those numbers are not exact. The numbers I use are: Google has reported 1 billion activations and Apple cited 700 million iOS devices will be sold by October with iTunes accounts (as a proxy of usage) totaling about 650 million. I consider both of these to be great performances especially since they happened in less than 7 years–a type of growth that is unprecedented even when considering many products which were free to use like Facebook. 700 million unit volume of sales, often under supply constraints, with an exceptionally high margins of near 40% is nothing short of amazing.  That does not detract from Android however. Android has turned out to be a force which destroyed many businesses: Nokia, RIM, HTC, Microsoft. However, iOS has been contributing to this disruption as well. Android is a low-end approach and iOS is a high-end/new market approach. Both have squeezed almost all other platforms out of the industry. Android is a threat to iOS but it’s one of many. A few years ago the threat to Apple was Windows, or some iPod killer or many others long forgotten. Apple does not win by eliminating competition. It wins by creating new markets or re-defining the basis of competition where, at least initially, there is no competition.

Niaz: Are you optimist about the future success of Apple? Like after 10 years and then 20 years?

Horace: Let me put it this way: if there were no Apple then somebody will have to invent an Apple to do the same thing Apple does. In that sense I’m optimistic that there will be an Apple in some way in perpetuity.

Niaz: This is an interesting month. We have already seen so many things and we are also going to see so many things in this month. The company valuation from 2007 to today: Microsoft is down -1.5%; Nokia is down -82%; RIMM is down -78%; Apple is up +507%. In this situation what do you think about Microsoft-Nokia deal? And how should tech industry look at this deal?

Horace: The deal says more about Microsoft than about Nokia. Microsoft decided that they need to become an integrated hardware/software/services company and to organize itself functionally. This is an abdication of its role as the supplier of software modules to a complex value chain. To make such a huge concession says that we are really far into a new era. The problem for Microsoft is that it’s not clear that it can function as a completely new organism, especially one without any leader on the horizon.

Niaz: Can you please tell us about wearable technologies? How big is the market of wearable technology? What are the challenges for Apple to be the best player in the field of wearable technology?

Horace: The market for wearable technologies is very small, almost immeasurably small which is why it’s such an exciting area. It’s like a vast new continent with nobody living on it. There are challenges but they can be solved by having a development process that is guided by an understanding of what users need and how to deliver a workable solution. These were the same challenges in developing smartphones which were easy to use and making them affordable to many people. The answer is in an integrated approach to development.

Niaz: What will be the next big innovation from Apple?

Horace: I have no idea but it’s likely to involve refining new user interaction methods. Similar to the breakthroughs that came from the use of a mouse, a scroll wheel and a touch screen. It means making computers better at gleaning our intentions without our getting involved in explaining them.

Niaz: What do you think about the future of computing? What will be the most exciting and big thing in tech?

Horace: See above, new interaction methods.

Niaz: Will Apple, Google and Samsung be the major player for the future of computing? Or we can hope to see some new faces?

Horace: I am fairly sure Samsung will not be because they have not yet grafted software and services to their operating structure. I would give Amazon a higher probability in being a successful platform alternative.

Niaz: In 2011 you’ve written a blog post ‘Steve Jobs’ Ultimate Lesson for Companies’ on Harvard Business Review Blog and you have cited ‘A leader should aspire to do more. A leader should claim to have left a legacy not just on their company but on all companies.’ As you know Google, Amazon, Samsung, Facebook … all have learnt lifetime lessons from Steve Jobs. What do you think about the impact that Steve Jobs have created?

Horace: He led by example and like all great leaders sacrificed much as a way to inspire others to follow him. He also spent time in the wilderness and chose asceticism. This gave him authority. Many historical figures had the same quality. The problem is that few business leaders have it but I don’t see why they shouldn’t.

Niaz: Do you think it is possible to disrupt Google? How?

Horace: That’s easy. Google relies on keeping too many secrets. Giving away all that it holds dear will cause its business model to change. Let me put it this way: Google beat Microsoft because it developed and gave away that which Microsoft kept dear: source code to operating systems. (Microsoft finds it impossible to react unless it sells hardware–not easily done in volume and at a high premium.) Now turn the discussion around and ask what Google holds dear. The answer is the data which every consumer has to give. It’s now given freely in exchange for a service. But if that data were brokered by the user directly to the advertiser then Google has nothing to sell. For this to happen there must be a revolution in both the perception of what users give up when they use online services and in the ability of advertisers to act on their own to understand the mind of the consumer. If a consumer can become a free agent and an advertiser can do analytics then the economics of the internet (i.e. global information systems) will pivot yet again. Maybe Google will be flexible enough to pivot along but it will be a different company.

Niaz: Dear Horace, thank you once again for giving us time and sharing us your invaluable ideas, insights as well as knowledge. We are wishing you very good luck for all of your upcoming endeavors.

Horace: Thank you for having me.

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Further Reading:

1. James Allworth on Disruptive Innovation

2. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger on Big Data Revolution

3. Gerd Leonhard on Big Data and the Future of Media, Marketing and Technology

4. Brian Keegan on Big Data

5. Irving Wladawsky-Berger on Evolution of Technology and Innovation

6. Ely Kahn on Big Data, Startup and Entrepreneurship

7. danah boyd on Future of Technology and Social Media