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Futurists' quest an age-old dilemma

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (PA)


Dec. 29--Man has sought the Fountain of Youth since history began.

Herodotus wrote about it in 500 BC; some thought it existed in the Pool of Bethesda's waters in Jerusalem. Ponce de Leon searched for it in the New World.

So, predictably, many scientists snickered when English author and gerontologist Aubrey de Grey said in the 2000s that anti-aging is achievable. He acknowledges that critics bombarded him when he said humans soon would save more than a year of life for each year we live.

"It is safe to say that this would be the biggest advance ever," he told the Tribune-Review.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology's journal, Technology Review, offered a reward to any scientist who could disprove de Grey, but no one did. "Every now and then," the journal said, "radical ideas turn out to be true."

After a decade of abuse, de Grey felt vindication in September, when Google established Calico, an organization to challenge aging. Almost no one snickered, he said, as Calico recruited some of the brightest minds, including former CEOs and technology chiefs of the biotechnology firm Genentech.

Whether it can work, no one knows. That's true of anything in the future, including predictions of what may happen in 2014.

Most futurists largely agree aging falls within one of three categories -- biological, computational and energy sciences -- that might advance the most, technologically, in coming decades.

The business consulting firm McKinsey & Co. predicts "disruptive technologies," developments that, like the World Wide Web in the early 1990s, throw many out of work but open opportunities to others.

McKinsey bases its predictions mostly on things under way. Of its 12 disruptive technologies, six involve computation, including something called the "automation of knowledge work."

Translation: Beware, doctors and other specialists. Such machines as IBM's Watson not only can beat humans at "Jeopardy!" but might beat them at diagnosing diseases and treatments.

McKinsey sees advances in energy, including wind, oil and gas, and electricity storage.

It predicts genomics -- on which Calico is placing its bets -- will produce "fast, low-cost gene sequencing, advanced big data analytics, and synthetic biology."

Translation: Beware, pharmaceutical companies. One-size-fits-all medicine could change to medicine produced to fit a person's genome.

Predictions from the World Future Society overlap those of McKinsey in many areas, including robotics and cloud computing. (The society also ventures into other areas, such as global warming, India's rising power, and the spread of the Amish religion.)

Peter Leyden, a San Francisco futurist and former managing editor of Wired magazine, said many predictions are logical progressions from known factors. When a technology reaches the "tipping point," the rest is essentially "tracking the inevitable," he said.

In 1996, he predicted Internet traffic -- then buzzing along at a glacial 14,400 bits per second -- would become so fast as to make CD technology look like something transitional that filled a "temporary gap."

He predicted a fictional young woman, "Ellie," would get information on a tablet computer, manipulated by touching the screen, and small portable phones with screens on which Ellie would see a caller. He envisioned that a digital assistant would remind Ellie of appointments or provide wake-up calls.

"What day is it, anyhow?" Ellie asked the assistant.

"It's Thursday, June 4, 2020," replied the assistant, whom Leyden named Sam.

Leyden roughly outlined the iPhone, iPad and Siri. He just underestimated how fast it would happen.

Yet Leyden acknowledges certain things are unpredictable. Who, a few years ago, could have predicted that fracking would change the world's energy economy?

Such events are "wild cards," said Leyden, founder of Reinventors Network.

Although technology is somewhat predictable, de Grey said science is far less so. No one predicted Copernicus before the Copernican Revolution, or how Einstein would change the world with relativity and light quanta in 1905.

"While quantum physics and relativity could not have been predicted," de Grey said, "technological advances can be assigned an intuitive probability."

Lou Kilzer is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5628 or


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