In the Year 2020, Part II: Biotechnology and Genetics

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Red Tape

Razib Khan
Razib Khan

Razib Khan, biology and biochemistry degree-holder, regular contributor to ScienceBlogs (http://scienceblogs.com), and founder of the weblog Gene Expression (www.gnxp.com), agrees that a true nano revolution is still some time away. “Many poor countries have life expectancies which are rather high, so it seems that there are diminishing returns on dollars spent on healthcare,” Khan says. “What we need is a paradigm shift. There is, I think, a minority probability that such a shift will happen, and that anti-aging research will achieve a breakthrough and lifespan will go up considerably.” How small is a minority probability? Khan puts a five percent chance on a breakthrough by 2020 that would increase life expectancy by 20 years, and a 95 percent chance that we’re stalled at current life expectancy. His expectation: a one-year gain by then.

Red tape in the biotech industry can also pose a problem, according to Thomas Frey, publisher of the blog FuturistSpeaker.com and executive director and senior futurist at Colorado think-tank The DaVinci Institute. “Advances in the physical world – atoms – are happening at a vastly different pace than advances in the digital world of electrons. Medicine and biotech advances are happening at the slowest pace of all, primarily because of rigorous safety standards.”

Thomas Frey
Thomas Frey

Frey blames a lack of seed capital and income tax for the caustic environment that kills many fledgling technologies in America. “We currently do not have a good system for channeling funding into early stage companies in the U.S. The vast majority of new technologies die before they ever have a chance to evolve, and virtually all new technologies evolve before they reach the marketplace,” says Frey. “As for income tax, our current tax code is the mother of all boat anchors hanging around our necks. It occupies entirely too much intellectual bandwidth and is placing us at a severe competitive disadvantage in the emerging global marketplace. Yet in spite of these two glaring system problems, advances are still being made”

And many of those advances are in the rejuvenation and repair of the human body. Though our experts feel that we may not be able to birth an immortal man or immortalize a previously mortal man in 2020, we certainly should be able to fix much of what ails him.

Active Skin: Pleasurable and Practical

One of the most promising game-changing technologies on the horizon might be the concept of “active skin,” According to Pearson, active skin is essentially an interface to the human nervous system, allowing users to have electronics “printed” on skin surfaces and even through the skin, to capillaries and nerve endings.

Ian Pearson
Ian Pearson

“You could monitor the bloodstream, checking for cholesterol, diabetes, and other diseases – sort of an early warning system,” says Pearson. “My thought was that the big drug companies would love it, because they could personalize medicine delivery. But I think now that they’d rather just use it to monitor the body. They – and we – know a lot about the unhealthy body. They don’t know that much yet about the healthy body.”

And beyond curing diseases or improving health, active skin could be used purely recreationally to elicit pleasure. According to Pearson, active skin could “pick up nerve signals from the nerves and record them, and perhaps re-inject them at a later date, so that we can effectively record and replay a sensation such as cuddling your partner while you’re away.”

Can Our Planet Handle It?

Whether we’re each living two, ten, or twenty years longer in 2020, there will be a lot more people, ignoring for the moment the possibility of catastrophes. The real question, then, may be whether this little blue planet, third from the sun, can support a growing, longer-living population.

Pearson says that shouldn’t be a concern. “If you populated the entire planet to the density of the UK, you’d have 75 billion people,” says Pearson. That’s 10 times that of current global numbers, and approximately seven times that of current estimates for 2020. “Yet there are plenty of open spaces in the UK, and lots of spots where you feel quite alone. So space shouldn’t be a problem.”

Khan contends the Earth’s population may never become large enough to worry about, in part because of genetic and nanotech advancements. “If people live longer, they would put off having kids. Many of them would die in accidents of course, even if we become really risk-averse, which we would. I suspect that we would space out the number of children we have a lot more as well, perhaps having a child early in life, and having another child if the first dies accidentally.”

Earth

Khan adds that population forecasts have been overblown for decades. “The world population is already slowing in its growth to the point where it will peak somewhat north of 10 billion. I think our current tech could support that easily.” British scholar Thomas Malthus contends that societal improvements inevitably result in population growth, but Khan disagrees. “I generally reject the Malthusian arguments because they’ve been falsified so well over the past two generations. Additionally, United Nations population estimates have routinely overestimated growth since the 1950s. Projections for the year 2000 kept getting revised downward because the fertility crash was not anticipated.”

But what about pollution? Energy? Oil at $500 a barrel? Plagues? Locusts? We’ll deal with at least some of that in Part III of our series, when we focus on transportation and energy, though Pearson has a few words for us now.

Solar Panels

“I truly believe oil will be at $30 a barrel by 2030. The extraction costs will be far too high by then, and we simply won’t need it like we do today. And I’m a great believer in solar power. Over a period of six months, one 1-meter square solar panel in the Sahara will be able to generate the equivalent power of one barrel of oil. The Sahara Desert alone could produce forty times more energy than the entire planet requires.”

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