Tech titans’ latest project: Defy death

For centuries, explorers have searched the world for the fountain of youth. Today’s billionaires believe they can create it, using technology and data.

What many of the recent efforts have in common is a belief that computerized analysis of big data sets can deliver cures, predict outbreaks and discover patterns that would have been impossible for the human brain to process. An oft-cited example is Google’s flu heat map, which is built on the idea that an improved predictor for flu activity might be clusters of searches for, say, Tamiflu or “flu symptoms,” collected from Internet service provider addresses.

That approach turns the traditional scientific method on its head. In the United States, most biomedical research happens at a gradual and sometimes painfully deliberate pace. Scientists start with a hypothesis, conduct experiments to test it and then spend years refining and analyzing the results they collect.

.. And there are few checks and balances on such initiatives. Once, two-thirds of scientific and medical research was funded by the federal government, beholden to the public good. Now, two-thirds is funded by private industry, a growing share by billionaires accountable to no one and impatient with the pace of innovation.

.. America remains deeply ambivalent about using new medical treatments to live radically longer lives. In a 2013 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 51 percent said they believed treatments to slow, stop or reverse aging would have a negative impact on society.

.. In that kind of world, social change comes to a standstill, he said; aging dictators could stay in power for centuries.

.. Fukuyama said in an interview. “Extending the average human life span is a great example of something that is individually desirably by almost everyone but collectively not a good thing. For evolutionary reasons, there is a good reason why we die when we do.”

.. Vinod Khosla, one of Silicon Valley’s most revered venture capitalists, likened the practice of medicine to witchcraft. He argued that machines are better than the average doctor and that disruption in health care was more likely to be driven by those outside the industry than those in the profession.

.. Since 2010, the National Institutes of Health’s budget has been cut by about $3.6 billion — or 11 percent — after adjusting for inflation

.. Prevailing theory among the tech entrepreneurs holds that the federal government is too risk-averse to properly drive medical research.  A failed project in Washington is akin to a great tragedy — with managers being called to testify at congressional hearings and Government Accountability Office investigations being launched into why so much taxpayer money was wasted. But in the entrepreneurial world, say tech leaders, failure is regarded as a learning opportunity on the way to the next innovation.

 .. scientists, motivated by the pressures to publish and entangled in a web of conflicts of interest, manipulate data so often that it’s impossible to trust the body of scientific literature that  assesses the efficacy of hormone-replacement therapy or vitamin E or low-dose aspirin. Of 45 well-accepted journal articles about medical interventions, Ioannidis found, 14, or 31 percent, were later shown to be wrong or exaggerated.
.. Thiel said the problem with the grant-making processes at NIH, the National Science Foundation and other major funders of research is that they are “consensus-oriented.”
.. everyone would be like Harriette Thompson, the 91-year-old who broke records this year after completing a marathon in 7 hours and 7 minutes.
.. The big challenge of aging research is that to make it work the way people want it to scientists would have to figure out a way to extend all human systems simultaneously and shut them all down at pretty much the same time. Otherwise you would be replacing one way of dying with another.
.. “If you did this, you might start working on some great projects you might otherwise not have attempted because you didn’t think you’d finish,” Thiel said. “You’d treat strangers a lot better because you’d likely see them again. You’d be a much better steward of the Earth than if you thought it was your last day and you were having a crazy party or something.”

The Queen And Her Ants

What ants can teach humans about tyranny, co-operation, and the division of labour. “We know now that ants do not perform as specialised factory workers. Instead ants switch tasks. An ant’s role changes as it grows older and as changing conditions shift the colony’s needs. An ant that feeds the larvae one week might go out to get food the next. Yet in an ant colony, no one is in charge or tells another what to do. So what determines which ant does which task, and when ants switch roles?”

Fermat’s Library: annotated academic papers

Fermat’s Library is a platform for illuminating academic papers. Just as Pierre de Fermat scribbled his famous last theorem in the margins, professional scientists, academics and citizen scientists can annotate equations, figures and ideas and also write in the margins. Every week we send you a new paper annotated by the community.