Interview with Chris Patil
by Jonathan Despres. Go to the Interviews.
Tell us about yourself. What is your background, and what current projects are you involved in?
I'm a molecular and cellular biologist by training. I started out working on DNA repair as an undergrad at Stanford, and then moved on to another cellular stress response for my thesis at UCSF. Right now, as a postdoc in Judy Campisi's group at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, I'm working on gene regulatory mechanisms in cellular senescence, a phenomenon that has been implicated in both aging and cancer.
What are your goals for the next decade?
In the very short term, I need to publish a couple of good first-author papers about my current work in senescence; publications are essential for success in the academic job market. Within a year or so I hope to have a professorial appointment at a major research university, and at that point I'll be busy for the next few years setting up my lab.
Overall, I'd like to advance the biology of aging by continuing my studies on cellular senescence -- ultimately with an eye toward eliminating its negative consequences -- and also investigating other aspects of the aging process. Along those lines, I'm currently involved in starting a large-scale collaborative project on comparative biogerontology, studying the aging process in dozens of mammals at once. That project will take a few years to get started, but the payoff will be tremendous.
When do you think will we achieve real life extension?
I'm not sure what "real" means in this context. I'm not one of those people who sneers at a few extra years; I think that when I'm 80 a few extra years will sound both enticing and important. I think that the next five to ten years, we will see a number of advances that will result in incremental increases in lifespan, but we won't know about it until years later when people start not dying on schedule. In a few decades, which is scientist code for "I have no idea," I think that we might see a quantum leap or two.
Your vision of the future?
I think we'll be lucky to get there. Technology is double-edged and vulnerable to misuse. It's also subject to political and market forces -- both of which, despite the faith-based quasi-religions people build around them, are in no way guaranteed to yield the greatest good for the greatest number or to have any meaningful ability to take a truly sustainable long-term view of the species' best interests. (I want to believe they can; I understand all the internally consistent arguments for why they ought to; I just think that ultimately the experimental evidence proves that they don't.) One corollary of this is that we may end up in the ironic position of having the knowledge and tools to solve all of our problems but be prevented by state and corporate interests from using them. I therefore don't know whether technological advances will be entirely the cause or mostly the cure for the challenges of the future -- some of which are of a literally existential scale.
So, to summarize: I'd like to believe that rationality and technological progress will together take us toward a brave new world, but I distinguish wanting to believe it from actually finding myself able to. I think it's possible. It will take a lot of effort, and I think anyone who thinks it's going to be easy is being blithe (at best).
Do you believe in Cryonics and when will it succeed?
I don't think it violates any of the laws of physics, so to the extent that people want to be able to freeze themselves or suspend animation, I think we'll get there eventually. I suspect that it's the sort of thing that we'll ultimately realize is a non-obvious corollary of some major advance in biological nanotechnology developed for other purposes. Because of the number of real technological breakthroughs that would be required, however, I'm skeptical that it will happen anytime within the next few decades.
What kind of jobs you did when you were younger and what is the important things you learned about it?
I've never really had a job outside of academia, except for one year when I worked as a quantitative analyst as a statistical-arbitrage hedge fund. From that I learned that if you want to live comfortably in Manhattan you'd better be making a lot of money. I also learned that I like making a lot of money, but I don't enjoy it so much that I would do something other than science simply in order to get paid.
Why isn't the science of cryonics progressing at a rate commensurate to other sciences?
What a marketer might call the "brand identity" of cryonics is a complete disaster: Outside the field, people associate the idea with crackpots and charlatans. I can't imagine it's very easy for serious investigators of cryonics (who, I assume, must be out there somewhere) to attract talent. All things being equal, a talented young bioengineer is much more likely to choose a line of work that isn't going to make people giggle about frozen heads in a jar.
I suspect the same forces are at work in the funding department -- until there's some real progress in this direction, it will be next to impossible to get private or public money to advance it, so the field is in a bit of a catch-22. The recent findings about hydrogen sulfide were promising, but it now looks like they aren't going to be sufficiently general to form a basis for future work.
Do you believe in a God?
What extropian values do you prefer the most and why?
I'm going to start my answer by confessing that I had to look that term up on Wikipedia, so I'm dependent on that for my understanding of the word -- and, therefore, for my response.
WP defined extropianism as follows: "a pragmatic consilience of transhumanist thought guided by a proactionary approach to human evolution and progress." Wow.
I then parsed the definition. I find at least a conservative type of transhumanism to be enticing. I am probably closer to the "proactionary principle" than the "precautionary principle," but I think that both positions are potentially self-contradictory, prone to engender dogmatism, and likely to encourage some of their adherents to ignore data.
Regarding specific beliefs, again using the Wikipedia article as a guide:
1) "advances in science and technology will some day let people live indefinitely" -- I think this is possible, and a noble goal. 2) "humans alive today have a good chance of seeing that day" -- I think this is unlikely. Nonetheless, there's some benefit in believing it, since it might inspire us to greater achievements, especially in my own field. 3) "Extropians share an optimistic view of the future" -- See my answer about the "vision of the future," above. To the extent that this view reflects a belief that everything will likely work out for the best, I think it's dangerously naïve (and far from "pragmatic").
What do you think we should do to advance the quality of life of everybody?
My answer totally depends on who the "we" is in that sentence. The answer differs for individuals, states, aggregates of citizens of states, non-biological legal entities like corporations, and specialized groups of individuals like "all scientists". The overall theme of my answers would be "Stop being willfully stupid."
Do you see a future for biology? (considering bionics, ai, mind uploading, robotics)
If I didn't see a future, I wouldn't be in this business. OH -- I understand the question. You mean, do we have a future as biological organisms? Yes, I do. Regarding uploaded consciousness and other Kurzweil-Yudkowsky-esque fantasies, my only strong response would be: "You first."
The man or the woman that is a model for you? Why?
No one comes to mind, sorry. I think I find it easier to admire aspects of individuals rather than whole individuals.
What would you love to accomplish before you die?
I'd like to be happy.
What are the languages of the universe for you?
Well, English, of course. I've seen "Star Trek."
Is competition good in cryonics?
Competition's good in everything. I'm not totally sure what this question is getting at. As opposed to a monopoly in cryonics?
In any case, as noted above, step one in cryonics seems to me to be "develop cryonics."
Imagine yourself as a space navigator and you discover a smaller, less advanced civilization on a planet, what would you do with them?
Study from afar and otherwise leave them alone, just like the folks in orbit around Earth are doing with us right now.
What do you think biological simulations will do to cryonics, aging or nanotechnology?
Nothing that experiments won't do better. I suppose they might generate some hypotheses that we might otherwise have missed.
What kind of mathematics is used in aging, cryonics & nanomedicine?
In any scientific enterprise, the answer is "whatever the right method is for the question of the moment," i.e., "any kind." I'm kind of dying to know whether other people have actually answered this another way. Linear algebra?
What will be the best (central), most important tool in molecular manufacturing? And why ?
Digital computers; this seems like a no-brainer. The systems we deal with are increasingly complex enough that we won't be able to handle them without computers.
Which path should we take for immortalism, nanomedicine or biogerontology or something else?
Hey, whatever works.
What first attracted you to the idea of physical immortality?
The irritation I felt when I realized that my own life is finite. It seems so wasteful. There are so many things I'd like to see and do, and I won't be able to do all of them. It's sad.
Acknowledging this entry point into the idea makes me acutely aware of how much wishful thinking gets applied to the idea of biological immortality; I think that wishing clouds people's judgment and makes them reluctant to admit the massive technological (and other) barriers to achieving this goal in a way that's going to benefit anyone alive today.
What a company can do to become successful in the life extension business?
There's a big logical and practical challenge to developing life extension therapies: Even assuming that you'd stumbled across something that actually would extend life: How would you know it's working? How would you evaluate the risk of side effects, with sufficient accuracy to allow potential subjects to give informed consent? How would you identify a population of volunteers willing to take the plunge and undergo the treatment? What happens when you get a mixed result (e.g., a stem cell therapy that improves neural regeneration but also increases the risk of brain cancer)?
If I knew the answer to these questions I'd be in the life extension business myself.
I suspect that the first longevity-enhancement therapies will emerge as side effects of drugs and other sorts of treatments that are originally designed as cures or prophylactics for specific diseases. I'm particularly optimistic about the sirtuin activators, which show great promise for treatment of metabolic disorders like diabetes and inflammation in various tissues -- these drugs are also thought to slow aging in model organisms. It's a lot easier -- practically -- to weight the benefits vs. the risks, per the questions I frame above, in the context of a specific disease. Hence, I would predict that the first successes in the life extension business will come from targeted therapies not specifically intended to extend life.
How handy an indefinite lifespan would be?
I think it's more likely we'd take a longer view about the effects our actions have on the planet. Also, I'd like to see Jupiter close up.
What do you think of the Paradise Engineering idea?
At the risk of alienating some segment of the readership, I think it sounds like a not-very-good science fiction story written by a precocious adolescent who's never taken a class on neuropsychology. Beyond being scientifically naïve and unrealistic, it sounds dangerously close to wishing for dissociative personality disorder. Pain and pleasure are both equally our birthrights; this is the human condition. I've had a lot of both in my own life; I don't think that anyone who can't experience suffering, or who chooses not to, will be fully able to maintain compassion for others. The whole idea makes me sad.
What do you think about the singularity, when will it happen?
Reading about the subject reminded me of an event I attended at Stanford in 2006: "The Singularity Summit" ( http://sss.stanford.edu/ ). The speakers showed a lot of log-log plots, extrapolated from them, and drew some pretty incredible conclusions, none of which passed my smell test for scientific rigor. The thing that struck me most is that none of the speakers (with one exception, a professor involved in designing a robotic car) were actually involved in making the advances they were so busily extrapolating. I consider myself a materialist and rationalist; I'm the choir to which they were preaching -- therefore, if at the end of the day I felt more affinity for Bill McKibben than for any of the other presenters, they can't have been doing a very good job of making their case.
I find armchair revolutionaries irritating. To the extent that a self-identified singularity believer is discovering new knowledge or building new tools, I think we'll have something in common. To the extent that they're sitting back and talking about all the great stuff other people are going to do, and how easily (and exponentially!) it's going to happen -- and forget about the possible negative consequences, since everything will work out OK in the end -- I really don't have time for that person.
I've actually devoted my life to moving science forward, and it's not glamorous or fast or easy or even always fun. My experience of the actual doing of science leads me to reject a lot of the beliefs that seem to orbit the idea of a technological singularity. Especially in biology, science is nothing like Moore's Law, so I find any argument that starts from that premise to be fairly silly.
What would be the great inventions/ideas of the future?
I want a solar-powered machine that makes more time.
What should we do to improve/clean our ecology?
Everything we can. Critically, I think we should get it through our heads that there is not necessarily a tradeoff between technological progress and sustainability -- in fact, the two largely go hand-in-hand. The same goes for economic growth.
Do you think molecular manufacturing (or anything else) could clean up pollution on earth and in space? If so, when and how?
It could; it could also make things worse. Technology is a tool; tools can be used in a variety of ways.
There's no reason to wait for magical nanobots that can kick CO2 molecules into orbit. And to the exact extent that would be a worthy goal, it's worthwhile to sit down in 2008 and figure out what our best course of action is right now. There is a deep and weird hypocrisy to continuing to harm the Earth using existing technology while deferring environmental remediation to future technological advances. We already have so many tools that are appropriate to the job, as well as the prevention of environmental harm in the first place. If technology can solve the problem in the future, why can't we just solve the problem right now?
Personal Questions: our best movie ever is?
Blade Runner, the Director's Cut.
Your religion is?
Your political view?
I'm a liberal Democrat.
Your web page is?
Ouroboros: Research in the biology of aging http://ouroboros.wordpress.com
Do you know a good person that I should interview?
Attila Csordas at Partial Immortalization is always good for an interview.