Interview with Joao Magalhaes
by Jonathan Despres. Go to the Interviews.
Tell us about yourself. What is your background, and what current projects are you involved in?
I graduated in Microbiology in my hometown of Porto in Portugal, then moved to Namur in Belgium where I obtained a PhD in Biological Sciences, working mostly on cellular models of aging. Right now I am a postdoc at Harvard Medical School studying the biology and genetics of aging. In particular, my research focuses on applying large-scale genomic approaches, both experimental and computational, to understand the genetics of aging. One project I have been involved in is the Human Ageing Genomic Resources (http://genomics.senescence.info/), which are a collection of databases and tools designed to help researchers understand the genetic basis of human aging. I am also doing experiments in mouse embryonic stem cells.
You can find more information about me in my personal website: http://jp.senescence.info/
What are your goals for the next decade?
The overall goal of my research is to help increase our knowledge of the biology and genetics of human aging to help preserve health. I would also like to help decipher the human genome, which I think regulates the aging process to a large extent. So in the next 10 years I would like to identify new genes that play a role in aging, in particular genes that contribute to species differences in aging (i.e., why does a mouse age in 2-3 years while humans can live over 100 years and whales may live over 200 years?).
In the long term, I would like to translate my basic research into medical research to help ameliorate age-related diseases and preserve health.
When do you think will we achieve real life extension?
I'm confident that life extension through a delay of the basic aging process will happen within the next few decades.
Do you believe in Cryonics and when will it suceed?
I don't think cryonics is feasible at present. The resulting cellular and molecular damage is most likely unsurmountable to preserve one's identity, even if cells and molecules can be replaced in the future. Eventually, I do think the technology will progress enough for cryonics to work.
Why isn't the science of cryonics progressing at a rate commensurate to other sciences?
I would guess that lack of funding is part of the problem. The lack of funding, in turn, probably stems from the lack of public and political interest in cryonics. I haven't seen any stats, but my impression is that only a small minority of people are interested in cryonics. By contrast, almost everyone is interested in, say, curing cancer and thus it is not surprising that a lot more resources are invested into cancer research than into cryonics.
Do you believe in a God?
In this infinite universe of ours, there can certainly be entities with god-like features and powers that defy the human imagination. But I don't believe in the existence of the gods preached by the human religions.
What do you think we should do to advance the quality of life of everybody?
As a transhumanist, I definitely think that scientific and technological progress hold the greatest promise to improve the human condition. Because aging is the major cause of death and suffering in industrialized countries, I think research on the basic mechanisms of aging in particular has an unparalleled potential to improve human health.
I would like to emphasize that I say this in spite of the injustices in the world such as hunger, poverty, and easily-curable diseases. While these problems affecting the poorest nations should certainly be tackled, I think in the long-term an investment in scientific research is the best route to enhance human life. Even if at the beginning the products of scientific breakthroughs are only available to a few, they will eventually benefit humankind in general. Antibiotics are a good example.
What are the languages of the universe for you?
It's very hard to make broad predictions about universal languages when we only know of one intelligent civilization. I think we'll know what the universal forms of communication are once we contact extraterrestrial intelligences, which I do think we will happen one day (though it could be thousands or millions of years from now).
Imagine yourself as a space navigator and you discover a smaller, less advanced civilization on a planet, what would you do with them?
I'm a scientist and I'm naturally curious so I would definitely try to learn more about them. I guess I would study them with minimal interference at first and would decide my course of action after I had a better idea of their goals, values, and organization.
What do you think biological simulations will do to cryonics, aging or nanotechnology?
In silico simulations are potentially very useful for understanding aging and for biomedical research in general. Right now, however, because aging is still largely misunderstood, I think simulations in biogerontology are limited to sub-processes or discrete systems. With time and progress, as we better understand aging and try to move towards pharmacological interventions, the importance of simulations and models will increase.
What kind of mathematics is used in aging, cryonics & nanomedicine?
All kinds of mathematics can be used in research. One model I have used in my research is the Gompertz function to estimate the rate of aging of populations, which can be useful to compare the rate of ageing between species or between animal cohorts used in experiments. But many other mathematical models can be applied to study aging.
What first attracted you to the idea of physical immortality?
I realized I don't want to die.
How handy an indefinite lifespan would be?
Personally, I think it would be great. There are so many things I would like to do in life, so many places I would like to visit...
What do you think about the singularity, when will it happen?
I do think we'll eventually reach a point where technological advances will make foreseeing the future an impossible task. If computers and AI are the key to the singularity, as many think, then this will likely happen this century.
What would be the great inventions/ideas of the future?
If I knew them already then they wouldn't be inventions/ideas *of the future*, would they?
What should we do to improve/clean our ecology?
I'm not sure as that's outside my area of expertize. I do recycle.
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