We all express the symptoms of a fatal, inherited degenerative condition called aging-or so the joke goes. It’s a dark joke, but there’s truth to be found in it, as is often the case in black humor. Unfortunately, all too few people think of themselves as patients suffering aging, and fewer still would call themselves patient advocates, agitating for research leading towards therapies and cures for aging. This is a sorry state of affairs: given that our time is limited and ticking away, the tasks upon the table should always include some consideration of aging. What can we do about it? How can we engineer a research community, funding and support to make real progress within our lifetimes? If you don’t spend at least some of your time on this issue, then you’re fiddling while Rome burns. Time is the most precious thing we have, and we live on the cusp of technologies that will allow us to gain more of it-but those advances in medicine won’t happen soon enough unless we work at it.
Working on progress in longevity science doesn’t have to mean working in a laboratory. Much of what I have done to help matters along takes the form of written advocacy at Fight Aging! and elsewhere: sharing events, passing on news, putting scientific publications in context, explaining where we stand in research and development, encouraging fundraising, and so on. In effect this is a sort of loose documentation of the existence of the community of people interested in engineered longevity, and a way to provide direction and grounding to newcomers: how to become involved, how to benefit from becoming involved, and how to help advance the science of human longevity.
My latest effort, the volunteer initiative Open Cures, is more explicitly a documentation project in its early stages: an effort to clearly and extensively document the range of longevity-enhancing biotechnologies demonstrated in the laboratory over the past decade. A body of documentation is a necessary foundation for later phases of the Open Cures roadmap, but will also help broaden the community of people who are both aware of this work and understand what it might be used to achieve.
Not everyone agrees that this is useful, however. One of the challenging attitudes I’ve encountered of late is the idea that documentation of longevity science in this manner is largely worthless-that time and funds spent trying to make science clear to developers and laypeople should go towards other, more direct activities like further research. This sort of criticism is, I think, symptomatic of a failure to understand the necessary role of documentation in the broader scope of technological progress. This article, then, is an answer of sorts: what is the role of documentation, and why is it important enough to need dedicated organizations that do it well?
The Challenge of Complex Ideas
Most important topics relating to the future of advanced technological development are very complex: engineered human longevity, strong artificial intelligence, molecular manufacturing, and so forth. Even the general concepts (such as “why is this important?”, “why is this plausible?”, or “why should I support it?”) are made up of many moving parts and conditional arguments that the broader public generally hasn’t heard or thought about yet. Thus we advocates can’t just jump in and start persuading people that life extension is a great idea: instead, when it comes time to try to explain why this goal is important-and how best to proceed with research and development-we must first walk through a whole squadron of supporting concepts that are unfamiliar to the audience. Each must be explained, and only then can they be assembled into the final persuasive conclusion.
In the area of healthy life extension and biotechnologies to repair aging, an array of foundational ideas might include the following:
- This is a time of radical progress in biotechnology, far more so than even just a decade ago
- Scientists can extend life in a score of different ways in laboratory animals
- But you don’t see the results of this work in the clinic because the FDA is needlessly obstructive
- Aging is just damage, and that damage is well enough understood for work on practical repair biotechnologies to proceed
- A large-scale research program could plausibly produce decades of life extension by 2040
- Any effective longevity therapy will give people more time of life and health to wait for even better new therapies
- Overpopulation is a myth, and longer lives won’t greatly increase population in any case
- Ethical objections to engineered longevity are all weak in comparison to the massive and ongoing harm caused by aging
Each of these is no small thing in and of itself, and worthy of longer treatment. So presenting all of the concepts that lead up to thinking about rejuvenation biotechnologies is time-consuming, hard to do well, and requires a willing and interested audience. Unfortunately few people in the broader public are in fact willing put in the effort to follow you, me, or anyone else with a complicated idea all the way from square one to the end point. That takes time and attention-both of which are precious commodities, hard to obtain at the best of times. Thus the ideas that do gain traction in our culture are those that can be successfully communicated in a short period of time, because they build directly upon what is already known.
The Example of Hotmail
The recent past provides many good examples of ideas that could be quickly communicated to the public at large, and as a result rapidly gained interest and support. Hotmail is one such example: when the company was founded in 1996, it was the first service to offer email over the web. The founders were petrified that they would be beaten to the punch because the idea was absolutely obvious in hindsight: take email, take websites, and merge the two. Anyone in the internet-using world could easily grasp that concept, and the service took off like wildfire when it launched.
But let’s stop to think about that for a moment. Both email and the way in which most people experience the web are in and of themselves very complicated concepts. Imagine that some visionary fellow gave you the task of explaining to the public an email service used via a web site in 1970: you would be right back to having to explain many foundational, unfamiliar concepts to an audience unwilling to give you sufficient time and attention. What is a network? How do ordinary people connect to or even use a network? What is a web browser? How does an ecosystem of websites and hosting services arise? Why would I need email, or some sort of patchwork visual information service? And so forth.
Nonetheless, in 1996 Hotmail was an idea that could be conveyed and understood in a single sentence. “Email via a website.” When we consider this and other similar examples, we see that there must be an ongoing process by which complex, unfamiliar, and challenging ideas become simple, familiar, and easily communicated ideas.
Layers of Knowledge, Attention, and Expertise
You might envisage the broad field of longevity science as a series of concentric circles. The innermost circle is made up of a small number of people who pay a great deal of attention to the field, and who possess the most knowledge and expertise: researchers who work on cutting edge science, for example. The outermost circle consists of a large number of people who pay just a little attention to the field, and who possess the least knowledge and expertise-such as casual advocates and interested members of the public. The progression of circles from innermost to outermost reflects an increasing number of people, but lesser expertise and attention. I’d loosely categorize the circles from inner to outer as follows:
- Cutting edge researchers
- Other researchers, postgraduates, and scientists in related fields
- Dedicated patient advocates
- Medical technology developers, funding sources
- Physicians, clinicians and medical technicians
- Interested members of the public
In this model of human endeavor, knowledge flows outward while funds and newly participating members of the community flow inward-or at least, that is the ideal. In practice, managing this flow of knowledge is a big and thorny problem: many of the most important movements in technology over the last few decades have focused on how to best move knowledge from inner circles to outer circles. Consider the open science movements, fights over closed journal business models, and the many efforts to try to adopt open source practices in the scientific community, to consider but a few examples.
Let me advance a definition for the purposes of this article: documentation is the name given to explanations and tutorials produced by the members of one circle that are intended for the next outermost circle. For example, review papers written by scientists present an overview of progress in one area of research rather than new data or results. These review papers are a form of documentation for the next outermost circle of researchers-scientists in other fields, or postgraduates, or other academics with less experience in the topic at hand.
To take another example, what I do at Fight Aging! is a form of documentation by this definition: ongoing efforts to explain the ins and outs of longevity science to people who are less familiar with the field, and who have less time to devote to understanding the work of researchers. Academic publicity services at the major universities also perform a similar task, producing explanations for the outer circles of doctors, interested members of the public, and the like.
Documentation thus moves raggedly and through many hands, as each circle learns from the inward circles and then in turn explains its knowledge, understanding, and work to the outer circles. That there are so many layers involved goes a long way towards explaining how science so often becomes garbled and misinterpreted on the way from researchers to the interested public. The process works over time, however, as the example of Hotmail well illustrates. The level of knowledge in the outer circles does increase, and the efforts of people involved in producing documentation make it easier for new ideas to gain traction.
Researchers, Like Most Communities, Document Poorly and Reluctantly
Anyone who spends time working in a technical field eventually forms a cynical attitude towards documentation: it is never what it might be, and the next innermost circle never does a good enough job of explaining themselves. This is simply the way of the world: most people in a given circle spend the majority of their time and effort in communicating with each other, not with the members of the next outermost circle. In the sciences, researchers write papers for one another as a part of the business of research, and this publishing of results is not intended to educate anyone other than peers at a similar level of expertise in the same field.
The process of producing documentation for outer circles is nonetheless very important, despite being undertaken by only a minority in any field. It is only through documentation that there can exist a roadway of information to connect researchers who produce new science with developers who build clinical applications of that science. If documentation is lacking, then so is the pace of development: developers work on what they know, what can be understood, and what can be sold to their investors. Ultimately, that knowledge must come from efforts made by researchers to explain their work.
Across the years I’ve spent following work on longevity-related research as an interested observer, I’ve seen a score of techniques demonstrated to significantly extend healthy life in mice, or reverse a narrowly specific manifestation of the damage of aging. Many of these results are languishing undeveloped, as the FDA forbids clinical application of biotechnologies for the treatment of aging. There is little writing on these research results, and no good sources other than the original papers-most of which are behind journal paywalls. What hope is there for the proper transmission of knowledge to the circle of clinical developers when the researchers have no incentive to explain their work, due to the FDA roadblock, and no other group seems to be picking up the slack? Potentially viable medical technologies are lying fallow, buried in the output of the scientific community, and left unexplained for the rest of us.
The Solution: Produce Documentation to Take up the Slack
Addressing the challenges of documentation and transmission of knowledge is an area in where a volunteer organization like Open Cures can make a real difference to the future of longevity science-and for a comparatively small amount of effort and money.
The flow of knowledge from the research community is vital, but as described above there exists a clearly identifiable gap in that process: science that might lead to therapies for aging exists in many different forms, but there is little to no documentation of it. Thus there is little in the way of a roadway to systematically bring this knowledge out to the circles of life science students, entrepreneurs, clinical developers, and other interested parties. Those groups, in turn, have nothing to work with when it comes to educating the medical community and public at large. This, in a nutshell, is the problem. The US may be closed to development of longevity-enhancing biotechnologies by regulatory fiat, but much of the rest of the developed world remains open for business in this field-if the developers in those countries knew more about the work that has taken place and presently lies largely buried.
The irony of the situation is that documentation isn’t expensive in the grand scheme of things, and certainly not in comparison to scientific research or clinical development. It doesn’t require more than a few weeks of part-time work for a life scientist, a graphic artist, and an editor to produce a long document that explains exactly how to replicate a demonstrated research result in longevity science-a way to extend life in mice, for example. That document will explain the research in plain English, at length, and in a way clearly comprehensible to people who are not cutting edge scientists: exactly what is needed open the door to a far wider audience for that research.
So in conclusion, documentation is important: it’s not just words, but rather a vital structural flow of information from one part of the larger community to another, necessary to sustain progress in any complex field. We would all do well to remember this-and to see that building this documentation is an activity in which we can all pitch in to help.