Kurzweil responds to Edge challenge, advises Bush

January 26, 2003

As described in The New York Times, John Brockman, a literary agent and publisher of Edge.org, asked leading scientists, writers and futurists to imagine that they had been nominated as White House science adviser and that President Bush had sought their answer to "What are the pressing scientific issues for the nation and the world, and what is your advice on how I can begin to deal with them?" Here is Ray Kurzweil’s response, as stated on Edge:

FIRST, consider the following: would-be bioterrorists have no need to put their "inventions" through the FDA for approval. But the scientists we are depending on to develop the defensive technologies (for example, new anti-viral medications) are required to go through this extremely cumbersome process. Complying with these regulations not only takes many years, but slows down the entire innovation process.

If we look at an analogous offensive-defensive standoff, that of software viruses, we find that the cyberterrorists are indeed creating and unleashing ever more sophisticated software pathogens. But development of the defensive technologies (for example, antiviral software) has been able to keep pace, and software viruses are at worst a nuisance. We have done so well precisely because the development of software technologies is unhampered by sluggish regulatory procedures. We will need the same speed of innovation and implementation in the biological sciences.

In the current environment, when one person dies in gene therapy trials, there are congressional investigations and all gene therapy research comes to a grinding halt. There’s a legitimate need to make biomedical research as safe as possible, but our balancing of risks is completely off. The millions of people who desperately need the advances to be made available by gene therapy and other breakthrough biotechnology advances appear to carry little political weight against a handful of well-publicized casualties from the inevitable risks of progress.

This equation will become even more stark when we consider the emerging dangers of bioengineered pathogens. What is needed is a change in public attitude in terms of tolerance for needed risk. The leadership for creating this change can only come from the top official, the President of the United States.

SECOND, on another biotechnology front, pressure will heat up considerably this year in the controversial area of stem cell therapies. The number of available germ cell lines has turned out to be a small fraction of the 60 lines that were to be made available for research purposes. Although I would advocate that this policy be reconsidered, my proposal is on a different front: to dramatically increase funding for promising new methodologies in the field of "human somatic cell engineering," which bypass entirely fetal stem cells. These emerging technologies create new tissues with a patient’s own DNA by modifying one type of cell (such as a skin cell) directly into another (such as a pancreatic Islet cell or a heart cell) without the use of fetal stem cells. There have been breakthroughs in this area in the past year. For example, scientists from the U.S. and Norway successfully converted human skill cells directly into immune system cells and nerve cells.

Consider the question: what is the difference between a skin cell and any other type of cell in the body? After all, they all have the same DNA. The differences are found in protein signaling factors that we are now beginning to understand. By manipulating these proteins, we can trick one type of cell into becoming another.

Perfecting this technology would not only diffuse a contentious ethical and political issue, it is also the ideal solution from a scientific perspective. If I need pancreatic Islet cells, or kidney tissues, or a whole new heart, to avoid autoimmune reactions, I would strongly prefer to obtain these with my own DNA, not the DNA from someone else’s germ line cells. The feasibility of doing this has been demonstrated, and there should be a crash program to perfect a technology that could dramatically improve the health of all Americans.

THIRD, on a different front, that of energy, there has been dramatic recent scientific progress in developing hydrogen fuel cells, including microscopic-sized fuel cells using the same technology that fabricates electronic circuits. These fuel cells, based on micro-electronic mechanical systems (MEMS) can be scaled from tiny devices that will power everything from portable electronics up to cars, appliances, and homes. These systems use safe fuels such as methanol and generate no emissions other than tiny amounts of water and carbon dioxide. The fuels can be fabricated without environmental impact from widely available coal and shale oil with new technologies that capture emissions. All of the requisite technologies have been demonstrated.

Perfecting these new hydrogen-based energy sources would have profound and positive implications for the economy and the environment, not to mention the geopolitical minefields of our current fossil fuel-based economy.

Copyright © 2003 by Edge Foundation, Inc. Reprinted with permission.