Day 3: Living to 1000?

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DAVID PAUL MORRIS FOR TIME

U.S. Surgeon General Vice Admiral Richard H. Carmona addresses the conference

Monterey, Calif. —TIME's three-day forum on the Future of Life ended on a note of extravagant promises about a coming century of startling advances — in personalized medicine, including life spans well beyond 100 years, increasingly smart computer programs that will emulate biological processes, new genetically engineered sources of energy and outreaches into space that will take both humans and robots far from their home planet.

But even as the prophets of this bold new world were making their far-out forecasts, other participants in a conference that marked the 50th anniversary of the discovery of the double helix sounded much more skeptical notes. They warned that as futurist Arthur Clarke once remarked, short-term predictions about technological advances often tend to lag far behind predicted timetables. As an example, composer and visual artist Jaron Lanier cited problems that still plague even our simplest computer programs. "Software is still software," he said, openly questioning its ability to handle increased complexity that all the projected advances would require.

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A different sort of warning for the 400 scientists, academics, artists, clerics and business executives attending TIME's DNA fest was sounded by Vice Admiral Richard Carmona, the new U.S. Surgeon General. Replying to the many scientists trying to get the Bush Administration to lift its partial ban on embryonic stem cell research, he urged them not to get ahead of the American public. People are still quite baffled by this sort of research, he said, and need to be educated about it. "Science must take care it does not leave the public behind," he said.

In a conference-closing speech that recalled his "truly surreal journey" from an impoverished childhood in New York's Hispanic East Harlem to become America's chief doctor, the former trauma surgeon welcomed the benefits from the genomics revolution, but also stressed that America faced immediate and very critical health problems, notably the epidemic of obesity among the young. "It's every bit as threatening as the terrorist threat," he said, adding it would lead to a level of disease and chronic illness that would confront the country with a crushing economic burden.

The answer, Carmona said, was to persuade kids to eat better and exercise more rather than to look to fancy new biomedical technologies. Said he, "We should not have to rely on good science to undo the bad choices people have made." He also called for incentives that would encourage physicians and other health care providers to stress prevention and wellness rather than always looking to drugs and surgery to alleviate chronic disease.

But for sheer scariness, the most grim talk came from Raymond Zilinskas, an expert in bioterrorism at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. In chilling detail, he described the efforts of Soviet scientists at the height of the Cold War to develop lethal germs, such as variations of anthrax and the smallpox virus, that could be carried to targets almost anywhere on Earth by ballistic missile. While these programs have presumably long since been cancelled, he foresaw no real defense against such bioweapons, other than stronger international conventions. That's something the Bush administration has resolutely opposed, he said.

Though they avoided a face-to-face meeting, the TIME forum heard from both Francis Collins and J. Craig Venter, the rival leaders of the public and private human genome projects. Collins, describing himself as both exhilarated and terrorized in the aftermath of his team's great sequencing effort, announced ambitious new goals. These include sequencing all 23 pairs of human chromosomes, applying genomics to the treatment of specific diseases, developing gene-spotting systems for early detection of disease and expanding genome studies to larger populations so as to pinpoint the role of genetic differences in disease.

Venter, similarly, stressed that the sequencing effort was just a starting point for much more science. He said an immediate target should be reducing the cost of sequencing an individual genome to $1,000 or less in the next decode or so. This would be a powerful tool, he said, to catch diseases like colon cancer years before the onset of observable symptoms when there is a 90 percent or better chance of curing them. "We would give power to the individual to know their own risk of disease," he said.

Now the heading up four nonprofit genomics groups, Celera Genomics' former CEO discussed his latest interests, notably the development of synthetic microbes that could be used to produce inexpensive, nonpolluting alternatives to fossil fuels like hydrogen. Asked if it was really true, as one magazine recently reported, that his ambition was nothing less than to save the planet, Venter thought for a milli-second, then allowed, "Well, we want to make a start."

Perhaps the most exciting discussion centered on using the new findings from the elucidation of the human genome to lengthen our productive lives. Susan Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain, thought that ?quite soon? women would be able to have their eggs fertilized while they were still in their normal child-bearing years, store them and then bear the child whenever they choose. "People of all ages will be having children," she said. Polymath inventor Raymond Kurzweil made a prediction that left even his fellow futurists gasping. Asked how long he expected to live in light of all these advances, he replied unhestitatingly, "1,000 years. My kids, too."