A Weekend By Foresight Institute – A Community For Future Technologies
The field of aging research, drug discovery and development, and artificial intelligence are rapidly converging to pave the way for the longevity biotechnology industry. There are thousands of scientists working around the clock, either individually or with organizations, on this exciting longevity revolution. New advances and technologies are being published every day in journals and magazines – and there are a number of organizations and think tanks around the world that host conferences and talks to educate more and more young scientists on the longevity field. With so much technology and innovation, it is very likely that the first person to live to 150 years has probably already been born. Our goal as longevity scientists is simple: a long and healthy life for all.
The longevity field is not only getting hot but it is finally getting the press coverage it deserves too – authors have increasingly been writing about futuristic technologies that will enable humans to live longer lives, and the longevity drugs are becoming more and more mainstream. However, the industry still needs the involvement of the next generation of scientists. This industry would not be where it is today without the key role played by many individuals and organizations. One such individual is futurist Sonia Arrison, and one of the many brilliant organization’s is the Foresight Institute.
Sonia is an entrepreneur, analyst, investor, and best-selling author. In her book “100 Plus,” Sonia takes the readers on a journey to the future of science and technology, and how they have begun to radically change life as we know it. She introduces us to brilliant scientists and genius inventors, as well as the billionaires who fund their work, all of whom are key players in transforming our lives. She writes about how the astonishing advances to extend our lives are almost here. For example, she writes how fresh organs for transplants will be grown in laboratories, and cloned stem cells will prevent previously unstoppable diseases. She also writes how living past 100 will be the rule, not the exception.
Sonia truly presents a vision for what the future of humanity will look like – and the process for reaching that future is already in the works. Her other books include: Telecrisis, Digital Dialogue, and Western Visions.
Sonia is also the founder of 100 Plus Capital, an impact investing firm that invests in companies that aim to positively impact human longevity. These include anti-aging companies as well as clean food and water companies, like Clara Biotech, Altrix Bio, Equator Therapeutics, and Repair Biotechnologies, to name a few.
Sonia is also a board member, among others, at the Foresight Institute, a San Fransisco-based non-profit think tank that supports the development of high-impact technologies, with a special eye on the emerging field of nanotechnology.
Founded in 1986, Foresight gathers leading minds from around the world – from the likes of NASA, the University of Oxford, Google, MIT and governments – to advance research and accelerate progress in such fields as brain-computer interfaces, space exploration and asteroid mining to cryptocurrency, AI and nanotech. It became a very vibrant hub with weekly lectures by key opinion leaders, multiple events, including technical groups, conferences, tech-tree mapping, fellowship programs, prizes to help incentivize research, and more.
Foresight is led by the young and vibrant Allison Duettmann, its president and executive director. Allison has an MS in Public Policy from the London School of Economics, and a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from the University of York. As Foresight’s president, Allison leads the Intelligent Cooperation, Molecular Machines, Biotech & Health Extension Groups. She also shares the organization’s work with the public through the Wall Street Journal, SXSW, O’Reilly AI, WEF, The Partnership on AI, Effective Altruism Global, TEDx. She co-authored Gaming the Future, and co-edited the book Superintelligence: Coordination & Strategy.
The astonishing advances to extend our lives — and good health — are almost here.
I recently attended one of the workshops at Foresight, called the Foresight Longevity Tech Trees, Tools, and Prizes Workshop, where many technologies were presented, and I also got a chance to interview Allison. The workshop was attended by many key opinion leaders, and bold enthusiasts participated and presented at the event.
Here are some highlights from the event:
The two-day event was hosted at IndieBio, an incubator program of SOSV, providing multi-stage support to big ideas, with socials hosted by Fifty Years, a VC supporting founders in their ambitious visions, and by On Deck Longevity, a community for people to come together to build, join, or invest in longevity biotechnology startups.
The goal of the workshop was to uncover the many areas within longevity that could benefit from support. Top researchers, entrepreneurs, and funders were present to highlight undervalued areas for progress.
Brief interview with Allison Duettmann
● Allison, can you tell me about the history of the Foresight Institute? Who founded it, and how did the think tank evolve over time? Were there any famous people involved at its inception?
Foresight Institute was founded by Eric Drexler and Christine Peterson in 1986, based on the books Engines of Creation and Nanosystems, to build a future in which Molecular Nanotechnology, AI, the web, and similarly world-changing technologies open up beneficial, ambitious futures for human longevity, environmental healing, and space exploration and expansion. In short, we support positive sci-fi futures that are too ambitious for legacy funders to take on.
Early advisors included Ray Kurzweil, Amory Lovins, Doug Engelbart, Marvin Minsky, Arthur Kantrowitz, Stewart Brand, and Gerald Feinberg. Other researchers such as George Church, thought leaders such as Robin Hanson, and venture-capitalists-to-be such as Steve Jurvetson and Luke Nosek contributed at early technical conferences and Vision Weekends, our annual member gatherings. Greg Fahy, now a Foresight Senior Fellow, has been an informal advisor since our earliest days.
Over the years, our community grew into technical groups specialized in:
- Decentralized Computing, focused on secure cooperation, chaired by Mark S. Miller, Agoric
- Molecular Machines, focused on atomic precision, chaired by Ben Reinhardt, PARPA
- Biotech & Health Extension, focused on rejuvenation, sponsored by 100 Plus Capital
- Neurotech, focused on Brain Computer Interfaces, chaired by Randal Koene, CarbonCopies
- Spacetech, focused on space exploration tech, chaired by Creon Levit, Planet Labs
The groups give researchers, entrepreneurs, funders, and institutional allies the space to collaborate on long-term problems that are otherwise not incentivized. Many seminars are joined by special guests including Chiara Marletto (Oxford University), Morgan Levine (Altos Labs), Daniel Ellsberg (Author of DoomsDay Machine), Steve Horvath (UCLA), David Eagleman (Author of LiveWired), Jaan Tallinn (Skype Co-founder), Balaji Srinivasan (Network State), David Baker (University of Washington), Tyler Cowen (George Mason University), Tom Kalil (former White House Office of Science and Technology Policy), Peter Norvig (Google Research lead), and others.
● Is it possible to get some numbers? The number of people, annual budget, and main achievements of the Institute?
The institute is one of the earliest future-oriented organizations that exist, with 38+ years runway. We operate at about $1.5M annually now, supporting our 100+ virtual seminars, 40+ fellows, $250k+ in prizes, 3+ workshops, 2+ conferences, regular global meetups across 10+ cities, and 6 staff members annually.
Foresight Fellows receive support from mentors, senior fellows, funders, and a coss-disciplinary community of peers. They present their work at our technical workshops, focused on long-term challenges in biotechnology, molecular nanotechnology, and cryptography and AI. The top 10 fellows across tracks are invited for Vision Weekend, our conference, at the Internet Archive in San Francisco and at a castle outside of Paris.
We have a track record of awarding excellence early on; In 2016, the shared Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Sir J. Fraser Stoddart for the design and synthesis of molecular machines. This was only a few years after he received our Feynman Prize and illustrates why we‘ve granting these prizes since 1993: to award early pioneering work on undervalued areas. New prize collaborations are in the making, such as The Longevity Prize, totaling $180k, led by VitaDAO.
● With your training and background, you probably had many career options. Why did you decide to join the Foresight Institute?
When finishing my studies I was pretty disillusioned with the doomerism about humanity’s future. Then I found Foresight online. To my knowledge, it’s the only existing organization with a long-term track record (38+ years!) of supporting a technical community that is optimistic about the future, actively working toward ambitious technology goals, while serious about avoiding the risks arising from them.
From AI, longevity, space exploration, cryptography, and prediction markets, it was all there in Foresight’s online archives. That’s what first got me excited. Now, running the organization eight years later, I’ve come to appreciate another perk; it’s appetite for experimentation. Because are small and nimble, we can experiment with a variety of novel programs in addition to our legacy programs. Here are three I’m excited about:
I get a ton of emails from external funders and talent who want to help positive futures but don’t know how to plug in. To change this, we’re building technology trees for mapping the progress landscape in longevity, neurotech, nanotech, computing, and space. Through domain expert interviews, we’re logging the state of the art, long-term goals, promising projects, and open challenges in each field. Researchers can submit challenges to make progress in their domain; funders can incentivize it through bounties and investments.
Science, especially when early stage, interdisciplinary, and ambitious, faces two problems: 1. It’s hard to communicate. 2. Funding relies on complicated legacy institutions that take a big cut. Foresight’s NFT Gallery changes this by pairing Foresight fellows with artists to produce a joint art piece, interpreting the scientist’s work. The emerging pieces, exhibited at SXSW, and other conferences, inspire interest in science through art, and enable collectors to become a direct patron of a brilliant scientist.
In order for sci-fi futures to be positive, long-term vision needs to be an integral part of technology development. That’s why we incubate projects like Existential Hope, an onboarding platform for long-termism, and Gaming the Future, a book on how decentralized cryptographic technologies secure human AI cooperation.
Not all of our new experimental programs will succeed. But even if only succeeds, it will have been worth it. To make Foresight fit for the next 30+ years, we need to update and iterate our processes.
● I never heard about the Foresight Institute before you joined it. But since you joined and the pandemic started, there seems to be a non-stop carousel of events and activities almost every few days. And the level of speakers and supporters is pretty impressive. How do you manage to keep it up?
The secret is that Foresight is run by an incredible community: each of our technical groups on Biotech & Health Extension, Molecular Machines, Neurotech, Spacetech, and Decentralized Computing consist of 200+ top junior researchers, entrepreneurs, funders, and institutional allies, who care deeply about long-term progress in their field. They were selected, nominated or applied, and individually onboarded which means that we don’t need to do more than give them a container to collaborate in; most meetings work through someone nominating a problem to be worked through. We merely open the virtual seminar room for collaboration, help with follow-ups and update the tech trees to reflect new insights.
Thanks to ramping up our virtual program during Covid, we have grown an extended global community, with 20k+ mailing list subscribers, and 12k+ YouTube subscribers. Post covid, our community finally lives and breathes through in-person events, such as our global meetups, workshops, and annual conference. Here again, we only set the container, the rest is defined by our fellows, keynotes, mentors, volunteers, and funders, some of whom have been friends for decades at this point.
● Thanks for inviting me to the Biotech Workshop and the Longevity Tech Tree event. I was surprised to see some of the high-profile scientists like Vadim Gladyshev and Morten Scheibye-Knudsen actively participating in the tech tree sessions. In your opinion, what were the main highlights of the event, and what have you achieved?
Our virtual program is great but the real progress happens in person, which is what the workshops are for. It was rewarding to see leading figures in longevity deeply engage on moving the entire field forward, propose challenges that go beyond existing efforts, update the longevity tech tree, and red-team each other’s work. From the 50 Years pre drinks, to the main workshop and spontaneous evening breakouts at IndieBio, to the On Deck Longevity Biotech after show drinks, at the end of this three-way whirlwind, it did seem like a community coming together.
Highlights were wonderful hypothesis proposals, led by main experts in the field, on how to make progress on:
● The 80/20 “Just Works” Gene Therapy Platform
● Creating good pre-clinical lifespan studies to test senolytics
● A scalable platform for radically open pharmaco-biology and ML-ready data
● Rapidly unfreeze and revive a mammal with minimal amount of damage
● How do we repair the irreparable?
● The Aging Extracellular Matrix
● Controlling endogenous quantum degrees of freedom in biology for theranostics
● Defining nature of aging and rejuvenation
● Reversing immunosenescence to respond to novel antigens
● Figuring out genes responsible for time to sexual maturity
● Tracking Microbiome shifts during aging
● Multi Omics Clock Foundation
● Getting Cryonics to the Masses
● Developing smarter robots for cells, tissues, and surgery
● A novel FDA in Prospera
In the few days since the workshop, some of these proposals received immediate support from funders at the workshop. Others applied for the Hypothesis Prize, a part of the novel Longevity Prize, totaling $180k, launched by VitaDAO in collaboration with Foresight Institute. The prize aims to reward scientists for their ideas on how to drive their field forward, by awarding up to $20k for the top hypothesis for making progress in an undervalued field of longevity. The best hypotheses are eligible for follow-on funding in later stages. The prize will be officially announced soon.
● Several sessions were focused on cryonics. In fact, this is one of the areas I developed an active interest in. How many people in the Institute’s circle are working in the field? Who are the more credible ones? I am talking about scientists with a Ph.D. and a track record of successful projects.
Because this field is still controversial, most researchers with an interest and doing relevant work prefer to do so in stealth mode, using other terminology for their work and not making public comments about cryonics. Understandably, very few are “out of the closet”.
Nevertheless, a number of scientists wrote an open letter in support of biostasis, gave Tedx talks on cryonics, and published articles, such as The Science Surrounding Cryonics, Cryonics Debate, and technical resources, such as Cryostasis Revival.
Many other Foresight members have been signed up to cryonics for a while; for those who wish to learn more, we run quarterly sign-up salons with Emil Kendziorra (TomorrowBiostasis) and Max More (Alcor). Probably the best-known researcher to be signed up for cryonics via help from Foresight was the late MIT professor Marvin Minsky, also a Foresight Advisor.
● It seems like today we are in a “cryonics winter”. There were many groups experimenting with deep freezing and reanimation up until the 1970s and later progress stalled. Any ideas why? Do you expect to see the “cryonics spring”?
Without having been there for the summer, my guess for the winter is unfortunate PR, psychological risk, and the urgent need for basic scientific advancements in this area. It takes psychological courage to consider death is bad, and switch to longevity research. It takes even more courage to have made that switch but realize that we may not get to longevity escape velocity (LEV) in our lifetimes and consider cryonics even as an option.
I expect most people will consider it even as an option only when we have prove it works. This means we need more basic science that shows actual results so we can get it into the Overton Window faster. I do think that it still makes sense to sign up now, for reasons described eloquently in Why Cryonics Makes Sense.
Ultimately, I suspect we have seen a “cryonics winter” for much the same reason that we saw an AI winter: early technological optimism waned when the magnitude of the technological challenge became clear. In the case of cryonics, it emerged that simple cryoprotectants, or even vitrification, could preserve structure well enough to potentially enable repairs using highly advanced atomically-precise technologies of the future, but likely do not enable reanimation earlier than that. This was discouraging, but now we are seeing the start of a “cryonics spring” based on innovations such as persufflation.
Here are just a few reasons why we may hope for a cryonics spring soon:
(a) Sign-ups: The number of stable cryonics organizations, members, and patients has significantly increased. There are currently more than 500 cryonics patients and thousands of members, including new cryonics organizations in Europe and China.
(b) Tech-improvements: Modern vitrification technologies in cryobiology and complex organ preservations have been developed through the support of the cryonics community and are used by organizations such as Alcor. For instance, a new technology combining chemical fixation and vitrification permits perfect ultrastructural preservation of the brain.
(c) Talent: We’re seeing the first wave of scientists and entrepreneurs from within the aging space refocusing in the direction of cryonics. The fact that the field is still very young in some sense is also exciting, since there may be a number of low-hanging fruits to be picked by entrepreneurs.
● The event was mostly focused on longevity, which seems to be the central theme of the Foresight Institute. What do you see as the main trends in the field? Do you think we will be able to achieve “escape velocity” in the next 20 years and what would be the main technological innovation driving it?
We need more collaboration with other fields. For instance, specialists in molecular machines are building nanobots that could be useful for drug delivery. Computational specialists work toward privacy-preserving Machine Learning that would allow us to better compute on healthcare data. Neurotechnology specialists are working on brain-mapping technologies that could revolutionize how we think about aging in the brain.
From within a field it can often be difficult to keep track of how one’s technology can impact and is impacted by other areas. That’s what we’re building the tech trees for. Future versions of our tech trees will not just map opportunities within a given field but will focus increasingly at highlighting opportunities at the intersections of fields. Interdisciplinary progress is hard, and it’s uncomfortable as a scientist to be in the new territory of a different field. The least we can do is give them a map at hand for orienting themselves.
● How do you see the Institute’s future in the next 5 and 10 years?
For almost forty years, we have created niches to support ambitious scientists and technologists to work on positive futures that no legacy institution can take on. Gradually, we’re groowing these niches into entire ecosystems by building out the institute into a novel university, and experimenting with novel funding mechanisms.
First, the fellowship will be turned into an alternative university, focused on ambitious technological progress. Similar to a university, we want to provide fellows with grants, access to physical lab space, and the cohort their grand projects deserve, but at a fraction of the cost. Rather than mere technological development, this institute would focus on “differential technology development”, i.e. differentially supporting beneficial use cases of technologies.
Second, we’re adding a funding mechanism to the non-profit, for supporting fellows raising capital in-house. Currently, our venture fellows receive investments through individual match-making with our funders. To streamline this process, our funders would instead invest through a Foresight fund that supports the technology incubated in our orbit. Unlike traditional VCs, in which the carry benefits individual fund managers, the non-profit could reinvest it to fund prizes and fellowship grants. This, in turn, will lead to higher innovation flow that the fund can benefit from further down the road. A flywheel for good.
In 10 years, I expect the university, powered by the fund, to create entire ecosystems of talent and funders, collaborating on ambitious beneficial futures across fields, across nations, and across generations.