FW: Industry: Bill Gates' Column (NYT Syndicate) 7/1/98

Kris Ganjam (krisgan@microsoft.com)
Thu, 2 Jul 1998 14:32:08 -0700

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From: Library News Service
Sent: Wednesday, July 01, 1998 3:44 PM
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Subject: Industry: Bill Gates' Column (NYT Syndicate) 7/1/98

Q&A: Will Life Spans Increase or Decrease?

by Bill Gates
The New York Times Syndicate


  Q. In the future do you think the average life span will increase or decrease? Greg Thomson ( pthomson@efni.com <mailto:pthomson@efni.com> )

  1. Without a doubt, the average life span will increase as biotechnology makes progress against the most prevalent fatal diseases. Over the next 20 years many of maladies that often interfere with living out your potential life span will be preventable or treatable.

There's a distinct possibility that cancer will be largely curable in the next 20 years. In one promising new approach a combination of two drugs, angiostatin and endostatin, was recently shown to kill cancer in mice by cutting off the blood supply to cancerous tumors. The drugs shrink tumors out of existence by depriving them of nourishment.

The approach is very clever because it's an attack on infrastructure. If it works, the cancer cells can only defeat the attack by coming up with a new way to get blood-which is very difficult to imagine. If the cancer cells don't have a blood supply they can't form solid masses.

I'm decidedly optimistic about the potential of this treatment but it's too early to know whether the promise will be realized. Scientists haven't been able to make the drugs in meaningful quantities yet. Once they do, clinical trials may show that the therapy won't work in humans or has unacceptable side effects.

In any event curing cancer is only one of many challenges facing the medical and biotechnology industries.

More people die of heart disease than cancer. Cancer has a high profile because it's prolonged and painful.

As cancer, heart disease and other major killers are brought under control, a growing percentage of people will live into their 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond. At these mature ages, degenerative problems of the brain, such as Alzheimer's disease, become major issues. The medical and biotechnology fields must find answers to these problems-and will in many cases.

Average life spans will rise but it's less clear whether the potential life span of the human being will increase. Throughout recorded history, some people have lived to be 100 or more. So far improvements in medicine have increased the percentage of people who live out their potential life spans, but virtually nobody lives to be more than 110.

I believe that medical advances in the decades directly ahead will allow a very high percentage of people who have access to good medical care to live out the potential human life span. Whether that will ever be more than about 100, I can't say.

Q. Can you please share a few of your thoughts regarding cloning and its role in biotechnology? Brian Schmidt (brschmi@ci.long-beach.ca.us)

  1. I'm against cloning humans. It's such a disturbance of the natural order. My aversion is not based on a belief that we're in collective peril as a result of cloning-it's not likely to generate massive disease. My distaste is more a moral thing.

Genetic diversity is the natural roll of the dice in the process of how parents' genes are put together. When you manipulate that, you're really toying with something quite fundamental.

I endorse bioengineering of plants, however. Great benefits will be derived from plants that are improved through careful engineering.

Q. Aren't you afraid the people who would stop development of cloning techniques would impose restrictions on AI (artificial intelligence) research, and eventually on all "thinking machines" science? Ivan-Assen Ivanov (assen@earthling.net)

  1. It's not inconsistent to be against cloning and still believe in working on AI software. The issues aren't tied.

Today's artificial intelligence software enables computers to recognize patterns, improve with experience, make inferences, execute complex tasks and perform other functions that may give the impression of actual thought. In reality, AI software as we know it today doesn't give computers true intelligence in any sense.

Computer software and hardware may someday be sufficiently powerful and clever to perform functions that approximate human thought, thereby achieving actual intelligence. If somebody were really making progress toward that goal today, it would be controversial-but not quite the same as manipulating or cloning genetics.

Q. Will electronics one day allow scientists to replace certain sensory organs and make it appear to the brain that those senses are still there, only with stored instead of real sensory data? In other words, a sort of "virtual reality" fed directly to neurons? Don Terrien, Richmond, VA (dat@visi.net) A. Bypassing the eye or the ear and directly stimulating the brain is an arresting but extreme idea. There are people striving to connect digital electronic devices to neurons but I don't expect big advances soon. For one thing, it's hard to attach stimulation devices into the neurological system and have them stay hooked up.

Somedaytechnology of this kind will most likely offer significant benefits for people who are blind or have other sensory deficiencies. In the meantimethe best hope is for improvements in how existing sensory organs are stimulated. For example modern hearing aids can do a remarkable job for people who have even a small amount of hearing capacity left.

For most people the easiest way to experience virtual reality is watch a big screen and have the data come in the normal way. It's not as portable or potentially as realistic as a futuristic device that could directly stimulate the brain but it has the advantage of being available.