Michael Fossel Michael is President of Telocyte

January 17, 2017

Intuition and Air Planes

The formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill. To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle requires creative imagination and marks real advances in science.

— Albert Einstein, 1938

 

Most “advances” are purely incremental. We make minor advances in current techniques or technology, we marginally improve our existing surgery or drugs, or we precisely define the specifications of previously known molecules. Rarely do we develop a novel technology, an unprecedented therapy, or a distinctively new theory. Truly innovative, unexpected, and compelling changes require that – as Einstein said – we “regard old problems from a new angle.” Genuine advances in science don’t require experimental skill, they require conceptual creativity.

Advances require us to look at things in an entirely new way.

Our ability to cure age-related diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, does not depend on incremental improvements, but on exactly such changes in how we look at things. The same, it turns out, is true of aging and – oddly enough – telomeres. We automatically view the world through our preconceptions, and this has always been true. Upon seeing the world’s first automobile, and unable to grasp the idea of a “horseless carriage”, we asked where the horse was attached. Upon seeing the world’s first television, and unable to grasp the idea of an electron tube, we asked how tiny people fit into that television cabinet. We continually look at new things, but we see them using old eyes.

As an analogy, imagine a group of castaways who have spend years trapped on a large, unexplored, tropical island. Two of the castaways are exploring an unfamiliar beach, when they come upon a large, entirely unexpected, and unfamiliar object. The first castaway, a bright academic, carefully measures the dimensions of every single part of the object. She tells the rest of the castaways about her measurements and they present her with an award for her hard work. To some acclaim, she explains that the unknown object might actually prove useful: the castaways could use it to 1) hang up their laundry, 2) provide shade from the hot tropical sun, and, 3) offer shelter during tropical storms. The second castaway has a more intuitive and creative bent. He carefully looks over the object, announces that it’s a plane, and offers to fly it off the island and save their lives.

Small Jet Plane

Sometimes, it’s not the measurements, it’s the ability to see new possibilities.

In the case of aging and age-related diseases, the odd thing is that most people don’t see how anything can be done. They still want to hang their laundry on the wings of the plane, without realizing that the airplane can fly them to safety. At best, they concede that aging might be slowed down, perhaps with diet, exercise, stress management, and other behavioral changes. The idea that aging can be reversed, or that age-related diseases can be cured, is anathema to their thinking, despite the solid evidence in cells, tissues, and animal studies. I first described the potential of telomeres for clinical therapy 20 years ago and the evidence has been growing steadily since then, yet the general public, the media, and many academics still think of telomeres as a place to hang laundry, provide shade, and offer shelter from the rain. Is it really that hard to recognize a plane? Apparently so.

It would appear that the only way to show people what telomeres can do is to fly the plane and safe lives.

 

January 9, 2017

Conceptual Blinders

 

A week or so ago, an AI beat the world’s reigning champion in the game of Go.

The odd thing is not that it happened, but how it was done. By itself, the victory would just be one more example of “computers beating humans”, but there is a far more interesting and important facet to this event. Not only did the AI beat the world’s Go masters and the reigning world champion, but it did it, not by being better at using the known strategies and tactics, long the province of Go adepts, but by using “unconventional positions“ and “moves that seemed foolish but inevitably led to victory” (WSJ, January 5, 2017). In short, the AI went into playing the game without conceptual blinders. It developed novel (and effective) strategies based on reality, rather than on preconceived views of how the game “ought” to be played. Had the AI been programmed by Go masters, it wouldn’t have fared as well. It succeeded because it lacked the limitations that we as human beings unknowingly use when we approach a problem.

go-game-boardIF our assumptions create limits, then our outcomes are limited.

The same problem – our own assumptions – proscribes the limits of what we can do in science and medicine. If we simply program a computer to “delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease by lowering all known risk factors”, it might succeed, but the solution would be limited by how we set up the problem. In short, assumptions limit outcomes. If we merely restrict the program to lowering risks, then a computer program can’t show us how to cure Alzheimer’s. Such a program might, for example, recommend dietary changes, moving away from major highways and pollution, lowering blood pressure, avoiding infections, improving dental hygiene, lowering stress, and a myriad other changes that might delay Alzheimer’s. But the programs, the questions we pose, presuppose that Alzheimer’s can’t cured or prevented, only delayed. If we preclude finding a way to win, then all we find is a better way to lose.

Consider the historical analogs. If I want more efficient communication, I don’t ask a computer to design a better telegraph. If I want more efficient transportation, I don’t ask the computer to design a faster horse. If I want to cure polio, I don’t program a computer to design a better iron lung. And if I want to cure Alzheimer’s, I shouldn’t design a better way to attack amyloid, tau proteins, inflammation, or mitochondrial dysfunction. Merely because I’ve already assumed that those are the only strategies, I have limited my outcomes. If Alzheimer’s interventions are restricted to merely optimizing old strategies, we will never cure it.

Why be satisfied with a better telegraph, a faster horse, or a more efficient iron lung?

Programmed solutions, based on preconceived limits are a case of GIGO: “garbage in, garbage out”. True advances in science and medicine are not incremental; they demand innovative perceptions and constant reexamination of our premises. The example of an AI beating the world’s reigning Go champion wasn’t the result of incremental improvements in coding all of the Go strategies known to previous champions into a program and then tasking the program with implementing those accepted strategies. The AI was tasked with winning, regardless of previously accepted strategies. As a result, the AI actually WON, unexpectedly, but reliably, using innovative, startling, and unexpected approaches.

If we want to cure Alzheimer’s disease, we can’t use incremental approaches to time-worn (and uniformly ineffective) strategies. Like the AI playing Go, we need to stop focusing on accepted strategies and ask the fundamental question: how do we win? Not “how do we optimize the same old strategies?”, but how do we actually WIN? We shouldn’t rely on “programmed” approaches; we should toss out our preconceived programs, and ask how to win. With regard to Alzheimer’s disease, we need to stop asking how to optimize losing strategies and ask how to cure Alzheimer’s. Not “how do we lower amyloid levels?” or “how do we reduce tau tangles?”, but how do we cure and prevent the disease in the first place? If we really want to make a difference, then we need to free ourselves from our preconceptions and our old programming, and begin to ask the fundamental question: how can we cure Alzheimer’s?

Truly innovative approaches demand a ruthless reassessment of our assumptions.

We will cure Alzheimer’s only if we have the wit to truly use our own intelligence, with honesty, perceptiveness, and a willingness to examine reality.

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