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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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December 3, 2010

Guess the Author: Revealed

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Posted by Derek

Well, as those of you who searched for the phrases found, the person responsible for the nonsense quoted here is none other than Ray Kurzweil, who with his co-author Terry Grossman published Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever in 2004.

Kurzweil is, of course, a widely quoted futurist. He's also an extremely accomplished inventor and a very intelligent man; there's really no doubt about either of those statements. But his techno-optimism, which I broadly share, still leaves me sounding like H. L. Mencken with a head cold. I think that all kinds of wonderful things are possible, and so does Kurzweil - but he thinks that they're not only possible, but that they're happening right now.

I've had occasion to look over Kurzweil's predictions before. What worries me about his futurism is that whenever he starts talking about a field that I know well, he suddenly sounds to me as if he's gone off the rails. And when that happens, well, you have to wonder about the rest of it.

These latest thoughts were prompted by an article by John Rennie, an acidic look at Kurzweil's prediction record in the areas that he should know best (computing, engineering, etc.) His record in medicine is no improvement. And seeing stuff like this alkaline-water nonsense (which I really didn't know he was into) makes me reluctantly mark him even further down. Honestly, if you go for that stuff, you've lowered your defenses against dumpster-loads of hoo-hah. It's very, very hard for me to take seriously anyone who pushes the health benefits of "alkalinized water". But people do.

Comments (18) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Snake Oil


1. BoredChemist on December 3, 2010 9:00 AM writes...

So Derek, I guess Kurzweil would suggest giving up coffee and OJ? Maybe GSK can start investigating alkalinized water as a chemotherapeutic :(

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2. Gil Roth on December 3, 2010 9:35 AM writes...

Reminds me of the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect, as noted by Michael Crichton:

"Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray's case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the 'wet streets cause rain' stories. Paper's full of them.

"In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know."

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3. processchemist on December 3, 2010 9:54 AM writes...

IMHO this futuristic hype hits against the crude reality of things. A XVII sec philosopher said "Man knows what he makes", and people with a computer science education can think that everything is calculable and modellable mostly because this is the way things go with computers and software.

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4. El Selectride on December 3, 2010 10:11 AM writes...

Since I know you like to mention that you've read Infinite Jest, I'll just point that David Foster Wallace wasn't that far off on his tech predictions.

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5. wcw on December 3, 2010 11:02 AM writes...

Speaking of the Gell-Mann amnesia effect, see this rediscovery of the trapezoidal rule, well cited in the medical literature. The blogger who caught the abstract name-checks Gell-Mann for his own rediscovery of group theory, which amused me. I know nothing about the spectrum of hadrons, but fondly recall abstract algebra.

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6. Mini Ray on December 3, 2010 11:37 AM writes...

I was glad that the author pointed out Kurzweil's double prediction for cancer. The author makes a mistake about what Kurzweil wrote about economic expansion since he never claimed there would be no recession years.

My background is in physics, and I was surprised to hear Kurzweil for the firt time in 2004 since I had made similar, but far fewer predictions. I wondered since the 1980s why more people in my field weren't actually *afraid* of exponential technological expanision. Like Kurzweil, I made very specific predictionns (more specific than he did) when people would say "X is impossible, or not in my lifetime."

This started in 1985 when I was sure the Soviet Union would end in part due to politial pressure and in part because the PC was spreading there. I said "within 10 years" and that was correct. I argued it wasn't that hard to see, but at the time people thought that was nuts.

The same for what I said about email being everywhere by 2000. I didn't get the whole internet correct, but got "email cafes" OK (well, they are internet cafes...) Again, I maintain that wasn't hard to predict.

I saw the internet in 1996, and it dawned on me that machine translation would be excellent for non Asian languages (those would take more time) by 2006 due to statistical methods using far more powerful computation. Google translate came out in 2006 and improved greatly by 2008/09. So maybe I was off, but most everyone in the translation field was saying 2020, 2050 or never.

In 1996, a friend was told by his neurologists that his memory would never make it back to normal after a bad car crash. I'd told him about my machine translation prediction, so he asked about memory repair. For a few seconds, I thought "never" but realized he was only 25 and that if he lived to 2040, he'd certainly have perfect memory back by then. I then thought about what medicine and computers might look like in 2006, and thought not possible for a treatment by then. So go another ten years and voila, 2016. It turns out Kurzweil later said the same "mid 2010s for minor brain repair" as well. I think we are going to be correct.

I told him in 1996 that by 2007, pharmacists will be using tons of robots, which he laughed at. In 2007, he said he remembered the prediction and laughed "You were right!" But I explained I was partly correct, since while they have been in wide use since 2007, I was probably 5 years premature for what I had considered. I also explained to him that my 1996 prediction wasn't hard based on what I saw on the news that year about the first prototype.

In 2002, I assumed no death from cancer or AIDS in the developed world by January 2014. This is still considered nuts, but the NCI later wrote in 2003 that it was their goal to end death and suffering due to cancer by 2015. And the director used the same logic I did with the exponetial.
I'll likely be wrong, but I'll be way closer than those who say 2030, 2050 or maybe 2100.
I'm now waiting to see if a 2001 prediction of China democratizing due in part to greatly improved standards of living and the spread of the internet will come true. I talked to a few China experts at a univresity about this and they all thought 2050 at the earliest. I stil think before 2015.

I may have been too conservative about limb regeneration: I asumed the 2030s while now a scientist in the field (she was one on the team to place a human ear on a mouse) says by 2025.

I didn't realize how strong the instinct is to not think in exponetial terms. If you think like this when seriously considering the future, my predictions were pretty obvious. Not sure about brain repair for mild injury, though.

Kurzweil will also be correct that some of his errors will be off by 3 to 5 years.

I assumed by the 2040s that we couldn't imagine what life would be like because of nanoteh, computer power, etc. I joked "It's just a black hole." Kurzweil says it's a Singularity. But he writes some detail about life in 2030 and 2040 and beyond that I wouldn't touch in detail. He doesn't know either.

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7. monoceros4 on December 3, 2010 12:50 PM writes...

"..people with a computer science education..."

I think that's close to oxymoronic, and I say that as someone who once bailed into computer science when I thought real science was too hard (and error I'm struggling hard to correct now.)

Kurzweil actually believes in the Singularity, the Rapture for atheists, a batshit idea cooked up by a state university computer professor (I should know, since I attended that same university and met the fellow)? Bro-THER.

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8. Mini Ray on December 3, 2010 12:58 PM writes...

"His record in medicine is no improvement."

Derek, can you be specific about his incorrect predictions here?

He got cacer wrong, but I think he'll be 5 years off. Not bad if it turns out that way. David Lane thinks cancer deaths will drop 50% by 2014 or 2015. Is he nuts?

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9. Derek Lowe on December 3, 2010 1:10 PM writes...

MR, that cancer prediction is one of the things I had in mind. As for the Lane prediction, from what baseline is he working? A 50% drop from today is indeed crazy, I'd say.

If you go back further, some cancers have in fact already seen drops of that magnitude, but those are largely due to a decline in smoking and early detection and surgery for some others. The only cancer I can think of (outside of small-incidence things like GIST) whose mortality rate has declined steeply due to drug therapy is childhood leukemia.

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10. Derek Lowe on December 3, 2010 1:32 PM writes...

Oh, and as for Kurzweil's predictions, I recall that back when his Singularity book came out that he was predicting the end of atherosclerosis and related coronary disease. He was very big on Pfizer's torcetrapib, for example.

Well, so was Pfizer, but what happened is a good example of what I think is wrong with Kurzweil's thinking in this area. Torcetrapib, although it did indeed raise HDL, ended up killing more patients than the control group, for reasons that are still mysterious. Merck may now find out - in another five years or so - if their similar drug does the same thing or not.

Then in another ten or twenty years, if all goes well, we can find out if such drugs have a real-world effect on mortality and morbidity. No one's sure. You'd think that raising HDL would be a good thing, but there's an awful lot we don't know about human lipid chemistry, and this is the only way to find out.

It's all a long way from having it all sewn up, and several years ago, to boot.

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11. John on December 3, 2010 3:05 PM writes...

"Kurzweil does not believe in half measures. He takes 180 to 210 vitamin and mineral supplements a day, so many that he doesn't have time to organize them all himself. So he's hired a pill wrangler, who takes them out of their bottles and sorts them into daily doses, which he carries everywhere in plastic bags..."

World's most expensive urine?

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12. John on December 3, 2010 3:09 PM writes...

Seems like an especially bad case of the baby boomer pathology.

"Kurzweil does not believe in half measures. He takes 180 to 210 vitamin and mineral supplements a day, so many that he doesn't have time to organize them all himself. So he's hired a pill wrangler, who takes them out of their bottles and sorts them into daily doses, which he carries everywhere in plastic bags..."

..and world's most expensive urine.

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13. Jim in Seattle on December 3, 2010 3:53 PM writes...

The advocates of deregulation and so-called free markets should be thrilled with the snake oil provided by the likes of Kurzweil (and even Trudeau). What is the biggest market? Ans: Fools. These two are simply tapping into it. What do the hypocrites expect would happen? Thats what bugs me; the hypocrisy.

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14. yonemoto on December 3, 2010 5:45 PM writes...

Well, i'm a freemarketer. My free market principles stem from my belief that the only way to ethically manage limited resources is through property rights - anything short of that is a system where politically connected people get to consolidate their power over other people's economic sovereignty.

Which brings me to Kurtzweil. I think one of the things that Kurtzweil misses, is that there are other curves that look just like the exponential curve. There's a reason why bacterial growth goes through a 'log phase', and I'll be damned if the bacterial curve keeps going exponentially.

There's an "old" saying among traders - past performance is no guarantee of future results.

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15. Mini Ray on December 3, 2010 6:08 PM writes...


I tried finding the 2008 interview where David Lane said he thought cancer death rates will fall by 50% but could only find more indirect statements. If you extend what he says about promising drugs in trials "within 5 years" the actual therapies would take somewhat longer if the trials were successful. So his optimism probably places him closer to 2014 to 2016.

The NCI says it's "goal," which is essentially a predition when you look at the statements defending it in 2003, is 100% reduction in cancer deaths by 2015.

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16. Morten G on December 3, 2010 7:36 PM writes...

Wonder if there's a career in selling non-deionized water...

Also, I wonder if the whole alkaline things comes from urine pH. Apparently if you are peeing out a lot of negatively charged compounds (e.g. if there's a lot of purine in your diet) you will compensate with H+ until pH is just below 6 and after that it's stuff like calcium that gets sacrificed. Lovely osteoporosis and deregulation of calcium homeostasis (kidney stones?).

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17. jeff hoffman on December 11, 2010 4:18 AM writes...

"The NCI says it's "goal," which is essentially a predition when you look at the statements defending it in 2003, is 100% reduction in cancer deaths by 2015."
That is HILARIOUS given their track record for the last thirty years, a largely abysmal failure in terms of curative treatments which oncologists readily have admitted in their own literature.

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18. Leo McDevitt on March 9, 2011 4:23 PM writes...

If alkaline water does not have health benefits, how come my wife's knees (ravaged by years of osteoarthritis) have stopped hurting since she began drinking it?

Until someone can offer a plausible explanation, I will continue to believe in alkaline water's healing properties.

By the way, it can't be placebo effect because the effect is ongoing, placebo effect wears off!

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