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The Decade to Come

Jay Walker's home "Library of the Imagination,"
from which he draws inspiration.
Jay Walker is the president of Walker Digital, an innovation and development laboratory in Stamford, Connecticut; the creator of; and a member of Temple Shearith Israel in Ridgefield, CT.

As the developer of patented business models in a variety of cutting-edge fields, Walker not only investigates and thinks about the future but helps to design and create it. In this interview with RJ editor Aron Hirt-Manheimer, he discusses how future technology will likely impact human social life, lifespan, and quality of life.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer: You have said that change is now happening at an almost unimaginable rate. What changes to come will most affect our lives?

Jay Walker: With the continuing acceleration of the communications revolution, the cell phone will become a wearable device. In 10 years you won’t “take” your cell phone places; it will always be there, woven into the fabric of your clothes.

Similarly, in the next decade, social networks will be a continuous presence; family members or friends will always be “on,” part of your immediate environment even if they’re thousands of miles away. While this is already happening via Twitter and text messaging, transmitting on the network is still done manually—you’ve got to dial the phone or send a text message. With automatic transmission you won’t have to know anything; you’ll automatically go on the network just by talking. The network will recognize your voice, and if you want to talk to your friends, you’ll simply say out loud, “I wonder where Aron is.” The network will say, “He’s on the phone. Do you want to interrupt him?” You’ll say, “No, just send him a note that I want to talk to him when he’s done with the call,” or “Tell him I’m going to be running late and I need to change our meeting time.”

Hirt-Manheimer: What changes do you foresee in the health field?

Walker: Within a decade we’re going to move into personalized medicine: the ability to customize medications based on your own genetics and body chemistry. Not every person may get a different medication, but there are likely to be 20 or so variations of a particular medicine based on shared genetic or chemical characteristics. Already now, genetic testing is required before prescribing certain drugs, as they only work under certain conditions with select genetic profiles. A decade from now, we’ll look back and say, “Let me get this straight: Once there were one-size-fits-all medications? How stupid.”

Diseases will also be diagnosed much earlier. Ten years ago, our technology could detect cancer when billions of blood cells showed evidence of the disease. Today, scanning techniques can diagnose cancer at only 10 million cells. That may sound like a lot, but 10 million cells are a very small number when you consider that a single drop of blood contains many billions of cells. I anticipate we’ll soon be able to find cancer in the tens of thousands of cells, maybe even in the thousands of cells, greatly expediting our ability to move early against the disease.

Going forward, we’ll also be able to re-grow rather than replace body parts. Many animals can grow new arms and legs—all kinds of regenerative capacities exist—and the entire blueprint of the human body is present in every one of our cells. The whole human body starts out as a single cell and, through cell differentiation, grows to trillions and trillions of cells, each of which appears to know where to be and mostly is “in the right place at the right time.” Decoding the instruction sets in our DNA will allow us to internally regenerate our organs rather than relying on the replacement-part model of transplanting organs derived from other sources. Taking a liver from a dead body and putting it into a live one is a very mechanistic, old-school approach to the world. Though transplantations save lives today, in the future we’re going to look back on the technique as we do blood-letting in the Middle Ages.

Hirt-Manheimer: Do you expect advances in technology to extend the human lifespan?

Walker: Yes. Think of aging as a complex set of interrelated changes in the body resulting from the inability of skin or organ cells to keep dividing; because they have a finite number of divisions, it causes the body to wear down. To slow the aging process, we need to increase cell longevity. One promising avenue began a couple of years ago with the discovery of the telomere —a DNA sequence at the end of each chromosome that gets shorter and shorter with age until it reaches a point where the cell can no longer reproduce. Today, a number of promising therapies are designed to lengthen telomeres, thereby increasing cell longevity, which is directly related to health. In time, better therapies will come along to either repair cells, allowing for longer cell life, or slow down the aging process, whereby cells don’t age as quickly or divide as often.

I anticipate that the real challenge will be finding ways to maintain our mental sharpness. The brain is inherently a much more complex system than any other in human physiology, and will probably be the most resistant to our attempts to manipulate it.

Hirt-Manheimer: What impact do you think increased longevity might have on society?

Walker: An increase in the number of older people would be a very positive development. Older people who are reasonably healthy and have their full mental faculties are not a burden on the planet. Their experience is a phenomenal asset, especially from a multigenerational perspective, as they influence their grandchildren’s lives and the quality of everyone else’s.

Hirt-Manheimer: Would human beings conduct their lives differently if they knew they might live considerably longer than their grandparents?

Walker: I don’t think so. Most people operate their lives as if they were immortal, engaging in self-destructive behaviors until mortality comes knocking at the door. In general, people today do not make different life choices than they did in past generations when the human lifespan was considerably shorter. Many people know that smoking shortens their lives, yet they smoke. And although there are few if any 250-pound 80-year-olds, people who weigh 250 pounds generally do not modify their lifestyle, even if they know they could live much longer at a healthier weight.

Perhaps the reason we do not easily alter our behavior despite known negative consequences has to do with a genetic inheritance that goes back 200,000 years, when we left Africa and our typical lifespan was about 30 years. I’d say we’re designed mentally to have a 30- to 35-year outlook on the world. Remember, humans have only been around for about 3,000 generations, which is not a lot of time in terms of the evolutionary change rate. So the things that kept us going 3,000 generations ago are still part of the genome today.

Hirt-Manheimer: What other advances do you foresee?

Walker: Within a decade or two we will achieve a mind-machine interface which will enable us to augment the mind by storing human memory externally. We will be able to offload information our brains have to forget. We will be able to push memories offline and then bring them back to the mind when we need them.

Already now we can attach electrodes to the outside of the brain and drive the impulses with a cursor on a computer screen, so we know it’s possible to convert thought impulses directly to computer control. Scientists have even trained a monkey to be able to control a robotic arm simply by thinking; you can see it on the web.

It’s just a matter of time before we figure out how to decode human thoughts.

If we’ve learned anything about human technology, it is that science fiction often becomes commonplace reality within 100 years—think of people flying on aluminum tubes at 600 miles an hour (airplanes). So, as the pace of change accelerates, things that seem almost unimaginable today will probably be normative within four or five generations.

Hirt-Manheimer: Has your Jewish heritage inspired your lifelong love of innovation?

Walker: I grew up in a home full of books. We are a people of the book, and our love of books is culturally embedded in Judaism. Jews as a people have also been disproportionally represented in fields exploring the limits of human endeavor and imagination. So I think it’s no accident that my heritage played a role in my quest to understand the world and to imagine what lies over the horizon.


Union for Reform Judaism.