Category Archives: Sonia Arrison Columns

The Longevity Dividend: Why living longer is actually good for economic growth

The United States is a wealthy and successful superpower, so you’d think that when it comes to life expectancy, its citizens would be in the top 10, right? Not even close: the US currently ranks 42 among the world’s countries, a bad sign for long-term economic growth, which is strongly correlated with longevity.

The top spot in longevity rankings goes to Monaco with a life expectancy of 89.57; the bottom country, Chad, has a life expectancy of 49.44 – a striking 40 year difference (the age John Lennon was when he died). The United States, at 79.56, is a full decade behind the top spot when it comes to life expectancy. Why does this matter, other than the fact that death is bad? For one thing, it affects international competitiveness.


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Silicon Valley Moves the Needle on Curing Aging

Here’s a piece I wrote for Slate.

“Silicon Valley, known for entrepreneurs, gadget lovers, and paradigm breakers, has recently turned its attention towards longevity, powering an important cultural change on the topic. The interests of these movers and shakers run the gamut, from using technology to improve our clunky healthcare system to literally solving the problem of aging.”

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Science Fiction Becomes Science-Fact: Two Strategies for Repairing Humans

Here’s my first article in a series for Slate magazine on longevity. Thanks to Prudential for sponsoring my obsession with health extension!

“Not long ago, it would have sounded like science fiction to discuss growing human organs in the lab or re-writing DNA. Yet today both are realities that will change the world and allow for longer and healthier lives.

Already, lab-grown bladders, windpipes and blood vessels have been successfully created and implanted into humans. Most recently, tissue engineering pioneer Dr. Anthony Atala and his team at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine announced another breakthrough: lab-made vaginas—one of the most complex organs made to date. In four girls with MRKH syndrome, a medical condition in which the vagina and uterus are underdeveloped or absent, Dr. Atala’s team was able to create new organs that functioned normally, dramatically increasing each patient’s quality of life.


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Google’s plan to extend our life span will change everything

Today’s news that Google is launching a new company (Calico) to fight aging is epic. Epic. Fighting aging used to be the realm of biologists and doctors, but now that the engineers are getting involved, progress will likely move much faster. This is very good news for those of us who want to see health spans extended for everyone.

Here’s Time’s breaking story.

Here’s my op-ed about it.

Here’s Aubrey de Grey’s op-ed.

America: It’s Time to Snap Out of the Pro-Death Trance

A Swedish hospital recently announced that a cancer patient was saved after doctors grew him a new windpipe in the lab using a synthetic structure and the man’s own stem cells. That might have sounded like science fiction just a few years ago, but today it is landmark news. Regenerative medicine has the ability to usher in radically longer and healthier lives, yet few are considering the implications.

The ability to grow new replacement parts for humans when original organs break down is a game-changer when it comes to extending human “health spans” — the amount of time one is alive and healthy. A handful of human subjects have already benefited from innovations in this area and dozens of organs have been successfully grown in the lab, including a rat heart.

The science is not easy, but because of the exponential growth of technological tools, it is moving faster than many had expected. Such growth has happened before.


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Cloud Computing Calms Open Source Warfare

Here’s my most recent column:

Cloud computing, technology delivered over the Internet, has become a hot area in the last few years. The technology marketplace moves at breakneck speeds, but it is still shocking when innovation almost completely wipes out squabbles like those over open source (OS) vs. proprietary software.

“In a cloud world, source code is almost irrelevant,” Matt Asay recently wrote at GigaOm.
Tim O’Reilly was among the first to point this out in 2008, when he said that “Architecture trumps licensing any time.”

This statement rings true to most experts following this space, but for those who remember the heated battles between proprietary software providers and the open source community, the new environment seems almost surreal.

There was a time, for example, when Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer called Linux a “cancer.” Now the company is actively engaging the open source community in various ways, such as offering OS applications on its cloud, the Windows Azure platform, and publicizing that 350,000 OS applications run on Windows.


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Regulators Take Aim at Genomics

Here’s the first part of my column on the recent Congressional investigation into the genomcs industry:

The genomics industry, which provides reports about disease risk, ancestry, and drug reactions based on one’s DNA, came under fire last week as a Congressional Committee held hearings and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released an unscientific “study” of the sector.

According to undercover discussions with genomics firms, the GAO reports that “fictitious consumers received test results that are misleading and of little or no practical use.” The agency admits, however, that it “did not conduct a scientific study but instead documented observations that could be made by any consumer.”

The GAO’s “sting” operation on this nascent field looks more like a witch hunt, given that it lumped in legitimate testing companies with others that are not.

In one instance, a company representative said that it would be OK to send in someone else’s saliva to be tested. As the GAO points out, that practice is already restricted in 33 states, so this seems more like a matter of enforcement.

The GAO’s report is a tricky way of attempting to perturb the public about genetic testing, but it also raises a key question: Why haven’t government regulators disciplined the companies that are clearly breaking the already-established rules?

The GAO also blasts the genomics industry for providing different results for the same DNA, but when dealing with something as complicated as the human body, there often are valid scientific reasons for variation. As 23andMe points out on its blog, testing is not yet standardized, and some companies “employ different statistical models for making risk estimates; they establish different criteria for the inclusion of associations in their reports; and new associations are being discovered at a faster rate than companies’ development cycles.”


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The New Hacker Hobby That Will Change the World

Here’s my most recent column on DIY bio:

Personal computing altered the world forever, and now the digitization of biology is poised to bring about sweeping change. Craig Venter’s recent announcement of the first synthetic genome was a huge milestone, but many outside of Silicon Valley remain unaware of the “do-it-yourself biology” movement (DIY bio).

This movement consists of smart engineers who like to tinker in garages, basements and living rooms, hacking the genetic codes of various organisms. Often, their goal is simple fun — to make cells blink, glow or smell like banana. Such pursuits are reminiscent of the beginnings of the PC revolution.

Back in the 1970s, it was the Homebrew Club that brought together clever thinkers — such as future Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak — to trade parts, circuits and information for DIY computing devices.

As Wozniak has recounted, “The Apple I and II were designed strictly on a hobby, for-fun basis, not to be a product for a company.”

Some have argued that biology is different from computing in that it is more complicated and harder to do because lab work is involved.

That idea is put forward by people who don’t understand their history, according to Andrew Hessel, a synthetic biologist heavily involved in the movement.

“In the beginning, computing was very hard,” he said.


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Is Personalized Medicine Anti-Establishment?

The Personalized Medicine World Conference in Silicon Valley last week showcased huge opportunities for new advances in medicine and personalized health. What remained unclear was who will take the lead, what techniques or products will win, and whether the medical establishment will go along or stand in the way.

Folks in Silicon Valley are used to the fast pace and uncertainty that come along with exponentially growing technologies like those in the field of genomics, and it was easy to spot the venture capitalists in the crowd. The medical profession and the healthcare industry, on the other hand, are not quite as comfortable with accelerating change. That dynamic played out not only in the scheduled talks, but also informally among participants.

“It feels like the Internet conferences I went to in 1994,” said entrepreneur and investor Alex Jacobson of Aleo Capital — but it is also different, because “the Internet didn’t come out of a regulated industry.”

During her talk, investor and 23andMe board member Esther Dyson was asked “how to sway the FDA to empower consumers.” Her response was that the problem is “not so much the FDA as the medical establishment,” which she compared to officials in the Catholic Church who want to interpret everything for their patients.


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Net’s Top Two Powerhouse Players Talk Policy

At the third annual U.S.-China Internet Industry Forum last week, top government and technology leaders gathered to discuss business and policy topics of mutual interest, such as online child protection and intellectual property issues. The United States and China are the world’s two largest Internet communities, so the conversation has broad implications for the Net as a whole.


Read the whole story here.

Giving Thanks for Leading Health Technology Advances

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone! Here’s a preview of my column on health tech we can be grateful to have:

“There have been striking advances in healthcare, thanks to technology, that have nothing to do with the controversial “reform” efforts under way in Washington. Among the life-improving — even potentially life-saving — gifts of recent years: less costly genome sequencing; health-promoting iPhone applications; electronic health records; and crowdsourcing for better living.”

Anti-Aging Technology Is No Excuse for Bad Habits

For those interested in longevity, July was a good news month. Recently published research in the journal Science shows that caloric restriction helps monkeys live longer and healthier, while a parallel study demonstrated the possibility that a drug could mimic this process.

Here is my column arguing that, while good news abounds, the downside is that a strong belief in a “fountain of youth pill” can lead to big trouble, especially when it comes to diet and exercise.

The Flawed Focus of Universal Broadband

This month, the Federal Communications Commission begins drafting a national broadband plan as part of the 2009 stimulus package. This is not the first government attempt at broadband ubiquity, so the FCC can learn from past failures.

The commissioners have less than eight months to “ensure that all people of the United States have access to broadband capability,” as well as provide additional guidelines for using existing high-speed Internet infrastructure to support more than a dozen socioeconomic and political objectives.

Officials can sift through more than 1,700 suggestions from a gamut of activist groups, lobbyists and interested consumers. Many of them see the answer in some form of social and economic engineering by government bureaucrats, price controls, wealth redistribution, or other regulatory mandates. Nothing could be further from the truth. Now, as in the past, the FCC should reject proposals that are hostile to market forces.

A new public fund to subsidize Internet access for poor and rural residents is not likely to be effective. Consider the case of E-Rate, a US$2.25 billion FCC fund created in 1997 to connect all children to the Information Age by underwriting up to 90 percent of the costs of hard-wiring classrooms and libraries. Since its conception, however, E-Rate has been a bust. Public and private reports detail the regulatory loopholes, rubber-stamped “gold plated” networks, and criminal abuse.

After disbursing more than $20 billion in funds — collected, ironically, from fees that raise the cost of monthly phone bills — the FCC has still failed to establish basic accountability measures for E-Rate, and according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) this March, excessive rules and paperwork keep thousands of schools from seeking reimbursements for legitimate costs. If the FCC is too inept to structure and manage our broadband funds properly today, what will make tomorrow any different?

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A Clarion Call for Expanding E-Commerce

America’s winemakers have won a victory for online wine sales in Kansas, but the legislative battle demonstrates the challenges that e-commerce, a key force for economic recovery, still faces from outdated thinking and entrenched political institutions.

Signed into law in April, 2009, Kansas Senate Bill 212 allows direct-to-consumer (DTC) wine shipments over the Web for state residents beginning July 1. A common-sense outcome to many, this victory was hard-fought in a state that previously banned all DTC wine shipments. The victory comes four years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional those shipping rules that discriminate against out-of-state retailers.

Entrenched local wholesalers and retailers in Kansas quashed a 2006 attempt to liberalize shipping laws by financing a dubious voter survey to influence political opinions in an election year. They also pushed for onerous amendments that mandated online winery orders be shipped to retail liquor stores for pickup with a US$5 delivery tax. Shrewd political maneuvering by the brick-and-mortar distributors allowed them to retain their grip, but advocates for consumer choice are learning that the same techniques can be used to expand online economic freedom.

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Congress Should Say ‘No’ to Internet Tax Hike

Voters are still reeling from tax day in a tough recession, and taking to the streets in protest, but state governments and their allies aren’t listening. In fact, they are gearing up to squeeze more money out of the nation’s workers. Their target is online shopping, and if the pro-tax coalition gets its way, embattled Americans will soon be shouldering higher tax burdens.

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Attention Greens and Geeks: Time for an Energy Revolution

I’m currently working on the environmental chapter of my book, which is reflected here in my bi-weekly column. It’s amazing how much potential is waiting to be released on the clean(er) energy front. Here are the first few lines from my piece:

“Earth Day is fast approaching, yet despite the awareness this day brings, most people are powering their computers with electricity from coal-burning power plants, delivered by “dumb” networks. Change is long overdue, and it’s not a difficult matter.

The electricity grid’s basic structure hasn’t changed much since Thomas Edison came up with the idea back in 1882. That’s a long time with little innovation, especially since electricity demands continue to rise. Some might argue that the grid didn’t need changes and it’s not wise to mess with a system already working. That argument no longer holds, anyone who lives in California’s Silicon Valley knows. Blackouts and shortages are a constant worry every summer and the grid is unable to properly handle newer and cleaner sources of energy such as solar and wind.

Worse, when a blackout does happen, the utility company usually doesn’t know until someone phones in the problem. That’s because the system can’t sense the problem — it is “dumb” and only sends inputs one way. So how come the grid isn’t smarter, and what can we do about it? The answer is not as complicated as one might imagine. ”


‘Sexting’: Zooming Out to See the Bigger Picture

This week, a federal judge blocked a prosecutor from filing child pornography charges against three teenage girls in northeastern Pennsylvania over risque cell phone pictures they took of themselves. This respite from the bizarre “sexting” scandal allows time for a national dialogue on an issue that goes deeper than simple changes in technology.

“Sexting” is short for “sex texting,” or the practice of sending racy pictures via text message. Twenty percent of teens admit to distributing nude photos of themselves, according to a recent survey by the National Campaign to Support Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy — a statistic that probably disturbs parents but shouldn’t surprise anyone who remembers what being a teenager was like.

Teenage hormones are almost always raging, and many teens are reckless and looking for attention. Deploying child pornography laws to deal with this reality is like using a sledgehammer to kill a fly. If the girls are found guilty of these overblown charges, they would face not only the possibility of jail time, but also the requirement to register as sexual offenders for at least 10 years.

Clearly, such harsh punishment would be overkill, but the situation is indicative of the growing mentality that government must play the central role in fixing every problem society encounters.

Whether disciplining teens or restructuring failed automobile companies, government is more often than not becoming the “go-to” place for help. Those on both the political left and right have been involved in this slow move to relinquish individual responsibility in favor of government control, so there is plenty of blame to go around.


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The Scandalous Proposal of New York’s Anti-Tech Governor

In an effort to tackle New York’s nearly US$15 billion budget deficit, Governor David Paterson has proposed taxing downloads of software, music and other content, including pornography.

This proposal comes at a time when the economy is in freefall and the so-called “stimulus” package is going to cost taxpayers much more than they expect. Gov. Paterson seems unaware that his tax proposal will have the same effect.

Just after President Barack Obama signed the mammoth stimulus package into law Tuesday, Wall Street tanked, with the Dow Jones industrials average closing less than a point above its lowest level in five-and-a-half years. This show of despair over the federal government’s big spending plans is no surprise, given that the only way to pay for the stimulus is through greater debt.

According to the Pacific Research Institute’s Jason Clemens and Adam Frey, the $787 billion dollar package will actually grow to at least $1.34 trillion over the next 10 years, due to the fact that the government will need to borrow money not only to cover the stimulus, but also the interest on that debt.

That means taxes are going to go up, and New York’s additional proposals to tax the technology sector will be a true anti-stimulus. They will not only create a disincentive to buy, but also push businesses to relocate and thus destroy jobs in New York — for years one of the unfriendliest states to private enterprise, consumer choice and the Internet.


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Obama Set to Change Science and Tech

When Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States last week, he promised that his administration would “restore science to its rightful place.” Whether reality will fit the rhetoric remains to be seen, and there are reasons to be both optimistic and a little wary.

In his inaugural speech, the president devoted a decent 130 out of 2,402 words to technology issues such as broadband, science research, health IT, and clean energy. These highlights generally track with what is posted on as part of his technology agenda. So how might things change in each of these areas?

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