Short Story Contest Winner: "The Gerry Program"
It's an odd sensation knowing you're going to die, but it was a feeling Gerry Ferguson had become relatively acquainted with over the past two years. What most perplexed the terminally ill, he observed, was not the concept of death so much as the continuation of all other life.
Gerry's secret project had been in the works for two years now, ever since they found the growth.
Who will mourn me when I'm gone? What trait or idiosyncrasy will people most recall? Will I still be talked of, 100 years from now?
But Gerry didn't worry about these questions. He was comfortable that his legacy would live on, in one form or another. From his cozy flat in the west end of Glasgow, Gerry had managed to put his affairs in order and still find time for small joys.
Feeding the geese in summer at the park just down from his house, reading classics from the teeming bookcase in the living room, talking with his son Michael on Skype. It was Michael who had first suggested reading some of the new works of non-fiction that now littered the large oak desk in Gerry's study.
He was just finishing 'The Master Algorithm' when his shabby grandfather clock chimed six o'clock. Time to call Michael. Crammed into his tiny study, Gerry pulled his computer's webcam close and waved at Michael's smiling face.
"Hi Dad! How're you today?"
"I'm alright, son. How're things in sunny Australia?"
"Hot as always. How's things in Scotland?"
"I'd 'ave more chance gettin' a tan from this computer screen than I do goin' out there."
Michael chuckled. He's got that hearty Ferguson laugh, Gerry thought.
"How's the project coming along?" Michael asked. "Am I going to see it one of these days?"
"Of course," grinned Gerry, "I designed it for you."
Gerry's secret project had been in the works for two years now, ever since they found the growth. He had decided it was better not to tell Michael. He would only worry.
The two men chatted for hours. They discussed Michael's love life (or lack thereof), memories of days walking in the park, and their shared passion, the unending woes of Rangers Football Club. It wasn't until Michael said his goodbyes that Gerry noticed he'd been sitting in the dark for the best part of three hours, his mesh curtains casting a dim orange glow across the room from the street light outside. Time to get back to work.
Every night, Gerry sat at his computer, crawling forums, nourishing his project, feeding his knowledge and debating with other programmers. Even at age 82, Gerry knew more than most about algorithms. Never wanting to feel old, and with all the kids so adept at this digital stuff, Gerry figured he should give the Internet a try too. Besides, it kept his brain active and restored some of the sociability he'd lost in the previous decades as old friends passed away and the physical scope of his world contracted.
This night, like every night, Gerry worked away into the wee hours. His back would ache come morning, but this was the only time he truly felt alive these days. From his snug red brick home in Scotland, Gerry could share thoughts and information with strangers from all over the world. It truly was a miracle of modern science!
The next day, Gerry woke to the warm amber sun seeping in between a crack in the curtains. Like every morning, his thoughts took a little time to come into focus. Instinctively his hand went to the other side of the bed. Nobody there. Of course; she was gone. Rita, the sweetest woman he'd ever known. Four years this spring, God rest her soul.
Puttering around the cramped kitchen, Gerry heard a knock at the door. Who could that be? He could see two women standing in the hallway, their bodies contorted in the fisheye glass of the peephole. One looked familiar, but Gerry couldn't be sure. He fiddled with the locks and pulled the door open.
"Hi Gerry. How are you today?"
"Fine, thanks," he muttered, still searching his mind for where he'd seen her face before.
Noting the confusion in his eyes, the woman proffered a hand. "Alice, Alice Corgan. I pop round every now and again to check on you."
It clicked. "Ah aye! Come in, come in. Lemme get ya a cuppa." Gerry turned and shuffled into the flat.
As Gerry set about his tiny kitchen, Alice called from the living room, "This is Mandy. She's a care worker too. She's going to pay you occasional visits if that's alright with you."
Gerry poked his head around the doorway. "I'll always welcome a beautiful young lady in ma home. Though, I've tae warn you I'm a married man, so no funny business." He winked and ducked back into the kitchen.
Alice turned to Mandy with a grin. "He's a good man, our Gerry. You'll get along just fine." She lowered her voice. "As I said, with the Alzheimer's, he has to be reminded to take his medication, but he's still mostly self-sufficient. We installed a medi-bot to remind him every day and dispense the pills. If he doesn't respond, we'll get a message to send someone over."
Mandy nodded and scribbled notes in a pad.
"When I'm gone, Michael will have somethin' to remember me by."
"Also, and this is something we've been working on for a few months now, Gerry is convinced he has something…" her voice trailed off. "He thinks he has cancer. Now, while the Alzheimer's may affect his day-to-day life, it's not at a stage where he needs to be taken into care. The last time we went for a checkup, the doctor couldn't find any sign of cancer. I think it stems from--"
Gerry shouted from the other room: "Does the young lady take sugar?"
"No, I'm fine thanks," Mandy called back.
"Of course you don't," smiled Gerry. "Young lady like yersel' is sweet enough."
The following week, Mandy arrived early at Gerry's. He looked unsure at first, but he invited her in.
Sitting on the sofa nurturing a cup of tea, Alice tried to keep things light. "So what do you do in your spare time, Gerry?"
"I've got nothing but spare time these days, even if it's running a little low."
"Do you have any hobbies?"
"Yes actually." Gerry smiled. "I'm makin' a computer program."
Alice was taken aback. She knew very little about computers herself. "What's the program for?" she asked.
"Well, despite ma appearance, I'm no spring chicken. I know I don't have much time left. Ma son, he lives down in Australia now, he worked on a computer program that uses AI - that's artificial intelligence - to imitate a person."
Alice still looked confused, so Gerry pressed on.
"Well, I know I've not long left, so I've been usin' this open source code to make ma own for when I'm gone. I've already written all the code. Now I just have to add the things that make it seem like me. I can upload audio, text, even videos of masel'. That way, when I'm gone, Michael will have somethin' to remember me by."
Mandy sat there, stunned. She had no idea anybody could do this, much less an octogenarian from his small, ramshackle flat in Glasgow.
"That's amazing Gerry. I'd love to see the real thing when you're done."
"O' course. I mean, it'll take time. There's so much to add, but I'll be happy to give a demonstration."
Mandy sat there and cradled her mug. Imagine, she thought, being able to preserve yourself, or at least some basic caricature of yourself, forever.
As the weeks went on, Gerry slowly added new shades to his coded double. Mandy would leaf through the dusty photo albums on Gerry's bookcase, pointing to photos and asking for the story behind each one. Gerry couldn't always remember but, when he could, the accompanying stories were often hilarious, incredible, and usually a little of both. As he vividly recounted tales of bombing missions over Burma, trips to the beach with a young Michael and, in one particularly interesting story, giving the finger to Margaret Thatcher, Mandy would diligently record them through a Dictaphone to be uploaded to the program.
Gerry loved the company, particularly when he could regale the young woman with tales of his son Michael. One day, as they sat on the sofa flicking through a box of trinkets from his days as a travelling salesman, Mandy asked why he didn't have a smartphone.
He shrugged. "If I'm out 'n about then I want to see the world, not some 2D version of it. Besides, there's nothin' on there for me."
Alice explained that you could get Skype on a smartphone: "You'd be able to talk with Michael and feed the geese at the park at the same time," she offered.
Gerry seemed interested but didn't mention it again.
"Only thing I'm worried about with ma computer," he remarked, "is if there's another power cut and I can't call Michael. There's been a few this year from the snow 'n I hate not bein' able to reach him."
"Well, if you ever want to use the Skype app on my phone to call him you're welcome," said Mandy. "After all, you just need to add him to my contacts."
Gerry was flattered. "That's a relief, knowing I won't miss out on calling Michael if the computer goes bust."
Then, in early spring, just as the first green buds burst forth from the bare branches, Gerry asked Mandy to come by. "Bring that Alice girl if ya can - I know she's excited to see this too."
The next day, Mandy and Alice dutifully filed into the cramped study and sat down on rickety wooden chairs brought from the living room for this special occasion.
An image of Gerry, somewhat younger than the man himself, flashed up on the screen.
With a dramatic throat clearing, Gerry opened the program on his computer. An image of Gerry, somewhat younger than the man himself, flashed up on the screen.
The room was silent.
"Hiya Michael!" AI Gerry blurted. The real Gerry looked flustered and clicked around the screen. "I forgot to put the facial recognition on. Michael's just the go-to name when it doesn't recognize a face." His voice lilted with anxious excitement. "This is Alice," Gerry said proudly to the camera, pointing at Alice, "and this is Mandy."
AI Gerry didn't take his eyes from real Gerry, but grinned. "Hello, Alice. Hiya Mandy." The voice was definitely his, even if the flow of speech was slightly disjointed.
"Hi," Alice and Mandy stuttered.
Gerry beamed at both of them. His eyes flitted between the girls and the screen, perhaps nervous that his digital counterpart wasn't as polished as they'd been expecting.
"You can ask him almost anything. He's not as advanced as the ones they're making in the big studios, but I think Michael will like him."
Alice and Mandy gathered closer to the monitor. A mute Gerry grinned back from the screen. Sitting in his wooden chair, the real Gerry turned to his AI twin and began chattering away: "So, what do you think o' the place? Not bad eh?"
"Oh aye, like what you've done wi' it," said AI Gerry.
"Gerry," Alice cut in. "What did you say about Michael there?"
"Ah, I made this for him. After all, it's the kind o' thing his studio was doin'. I had to clear some space to upload it 'n show you guys, so I had to remove Skype for now, but Michael won't mind. Anyway, Mandy's gonna let me Skype him from her phone."
Mandy pulled her phone out and smiled. "Aye, he'll be able to chat with two Gerry's."
Alice grabbed Mandy by the arm: "What did you tell him?" she whispered, her eyes wide.
"I told him he can use my phone if he wants to Skype Michael. Is that okay?"
Alice turned to Gerry, who was chattering away with his computerized clone. "Gerry, we'll just be one second, I need to discuss something with Mandy."
"Righto," he nodded.
Outside the room, Alice paced up and down the narrow hallway.
Mandy could see how flustered she was. "What's wrong? Don't you like the chatbot? I think it's kinda c-"
"Michael's dead," Alice spluttered.
"What do you mean? He talks to him all the time."
Alice sighed. "He doesn't talk to Michael. See, a few years back, Michael found out he had cancer. He worked for this company that did AI chatbot stuff. When he knew he was dying he--" she groped in the air for the words-- "he built this chatbot thing for Gerry, some kind of super-advanced AI. Gerry had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and I guess Michael was worried Gerry would forget him. He designed the chatbot to say he was in Australia to explain why he couldn't visit."
"That's awful," Mandy granted, "but I don't get what the problem is. I mean, surely he can show the AI Michael his own chatbot?"
"No, because you can't get the AI Michael on Skype. Michael just designed the program to look like Skype."
"But then--" Mandy went silent.
"Michael uploaded the entire AI to Gerry's computer before his death. Gerry didn't delete Skype. He deleted the AI Michael."
"So… that's it? He-he's gone?" Mandy's voice cracked. "He can't just be gone, surely he can't?"
The women stood staring at each other. They looked to the door of the study. They could still hear Gerry, gabbing away with his cybercopy.
"I can't go back in there," muttered Mandy. Her voice wavered as she tried to stem the misery rising in her throat.
Alice shook her head and paced the floor. She stopped and stared at Mandy with grim resignation. "We don't have a choice."
When they returned, Gerry was still happily chatting away.
"Hiya girls. Ya wanna ask my handsome twin any other questions? If not, we could get Michael on the phone?"
Neither woman spoke. Gerry clapped his hands and turned gaily to the monitor again: "I cannae wait for ya t'meet him, Gerry. He's gonna be impressed wi' you."
Alice clasped her hands to her mouth. Tears welled in the women's eyes as they watched the old man converse with his digital copy. The heat of the room seemed to swell, becoming insufferable. Mandy couldn't take it anymore. She jumped up, bolted to the door and collapsed against a wall in the hallway. Alice perched on the edge of her seat in a dumb daze, praying for the floor to open and swallow the contents of the room whole.
Oblivious, Gerry and his echo babbled away, the blue glow of the screen illuminating his euphoric face. "Just wait until y'meet him Gerry, just wait."
A new competition by the XPRIZE Foundation is offering $101 million to researchers who discover therapies that give a boost to people aged 65-80 so their bodies perform more like when they were middle-aged.
For today’s podcast episode, I talked with Dr. Peter Diamandis, XPRIZE’s founder and executive chairman. Under Peter’s leadership, XPRIZE has launched 27 previous competitions with over $300 million in prize purses. The latest contest aims to enhance healthspan, or the period of life when older people can play with their grandkids without any restriction, disability or disease. Such breakthroughs could help prevent chronic diseases that are closely linked to aging. These illnesses are costly to manage and threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system, as the number of Americans over age 65 is rising fast.
In this competition, called XPRIZE Healthspan, multiple awards are available, depending on what’s achieved, with support from the nonprofit Hevolution Foundation and Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon and nonprofit SOLVE FSHD. The biggest prize, $81 million, is for improvements in cognition, muscle and immunity by 20 years. An improvement of 15 years will net $71 million, and 10 years will net $61 million.
In our conversation for this episode, Peter talks about his plans for XPRIZE Healthspan and why exponential technologies make the current era - even with all of its challenges - the most exciting time in human history. We discuss the best mental outlook that supports a person in becoming truly innovative, as well as the downsides of too much risk aversion. We talk about how to overcome the negativity bias in ourselves and in mainstream media, how Peter has shifted his own mindset to become more positive over the years, how to inspire a culture of innovation, Peter’s personal recommendations for lifestyle strategies to live longer and healthier, the innovations we can expect in various fields by 2030, the future of education and the importance of democratizing tech and innovation.
In addition to Peter’s pioneering leadership of XPRIZE, he is also the Executive Founder of Singularity University. In 2014, he was named by Fortune as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.” As an entrepreneur, he’s started over 25 companies in the areas of health-tech, space, venture capital and education. He’s Co-founder and Vice-Chairman of two public companies, Celularity and Vaxxinity, plus being Co-founder & Chairman of Fountain Life, a fully-integrated platform delivering predictive, preventative, personalized and data-driven health. He also serves as Co-founder of BOLD Capital Partners, a venture fund with a half-billion dollars under management being invested in exponential technologies and longevity companies. Peter is a New York Times Bestselling author of four books, noted during our conversation and in the show notes of this episode. He has degrees in molecular genetics and aerospace engineering from MIT and holds an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.
- Peter Diamandis bio
- New XPRIZE Healthspan
- Peter Diamandis books
- Longevity Insider newsletter – AI identifies the news
- Peter Diamandis Longevity Handbook
- Hevolution funding for longevity
XPRIZE Founder Peter Diamandis speaks with Mehmoud Khan, CEO of Hevolution Foundation, at the launch of XPRIZE Healthspan.
From infections with no symptoms to why men are more likely to be hospitalized in the ICU and die of COVID-19, new research shows that your genes play a significant role
Early in the pandemic, genetic research focused on the virus because it was readily available. Plus, the virus contains only 30,000 bases in a dozen functional genes, so it's relatively easy and affordable to sequence. Additionally, the rapid mutation of the virus and its ability to escape antibody control fueled waves of different variants and provided a reason to follow viral genetics.
In comparison, there are many more genes of the human immune system and cellular functions that affect viral replication, with about 3.2 billion base pairs. Human studies require samples from large numbers of people, the analysis of each sample is vastly more complex, and sophisticated computer analysis often is required to make sense of the raw data. All of this takes time and large amounts of money, but important findings are beginning to emerge.
About half the people exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease, never develop symptoms of this disease, or their symptoms are so mild they often go unnoticed. One piece of understanding the phenomena came when researchers showed that exposure to OC43, a common coronavirus that results in symptoms of a cold, generates immune system T cells that also help protect against SARS-CoV-2.
Jill Hollenbach, an immunologist at the University of California at San Francisco, sought to identify the gene behind that immune protection. Most COVID-19 genetic studies are done with the most seriously ill patients because they are hospitalized and thus available. “But 99 percent of people who get it will never see the inside of a hospital for COVID-19,” she says. “They are home, they are not interacting with the health care system.”
Early in the pandemic, when most labs were shut down, she tapped into the National Bone Marrow Donor Program database. It contains detailed information on donor human leukocyte antigens (HLAs), key genes in the immune system that must match up between donor and recipient for successful transplants of marrow or organs. Each HLA can contain alleles, slight molecular differences in the DNA of the HLA, which can affect its function. Potential HLA combinations can number in the tens of thousands across the world, says Hollenbach, but each person has a smaller number of those possible variants.
She teamed up with the COVID-19 Citizen Science Study a smartphone-based study to track COVID-19 symptoms and outcomes, to ask persons in the bone marrow donor registry about COVID-19. The study enlisted more than 30,000 volunteers. Those volunteers already had their HLAs annotated by the registry, and 1,428 tested positive for the virus.
Analyzing five key HLAs, she found an allele in the gene HLA-B*15:01 that was significantly overrepresented in people who didn’t have any symptoms. The effect was even stronger if a person had inherited the allele from both parents; these persons were “more than eight times more likely to remain asymptomatic than persons who did not carry the genetic variant,” she says. Altogether this HLA was present in about 10 percent of the general European population but double that percentage in the asymptomatic group. Hollenbach and her colleagues were able confirm this in other different groups of patients.
What made the allele so potent against SARS-CoV-2? Part of the answer came from x-ray crystallography. A key element was the molecular shape of parts of the cold virus OC43 and SARS-CoV-2. They were virtually identical, and the allele could bind very tightly to them, present their molecular antigens to T cells, and generate an extremely potent T cell response to the viruses. And “for whatever reasons that generated a lot of memory T cells that are going to stick around for a long time,” says Hollenbach. “This T cell response is very early in infection and ramps up very quickly, even before the antibody response.”
Understanding the genetics of the immune response to SARS-CoV-2 is important because it provides clues into the conditions of T cells and antigens that support a response without any symptoms, she says. “It gives us an opportunity to think about whether this might be a vaccine design strategy.”
A researcher at the Leibniz Institute of Virology in Hamburg Germany, Guelsah Gabriel, was drawn to a question at the other end of the COVID-19 spectrum: why men more likely to be hospitalized and die from the infection. It wasn't that men were any more likely to be exposed to the virus but more likely, how their immune system reacted to it
Several studies had noted that testosterone levels were significantly lower in men hospitalized with COVID-19. And, in general, the lower the testosterone, the worse the prognosis. A year after recovery, about 30 percent of men still had lower than normal levels of testosterone, a condition known as hypogonadism. Most of the men also had elevated levels of estradiol, a female hormone (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34402750/).
Every cell has a sex, expressing receptors for male and female hormones on their surface. Hormones docking with these receptors affect the cells' internal function and the signals they send to other cells. The number and role of these receptors varies from tissue to tissue.
Gabriel began her search by examining whole exome sequences, the protein-coding part of the genome, for key enzymes involved in the metabolism of sex hormones. The research team quickly zeroed in on CYP19A1, an enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. The gene that produces this enzyme has a number of different alleles, the molecular variants that affect the enzyme's rate of metabolizing the sex hormones. One genetic variant, CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), is typically found in 6.2 percent of all people, both men and women, but remarkably, they found it in 68.7 percent of men who were hospitalized with COVID-19.
Lungs are the tissue most affected in COVID-19 disease. Gabriel wondered if the virus might be affecting expression of their target gene in the lung so that it produces more of the enzyme that converts testosterone to estradiol. Studying cells in a petri dish, they saw no change in gene expression when they infected cells of lung tissue with influenza and the original SARS-CoV viruses that caused the SARS outbreak in 2002. But exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, increased gene expression up to 40-fold, Gabriel says.
Did the same thing happen in humans? Autopsy examination of patients in three different cites found that “CYP19A1 was abundantly expressed in the lungs of COVID-19 males but not those who died of other respiratory infections,” says Gabriel. This increased enzyme production led likely to higher levels of estradiol in the lungs of men, which “is highly inflammatory, damages the tissue, and can result in fibrosis or scarring that inhibits lung function and repair long after the virus itself has disappeared.” Somehow the virus had acquired the capacity to upregulate expression of CYP19A1.
Only two COVID-19 positive females showed increased expression of this gene. The menopause status of these women, or whether they were on hormone replacement therapy was not known. That could be important because female hormones have a protective effect for cardiovascular disease, which women often lose after going through menopause, especially if they don’t start hormone replacement therapy. That sex-specific protection might also extend to COVID-19 and merits further study.
The team was able to confirm their findings in golden hamsters, the animal model of choice for studying COVID-19. Testosterone levels in male animals dropped 5-fold three days after infection and began to recover as viral levels declined. CYP19A1 transcription increased up to 15-fold in the lungs of the male but not the females. The study authors wrote, “Virus replication in the male lungs was negatively associated with testosterone levels.”
The medical community studying COVID-19 has slowly come to recognize the importance of adipose tissue, or fat cells. They are known to express abundant levels of CYP19A1 and play a significant role as metabolic tissue in COVID-19. Gabriel adds, “One of the key findings of our study is that upon SARS-CoV-2 infection, the lung suddenly turns into a metabolic organ by highly expressing” CYP19A1.
She also found evidence that SARS-CoV-2 can infect the gonads of hamsters, thereby likely depressing circulating levels of sex hormones. The researchers did not have autopsy samples to confirm this in humans, but others have shown that the virus can replicate in those tissues.
A possible treatment
Back in the lab, substituting low and high doses of testosterone in SARS-COV-2 infected male hamsters had opposite effects depending on testosterone dosage used. Gabriel says that hormone levels can vary so much, depending on health status and age and even may change throughout the day, that “it probably is much better to inhibit the enzyme” produced by CYP19A1 than try to balance the hormones.
Results were better with letrozole, a drug approved to treat hypogonadism in males, which reduces estradiol levels. The drug also showed benefit in male hamsters in terms of less severe disease and faster recovery. She says more details need to be worked out in using letrozole to treat COVID-19, but they are talking with hospitals about clinical trials of the drug.
Gabriel has proposed a four hit explanation of how COVID-19 can be so deadly for men: the metabolic quartet. First is the genetic risk factor of CYP19A1 (Thr201Met), then comes SARS-CoV-2 infection that induces even greater expression of this gene and the deleterious increase of estradiol in the lung. Age-related hypogonadism and the heightened inflammation of obesity, known to affect CYP19A1 activity, are contributing factors in this deadly perfect storm of events.
Studying host genetics, says Gabriel, can reveal new mechanisms that yield promising avenues for further study. It’s also uniting different fields of science into a new, collaborative approach they’re calling “infection endocrinology,” she says.