Sometime during 2021, however, a new plan emerged to make the research move even faster by turning the idea into a well-funded company that is now Altos. That effort took shape under the direction of Richard Klausner, the one-time chief of the National Cancer Institute and now an entrepreneur. Klausner, who previously helped start companies like Juno Therapeutics and cancer-test company Grail, is known for organizing large, and lucrative, financial bets on new biotechnologies.
According to an incorporation filing in the UK for Altos Labs, Klausner is CEO of the new company. Klausner did not respond to attempts to contact him by email and phone. Like Milner, he also lives in Los Altos Hills.
A number of startups are pursuing reprogramming technology, including Life Biosciences, Turn Biotechnologies, AgeX Therapeutics, and Shift Bioscience in the UK, although these efforts have not yet led to any treatments tested on people in clinical trials.
“There are hundreds of millions of dollars being raised by investors to invest in reprogramming, specifically aimed at rejuvenating parts or all of the human body,” says David Sinclair, a researcher at Harvard University who last December reported restoring sight to mice using the technique.
Sinclair describes the field as “nascent” but thinks it has unique promise. “What else can you do that can reverse the age of the body?” he says. “In my lab we are ticking off the major organs and tissues, for instance skin, muscle and brain —to see which we can rejuvenate.” Sinclair says he is not involved in Altos but he did speak at the 2020 meeting and applied for an award from Milky Way.
A science business
Altos hasn’t made an official announcement yet, but it was incorporated in Delaware this year and a securities disclosure filed in California in June indicates the company has raised at least $270 million, according to Will Gornall, a business school professor at the University of British Columbia who reviewed the document. In addition to Bezos and Milner, the company may have additional wealthy tech figures and venture capitalists as investors.
Other hires made by Altos include Peter Walter, whose laboratory at the University of California, San Francisco, is behind a molecule that shows remarkable effects on memory. Also joining is Wolf Reik, a reprogramming specialist who recently resigned as the director of the Babraham Institute in the UK after the center said he was taking a job “with another research organization” now believed to be Altos. Walter and Reik declined to comment.
At least initially, Altos will be funding researchers with no immediate expectation for products or revenues. According to one person briefed by Klausner and Milner, the initial output of the company will be “great science.”
Altos is luring university professors by offering sports-star salaries of $1 million a year or more, plus equity, as well as freedom from the hassle of applying for grants. One researcher who confirmed accepting a job offer from Altos, Manuel Serrano of the Institute for Research in Biomedicine, in Barcelona, Spain, said the company would pay him five to 10 times what he earns now.
“The philosophy of Altos Labs is to do curiosity-driven research. This is what I know how to do and love to do,” says Serrano, who plans to move to Cambridge, UK to join an Altos facility there. “In this case, through a private company, we have the freedom to be bold and explore. In this way it will rejuvenate me.”
Any treatment for a major disease of aging could be worth billions, but Altos isn’t counting on making money at first. “The aim is to understand rejuvenation,” says Serrano. “I would say the idea of having revenue in the future is there, but it’s not the immediate goal.”
Yann LeCun has a bold new vision for the future of AI
Melanie Mitchell, an AI researcher at the Santa Fe Institute, is also excited to see a whole new approach. “We really haven’t seen this coming out of the deep-learning community so much,” she says. She also agrees with LeCun that large language models cannot be the whole story. “They lack memory and internal models of the world that are actually really important,” she says.
Natasha Jaques, a researcher at Google Brain, thinks that language models should still play a role, however. It’s odd for language to be entirely missing from LeCun’s proposals, she says: “We know that large language models are super effective and bake in a bunch of human knowledge.”
Jaques, who works on ways to get AIs to share information and abilities with each other, points out that humans don’t have to have direct experience of something to learn about it. We can change our behavior simply by being told something, such as not to touch a hot pan. “How do I update this world model that Yann is proposing if I don’t have language?” she asks.
There’s another issue, too. If they were to work, LeCun’s ideas would create a powerful technology that could be as transformative as the internet. And yet his proposal doesn’t discuss how his model’s behavior and motivations would be controlled, or who would control them. This is a weird omission, says Abhishek Gupta, the founder of the Montreal AI Ethics Institute and a responsible-AI expert at Boston Consulting Group.
“We should think more about what it takes for AI to function well in a society, and that requires thinking about ethical behavior, amongst other things,” says Gupta.
Yet Jaques notes that LeCun’s proposals are still very much ideas rather than practical applications. Mitchell says the same: “There’s certainly little risk of this becoming a human-level intelligence anytime soon.”
LeCun would agree. His aim is to sow the seeds of a new approach in the hope that others build on it. “This is something that is going to take a lot of effort from a lot of people,” he says. “I’m putting this out there because I think ultimately this is the way to go.” If nothing else, he wants to convince people that large language models and reinforcement learning are not the only ways forward.
“I hate to see people wasting their time,” he says.
The Download: Yann LeCun’s AI vision, and smart cities’ unfulfilled promises
“We’re addicted to being on Facebook.”
—Jordi Berbera, who runs a pizza stand in Mexico City, tells Rest of World why he has turned to selling his wares through the social network instead of through more conventional food delivery apps.
The big story
“Am I going crazy or am I being stalked?” Inside the disturbing online world of gangstalking
Jenny’s story is not linear, the way that we like stories to be. She was born in Baltimore in 1975 and had a happy, healthy childhood—her younger brother Danny fondly recalls the treasure hunts she would orchestrate. In her late teens, she developed anorexia and depression and was hospitalized for a month. Despite her struggles, she graduated high school and was accepted into a prestigious liberal arts college.
There, things went downhill again. Among other issues, chronic fatigue led her to drop out. When she was 25 she flipped that car on Florida’s Sunshine Skyway Bridge in an apparent suicide attempt. At 30, after experiencing delusions that she was pregnant, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She was hospitalized for half a year and began treatment, regularly receiving shots of an antipsychotic drug. “It was like having my older sister back again,” Danny says.
On July 17, 2017, Jenny jumped from the tenth floor of a parking garage at Tampa International Airport. After her death, her family searched her hotel room and her apartment, but the 42-year-old didn’t leave a note. “We wanted to find a reason for why she did this,” Danny says. And so, a week after his sister’s death, Danny—a certified ethical hacker—decided to look for answers on Jenny’s computer. He found she had subscribed to hundreds of gangstalking groups across Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit; online communities where self-described “targeted individuals” say they are being monitored, harassed, and stalked 24/7 by governments and other organizations—and the internet legitimizes them. Read the full story.
The US Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade. What does that mean?
Access to legal abortion is now subject to state laws, allowing each state to decide whether to ban, restrict or allow abortion. Some parts of the country are much stricter than others—Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kentucky are among the 13 states with trigger laws that immediately made abortion illegal in the aftermath of the ruling. In total, around half of states are likely to either ban or limit access to the procedure, with many of them refusing to make exceptions, even in pregnancies involving rape, incest and fetuses with genetic abnormalities. Many specialized abortion clinics may be forced to close their doors in the next few days and weeks.
While overturning Roe v Wade will not spell an end to abortion in the US, it’s likely to lower its rates, and force those seeking them to obtain them using different methods. People living in states that ban or heavily restrict abortions may consider travelling to other areas that will continue to allow them, although crossing state lines can be time-consuming and prohibitively expensive for many people facing financial hardship.
The likelihood that anti-abortion activists will use surveillance and data collection to track and identify people seeking abortions is also higher following the decision. This information could be used to criminalize them, making it particularly dangerous for those leaving home to cross state lines.
Vigilante volunteers already stake out abortion clinics in states including Mississippi, Florida and North Carolina, filming people’s arrival on cameras and recording details about them and their cars. While they deny the data is used to harass or contact people seeking abortions, experts are concerned that footage filmed of clients arriving and leaving clinics could be exploited to target and harm them, particularly if law enforcement agencies or private groups were to use facial recognition to identify them.
Another option is to order so-called abortion pills to discreetly end a pregnancy at home. The pills, which are safe and widely prescribed by doctors, are significantly less expensive than surgical procedures, and already account for the majority of abortions in the US.