Q&A: Dr. James Canton forecasts the future of medicine
Futurist talks about technologies that will usher in a new era of prevention, prediction and longevity
By Marilynn Larkin Posted on 13 April 2016
Geomedicine. Human enhancement. Therapeutic cloning. Consumer genetics.
Renowned futurist, author and entrepreneur Dr. James Canton predicts these and other medical innovations will become commonplace within the next 20 years. As founder, CEO and chair of the San Francisco-based think tank Institute for Global Futures, Dr. Canton forecasts global trends in business, science, technology, healthcare and other disciplines and explains how they will impact business, markets and society.
Dr. Canton has worked with more than 100 Fortune 1000 companies over the past 25 years, including Apple, IBM, FedEx, GE, General Foods, Cisco and Sony, and served as an advisor to three White House administrations, the US Department of Health and Human Services, the National Science Foundation, the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Science and Technology Council, among many others. He is the author of Future Smart: Managing the Game-Changing Trends that Will Transform Your World.
Next week, Dr. Canton will share his vision for the future of medicine with attendees of the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Tribeca Imagination Day Powered by The Hatchery, hosted by the Tribeca Film Festival Hub in New York City. According to the organizers: “The event brings together some of the most influential, provocative, and groundbreaking creative minds for an all-day summit on what happens when our wildest dreams become reality and what that reality will be in the not-so-distant future.”
Recently, I interviewed Dr. Canton about his work as a futurist and some of the key trends he envisions for health and medicine.
Being a futurist sounds like fun. How did you get started?
In the 1970s, I worked with futurist Alvin Toffler, author of Future Shock, in New York City and became fascinated with forecasting trends. But at that time, I realized most people weren’t focused on the future at all. Even when I worked with Apple in the early days of computing (as an executive on the Macintosh project), I took on projects like the future of medicine and artificial intelligence. At that time, most people were interested in what was happening in the here and now or, at most, what was going to happen in the next quarter.
By the 1980s, technology was changing business and society in fundamental ways. My clients kept asking me what was coming next — whether that “next” was the future of healthcare or the future of financial services or whether some technology was going to be a disruptive force. So essentially my clients put me in business. In 1990, I started the Institute for Global Futures so I could forecast the future and help prepare them for the emerging trends and innovations that would impact both their businesses and society.
I can tell you also have a real passion for prediction. What do you find most intriguing?
What’s intriguing about the future is that it hasn’t happened yet. It’s a great discovery journey, and I feel like a detective unraveling the mystery of what’s to come. Gratefully, I have been able to forecast and help my clients understand future trends that will shape our world. For me, it’s a great intellectual challenge. Forecasting is complex; it’s about thinking through and understanding the big picture of what’s coming, the convergent trends and how change will impact people, society and business.
Tribeca Imagination Day
On April 19, Dr. Canton will share his vision for the future of medicine with attendees of the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Tribeca Imagination Day Powered by The Hatchery in New York City. Learn more and register here.
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For instance, I’m forecasting now about rising tides and seas based on climate change — something I’ve been doing for the past 10 years. When I started, most of my clients didn’t want to hear about it. Today, they all want to hear about it because it has an impact on the future of cities, security, real estate and urban planning.
The same is true about the future of smart cities. I’ve been talking about geoengineering — how to use technology to address the challenges of climate change and our quality of life — because I think we need to spend a couple of hundred billion dollars on geoengineering the planet to cool it off. A lot of people think that’s crazy.
More of my clients now are approaching me and saying, “Okay, how would geoengineering work? What does it look like? How are we going to cool the planet based on your research?” And I say I’m calling for a new climate science that doesn’t exist today to discover how to make geoengineering a reality to protect our future.
As a futurist, I am not just trying to predict the future but also warning my clients about disruptions, hazards and risks. In this case, to say climate change is an emerging risk and 300 cities are sitting in coastal areas that, based on glacial melt and rising seas, are going to be under water at some point in our future is realistic. We should be thinking about and preparing for this now, not tomorrow. Even if I’m wrong by 50 percent, or even if it only happens to 5 percent of those cities, that’s still a big deal.
The other part of my job is to help my clients by showing them innovative opportunities to deal with some of these potential hazards by creating new products and services to benefit the planet and their business. Even when they’re not looking forward, I am. My mission and focus is to help them, whether they’re governments or communities or entrepreneurs, to look ahead and deal with what’s emerging. My message is: you can shape future outcomes if you forecast and plan today.
What’s emerging for medicine?
I see three stages that are all emerging in our lifetime. The first is in the area of therapeutic treatments. Many diseases such as cancer will become more manageable, for example. There will also be pharmaceuticals and devices to help deal with diseases that science has not been able to understand or detect at the genomic scale.
The second stage of medicine is going to be based on health enhancement — restoring and enhancing memories, creating new organs on demand, enhancing mobility — all part of the future of regenerative medicine. That will be done with tissue re-engineering, cell re-engineering, genetic enhancements and geomedicine — to enable a longer, healthier life.
The third stage is what I call “evolutionary redesign,” and it’s fraught with many ethical issues and challenges. It’s based on the ability to do diagnostic genomic sequencing prior to birth and as an adult. This may result in turning off genes that might otherwise express unwanted mental or physical diseases.
Also, there are five key technologies — nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, neurotechnology and quantum technology — that will be part of what I call a “strategic convergence” that will transform our civilization for the next 100 years. A slice of that, of course, involves the future of medicine, and it will be predicated on our living longer and needing to live healthier. Preventing many diseases, given these technologies, and enhancing health performance will become the next generation of medicine. Better prediction through early diagnostics will prevent disease.
Right now, for example, healthcare in Japan is providing a laboratory of what’s going to happen to the rest of the developed world in terms of aging. There’s depopulation going on, and because fewer people will be in the workforce, companies are investing heavily in robotics to care for an aging society. Down the road, distributed artificial intelligence will be running many social services where humans are unavailable, as well as utilities and energy in many nation states. That’s happening because we won’t be able to fix and enhance people fast enough to offset the big changes coming with global aging, which will affect economics, productivity and public health.
How can we become better prepared for these eventualities?
We must learn to become aware health consumers. We need to explore the innovations that give us insight into our health, such as wearables, from apps on your phone to wearable watches. Start paying attention to your health data, get your genome sequenced, and understand how personal lifestyle and genomics affect your own health status. We must invest faster in innovations like synthetic biology, nanotechnology, stem cells and big data analytics … to outthink diseases like Alzheimer’s, heart disease and diabetes. Make smarter prevention choices based on your data, such as genomics, nutrition and heart disease test data. All that data will go into developing a predictive health model of yourself and your family. And you should also start to share data with others both to improve everyone’s health and to inform research. It’s all part of a new era of “digital self-care.”
There are a tremendous amount of innovations yet to come, and that’s great, but we know that a big percentage of health and behavior can be influenced or managed more efficiently by lifestyle —everything from food, diet, stress management and exercise to choices we make in relationships and where we choose to live.
So individuals need to start taking more responsibility for their own health?
Definitely. Everybody’s responsible for their own health and their longevity. Their doctor is not responsible for their health. The healthcare system is not responsible for their health …. Environment and genetics count, but lifestyle behavior is very important. So my message is: yes, those innovations will give us new tools — analytic tools, digital tools and therapeutic tools — to better enhance our health, to help prevent disease, to predict what our healthy futures might look like and to help us live longer. But people still need to be motivated to take care of themselves – to be responsible for shaping their future.
We need to spend more time on prevention, prediction and health promotion. These strategies were never integrated into the traditional medical model, which involves disseminating care and treating disease, not focusing on prevention and education. But these strategies are critical now, and they’re driving us from a disease-centric medical model to a prevention-centric model.
How will medical and scientific research be impacted?
Some exciting research is already underway. For example, Dr. Leroy Hood, cofounder of the Institute of Systems Biology, studied healthy people in the 100K Wellness Project to look at all the factors that influence wellness. That’s led to a consumer project, Arivale, that aims to provide a personalized wellness map for individuals, and a roadmap of what they need to do to better manage a disease if they have it, prevent disease if they don’t have it, and have a better quality of life. That’s a move in the right direction. We need to know more about staying healthy.
With respect to the convergence of the five key technologies I mentioned, we need researchers working on all of them. We have new areas opening up for existing technology. For example, 3D printing will be in hospitals, in doctors’ offices and eventually in patients’ homes, printing things like pills customized to an individual’s specific health needs. Even organs on demand will transform medicine.
Nutrigenomics, which is the convergence of consumer genomics and nutrition, is another emerging trend that is an outlier right now. We need more research to be able to take advantage of it so people can know how their diet and DNA interact to promote their health.
Geomedicine is also in its infant stages. I can take existing public health data in any part of the world and forecast if, by living where they are, they’re at greater risk for cardiovascular disease or breast cancer. And that data will only get stronger. The ability to tie morbidity and mortality to geography has implications for public health. From a health policy perspective, we’ll need to ask, “Shouldn’t be we deploying different kinds of health resources to offset the risks we’re learning about from this geo-intelligence?”
Artificial intelligence will have a huge impact on the future of medicine. I worked on one of the first projects for IBM Watson, which is really a deep learning platform, to create an oncology advisor. My client, Bumrungrad International Hospital in Bangkok, Thailand, is partnering with IBM, MD Anderson and Mayo Clinic in the US as part of a consortium that’s teaching Watson what cancer is about. That’s so Watson can crunch millions of research studies and, from there, advise doctors and patients on cancer. That’s just one example of how AI-based deep learning will transform medicine. Computers will crunch exobytes of research that could prevent illness and also enhance our wellness.
So when I talk about the future of medicine and healthcare, I always emphasize that we need more data scientists that are trained in medicine to figure out how to offset disease and how to create more predictive models to keep people healthy.
Looking further ahead, as I do in my book Future Smart, I say that we will eventually see healthcare dominated by innovative companies engaged in regenerative and genomic medicine, which will open up personalized medicine to a global market. The market for health enhancement will seek to eliminate and better manage many diseases (while) enhancing intelligence and athletic ability and extending lifespan. Therapeutic cloning, early detection and consumer genomics will thrive and become invisibly integrated into the healthcare system as the demand for longevity and health enhancement becomes a reality. Driven by free market forces, a robust market will open up for just about everything related to longevity and regenerative medicine.
Right now, in many respects, we’re still in the Dark Ages. But the Renaissance is coming soon. The future of prediction, prevention and longevity will transform medicine in our lifetimes.
Elsevier Connect Contributor
Marilynn Larkin (@MarilynnL) is an award-winning science writer and editor who develops content for medical, scientific and consumer audiences. She was a contributing editor to The Lancet and its affiliated medical journals for more than 10 years and a regular contributor to the New York Academy of Sciences' publications and Reuters Health's professional newsfeed. She also launched and served as editor of Caring for the Ages, an official publication of the American Medical Directors Association. Larkin's articles also have appeared in Consumer Reports, Vogue, Woman's Day and many other consumer publications, and she is the author of five consumer health books.
As a consultant on postural awareness and confidence building, Larkin has presented to corporations and nonprofits and at regional and national meetings of, among others, the American Society on Aging and National Council on Aging, the American College of Sports Medicine, and New Jersey Dietetic Association.