October 31, 2010

New estimate for the number of habitable planets in the Milky Way: 2.5 billion!

Check out this article from Bad Astronomer: How many habitable planets are there in the galaxy?
By now you may have heard the report that as many as 1/4 of all the sun-like stars in the Milky Way may have Earth-like worlds. Briefly, astronomers studied 166 stars within 80 light years of Earth, and did a survey of the planets they found orbiting them. What they found is that about 1.5% of the stars have Jupiter-mass planets, 6% have Neptune-mass ones, and about 12% have planets from 3 – 10 times the Earth’s mass.
This sample isn’t complete, and they cannot detect planets smaller than 3 times the Earth’s mass. But using some statistics, they can estimate from the trend that as many as 25% of sun-like stars have earth-mass planets orbiting them!
His conclusion: There are over 2.5 billion habitable planets in our Galaxy. Whoa, my mind just melted.

Read more.

Anders Sandberg on the Active SETI risk

Anders Sandeberg, one of my favorite transhumanists and ETI theorists, has finally chimed in on the Active SETI debate (i.e. deliberate attempts to contact extraterrestrial intelligences to let them know about our existence). Active SETI has its fair share of detractors, most notably futurist, science fiction author (and occasional Sentient Developments contributor) David Brin who best articulated his concerns in the piece, Shouting at the cosmos: Or how SETI has taken a worrisome turn into dangerous territory. On the other side of the debate are thinkers like Dr. Alexander Zaitsev who believes we should in fact reach out and touch an alien someone.

Not surprisingly, Sandberg's contribution to the debate is unique and provocative. In his article, Inviting invasion: deep space advertisments and planetary security, Sandberg admits that it's hard to assess the risk, but that we might not like the answers:
There are two aspects to extraterrestrial risks: the probability that the signals will be received by somebody, and that we would (afterwards) wish the aliens did not receive them. Stephen Hawking argued that we should be cautious: to him the probability of aliens was relatively high, but he also thought the probability of them being risky was high...This risk might not be a direct invasion threat, but simply dangerous cultural transmissions: in the past some human societies have fared badly when in contact with more advanced societies. Even a radio signal might consist of an information hazard, for example containing infectious ideas or software. The aliens do not even have to be deliberately malicious: many humans would jump at the chance of converting non-believers to their favourite belief system, thinking they do them a great service.

While optimists about SETI tend to think communications would be benign, it is hard to assign a probability to it. The only thing we can say is that we have not seen any alien communications or even signs of them, which suggests that aliens either do not exist, we are not receiving anything from them (e.g. they are too far away or we are listening on the wrong wavelengths) or they are keeping quiet.

From a species survival perspective we should generally prefer the middle answer. Why? If we are the only ones it means that either intelligent life is exceedingly improbable and we are lucky, or that intelligent life is not so uncommon but something wipes it out before it starts to spam the universe. Bad news. If there are aliens and they keep quiet, then they must have a very good and consistent reason. This could again be something positive or neutral (e.g. they are too alien to communicate, they all do not wish to interfere with us) or something bad (e.g. civilizations that remain obvious fall prey to self-replicating weapons). Only the boring middle answer - that we simply cannot communicate for technical or distance reasons - implies safety.
Ouch. And I'm sure Sandberg would agree that the boring answer is also very likely the most improbable answer--particularly given all the recent evidence indicating that the Galaxy may be teaming with Earth-like planets.

Ben Goertzel dismisses Singularity Institute's "Scary Idea"

AI theorist Ben Goertzel has posted an article in which he declares his rejection of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence's claim that "progressing toward advanced AGI without a design for "provably non-dangerous AGI"...is highly likely to lead to an involuntary end for the human race." Goertzel calls this their "Scary Idea" and attempts to show that the fear is largely overstated.

He breaks the SIAI argument down to four primary points:

  1. If one pulled a random mind from the space of all possible minds, the odds of it being friendly to humans (as opposed to, e.g., utterly ignoring us, and being willing to repurpose our molecules for its own ends) are very low
  2. Human value is fragile as well as complex, so if you create an AGI with a roughly-human-like value system, then this may not be good enough, and it is likely to rapidly diverge into something with little or no respect for human values
  3. "Hard takeoffs" (in which AGIs recursively self-improve and massively increase their intelligence) are fairly likely once AGI reaches a certain level of intelligence; and humans will have little hope of stopping these events
  4. A hard takeoff, unless it starts from an AGI designed in a "provably Friendly" way, is highly likely to lead to an AGI system that doesn't respect the rights of humans to exist
Taking these points into consideration, Goertzel pieces together what he feels is the SIAI's argument:
If someone builds an advanced AGI without a provably Friendly architecture, probably it will have a hard takeoff, and then probably this will lead to a superhuman AGI system with an architecture drawn from the vast majority of mind-architectures that are not sufficiently harmonious with the complex, fragile human value system to make humans happy and keep humans around.
Goertzel then expresses his particular concerns with this argument, including SIAI's Eliezer Yudkowsky's suggestion that we can get human values into an AGI system, what he calls Coherent Extrapolated Volition:
...I think this is a very science-fictional and incredibly infeasible idea (though a great SF notion). I've discussed it and proposed some possibly more realistic alternatives in a previous blog post (e.g. a notion called Coherent Aggregated Volition). But my proposed alternatives aren't guaranteed-to-succeed nor neatly formalized.

But setting those worries aside, is the computation-theoretic version of provably safe AI even possible? Could one design an AGI system and prove in advance that, given certain reasonable assumptions about physics and its environment, it would never veer too far from its initial goal (e.g. a formalized version of the goal of treating humans safely, or whatever)?

I very much doubt one can do so, except via designing a fictitious AGI that can't really be implemented because it uses infeasibly much computational resources. My GOLEM design, sketched in this article, seems to me a possible path to a provably safe AGI -- but it's too computationally wasteful to be practically feasible.
Oooh, it looks like we have the makings of a great debate, here. I'll be interested to see if the SIAI retorts and how they address Goertzel's concerns.

U.S. says genes should not be patented

Major news: The federal government in the United States has declared that human and other genes should not be eligible for patents because they are part of nature. This is a reversal of a rather longstanding policy; the new position will have a huge impact on medicine and on the biotechnology industry.

The ruling is likely to draw protests from some biotechnology companies that say such patents are vital to the development of diagnostic tests, drugs and the emerging field of personalized medicine, in which drugs are tailored for individual patients based on their genes.

Opponents, on the other hand, say that genes are products of nature, not inventions, and should be the common heritage of humanity. They feel that locking up basic genetic information in patents actually impedes medical progress. Proponents, however, say genes isolated from the body are chemicals that are different from those found in the body and therefore are eligible for patents.

But the government disagrees: It now contends that the mere isolation of a gene, without further alteration or manipulation, does not change its nature. "The chemical structure of native human genes is a product of nature, and it is no less a product of nature when that structure is 'isolated' from its natural environment than are cotton fibers that have been separated from cotton seeds or coal that has been extracted from the earth," the Department of Justice brief said. Moreover, the government suggested that such a change would have limited impact on the biotechnology industry because man-made manipulations of DNA, like methods to create genetically modified crops or gene therapies, could still be patented.

I'm pleased with this ruling, but admittedly concerned. I think the DoJ's reasoning is a bit flawed and will likely be overruled in short order. I'm also concerned that such a restriction will in fact inhibit innovation in these areas, particularly as far as the health sciences are concerned. But where I'm happy is in the suggestion that our genes, whether they be native or synthetic, remain under our own personal ownership. The idea of having a corporation own a patent for a genetic sequence in your DNA is a bit distasteful and potentially problematic to say the least.

Want to feel good at 100? Here's how.

Good news: Studies are increasingly showing that the rate of physical decline caused by aging can be advantageously tweaked by a variety of interventions, and it often doesn't matter whether you're 50 or 90 when you start tweaking. You just have to get started—something I noted in my recent article, Get Stronger, Live Longer. And as Dr. Mark Lachs notes, author of the book, Treat Me, Not My Age, "The embers of disability begin smoldering long before you’re handed a walker."

For more along these lines, check out the recent NYT article, What to do now to feel better at 100:
Muscle strength also declines with age, even in the absence of a muscular disease. Most people (bodybuilders excluded) achieve peak muscle strength between 20 and 30, with variations depending on the muscle group. After that, strength slowly declines, eventually resulting in telling symptoms of muscle weakness, like falling, and difficulty with essential daily tasks, like getting up from a chair or in and out of the tub.

Most otherwise healthy people do not become incapacitated by lost muscle strength until they are 80 or 90. But thanks to advances in medicine and overall living conditions, many more people are reaching those ages, Dr. Lachs writes: “Today millions of people have survived long enough to keep a date with immobility.”

The good news is that the age of immobility can be modified. As life expectancy rises and more people live to celebrate their 100th birthday, postponing the time when physical independence can no longer be maintained is a goal worth striving for.

Meta-research and the exposure of bogus science

Image credit: Robyn Twomey/Redux
Disturbing, revealing and even somewhat unsurprising, The Atlantic has published a piece on how medical researchers are consistently coming up with conclusions that are misleading, exaggerated and even flat-out long. In the article, titled Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science, the work of meta-researcher Dr. John Ioannidis is explored; he has spent his career challenging his peers by exposing their questionable science. And just as importantly, he asks the question: Why are so many doctors still drawing upon misinformation in their everyday practice?
One of the researchers, a biostatistician named Georgia Salanti, fired up a laptop and projector and started to take the group through a study she and a few colleagues were completing that asked this question: were drug companies manipulating published research to make their drugs look good? Salanti ticked off data that seemed to indicate they were, but the other team members almost immediately started interrupting. One noted that Salanti’s study didn’t address the fact that drug-company research wasn’t measuring critically important “hard” outcomes for patients, such as survival versus death, and instead tended to measure “softer” outcomes, such as self-reported symptoms (“my chest doesn’t hurt as much today”). Another pointed out that Salanti’s study ignored the fact that when drug-company data seemed to show patients’ health improving, the data often failed to show that the drug was responsible, or that the improvement was more than marginal.

Salanti remained poised, as if the grilling were par for the course, and gamely acknowledged that the suggestions were all good—but a single study can’t prove everything, she said. Just as I was getting the sense that the data in drug studies were endlessly malleable, Ioannidis, who had mostly been listening, delivered what felt like a coup de grâce: wasn’t it possible, he asked, that drug companies were carefully selecting the topics of their studies—for example, comparing their new drugs against those already known to be inferior to others on the market—so that they were ahead of the game even before the data juggling began? “Maybe sometimes it’s the questions that are biased, not the answers,” he said, flashing a friendly smile. Everyone nodded. Though the results of drug studies often make newspaper headlines, you have to wonder whether they prove anything at all. Indeed, given the breadth of the potential problems raised at the meeting, can any medical-research studies be trusted?

That question has been central to Ioannidis’s career. He’s what’s known as a meta-researcher, and he’s become one of the world’s foremost experts on the credibility of medical research. He and his team have shown, again and again, and in many different ways, that much of what biomedical researchers conclude in published studies—conclusions that doctors keep in mind when they prescribe antibiotics or blood-pressure medication, or when they advise us to consume more fiber or less meat, or when they recommend surgery for heart disease or back pain—is misleading, exaggerated, and often flat-out wrong. He charges that as much as 90 percent of the published medical information that doctors rely on is flawed. His work has been widely accepted by the medical community; it has been published in the field’s top journals, where it is heavily cited; and he is a big draw at conferences. Given this exposure, and the fact that his work broadly targets everyone else’s work in medicine, as well as everything that physicians do and all the health advice we get, Ioannidis may be one of the most influential scientists alive. Yet for all his influence, he worries that the field of medical research is so pervasively flawed, and so riddled with conflicts of interest, that it might be chronically resistant to change—or even to publicly admitting that there’s a problem.
Read more.

October 30, 2010

Human liver grown in lab

For the first time, human cells have been used to create a lab-grown liver.

This Magazine: Technology, ethics, and the real meaning of the “Rapture of the Nerds”

Chris Kim
Keith Norbury of This Magazine has published a piece called Technology, ethics, and the real meaning of the “Rapture of the Nerds”. I was interviewed for this article and asked questions about the state of transhumanism and singularitarianism today in Toronto and Canada in general. We also discussed the the tendency of the press and the public to roll all transhumanists into the Singularity camp, which, as I pointed out, was a mistake:
Not all people who believe in technology’s power to transform humanity are Singularitarians. Transhumanists, as their name implies, also expect technology to alter the species. “These are two communities that seem to have a connection,” says George Dvorsky, president of the Toronto Transhumanist Association. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that one follows the other. I happen to know many transhumanists who don’t buy into the Singularity at all.”

While both groups believe that rapid technological progress will radically reshape our lives, the Singularitarians believe a unified, superhuman intelligence is a necessary part of that change. Transhumanists believe no such super-intelligent entity is necessary. Either way, both believe that our future will be completely unrecognizable. “We are talking about transforming what it means to be human,” Dvorsky says.
The article also goes on to describe how interest in the TTA and local transhumanist chapters has waned in the past several years. I'm rather frustrated by Norbury's angle on this, which is to suggest that the fringe is getting fringier, and that good work isn't being done in these areas through other channels. The fact of the matter is that these ideas, namely the notion of human enhancement and the unknown potential for a greater-than-human artificial intelligence, are being addressed by a diverse and distributed group of individuals—and just as importantly, these ideas are slowly (but surely) being normalized into our daily discourse.

Indeed, organizing local meet-ups are all fine and well, but that's not where the rubber hits the road. I've made a conscious effort over the past few years to devote most of my time and energy to my blog, Humanity+, and the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies where my outreach is considerably greater and more impactful than through a local chapter alone. Annoyingly, Norbury failed to make mention any of these and chose to focus on the TTA and chapter-level organizing which is no longer of any real interest to me.

October 29, 2010

NYT: The Age of Alzheimer's

Anthony Russo
Along the same lines of my recent article about why life extensionists need to be concerned about neurological diseases, the New York Times has published an OpEd about how we're entering the Age of Alzheimer's. The authors, Sandra Day O'Connor, Stanley Prusiner, and Ken Dychtwald, don't mince words about the pending crisis and what needs to be done about it:
Our government is ignoring what is likely to become the single greatest threat to the health of Americans: Alzheimer’s disease, an illness that is 100 percent incurable and 100 percent fatal. It attacks rich and poor, white-collar and blue, and women and men, without regard to party. A degenerative disease, it steadily robs its victims of memory, judgment and dignity, leaves them unable to care for themselves and destroys their brain and their identity — often depleting their caregivers and families both emotionally and financially.

Starting on Jan. 1, our 79-million-strong baby boom generation will be turning 65 at the rate of one every eight seconds. That means more than 10,000 people per day, or more than four million per year, for the next 19 years facing an increased risk of Alzheimer’s. Although the symptoms of this disease and other forms of dementia seldom appear before middle age, the likelihood of their appearance doubles every five years after age 65. Among people over 85 (the fastest-growing segment of the American population), dementia afflicts one in two. It is estimated that 13.5 million Americans will be stricken with Alzheimer’s by 2050 — up from five million today.

Just as President John F. Kennedy, in 1961, dedicated the United States to landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade, we must now set a goal of stopping Alzheimer’s by 2020. We must deploy sufficient resources, scientific talent and problem-solving technologies to save our collective future.

-------------------

A breakthrough is possible by 2020, leading Alzheimer’s scientists agree, with a well-designed and adequately financed national strategic plan. Congress has before it legislation that would raise the annual federal investment in Alzheimer’s research to $2 billion, and require that the president designate an official whose sole job would be to develop and execute a strategy against Alzheimer’s. If lawmakers could pass this legislation in their coming lame-duck session, they would take a serious first step toward meeting the 2020 goal.
Read more.

October 28, 2010

Is low sex drive a disorder? It is if you think it is.

Lots of fuss these days over Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD), particularly as it pertains to women's health. The disorder, which used to be called Inhibited Sexual Desire Disorder, is in the DSM-III-R and is characterized as a lack or absence of sexual fantasies and desire for sexual activity for some period of time. It's important to note that, for this to be regarded as a disorder, it must cause marked distress or interpersonal difficulties and not be better accounted for by another mental disorder (i.e. depression), a drug (legal or illegal), or some other medical condition.

But not everyone agrees that it's a genuine disorder. Part of the problem is that it's open to a wide interpretation, and no one really knows what's causing it. That said, a recent study suggests that women with persistently low sex drives have significant differences in brain activity, indicating that the problem is indeed neurologically based.

Regardless, some critics say that HSDD is yet another example of the medicalization of sexuality by the medical profession to define normal sexuality, including the pathologization of asexuality. Others point out that there are significant differences between male and female sexuality; level of desire is highly variable among women and there are some who are considered sexually functional who have no active desire for sex, but they can erotically respond well in contexts they find acceptable (what has been termed "responsive desire" as opposed to spontaneous desire). There are also relationships to consider; the focus on physiological factors may ignore the relationship context of sexuality despite the fact that these are often the cause of sexual problems. Lastly, there are yet others who contend that HSDD is an invention of Big Pharma who are now ready to cash in with the (potential) release of a female Viagra-like pill.

Undeniably, these criticisms address some valid concerns—but they're largely missing the point. If a woman feels that her libido is low, and she has the means with which to achieve a desired level of sexual responsiveness (i.e. she wants to 'function' in a particular way), then it can be genuinely classified as a disorder.

Admittedly, "disorder" may be too strong a term, but it's a good example of how an enhancement eventually becomes a therapy. Let's suppose for a moment that HSDD is pure fiction and that female sexuality is largely operating within normal bounds. Now, thanks to the marvels of modern medical science, we can tweak libido such that a more desirable state is achieved. Once such an intervention hits the market and becomes normalized across groups, then its absence can be characterized, for all intents and purposes, as the cause of a dysfunction. It has become a pathology.

That's how enhancement works, and that's why the whole therapy versus enhancement debate is mostly useless. What we consider normal human functioning today is not necessarily what we'll consider normal in the future.

One last point, and one that speaks to the title of this post: If your body is not functioning in the way you believe it should, or in the way you want, you are experiencing a "disorder" of sorts. This becomes all the more cogent when there's a way to overcome the limitation, namely through some sort of medical intervention. The argument can be made that a condition becomes a condition once we have the means to overcome it.

So ladies, don't believe the negative hype. You know your own mind and body best, and if you believe that taking a pill can and will enhance your sex life, go for it.

October 27, 2010

Improving drug delivery with nanotechnology

About 99% of medicinal molecules don't reach their targets and subsequently stay in the body of patients. Some of these molecules can be very toxic—particularly in the case of those designed to target cancers. Consequently, research is being undertaken to find more effective ways of safely transporting and delivering drugs. This is where medical nanotechnology may be able to help.

Researchers are hoping to create a device which can carry a drug payload to its target, be monitored throughout its journey, and deliver—and all without being attacked and destroyed by the body's natural defences. This calls for a rather complex system and, among other things, possesses stealth design characteristics. Such a schema is described in this video:

Methuselah Foundation's NewOrgan Prize

As noted in the previous article, the Methuselah Foundation recently launched the NewOrgan Prize which will be awarded to the first scientist to produce and successfully transplant an organ using regenerative medicine. The contest is meant to speed up the research process and bring the promise of regenerative medicine to reality. As the US Department of Health & Human Services has stated, "Regenerative medicine will be the standard of care for replacing organ systems in the body." The trick is to make it happen.

When it comes to reconstructing a new organ, "new organ engineering" will require the development of all tissues that build the organ including muscle, nerves, arteries and veins. The challenges and limitations of the current system for organ replacement are well documented, including the agony of waiting for a donor to die, lifelong limitations from immunosuppressant drugs, and possible organ rejection. And the sad reality is that many die without receiving a new organ or even qualifying to be considered.



From the Methuselah Foundation website:
We envision a world where everyone who needs an organ gets an organ. And, in the Methuselah Foundation quest for everyone to live a long healthy life, we advocate a system that provides new organs and long-term health. We call that system NewOrganomics.

The promise of NewOrganomics is to provide a new organ to any patient in need, not from a donor or from the black market but rather built from their own cells. NewOrgan Prize was created to reach this ambitious goal. We need your support to make it happen. Be Organomical, donate today.

Wired interview with life extensionist Aubrey de Grey



Wired has posted an excellent interview with biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey. The discussion covers a lot of ground, including recent advancements in the field, the NewOrgan Prize, funding issues, the media and insights into Aubrey's personal life. Here are some highlights:
Wired.com: So you’ve obviously put a lot of effort into messaging. Yet, you say your ideas are often misconstrued and misrepresented.

de Grey: I’ve found it frustrating the media, especially, are pretty much fixated on the longevity aspects and not on the health aspects. It wouldn’t annoy me so much if it was not so overdone. But even the most highbrow write-ups, like one in The Economist a couple of years ago for example, every single one has the word “immortality” or “living forever” in the title of the article. It does wind me up a little bit.

Wired.com: Why do you suppose they do that?

de Grey: Sells papers. You don’t have to ask me, you’re the journalist.

Wired.com: Press also helps get funding, no?

de Grey: No, rather the opposite. It makes it sound like entertainment. It sounds like science fiction and not real science. It really actively detracts from my ability to get funding.
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Wired.com: You’ve said that when these treatments become a reality, they should be free and available to all.

de Grey: It’s not a matter of should. I’m not making a political opinion here. I’m saying it’s inevitable they will be.

Wired.com: Right. Governments would minimize the costs of taking care of the elderly by investing money up front.

de Grey: Right. The developing world is more fragile, but certainly within the industrialized world — and that of course will include China and India at that point — I think we can be absolutely certain the ability to pay will not be an issue.

Wired.com: Do you think people who engage in risk-heavy behavior — say, smoking — should be given rejuvenation treatments regardless?

de Grey: Absolutely. But the reason I can say that so confidently is simply because risks like smoking or overeating will simply not be so risky anymore. It’s possible those therapies will need to be applied somewhat more frequently to such people than to other people. But still we’re talking there about something that’s happening to everybody. So it’s something that won’t be the subject of insurance, it will be something preventative that will be provided routinely.

Wired.com: It’s difficult to imagine a time where people who have more money won’t have access first.

de Grey: Oh yeah. The question is what will the interval be. Remember, these are going to be experimental treatments. If I was Bill Gates I wouldn’t want to be first, right? There are going to be risks. Things are going to go wrong early on. And as far as I’m concerned, the more goes wrong the better, in the sense I sure as fuck don’t want all of these treatments to be made restricted to only people in clinical trials until Phase III is over.
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You’ve had what you consider huge breakthroughs in hotels in California, a pub in Italy, a hotel in Dresden. How does being away from home and hanging out in pubs inform your thinking?

de Grey: It is important both in terms of how I think and also especially in terms of how I actually do my work; how I actually get the idea out and so on. I’ve given a talk on How To Be a Successful Heretic. It’s a 10-point plan. And one of them is “Be everywhere (a pint is worth 1,000 words).” You know, beer just works for me. I’m just lucky that way.

Wired.com: What do you mean?

de Grey: It just helps me to think. I just communicate well in the context of alcohol, somehow as well as thinking. Also, it’s a bit of a role model thing. As I mentioned, the Methuselah Foundation had a bit of a problem with looking a bit too much like a fan club. But one could go too far the other way. I think having a bit of a personality cult around what I do works well. I have to obviously give a positive impression at many levels. I have to know my stuff, but you don’t do that in superficial interviews. You do that in the literature.

So I think it is important to show I enjoy my life. [Jason] Pontin in Technology Review tried to basically say I was this very circumscribed individual, and I looked as though I wasn’t enjoying my life, drinking too much beer. Outrageous. That pissed me off a lot. [laughs]

Wired.com: That you drink too much beer?

de Grey: Yeah, I mean how would they know how much is too much?

Wired.com: Yeah, especially since you’re basically a 30-year-old on the inside.

de Grey: Quite. It works. I drink exactly the right amount of beer evidently. [laughs] It’s ridiculous, really. Yet, I have to show I’m enjoying my life. It’s public knowledge I am polyamorous as well. That’s something that goes down not so well with some of my more politically sensitive friends and colleagues. But it goes quite well with some other people. [laughs]

October 25, 2010

Breasts and the future of regenerative medicine

Wired has published an article about the seminal work being done by Chris Calhoun in the burgeoning biotechnological field of tissue engineering. Calhoun and his team are using stem cells—specifically stem-cell-enriched adipose (fat) tissue—to enhance, heal, and rebuild injured or damaged organs. Interestingly, it is through their work on reconstructing breasts damaged by cancer and mastectomies that they were able to make their breakthrough.

And just as profoundly, it is yet another example of how a therapeutic intervention can also be used for cosmetic or enhancement purposes.

"It’s the first practical cell therapy," says Calhoun "And it’s breasts." Which means cancer victims with breasts mutilated by surgery—as well as women who are simply unhappy with their natural assets—can now grow a new and improved pair, with raw materials harvested from their own body fat.

Yet that's only part of the story; there is massive potential here for a revolution in regenerative medicine and in the ways in which it can be used and delivered:
But breast augmentation is just one development (so to speak) in the company’s more ambitious plan: to introduce stem cell medicine to the mass market—and not using the ethically fraught kind of stem cells from human embryos. Instead, based on almost a decade of trials that Cytori and its academic partners have performed on cell cultures, lab rodents, and now humans, they believe their engineered flab cells can treat more organs than you find in a French butcher shop. Chronic heart disease? Check: In human studies released in May, the cells improved patients’ aerobic capacity and shrank the size of the infarct (tissue killed by lack of blood). Heart attack? Check: A human clinical trial, also reported in May, found that the cells increased both the blood supply to damaged heart muscle and the volume of blood that the heart pumped. Kidney injury as a result of cancer therapy? Check: In recent rat studies, the cells improved kidney function. Incontinence after prostatectomy? Check: Another recent study reported that, by 12 weeks after injection, the cells had decreased the amount of urine male volunteers were leaking by 89 percent. If Calhoun and his scientists succeed, they won’t just create more cleavage. They’ll make practical a whole new field, one that medical visionaries have dreamed of for decades: regenerative medicine.
More.

Jeff McMahan on eliminating carnivorism in the natural world

This is one of the most important and thought-provoking articles I've read in the New York Times in quite some time: The Meat Eaters by Rutgers philosopher Jeff McMahan.

In the article, McMahan asks the question, "Would the controlled extinction of carnivorous species be a good thing?" His conclusion is yes:
The conflict, therefore, must be between preventing suffering and respecting the alleged sacredness — or, as I would phrase it, the impersonal value — of carnivorous species. Again, the claim that suffering is bad for those who experience it and thus ought in general to be prevented when possible cannot be seriously doubted. Yet the idea that individual animal species have value in themselves is less obvious. What, after all, are species? According to Darwin, they “are merely artificial combinations made for convenience.” They are collections of individuals distinguished by biologists that shade into one another over time and sometimes blur together even among contemporaneous individuals, as in the case of ring species. There are no universally agreed criteria for their individuation. In practice, the most commonly invoked criterion is the capacity for interbreeding, yet this is well known to be imperfect and to entail intransitivities of classification when applied to ring species. Nor has it ever been satisfactorily explained why a special sort of value should inhere in a collection of individuals simply by virtue of their ability to produce fertile offspring. If it is good, as I think it is, that animal life should continue, then it is instrumentally good that some animals can breed with one another. But I can see no reason to suppose that donkeys, as a group, have a special impersonal value that mules lack.

Even if animal species did have impersonal value, it would not follow that they were irreplaceable. Since animals first appeared on earth, an indefinite number of species have become extinct while an indefinite number of new species have arisen. If the appearance of new species cannot make up for the extinction of others, and if the earth could not simultaneously sustain all the species that have ever existed, it seems that it would have been better if the earliest species had never become extinct, with the consequence that the later ones would never have existed. But few of us, with our high regard for our own species, are likely to embrace that implication.

Here, then, is where matters stand thus far. It would be good to prevent the vast suffering and countless violent deaths caused by predation. There is therefore one reason to think that it would be instrumentally good if predatory animal species were to become extinct and be replaced by new herbivorous species, provided that this could occur without ecological upheaval involving more harm than would be prevented by the end of predation. The claim that existing animal species are sacred or irreplaceable is subverted by the moral irrelevance of the criteria for individuating animal species. I am therefore inclined to embrace the heretical conclusion that we have reason to desire the extinction of all carnivorous species, and I await the usual fate of heretics when this article is opened to comment.
It's worth noting that McMahan, like a number of abolitionist transhumanists, have advocated something like this for quite some time nowa group of thinkers that includes myself, David Pearce, Pablo Stafforini, Michael Anissimov and others. David Pearce's contribution to the discussion is the most significant, and it would have been nice to have seen McMahan make mention of it.

As for me, I've argued for something even more extreme and sweeping than selective extinction or the reprogramming of predators; I've made the case that we are morally obligated to uplift the entire animal kingdom so that they may join posthumanity in postbiological existence.

With McMahan's contribution hitting the mainstream, however, I am excited beyond words. The meme is out there; now let's see where we take it.

October 24, 2010

Jamais Cascio on CBC's Surviving the Future

Check out IEET senior fellow Jamais Cascio on the CBC's Surviving the Future:

Surviving the Future: Jamais Cascio excerpts from Jamais Cascio on Vimeo.

Get stronger, live longer

There's an article over at BrainBlogger that has reaffirmed something I've suspected for quite some time now: Physical strength predicts mortality. Makes sense when you think about it. Building up physical strength and pocketing it for our later years seems like a smart life extension strategy—and clinical research is now indicating that this idea works.

Frailty inexorably leads to increased vulnerability, decreased tolerance for internal and external stressors, and an inability to maintain physiologic and psychosocial equilibrium. And as s a clinical syndrome, frailty is characterized by low physical activity, low muscle strength, increased fatigue, slowness of gait, and weight loss, and it is associated with adverse health outcomes, including dependency, disability, hospitalization, institutionalization, and mortality. Weaker elderly people experience a significantly higher risk of falls, decreased mobility, disability, hospitalization, and death.

So the message is clear: get going on your strength work and get going now—and the younger you start, the better. Cognitive and physical markers of physical performance and frailty are evident as early as childhood. Research shows that men and women with the highest cognitive performance and slowest memory decline throughout life perform better on tests of standing balance and chair rising speed. Additionally, children who performed better at milestone attainment in childhood, cognitive ability, and motor coordination showed better physical performance and muscular strength later in life.

It would appear, therefore, that healthy living in later life begins in childhood.

Reshaping our moral sense with science

New Scientist recently published a special series called Morality Put to the Test. Among the more interesting and provocative articles is the one by Fiery Cushman, a moral psychologist at Harvard University. In his article, titled Morality: Don't be afraid – science can make us better, Cushman argues that we should embrace rather than fear the knowledge science brings as it unravels morality's muddles:
We have long thought of moral laws as fixed points of reality, self-evident truths rooted in divine command or in some Platonic realm of absolute rights and wrongs. But new research is offering an alternative, explaining moral attitudes in the context of evolution, culture and the neural architecture of our brains. This apparent reduction of morality to a scientific specimen can seem threatening, but it needn't. Rather, by unmasking our minds as the authors of morality, we may be better able to bend its narrative arc towards a happy end.
He continues,
...moral rules are born in human minds. For many, this is deeply threatening. Moral rules must be immutable and eternal, they say, like the speed of light or the mass of a proton. Otherwise, why should we obey them?

As we come to a scientific understanding of morality, society is not going to descend into anarchy. Instead, we may be able to shape our moral thinking towards nobler ends. Which norms of fairness foster economic prosperity? What are the appropriate limits on assisting a patient's end-of-life decisions? By recognising morality as a property of the mind, we gain a magical power of control over its future.
Entire article.

One-way mission to Mars idea nothing new

For all of you excited by the whole 'one-way mission to Mars' idea, you should probably know that this strategy has been around for quite some time now. NASA engineers Robert Zubrin and David Baker originally detailed the Mars Direct plan in 1990 and was later expanded upon in Zubrin's 1996 book, The Case for Mars. It now serves as a staple of Zubrin's speaking engagements and general advocacy as head of the Mars Society, an organization devoted to the colonization of Mars.

Dirk Schulze-Makuch and Paul Davies, in their recent Journal of Cosmology article, are merely riffing off and expanding upon this original idea.

Regardless, it is a very good idea.

We already have the requisite technologies required to pull off such a mission. All we need is the will.

And finding volunteers for a one-way mission shouldn't be a problem. I'm sure there are many hopefuls chomping at the bit over such an opportunity. And it doesn't necessarily have to be a permanently one-way mission; given enough time and infrastructure development, the original team could eventually make their way back home.

I'm also partial to the idea of sending a perpetual chain of supplies to an established Martian base. It makes so much sense; just going to Mars and back (a la Apollo missions) seems a bit ridiculous, wasteful and pointless. As Schulze-Makuch and Davies note in their article, To Boldly Go: A One-Way Human Mission to Mars, the red planet is concealing a a wealth of geological and astronomical data that is almost impossible to access from Earth using robotic probes. “A permanent human presence on Mars would open the way to comparative planetology on a scale unimagined by any former generation," they write, "A Mars base would offer a springboard for human/robotic exploration of the outer solar system and the asteroid belt. And establishing a permanent multicultural and multinational human presence on another world would have major beneficial political and social implications for Earth, and serve as a strong unifying and uplifting theme for all humanity.”

Bingo. Moreover, our survival as a species may depend on it. While I have our doubts about humanity ever becoming in interstellar species, we are clearly on track to becoming intrastellar. There's no reason to believe that we can't (or shouldn't) find ways to inhabit space and other planets in our solar system. The imperative to do so has never been more obvious; all our eggs are in one basket at the dawn of a potential apocalyptic age.

So yes, get your ass to Mars.

Why life extensionists need to be concerned about neurological diseases

I'm having a hard time getting excited these days about apparent advances in longevity medicine. Don't get me wrong, many of these breakthroughs are truly fantastic, such as a potential pill to mimic the effects of caloric restriction, or the ability to reverse aging of human muscle tissue. What troubles me, however, is that many of these advances don't address the single most important aging related problem we face today: neurological diseases. Until we can meaningfully treat age-related cognitive decline, many of these other life extending advances are a moot point; what we're in danger of doing right now is extending lifespan, but not necessarily healthy life span.

The human brain degrades quickly with advanced age and, as a result, represents the weakest link in the life extension chain; as far as I'm concerned it's full stop until we can meaningfully fix the cognitive problems associated with aging.

Yes, age-associated diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular disease are clearly bad, but the most devastating of these involve the nervous system—diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. These diseases take a brutal toll on individuals and their families, often virtually killing the person well before they die.

That we are facing a looming epidemic of neurological diseases shouldn't really come as a surprise to anyone. But what is surprising is that very few people are actively doing anything about it. And it's not that the writing isn't on the wall—it is. The time to act is now.

The problem

In 40 years a significant proportion of the world population will be 65 and over, a combination of surviving Baby Boomers and Generation X'ers. Collectively, this demographic might outnumber the remaining population, meaning that elderly persons will make up the majority. That's rather astounding when you think about it, not to mention precedent setting.

The reasons for this trend are well documented. Average lifespan has more than doubled since 1840 and is steadily increasing at a rate of five hours every day. We are healthier, safer and more vibrant over the course of our lives than ever before—a factor that is leading to increased longevity. And not only are we staying physically healthier for longer periods, we are also remaining mentally sharper into our eldery years; a recent study showed that 70-year-olds are smarter than they used to be.

But the double-edged sword that is extended life is not without its limits.

The chances of acquiring a neurological disease like Alzheimer's increases exponentially after the age of 65, and it is estimated that within the next 50 years approximately 30% of the population will be aged 65 years or older. Of those between 75 and 84 years of age, 6 million will exhibit some form of Alzheimer's symptoms, and of those older than 85 years, over 12 million will have some form of dementia associated with it. Disturbingly, many cognitive changes occur even in the absence of specific age-related neurodegenerative diseases. Common components thought to contribute to the manifestation of these disorders and normal age-related declines in brain performance are increased susceptibility to long-term effects of oxidative stress and inflammatory insults. Should we fail to reduce these age-related decrements in neuronal function, health care costs will continue to rise exponentially, as will the amount of human suffering.

Solutions

There is currently no cure or (meaningful) prevention for most of these diseases. At least not yet.

Age-associated cognitive decline is currently costing the healthcare system a third of a trillion dollars per year. It is estimated that by 2050 this figure will exceed a trillion. As it stands, the largest benefactors to these lines of research are philanthropies. Governments, on the other hand, have largely ignored the issue. This has obviously got to change.

In terms of research, there are a number of teams tackling this problem from different angles, including Gregory Petsko, professor of biochemistry and chemistry at Oxford University. He is working to untangle misfolded proteins responsible for neurological decline. He is trying to develop a kind of "molecular scotch tape" to help proteins keep their shape and prevent tangles.

It's these tangles of misfolded proteins that Petsko believes is responsible for not just Alzheimer's, but possibly all age-associated cognitive decline. If true, then finding a treatment for any of them should help in treating all of them.

Other possible approaches include the use of phytochemicals to improve age-related neurological dysfunction, or, in the case of Parkinson's, coaxing dormant neurons to take on the dopamine-producing role of damaged neurons and to restore the brain's control of movement. There are obviously many more approaches, and there's no telling which line of inquiry will prove to be the most effective, but it's early days. The prevention and curing of cognitive decline will likely involve a host of treatments as it's likely caused by a multiplicity of factors.

Solutions for today

In the meantime there are things you can do today. For Parkinson's prevention, be sure to ingest caffeine and avoid head injuries. For those at risk of Alzheimer's, be sure to eat lots of fish oil, keep your blood pressure down (as it appears to be the single most important risk factor), and keep yourself mentally stimulated (use it or lose it, as they say).

And lastly, do what you can to either fund or promote research that works to reduce or eliminate the effects of age-associated neurological diseases. Your future mental health will likely depend on it.

Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson discuss ideas and technology

Wired contributors Steven Johnson and Kevin Kelly have recently released books on the history of innovation in which they argue that great discoveries typically spring not from individual minds but from the hive mind.

In Johnson's book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, he draws on seven centuries of scientific and technological progress, from Gutenberg to GPS, to show what sorts of environments nurture ingenuity. Johnson reveals that great creative milieus, whether MIT or Los Alamos, New York City or the World Wide Web, are like coral reefs—teeming, diverse colonies of creators who interact with and influence one another.

Kelly’s book, What Technology Wants, looks back over some 50,000 years of history and peers nearly that far into the future. His argument is similarly sweeping: Technology can be seen as a sort of autonomous life-form, with intrinsic goals toward which it gropes over the course of its long development. Those goals are much like the tendencies of biological life, which over time diversifies, specializes, and (eventually) becomes more sentient.

Wired recently brought the two together for a discussion, and it's a must-read:
Kelly: I think there are a lot of ideas today that are ahead of their time. Human cloning, autopilot cars, patent-free law—all are close technically but too many steps ahead culturally. Innovating is about more than just having the idea yourself; you also have to bring everyone else to where your idea is. And that becomes really difficult if you’re too many steps ahead.

Johnson: The scientist Stuart Kauffman calls this the “adjacent possible.” At any given moment in evolution—of life, of natural systems, or of cultural systems—there’s a space of possibility that surrounds any current configuration of things. Change happens when you take that configuration and arrange it in a new way. But there are limits to how much you can change in a single move.

Kelly: Which is why the great inventions are usually those that take the smallest possible step to unleash the most change. That was the difference between Tim Berners-Lee’s successful HTML code and Ted Nelson’s abortive Xanadu project. Both tried to jump into the same general space—a networked hypertext—but Tim’s approach did it with a dumb half-step, while Ted’s earlier, more elegant design required that everyone take five steps all at once.

Johnson: Also, the steps have to be taken in the right order. You can’t invent the Internet and then the digital computer. This is true of life as well. The building blocks of DNA had to be in place before evolution could build more complex things. One of the key ideas I’ve gotten from you, by the way—when I read your book Out of Control in grad school—is this continuity between biological and technological systems.

Kelly: Both of us have written books on this idea, on the primacy of the evolutionary model for understanding the world. But in What Technology Wants, I’ve actually gone a bit further and come to see technology as an alternative great story, as a different source for understanding where we are in the cosmos. I think technology is something that can give meaning to our lives, particularly in a secular world.

Johnson: One thing I love about your book is that by the end, you’ve moved from discussions of cutting-edge technology to this amazingly grand vista of life and human creation. It’s very rare to have a book about technology that is moving in that way—that has this almost spiritual component to it. Really, it’s kind of the anti-Unabomber manifesto.

Kelly: [Laughs] That’s a great blurb.

Johnson: No, seriously! He had this bleak, soul-sucking vision of technology as an autonomous force for evil. You also present technology as a sort of autonomous force—as wanting something, over the long course of its evolution—but it’s a more balanced and ultimately positive vision, which I find much more appealing than the alternative.

Kelly: [Laughs] That’s a great blurb.

Johnson: No, seriously! He had this bleak, soul-sucking vision of technology as an autonomous force for evil. You also present technology as a sort of autonomous force—as wanting something, over the long course of its evolution—but it’s a more balanced and ultimately positive vision, which I find much more appealing than the alternative.

Kelly: As I started thinking about the history of technology, there did seem to be a sense in which, during any given period, lots of innovations were in the air, as it were. They came simultaneously. It appeared as if they wanted to happen. I should hasten to add that it’s not a conscious agency; it’s a lower form, something like the way an organism or bacterium can be said to have certain tendencies, certain trends, certain urges. But it’s an agency nevertheless.

Johnson: I was particularly taken with your idea that technology wants increasing diversity—which is what I think also happens in biological systems, as the adjacent possible becomes larger with each innovation. As tech critics, I think we have to keep this in mind, because when you expand the diversity of a system, that leads to an increase in great things and an increase in crap.
Read the entire discussion.

October 22, 2010

The Royal Society's top popular science books of 2010

The short list and winner of the 2010 Royal Society Prize for Science books has been announced:

A World Without Ice by Henry Pollack (Avery Books, Penguin Group)
Explores the relationship between ice and people – the impact of ice on Earth, its climate, and its human residents, as well as the reciprocal impact that people are now having on ice and the climate.

The judges said: “A thoughtful and refreshing book that brings ice to life. Well researched and with a personal feel this book is an excellent alternative route into understanding the issues around climate change. Fascinating, accessible and very powerful.”

Everyday Practice of Science: Where Intuition and Passion Meet Objectivity and Logic by Frederick Grinnell (Oxford University Press)
An insiders’ view of real-life scientific practice describing how scientists bring their own interests and passions to their work and illustrating the dynamics between researchers and the research community.

The judges said: “How is science done? This book looks behind the scenes and tells the story of what makes scientific minds tick and how scientific theories are made. A fascinating, personal account – essential reading for anyone with an interest in science, from pupil to politician.”

God’s Philosophers: How the medieval world laid the foundations of modern science by James Hannam (Icon Books)
Revives the forgotten philosophers, scientists, scholars and inventors of medieval Europe, revealing the Medieval Age to be responsible for inventions and ideas that would change the world forever.

The judges said: “A vibrant insight into the medieval approach to science, full of wonderful anecdotes and personalities. Dispelling common myths about the ‘dark ages’, this is a very readable book about a neglected era in the history of science. It very much fills a gap, making you realise that the great scientific achievements of the Renaissance are in debt to the "philosophers" prepared to sacrifice long held beliefs and frequently their lives for their ideas.”

Life Ascending by Nick Lane (Profile Books)
Charts the history of life on Earth by describing the ten greatest inventions of life, based on their historical impact, their importance in living organisms and their iconic power.

The judges said: “An elegant and adventurous step-by-step guide to what makes life the way it is. With a pleasing overarching structure, it is a beautifully written book and an extremely rewarding read.”

We Need To Talk About Kelvin by Marcus Chown (Faber and Faber)
Takes familiar features of the world we know and shows how they can be used to explain profound truths about the ultimate nature of reality.

The judges said: “Your everyday world will never look the same again after reading this inspiring book. Reflections in the window, the warm rays of the sun – all are used to explain ideas of advanced physics, from the atom to the big bang, and show how physics forms part of our everyday world.”

Why Does E=mc2? by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw (Da Capo Press, Perseus Books Group)
An illuminating journey to the frontier of 21st century science to consider the real meaning behind Einstein’s most famous equation, E = mc2.

The judges said: “This book takes the world’s most famous equation apart and puts it back together again in a way that is lively and understandable. We were delighted to find our knowledge of equations - long forgotten since leaving school for some of us – reinvigorated and felt ourselves rediscovering our enjoyment of mathematics.”

The winner: Life Ascending by Nick Lane.

As an aside, I will soon be receiving all six of these books compliments of New Scientist. I won a contest in which readers were asked to name the most underrated science book written for a general audience. My pick of K. Eric Drexler's Engines of Creation was my choice.

Anderson & Anderson: Robot Be Good

Michael and Susan Anderson have published an article on Machine Ethics (ME) in the October issue of Scientific American. In the article, Robot Be Good: A Call for Ethical Autonomous Machines, they introduce both ME and their recent work programming ethical principles in Nao, a humanoid robot which was developed by the French company Aldebaran Robotics.

Their findings in brief:
  • Robots that make autonomous decisions, such as those being designed to assist the elderly, may face ethical dilemmas even in seemingly everyday situations.
  • One way to ensure ethical behavior in robots that interact with humans is to program general ethical principles into them and let them use those principles to make decisions on a case-by-case basis.
  • Artificial-intelligence techniques can produce the principles themselves by abstracting them from specific cases of ethically acceptable behavior using logic.
  • The authors have followed this approach and for the first time programmed a robot to act based on an ethical principle.

October 17, 2010

25 years later: Donna Haraway's "A Cyborg Manifesto"

It has been 25 years since Donna Haraway published her seminal essay, "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century."While largely intended as metaphorical discourse, a number of feminists and futurists, including myself, were inspired by a more literal and technoprogressive interpretation of Haraway's message. The piece was a major influence on my conception of postgenderist theory, inspiring such articles as "Overcoming Gender" and "Postgenderism: Beyond the Gender Binary" (PDF) (the latter of which I co-authored with James Hughes).

In "A Cyborg Manifesto," Haraway issued a challenge to feminists to engage in a politics beyond naturalism and essentialism. She used the concept of the cyborg to offer a political strategy for the seemingly disparate interests of socialism and feminism, writing, "We are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs." Her paper was also an attemnpt to break away from Oedipal narratives and Christian origin myths like Genesis. She writes, "The cyborg does not dream of community on the model of the organic family, this time without the oedipal project. The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust."

From another angle, "A Cyborg Manifesto" can be interpreted as a critique of ecofeminism. She argued it was in the eroding boundary between human beings and machines, in the integration of women and machines in particular, that we can find liberation from old patriarchal dualisms. Haraway concludes “I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess,” and suggested that the cyborg serves as a more appropriate liberatory mythos for women.

Now, 25 years later, "A Cyborg Manifesto" can be seen as the inspiration for the emergence of 'cyborgology' and 'cyberfeminism,' subdisciplines made up of culture critics who used the cyborg metaphor and the postmodernist questions Haraway posed to explore the woman-machine interface. And as mentioned earlier, it also brought transhumanists into the discussion, who integrated and re-interpreted Haraway's ideas, resulting in the emergence of postgenderist theory—the suggestion that both females and males should look to be liberated from gendered constraints through the application of advanced biotechnologies.

Satellogic

Founded in 2010 by Emiliano Kargieman and Andrew Fursma, graduates of the NASA Ames based Singularity University’s Graduate Studies Program, Satellogic specializes in the creation and management of off-earth network infrastructure.

The company is developing the airborne communications backbone necessary to open realtime satellite data to the masses. By creating a globally accessible nano-satellite based mesh network in low earth orbit, Satellogic can serve as a virtual ground station for traditional satellites while providing earth observation data recorded by the constellation.

Learn more.

Frans de Waal: Morals without God?

Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” depicts
hundreds of erotic naked figures carrying or eating fruits,
but is also full of references to alchemy, the forerunner of chemistry
 The figures on the right are embedded in glass tubes typical
of a bain-marie, while the two birds supposedly symbolize vapors.
Frans de Waal, in a recent NYT OpEd, argues that we don't need God to create morals:
Perhaps it is just me, but I am wary of anyone whose belief system is the only thing standing between them and repulsive behavior. Why not assume that our humanity, including the self-control needed for livable societies, is built into us? Does anyone truly believe that our ancestors lacked social norms before they had religion? Did they never assist others in need, or complain about an unfair deal? Humans must have worried about the functioning of their communities well before the current religions arose, which is only a few thousand years ago. Not that religion is irrelevant — I will get to this — but it is an add-on rather than the wellspring of morality.

Deep down, creationists realize they will never win factual arguments with science. This is why they have construed their own science-like universe, known as Intelligent Design, and eagerly jump on every tidbit of information that seems to go their way. The most recent opportunity arose with the Hauser affair. A Harvard colleague, Marc Hauser, has been accused of eight counts of scientific misconduct, including making up his own data. Since Hauser studied primate behavior and wrote about morality, Christian Web sites were eager to claim that “all that people like Hauser are left with are unsubstantiated propositions that are contradicted by millennia of human experience” (Chuck Colson, Sept. 8, 2010). A major newspaper asked “Would it be such a bad thing if Hausergate resulted in some intellectual humility among the new scientists of morality?” (Eric Felten, Aug. 27, 2010). Even a linguist could not resist this occasion to reaffirm the gap between human and animal by warning against “naive evolutionary presuppositions.”

These are rearguard battles, however. Whether creationists jump on this scientific scandal or linguists and psychologists keep selling human exceptionalism does not really matter. Fraud has occurred in many fields of science, from epidemiology to physics, all of which are still around. In the field of cognition, the march towards continuity between human and animal has been inexorable — one misconduct case won’t make a difference. True, humanity never runs out of claims of what sets it apart, but it is a rare uniqueness claim that holds up for over a decade. This is why we don’t hear anymore that only humans make tools, imitate, think ahead, have culture, are self-aware, or adopt another’s point of view.
Read the entire article.

Body sensing armband

Quantified-self junkies, rejoice: BodyMedia recently announced that its armband sensors will be able to communicate wirelessly with smartphones via Bluetooth. Its health sensors will be one of the first devices, other than ear buds, that link to smartphones with Bluetooth short-range communications.


The device is poised to allows users to monitor a collection of nearly 9,000 variables—physical activity, calories burned, body heat, sleep efficiency and others—collected by the sensors in a BodyMedia armband in real-time, as the day goes by.


The Bluetooth-enabled armband will cost $249 and the BodyMedia data service will cost $7 a month. The device is scheduled go on sale this coming November. In the past, BodyMedia users had to consult personal data downloaded to a Web site or observe a few measurements on a special watchband display, sold for $100.

Dance of the HRP-4C Cyborg


Visitors to the Digital Content Expo in Tokyo last weekend were treated to a choreographed dance routine featuring AIST's feminine HRP-4C robot and four humans. Via Pink Tentacle.

Kenn Brown's latest piece

Feast your eyes on Kenn Brown's latest, what will be the final cover illustration for Jamil Moledina’s epic SciFi novel ‘Tearing the Sky’.

The art of Patrick Millard











Patrick Millard is Pittsburgh-based artist whose work in photography, new media, and sound has resulted in a diversified portfolio that addresses ideas about media, digital culture, technology and the interactions that human beings have within their own synthetic environment. His work has been exhibited nationally and internationally and continues to gain recognition.

In 2008, Patrick began to show his work inside the virtual simulation world Second Life; exhibitions that advance beyond two-dimension work and expand his ideas of simulation, virtual reality, and the synthetic future where the physical object gives way to its virtual counterpart and its presence is valued entirely for its idea rather than its place in space.

In 2009, shortly after becoming a regular exhibitor in the virtual environment, Patrick embarked upon his first photographic series that used the environment and society of Second Life as its subject matter and conceptual theme. Virtual Lens is an artistic and anthropological investigation into the life of the avatar, landscape of the sim environment, and experience of the virtual world. Patrick continues to photograph and exhibit his portfolios as well as spend time with fellow avatars in Second Life.

He currently works as Assistant Professor of Photography at Point Park University in Pittsburgh.

During the month of June, 2010 Patrick will be artist in residence at the Biosphere 2. During his time in residence he will be working on photographic, sound, and digital media portfolios.

Recent papers and articles of interest

Check these out:

October 13, 2010

Kurzweil's Transcendent Man screening and panel discussion at the ROM

I've been invited to participate in a panel discussion following the screening of Ray Kurzweil's Transcendent Man. The event will be held at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto on Friday October 15 at 9:30pm. The panel will be hosted by Madeline Ashby (science fiction writer) and I'll be joined by Greg Van Alstyne (design educator).

Hope to see you there.

You can register here.

Dean Kamen on Planet Green


Inventor Dean Kamen will soon have his own show on Planet Green called Dean of Invention. Check out the trailer for the first show in which he explores the potential for first generation "microbots" -- what looks to be a precursor to molecular-scale nanorobotics. The show is set to premiere on Friday, October 22 at 10 Eastern.

October 5, 2010

Economist: Lifespan extending benefits of caloric restriction passed down to next generation. Seriously.

The Economist is reporting on how an obscure group of animals, the rotifer, may reveal the secret of elongating life. It's a study into caloric restriction, which is not surprising, but what's particularly fascinating about this study, however, is that the benefits seem to be passed down to the next generation:
Rotifers are unusual in that they often reproduce by parthenogenesis (some species, indeed, can reproduce only in this way). A parthenogenetic population is, by definition, all female and the result, give or take the odd mutation, is that a rotifer’s daughters are genetically identical to her. That makes rotifers convenient subjects for studies of the controversial idea that characteristics acquired during an individual’s life can be passed down the generations in ways that are independent of mutations in the DNA.

Dr Watabe and his colleagues first looked at whether caloric restriction does, indeed, work its magic on rotifers. It does. Without it, as they report in Functional Ecology, their animals lived for an average of 8.8 days. With it they lived for 13.5 days. The intriguing result came when they did the same thing with the rotifers’ offspring. The daughters of those rotifers which had been fed as much as they could eat lived for 9.5 days if treated likewise (not significantly different from their mothers) and 14.4 if put on short commons. Those born of calorie-restricted mothers lived for 12.7 and 16.8 days respectively. Something, then, is being passed on that is having an effect down the generations.

That something seems to be related to an enzyme called catalase. This enzyme degrades hydrogen peroxide, a highly reactive chemical that creates cellular damage of the sort associated with ageing. Dr Watabe found that the offspring of calorie-restricted mothers have more catalase than those of mothers who were fed without restriction.
So, if inherited epigenetic changes are causing daughter rotifers to produce more catalase, it raises the question of whether a similar thing happens in other species and, if so, whether it might be induced artificially so that people won't have to resort to caloric restriction.

Read the entire article.

Hacks to help you stay healthy

Good advice here. Summarized:

  • Drink tons of water
  • Drink more tea
  • Cut out the corn syrup
  • Enjoy a fattening breakfast
  • Eat slower
  • Put leftovers away before eating
  • Overload on veggies
  • Don't eat and multi-task
  • Instead of snacking, brush your teeth
  • Buy food with cash
  • Make a "veggie section" in your shopping cart
  • Listen to music while you work out
  • Watch less TV
  • Wear comfy clothes
  • Weigh yourself

Bailey: IVF goes from yuck to yippee!

Ronald Bailey tells us what this year's Nobel Prize for a test tube baby pioneer tells us about the moral endorsement of technology:
At long last, in vitro fertilization pioneer Robert Edwards has been awarded a Nobel Prize. Back in 1978, his research with his colleague Patrick Steptoe led to the birth of the world’s first test tube baby, Louise Joy Brown. The public (and makers of public policy) initially reacted to Edwards’ research with moral horror. However, once he and Steptoe had succeeded in producing a healthy baby girl, revulsion swiftly turned into wide approval and ethical acceptance.

In 2001, when Roberts was given the prestigious Lasker Award for medical research, biochemist Joseph Goldstein quipped, "We know that IVF was a great leap because Edwards and Steptoe were immediately attacked by an unlikely trinity—the press, the pope, and prominent Nobel laureates." Edwards’ scientific career traces out the ethical arc that characterizes reaction to much technological progress during the last century—initial fear and loathing followed by a warm embrace. Yuck followed quickly by yippee.

In 1969, a Harris poll found that a majority of Americans believed that producing test-tube babies was "against God's will." In 1970s, the federal government imposed a moratorium on federal funding of in vitro fertilization research and legislation that would have outlawed IVF was considered by Congress. Yet just one month after the birth of Louise Brown, the Gallup poll reported that 60 percent of Americans approved of in vitro fertilization and more than half would consider using it if they were infertile.

Advances in biomedicine—especially those that touch most closely on birth and death—have been the most ethically fraught. A lot of moral struggles have centered on control over reproduction. Let’s set aside the long fight over abortion and look chiefly at a couple of the other moral struggles over fertility control, contraception and artificial insemination, as examples of this process of progressive moral endorsement.
Read the entire article.

October 4, 2010

Gilese 581 discovered for the first time....again

I'm finding it very strange that everyone's all a tizzy about the discovery of a potentially habitable planet, Gilese 581. This planet was discovered over three years ago. I remember this because it was an important consideration in the Fermi talk I delivered in Chicago the same year. Its discovery also motivated me to write about the Rare Earth Delusion. I'm not sure I understand all the sudden attention.

** ADDENDUM: 2010.10.05: Okay, everything is now illuminated: As my reader Richard Leis, Jr. points out, "The discovery of Gliese 581 c was announced in 2007. Last week's announcement was Gliese 581 g. C was initially considered a good candidate for potential life, but later calculations suggested it was actually outside the star's habitable zone. G is considered a better candidate because calculations place it more firmly within the habitable zone." **

Well, whatever. What's important to note is that (1) it reaffirms the notion that we (likely) live in a biophilic Universe and (2) its presence deepens the disturbing nature of the Fermi Paradox. As a potential data point that works to increase the value of n in the Drake Equation, it serves to reinforce the suggestion that, while we find ourselves in a Universe that is likely teeming with life, it's not one that's teeming in space-faring civilizations. Consequently, its discovery is not exactly good news.

Here's what I wrote back in April of 2007 when Gilese 581 was first discovered:
Wow, the blogosphere has been absolutely gushing these past few days over the news that an Earth-like planet may have been discovered in the 'hood. This planet may boast a moderate climate that could conceivably support life and is only 20 light years away.

Not surprisingly, this news has caused a number of pundits to fantasize about jumping into their rocketships and bidding adiós to our polluted, war-torn and diseased planet.

But not so fast, amigos. While many have misguidedly jumped on the bandwagon to the stars, a number of bloggers have gotten it right.

In his article, "'Don't Pack Your Bags Just Yet", Jamais Cascio notes that, "By the time we have the technology that would make a 20 light year trip even remotely plausible (the fastest space craft yet made would still take thousands of years to get there), we probably won't be all that interested in living in a watery gravity hole anyway. Nope -- give us some nice, massive gas giants to convert to computronium!"

Michael Anissimov points out that we have a human hospitable planet right here that we’ve barely even begun to use. He also argues that "even if we did need to leave the Earth, there is a tremendous amount of raw materials for space colonies right next door in the form of carbonaceous asteroids, which make up about 75% of known asteroids." Moreover, warns Anissimov, "we should think carefully before sending off colonists to far-away places without ensuring that they’re capable of protecting the fundamental freedoms of their citizens." Specifically, he worries that a blight may come back to haunt us (which also reminds me of the Honored Matres of the Dune series).

And as Tyler Cowen noted, "Are earth-like planets so common? That probably means lots more civilization-supporting planets than I had expected. But where are the alien visitors? As suggested by the Fermi paradox, we must revise our priors along several margins, one of which is the expected duration of an intelligent civilization."

Indeed, Cowen is on the right track. A primary argument used to reconcile the Fermi Paradox is the Rare Earth Hypothesis. This line of reasoning suggests that we haven't been visited by ETI's because life is far too rare in the cosmos.

But if we have discovered an Earth-like planet as little as 20 light years away, it's not unreasonable to suggest that our Galaxy must be absolutely teeming with life. This would seem to be a heavy blow to the REH.

So why is this bad news? It's bad news because our biophilic universe should be saturated with advanced intelligence by now...but it's not. The Fermi Paradox is very much in effect as a profound and disturbing unsolved mystery in astrosociobiology, philosophy and futurism.

Are all civilizations doomed before getting to the Singularity? Or is there something else at work here?