We learned watching Ghostbusters that for busting ghosts, nothing beats a well-placed zap of protons from a backpack-turned-positron collider. Now, researchers at Harvard University are working on a technique that could let future firefighters do their job (sort of) the same way, using an electric beam—generated by a portable amplifier, which might even fit in a backpack—to put out the flames.
The researchers’ early-stage prototype consists of a 600-watt amplifier hooked up to a electric beam-shooting wand, according to their presentation at the American Chemical Society meeting earlier this week. In tests, they were able to quickly zap out flames over a foot high.
Philip Ball’s new book, Unnatural: The Heretical Idea of Making People gets into the mythological underpinnings of our concerns about making people. Nature‘s Chris Mason reviews [gated] Unnatural and makes a striking observation:
Even today, Ball points out, societal and cultural debate is pervaded by the belief that technology is intrinsically perverting and thus carries certain penalty. Views that human cloning will be used for social engineering, eradicating one gender or resurrecting undesirable figures from the past, for example, all reflect age-old fears about the consequences of meddling in the ‘unnatural’. Ball warns that, as there is no global ban on human reproductive cloning, there is a strong chance that it will happen. It is thus likely to become a de facto reality without the well-informed debate it deserves.
Let’s unpack that little nugget, because it contains two very important points.
The first point is that many of our fears about advancing science and biotechnology related to the body trigger fundamental, core cultural fears. Leon Kass calls this the “Yuck” reaction, or, more eloquently, “Wisdom from Repugnance.” Kass’ argument is that we are naturally repelled by abhorrent ideas, like torturing babies and eating people. As regular readers of Science Not Fiction know, eating people isn’t always bad.
Well, as it turns out, Leon Kass’ argument that we should trust our gut when it says, “yuck!” is a pretty terrible way to do ethics. Why? Because what is “yuck” to me might be “yum” to you. And we’re back to not knowing if doing something ethically questionable, like cloning people, is morally permissible. Unnatural at least explains why so many people say “yuck” to modifying humans; it is a lesson we’ve been told over and over for millennia in myths and religion.
The second point is that we should be discussing these ideas like rational adults. Biotechnology is progressing at a rate and in ways that are so rapid as to be unpredictable. I make lots of educated guesses and suppositions, but none of what I write here is a prediction or a guarantee. My interest is in figuring out whether or not something like cloning is ethically permissible if we’re ever able to do it. As Ball notes, there is no current global ban on cloning. There is, as it stands, no global ban on most of the transhumanist issues, from eugenics to cognitive enhancers to A.I. to nano-implants. These possible technologies strain the very foundations of many of our philosophies and cultural institutions. If the lack of a global ban means the technology is likely inevitable, we better figure out how to go about things correctly.
Debate and discussion are essential to making good decisions. Recognizing our old, deep seated prejudices and biases, such as those against technology and making people, is equally essential. Simply because something is unnatural does not mean it is immoral. But that’s where the discussion starts, not where it ends ends.
Image of Book Cover via Bodley Head
The 50th Anniversary of the Pill was last year. Lots and lots of people mentioned how good, bad, unimportant, or essential the Pill has been. Our society changed the way it thought about sex, about reproduction, even about love and relationships. Women being able to take control of their reproductive abilities is one of the greatest advancements in the history of modern human biology. Even if it isn’t universally beloved, the Pill is worth defending and improving. It makes the world a better place. Female hormonal birth control is an exemplary form of human enhancement.
But, astonishingly, non-barrier birth control for men doesn’t yet exist. The current choices are condoms or vasectomies. That’s it. We are in want of a form of birth control that makes men temporarily and reversibly infertile. We don’t have it, we need it, and when it comes out, it’ll be as revolutionary as the Pill itself. It’s on my list of must-have forms of reproductive enhancement, along with artificial wombs.
Which brings us to the question at hand: where the hell is it already? Much like cold-fusion and flying cars, male birth control is always “just around the corner.” The “bright pill” is trying to inhibit the reproductive function of sperm. Ultrasound might be able to interrupt sperm production so that a man is temporarily sterile for six months at a time. Hormones might also be an option. If there are so many options, why don’t we have one that works? The problem seems to be the sheer number of sperm. Females ovulate once a month, meaning one, count ’em, one egg is released. Men are, uh, different. To quote an expert:
“Men make 1,000 sperm every second,” said John Amory, a male reproductive specialist at the University of Washington, Seattle. “It’s proven to be a lot more difficult to turn that degree of production off compared to one egg a month.”
That is just way too many sperm. But pure biology doesn’t seem to capture the problem. Other problems include male willingness to take the pill, impact on libido, and other social and physiological side-effects.
Which brings up new questions about the male pill: Will men remember to take it? Will men want to take it? Will it emasculate men too much to be worth while? Or are men just too stupid and awful to ever be able to have that kind of responsibility? Just as all of the articles recounting the impact of the Pill on our society weren’t talking about chemical compositions or dosages, the reason male birth control is important is not the science. It’s the sociology. Male non-barrier birth control has the potential to change society as much as the female birth control pill. And that’s why we need it so badly. The male pill isn’t just about safe sex and birth control, oh no. It’s about the way we think about safe sex and birth control. Once you understand, you’ll want the male birth control pill too. Read More
Transhumanism is a big, complicated, sprawling idea. The central concept – that humans can be made better with technology – touches on a lot of hopes and fears about the future of humanity. Though I’m always going on about how great human enhancement could be, I’ve got my fair share of fears myself. But my fears are probably way different than many of your fears. But how in the world can we represent those concerns? As it turns out, I’ve found a pretty good set of archetypes that represent our hopes and fears: Marvel Comic’s Avengers.
How we frame scientific progress changes how we see individual technologies. When we think about science changing people, our minds naturally go to that group of individuals constantly being bombarded by gamma radiation, genetic mutagens, cybernetic interventions, and biological acceleration. I’m talking, of course, about superheroes. Superheroes are modern mythology. And because of that, they make great metaphors for understanding big issues. With The Avengers movie officially announced, I can’t help but notice that the four main members* of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes – Thor, the Hulk, Captain America, and Iron Man – are great examples of the different ways different people understand (or misunderstand) enhancement. Respectively, they are The God, The Monster, The Soldier, and The Robot.
Now, in the case of the Avengers, I don’t mean that they each represent a kind of enhancement, like cognitive enhancing pharmaceuticals or genetic engineering for athleticism. I am talking about the mindset people have around enhancement. Will transhumanism make people into monsters or Gods? Is science on the right track or out of control? The Avengers represent how you think enhancement works. Not only that, each Avenger symbolizes the hopes, fears, and problems enhancement may have. Whatever your dreams or nightmares about enhancement are, at least one member of Marvel’s wonder team has got you covered. So which Avenger represents you? Read More
Update 5/24/11: The conversation continues in Part II here.
I recently gave a talk at the Directors Guild of America as part of a panel on the “Science of Cyborgs” sponsored by the Science Entertainment Exchange. It was a fun time, and our moderators, Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant from the HowStuffWorks podcast, emceed the evening with just the right measure of humor and cultural insight. In my twelve minutes, I shared a theory of how consciousness evolved. My point was that if we understand the evolutionary basis of consciousness, maybe this will help us envision new ways our consciousness might evolve further in the future. That could be fun in terms of dreaming up new stories. I also believe that part of what inhibits us from taking effective action against long-term problems—like the global environmental crisis — may be found in the evolutionary origins of our ability to be aware.
This idea is so simple that I’m surprised I’ve not yet been able to find it already in circulation.
Limitless is one of the first movies to directly take on the idea of pharmaceutical enhancement. The trailer is here and fake viral ad for NZT is here. I’m already wary of the film based on the trailer. Not because of the acting, directing, or plot, which all look good enough. Instead, my problem is that the movie appears to take the same boring old stance on enhancement: the cost of making yourself superhuman is too high.
Limitless has a simple set-up: loser/author Bradley Cooper who lives in filth and dresses like a hobo is offered a pill that will make everything all better. The pill makes him much smarter, more creative, and more driven. Thanks to this new found brilliance, Cooper makes boatloads of money and catches the eye of evil Robert De Niro, who threatens Cooper in various menacing and shadowy ways. Then the pill starts making Cooper crazy and his world starts crumbling around him. It’s Flowers for Algernon except with bespoke suits, exotic cars and international intrigue.
The reason I’m getting an overall vibe of “meh, who cares” from Limitless is that the even though the film has a great bad guy with De Niro and his shadowy mega-corporation, it takes the easy way out and makes the drug the enemy as well. Flowers for Algernon is great because the main character, Charlie, has to cope with how his intelligence-burst impacts his social life. We’re confronted with the fact that increased intelligence doesn’t mean increased maturity, worldly experience, or romantic ability. Limitless ignores these deeper issues.
Wouldn’t it be more interesting if the problem of power and wealth was that Cooper had to deal with other wealthy and powerful people, who are, in general, incredibly awful? Or what would Cooper do if the drug simply stopped working? Or how it affected his relationship with the woman he thought he loved when he becomes too smart – way too smart – for her and is bored by a person he once admired?
The theoretical enhancement drug at the center of Limitless could have allowed the writers to ask much more interesting questions than the trailer lets on. Maybe the movie will surprise me, but I doubt it.
Image viral promotional material for Limitless
A couple days ago, Fox News broke a story with the unbelievable headline, “Exclusive: NASA Scientist Claims Evidence of Alien Life on Meteorite.” The claims are obvious bunk, but if you don’t believe me, here is PZ Myers with an entertaining demolition of the paper and its credibility. Myers’ main argument is that if the paper was real, it would probably have shown up in Nature or Science, been better written and argued, and received more than a blurb on Fox News’ website. Discover’s own Bad Astronomer Phil Plait has a wonderful summary of other opinions, and gives an excellent conclusion of how a real scientist thinks about an astounding announcement in a field that isn’t his own. Myers’ and Plait’s respective posts are exemplary demonstrations of scientific skepticism.
True to form, Plait ends with this interesting little notation:
As a scientist and a skeptic I have to leave some room, no matter how small, for the idea that this might be correct.
Though the announcement that alien bacteria was found on a meteor is almost certainly false, eventually a scientist may in fact discover real evidence of alien life. I grant Myers’ point about a prestigious journal publishing the direct evidence would probably be the first place we would hear about such a discovery.
But then that evidence would be challenged by every reputable scientist breathing. There is a simple rule in science: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. I thank Bill Nye for teaching me that little tidbit when I was a youngster. It has done me well. But if the evidence is legit, other scientists will analyze, test, and, ultimately, verify the evidence. There would be proof that Earth wasn’t the only place in the universe where life came to be. Which begs the question: How would the evidence of extraterrestrial life be broken to the public? How would the President react? The pope? How would you react? Read More
Matt Lamkin argues that universities shouldn’t ban cognitive-enhancing drugs like Ritalin and Adderall. Lamkin is a lawyer and, like myself, a master’s candidate in bioethics. He rightly believes that a ban would do little to promote fairness or safety among students. The rule followers would be at a disadvantage while the rule-breakers would be at a greater safety risk. But Lamkin doesn’t believe we, as a society, should be ok with cognitive enhancement usage. Instead, he argues:
The word “cheating” has another meaning, one that has nothing to do with competition. When someone has achieved an end through improper means, we might say that person has “cheated herself” out of whatever rewards are inherent in the proper means. The use of study drugs by healthy students could corrode valuable practices that education has traditionally fostered. If, for example, students use such drugs to mitigate the consequences of procrastination, they may fail to develop mental discipline and time-management skills.
On the other hand, Ritalin might enable a student to engage more deeply in college and to more fully experience its internal goods—goods she might be denied without that assistance. The distinction suggests that a blanket policy, whether of prohibition or universal access, is unlikely to be effective.
Instead, colleges need to encourage students to engage in the practice of education rather than to seek shortcuts. Instead of ferreting out and punishing students, universities should focus on restoring a culture of deep engagement in education, rather than just competition for credentials.
Lamkin’s argument is that cog-enhancers are an easy way out for those in school. Struggling to study builds character and good habits. Though he disapproves of cog-enhancers, I appreciate his hesitancy to involve the law. Lamkin doesn’t believe policing cog-enhancing drug usage is necessary, but would prefer honor codes opposing cog-enhancing drugs. He believes honor codes cause one to “internalize” the value of not using the drug. What is curious is that Lamkin doesn’t actually address what Ritalin and Adderall do for a student. As a person who has a legit prescription for Ritalin, and who knows his fair share of folks who’ve taken Adderall off-label, I believe I can speak to how cog-enhancers work in at least an anecdotal sense.