Archive for April, 2011

How Sci-Fi Makes Us More Open to Strange Forms of Sex and Sexuality

By Kyle Munkittrick | April 30, 2011 5:00 pm

Science fiction knows how to play around with sex and gender. The free-lovin’ of A Stranger in A Strange Land, Commander Shepard’s bisexual proclivities, and William T. Riker’s seemingly universal interspecies compatibility are constant sources of entertainment.

And the fun doesn’t stop with organic entities. Androids, cyborgs, and robots make gender all the stranger. Why is Data fully functional? Isn’t it curious that, of all the characters in Ghost in the Shell the two most heavily cyberized characters, Motoko and Batou, are hyper-feminine and hyper-masculine respectively? And, my favorite: as a robot Bender has no gender, so if Bender bends his gender, what gender does Bender bend?

Sci-fi sex is fun to talk about, of course, but how can all of that help us understand the actual future of humanity? Simply put: we imagine what we hope to see. So the question is: what is it we imagine and hope for? An utter free-for-all of alien-cyborg-A.I. bacchanalia? I don’t think so. Instead, sci-fi is teaching the diversity of our own human sexuality back to us. Read More

Is Being "Too Short" a Disability?

By Kyle Munkittrick | April 22, 2011 8:44 am

Human growth hormone (HGH) is one among the many hormones your body naturally produces. HGH influences growth in that it helps encourage cell reproduction and regeneration. Athletes really like to pretend that HGH makes them more powerful. It might, but it probably doesn’t. Whether it works or not, athletes should be allowed to utilize it. But banning performance enhancers is a topic already covered, so let’s look at something more interesting.

As part of a thread called “The Bias Against Short Men,” Andrew Sullivan’s The Dish published an email by a reader struggling with a difficult question:

The doctor noticed that my son was comfortably sitting at the bottom of the growth chart and that he would most likely end up a measly 5’5” (a little more than my wife and myself). He went on to say that this could qualify as “idiopathic short stature syndrom.” And that we could potentially get our son on HGH (actually, it’s called rGH I think – see here) if we felt that his projected short height could affect his self-confidence and ultimately, his mental health.

Unlike HGH in athletes, HGH used to treat medical conditions has clinically observable benefits. A child given HGH treatments will have an appreciable difference in height as an adult. The reader feels inclined to give his son the treatments, while the reader’s wife is appalled at the idea. When is it alright to use HGH to help your kid grow to a “normal” height? If you do “treat” a child’s shortness, does that mean it’s a disease? Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biology, Medicine, Philosophy

If It Ain’t Broke, Improve It

By Kyle Munkittrick | April 19, 2011 11:04 am

Raise your hand if every aspect of your body and mind is as good as it could possibly be.

Did anyone out there raise their hand? If you did, I congratulate you. But, if you’re like me, a list of minor malfunctions and maladies that you’d love to fix popped up in your head. None of us are perfect, there is always something to improve. We are, after all, only human. And most of us would jump at a chance to improve some of those little issues.

The last time I went to the doctor’s office, the nurse who took my vitals said, “What are you doing here? You’re as healthy as they come!” That can hardly be true. I eat street-vendor food more often than I go to the gym. How can I be a picture of health? The fact is, I’m not. Just because I’m not ill (save the sniffles from the end of a cold) and not injured, doesn’t mean that I am, by default, as healthy as I could be.

For some bizarre reason, we don’t think about our bodies that way when it comes to health care and self improvement. We don’t pursue excellent health the way we strive to be better in our hobbies and work. So, where did we get the idea that mediocre health is good enough?

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Medicine, Philosophy

Mind-Reading Movie Tech Lets You Choose Your Own Adventure

By Valerie Ross | April 18, 2011 3:36 pm

If you loved reading Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books as a kid but have outgrown their puerile plots and dog-eared, unrepentantly analog format, take heart: A newly launched system called Myndplay is a next-gen video version of the genre for adults. “The viewer chooses who lives or dies, whether the good guy or the bad guy wins or whether the hero makes that all-important save,” Mohammed Azam, Myndplay’s managing director, told New Scientist.  Instead of relying on old-fashioned reading, MyndPlay lets you guide the story using mind-reading, via a special headset that records and analyzes your brainwaves. Now you can sit back in your armchair, slap on the headset, and use your mind to direct the action on the screen in front of you. (No word yet if there’s a mind-powered equivalent of keeping a finger on the page you came from, so you can flip back to it if you don’t like how things turn out.)

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Movies, Neuroscience

Hanna: A Transhuman Tragedy of Nature vs Nurture

By Kyle Munkittrick | April 14, 2011 8:30 am

Heads up, this article has *spoilers* about the movie Hanna.

Joe Wright’s new film, Hanna, staring Saoirse Ronan is being hailed as the anti-Sucker Punch for its portrayal of a rich, rounded, and compelling female lead. Hanna is a young woman in her late teens (her age is indeterminate) who can beat you up, break your neck, and shoot you down six ways from Sunday. Why is she able to do that? Well, that right there is an interesting question. You see, Hanna was genetically engineered to have “high intelligence, muscle mass, and no pity.” But here’s the rub: she was also raised to be a trained assassin.

So who is to credit (or perhaps, to blame) for Hanna’s ability to crush faces with naught but her hands and an emotionless grimace? Is it her genes or her training?

The film ostensibly portrays Hanna as a naive heroine striving against her draconian and demonic “mother” figure, Marissa Wiegler, with the help of her noble father, Erik Heller. But I submit that is not the case: I believe the “teaching” and “nurture” Heller gives to Hanna makes him as much a monster as Wiegler. Hanna’s battle is to be a good human being against a perfect storm of nature and nurture designed to make her a heartless killer. Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biology, Genetics, Movies, Transhumanism

Mood Manipulation is not Mind Control

By Kyle Munkittrick | April 7, 2011 11:55 am

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (Blade Runner‘s dead-tree forebear) opens with Deckard arguing with his wife about whether or not to alter her crummy attitude with the “mood organ.” She could, if she so desired, dial her mood so that she was happy and content. Philip K. Dick worried that the ability to alter our mood would remove the authenticity and immediacy of our emotions. Annalee Newitz at io9 seems to be worried mood manipulations will enable a form of social control.

The worry comes from recent developments in neuro-pharmaceuticals. Drugs are already on the market that allow for mood manipulation. The Guardian‘s Amelia Hill notes that drugs like Prozac and chemicals like oxytocin have the ability to make some people calmer, more empathetic, and more altruistic. Calm, empathetic, and altruistic people are far more likely to act morally than anxious, callous, and selfish people. But does that mean mood manipulation going to let us force people to be moral? And if it does, is that a good thing? Is it moral to force people to be moral? Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Chemistry, Neuroscience, Philosophy

The Neuroscience of "Source Code": Mind Your Brain, Soldier

By Valerie Ross | April 6, 2011 11:14 am

Source Code, a sci-fi thriller released last week, is based on the premise that science will let people really get into each other’s heads. The eponymous technology, the trailer tells us, is a computer program that “enables you to cross over into another man’s identity.” What  results is a scenario that’s part Matrix, part Groundhog Day:  lugged into the Source Code program, Jake Gyllenhaal—er, Captain Colter Stevens—lives through the last eight minutes of another man’s consciousness, just before the man’s train was blown up in a terrorist attack, in an effort to identify the bomber. (Stevens’s body, like Neo’s, stays in one place while his mind is elsewhere.) When the first run-through fails to turn up a culprit, Stevens relives those eight minutes again and again, having a different experience—new conversations, new sensations—each time.

Could something like that ever happen? While much of the technology in Source Code will remain purely fiction, says University of Arizona neuroscientist and electrical engineer Charles Higgins, modern science may eventually let us take a peek at, and even play around with, someone else’s consciousness. Among the movie’s technological inventions, Higgins says, “the idea of monitoring and influencing consciousness with a physical neural interface is the most plausible.”

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Movies, Neuroscience

"StunRay," a Light Weapon That Overstimulates the Brain

By Valerie Ross | April 5, 2011 1:47 pm

After a long search, you’ve found your Person of Interest—and he’s making it abundantly clear that, while you were hoping for a civilized chat back at the station, he makes it clear he doesn’t like the ambiance there. You don’t want to shoot, you’re too far away to use your Taser, and it’s not like you walk around with a spare tear gas canister hanging from your belt. What’s a law enforcement officer to do?

That’s where the StunRay comes in. A non-lethal, spotlight-like weapon, this new device is designed to disorient its targets with by overloading their neural circuitry with a burst of high-intensity light. Genesis Illumination, which makes the device, patented it in January. (You can see the device in action in this video put out by Genesis.)

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Security, Weapons

Live More, Sleep Less

By Kyle Munkittrick | April 5, 2011 10:16 am

You will spend a third of  your life asleep. If you don’t, your waking hours will be of reduced quality and productivity. For 99% of us, seven hours a night is biological necessity. For a select 1%, what Melinda Beck at the Wall Street Journal dubs the “Sleepless Elite,” less sleep equals more life. So-called short sleepers operate with a kind of low-intensity mania which allows them to go to bed late and wake up early without needing a gallon of coffee to get through the day. And, as it turns out, the ability might be genetic.

“My long-term goal is to someday learn enough so we can manipulate the sleep pathways without damaging our health,” says human geneticist Ying-Hui Fu at the University of California-San Francisco. “Everybody can use more waking hours, even if you just watch movies.”

Dr. Fu was part of a research team that discovered a gene variation, hDEC2, in a pair of short sleepers in 2009. They were studying extreme early birds when they when they noticed that two of their subjects, a mother and daughter, got up naturally about 4 a.m. but also went to bed past midnight.

Genetic analyses spotted one gene variation common to them both. The scientists were able to replicate the gene variation in a strain of mice and found that the mice needed less sleep than usual, too.

Dr. Fu’s research is a reason for excitement because the goal is not just to locate the gene, but to find a way to manipulate sleep pathways safely. For those of us already alive, that means there might be better, safer, more effective stimulants in the future. For those not yet born, genetic engineering may enable future generations to spend less time sawing logs and more time enjoying life. More life! Less sleep! It’s like a longevity enhancement that does nothing to extend your time alive, but instead maximizes your use of that time. But how do short sleepers use their time? Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics, Neuroscience
MORE ABOUT: Short Sleepers, sleep
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