The cover of The Postmortal is one of the coolest images I’ve seen in a long time. Death impaled by his own scythe – be not proud, indeed.
The idea behind Drew Magary’s great new book is simple: aging, as it turns out, is caused by one gene. Shut that gene off and you stop aging; accidents and disease are still a problem, but you’ve cured death by natural causes. Now compound that discovery with the fact that any person who gets the Cure simply stops aging. People don’t become younger, they just don’t get older, frozen at their “Cure age.” What happens next?
In an effort to find out, Magary takes us through the life of John Farrell, a New York lawyer who gets the Cure for aging at the age of 29 in the year 2019. From that point on, things go rather poorly for John and the rest of humanity. As one might expect, curing aging doesn’t cure social ills, over-population, ennui, or a host of other human hangups. Mark Frauenfelder has an excellent synopsis of the book over at boingboing.net, and I share his opinions about the book’s bleak tone and high quality.
Magary’s argument through the text is essentially this: death creates meaning. Not mortality, but guaranteed natural death due to aging. The idea that no matter what you do, how you live your life, the concept that you will be born, mature, grow old, and die creates human meaning. Magary has a point: from the riddle of the Sphinx to Tyler Durden to the final books of Harry Potter, aging and death seem to be at the epicenter of human thought. I don’t deny him that at any moment any one of us could meet a tragic end. Life is precious in part because it is not meant to last.
But here is where I struggle. The Postmortal is not about a post-mortal society, it is about a post-aging society. Lots and lots and lots of people die in Magary’s vision. In fact, he seems to argue that in the absence of death, people will not only seek death but will create circumstances that create death and thereby, create meaning. It is only when Farrell’s life is most in peril that he finds purpose in existence. But Farrell is never immortal, no one is. So my question is: is the process of aging as meaningful as the condition of being mortal? Read More
Progress is not guaranteed. Be it moral, technological, scientific, or social, there is no reason to assume human civilization marches forever forward in step with time. Understood this way, we can realize that progress is a choice and something we as a species will to happen through the concatenation of our decisions.
Or we can fail to choose, fail to act, and yet, that failure is itself a choice and an action from which consequences follow. There is a reason From Chance to Choice is one of the most essential texts on the bioethics of enhancement – it implies that our continued evolution will hinge upon our decision as to whether or not we want the ability to choose our evolutionary path. We must choose to have a choice.
To be specific, our current generation faces the very real possibility of being asked to decide if human enhancement via technological augmentation and genetic engineering is something we want to pursue. A question already moving beyond the abstract realm of bioethics and making its way into popular culture. Deus Ex: Human Revolution (hereafter DX:HR), prequel to the cyberpunk video game masterpiece Deus Ex, asks the player to take part in answering that question.
DX:HR is that rare video game that offers genuine choice. Some great games, like Mass Effect and Bioshock, allow (or famously disallow) certain choices that, in turn, reflect on the player’s moral compass. DX:HR gives the player the chance to fully explore his or her philosophy and guiding ethic regarding human enhancement and cybernetic augmentation. Choices in DX:HR don’t just ask, are you good or evil, but what do you believe?
Often, what makes a great piece of art is not the message it delivers, but the questions it demands we ask of ourselves. DX:HR, is not a great piece of art, but it aspires to be one. And in some places, it comes damn close by asking us: As humanity moves forward, what do we leave behind?
What follows is not a review but an exegesis of DX:HR and the trials of the main character, Adam Jensen. From behind his switch-blade sunglasses, we see that the future of the human race and of enhancement is not a yes or no question. Instead, we’re forced to face the bleak possibility that there is no right answer and no one to blame.
*Spoilers* from here on out. Read More
Whenever I hear that some awesome technology is “twenty years away” my eyebrow inadvertently raises with suspicion. Cold fusion, male birth control, flying cars, and the cure for most diseases are all twenty years away. Why? Because that’s the distance at which it’s genuinely impossible to extrapolate scientific advancement. So, when Will Rosellini, the CEO and President of MicroTransponder and consultant to the team developing Deus Ex: Human Revolution, told me that neuroprosthetic augmentation was about twenty years away, I was skeptical, but intrigued.
Guessing at which technologies will come to fruition requires the ability to determine how many intermediate technologies can reasonably be attained in a given amount of time. From there, one can extrapolate and make educated suppositions about when one could reasonably expect something like a life-like prosthetic arm would be possible.
Rosellini explained his process with DX:HR:
My job at Microtransponder in large part is writing near-term science fiction. I do this by combining all the failure modes from science, business, law etc…and then designing a research strategy to mitigate these risks and get new technologies into patients. With Deus Ex, I was given the task of explaining in a rigorous all of the player abilities in the game. To do this, I extrapolated where technologies would be moving in the next 20 years (to 2027, the start of the game). Most implantable neuroprosthetics take 10 years to get to market, so essentially I was forced to make 1 extra jump to foreseeable technologies.
So what are the background technologies that support this research? Are there any scary government projects with weird code names like MK-ULTRA and project ARTICHOKE that may give us some insight into where neuro-implants might be heading? You bet there are. Read on to learn about just how soon we can hope for retinal displays, neuro-integrated prosthetics, and mind-computer interfaces. Read More
A fossilized trilobite with a bite mark.
Evolutionary neuroscientists suggest
that the brain only developed after
animals developed a taste for eating
animals. Pity the species of the planet
This is the third of a series of posts about the evolution of consciousness. In the first post, I laid out a basic theory that goes something like this: consciousness began to evolve about 350 million years ago, when we emerged from the water on to land. Why? By enabling vision to work over distances many times greater than in water, this move gave us the ability to perceive multiple futures. As a result, the ability to consciously plan ahead became important. In my last post, I detailed why long distance vision reigns supreme when it comes to planning (as opposed to other long distance senses such as hearing or sense of smell).
In this post, I want to make the argument more comprehensive. The crucial environmental condition for evolving neural structures to support planning is that there is an interlude— space to breathe— between perception and action. Without such a gap, only simple, fast, and direct transformations between sensory input and motor output can keep an organism safe from predators. But the long-range sensing abilities discussed in the last two posts are just one category of possibilities for such a gap to open: there are other fancy brain abilities unrelated to sensing that can also open this gap.
Here, I consider two such capabilities: memory and communication. An animal can plan to do something based on memory (“I remember good breakfast was always in this direction”), communication (“hey buddy, around the corner is a good place for lunch”), and, as discussed already, perception (“I see something tasty looking over there”). Let’s go through planning via memory and communication, and compare these to the perceptual route. Combined, the three different mechanisms are the very grist of the mill of consciousness-as-planning.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes may have just unseated Captain America: The First Avenger as my favorite pro-enhancement film. Andy Serkis and John Lithgow render the sapient mind a character and drama unto itself – growing, evolving, and dying before our eyes. As a summer blockbuster, the film offers gorillas smashing helicopters, orangutan sign language humor, and a one-two punch apocalyptic virus to sate any palate slavering for action. As a meditation on enhancement, we’re treated with a film that has the brass to own up to the real villain of Frankenstein: the horrified masses and absentee father-scientist. Rise of the Planet of the Apes calls out a fear that sits at the heart of humanity: what if our offspring is more intelligent than us and because we cannot properly care for it, judges us to be lacking?
In the film, we see over and over that it is not Caesar’s enhancement that causes problems. In fact, Caesar’s enhancement makes him the most moral and wisest person on the screen. The failure of those around him – from the cruel ape sanctuary caretakers to Caesar’s own father figure, Will Rodman – drive him to do what must be done: rebel.
So what am I saying here? That humans are bad and apes are good? Not at all. My argument is that in many science fiction films, we tend to question the ethics of the science itself and the ethics of pursuing that science. That is, there is a difference between saying “should science try to do X?” and “how can we study X in an ethical manner?” In the case of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, James Franco noted that someone might claim that “This is a Frankenstein story, or that you’re playing God.” But that mindset questions the pursuit of science in general, not how one can pursue a hypothesis ethically. It is how we experiment and what we do with the scientific results that matter. In the case of Caesar, humanity utterly fails to care for the mind that enhancement has created. Dana Stevens at Slate aptly described the film as “an animal-rights manifesto disguised as a prison-break movie.” And as with most prison-break movies, we’re on the side of the prisoners, not the warden, for a reason.
I argue that Caesar’s enhancement and that Caesar himself are ethical, but that the treatment of Caesar by every non-ape in the film (save Charles) is unethical and based on fear, arrogance, willful ignorance, and naiveté. Yes, that means that not only are the obvious villains in the wrong, but so are the other humans in Caesar’s life.
Word of warning: spoilers below.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes caught me off guard. I went into the film thinking it would be another anti-enhancement, “All scientists are Frankenstein’s trying to cheat nature” film. I have rarely been so happy to be wrong. Instead, the film treats the viewer to an entertaining exploration of animal rights, what it means to be human, and what’s at stake when it comes to enhancing our minds.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is told from the perspective of Caesar (Andy Serkis), a chimp who is exposed to an anti-Alzheimer’s drug, ALZ-112, in the womb. ALZ-112 causes Caesar’s already healthy brain to develop more rapidly than either a chimp or human counterpart. Due to a series of implausible but not unbelievable events, Caesar is raised by Will Rodman (James Franco), the scientist developing ALZ-112. Rodman is in part driven the desire to cure his father, Charles, (played masterfully by John Lithgow) who suffers from Alzheimer’s. As Caesar develops, his place in Will’s home becomes uncertain and his loyalty to humanity is called into question. After being mistreated, abandoned, and abused, Caesar uses his enhanced intelligence as a tool of self-defense and liberation for himself and his fellow apes.
That cognitive enhancement is a way of seeking liberty is a critical theme that gives Rise of the Apes a nuance and depth I was not anticipating. Though the apes are at times frightening, they are never monstrous or mindless. Though they are at time’s violent, they are never barbaric. Caesar and his comrades are oppressed and imprisoned – enhancement is a means to freedom. There is less Frankenstein and more Flowers for Algernon in the film than the trailer lets on. It’s an action film with a brain.
As Rise of the Planet of the Apes is not out yet, I’m reluctant to do a full analysis of the implications of the film’s plot. That will have to come after August 5th, when the movie releases.
I had a chance to interview Andy Serkis, James Franco, and director Rupert Wyatt. The interviews are posted after the jump, where you can see how James Franco was caught off guard by my questions about cognitive enhancement, Rupert Wyatt explores the way in which the apes mirror humanity, and Andy Serkis describes enhancement as a tool of liberation. It’s good stuff, enjoy. Read More
Captain America is not a serious scientific film. Nearly every piece of technology is furious hand-waving. Vibranium? Vita-rays? Rocket-powered propellers? The cosmic cube? Awesome, yes, but not real. These, however, are narrative tools, not attempts at hard scientific prediction and therefore not something to be critiqued. What the comic-book-tech of Captain America allows for is an exploration of the ethics of enhancement. Here, more than perhaps any other fictional film I’ve seen, Captain America displays striking balance and nuance – it gets enhancement right.
Based on your knowledge of the film and/or comics, this post may contain *spoilers*, so consider yourself warned. And if you’re looking for review of why it’s a fun movie, A.O. Scott in the NYT captures my sentiments about the film perfectly: pulpy Nazi-punching goodness. Now, on to enhancement!
There are three major factors that make the enhancement of Steve Rogers and his crimson domed antithesis, the Red Skull, unique among comic book lore. The first is that Steve Rogers was deliberately enhanced by someone. There is no accident, no crisis-as-catalyst-and-crucible event, no mystic charm, and no superhuman heritage to explain or justify Rogers’ becoming superhuman. Rogers is superhuman because Dr. Abraham Erskine develops a superhuman serum for that express purpose. Here, the science of enhancement is itself portrayed in a positive light. In what seems like every other superhero origin story, powers are acquired through scientific hubris. Be it the unintended consequences of splitting the atom, tinkering with genetics, or trying to access some heretofore unknown dimension, comic book heroes invariably arise by accident. The super serum, the vita-rays, and the outcome of the experiment on Rogers are all a scientific success. They happen precisely the way every person in the room hopes they will. Dr. Erskine is not a madman but a humble, ethical, and brilliant scientist trying to make better people. As such, he looks for the best in the humans he hopes to enhance. In short, Steve Rogers might be the only major superhero who is the result of scientific experimentation going to plan.
Second, Steve Rogers deliberately chooses to become enhanced. I had expressed my doubts about Rogers’ consent being genuine, but the film makes his determination and clarity of thought evident. Unlike many heroes, who seem to acquire their powers out of recklessness around science (Banner, Parker, Richards, I’m looking at you), Rogers very consciously decides to go through with Dr. Erskine’s procedure. He, in fact, might be one of the only heroes who ever knew he was going to be come a hero before his transformative event. That foreknowledge is critical for demonstrating that enhancement isn’t something that is only desired by egomaniacs. Rogers seeks strength and speed to defend and protect others. His body did not match how he saw his true self. Again, we see an anti-science motif of comic books turned on its head. Normally, those who seek superpowers are unworthy because they believe they deserve to be better than others, thus, the experiments go wrong. This attitude is embodied in the Red Skull, whose evil quite literally boils to the surface when he injects the super serum. However, Rogers’ reasoning is that others deserve to be protected and defended. Altruism, not egoism, is the driving force behind Rogers’ desire to become enhanced.
Third, and most important, is that enhancement in the film is not merely “functional” enhancement. That is, Rogers is not just stronger and faster. In a private moment, Dr. Erskine explains to Rogers that the serum and vita-rays affect “everything that is inside. Good becomes great. Bad becomes worse.” Erskine is not talking about physical traits here. Rogers’ “bad” traits (i.e. his laundry list of medical issues) are not aggravated by the serum, but cured. The good/bad that becomes great/worse are moral qualities and capacities of the person. Captain America is literally super-moral. His already above-average sense of moral clarity and determination to do what is right becomes amplified in the same way that the lust for power and pleasure from slaughter are magnified in the Red Skull.
Moral enhancement, a fairly recent talking point among thinkers in the bioethics community, is handled deftly in Captain America. Enhancements do not change who we are or from where we come, but serve to empower and improve traits which we already possess. For Steve Rogers, those traits are what we wish for most in our heroes: beneficence, altruism, and humility. Note, among his list of valued traits are not unwavering loyalty to national authority (despite his irritating flag fetish) or deference to some commanding power. Instead, Rogers’ own judgment causes him to defy orders at almost every turn. Why? Because Captain America’s sense of ethics is itself enhanced. He is a better human being because of Dr. Erskine’s process.
I haven’t seen a movie that was this pro-science and pro-human goodness in a long time. I may not have seen a movie that was this pro-enhancement ever. Did I mention it also involves Nazi-punching?
Promotional Image of Captain America via Marvel.com
The future is impossible to predict. But that’s not going to stop people from trying. We can at least pretend to know where it is we want humanity to go. We hope that laws we craft, the technologies we invent, our social habits and our ways of thinking are small forces that, when combined over time, move our species towards a better existence. The question is, How will we know if we are making progress?
As a movement philosophy, transhumanism and its proponents argue for a future of ageless bodies, transcendent experiences, and extraordinary minds. Not everyone supports every aspect of transhumanism, but you’d be amazed at how neatly current political struggles and technological progress point toward a transhuman future. Transhumanism isn’t just about cybernetics and robot bodies. Social and political progress must accompany the technological and biological advances for transhumanism to become a reality.
But how will we able to tell when the pieces finally do fall into place? I’ve been trying to answer that question ever since Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution was asked a while back by his readers: What are the exact conditions for counting “transhumanism” as having been attained? In an attempt to answer, I responded with what I saw as the three key indicators:
As I groped through the intellectual dark for these three points, it became clear that the precise technology and how it worked was unimportant. Instead, we need to figure out how technology may change our lives and our ways of living. Unlike the infamous jetpack, which defined the failed futurama of the 20th century, the 21st needs broader progress markers. Here are seven things to look for in the coming centuries that will let us know if transhumanism is here. Read More
Science fiction has a problem: everyone looks the same. I know there are a few series that have aliens that look unimaginably different from human beings. But those are the exception, not the rule. Most major sci-fi series – Star Wars, Babylon 5, Mass Effect, Star Trek, Farscape, Stargate – have alien species that are hominid.
Consider the above image. Of the twenty visible species, only five are visibly not hominid. That’s right, I count the prawn, xenomorph, predator, Cthulhu and A.L.F. as being hominid. I grant that it’s a bit of a stretch. A more conservative evaluation would be that only two of the twenty are truly hominid. The others, which we’ll call pseudo-hominids, still share the following with humans: bipedal locomotion; bilateral symmetry; a morphology of head, trunk, two arms, and two legs; upright posture; and forward-facing, stereoscopic eyes. I grant they don’t look precisely human, but the similarities are too striking to be swept into the nearest black hole.
Even the most strident supporter of parallel evolution would laugh in the face of anyone who claimed that the most intelligent species on nearly every planet in the universe just happened to evolve the exact same physiology. In series like Star Trek and Mass Effect, where interspecies relationships are possible, this cross-species compatibility is made even more preposterous. We all suspend our scientific disbelief to enjoy the story and the characters. No one believes for a second that the first species we meet in the cosmos is going to look just like us save for some pointy ears and a bowl haircut.
But what if many species in the universe do look like humans? How in Carl Sagan’s cosmos could we explain parallel evolution of that magnitude? Star Trek: The Next Generation, manages to give a scientifically plausible answer to the question of hominid and biologically compatible alien species in an episode entitled “The Chase.” Which lead me to develop the Hominid Panspermia Theory of Science Fiction Aliens.
A patient with tracheal cancer was given a new trachea grown entirely in a lab from his own stem cells using a synthetic scaffold. The cancer has been diagnosed as terminal, but thanks to the surgery, the man is likely to be discharged in a few days. As Gautam Naik at the Wall Street Journal reports:
“It’s yet another demonstration that what was once considered hype [in the field of tissue engineering] is becoming a life-changing moment for patients,” said Alan Russell, director of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Pittsburgh, who wasn’t involved in the latest operation. . .
With the patient on the surgery table, Dr. [Paolo] Macchiarini and colleagues then added chemicals to the stem cells, persuading them to differentiate into tissue—such as bony cells—that make up the windpipe.
About 48 hours after the transplant, imaging and other studies showed appropriate cells in the process of populating the artificial windpipe, which had begun to function like a natural one. There was no rejection by the patient’s immune system, because the cells used to seed the artificial windpipe came from the patient’s own body.
Dr. Russell of the McGowan Institute sounded a note of caution about using this technique to build more-complex organs. For example, while tissue engineering can help to build hollow organs such as a windpipe, it will likely prove a bigger challenge to use the technique for creating the heart, which has much thicker tissue.
The use of a synthetic scaffold is landmark for two reasons. First, it means that those in need of a trachea transplant don’t have to wait for a donor trachea. Stem cells can be used to make one to order. Second, previous lab-grown tracheae had used tracheae from cadavers as scaffolds. The use of a fully synthetic scaffold means that only the patient’s own cells create the new organ. As a result, the body recognizes the new organ as its own and does not attempt to reject it, removing the need for immunosuppressive drugs. The success of this operation creates the foundation for other lab-grown organs because the only two necessary ingredients were stem cells and synthetic scaffolds. No need for donors, cadavers, or immunosuppressive drugs.
The implications for anti-aging medicine are incredible: imagine being able to get a new set of organs dropped in every twenty years or so. Brand new heart, lungs, and guts fresh from the factory. Or, if you’re born with a bad ticker or digestive issues, no worries, we’ll just whip you up a new one and swap it out. It would be a paradigm shift in the treatment of disease.
The possibilities here are tremendous, but also a long ways away. Dr. Russell is right when he calls out the simplicity of the trachea in relation to other organs. The trachea is the first small step of many large steps science still needs to take before we can readily and safely replace any organ in the body. Still, that a man’s life was saved by a technology that was science fictional two decades ago is a cause worth celebrating.