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
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
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.
Designers of prosthetics and artificial organs have for a long time tried to replicate the human body. From the earliest peg legs to some of the most modern robotic limbs, the prosthetic we make looks like the body part that needs replacing. Lose a hand? Dean Kamen’s DEKA arm, aka the “Luke arm,” is a robotic prosthesis that will let you grasp an egg or open a beer. The Luke arm is a cutting edge piece of technology based on a backward idea – let’s replace the thing that went missing by replicating it with metal and motors. Whether it’s an artificial leg or a glass eye, prostheses often seek to reproduce not only the function of the body part, but the form and feel as well.
There are good reasons to want to reproduce form and feel along with function. The first reason is that our original bits and pieces work quite well. The human body as a whole is a natural marvel, let alone the immense complexity and dexterity of our hands, eyes, hearts, and legs. No need to reinvent the wheel, just replicate the natural model you’ve been given. The second, less obvious reason, is that we as a society have been and remain deeply uncomfortable with amputees and prosthetics. Many people don’t know what to do when faced with an artificial arm or leg. I wish it were different, but it largely isn’t. So prostheses are designed to look like whatever it is they replicate to hide the fact that the arm or leg or eye isn’t biological.
That methodology is being challenged by a few recent innovations: Össur’s now famous Cheetah blades, Kaylene Kau‘s tentacle arm, and the artificial heart with no heartbeat. These new prostheses and artificial organs are a result of approaching the problem by asking “What does this piece allow us to do?” not “How do we build an artificial one?” The implications for how humans will view themselves in the coming decades are monumental. Read More
Imagine you know everything on Wikipedia, in the Oxford English Dictionary, and the contents of every book in digital form. When someone asks you what you did twenty years ago, on demand you recall with perfect accuracy every sensation and thought from that moment. Sifting and parsing all of this information is effortless and unconscious. Any fact, instant of time, skill, technique, or data point that you’ve experienced or can access on the internet is in your mind.
Cybernetic brains might make that possible. As computing power and storage continue to plod along their 18-month doubling cycle, there is no reason to believe we won’t at least have cybernetic sub-brains within the coming century. We already offload a tremendous amount of information and communication to our computers and smartphones. Why not make the process more integrated? Of course, what I’m engaging in right now is rampant speculation. But a neuro-computer interface is a possibility. More than that: cyber-brains may be necessary. Read More
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
I am not very ethical about how I eat. I am not proud of this, but it is the truth. I am not vegan or vegetarian. In fact, I eat a lot of bacon and beef – I’d probably eat Soylent Green if given the option. I think the loco-vore movement is silly and think “organic” is a misnomer on nine out of ten things labeled as such. Most ethical foodies prefer “natural” and humane production methods. My question for all the ethical foodies out there: what are your thoughts on the very unnatural possibility of vat-grown meat?
Allow me to elaborate. Vat-grown meat is still a work in progress. But it is a real possibility. One of the scientists trying to make it a reality is Dr. Vladimir Mironov. He envisions giant factories called “carneries” that create meat the same way a brewery brews beer. One of his many goals is to be able to add taste and texture controlling features like fat and vascular systems to make his test-tube steaks as delicious as the real thing:
“It will be functional, natural, designed food,” Mironov said. “How do you want it to taste? You want a little bit of fat, you want pork, you want lamb? We design exactly what you want. We can design texture.”
Vat-grown meat is a godsend for those of us who are omnivores, but recognize the significant flaws with our current agricultural system. Many factory farms keep animals in inhumane conditions and the industry around animal meat is an incredibly wasteful and polluting. The current response to these conditions is to support organic, local and humane farming practices. The problem, of course, is that organic, local, and humane practices are economically inefficient, which makes the cost of ethical food prohibitive for most of us.
Yet I see vat-grown meat as presenting a significant conundrum to many supporters of the ethical/organic food movement: it’s too unnatural. Read More
When I think about transhumanism, I think about genetic engineering, cognitive enhancing drugs, and osso-neuro-integrated prosthetics. When Wired interviewee Lepht Anonym thinks about transhumanism, she thinks about kitchen sink surgery, using hot glue as a bioproofer and vodka as a sterilizer. Anonym is a biohacker or “grinder” depending on your preferred nomenclature. Grinding is a counter-culture mindset that has origins in cyberpunk and post-modern disenchantment with progress. Biohackers take body-modification, at-home surgery, and add a twist of the electromagnetic spectrum. Anonym seems to be somewhere between the two:
An American body-modification artist of a similar mindset [to Anonym] has created small metal discs of neodymium metal, coated in gold and silicon, which give off mild electric current when in a electromagnetic field. When inserted under the fingertips, this current stimulates the fingers’ nerve endings, allowing the bearer to literally feel the shape and strength of electromagnetic fields around power cords or electronic devices.
Anonym had several of these implanted professionally, choking at the cost, and then learned it was possible to buy the metal herself in bulk, far more cheaply.