It’s good to be back to blogging after a brief hiatus. As part of my return to some minimal level of leisure, I was finally able to watch the movie Moon (directed and co-written by Duncan Jones) and I’m glad that I did. (Alert: many spoilers ahead). Like all worthwhile art, it leaves nagging questions to ponder after experiencing it. It also gives me another chance to revisit questions about how technology may change our sense of identity, which I’ve blogged a bit about in the past.
A brief synopsis: Having run out of energy on Earth, humanity has gone to the Moon to extract helium-3 for powering the home planet. The movie begins with shots outside of a helium-3 extraction plant on the Moon. It’s a station manned by one worker, Sam, and his artificial intelligence helper, GERTY. Sam starts hallucinating near the end of his three-year contract, and during one of these hallucinations drives his rover into a helium-3 harvester. The collision causes the cab to start losing air and we leave Sam just as he gets his helmet on. Back in the infirmary of the base station, GERTY awakens Sam and asks if he remembers the accident. Sam says no. Sam starts to get suspicious after overhearing GERTY being instructed by the station’s owners not to let Sam leave the base.
OK, so—whoa. Anyone wielding designer Kaylene Kau‘s prosthetic tentacle would certainly become the instant favorite of any Elder Gods she met. But aside from it’s ability to preserve her from being eaten by Cthulu, Kau’s prosthetic tentacle abandons a way of thinking about prosthetics — that they have to replicate the lost limb as exactly as possible —- for something simple, usable, and elegant.
Instead of a massively complicated set of servos, gears, and microchips the user manipulates the tentacle through two switches: One tightens a cord, causing the tentacle to curl and grip an object, the other lets it go. It’s primarily designed as an aid in conjunction with a biological arm, but it can grip large and small objects effectively.
The arm can join a suite of prosthetic limbs that are changing the way medicine and the rest of us think about replacing a lost limb. Last year, New Zealander Nadya Vessey, who’s missing both legs, asked special effects company Weta (all three Lord of the Rings movies) to make her a mermaid prosthetic she could use for swimming. They needed eight staff members and two and half years, but they did it, and now Vessey swims in the ocean with her fin.
But probably not!
You see, I was merely quoting Margaret Somerville, the Director of the Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law at McGill University in Canada. In addition to thinking gay marriage is bad for the kids, Somerville really does not like transhumanists. She thinks that personhood is the “world’s most dangerous idea,” (sounds vaguely familiar) because if aliens, animals and robots have rights too, we won’t value humans anymore. In her recent piece, calmly titled “Scary Science Could Cause Human Extinction” Somerville makes a strange argument about xenotransplants (i.e. organ transplants). First, she beats up on transhumanists and our support of life-extension. She attempts to link life-extention with genetically modified animal organ transplants. She then argues that the transplants will, get this, cause a mutant virus leading to a global pandemic obliterating humanity. I am not joking:
[Using genetically modified pig-hybrid organs] poses a risk, not only to transplant recipients, their sexual partners, and their families, but also, possibly, to the public as a whole. An animal virus or other infective agent could be transferred to humans, with potentially tragic results – not just for the person who received the organ but for other people, who could subsequently be infected. And there might be a very remote possibility that it could wipe out the human race.
Somerville’s argument abuses the word “potentially” and its synonyms in a desperate attempt to draw a link in the reader’s mind between xenotransplants and a cataclysmic plague. Human-to-human disease transmission during transplants is extremely low, and the genetic differences between humans and animals, even hybrids, would lower the risk all the more. Martine Rothblatt, (a Fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies) wrote a whole book, Your Life or Mine, addressing the fears around xenotransplantaion. In short, Somerville’s concerns about xenotransplantation are not based in science, but in bioLuddite hysteria. Somerville’s case against xenotransplantation is in terminal condition already, and things only get worse from here.
WBEZ, the Chicago affiliate of National Public Radio, recently gathered together several of my fellow science and engineering researchers at Northwestern University to talk about the science of science fiction films. The panel, and just short of 500 people from the community and university, watched clips from Star Wars, Gattaca, Minority Report, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and The Matrix. I was the robot/AI guy commenting on the robot spiders of Minority Report; Todd Kuiken, a designer of neuroprosthetic limbs, commented on Luke getting a new arm in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back; Tom Meade, a developer of medical biosensors and new medical imaging techniques, commented on Gattaca; and Catherine Wooley, who studies memory, commented on Eternal Sunshine.
The full audio of the event can be streamed or downloaded from here.
In Spider-Man 2—which I know isn’t canon, but work with me here—Dr. Octopus can only do his research thanks to some spectacular artificial arms: Each of his four bonus arms is heat resistant, incredibly precise, and has a brain of its own, so they can work independently. The arms join in a knapsack-sized device that connects directly to his spinal cord, so Dr. Octopus can send signals to the arms with his thoughts. He can think sends orders to the arms through a direct link into his spine. Now here in the real world, we have trouble linking robotic limbs directly to nerves because our bodies reject metal attachments to our nerves. So Doc Ock really achieved something there, setting aside the later problems with the arms’ AI (surely an easily fixed bug).
Now a crew of scientists at Southern Methodist University is working on their own technique for creating two-way communications between an artificial limb and a user’s brain. It uses non-metallic polymers, and at its core, it uses the same principal as whispering galleries of the sort that can be found in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, or at certain parts of Grand Central Station in New York. Indeed, they call it a “whispering gallery mode.”
We have a ways to go before Dr. McCoy can run up to a patient, swipe a Tricorder over them and come up with an instant diagnosis, but we’re swiftly building a ladder to that future with wireless sensors and our smart phones.
Anyone who’s had an EKG knows they’re a moderately unpleasant experience: Electrodes dangling long wires must be taped to your chest (which includes getting a patchy shave from the nurse, for the hirsute among us), which of course makes moving around the room a challenge when it comes to stress tests or other related examinations.
We’ll dispense with most of that stuff, if engineering doctoral candidate Yu Mike Chi and Dutch biotech IMEC have their ways in the market place. Chi, who is still studying at the University of California-San Diego, devised a sensor that can pick up the electromagnetic pulses from heartbeats through layers of cloth, eliminating the need for direct skin contact. The sensors relay medical quality heart rate data to a nearby computer. The sensors can be embedded in a hospital gown in a medical environment, or eventually in clothing for ongoing data collection.
For years, researchers have been using fluorescent proteins in bacteria and animals to study everything from gene therapy and neural development to cancer and limb regeneration (and create some very pretty pictures). The concept is fairly simple: by inserting the gene for GFP (green fluorescent protein, originally found in jellyfish) at the end of another gene—say the gene for hemoglobin—its glow can be used to measure how much hemoglobin is produced and where it is produced in the cell.
Inspired by the success of GFP as a research tool (it earned its discoverers the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2008), scientists have adopted a similar approach to identify and locate transplanted stem cells in animal models. Except in their case, they’ve begun to use the gene for luciferase, the enzyme responsible for the mesmerizing glow of the firefly. And if this method works, it could make stem cells a potent tool for addressing heart disease.
Eye-scanning technology, voice-print security, palm prints: Biometric security has almost become one of the basic signifers of existing in the future, like clean white walls and rounded surfaces. In Minority Report the biometrics extended to the point that Tom Cruise’s character, John Anderton, was easily identified by animated advertisements as he walked through a mall, and later on he had to actually replace his own eyeballs so he could avoid detection.
Ickiness aside, biometrics have become less futuristic and more now-istic. The entire town of León, in central Mexico, contracted with Global Rainmakers, Inc., to install iris scanning technology throughout the town. Locals will be able to use iris scanning to get on the bus, use ATMs, and get hospital care.
But the people of Leon might want to consider a report (free with registration) from the National Research Council before they go too far down that road, because there are some significant problems with going all biometric, all the time.
I have seen the future, and it is cilia. Yes, you read that right: those trillions of tiny hair-like extensions that carpet every inch of your body could bring scientists’ visions of a universal class of “smart” materials that change and adapt when subjected to various stimuli closer to reality. These artificial cilia could one day do everything from testing drugs and monitoring air quality to measuring glucose levels and detecting electromagnetic fields.
While largely ignored over the past century (or, at best, dismissed as being purely vestigial), scientists are finally beginning to appreciate the many vital functions they perform in and outside of our bodies. Much like an antenna or sensor, cilia gather information from their surroundings and react—by activating a cellular process or shutting down cell growth, for example—if something seems amiss. They can also act as miniature roads or railways, carrying dirt, bacteria and other noxious materials out of our lungs or shuttling a fertilized egg from the ovary to the uterus. And, perhaps most importantly, cilia make it possible for us to see, hear, smell, and otherwise feel the outside world.
Now some researchers believe that cilia-like structures could bring their sensory prowess to medicine, environmental monitoring and a number of other fields. Leading the charge is Marek Urban of the University of Southern Mississippi who has created a copolymer film with hair-like filaments that mimics the functions of normal cilia. Read More
I had hoped for a good response to “The Most Dangerous Idea in the World,” but I must admit I did not expect the slew of comments, responses, and the huge Reddit thread that it triggered. You critiqued my stance on religion, on economic equality, on the value of suffering and death, on the benefits of technology, and on the “you support eugenics? what!?” level. The value of any idea is how well it stands up to public scrutiny and debate. So allow me to put up my rhetorical dukes and see if I can’t land a few haymakers on your many counterpoints.
There were five big counterpoints to transhumanism that emerged from the comments. For the sake of clarity and brevity, I have paraphrased each.
1. Transhumanism is new-age, techno-utopian, “Rapture of the Nerds” pap.
2. Transhumanism will split society between rich transhumans and poor normals.
3. Without death, there will be overpopulation, insufficient resources, we’ll all get bored and bad old people will never go away.
4. Eugenics is bad. Period.
5. What if I don’t want to be transhuman?
And now, my answers: