Category: Genetics

Rise of the Apes: We Must Care for the Minds We Create

By Kyle Munkittrick | August 5, 2011 9:40 am

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.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Apocalypse, Genetics, Movies, Philosophy

Rise of the Planet of the Apes: Animal Enhancement as a Tool of Liberation

By Kyle Munkittrick | August 3, 2011 9:59 am

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

When Will We Be Transhuman? Seven Conditions for Attaining Transhumanism

By Kyle Munkittrick | July 16, 2011 9:53 am

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:

  1. Medical modifications that permanently alter or replace a function of the human body become prolific.
  2. Our social understanding of aging loses the “virtue of necessity” aspect and society begins to treat aging as a disease.
  3. Rights discourse would shift from who we include among humans (i.e. should homosexual have marriage rights?) to a system flexible enough to easily bring in sentient non-humans.

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

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

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

The Unnatural History of Making People

By Kyle Munkittrick | March 29, 2011 5:36 pm

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

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biotech, Books, Genetics, Transhumanism

Designer Babies Will Be Godless Achievement Machines

By Kyle Munkittrick | February 22, 2011 8:31 am

Are designer babies a danger to the middle class? Should we, as a society, specially breed children for submission to the Achievatron to defeat Chinese mothers and live up to the genetic “Sputnik Moment” in which we find ourselves? Will designer babies be atheists? Peter Lawler, ostensible smart person, seems to think so! If I am translating his compassionate conservative gibberish properly, Lawler is under the distinct impression that the goal behind designer babies is to make a more productive populace and that doing so will wreak havoc upon our families and lives.

Some background on Peter Lawler. He writes for Big Think, loves The New Atlantis (their writers at Futurisms are great sparring partners) and was on the President’s Council on Bioethics (PCBE) . For those of you unfamiliar with Bush’s President’s Council on Bioethics, they were the brilliant minds behind halting stem cell research, focusing on it-worked-for-Bristol-Palin abstinence-only sex education and being generally terrible philosophers and thinkers. Charles Krauthammer was asked his opinion of ethical issues, I kid you not. In short, the PCBE happily rubber-stamped the backwards and anti-science decrees of Bush and Cheney in an effort to supplicate the deranged Christian base of the Republican party. I tell you all of this lovely information so you have a working context for the luminary Big Think has decided to employ.

Thus, on to the question: will designer babies turn the USA into a culture of compulsory overachievement? Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Biology, Genetics, Transhumanism

Robots That Evolve Like Animals Are Tough and Smart—Like Animals

By Malcolm MacIver | February 14, 2011 6:33 pm

People who work in robotics prefer not to highlight a reality of our work: robots are not very reliable. They break, all the time. This applies to all research robots, which typically flake out just as you’re giving an important demo to a funding agency or someone you’re trying to impress. My fish robot is back in the shop, again, after a few of its very rigid and very thin fin rays broke. Industrial robots, such as those you see on car assembly lines, can only do better by operating in extremely predictable, structured environments, doing the same thing over and over again. Home robots? If you buy a Roomba, be prepared to adjust your floor plan so that it doesn’t get stuck.

What’s going on? The world is constantly throwing curveballs at robots that weren’t anticipated by the designers. In a novel approach to this problem, Josh Bongard has recently shown how we can use the principles of evolution to make a robot’s “nervous system”—I’ll call it the robot’s controller—robust against many kinds of change. This study was done using large amounts of computer simulation time (it would have taken 50–100 years on a single computer), running a program that can simulate the effects of real-world physics on robots.

What he showed is that if we force a robot’s controller to work across widely varying robot body shapes, the robot can learn faster, and be more resistant to knocks that might leave your home robot a smoking pile of motors and silicon. It’s a remarkable result, one that offers a compelling illustration of why intelligence, in the broad sense of adaptively coping with the world, is about more than just what’s above your shoulders. How did the study show it?

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MORE ABOUT: embodiment, evolution

Would Death Be Easier If You Know You've Been Cloned?

By Malcolm MacIver | December 27, 2010 12:41 pm

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.

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Genetic Engineering Lets Designer Kids Be Kids

By Kyle Munkittrick | December 9, 2010 9:18 am

Seconds later, this child was totally covered in mud.

Katie Roiphe over at Slate is worried about helicopter parents screwing up their kids by trying to perfect them:

You know the child I am talking about: precious, wide-eyed, over-cared-for, fussy, in a beautiful sweater, or a carefully hipsterish T-shirt. Have we done him a favor by protecting him from everything, from dirt and dust and violence and sugar and boredom and egg whites and mean children who steal his plastic dinosaurs, from, in short, the everyday banging-up of the universe? The wooden toys that tastefully surround him, the all-sacrificing, well-meaning parents, with a library of books on how to make him turn out correctly— is all of it actually harming or denaturing him?

The article’s title “If we try to engineer perfect children, will they grow up to be unbearable?” grabbed me (of course). The “engineering” bit wasn’t, to my chagrin, referring to actual, genetic engineering. Instead, Roiphe was referring to parents obsessing over every aspect of their child’s lives, as if some misstep in the minutia would produce an invalid. These parents seem to accept the nature/nurture divide and, realizing there is nothing they can do to improve the genetic make-up of their little bundle of joy, attempt to overwhelm nature with nurture. Yet in the process parents are inhibiting the, ahem, natural ways in which children learn and develop: unstructured play, exploration, discovery, and getting hurt. How can we get helicopter parents to back off? Maybe with genetic engineering? Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Genetics
MORE ABOUT: children, parenting
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