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That is not dead which can eternal lie…
Tags: biotech, ecology, sustainability
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Among certain segments of the population a common fear of biotechnology, and indeed a common fear of emerging technologies in general, is that it will reduce nature to just another commodity. With the potential to control the very most inner workings of living organisms soon to be in our grasps, what will stop us from treating life in the same way we have historically treated most of the resources at our disposal?
This is not an argument without merit and more than enough words have been spent elsewhere on it. However, I would like to invite you, for just a moment, to consider an alternative possibility. What if, instead of separating us even further from our connections with the rest of the biosphere, biotechnology instead reminds us of our position as simply one species among many, merely one (albeit important) part of the greater fabric of life?
At first glance this probably sounds ludicrous and I don’t blame anyone who thinks that. After all, the general trend of human thought throughout history has been one of placing ourselves higher and higher atop the pyramid of life. From religious ideas of man made in the image of God to secular myths of a vast tree of life culminating in humanity, our position towards the rest of the world has not been one of humility. Furthermore, technology has seemingly only ever exacerbated this problem, putting nature more and more under our control and reinforcing our self image as masters of the world with “dominion over all the beasts of the fields.”
How might biotechnology change this? As a though experiment, let us think of a house. As currently constructed, a house usually requires wood for its frame, metal for plumbing and electricity, a water supply to support both the human inhabitants and the inevitable pustule that marks the faces of most modern homes, the front lawn. All of these things come from somewhere else. When they break, they are replaced by parts that are also from somewhere. Virtually nothing within a modern house actually originates in its immediate environment. Instead, a modern house (indeed, a modern life style) requires a supply chain stretching in many cases thousands of miles to supply the necessary raw materials to build and sustain itself.
How might a house constructed through biotechnology be different. Imagine for a moment a house grown from a seed (or multiple seeds, the specifics aren’t important). What would it require? If it were anything like a normal tree, it would need nutrients, a water supply and light. Light for the most part is freely available everywhere. Every second the earth is bombarded by free energy, far more than is currently used by the entirety of human civilization. A house would require only the smallest portion of that to grow, and once grown an even smaller amount to sustain it’s own basal metabolism. Nutrients could be acquired through composting of vegetable matter or, for the less squeamish among you, diluting human urine for use as fertilizer. Depending on the location, water would be the most difficult resources to come across but there is hope. Numerous plants have evolved novel mechanisms for dealing with arid conditions, mechanisms which could be adapted for our use.
All this is merely details. The important thing to take away is that a biohouse would be reliant, not on the current monstrosity that is the global supply chain, but on the local ecosystem surrounding it. It would require care and attention, as all living things do. It would require an understanding of the place of the house, and the people living in it, with the wider world. It could (and of course this is only a could) reconnect us to Gaia, to the greater whole of which we are a part.
Boy Attends School Using Robot September 24, 2012Posted by Metabiological in Science.
Tags: robots, science, technology
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This is the kind of story I enjoy reading. Technology unequivocally making someone’s life better.
When Devon Carrow was a baby, a cookie-coated kiss from his mom made him break out in hives. An accidental encounter with peanuts at his godparents’ home three months later landed him in the hospital, under an oxygen tent. His food allergies are so severe that he doesn’t even have to eat something in order to have a life-threatening reaction — just breathing in trace amounts of an allergen is enough to send him into anaphylactic shock.
But thanks to technology, the home-bound boy is finally able to attend school in person — so to speak. He sits in his classroom, runs small errands for his teacher, and participates in group projects all thanks to a $6,000 robot from Nashua, N.H.-based VGo Communications.
His mom converted a room in their home for use as a classroom, and two teachers help him manipulate his computer equipment from there. Thanks to the VGo, which he started using in January, Devon can walk the halls of Winchester Elementary with his classmates, check books out of the library, join other kids on the carpet for circle time, and participate on stage during assembly. The only things he can’t do are attend gym and lunch, but once the school’s wireless system is upgraded, he should be able to hang out in the cafeteria with his buddies while he eats his lunch at home.
Heartwarming. And that’s not something I say often unironically.
First Transhumanist Polititian Elected In Italy September 21, 2012Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
Tags: Giuseppe Vatinno, government, politics, transhumanism
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I’ve sat on this story for awhile because I honestly didn’t know how I felt about it. For those that don’t know a little while ago Giuseppe Vatinno, a politician for the Alleanza per l’Italia (Alliance for Italy) party, became the first self-identified transhumanist to be elected to a national government or indeed a government of any kind. He recently gave an interview to NewScientist. Some excerpts below.
What is transhumanism?
Transhumanism is a philosophical doctrine that aims to continuously improve humanity. It promotes science and technology but with people at its centre. Ultimately, it aims to free humanity from its biological limitations, overcoming natural evolution to make us more than human.
Is there a danger that transhumanism could actually make us less human?
Becoming less human is not necessarily a negative thing, because it could mean we are less subject to the whims of nature, such as illness or climate extremes. A beautiful sunset is positive, but the black death that struck Europe in the 14th century was not. We want to retain the positive aspects of nature and reduce the negative ones.
Is transhumanism more allied with left- or right-wing politics?
In the UK and the US recently, it has been closer to the left, probably because left-wing themes such as bioethics are important to transhumanists at the moment. But economically, the movement probably leans slightly more to the right. Freedom is very important in transhumanism, leading to a focus on individuals and free enterprise.
Interesting. While I can’t deny that it is way cool to see transhumanism enter the realm of politics I also have some reservations. On the one hand I wonder what it actually means for Vatinno to be a transhumanist politician as opposed to a politician who happens to be a transhumanist. To put it another way how will his transhumanist beliefs affect his actual policy decisions? Will he vote for greater funding for anti-aging research? Will he seek to spread the use of synthetic intelligence in government decision making? Will he govern as more of a technocrat then a populist and if so how will he balance serving his non-transhumanist constituents while at the same time supporting goals many of those constituents will likely see as pie-in-the-sky nonesense?
A second reservation, though not as strong as the first, is how this might open up the transhumanist movement to attacks from those opposed to it. If we’re perfectly honest with ourselves I think most transhumanists can admit that the movement is currently what we might call an elite one in that it tends to appeal to and draw it’s membership from the highly educated and the upper income earners. While that’s fine for what it still largely a philosophical movement if transhumanism ever wants to truly break into the mainstream as an ideology it will have to appeal to the masses. Electing transhumanists to positions of power without also building a solid base of transhumanist voters is a recipe for cultural backlash (i.e. look at those out of touch elites trying to steal power from the people!)
So in short while I repeat that it is very cool to see a transhumanist actually elected as a transhumanist I would like to temper the enthusiasm just a little bit. Without a solid base to draw from don’t expect transhumanists to take over government any time soon.
Transhumanist Media: Human 2.0 September 12, 2012Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
Tags: documentary, media, transhumanism
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Interesting trailer for Human 2.0, which incidentally was the name of my first blog, what appears to be a massive documentary (the link promises 12 hours of film) about seemingly every aspect of modern transhumanism. The dialogue seems to be in English but the narration and subtitles are in German so I’m not quite sure what the release schedule of this movie is. Also the link on Kurzweil AI is from a few days ago but the Youtube video is from 2010. Still, looks pretty cool. Take a look below.
My favorite line. “I think we can get pretty far by faking emotion as a human being in real life so I suppose robots will probably be able to benefit from that as well.”
DARPA Unveils New Robotic “Mule” September 10, 2012Posted by Metabiological in Science.
Tags: DARPA, robots, science, technology
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Like it or not the military has been behind some of the biggest technological breakthroughs in history (no surprise given the amount of money spent on it). The US military has been sinking a lot of money into robotics in recent years in an effort to automate their forces. Predator drones are probably the most well-known example of this but they have also been working on ground based robots to assist infantry. DARPA has recently put out a new video demonstrating their newest creation; the LS3.
Not exactly the Terminator but pretty cool none-the-less. Sure it’s got a funny gait and it’s “running” probably couldn’t outpace a twelve year old but the technology has been steadily improving since the days of Big Dog (which was cool in it’s own right). While it’s something we take for granted maneuvering on uneven terrain, even very slowly, is actually an incredibly complicated skill that requires a great amount of agility and balance, things that up until recently robots just haven’t been able to do. Life has had millions of years to get the process down so it’s no big shock that robots are taking a little while to get it right.
P.S. Anyone more knowledgeable about the subject know what happened to Big Dog? Looking at those old videos again makes me remember what a seriously impressive technology that was/is. It’s still amazing, and somewhat eerie even for me, to see it slip on an ice patch and stumble about in such a “life like” manner.
Happy Trails Voyager! September 9, 2012Posted by Metabiological in Beyond Earth.
Tags: NASA, science, space, voyager
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35 years in space and still chugging along. You are the first, and hopefully not the last, emissary of humanity to the stars.
Junk DNA Not Junk After All September 9, 2012Posted by Metabiological in Genetics.
Tags: genetics, junk DNA, science, transhumanism
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A big new study out of the Human Genome Research Group has just been released to the public. This is probably the biggest study in genetics since the Human Genome project a decade ago and the results coming out seem to be just as fascinating.
“The ENCODE project not only generated an enormous body of data about our genome, but it also analyzed many issues to better understand how the genome functions in different types of cells. These insights from integrative analyses are really stories about how molecular machines interact with each other and work on DNA to produce the proteins and RNAs needed for each cell to function within our bodies,” explains Ross Hardison of Pennsylvania State University, one of the JBC authors…
The human genome consists of about 3 billion DNA base pairs, but only a small percentage of DNA actually codes for proteins. The roles and functions of the remaining genetic information were unclear to scientists and even referred to as “junk DNA.” But the results of the ENCODE project is filling this knowledge gap. The findings revealed that more than 80 percent of the human genome is associated with biological function.
The status of junk DNA has been a thorn in biology’s side for a while now so it’s nice to have that question at least somewhat resolved. What’s most interesting for me is how this changes our view of the complexity of the human body.
It’s been becoming apparent for some time now that while what genes an organism possess are very important in determining organism functioning how those genes are activated and deactivated is just as (or possibly more) important. The field of epigenetics has been hot in recent years as scientists have begun to examine how regulation of gene expression rather then the actual structure of DNA determines the phenotype of individuals. If what this study tells us is correct it would seem that the vast majority of DNA is devoted to this regulation and while I’m not one to say that size always matters the sheer amount of this non-coding DNA speaks volumes about it’s likely importance.
It also makes the job of predicting the development of phenotypes a bit more tricky. “Junk DNA” may regulate gene expression but many other factors, including environmental, can affect junk DNA. Furthermore there is some evidence that changes in gene expression can actually be passed on to descendents, a form of non-Darwinian evolution. Will Lamark make a comeback? Hard to say but we do seem to be on the edge of a major shift in our understanding of the basics of life.
First Successful Bionic Eye Implanted September 2, 2012Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
Tags: bionic eye, science, transhumanism
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As I’ve said previously on this blog modern prosthetics are no where near ready to allow us the possibility of cyborg humans. At best they restore a limited set of the functions that a biological limb possess while lacking important features like the ability of flesh to self repair. But like all technology they are improving and a little while ago we marked a big milestone in the progress of prosthetics: the implantation of the first bionic eye.
After years of hard work and planning, Ms Ashworth’s implant was switched on last month at the Bionics Institute, while researchers held their breaths in the next room, observing via video link.
“I didn’t know what to expect, but all of a sudden, I could see a little flash…it was amazing. Every time there was stimulation there was a different shape that appeared in front of my eye,” Ms Ashworth said.
This early prototype consists of a retinal implant with 24 electrodes. A small lead wire extends from the back of the eye to a connector behind the ear. An external system is connected to this unit in the laboratory, allowing researchers to stimulate the implant in a controlled manner in order to study the flashes of light. Feedback from Ms Ashworth will allow researchers to develop a vision processor so that images can be built using flashes of light. This early prototype does not incorporate an external camera — yet. This is planned for the next stage of development and testing.
Obviously we are long way from allowing a previously blind person to see let alone enhancing normal human vision but it’s an encouraging step none-the-less.