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In-Vitro Meat: The Future Of Eating January 31, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ethics, Science.
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This isn’t exactly news since this type of research has been going on for awhile now but it’s always nice to see efforts like this getting recognition.

A developmental biologist and tissue engineer, Dr. Mironov, 56, is one of only a few scientists worldwide involved in bioengineering “cultured” meat.

It’s a product he believes could help solve future global food crises resulting from shrinking amounts of land available for growing meat the old-fashioned way … on the hoof.

The benefits to this type of technology are numerous and the article does a good job of explaining them.  First and foremost is the obvious benefit of producing large quantities of meat without the need to slaughter an animal.  No one can argue that the conditions for animals in industrial meat production are appalling nor that the animals clearly suffer in such an environment.   Even on more “traditional” farms which like to boast of how well their animals are treated still end up knocking them out and slitting their throats.

Second is the ecological impact of traditional meat production.

Cultured meat could eventually become cheaper than what Genovese called the heavily subsidized production of farm meat, he said, and if the public accepts cultured meat, the future holds benefits.

“Thirty percent of the earth’s land surface area is associated with producing animal protein on farms,” Genovese said.

“Animals require between 3 and 8 pounds of nutrient to make 1 pound of meat. It’s fairly inefficient. Animals consume food and produce waste. Cultured meat doesn’t have a digestive system.

I’ve heard some people object that these figures aren’t accurate since cows naturally eat grass, which costs nothing for humans to produce and has little ecological impact.  That’s true, cows naturally eat grass, but anyone who’s taken a look at meat production knows that it’s anything but natural.  The vast majority of animals raised for meat consumption (cows, pigs, fish) are fed on corn.  That’s right, they’re feeding corn to fish.

Speaking of natural, many foresee a major stumbling block for in-vitro meat in the public’s new fascination with natural goods.  The idea is that people will be hesitant to eat food grown in a lab.  Considering the furor over genetically modified crops (see Frankenfood) that’s probably not an outrageous assumption.  However this is more a question of branding than an actual problem with the technology.  Keep in mind, farming is a completely unnatural practice yet there aren’t many people returning to the hunter gatherer lifestyle.

Ultimately though what will make or break this technology is the price.  Meat production is expensive and a product that promises all the great taste for half the cost, so to speak, has a good chance at succeeding.  After all, much as many of us would like it not to be so people just like the taste of meat.


Jack LaLanne Dies at 96 Years Old January 23, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Longevity.
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This may seem to be a little out of my area of expertise but I truly feel the need to take note of this man.  I was born long after Jack LaLanne’s television show was off the air and only learned of him through the occasional story my parents or grandparents would tell.  Unlike some I can’t say that I was profoundly influenced by him in any great way but I was always impressed with the way he handled himself.

Jack LaLanne was a fitness icon decades before fitness was the monster industry that it is today.  At a time when athletes were still being told not to lift weights for fear it would make them slow and muscle-bound (no, really) LaLanne was encouraging people to watch their diet, exercise regularly and live a healthy lifestyle.  It’s probably hard for many of us to understand just what a groundbreaking message this was but to say he helped shaped the culture of the modern fitness industry is like saying that Joe Frazier had a decent left hook.

More than that though he seems to have genuinely cared about helping people get in shape and start thinking about their health.  His advice was simple, eat right and exercise, and he never succumbed to any of the gimmicks that populate the industry today.  On his show he would showcase simple exercises that could be done with nothing more than a towel and a chair.

Finally like all truly great icons he practiced what he preached, something which his death at the age of 96 can attest to.  To transhumanists this is probably the thing we will remember him for.  For all our focus on emerging technologies it’s important to remember that the best things we can for our own longevity right now is no more complicated than what Lalanne taught.

To Jack LaLanne

Gene In Kidney May Predispose You To Heart Disease January 23, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Longevity, Transhumanism.
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Next up in our series “Nature is COMPLICATED” (there is no series, I just made that up) a study out of the NIH has for the first time found a gene variant in the population that actually seems to cause heart disease.  The kicker?  The gene in question is not even expressed in your heart.

The unexpected results highlight the advantage of performing genome-wide studies to find DNA sequence variants associated with disease.

“I was surprised by the finding,” says Thomas P. Cappola, MD, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, also a lead investigator on the study. “This is a good example of how taking unbiased approaches to study human disease can lead you to unexpected targets.”

Studying three groups of Caucasian patients with heart failure, they found one DNA sequence variant that was common in all the groups and was actively involved in making an important protein for the body. A single change in the DNA sequence of a gene called CLCNKA leads to a change from arginine to glycine in the 83rd amino acid of the protein. This protein makes up part of a kidney channel responsible for controlling the secretion of chloride ions into the urine, an important process in maintaining the proper balance of salt and water in the body.

That single amino acid change reduced the channel’s ability to shuttle chloride ions across the cell membrane by about half. Dorn hypothesizes that a result of this reduction could be elevated levels of a hormone called renin in the blood. Renin is produced in the kidney and is the first signal in a cascade that can damage the heart. This opens the possibility of helping people who have the variant reduce their risk of heart failure with drugs commonly used to treat high blood pressure, including ACE-inhibitors and aldosterone blockers.

Interesting for a few reasons.  One is obvious, this study has the potential to lead to novel treatments for reducing the risk of heart disease, which as the number one killer in America is something we desperately need to do.  It’s simple utilitarian calculation; reducing risk will not only reduce or eliminate the suffering on those who would other wise have contracted heart disease but will also work to reduce health care costs and ease the burden said costs are placing on society at large.

Second, and more relevant to this blog, it showcases one of the difficulties we face in attempting to increase human longevity.  Namely, nature is COMPLICATED and our bodies are no exception.  As Neil Shubin put it the human body is essentially a retrofitted fish and regardless of how far we’ve come in our evolutionary history we are still bound by that ancestral framework.  As such, attempting to artificially lengthen the human lifespan by figuring out which gene does what and tweaking it appropriately is going to be absurdly difficult.  What once coded for scales may now code for skin and a single gene may do multiple things depending on when and how it is expressed.

This is why Aubrey deGrey’s SENS approach makes a lot of sense, cleaning up the damage of aging rather than attempting to fix the underlying causes.  Whether it ends up working or not is of course another story since no matter what we do we can’t escape the fact that biological life is messy.

Is The Singularity No Threat? January 22, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Synthetic Intelligence, Transhumanism.
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Over at IEET Kyle Munkittrick has just explained why we have nothing to fear from the rise of machine intelligence.  His post is a response to a short post by Michael Anissimov in which he reiterates a position that he’s held for awhile: that the Singularity is the greatest threat humanity is likely to face in the coming century.

Now I’m not entirely sure where I stand on the issue of the Singularity’s threat.  I certainly recognize that the development of new technologies always brings with it risks (see coal power) and there is little doubt that the emergence of greater than human intelligence will constitute a major risk.  That being said I have a hard time not laughing at some of the more apocalyptic visions I’ve seen and feel are strong urge to punch anyone who brings up Skynet as anything other than a joke.  But Kyle’s naivite, I can think of no other word for it, on the potential threat is nothing short of jaw-dropping.

The major problem with his argument unfortunately happens to be its central thesis; that even if a synthetic intelligence were to arise it would be unable to interact with the physical world and therefore poses no threat.  Even assuming that this scenario is likely, personally I think otherwise, his suggestion that an intelligence confined to a computer wouldn’t be able to affect is downright ludicrous.  He even mentions as an example an SI causing havoc on our communication networks and then brushes it off as if it were nothing.  One would have hoped that a person who writes blogs on the internet for a living would have a little more respect for the way that communications technology has become the bedrock of our society and economy.

In fact, let’s do a little though experiment.  Let’s take an industry, agriculture for example, that is essential to the continued prosperity of humanity and heavily reliant on computer technology.  Nowadays most food is produced far away from its point of consumption.  Whether this is good or bad is a subject for another time because the fact is most of us do not subsist on food grown in our local region.  To maintain the elaborate system that ensures your food gets from its farm thousands of miles away, across continents and oceans, takes a large and powerful infrastructure that today is heavily reliant on telecommunications technology.  Now imagine that something, say an SI, were able to disrupt that system?  How long to you think it would take for cities to turn into battlegrounds?  It wouldn’t even need to be a large disruption.  Most supermarkets don’t plan to carry stocks for large periods of time and an event like what I’m describing could send people into a buyer’s panic.

Want a more relevant example of a computer wreaking havoc in the real world? How about the flash-crash in the stock market last year? Wall Street algorithms caused a seven hundred point drop in the Dow Jones in a matter of minutes. They weren’t malicious (just doing what they were programmed to do) and they sure as hell couldn’t interact with the physical world yet they still managed to send people into a panic if only for a few moments. As we give more and more control to machines who can really predict the next crash won’t be worse.

Now I realize that what I’m saying sounds somewhat apocalyptic and I don’t think that such scenarios are necessarily likely. As I said I’m not sure where exactly I stand on the issue of the Singularity’s threat but one thing I do is acknowledge that there is a threat.  To brush off the danger as Kyle and others are doing is akin to a person walking backwards towards a cliff and saying “Everything looks good from here.”

Tianjin: China’s New Ecocity? January 16, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ecology.
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Depending on who you listen to China is positioning itself as a world leader in renewable energy and sustainable building.  I say “depending” because a closer examination of China’s efforts reveals a lot left to be desired.  Dongtan, China’s first newsworthy attempt at an ecocity, was scheduled to open in 2010 but has been pushed back due to numerous delays amid charges of corruption.  In addition the project raised more than a few eyebrows for planning to build its “ecocity” on the site of a wetland the serves as a migration site for endangered birds, not exactly eco-friendly.  So when I hear news that China is proposing to build another sustainable city I’m immediately skeptical.

On the surface this Tianjin project sounds promising.  A joint venture with a Singapore based company the city will have an extensive light rail network, a variety of landscapes for the eventual 350,000 citizens to live and a variety of recycling and renewable energy systems.  From the pictures provided the design of the buildings seem both beautiful and innovative.  All in all an excellent vision.

Unfortunately China has a history of visions that quickly turn into nightmares.  The city of Ordos is a perfect example; a gleaming picture of modernity built to house over 1 million residence when completed.  Only one problem.  Nobody has moved there.  The city lies largely vacant even while construction continues.

The problem lies largely with China’s economic system.  Despite all the talk of GDP and passing Japan as the world’s second largest economy in many ways China is a paper tiger.  Building projects in much of the country are used to boost GDP rather than provide needed infrastructure as the incentive for local governors is to present a strong economic picture, rather than build a foundation for future wealth.  In addition it’s well known that the key to China’s current prosperity is an export driven market built around cheap products combined with currency manipulation.  As China’s prosperity grows and a stronger middle class demands higher wages and better quality goods it will become more and more difficult to maintain the advantage it has built for itself.  Of course this is also ignoring the negative effects continued automation will have on low cost jobs and goods.

In addition China’s supposed devotion to environmentalism seems more like green-washing than a sincere belief.  Yes, it now boasts the second highest wind power production behind the USA and installs more turbines each year than anyone but it also boats the highest production of coal plants in the world.

None of this is to imply that China isn’t a strong economy or that its renewable energy sector doesn’t have potential, only that appearances can be deceiving.  In the case of Tianjin a wait and see attitude would be wise to see if this becomes another shiny, gilded boondoggle.

The Machines Run Wall Street January 13, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Synthetic Intelligence.
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There’s an excellent interview up on NPR concerning the use of high speed computers on Wall Street.  You can listen to it right here.

A few things I take away:

Firstly, despite what the commentator alludes this isn’t SI really.  These algorithms don’t display sentience and certainly don’t mimic human thought process.  But then they’re not being asked to think like us, they’re being asked to do things we can’t.  Their advantage over a human trader is in being able to sift large amounts of data and data sets and determine what variables exert the greatest affect on the market.  This isn’t an example of synthetic intelligence but it is a further example of the effects that automation will have on our society and economy.

Many people have been under the false pretense (or should I say illusion) that automation would only effect the industrial and manufacturing industries by eliminating blue-collar jobs and anything that requires manual labor.  This is flat out wrong.  While I could point out how we cling to our collective delusion that there is something special about human intelligence that can never be replicated that’s not really what’s going on here.  These algorithms aren’t simulating human thought because human thought isn’t required, only the ability to sift data and recognize patterns.  Now stop for a moment and think of all the jobs that really can be boiled down to those activities.  Quite a few right?  This is the next frontier of automation and it’s going to take us for a ride (for a really good read on the subject, look up The Lights in the Tunnel.)

Secondly, I’m amazed that so much of our prosperity rest on a system that even insiders claim to not really understand.  I can sympathize with those working the market to a degree since I fully understand the difficulty involved in predicting the actions of complex systems (I am an ecologist after all) but it scares me to think of how little we know about something that exerts such a great influence on all of us.  The commentator mentioned one company in particular, Volion, that doesn’t even know what their trading on.  Putting aside the fact of how that’s even possible I wonder… no screw that, HOW IS THAT EVEN POSSIBLE!?  How have we built the driver of our economic prosperity on quicksand?

Finally, the major problem I see here is the major problem that confronts any use of computers to make our decisions for us: how to we know they’ll make the right ones.  This isn’t a question of computers going rogue and taking over the world a la Skynet.  This is a simple question of priorities.  How do we know that computers will have the same priorities as we do?

Imagine for a moment that we build a computer, the most powerful computer ever, blessed with freedom and ability to solve any problem we put to it.  We ask this computer to solve a seemingly impossible math problem.  The computer, following our instructions, proceeds to convert all matter on earth, including us, into hardware to increase it’s computational ability and solve the problem.  Sound crazy?  It isn’t.  These algorithms do not think like we do and cannot be predicted to behave as we do.

As we hand more and more power over to machines we can’t predict working within a system we don’t understand, what do you think the odds are something will go wrong?

Kazahkstan’s President Calls For Elixir Of Youth January 12, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Longevity.
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Yes I know he’s an autocrat who only cares because he thinks it will let him rule forever.  It’s still cool to have the leader of a nation speak this favorably of longevity research:

Cleopatra may have bathed in asses’ milk to preserve her youth but Nursultan Nazarbayev, the autocratic president of Kazakhstan, wants nothing less than an elixir of life to keep him going.

Not satisfied with 19 years in charge of the gas-rich central Asian state, Nazarbayev urged scientists today to unlock the secret to immortality.

The 70-year-old leader stressed in a speech that a new scientific research institute in the capital Astana should study “rejuvenation of the organism,” as well as “the human genome, production of human tissue and creation of gene-based medicines”.

Synthetic Proteins Designed To Work In Living Cell January 9, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Science.
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Sythetic Bio’s been on quite a roll lately.  First Craig Venter last year and now this:

The team of researchers created genetic sequences never before seen in nature, and the scientists showed that they can produce substances that sustain life in cells almost as readily as proteins produced by nature’s own toolkit.

“What we have here are molecular machines that function quite well within a living organism even though they were designed from scratch and expressed from artificial genes,” said Michael Hecht, a professor of chemistry at Princeton, who led the research. “This tells us that the molecular parts kit for life need not be limited to parts — genes and proteins — that already exist in nature.”

Currently the new sequences work pretty poorly when compared to the evolved sequences (as would be expected) but the future possibilities this opens up are almost endless.  I could see technology like this being used to find novel treatments for genetic diseases like sickle cell or perhaps for constructing organisms that could be released in the aftermath of an environmental disaster to aid in the clean up.  The construction of the first true synthetic organism (Venter’s is close but doesn’t quite count) may still be decades off but I’ll be keeping my eye on the field on synthetic biology.

Animal Suffering vs. Animal Slavery January 3, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Ethics, Transhumanism.
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Are non-humans deserving of rights?  Does husbandry amount to enslavement?  Is animal testing acceptable if it sames human lives?  These questions and others lie at the heart of the debate between animal rights and animal welfare.  More than simply a theoretical discussion it has important implications for not only what place non-humans currently have in our society but how those roles may change in the coming decades.  Though science fiction stories are replete with examples of uplifted species or hybrid splices society at large has yet to consider what our response to such things should be.  One reason for this is that we still haven’t figured out where non-humans fit into our current paradigm.

Though both groups campaign against cruelty to animals there are deep, fundamental differences between them.  The crux of the argument can be summed up by the question of whether or not non-humans can or should possess the same rights we give to our fellow humans.  What rights these are can vary depending on who is being asked the question but the generally include the more familiar ones: the right to live, the right to liberty (or to not be enslaved) and so on.  The short version is that animal rights advocates support this while animal welfare advocates do not.  The slightly longer version is more complicated.

What this debate hinges on (as it appears to me) is the question of personhood.  A person here is defined as a sentient being capable of self-awareness, the ability to contemplate it’s own future and the ability to feel pain.  That last one is arguably the most important as without pain, suffering or something like it becomes very difficult to differentiate between positive and negative experiences.  The animal rights camp, following the works of people like Peter Singer (who oddly enough actually disagrees with a fair amount of their rhetoric) generally believes in extending our circle of personhood to include either some or all of the rest of the animal kingdom.  Note that animal rights groups usually stop at animals and don’t generally push for the rights of plants or ecosystems a la the Deep Ecology movement.  Animal welfarists reject this extension of rights to non-humans out of hand and continue to regard non-humans as non-sentient.

This disagreement leads to drastic differences between two groups that otherwise would seem obvious allies.  Welfarists have no problems with the act of eating meat itself while many rightists advocate veganism.  Rightests condemn, and in some cases sabotage, animal testing while welfarists generally support its use.  Once again, the issue in all of this is one of personhood.  If non-humans are persons than they deserve the rights that we as a society already extend to humans (to do otherwise is speciesism.)  Some of those rights will naturally be the right not to be eaten, not to be experimented on, and not to be imprisoned.  If they are not persons then they are not deserving of any of those.  Thus as God commands in the Old Testament, man shall have dominion over the rest of the natural world.

So who has the stronger argument?  It depends on who you ask but from where I’m standing I’m not sure either one gets it.  The major problem with the welfare approach is that it ignores the fundamental right that all sentient life shares: the freedom not to suffer.  Welfarists may pay lip service to this by advocating the abolition of unnecessary suffering but the question as to what exactly that is is a constantly moving target.  To a welfarist an animal is a tool.  Perhaps a cute tool, one which may provide great service to it’s human masters and which should be kept in the best condition possible, but a tool none-the-less.  The purpose of an animals entire existence lies in what in can provide to mankind; whether that be companionship, testing the next generation of cancer drugs or simply serving to sate a primal urge for dead flesh.

By contrast, animal rightists respect the rights of animals to a fault.  They fully believe that animals should be free from suffering at human hands and attack notions that non-humans exist to serve humankind.  Unfortunately they too lose track of their overriding goal, though they go about it in a manner quite different from the welfarists.  All to often rightists fall into the “Gaia trap,” viewing the natural world in an over-idealized and nostalgic light.  Their position can best be summed up as one of non-interference with the natural world, a sort of “life will find a way” naivety wherein animals are freed from the “tyranny” of human slavery.  There opposition to animal enslavement even extends to companion relationships which, while certainly not without there difficulties, are among the best relationships humans have cultivated.  More importantly this view completely  ignores the horrifying reality of both Darwinian evolution and daily life in the natural world, “red in tooth and claw”, wherein the vast majority of life of those born will eke out a brief, harsh existence of fear and anxiety before meeting their end at the hands, or teeth, of another.

The question of how we treat non-humans is one of the most important debates facing both philosophy and society as a whole.  To those who value the abolition of suffering it is imperative that we choose the right approach.  Neither the welfarist nor the rightist approach will do and as such a third is needed.  Call it animal guardianship.  Call it the quest for Eden.  Or perhaps, just call it the Hedonistic Imperative.