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The Biotechnology Century June 24, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Science.
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Interesting piece up by Freeman Dyson about the role biotech will play in the upcoming century.  Dyson is certainly not the first to suggest that in the coming decades genetic engineering is going to go the way of the PC and find its way into the homes of average people but it’s still fun to read his opinion.  Of course the analogy isn’t a perfect one since DIY biotech poses a much greater threat than the home computer does.

New Artificial “Heart” Delivers Blood With No Pulse June 16, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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Let me be the first to say that if I ever received this kind of treatment I would take every opportunity to collapse in a crowded area and then laugh quietly to myself while potential rescuers frantically searched for a pulse.  Yes, I am that evil.

The new device uses technology that has been used to aid failing hearts since the 1980s. A ventricular assist device, or VAD, is a circulatory device designed to assist either the right or left ventricle of the heart. The VADs have a rotor of blades that circulate and push the blood forward in a continuous flow.

While VADs are typically used to help one section of the heart, Cohn and Frazier hooked two of these VADs together so they would essentially work as both sides of the heart. They began working on calves and currently have an 8-month-old calf named Abigail who has no heart. Her heart was removed and in its place the doctors inserted their new pump device. Abigail is a healthy and active young calf, however, according to any medical cardiac tests, she would appear dead.

On a more serious note I wonder what the physiological effects (beyond the obvious) of this kind of device will be.  High blood pressure would no longer seem to be a problem.  Neither would conditions resulting from a weak circulatory system.  On the other hand a true replacement would have to account for changes in heart rate during various activity levels if it wants to avoid having the same flow rate whether running a marathon or washing the dishes.  In addition humans have a number of anatomical features designed to deal with the contraction/relaxation of the heart, from the greater development of muscle around arteries to the present of valves within veins to prevent back flow of blood.  Whether these would simply atrophy or would actually cause further problems remains to be seen.

Brain Training: Increase Your IQ With Mental Exercises June 13, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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It’s pretty well established that physical exercise is not only good for your body but has tangible benefits for your brain as well.  Not only does the increased blood flow help supply your brain with the oxygen and nutrients it needs but the act of learning a new physical feat aids in the growth and proliferation of neurons.  Wonderful as the benefits are though I know I’m not the only one who is always searching for another way to boost mental acumen.  Stimulants and nootropics are a good start but have the disadvantage of being short lasting a tied to the substance.  What if there were a way to strengthen your brain the same way you strengthen your muscles?

Brain training games have long and not entirely distinguished history.  Long touted as a way to boost one’s IQ there is still a large amount of debate as to how useful they are.  While there is little doubt those who play them improve over the course of time and do better on standardized IQ tests but the questions of whether or not those specific improvements translate to more general benefits is still unproven.

Of course that hasn’t stopped people from trying them and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I routinely play them myself (lumosity.com in case you were wondering).  Thankfully research into the has continued and in recent years has been coming down in their favor.  Case in point:

Researchers at the University of Michigan found that it’s possible to boost a core feature of human intelligence through a simple mental training exercise.

In fact, when several dozen elementary- and middle-school kids from the Detroit area used this exercise for 15 minutes a day, many showed significant gains on a widely used intelligence test. Most impressive, perhaps, is that these gains persisted for three months, even though the children had stopped training.

The game itself is a pretty simple memory/spatial skills test but the important things here are the length of the benefit (find me a physical exercise that keeps its improvements for three months) and the evidence it brings to the further efficacy of mental training regimes.

If the evidence continues to pile up it raises an interesting question; should mental training be part of our education system?  PE is already standard fare at most high schools, though sadly this is changing due to budget cuts, and it might be time to have a dedicated ME class alongside math, history and science.  Perhaps such a class could involve not only brain training but also instruction in the laws of logic, forms of reasoning and how to avoid committing fallacies.  In short a class that instructs students in the proper way to think.

This is actually something that has long struck me as a flaw in our education system.  Despite all the bluster about giving kids meaningful experiences during school (usually while unfairly demonizing memorization, but that’s for another time) we do precious little to develop analytic skills in our youth.  Considering the importance that logic and rhetoric played in classical education it is perplexing and disappointing that such skills have largely gone by the wayside.

What we need is for a school to experiment with this, to take a group of students and look for improvements in test scores and performance in general school subjects before and after such a class.  Once the benefit to the students has been quantified hopefully we’ll see an explosion of these kind of classes.  Who knows, it may even have unforeseen tangible benefits like the end of Fox News due to lack of viewership.

Heart Repairs Itself After Heart Attack June 9, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Longevity.
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Anyone who has or knows someone who has gone through a heart attack knows what a painful and traumatic event it is.  As the number one killer in the US and high up there among other developed countries finding a cure for heart disease would go a long ways towards combating premature death.  Well, some researchers at University College may be on the way to doing just that.

Heart muscle cells, or cardiomyocytes, are irreparably damaged by heart attack. For the heart to continue functioning properly, the damaged cells must be replaced. Heart progenitor cells — cells that can form the various tissues that make up the heart, such as blood vessels and muscle — do exist, but in adults are not active enough to repair damage. So Paul Riley at University College London Institute of Child Health and his colleagues have found a way to wake them up.

The researchers examined the hearts of mice at various time points after the operation. They found heart cells expressing Wt1 just two days after the injury. The cells were initially in the heart’s outer layer, but by two weeks after surgery they had moved inside and clustered around the site of the injury. The cells had also changed in size and shape, and looked just like cardiomyocytes.

Awesome.  Now if they can just figure out how to make the human body turn the switch on and off so to speak.

Transhumanism: A Secular Religion? June 1, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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Over at FirstThings, which I am loath to dignify with a link but here it is, there is a post up counting down a short list.  Inspired by the recent failed doomsday prediction the author decided to do a comparison between the Christian Rapture and another possibly apocalyptic event: the Singularity.  I’m not going to spend too much time on the post itself for the simple reason that it’s really kind of silly and doesn’t say anything that hasn’t been noticed and commented on by transhumanists multiple times in the past twenty years.  What is does do is bring up another, far more interesting question; is transhumanism a religion?

This is not a new debate.  It started right around the time the transhumanist movement started making waves in intellectual circles and has only strengthened as it has moved more and more into the mainstream.  More often then not the ones branding transhumanism with the label are it’s religious critics, seemingly trying to bring the movement down to their level by accusing of being nothing more than dressed up techno-utopianism with a veneer of science and philosophy.  Whatever it’s origin though I do believe its a valid question and one that needs to be answered sooner or later.

Before we can get to the heart of the matter we first have to define exactly what we’re talking about.  In short we have to define religion.  This is not as easy as it sounds since despite what seems like ample time to come up with one there is still no single, universally accepted definition of religion.  One widely held definition seems to be that of a system of belief encompassing gods, goddess’, spirits and other supernatural forces.  This is probably the definition most people use and while I can certainly see the appeal it can get us into trouble.  An obvious question would be where does this definition leave religions that do not profess belief in a deity.  Where does it leave Buddhism? Daoism? Neo-Platonism?  Some might suggest that the aforementioned systems are best called philosophies rather than religion but that strikes me as splitting the hairs of semantics, not to mention raises the problem of finding a clear boundary between philosophy and religion, and doesn’t really answer the question.

A second less common but still widespread definition of religion is a system that provides instruction in morality, how persons should relate to each other and to the rest of the world and provides a sense of meaning and purpose to a person’s life.  This position, sometimes referred to as a life stance in the secular community, avoids some of the problems of the previous definition and easily encompasses non-theistic religions.  Unfortunately it also encompasses quite a bit more.  This is the definition used whenever a seemingly secular ideology is accused of being a religion: environmentalism, Marxism, secular humanism, Objectivism.  Things can get a little absurd if we take this to it’s extreme.  Ask yourself, can a sports team qualify as a religion?  While your first reaction might be no, consider this.  Do they not have holy days (game day and championships)?  Ritual clothing (sportswear)?  Churches (stadiums)?  Do they not foster a sense of community with fellow worshipers (fans)?  Do they not often serve as the central focus of a persons life (your roommate)?  Heck, they even have a sort of afterlife or Valhalla (Hall of Fame).  I realize that I’m exaggerating to make a point but given the above definition is it really that much of a stretch?

So far we have two definitions of religion and neither has proven very useful.  One appears too restrictive to provide an accurate definition while the other appears so broad as to be useless.  Transhumanism would clearly not fit under the first but would under the second (along with everything else).  So where does that leave us?  Perhaps our problem is that in getting bogged down in definitions we’ve been asking the wrong questions.  Perhaps we should ask not whether or not transhumanism is a religion but whether or not it serves the same purpose as one.

Our next question obviously becomes what purpose does a religion serve?  Thinking just off the top of our heads we can probably see the answer.  A religion provides meaning to a person and answers to the so called deeper questions of life (why are we here, etc.)  It often provides a community of like minded individuals.  It teaches morality and where humanity and the individual stand in the greater scheme of things.  It promises a relationship with the divine and the possibility of life in another form.  All of these features can be found in the great religions of the world.  You’ve probably noticed that this is more or less the second definition we listed above.  However by asking what the function of a religion is rather than what a religion is we avoid the thorny problem of having to define it.  Looking at it this way it is quite clear the transhumanism meets the criteria for serving the purpose of a religion, even concerning things like the afterlife which we’ll get to later.

So it seems we’ve come to it.  Transhumanism is, for all intents and purposes, a religion or at the very least a secular replacement for religion, and I don’t think there’s a damn thing wrong with that.  Why?  Because it’s a good replacement for religion.

What does religion offer that transhumanism can’t?  Ethics?  The movement, broadly utilitarian but with many competing viewpoints, offers sound ethical views on issues as diverse as what constitutes a person, what are the rights of the individual in relation to the collective and how we should treat the natural world.  A sense of community?  Transhumanists have been organized for several decades now and in recent years high profile organizations (IEET, SIAI) have served as a meeting ground and social gathering points for like-minded individuals.  Transcendental ideals?  Go read the literature on mind-uploading, archailects and the end of aging.  Hope for a better world?  Hedonistic Imperative, nuff said.  All this with a solid foundation of rationalism and skepticism, the basis of any good secular ideology.

It’s very fashionable in atheist circles to hold religion over the coals at every possible opportunity (I should know, I walk in those circles) and while there’s certainly a lot that can be laid at religion’s feet I feel that too many in the atheist community fail to recognize both the hugely important role it still plays in people’s lives and the importance of having a secular replacement, both for the sake of those already “converted” and for competing as a ideology.  Atheists, no less than anyone else, seek purpose and answers to life’s deeper questions.  Many seek those out in science, or more specifically scientism.  Other seek it in philosophy, or art, or work.  Others find it, and will find it in the coming decades, in transhumanism.

So the next time someone tells you that transhumanism is just another religion don’t feel bad about responding, “Yes, and it’s a damn good one.”

Scientists Discover How Brain Recognizes Faces June 1, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Synthetic Intelligence.
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Interesting news coming out of the PNAS.  A group of researchers have pinpointed the areas of the brain responsible for that most human of talents; recognizing another person’s face.

“Faces are among the most compelling visual stimulation that we encounter, and recognizing faces taxes our visual perception system to the hilt. Carnegie Mellon has a longstanding history for embracing a full-system account of the brain. We have the computational tools and technology to push further into looking past one single brain region. And, that is what we did here to discover that there are multiple cortical areas working together to recognize faces.”

While this is certainly cool in and of itself and will have great implications for our understanding of the brain and conditions like prospagnosia (the inability to recognize faces) what excites me most about this is the implications it could have for the field of synthetic intelligence.

One of the paradoxes of SI research has been that tasks we perform quite easily, such as face recognition or folding the laundry, has consistently given machines difficulties.  The reason for this as far as I can tell (not being a SI person) has to do with the underlying structure of the human brain.  The brain is more or less a giant pattern recognizing device, designed through evolution to allow us to tease apart the facts that allowed us to survive in a prehistoric world.  Facts like whether or not a certain colored fruit is okay to eat or whether there was a dangerous predators hiding in the grass or, you guessed it, whether or not that person standing in front of us was someone we already know.  Machines on the other hand, for all their great speed, are still little more than calculators performing single calculations one after another.  They lack the massive parallel processing abilities of the brain because their not built like it.

There’s a fair amount of debate within the SI community as to whether or not achieving machine sentience requires the construction of an artificial brain first.  Not being a computer scientist I’m not entirely sure where I stand on that debate, though I can say that plenty of computer scientists do believe so, but sooner or later we will create a machine in the model of the human brain.  Research like this may help us get their sooner.