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Neil Armstrong Dies At 82 August 25, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Beyond Earth.
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Goodbye Mr. Armstrong.  Thank you for leading us forward one small step at a time.

Google Employees To Commute In Self-Driving Cars August 21, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Science.
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As anyone reading this blog is probably familiar with Google has been in the process of testing it’s self-driving auto technology, so far with impressive results.  In 300,000 miles of driving the car has been in only a single accident and in that case it was when the human driver took control.  Now Google is putting their money (or lives as the case is) where their mouth is and actually allowing their employees to “drive” the cars on their daily commutes.

Of course, the Mountain View, California area isn’t the most arduous of terrains on which to test road worthiness. Acknowledging this, Google engineer, Chris Urmson, writes“…we’ll need to master snow-covered roadways, interpret temporary construction signals and handle other tricky situations that many drivers encounter.”

Until now the cars have been ridden with at least two people, but Google will allow their employees to ride solo during their commutes. As usual, control of the car can be taken over if deemed necessary by the passenger.

In the United States, there were 10.8 million motor vehicle accidents in 2009 resulting in 36,000 deaths, according to the Census Bureau. When Sebastian Thrun announced Google’s self-driving car program back in 2010, he said that robotic cars could possibly cut worldwide vehicle-related deaths by half. And while it’s true the car remains untested in the more challenging conditions mentioned above, public resistance to giving up control at 60 mph could prove even more difficult terrain to cross. It will certainly be some time before Thrun’s pronouncement is put to the test, but as Google employees start sharing their experiences on YouTube, PR progress could be just as important as the technical progress.

Now they just need to install a voice system and you could officially be riding Night Rider in the near future.

Meditation Increases Brain Size August 18, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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Transhumanism is a philosophy of self-improvement (or at least that’s my view) and anyone who want’s to call themselves a transhumanist should be interested in constantly pushing their mental and physical abilities.  I do call myself a transhumanist and as such I’m always interested in new activities that can push me to higher levels.  I’ve been aware of the benefits of meditation for awhile now and while I don’t practice as much as I should I have done enough to notice the benefits of both it and mindfullness practice.  Still, always nice to see some scientific justification for my anecdotal experience.

Researchers at Harvard, Yale, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found the first evidence that meditation can alter the physical structure of our brains. Brain scans they conducted reveal that experienced meditators boasted increased thickness in parts of the brain that deal with attention and processing sensory input.

“Our data suggest that meditation practice can promote cortical plasticity in adults in areas important for cognitive and emotional processing and well-being,” says Sara Lazar, leader of the study and a psychologist at Harvard Medical School. “These findings are consistent with other studies that demonstrated increased thickness of music areas in the brains of musicians, and visual and motor areas in the brains of jugglers. In other words, the structure of an adult brain can change in response to repeated practice.”

Time To Give Online Education A Try August 12, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Social Media.
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So I have just signed up for my first class in the growing world of online education.  You’ve probably heard of this before; universities offering their classes for free online to anyone who wants to sign up.  Depending on who you talk to it’s been touted as either the next great revolution in education, the death knell of traditional universities or both.  Personally I like the idea and at the very least I think it has the potential to drastically change the face of undergraduate education though I stop short of saying it will end the need for so-called “brick and mortar” institutions.  Anyone who’s been to grad school knows that classes are relatively unimportant.

Still it’s an innovative idea worthy of being tried so I decided to do just that.  I have signed up for a course in Astrobiology, created by the University of Edinburgh, through a company called Coursera.  Though a for-profit company Coursera is currently keeping all it’s classes for free and sounds like it intends to do so in the future as well.  How they intend to make money is a question I leave to them though I’m skeptical they’ll be able to turn a profit using the advertising based method most other free online services use.

The class itself is 5 weeks long and doesn’t start till January 2013, which is a little odd if you ask me.  If we’re going to use the convenience of the internet to bring higher education to the masses then keeping classes at certain times rather than allowing people to use them whenever they want strikes me as not making the best use of the technology, especially for science based classes where most of the grading is seemingly done by computer.  Regardless I won’t be able to say anything about the service for several months so what can I say given what I’ve seen so far?

Well the first thing I noticed is that the class selection is currently rather poor.  Coursera actually seems to be ahead of the curve in the department with over 100 courses, other companies I checked didn’t even break double digits, but it’s hard not to compare that to the thousands of courses offered by traditional universities.  In addition the courses themselves are all concentrated in only a few disciplines (mostly science and engineering) and seem to be generally lower level, introductory fare.

I apologize if that sounds overly negative because it really shouldn’t.  Online education of this type is still in its infancy and it’s to be expected that it currently doesn’t offer the breadth of a traditional education, not to mention that anyone taking these courses courses to qualify for a job probably won’t bemoan the lack of humanities classes.  In addition the focus on lower level courses is probably a good idea since the target audience for a lot of these companies seems to be those who can’t afford or can’t get access to traditional education and thus are likely starting at the bottom.

A final note on accreditation.  Currently none of these services (to my knowledge) are accredited and as such do not confer university credit.  They do however offer certificates of completion which from the little I’ve read seem to be well-regarded by potential employers.  It’s not quite a bachelors degree but if all you need is the equivalent of a community college certificate then it will probably be enough.  Whether accreditation follows in the future remains to be seen.

Curiosity Touches Down On The Red Planet August 5, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Beyond Earth.
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Touchdown confirmed!

And with that the years of planning have paid off.  Mars rover Curiosity is safely on the surface of the red planet.  The first images are coming through and as of right now everything looks great.  Soon Curiosity will begin it’s mission of searching for life but to many including myself the mission is already a success.

Raise a glass if you have one to all the hard working people at NASA.  They deserve it.

P.S. To all the naysayers, those who through their own short-sightedness and lack of imagination question the need for humanity to explore the solar system and push the boundaries of knowledge I have just one thing to say…
SHUT UP AND ENJOY THE FACT THAT WE JUST LANDED ON FUCKING MARS!!!!!!!!

I’m On Twitter! August 3, 2012

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Yes I have finally joined the modern era and registered for a twitter account.  You can follow me by clicking on the button to the right.  Considering my love of complexity and long, well-articulated arguments it will interesting to see how I adapt to 140 characters or less.  See you there.

Should The Blade Runner Compete In the Olympics? July 29, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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As you have no doubt heard by know Oscar Pistorius, the South African 400 meter runner who also happens to be a double leg amputee who runs on a pair of specially designed prosthetics, will be competing in the 2012 Olympics against able-bodied athletes.  To say that this story has caused some controversy would be an understatement (though it hasn’t exploded the way I though it might) and if nothing else it raises some interesting questions about fairness and the use of technology in sports.  As such I’d like to take a moment to break down some of the arguments for and against his inclusion and see what we can learn about our (changing?) views.

1: His prosthetics give him an unfair advantage.

This is probably the most common criticism brought out.  The idea is that because his legs are specially designed for running they must offer him an advantage over plain old flesh and blood runners.  Unfortunately a review of the evidence finds either no support for this idea or contradictory.  Studies have shown that he uses less energy to run because of the lower weight of his legs, that due to their design he is not able to grip the track as well as other runners and so on.  The problem is that due to Pistorius having prosthetics since he was young we have no way of comparing his running before and after.

An interesting side note is that with the degree of technological enhancement already present in the Olympics Pistorius question mark shapped prosthetics aren’t actually that strange.  Think about it.  Swimmers wear specially designed swim suits modeled after sharkskin.  Discuss’s, javelins and other field equipment is constantly being redesigned for greater or lesser performance.  Even other runners run on rubberized tracks using specially designed shoes with cleats on just one side.  Technological enhancement is no new thing to the Olympics and unless we decide to go back to the days of naked athletes it is here to stay.

2: He shouldn’t compete because he’s disabled and the Olympics are for able-bodied athletes

Ironically this rather superficial argument is actually one of the stronger ones against Pistorius competing.  The Olympics are defined by the rules of the IOC as a competition between able-bodied athletes and since Pistorius does not fit that description he should not be allowed to compete.  If you think that sounds like a completely arbitrary rule then you would be correct but that it fact is the source of it’s strength.  The rules of sport are and always have been completely arbitrary.  Why aren’t you allowed to use you hands in soccer?  Because then it wouldn’t be soccer.  Shouts of unfairness from the other side of the debate are often met with the argument that there already exists a competition format for athletes like Pistorius in the Paralympics.  This leads to a rather more interesting argument…

3: He shouldn’t compete because he already competes in the Paralympics.

Not only has he competed in the Paralympics but he will be competing in them this year after he runs in the Olympics (incidentally, both games are held at the safe venue this year).  If Pistorius is able to jump back and forth between them it begs the question of what the purpose is of having the Paralympics in the first place.  This is also a decently strong argument and again it rests on definitions; the Paralympics is defined as an event for disabled athletes while the Olympics is for non-disabled athletes.  If Olympic athletes are banned from competing in the Paralympics, which they are, then it stands to reason that the ban should apply visa versa as well.

Why I think this question is more interesting is that it raises the possibility of other specialist athletic events in the future.  If prosthetics are determined to give runners an unfair advantage and if the solution is to ensure they have a field in which they can compete against other similarly enhanced athletes then what of the possibility of a competition for gene-enhanced athletes.  Or for that matter, drug enhanced athletes.  All joking aside this could be the solution to the problem of doping in sports though of course problems would still exist with ensuring that enhanced athletes do not compete in non-enhanced events (something which already happens today.)

So we come to the end with two rather strong if completely arbitrary reasons for excluding the Blade Runner from the Olympics.  To be honest I didn’t expect to find myself in this position when I first started writing the piece being the technophile that I am.  I love Oscar Pistorius and his story.  I think what he is doing is not only a testament to the vision of transhumanism but more importantly to the very Olympic spirit that many feel, quite strongly, he is transgressing.

That’s probably the most interesting part of this story.  Reading through the comments of various articles it’s hard not to notice an undercurrent of fear running through many of the negative remarks.  The idea that a man with no legs can, with the help of technology, out do not only most of the average shlubs of the world but actually compete and challenge the best that baseline humanity has to offer is downright threatening to a lot of people.  It not only calls into question our (rather outdated in my opinion) notions of the purity of sport and the values of achieving greatness through nothing but hard work and determination but also challenges our view of the Olympics as a demonstration of the pinnacle of human athletic achievment.  Will we someday watch the Paralympics to see the fastest or strongest human?  The day is coming sooner than you think.

World’s First Cybernetic Hate Crime July 18, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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That’s how it was described by i09 at least.

Steve Mann, the “father of wearable computing,” has been physically assaulted while visiting a McDonalds in Paris, France.

The Canadian university professor was at the restaurant with his family when three different McDonalds employees took exception to his “Digital Eye Glass” device and attempted to forcibly remove it from his head. Mann was then physically removed from the store by the employees, along with having his support documentation destroyed.

This may be the first ever recorded assault of a person instigated by the prominent display of a Google Glass-like wearable computer.

This story has been out there for several days now so rather than give a recap I’d like to offer some thoughts.

Firstly, though it seems unclear whether the motivation for this crime was the headset’s camera ability, the fact that it looked very odd or simply that Parisian McDonalds workers are particularly violent the incident raises the troubling issue of what privacy really means in a world where these kind of devices become widespread.  The actual issue is not so much that he had the ability to tape them as today anyone with a phone can do the same thing but rather that he was taping them.  Think about it, walk around with you cell phone out recording everythin you see and you will no doubt recieve angry responses from many people (just ask some local police departments).

The problem is that, as is often the case, our technology has outstripped our societies ability to integrate that technology harmoniously with our current social order.  We are largely obeying social rules that originated in an era where the idea that anyone could be filming you at any time was unthinkable.  As there is no going back to the days before the ubiquity of cheap and small video taping technology we are left with the difficult task of adjusting to a world in which old rules of privacy no longer apply.

The good news, and for the record I do think the spread of this sort of technology is ultimately a good thing, is that the ground work for this change is already in place.  In public place (at least in America) people already understand at least implicitly that they have no expectation of privacy.  In certain countries such as the UK people in large urban areas are being monitored largely from the moment they leave their homes.  While there are of course concerns with the level of monitoring by the government it has largely been implemented without major pushback and of course everyone accepts being on camera while on private property without question.

The strange irony for detractors of the eye piece recorders and other miniature recording devices is that they are arguably the only thing capable of leveling the currently slanted playing field.  If our choices are between a world in which those who hold the reins of power watch us at every moment and a world in which we can watch them back I know which one I will choose.  We may have to give up a little of our privacy but we will retain a greater share of our freedoms.

Secondly, there is the question of whether these sorts of attacks will become more widespread as augmented reality technology does.  I actually don’t have much fear of that.  As more and more people adopt augmented reality glasses and as the glasses become less Borgish the shock of seeing someone wearing them will disappear as well.  That in combination with it’s obvious potential as the next great advance in social media almost assure it a welcome place among my generation.  The privacy concerns will remain but the stigma of being a “cyborg” will not.

That being said, and this is final point I want to make, it is telling that in reading comments on the story a large percentage of posters have noted the “weird” appearnce of the headset.  Though mostly these have been relatively innocuous in a few cases it has been used a justification for the assualt (i.e. if he didn’t want to be thrown out he shouldn’t have provoked them wearing the glasses).  This line of thinking is troubling and the fact that so many still have a negative gut reaction to what we might call obvious cyborgization leads me to add a caveat to the previous paragraph.  People will accept new technologies as long as they do not challange their preconceived values and cross the invisible line between “technology as an extension of humanity” and “technologies as a replacement/alteration of humanity.”  Storing excess information on a harddrive, or in books for that matter, is fine.  Enhancing your memory by installing a usb port in your brain is not.  Of course such old ideas inevitebly change with the march of time, few today would join Socrates in condemning the written word, but it is a long and often painful process.

What we have witnessed here may be the beginning of that pain.

Diabetes Drug May Make You Smarter (Also, The Importance Of Unintended Consequences) July 5, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Ethics, Transhumanism.
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Unintended consequences have led to some of the greatest advances in modern medicine (just look at penicilin).  Well know we may be able to add the name Metformin to the list of We Didn’t Expect This To Happen But It’s Still Awesome.

A drug commonly used to control Type 2 diabetes can help trigger stem cells to produce new brain cells, providing hope of a potential means to treat brain injuries and even neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, researchers say.

A study by scientists at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children found the drug metformin helps activate the mechanism that signals stem cells to generate neurons and other brain cells.

Researchers started by adding metformin to stem cells from the brains of mice, then repeated the experiment with human brain stem cells generated in the lab. In both cases, the stem cells gave rise to new brain cells.

They then tested the drug in lab mice and found that those given daily doses of metformin for two or three weeks had increased brain cell growth and outperformed rodents not given the drug in learning and memory tasks.

One standard test involves a water maze in which the mice must swim around until they locate a hidden platform.

“And the remarkable thing is the mice that got the metformin, what they showed was increased flexibility in terms of the way they learned the location of things,” said Miller, explaining that the drug-treated mice had a greater ability to learn and remember.

There are two main things I like about this.  Firstly, this is further evidence of Metformin shaping up to be a wonder drug.  In addition to it’s main use as a highyl effective treatment for diabetes and this new evidence of it’s use as nootropic it may also protect against cancer and heart disease and do all of this without any serious side effects (with the ever important caveat that no drug is truly safe).

More importantly for me is what this does to the debate over human enhancement.  A common tactic on the anti-enhancement side is to set up a rather arbitrary line between medicine (bringing a person back to a “healthy state”) and enhancement (improving a person’s abilities beyond their “healthy state”).  This is mainly done to get around the problem of having to condemn enhancement technologies as being unnatural while at the same time supporting all the other wonderful unnatural things that modern technology has brought us.  The argument usually looks something like this: It is wrong to enhance human abilities because to do so would alter the human condition, something which is desireable to maintain.  Medicine, while not in itself natural, is acceptable as long as it does not alter our basic humanity by enhancing our abilities beyond what is natural.

Others have pointed out the numerous problems with this line of reasoning so I will only draw attention to two points.  The first is the difficulty involved in defining what is natural.  Is it the state a person is in at that point in time?  Is it what is average for a member of the population or species?  Is it species typical functioning?  If we gave a drug to an 80 year old that returned their physique to that of their 20 year old self would that constitute enhancement since their “natural state” is that of a senior citizen?  If we raised someone’s intelligence higher but not beyond what is typical for humans would that constitute enhancement?  There are far more of these which I will not list here but you get the idea.

The other thing I wanted to point out is the problem of unintended consequences.  A common retort to the medicine/enhancement argument is that given a person with a serious condition and a drug which can cure it but will also enhance that persons abilities it would seem to forbid us from treating said person with said drug.  This puts defenders of the position in a bit of a quagmire, having to refuse to (potentially) save a person’s life because it might cross their imaginary boundary.  To my knowledge this argument has been entirely theoretical.

Until know.

I look forward to Leon Kass telling diabetics to stop taking their life saving and life improving enhancements.

Rapamycin: Potential Cognitive Enhancer July 1, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Longevity, Transhumanism.
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Rapamycin has been seeing a lot of attention as a possible inhibitor of aging.  First isolated as a bacterial product from Easter Island (yes, that one) it has consistently proven to be one of the most exciting drugs in the anti-aging field.  How big is it?  The protein it affects is officialy known as mTOR or mammalian Target Of Rapamycin.  TOR incidentaly has also been implcated in the positive effects of fasting on human health and the breakdown and reapsorbtion of old organelles during cellular “housekeeping”.

Now, researchers have discovered another potential benefit of rapamycins use.

“We made the young ones learn, and remember what they learned, better than what is normal,” said Veronica Galvan, Ph.D., assistant professor of physiology at the Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies, part of the UT Health Science Center. “Among the older mice, the ones fed with a diet including rapamycin actually showed an improvement, negating the normal decline that you see in these functions with age.”  The drug also lowered anxiety and depressive-like behavior in the mice, Dr. Galvan said.

Mice are burrowers that prefer tunnels with walls. To observe behavior, Halloran used an elevated maze of tunnels that led to a catwalk. “All of a sudden the mice are in open space,” Halloran said. “It’s pretty far from the floor for their size, sort of like if a person is hiking and suddenly the trail gets steep. It’s pretty far down and not so comfortable.”

Mice with less anxiety were more curious to explore the catwalk. “We observed that the mice fed with a diet containing rapamycin spent significantly more time out in the open arms of the catwalk than the animals fed with a regular diet,” Halloran said.

The second test measured depressive-like behavior in the rodents. Mice do not like to be held by their tails, which is the way they are moved from cage to cage. Inevitably they struggle to find a way out. “So we can measure how much and how often they struggle as a measure of the motivation they have to get out of an uncomfortable situation,” Dr. Galvan said.

The fact that this improved cognition in young as well as old mice as well as the mood related effects suggests this isn’t a reversal of age related decline one might expect from an anti-aging drug but rather something different going on.  Either way keep an eye on rapamycin.  It’s shaping up to be something special.