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First Transhumanist Polititian Elected In Italy September 21, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in 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, 2012

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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.”

Junk DNA Not Junk After All September 9, 2012

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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, 2012

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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.

Meditation Increases Brain Size August 18, 2012

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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.”

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

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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

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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.

Heart Healthy Fats Also Brain Healthy May 21, 2012

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If living longer isn’t enough to get you to put down the steak and start with the olive oil then how about becoming smarter?

The research team analyzed data from the Women’s Health Study — originally a cohort of nearly 40,000 women, 45 years and older. The researchers focused on data from a subset of 6,000 women, all over the age of 65. The women participated in three cognitive function tests, which were spaced out every two years for an average testing span of four years. These women filled out very detailed food frequency surveys at the start of the Women’s Health Study, prior to the cognitive testing.

“When looking at changes in cognitive function, what we found is that the total amount of fat intake did not really matter, but the type of fat did,” explained Olivia Okereke, MD, MS, BWH Department of Psychiatry.

Women who consumed the highest amounts of saturated fat, which can come from animal fats such as red meat and butter, compared to those who consumed the lowest amounts, had worse overall cognition and memory over the four years of testing. Women who ate the most of the monounsaturated fats, which can be found in olive oil, had better patterns of cognitive scores over time.

You are what you eat.  What are you made of?

Envisioning Transhumanism A Great Success! April 29, 2012

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To those unable to make it, you missed out.  Envisioning Transhumanism, a TEDx event, was held today at the UCSD Price Center.  With speakers from around the world including transhumanist heavyweights like David Pearce, John Smart and David Brin it was truly a stimulating and enriching event.  Big thanks to Jamie Dunbaugh for spearheading it and I look forward to more like it in the future.

For those interested in becoming for involved with the San Diego transhumanist community I recommend signing up on the Facebook and MeetUp pages.  Also keep you eye on this blog for updates about future events.