Archive for February, 2012

Boydfuturist Wednesday: Improving Biology

February 22, 2012 Leave a comment

Stem cells aside, it’s been a little while since I’ve talked about genetic and otherwise biological technologies coming down the pike. Although I think that robotic and synthetic technology will largely overcome any progress biological technologies can offer, we are further along in the biological sciences and so will likely see those advances first. Some people, seeking to “stay human” or something similar will likely stop with biological enhancement whatever advancements synthetic technologies can provide. Here are some of the cooler new stories of the last few weeks broken down into three categories: currently available cures and treatments for diseases, speculative cures and treatments for diseases, and general upgrades to the human condition.

What’s Currently Available:

First, victims of heart attacks involved in a clinical trial at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute were given  an “infusion of their own heart-derived cells”, which helped “their damaged hearts regrow healthy muscle”. In short, by using a stem cell treatment, their hearts “demonstrated a significant reduction in the size of the scar left on the heart muscle by a heart attack” by 50% one year later. Importantly, this reduction in the size of scar tissue was not the result of a more efficient procedure, but instead a result of a procedure that can be applied after traditional surgeries for heart attack patients. This means that doctors ought to begin performing the treatment, if it passes further trials, right away.

A lot of people like to accuse scientists who use or invent high technology of “playing God”. In this case, maybe they’re right. Jean Bennett and her colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania recently published an article in the February issue of Science Translational Medicine documenting their procedure that restored sight to the blind in one eye in 6 of 12 cases! A follow-up treatment produced improvement in as little as two weeks in the other eye for three out of three women from the initial group of 6 that showed improvement. The second treatment also seemed to make the first more effective.  Not too shabby for sub-deities.

Finally, last month doctors in Turkey performed the world’s first triple limb transplant (and the donor’s face is going to a different person.)  Although triple-limb transplants are rare now, it seems to confirm both that we have the knowledge and technology available to perform such an invasive surgery and that the human body itself can withstand the surgery. This is promising, and suggests that people who later choose to get a limb, or two, or three replaced with biological replacement (or cybernetic prostheses) in the future will be able to withstand the surgery, even in the unlikely event that surgical procedures and technologies don’t improve significantly in the coming years.

Speculative Cures And Treatments:

Scientists from the University of Texas, Austin recently published the results of their experiment to reattach severed nerves in the Journal of Neuroscience Research. The new procedure allows doctors to repair severed nerves “within minutes.” Once the severed nerves are repaired, the behavior they control can be partially restored within days, and fully restored within weeks. According to Professor George Bittner, current procedures “imperfectly restore lost function within months at best.” Although this procedure still needs to undergo clinical trials, if successful it suggests that patients replacing limbs in the future might be able to recover from the surgery much, much more quickly.

Scientists are also making headway in the fight against cancer by reevaluating the medicinal properties of a plant; thapsia garganica. Although the plant has been used before to treat rheumatism (a group of medical problems affecting joints and connective tissues) the side effects were apparently quite bad. However, by breaking the toxic plant down to the molecular level, biotech firm Genspera has been able to direct the plant to cancer cells. Once the plant meets the cancer cells, it seems to be very effective at killing the tumor and, crucially, nothing else. One of the major problems with current cancer treatments is that they poison the entire body, killing good and bad cells alike. This could be one of the first of new, targeted medications that kill just those cells causing problems and leaving the rest of the body unaffected. The new drug is working its way through clinical trials now, and the company hopes to modify it to destroy other types of cancer as well.

In some of the biggest news of the day, however, scientists in both the UK and Australia hope to use genetic engineering techniques to combat a rare (roughly 1 in 5,000), but serious, neurodegenerative disease and muscular dystrophy in children. The diseases are caused when the mitochondria in cells are faulty. By introducing mitochondria from a third party into a fertilized egg the faulty mitochondrial DNA is replaced with healthy mitochondrial DNA and the disease is potentially cured. Along the way, however, something important happens: A human egg, which thus far has consisted of a mix of two sets of DNA (one from each parent), gains a third set of DNA (from the donor). Already scientists have performed this procedure with monkeys, but to research this potential cure in the UK, the legislature is going to have to reconsider its laws banning genetic therapy on fertilized human eggs. This, of course, has profound implications for other sorts of genetic engineering in humans, both born and unborn.

Finally, researchers at UC-Davis are working on a new stem cell treatment to help reinvigorate bones in people suffering from osteoporosis. Although the study doesn’t suggest that this process can be used to increase bone strength to superhuman levels, the research doesn’t seem to be limited to osteoporosis; the researchers hope to expand this to bone fractures, bone infections, and cancer treatments.

General Upgrades To The Human Condition:

Some more highly experimental technology is on the way. Scientists have been experimenting with mixing human skin and spider silk (which, itself, was engineered into goat’s milk.) Why mix spider silk and human skin? Spider silk is much stronger than Kevlar, which is used to make bulletproof vests. This means that by replacing some proteins in human skin, humans could have essentially bulletproof skin (which would be resistant to other impacts as well, of course.)

Also, George Dvorsky recently blogged about a Chinese boy who apparently has mutated eyes that have granted him night vision and glowing eyes like a cat. Assuming the story is true, this is apparently a natural mutation. If a mutation can occur naturally, it can also be induced. If it can be induced, that means with just a little genetic engineering, we all can have night vision eyes. And that, I have to say, is pretty cool.

Why Bad Arguments Suck

February 8, 2012 2 comments

Nothing puts the rapid pace of technological change in perspective like seeing the ridiculous pile of links that I want to talk about stored in my draft email. No matter how much I write, it seems, there is always so much more to say. Often, I want to write about things that will help me share as many links as possible in a post, but writing that way either forces me to take a pass on weighty topics that require saying a little more, create a post that covers a hodgepodge of topics, or simply resign myself to sharing just a link or two so that I can say everything that needs to be said. Today is going to be one of those latter types of posts because I want to talk about intellectual honesty for a minute.

Let’s start with an article from Rebecca Taylor at Lifenews seems to focus on pro-life issues which, given my views about technology, probably doesn’t seem like the first blog I’d read. But I do like to see what the people who think differently than I do are saying, and so whenever lifenews pops up on my ‘transhumanism’ Google feed I head over to see what’s going on. In this case, Dr. Taylor is arguing that transhumanism, coupled with Roe v. Wade, is leading to a dystopia of eugenics and genetic engineering. In this, I think, Dr. Taylor is potentially half right. Unfortunately, Dr. Taylor either doesn’t understand the law she cites, or else is deliberately misrepresenting it to make a rhetorical point. For instance, she briefly mentions Roe v. Wade and then asserts that the case lead to the unborn having “no legal protection.” Because the unborn have no legal protection, she argues, immoral scientists can do what they want with them.

The first problem with Dr. Taylor’s argument is that it’s just wrong legally. First, Roe v. Wade hardly stripped all legal protection for the unborn; fetuses continued to be protected after the first trimester, and abortion could still be outlawed in the third trimester. Assuming Roe had stripped those protections, however, they would have been replaced in Casey v. Planned Parenthood, the more recent abortion case that doesn’t pack the same rhetorical appeal. There, the Supreme Court decided that states could ban abortion past the point of viability, and institute processes that women must go through to undergo an abortion even prior to viability so long as the processes are not “unduly burdensome.” Outside of the abortion context, the unborn continue to enjoy widespread protection in criminal and tort contexts.

Dr. Taylor goes on argue that Roe lead to an “unregulated” market for fertility treatments; a term she equates with cloning and genetic enhancement. But a quick glance at US law shows that this simply isn’t so. Aside from state laws that regulate cloning, the FDA and other administrative agencies regulate many of the processes involved with human cloning and the FDA has publically stated that they will not allow research projects involving human cloning.

Putting aside the legal problems with Dr. Taylor’s argument, she goes on to list a parade of horribles stemming from this supposed lack of legal protection. But that argument, too, is based on a lot of outdated science. Mainly she seems concerned that researchers are using fetal stem cells, though she strongly implies that fetuses are aborted to supply these cells, instead of recognizing that stem cells from fetuses already aborted for other reasons are then used for medical research. Dr. Taylor seems to overlook the fact that we often use cadavers for medical research, or else distinguishes using parts of aborted fetuses from using parts of cadavers without explanation. Either way, using parts of our dead to help the living is a well-established and generally uncontroversial matter; our entire organ transplant system is based around just that idea.

Finally, Dr. Taylor spins into a diatribe about transhumanists, though she doesn’t really say much about why transhumanism is bad except that people might (gasp!) lop off their own limb to replace it with something better and that the divide between the haves and the have nots might widen (an issues, it’s worth mentioning, that transhumanists themselves are concerned about.)

It’s easy to argue against transhumanism when you’re misquoting law, using outdated science, and not bothering to connect ideas with logic. Indeed, many of the experts Dr. Taylor cites to say that the policies she’s decrying are the natural extension of current scientific and ethical policies.

I want to be clear about why I’m calling out this article. It’s not that I dislike Dr. Taylor, or disagree with everything she says even, but I abhor bad arguments. I don’t expect blog posts to look like academic articles (I’d be in trouble if that was the case) but I don’t think accurate is too high a bar to expect. It’s not just that articles like Dr. Taylor’s are wrong, it’s that they’re wrong and likely to influence public opinion with bad facts. And that, at the heart of it, is the problem. It’s also why, should I misrepresent something, I want people to correct me. We can have debates about human cloning, genetic engineering, and the divide between the haves and the have nots without resorting to bad law and bad facts. The ethical issues surrounding transhumanism are difficult enough to debate without also having to defuse straw man arguments. To make real progress in these ethical debates we have to remain intellectually honest.

An excellent example of a well written article exploring a transhumanist ethical problem is this article by Carolyn Abraham at The Globe and Mail. While I highly recommend reading the whole article for a serious debate about the merits of human cloning and genetic engineering, what I want to point out here is that the article is accurate, balanced, and presents both sides of the argument. I really look forward to well-reasoned arguments from people not as optimistic about technology as I am because I realize the world isn’t so black and white that this technology is obviously great or terrible. Reasonable minds could disagree with the conclusion (not made by the article) that the technology is good or bad, but they would be disagreeing based on accurate information. That’s the sort of debate we need, and the only thing that will help us come to any sort of conclusion about how to proceed in the future.

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Automated Cars: Redux

February 1, 2012 1 comment

Last year I linked to an article that detailed a proposed law in Nevada allowing artificially intelligent cars on the road and offered some thoughts about what a future with A.I. cars might look like.

Recently, A.I. cars have been in the news again. Thomas Fray, via the World Future Society argues that we’ll see A.I. cars within the next 10 years and offers some thoughts about what the industry will look like. Initially, as Fray says, cars will require humans to monitor their operation ‘just in case.’ This is true today, although SingularityU recently hosted a fascinating talk with Sebastian Thrun, who is working on Google’s automated car. Sebastian claimed that every time the human took control of the car, they did so merely as a precaution and that the only accidents after thousands of miles of driving occurred when a human was at the wheel. If that’s right, the A.I. may be further along than Thomas thinks, although for liability and other legal reasons he’s probably still right that humans are going to have to monitor the cars until it becomes commonplace enough that the legal system adjusts. Fray also points out (correctly, I think) that cars are going to have to begin to communicate with each other to really optimize the automation. Once the roads are mapped and the cars are more intelligent, the riding experience ought to be seamless. However, it’s also possible that the roads themselves could be upgraded with sensors every x-feet such that a simple AI in the car could still drive accurately.

BMW has recently released a 5-series with a whole host of A.I. related driving packages and has had success testing it on the autobahn. See the (really cool) video below:

Once A.I. for cars gets better, it seems logical that it will be integrated into cars with other technology like these folding cars developed by M.I.T. Once A.I. technology is perfected (or close to it) there seems to be little reason for many of the components currently required in cars like steering wheels and gas pedals. Electronic cars (or other methods of delivering fuel in a smaller form than the current gas tank) will enable auto makers to further shrink cars as they remove the inefficient combustion engine in favor of these alternate methods of propulsion. One lingering question about the M.I.T. car remains, however: How can I bring a load of groceries home?

The New York Times, however, recently posted an article about (shock!) skeptical lawyers. We legal types are trained to look for liability and potential problems everywhere, so it’s unsurprising that the overall attitude of the conference was skeptical. Interestingly, however, many of the skepticism was reserved for asking how the cars would deal with irrational humans, rather than whether they could perform the task they’re supposed to. How would an AI car handle humans that blow red lights, for instance, or roll through a stop sign? Would it react appropriately to a police car trying to pull it over, or a school bus on the other side of the road with its flashers deployed?

Finally, there is good reason to think that this A.I. revolution is not limited to cars; notably because we’ve seen a lot of progress in military drones prior to all this hype about cars. Rumor has it that much of the flight time for commercial aircraft has been automated for years. Now it seems the military is up to it again with a pilotless plane that looks much less like a drone and much more like some sweet sci-fi fantasy come to life. Although many people are concerned about the concept of autonomous weapons in the military, as Peter Singer notes in the article, it’s happening already and will certainly continue into the future. To me, this seems like a non-issue. As a nation, we already mourn the loss of human soldiers and endeavor to keep them safe. How better than sending in autonomous robots to eliminate the enemy? Of course, once A.I. gets good enough, the problem may come full circle. Are different ethical issues present when we send sentient robots in to do our killing (where they have a good chance of getting killed/destroyed themselves) that aren’t if we send other humans in to do our killing? Is the loss of a sentient robot any less tragic than the loss of a fellow human? Will enhanced humans have more sympathy for sentient robots than fully biological humans? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I look forward to the discussion.

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