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Archive for May, 2012

Rebuilding The Human Body

May 28, 2012 4 comments

I often post articles relating to medical technology, but today I’m going to focus on just those technologies that are available or being researched now that can be implanted into (or onto) humans. Specifically, I am going to talk about several new technologies that promise to restore (and one day replace) faulty biological systems. We will start at the top.


Eyes:

Scientific American reports that scientists have created a retinal implant that can restore sight to some of the blind. Light-detecting cones (called photoreceptors) in the eyes that malfunction cause some forms of blindness. By implanting a tiny 3mm x 3mm chip at the back of the eye, the device can act as artificial photoreceptors and transmit the light that the failing biological photoreceptors no longer do. This implant has been tested on humans (a continuing trial has expanded to five additional cities) but the implant still is not perfect. For one, it requires an external power supply (which sits behind the ear in this model.) For another, only a “narrow field of vision” is restored. Several other companies are also working on solutions.

Already, however, upgrades are in the works. Technology Review reports on a new light-powered implant that promises to remove the external power supply while also granting a much clearer and wider field of vision. However, this device requires relatively bulky external glasses to function (as does another device set for testing next year.) Based on Kurzweil’s exponential predictions, we can expect these devices to double in power and shrink by half in size roughly every two years. By 2020, these devices may very well be fully implantable into a skull, completely replacing the faulty eye.

Not only could one replace the eye, however, the implant could have additional functionality. For instance, Fox News reports on new contact lenses in development for the Department of Defense that offers Heads Up display (HUD) technology in addition to other virtual reality and augmented reality solutions. Other devices, including drones, could transmit real-time battlefield information to each soldier’s implants, giving a true bird’s-eye view of the battlefield and increasing situational awareness immensely. Since this technology is already quite small, integrating it into a false-eye instead of a contact lens ought not to be a very difficult prospect. Of course, this technology is valuable outside of the military as well, so regular folks ought to get a more immersive video game experience and be able to access technology-enhanced vision for their own uses too.

 

Chest:

The eyes are hardly the only organs we can replace; scientists recently implanted an artificial, and pulseless, heart inside a man. Instead of a pulsing supply of blood like a regular heart provides, the new heart supplies a continuous stream of circulating blood.  Although the blood vessels, veins, capillaries, and other blood-transferring structures still limit the force with which blood can be circulated, presumably a device like this could increase blood flow on command when a person is engaged in strenuous activity (and without having to get one’s ‘heart racing’ beforehand.)

Not only is the function of the heart being improved upon, but also scientists have recently created the lightest artificial heart and implanted it into a baby. Doctors in Rome replaced a 16-month old baby’s failing heart with a device that weighs a mere 11 grams (the normal adult heart weighs more than 300 grams.) Further, this device has already gained FDA approval, and so is ready for transplantation into other patients.

Perhaps one way to use these continuous-flow devices is to propel tiny devices for surgery or, later, for delivering drugs and maintaining the general health of our bodies. Scientists at Stanford have invented one such device. This tiny device can move through blood vessels and other parts of the body at the doctor’s direction, cleaning out blood clots and the like. This device has some way to go before it is ready for clinical trials, but does provide proof of concept now.


Arms:

Prosthetic arms have been progressing nicely for several years now (see my Deus Ex article, for instance.) Just recently, however, there have been a number of really exciting improvements in prosthetic arms.

Traditionally (if such a word is appropriate in this sort of fast-moving field) prosthetic arms operate through sensors on the inside of the prosthetic that monitor electrical signals traveling to whatever is left of the patient’s limb; an arm severed above the elbow, for instance, still has muscles that run to the point where the arm was amputated and the sensors detect electrical signals through the skin at the end of the arm. This allowed crude movement at first, and more fine motor control later as the number of sensors increased. There was, however, no sense of feeling in the limb. Now, however, scientists in Vienna have found a way to replace some nerves that originally controlled hand and arm movement and have relocated those nerves to the chest; now the patient, British soldier Andrew Garthwaite, will be able to ‘feel’ through his prosthetic arm when sensors in the arm transmit data to the nerves now relocated into his chest. The movement of nerves ought to also make control of his new arm more fluid and natural. See this video from the BBC:

DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and other agencies are trying to improve upon this technology even more by promoting further nerve growth and more feeling in limbs. Wired magazine also has an article describing the technical challenges; the need for polymers that are inoffensive to biological tissue, yet are conductive and strong.

Finally, whether fitted with a prosthetic limb or not, a direct user interface can be implanted under your skin to control other implants (perhaps some of those for bionic eyes, say.) Controlling other implants is going to have to be done manually, though there are several ways to do that. Some, for bionic eyes, could rely on tracking the user’s field of vision to select icons imposed in the field of vision simply by focusing on them for a moment. Others, like for bionic limbs currently, must be pressed manually. The circuit board in the article provides additional functionality, including audio, touch input, and vibration feedback. Of course, ideally limbs could be controlled by thought alone, though we are some way from that. Researcher Albrecht Schmidt says, for instance: “You can also extend social networks into your body — be connected with others with implants, feel pulses of vibration from others,” he added. “This can get very personal… it’s a way of letting someone under your skin.”

 

Legs:

Prosthetic legs has also been making progress, though there currently seems to be a divide between prosthetics that replace legs (like those mentioned in the previously linked Deus Ex article) and bionic systems that connect to the legs on the outside and provide more functionality.

Esko Biotics recently sold its first pair of these latter types of legs. This system is not an implant, but instead an exoskeleton. This exoskeleton moves the limbs of those whose spine no longer allows the patient to control their own limbs. This is important because not all leg conditions could be solved via implant; it is not that there is anything wrong with a paraplegic’s legs, per se, but instead with the nerves that control them. A bionic apparatus like this, then, provide benefit where simply replacing the legs would not.

KurzweilAI.net reports on a similar exoskeleton that uses a skullcap to read electrical signals from the brain, and then translates those electrical signals into exoskeleton movements for the patient’s legs. This system bypasses the faulty nerves and directly controls the legs very like what an undamaged nervous system would do. However, the signals that reach the scalp and are captured by the cap are not very precise; certainly not as detailed as the original signals. A direct brain-machine interface (or BMI) would be better, but involves currently risky surgery and tinkering with the brain; an always dangerous endeavor.

See the following video for an inspirational video about a paraplegic who completed a marathon (though a number of improvements would be ideal):

For some more implant news, check out this BBC feature that highlights a couple of additional technologies: Can You Build A Human Body?

I will conclude with one last quote from Albrecht Schmidt, who I think captures the moment perfectly: “We’re at a point where implants may become something quite normal,” Schmidt said. “This work will open up discussion as to whether we get implants not for a medical reason, but for convenience.”

Musings On Robot Sex Dolls and Companions

May 13, 2012 11 comments

The currents of the internet work in odd ways; this past week the theme seems to be robot sex. Since I have had it on the brain, I figure I will contribute to the trendiness and throw my own 2c in. (Just as a note, I will indicate any link that is explicitly Not Safe For Work).  I am going to blur the line a bit between just discussing robot sex and discussing robot companionship, a somewhat more involved relationship than the purely physical.

It seems to me there are essentially three main questions when it comes to human-robot sex. First, can we build a machine that anyone would want to have sex with? Second, how “intelligent” should that machine be? Third, is this just a fetish for weirdoes?

Technical Feasibility:

Not only can we build robots that people want to have sex with; we already have.

Certainly, there are all manner of devices people use for sexual pleasure, but I want to focus on machines more sophisticated than your average vibrator.

The aptly titled fuckingmachines.com (NSFW) is a pornographic site founded in 2000 that features videos and pictures of women having sex with robots that are not particularly technically advanced, and certainly not on the level of a sophisticated android sex-bot. Think battle bots for the bedroom. Despite the lack of sophistication, these are industrial pieces of hardware. For the home user, somewhat tamed versions of machines built for pleasure are available from mainstream websites like this “Love Glider Sex Machine” from Amazon.com (NSFW).

Andydroids.com (NSFW) has a number of both male and female android dolls for purchase. Although the website is not well constructed, this page (NSFW) seems to show various servos, circuit boards, and otherwise fairly advanced robotics working together to create a somewhat lifelike robot. Less sophisticated, but perhaps more lifelike, are Real Dolls (NSFW), in production since 1996. Real Dolls are as close as I have seen to human-looking sex bots, but are still a long way from indistinguishable from human.

The most realistic robot that I have yet seen (though it is not designed specifically for sex) is Geminoid F from Osaka University’s Professor Hiroshi Ishigurou. This robot can smile, talk, move, and appears very lifelike. According to this video, she even has “basic emotions and behaviors” programmed in. The biggest problems that I can see from the demonstration videos are that (1) the robot might be firmly entrenched in the “uncanny valley” (2) her movements are still a little jerky, and (3) her software is highly advanced, but hardly lifelike.

The uncanny valley is a hypothesis that argues that as robots become more human-like a human observer’s emotional response becomes more positive and empathetic. However, at some point, the robot is –too- lifelike, and a feeling of revulsion quickly replaces the positive and empathetic emotional response. If the robot becomes yet more lifelike, to the point of being indistinguishable from a human, the human observer’s emotional response will again become positive and empathic. Thus, to have a sex bot that anyone would actually want to have sex with, the robot is going to have to be on one side or the other of the uncanny valley; either not particularly lifelike, or extremely lifelike. For a robot that is expected to be more than a sex toy (say, for someone that a human might want to be partnered with) the robot would have to be extremely advanced and nearly indistinguishable from a human being.

Jerky movements can be compensated for by ever-better servos and other methods of movement. Popular Science, for instance, recently reported on Nobuhiro Takahashi and the University of Electro-Communications’ new robotic butt that responds to “slaps, caresses, and finger pokes.”

The video is a little creepy, but shows the sort of fine ‘muscle’ movement that Geminoid F lacks; movement that could be very useful in other parts of the robot as well.

ExtremeTech posted an article about Kissenger, a telepresence robot designed to allow two humans to kiss across great distances through a robot. Although this is hardly more advanced than previous robots, it does suggest that humans are willing to at least attempt to transmit an emotional connection through a robot. In addition, as ET points out, how much of a stretch is it from kissing a robot with another human on the other side to kissing a robot controlled by an A.I.?

This ScienceDaily article highlights synthetic skin that could, one day, allow a robot to feel. Even if we assume that there is no qualia (roughly: experiential consciousness) behind a robot feeling, all the data streams involved in transmitting some kind of feeling could be very useful for triggering micro-movements in various parts of the skin, perhaps even including subtle changes like goose bumps, etc.

Technically, I think we are about there. Some more materials development (in particular a temperature regulation system and a lubrication system would be two huge upgrades that I have not seen) some finer muscle control, and some more realistic design and robots might just climb out of the uncanny valley. However, what about the software side of the robot?

A.I. and Sex-Bots:

The next question is how much artificial intelligence a robot companion ought to have.

On one end of the scale, we have Real Dolls – essentially human-looking mannequins without any sort of robotics or artificial intelligence. These sorts of sex-bots are fine as far as they go for purely physical entertainment, but most people probably will not develop any emotional connection to their toys (especially if they hang their Real Doll by the “removable neck bolt” as their FAQ suggests.)

Towards the middle of the scale, and likely right at the edge of our current capability, we have Geminoid F; a robot with basic emotional scales programmed in that can spontaneously create new reactions to situations. The jerky physical movement is mimicked by the jerky emotional reactions; they are broadly appropriate, but are not exactly finely tuned enough to seem human.

Ideally, it seems like the perfect robot companion ought to have emotions that at least mimic human emotions very well; the ability to smile, wink, and bite their lip at just the right time and have something that at least seems plausibly like a twinkle in their eye. Perhaps complex human-based personality profiles could be uploaded that allow the robot to seem very much like a human being, albeit with customizable settings for each individual user to account for differing tastes. Maybe the robot could exhibit this personality outside of the bedroom as well; transforming a sex robot into something more like a personal companion or even a partner.

However, it seems important to limit both sex robots and companion robots to non-conscious levels of intelligence. Most importantly, because I think that cognitive criteria are the defining hallmarks of a “person,” and that a robot with actual consciousness ought to be considered a person. If we think it is wrong to keep people for sex toys (and we certainly do) then I cannot see the same behavior being justifiable for conscious robots.

However, even outside of the moral personhood angle, a conscious robot would have something like free will, or at least clearly articulable preferences. If the goal of a sex-robot or companion robot is to have the ideal partner, then we certainly don’t want our robot telling us ‘no’ or ‘I’m not in the mood’ (unless we program that in for some sort of more realistic behavior.) We want to be able to program in our individual desires and preferences which make the robot ideal for each of us, and a robot with free will would presumably be overwriting our preferences with their own fairly often. A robot with true artificial intelligence would not have many advantages over a human partner.

In short, much like the physical problem of the uncanny valley, we want a robot intelligent enough to seem human-like without actually being conscious enough to be a person.

Who Would Want A Sex Robot?

We can dispense with the obvious fairly quickly; probably people with intimacy issues, various kinks and fetishes, and those who just want sex without everything else that often comes with it would be first in line for a very realistic sex-bot. ExtremeTech recently wrote an article about robot prostitutes that argues that robots could take over the prostitution industry (wouldn’t a sex-bot be cheaper over the long run, after all?) in addition to lessening human trafficking, pedophilia, and other sex crimes.

I think, however, a compelling case can be made that more than just the socially awkward and sexually deviant (in the clinical sense) would appreciate a sex-robot. Dick Pelletier recently wrote a piece for IEET where he highlights a number of authors who have argued just that, including tech luminary Ray Kurzweil: “Author Ray Kurzweil says tomorrow’s ‘droids could quickly learn to flesh out our positive feelings, providing an addictive allure almost impossible for us to resist.” Indeed, with ruthless, cunning efficiency a robot with sophisticated enough software could read various biometric signals that humans give off, allowing him or her to customize their personality to the preferences of their human owners that the owner may not even know that they have. Moreover, like any good device, the robot would presumably become more accurate over time, and change as their owner does. This sort of adaptive learning is an ingenious solution to forcing the operator to think of all of their own preferences and program them into their robot companion; something humans have a difficult enough time expressing to each other.

The allure of the perfect seducer / seductress is vast, and not to be underestimated. No matter how fabulous your human partner is, there is bound to be –something- about him or her that is not 100% ideal. Maybe they snore. Maybe they like to cut you off while you are talking. Maybe they just forget to put the toilet seat down. Whatever it is, trivial or serious, there is some way (and, likely, a number of ways) that they are not ideal. Of course, humans overlook these qualities in other humans all the time during relationships; coping with each other’s idiosyncrasies and quirks (which might even become endearing after a while) is largely what human relationships are about, and provide an extra level of intimacy in a relationship. Nevertheless, even if your human partner –is- wonderful and you cannot think of a single thing you would change about them, they are still only one personality.

An interesting implication of robot-companions is that there is little reason why multiple personalities could not be installed within one physical frame, and those personalities could be changeable at will. Maybe you want a sultry professional for an office meeting, a wild party girl for a Halloween party, a tomboy for a Super Bowl party and a quiet intellectual for a lazy Sunday afternoon. Perhaps you want a nice gentleman for dinner, a jock for the pool, and a real alpha-male for bed later. A robot companion can switch effortlessly into different personalities, each tailored to your specific desires. These personalities could even be ported into different physical frames for those who desire a differing physical appearance every now and again.

Beyond the physical and personality advantages, there could be greater emotional security from a companion bot as well. From Dick’s IEET article: “A robot partner would be the perfect mate, never showing boredom or being inattentive, Levy says. You will always be the focus and centerpiece of their existence and you never need worry about their being unfaithful or going astray, because loyalty and being faithful are embedded in their programming.” With a divorce rate hovering somewhere around 50% in the United States, human relationships seem to be the emotional equivalent of a coin flip (and subsequent relationships fare even worse.) Never mind the cost of alimony and child support.

In short, I think that with advanced enough A.I. (but not too advanced, per the above) sex or companion robots could very well become the ideal mates for humans. Human-robot relationships could be purely sexual, or they could become more like true companions. Either way, such human-robot interactions do not necessarily mean the end of human-human interactions, or inevitable extinction for lack of reproduction. There are, after all, plenty of children to adopt, and there is little reason to think that the technology involved in creating children will fail to advance as rapidly as other technologies.

We are still a long way from this sort of interaction, but the upsides seem considerable.

More Medical Breakthroughs

Hi again, everyone. Sorry for the (very) extended absence. I should have posts out more regularly now; I am aiming for every other week or so. I will pick right back up where I left off, talking about medical advancements because a lot of exciting news has come out in the last few months. Specifically, I want to talk about three broad categories: Synthetic or engineered medical research or treatments, biological (DNA) research and procedures, and various transplants that have been performed or are being researched.

Synthetic Medical Advances:

A lot of research recently has been targeted at creating synthetic life. These are not robotic solutions (so, for these purposes at least, synthetic does not mean artificial intelligence or cyborgs) but instead largely biological entities that have been tinkered with.

For example, Kurzweilai.net reports that chemists have created cells with self-assembling, artificial membranes. Because creating truly artificial life will require both an artificial membrane and an artificial genome (which has also been created) this is an important step towards creating entirely new organisms. The best part: it seems to be easy and cheap to create these new artificial membranes, so we should see a lot of movement in this area in the near future.

Once we have entirely synthetic cells, how could we make more? No problem: Scientists have created artificial DNA. i09 reports that scientists have created XNA; a polymer much like DNA or RNA that can evolve and reproduce. The article notes that artificial DNA has been around for a decade or so, but what makes this new discovery special is that it can pass along its information and evolve in a very life-like manner. “Using a crafty genetic engineering technique called compartmentalized self-tagging (or “CST”), Pinheiro’s team designed special polymerases that could not only synthesize XNA from a DNA template, but actually copy XNA back into DNA. The result was a genetic system that allowed for the replication and propagation of genetic information.”

Discover Magazine, reporting on the same breakthrough, also focused on the implications of synthetic DNA for our understanding of life: “’They are very interesting with respect to the origin of life,’ says Jack Szostak, a Harvard biologist who studies life’s beginnings and was not involved in the study. ‘In principle, many different polymers could serve the roles of RNA and DNA in living organisms.  Why then does modern biology use only RNA and DNA?’” Both articles mention the benefits of XNA: It is more robust than DNA, is less prone to environmental dangers, and they could be more effective than DNA in targeting different proteins for medical diagnostics.

With synthetic XNA and synthetic cells, what is the next step? An H+ article by Dr. Bratton and Dr. Shackleford suggests that full on synthetic life is likely. In the article, the doctors detail much of the work that has been going on for the last forty years in creating synthetic life and write that in the near future “[s]pecific applications include the creation of synthetic organisms that can: 1) efficiently produce pharmaceuticals and vaccines that are otherwise difficult and expensive to produce, 2) efficiently produce hydrocarbon biofuels (replacing oil, coal, etc.), and 3) be useful as plant feedstock in agriculture, lowering the need for increasingly expensive petroleum-based fertilizers.”

Finally, IEET posted a video from George Church, Pioneer in Synthetic Biology from Harvard and MIT, who argues that syntheticDNA could have numerous benefits, including bringing back extinct species. Additionally, synthetic biology could “prevent ecosystems from losing diversity” or create new species to make ecosystems more diverse than they ever have been.

Biological Research and Procedures:

ScienceDaily reports that scientists have discovered that printing cells onto slides using an inkjet printer disrupts the membranes of the cells enough that they can put molecules into the cells that otherwise would not fit. This allows scientists to alter biological cells more easily, and in greater numbers.

Speaking of cell printing, Discover Magazine recently ran an article about a creepy looking, but still awesome, blood vessel printing machine. The machine literally weaves “threads of human tissue” into blood vessels and can potentially be used to replace the blood vessels of dialysis patients or others whose vessels are not working as they should.

There has been a lot of interesting movement in cancer research recently too. Kurzweilai.net reports that scientists from the University of Arizona have made progress in diagnosing breast cancer; one of the “leading worldwide health concern[s.]” By scanning cells in 3D, scientists are better able to see the defects that indicate cancerous cells.

Another article from ScienceDaily, however, suggests that improved detection for cancer might be a moot discovery. Scientists from the Stanford University School of Medicine have used an antibody to kill a broad range of cancer cells including breast, ovarian, colon, bladder, brain, liver, and prostate cancers. The process seems to work by blocking a protein flag on cancer cells that usually shield it from an immune response. Once that protein is blocked, the immune system kicks in and annihilates the cancer; no matter what stage it is in. By breaking the stealth protein of cancer cells, the immune system regains its efficiency and destroys the cancer. Although it is much too early to call, this is at least a very promising step on the road to a cure.

Transplant Procedures:

Last, but not least, some exciting transplant procedures have been performed.

Both the BBC and (the hilariously named) boingboing.net have reported that the world’s first jaw transplant procedure was successfully performed on an 83 year old woman when her badly infected jaw was replaced with a titanium / bioceramic replica. The jaw was constructed using 3-D printers (another emerging technology) and, though the artificial jaw was about 30% heavier than a biological jaw, the “patient can easily get used to it.” Within a day, she was talking and swallowing. The jaw, once designed, took only a “few hours” to print, suggesting that widespread 3-D printing technology in hospitals could provide a quick way to replace many bone structures in the body (never mind organ printing that is still in its infancy.) The surgery itself also was much quicker than a traditional transplant; it took only four hours.

The BBC also reported on ever improving efforts to grow patients new limbs from their own cells. As the article states, there are essentially four complexities of tissue building, and three of them have been successfully implemented in humans. [Dr. Anthony Atalia] breaks tissue building into four levels of complexity.

  • Flat structures, such as the skin, are the simplest to engineer as they are generally made up of just the one type of cell.
  • Tubes, such as blood vessels and urethras, which have two types of cells and act as a conduit.
  • Hollow non-tubular organs like the bladder and the stomach, which have more complex structures and functions.
  • Solid organs, such as the kidney, heart and liver, are the most complex to engineer. They are exponentially more complex, have many different cell types, and more challenges in the blood supply.

Dr. Atalia argues that we will not likely see a hand grown in his lifetime, but I am not so sure. The doctor is only a little older than fifty, and I would not be surprised to see the kind of improvement needed to print a hand occur within the next fifty years.

Image courtesy of Cytograft