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Some Brief Thoughts On Immortality

August 24, 2012 1 comment

It’s difficult to delve far into transhumanist discussion without hearing people talk about immortality. A recent poll on IEET showed that better than three-quarters of IEET readers “did want immortality”. Of the remaining quarter, the largest chunk was concerned about boredom and the next largest (roughly 4% of the total) were concerned about overpopulation. I think that “immortality” needs to be unpacked a bit more.

One sense in which immortality is often tossed around is as a synonym for ending aging. David Brin used it that way in a headline earlier this year, but in the article proper pointed out a couple of important points. First, ending aging does not guarantee immortality, it only prevents one significant cause of death: old age and it’s assorted maladies. Death via foul play, accident, and natural disaster are still very much on the table. Even in this limited sense, however, there are still concerns relating to the capabilities of the human brain, political implications, and unforeseen psychological effects, though it’s unclear whether these concerns can be mitigated by technology or not. I tend to think that probably they can.

Still, immortality as a synonym for ending aging is popular. Professor and author James Miller used it the same way in an article published by H+ earlier this year. Here, he attempts to spell out some ways in which government could help assist end of aging research. PBS also used immortality as a synonym for ending aging in a video just a few weeks ago. This usage is problematic for a couple of reasons.

First, it’s just inaccurate. As Ray Kurzweil points out at 1:12 in the video above, “I can never talk with you and say ‘I’ve done it, I’ve lived forever!'” Immortality is a moving target, one perpetually unreachable, and so the concept of saying that one has achieved immortality is, strictly speaking, nonsense. This is true whether or not the speaker means by immortality ending aging or any other method of prolonging life (mind uploads, robotic bodies, whatever.) Thus, however long we live, we will never know if we’re actually immortal or not.

Second, it’s highly improbable. Given a long enough time span, it is utterly ridiculous to think that one will continue to live. Even if (and this is a whopper of an if) one could live to, and subsequently past, the heat death or collapse of the universe trillions of years into the future, on a large enough timeline even the most unlikely of events becomes a certainty. Thus, almost surely whatever defenses one uses to stave off death will ultimately fail, even a massively redundant combination of defenses.

Third, talking about immortality, while attention grabbing, is a bit grandiose. I think, for a variety of reasons, most people (though not IEET readers, it seems) don’t really want to be immortal. They want to live, understandably, a long time, and healthily, and have a good life. But talking about immortality makes it sound like we’re aiming for a pipe dream; it’s an idea that people can’t really get behind. It might even be an idea, as I’ve tried to suggest, that’s ultimately stark nonsense. But an idea that people can get behind is life extension; perhaps even of the indefinite variety. If we talk about improving life and helping people to live longer, healthier lives, only true deathists will think that that’s a bad idea. It helps us gain popular support (something that, admittedly, we probably ought to cultivate since many of our ideas are just on the edge of [or a bit past] what people are prepared to accept.) That’s not to say that immortality proper is completely off the table, just that it seems to me we ought to use the word only when we really mean immortality and not when we just mean life extension.

One final thought, for when we are talking about actual immortality. For me, the very idea of living even until the end of the universe seems like it would end in immeasurable boredom. Aubrey DeGray has said “I’m not sure I want to live to 100, but I want to make that choice when I’m 99.” This is not a knock down argument; people have suggested that it is at least conceivable that one could change their goals, habits, and pursuits indefinitely and never grow bored. Maybe they can, and I certainly don’t begrudge anyone trying. However, I’m reminded of a story I read in my Death & Dying class in undergrad. Julian Barnes wrote a book called The History of the World In 10 1/2 Chapters, and the last chapter of that book is called “The Dream”. More than most pieces, I think it encapsulates what most of us hope Transhumanism will produce (though there’s a good bit more mechanical augmentation and/or genetic engineering in our version, and less mysticism) yet comes to (what I thought was) a surprising conclusion.You can read it here, with all credit to the original author, for consideration. If nothing else, you ought to read it because it’s clever and entertaining.

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

The Eyeborg Documentary: Bridging Reality and Sci-Fi

September 3, 2011 2 comments

As I continue to talk with people about transhumanism, I’m often asked whether the sort of hyper-advanced technology I’m so excited about is really possible. After all, we’ve been expecting flying cars since the 1990’s, and those still aren’t here. We don’t have robots cleaning up our homes, ala The Jetsons (Roombas don’t quite make the cut.) We’re not even close to intergalactic travel ala Star Trek, and we don’t have the luxury of mind vacations ala Total Recall. In short, technology often seems to fall short of people’s (probably unrealistic) expectations, and so those same people are understandably skeptical about claims of advanced cybernetic limbs, mind-uploading (or substrate independent minds, as Randal Koene is now calling it), and artificial intelligence.

A few months ago, I posted my thoughts on a few men who chose to have their hands replaced with cybernetic arms. When talking with people, I try to point them in the direction of stories like these; stories that illustrate that we already have the limb replacement part down, and that suggest we’re not so many engineering breakthroughs away from human-level functionality in our prosthetics. There are a lot of stories like this out there, but it’s hard to remember where all of them are when I’m a few drinks deep at the bar. Fortunately, Rob Spence and Deus Ex teamed up to make a short summary of cybernetic technology as compared to hyper-advanced technology still (barely) in the realm of sci-fi. They call it Deus Ex: The Eyeborg Documentary.

Rob Spence is the aforementioned Eyeborg, a man who lost his eye in a shooting accident and replaced it with a prosthetic that has a small wireless camera that transmits video to a screen a few feet away. Rob’s prosthetic doesn’t connect to his optical nerve, so he doesn’t actually see the video captured by the camera unless he looks at the player with his ‘good’ eye. Miika Terho (1:28), on the other hand, had a small chip implanted into his retina that does connect to his optical nerve, allowing his brain to process the incoming visual signal. The resolution is still … crude (to put it mildly) BUT: The blind can see again in some sense. That has to count for something. This procedure is still in experimental phases, and probably won’t be approved for the public for several years yet, but much like most of the technologies highlighted in this video, seems only a few engineering obstacles away from offering excellent solutions to people struggling with blindness and other eye problems. Joseph Junke (2:35) rounds out the Eyeborg tour of the eyes with his HUD display for firefighters; a system that augments reality with information gathered from sensors and other technology. Augmented reality has captured a lot of interest recently because it seems like something we already know how to do; and indeed Junke think we’ll have a sellable product within two years or so. Combining these building blocks, it seems like we can put together the video input capability of a mini-camera, the optical-nerve-attached chip, and the augmented reality display to produce an implant that allows for vision that meets or exceeds human-level while offering a few nice extras. If cell phones are any indication, we’ll see have lots of other small technologies piggybacking on the basic technology, such that we could take pictures of what we’re seeing, transmit them wirelessly, and alter coloration at whim. Just like the Deus Ex implant.

At 4:00 we meet two people who have had their arms replaced; Jason Henderson from West Virginia and Keiron McCammon from California. Both of these people have hands that approximate the human hand; they offer fine motor control, wrist rotation, and grip strength. They also have a few bonuses in the form of attachments at the wrist; Jason can put on fin-shaped scoops for more powerful swimming, for instance. The hands of the prosthetics could certainly use a little better control, but because the prosthetics work by reading the electrical signals traveling down the natural muscles remaining in the arm via sensor, the ability to have very fine motor skills (of the sort needed to type quickly on a keyboard as opposed to hunting and pecking) is somewhat limited. A direct neural connection would work best, but we’re not quite there yet.

A 7:20 we meet Staff Sergant Heath Calhoun, who lost his legs during service in Iraq in 2003. Both of his legs were amputated above the knee and replaced with prosthetics that monitor his movement some 50 times a second, automatically adjusting the hydraulic pressure at the knee and helping Heath to keep his balance. Heath additionally skis for the Mens US Disabled Ski Team, and is able to attach a snowboard more directly to his remaining legs. He’s also into running, swimming, and biking. Despite the impressive array of attachments, Heath has a problem: His knee doesn’t provide power (as needed for, say, getting up stairs) and isn’t able to use his thigh muscles in the same way people with natural legs do. This is an everyday hinderance that takes away from the enhanced ability to replace his prosthetic limbs with attachments that fit the activity Heath is participating in. David Jonsson (8:59) at Ossur Prosthetics out of Iceland has addressed this problem by creating the Power Knee; a prosthetics that does just what it sounds like. The Power Knee provides power to the knee area of a prosthetic, allowing the user to walk up stairs and stand up more easily. Combining the two technologies, we see that the array of attachments Heath has access to, coupled with the Power Knee, leads to prosthetic legs nearly as functional as natural legs, except they can additionally be tasked to particular activities as needed.

The Eyeborg Documentary doesn’t cover every possible prosthetic on the market, and it isn’t supposed to. What it does, and very well, is show how technology as it exists today is already quite close to what we currently consider sci-fi levels, and indicates some of the technical challenges that must be overcome to bring prosthetic technology the rest of the way. The video bridges the gap between fantasy and reality, showing why it is reasonable to expect the technology will continue to advance. The documentary also provides just one place for people to go who wonder whether we’ll continue to have increasingly sophisticated prosthetics and gives me a single place to direct people interested in seeing how close to a truly transhumanist future we currently are. So, the next time someone asks me, I’ll smile, sip my drink, and say “Google the Eyeborg Documentary; it’ll blow your mind.”

What is Experience?

April 19, 2011 Leave a comment

Given upcoming law finals, I’m going to punt on writing another long article (at least for today) and instead link to another fascinating H+ article, this time by Eray Özkural.

Join Eray on a fascinating journey through the mind of a bat, a person, an upload, and a machine, via philosophers like Searle and Nagel. But not at the same time: An uploaded bat-person cyborg philosopher is just too much.

Ray Kurzweil visits the Colbert Nation

April 13, 2011 3 comments

Last night, Ray Kurzweil appeared on the Colbert Report to discuss his new video, Transcendent Man.  Because Transcendent Man discusses transhumanism generally, the discussion opened with a film clip and then allowed Kurzweil to discuss transhumanism generally.

I’ve seen the entire Transcendent Man video, and the snippet shown on the Colbert Report is a fair summary. The film itself has (to my mind) a strange turn toward the religious and slightly creepy; I’m not sure if the film really gets across a message about the virtues of transhumanism (though it is discussed throughly) and instead puts the focus on Kurzweil and makes him seem like a creepy prophet. Other interviews suggest that Kurzweil is not nearly so obsessed as Transcendent Man makes him seem (with reviving his father, anyway.)

The Colbert interview, on the other hand, struck more of a techno-idealist tone with the usual Colbert humorous undertone.  As Singularity Hub points out, this interview on the Colbert Report will probably reach a younger (and larger) audience than Kurzweil’s longer interviews on shows like Charlie Rose. Because of the Colbert format, Kurzweil wasn’t able to get too in depth with his research and arguments for The Singularity, but Kurzweil was still able to get the high points across and build some excitement. Given the much vaunted ‘Colbert Bump’ I’d expect to see articles in the next few days saying that downloads of Transcendent Man skyrocketed.

While I’m all in favor of transhumanism gaining more mainstream support, I worry that people who are excited by the Colbert interview will get introduced to transhumanism via Transcendent Man, write off Kurzweil and his associated ideas because of the tone the film takes, and associate believers with the fringe beliefs (at least without a little information as prep) that seem to take center stage in the film. I wish there were a better film to introduce the mainstream to transhumanism; or that the film had mentioned other sources of information like H+.

Helping Out H+

April 9, 2011 Leave a comment

I (and most people I know) buy a whole lot of stuff from Amazon.com. Now, you can also help out H+ with no extra effort or expense. Simply click on the link below, and a portion of your purchase price will get credited to H+. Drag and drop onto your favorite browser toolbar for easy access.

H+ Amazon Link

*I receive no benefit from your use of the above link (except some pleasure from knowing my readers contribute to H+).