Archive for October, 2008

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Basic body modifications for modern life

Monday, 27 October, 2008

Marcia Nolte has a gallery, named Corpus 2.0, featuring photographs of people digitally enhanced with what could one day be real morpholigical enhancements. In addition to the above picture of high-heeled feet (which I would have done by extending the calcaneus through the skin like an antler, to make a stilleto-like heel, thus preserving the overall shape of the foot), the enhancements include:

Noseslope: is the adaption by wearing glasses. If design will react on this, new forms of glasses can exist

Shoulderholder: Shows the possibilities of wireless technology and being mobile. Since then we can do a lot of things at the same time, for example calling and driving at the same time. The shoulderholder will work as a third hand.

Headphone-ear: Maybe there will be only one form of the headphone on the market. For people who want to be connected with music all day, the ear will adapt to its form.

High-heel foot: Also way of living is getting in to our body. With these feet a women can feel confident all day.

Smokinghole: Smokers will get this hole in their mouth because it is their friend. Since it is a problem of society, smokers can recognize each other and feel kind of connected.

Touch-it thumb: It’s about technology which is concentrated on the thumb, like text messaging, car-keys, television, computer games. It is already said that in three generations the thumb will be bigger and stronger.

Some of these modifications seem a little redundant or inefficient. Why bother with high-heels, which are a primitive way of adjusting leg length to a more attractive proportion, if you can control how long your legs are to begin with? Why not just modify your eyesight back to perfection (or better) instead of worrying about making a ridge to hold your glasses? And the modification to one’s ears for headphones could be adapted into one for a bluetooth headset, making the shoulder modifications redundant. And smoking doesn’t seem like an enhancement to me – more like an impairment.

[hat tip to io9 vis Dezeen]

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H+ Ezine (Electronic Magazine) – first edition

Monday, 20 October, 2008

The World Transhumanist Association (now known as Humanity Plus, for some stupid reason) has a new magazine called h+. The table of contents, and a freely downloadable copy of the first edition, are located on their website.

I’m not going to blog about any of it in particular, because nothing strikes me as either ridiculously awesome nor is anything notably incorrect (although, the article on open-source robotics doesn’t seem directly related to human enhancement, but it might be close enough).

I do need to give a little bit of praise to James Kent for his article on Overclocking the Human CPU, for he concludes (correctly, in my opinion) that genetic enhancement of intelligence is more promising than cybernetic enhancement. He does so for the wrong reasons, assuming that brain-computer interfaces will fall due to ethical problems, whereas their true weakness is in the size and penetration required of the electrodes. And, he is far too optimistic in predicting increases of an order of magnitude in IQ from genetic enhancement.

Another pertinent part, given the economic crisis, is the little mini-interview with Cory Doctorow, titled The Sheep Shit Grass, where he discusses the end of scarcity. It’s short, so I won’t quote part of it (I’d need to quote all of it), but it does seem to me that without some amazingly restrictive policies on property rights, the end of capitalism will appear as soon as all essential goods can be copied (such that using them only makes more copies – where the more the sheep graze, the more grass remains).

Finally, there was one other part that made me chuckle, where Joe Quirk takes on the nay-sayers, in piece The Meaning of Life Lies in Its Suckiness:

I’ve been converted. Frances [sic] Fukuyama, Leon Kass, and Bill McKibben have shown me the folly of all you silly transhumanists. Life has it’s meaning in direct proportion to how royally it sucks.

It’s an accurate summary, but Mr Quirk unfortunately ruins his accuracy by concluding that those fellows are religious, and therefore wrong. Well, I’ve read works by all three of those, and Leon Kass is the only one that even in passing uses religious arguments. And, he can’t even spare a moment to Google Fukuyama’s name to remind himself how it should be spelled – he’s got a memory enhancement and won’t use it.

So, I think it is an … adequate publication (the cover art is especially nice). We’ll see if it gets better once a more varied group start to contribute.

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Electrogenic humans

Monday, 13 October, 2008

Electrogenesis refers to the production of electrical activity in living tissue. In a sense, we humans are already electrogenic; each of our brain cells (neurons) produces about 70 millivolts of electric potential and our muscle cells about 95 millivolts. They do this by using chemical energy (in the form of ATP) to power electrogenic pumps, most commonly the Na+/K+ ATPase (sodium-potassium transporter, but usually abbreviated to NAKA)- this enzyme is so common in the massive human brain and muscles that it is responsible for using up to 40% of our resting energy consumption (and the man who discovered it, Jens Skou, was awarded the 1997 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. This pumps out 3 Na+ atoms in exchange for 2 K+ atoms. This is a good deal, because three positively charged ions (cations) are exchanged for two, which causes the electric potential to drop below zero. With enough of these going, it will drop give the cell a slight charge.

But some marine creatures really excel in this aspect, with specialised cells called electrocytes dedicated entirely to the production of an electric potential, which they use primarily to communicate and sense prey but also to stun other animals (prey or predators). These include the electric rays (Torpediniformes) which can produce a potential of around 200 volts, the electric catfish (Malapteruridae) which are capable of producing 350 volts and, perhaps one the best known (erroneously as the electric eel), the electric knifefish (Electrophorus electricus), capable of a shock of up to 600 volts (Mermelstein et al, 2000). The electric knifefish/eel has been proposed as next on the list of animals to have their genome sequenced (Albert et al, 2008), which I think will speed this sort of research along quite nicely.

These animals have a specialised organ, called (of all things) the electric organ, which is made up of thousands of these electrocytes (sometimes also called electroplaques or electroplaxes) organised in series (with each series stacked in parallel to sum currents), with each cell producing a potential about 150mV (actually, there are two potentials, one 65mV and the other 85mV. For details, read Jian Xu’s scientific paper, which I link to below). That doesn’t seem like much, but stack ten thousand of these in one organ and, if all those cells discharge at one, it will produce a 1500V electric organ discharge (EOD).

Just last month, researchers Jian Xu from Yale University and David Lavan from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (Maryland, USA) published a paper in Nature Nanotechnology outlining a theoretical upgrade to the electrocyte, able to produce 28% more power and to use chemical energy to do it with 38% greater efficiency. It was theoretical, however, but they will probably try it (or somebody else will) for real some time soon. And probably the electric fishes themselves will be slowly evolving towards this outcome themselves.

In the meantime, we can consider how awesome it would be to generate an electric current ourselves. Most in the Western world are experiencing an obesity epidemic, so we have plenty of chemical energy to spare for producing an electric potential. The most likely and practical option will be to have a small patch of electrogenic cells surrounding any electronic implant, like the prosthetic arm and cybernetic implants we will all have by that stage. They may also prove useful in biological pacemakers, if the heart was surrounded with electrogenic cells to provide impulses (though, it would probably prove easier to just repair the heart).

More interestingly (at least in my opinion), we could genetically engineer (or implant) our very own electric organ. If the electric organ was just below the skin of our chest and arms, but very well insulated except for at ends of our fingers, we’d literally have the full current and voltage of the electric organ at our fingertips. We’d also need to wire up the brain control mechanisms of this organ, specifically some brainstem nucleus to act as a pacemaker to ensure all those electrocytes fire together, so that we could control when the electric shocks occur.

Now, before we get all excited about throwing lightning bolts, let me first remind everyone of how physics works back in the real world. As I said, bioelectrogenesis has evolved only in aquatic organisms, because water is a good conductor. Air, on the other hand, is a damn good insulator until a phenomena known as dielectric breakdown occurs (this is when the air ionises to become conductive). The dielectric strength of air is 3,000,000 volts per metre (3MV/m), but greater on hot or humid days. This means that to throw an arc discharge (i.e. a zap of lightning) across on metre of air, you require 3 million volts. You can throw a much smaller arc with much less, as anyone who as zapped themselves with static electricity on a doorknob will know (noting Paschen’s law, which shows that even a small voltage of 500V will be sufficient to cross a gap of half a centimetre). If I hold my thumb and forefinger just a centimetre apart, I will still require 30,000 volts to throw an arc between them. To produce that with a current of 1 amp (which probably won’t be necessary, but let’s assume that for the sake of ease of calculation) would require about 150,000 cells (assuming each produces 200mV), which is far more than the electric eel has (and, mind you, the electric eel dedicates about 80% of its 25kg body to its electric organs, and still only manages about 4000 cells per series).  So in other words, you’re not going to be able to throw lightning (which makes sense, because we don’t even have a practical ‘lightning gun‘ yet, let alone a biological version).

But I don’t really care. I’d settle for being able to make a lightbulb glow or give somebody an annoying shock if they irritated me (essentially a biological electroschock weapon). So, where’s my bioelectrogenesis?

[Hat tip to fayyaad at Utter Insanity for inspiring me to try to explain how human electrogeneration is possible and bringing my attention to this recent news]

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Genetic enhancement can not be a bad thing

Friday, 10 October, 2008

In discussing whether designer babies, human genetic engineering or even cybernetic enhancements should be allowed, the arguments can fairly well be divided into those arguing that the end results would be good/ bad, or those arguing that the methods used are moral/immoral.

The argument that human genetic enhancement will be expensive and therefore lead to a class-divide between the wealthy and the poor is perhaps the most commonly encountered ends-based argument. The issue with such an argument is that human genetic enhancement is not the only means by which such a divide could occur. Other enhancements, such as expensive schooling/tuition or higher-speed internet are similarly able to lead to such a divide, as those with these enhancements use their advantage to garner even more enhancements for themselves and their children. Therefore, such an ends-based argument against genetic enhancement, while not necessarily incorrect (if we accept that a class divide is a bad consequence), is inconsistent with other more accepted forms of enhancement.

In fact, the inconsistency runs deeper. Education, exercise, vaccination and other forms of enhancement are often considered to lead to very good results. Therefore, society encourages them, in some cases to the point of making them compulsory. If one is only looking at the results, genetic enhancement seems to promise even better enhancement of intelligence, health and happiness. It is hard to imagine why method of enhancing ourselves that involve schooling or training would be encouraged and yet biotechnological methods would be strictly prohibited.

When such inconsistencies are pointed out to those making such an argument, the usual response is that fiddling around with genes is incomparable to schooling or training, as direct modification of our bodies is an entirely different class of enhancement. This effectively turns the argument into a means-based one, as it argues that genetic enhancement is bad because it involves genetic modification of human beings, commodification of human life, insufficient respect for human dignity etc etc. Those arguments don’t suffer from the inconsistency of the ends-based arguments, and therefore are worthy of further investigation.

I’m a utilitarian, however, and therefore I think that the wrongness or rightness of any given means can only be determined by looking at the ends produced. That is, the ends can justify the means. Genetic enhancement, as I said above, seems to be just as good as schooling or exercise or any other form of enhancement. I’d encourage everyone to educate themselves, and I think education is a good thing, and therefore I think genetic enhancement is similarly a good thing.

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Neocon logic strikes again

Monday, 6 October, 2008

The magazine The New Atlantis, the usual hangout of biotech-fearing Leon Kass and formerly edited by Eric “I’m not sure I’m convinced that enhancement is a great idea” Cohen, has a new piece out titled “Biotech enhancement and natural law“, authored by Christ Tollefsen, author of Embryo: A defence of human life, and Ryan T. Anderson, Catholic bioethicist.

It’s not actually illogical, it just starts with some really screwed-up premises. Three of which I shall discuss, and without those three the whole argument of the essay collapses faster than a capitalist economy.

Personhood theory is dualistic?

The authors begin by trying to show that personhood theory is dualistic. They say:

Consider the question of personal identity. Are you, the reader of this essay, a human being—that is, a bodily animal, albeit one who shapes and directs his own life by acts of reason and will? Or, are you something other than a human animal—a soul or a spirit, a center of consciousness, or merely a brain—that is somehow associated with a human body? Thinkers such as Plato, Descartes, and Locke, and, in our own day, philosophers and bioethicists like Peter Singer, Jeff McMahan, and Lynne Rudder Baker, have been so impressed by the personal qualities that human beings exhibit (self-awareness, reason and will) that they have sought to identify the subject of these personal attributes as something distinct from the subject of the biological attributes of the human animal. The result is that the entity that thinks and speaks, has desires and decides to take action to fulfill those desires, is described as a “person”—yet this “person” is something other than a bodily animal, something other than a human being.

Of course, they would be right to claim personhood theory to be false if it relied upon dualism, because dualism has so many problems that it may as well be declared as dead.

The answer, of course, is that personhood is not dualistic nor does it require any dualistic notions. Of the answers proposed, I think the closest would be ‘center of consciousness’. I am a human mind. But, in no way is this distinct from the ‘biological attributes of the human animal’ – indeed, it depends on the biology of the human animal.

Human minds are usually a product of human animals, specifically of the human brain, but these need not be so. A non-human animal may have a human mind if it has a human brain. A robot may have a human mind if it accurately simulates the human brain. A human mind uploaded to a computer would also be a human person, despite not having any biological attributes to speak of. So, for these guys to say that “human persons are fundamentally animal organisms”, is blatantly false, because it is entirely possible (though not currently feasible) for a human person to not be an animal.

So, this destroys their argument that, because it is a human animal, the human embryo is a human person (which would have been ineffectual anyway, for it relied on the species argument and the potentiality argument anyway). A human mind requires something to create it, and a human brain is the only current thing that can create a human mind. So, it makes no sense to say that organisms without human brains are human persons.

This, in turn, completely undermines their objection to the methods of biotechnology that do “not adequately respect human life”, like cloning and embryo-destructive research protocols.

That which is repugnant is morally wrong?

The authors, when considering enhancements that may give the recipient some pleasant effect, argue that such things would be morally wrong. That is, that enhancements should only give us the ability to do pleasant acts, not the ability to experience pleasure alone. They write this:

Nozick’s thought experiment centers on a machine that promises the experience of a fully meaningful life. Plug yourself into the machine, and you will be provided the experience of creating great art, pursuing valuable relationships, and thinking great thoughts. […] Nozick’s intuition, shared by most philosophers, is that plugging in would be supremely undesirable, regardless of what form of life we would therein experience.

Indeed, and I wouldn’t really like it either. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t plug in from time to time. But, more importantly, it doesn’t mean that nobody should be allowed to plug into such a machine. It’s a big stretch to go from saying that something would be undesirable for me to saying that something is morally wrong. They have obviously been reading to much of Leon Kass’s work, and need to be reminded of the things which were considered undesirable enough to be banned, like mixed-race marriage.

Give me marriage or give me death?

The authors, while not absolutely opposed to life extending enhancements, do make an unusual argument:

But if we were to contemplate the addition of decades to our average lifespans, then important questions about family, reproduction, and the relationship of the generations would become critical.

This, to me, seems like it is arguing that life without marriage, children or friendships would be undesirable. Indeed it may be, to many. But again, that doesn’t imply it is morally wrong to forgo marriage and choose a longer life. If a person fears for their life in a certain relationship, and they leave that relationship in order to preserve their life, do we think they have acted wrongly? Indeed, we may even think they have acted rightly.

So, I don’t see how they could say that life extension would be wrong if it prevented people from having children or having fulfilling marriages. Certainly, nobody could rightly argue that life extension should be prohibited if it prevents such things. Can we kill to save a marriage? I hope not.

And, on that note, the conclusion of the life extension section reads:

And if life extension began to approach the quasi-immortality of added centuries, then it appears to us that the considerations raised above about immortality in this world indicate that life so extended would more and more seem a curse.

One must remember that life can be ended at any time, if one starts to think it is a curse. So, it’s an optional curse, at worst.

Conclusion

Their conclusion doesn’t really conclude, as it ends with questions (no doubt leaving things open for a sequel essay). But, it does contain one part I found rather disturbing.

Of course human beings are right to better their condition, to seek more perfect forms of fulfillment, individually and in communities. And of course they are right to strive to minimize their failings, both moral and material. But the lives that they thereby seek to better are not mere material over which they are sovereign masters, material to be manipulated at will for good or ill.

I am master over my own life. My body is material to be manipulated at will for however I damn well please (provided I don’t infringe on anyone else’s rights by my actions). I don’t want any state telling me that I can’t change my body because it would be properly respectful of the ‘gifted’ nature of my life. Feel free to treat your body, your life or your mind as a sacred gift if you feel that way – it’s your life, you do what you want with it. But let me have the same privilege.