Archive for the ‘Nanotechnology’ Category

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The first transhumans will be gene-modded

Tuesday, 15 June, 2010

Biotechnological interventions are, in the short term, the most likely method to obvious human enhancement.

I’ve said it, and that’s also the conclusion of Kyle Munkittrick’s post “From Gears to Genes: A Sea Change in Transhumanism“:

Transhumanism is the idea of guiding and improving human evolution with intention through the use of technologies and culture. If those technologies are not robotic and cybernetic but, instead, genetic and organic, then so be it. And that seems to be the way things are going.

I totally agree. But for different reasons.

Yes, it’s totally true that genetics is advancing faster than cybernetics, nanotechnology or artificial intelligence. Unlike Kyle, I wouldn’t say those fields are without progress, but they are moving more slowly and, to top that off, are farther away from being able to produce an enhancement.

On the other hand, mice have already had their memories, strength, endurance and lifespan enhanced by genetic or pharmaceutical means. In fact, so have humans  – by evolution. The reason humans are smarter and longer lived in comparison to mice (and in comparison to the common ancestor between humans and mice) is entirely genetic. It seems stupid to come up with a different paradigm when you already have a proven technique for enhancing intelligence and lifespan.

I’ll concede that biology has its limitations (No gene can make you bulletproof), and for the fancy enhancements of posthuman sci-fi biotechnology won’t be enough. And this is probably why some let their fantasies cloud their judgment and continue to believe they will be able to upload themselves into a virtual reality powered by cold-fusion powered quantum computers implanted in their brain within a decade or two.

I can say with confidence that the first clearly enhanced humans, with really obvious improvements in intelligence/lifespan/athleticism will be a product of genetic enhancement alone.

Hattip to IEET: http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/munkittrick20100611/

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Nanotube-based neurotechnology

Monday, 29 December, 2008

A recent study in Nature Nanotechnology shows augmentation of neurons by growing them on a base of carbon nanotubes. The author’s hypothesis is that this is due to the carbon nanotubes conducting electrical impulses from the axon back to the dendrites, thus acting as a shortcut for the normal process of back propagation of action potentials.

neuron_simpleBack propagation (propagation in the direction opposite to the arrow in the above diagram) occurs when the action potential flows not only along the axon, but also back to the dendrites. Back propagation of the action potential is required for synaptic potentiation, as it allows for extra excitation of the dendrites at those occasions when the axon has fired, thus leading to better coincidence detection via Hebbian learning (Magee and Johnston, 1997). Neurons strengthen connections based on the close timing between presynaptic and postsynaptic excitation (‘fire together, wire together’), so it is important for signals of postsynaptic excitation to propagate back to the dendrites where the synapses are, so that the synapse may be strengthened or weakened accordingly.

In a sense, then, the augmentation of neurons in this study is similar to that seen in NR2B transgenic mice (aka ‘Doogie mice’), which overexpress the gene for a subunit of NMDA channel – a channel involved in long-term potentiation (LTP) of synaptic connections. The facilitation of more back-propagated action potentials would also result in enhanced learning and memory, if carbon nanotubes were seeded into key parts of the brain. This would, however, cause similar problems to the NR2B Tg mice. There is more to learning than simple recall, as forgetting is important too. We have a limited number of neurons to play with, and therefore a blanket increase in memorisation is an inferior solution compared to a highly-regulated memory augmentation, where things we need to remember are remembered and things we don’t wish to recall are forgotten.

But, this study was basically a random arrangement of nanotubes and neurons, which created some interactions which proved to be functional. It will be very interesting to see future neurotechnology based on carbon nanotubes, as these ‘wires’ are small enough to connect not just to a single neuron but between individual parts of that neuron. Yet still many of the issues of brain-computer interfaces will exist even with the enhanced biocompatability afforded by the carbon nanotubes – one needs to be able to interpret signals used by neurons and compute them, and this computation needs to be done with a small, preferably implantable computer. Still, I have a feeling nanotechnology will be essential for any cyborg (which is the main reason I had nanotechnology as my second field of study on my Bachelor of Science, after my first love – neuroscience).

Reference: Cellot et al (2008) Carbon nanotubes might improve neuronal performance by favouring electrical shortcuts, Nature Nanotechnology, AOP 21 December 2008, doi: 10.1038/nnano.2008.374

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Doing advanced chemistry is immoral

Sunday, 17 February, 2008

Yes, being too good at chemistry is immoral, because only God should be that good at chemistry. At least, that is what Dietram Scheufele suggests is a common argument in the United States. Russell Blackford has a recent blog entry about it:

More research surely needs to be conducted to confirm whether the basis for widespread moral rejection of nanotechnology in the US is primarily religious in origin, particularly whether it is based on fears of “playing God”. However, the reported research is certainly suggestive of such thinking. If that’s correct, we have another example of why popular US-style religion is incompatible with the development of a broad public policy based on freedom, reason, and the advancement of science. It’s not necessarily a matter of explaining the situation more effectively: the people interviewed were not ignorant, so it’s claimed, but morally opposed to something that they actually did understand.

It appears yet again that the ultimate solution is not more explaining, spinning, “framing”, or what have you, even if these are necessary. We need a direct, long-term, unremitting campaign to weaken the cognitive and moral authority of religion. We need to attack the root of the problem by doing whatever we can to create a more rational and sceptical ethos in Western societies, the US above all.

Actually, I would argue that there are two ways to deal with this. The two premises are that public opinion is driven by religion and that public opinion actually matters. Russell argues that we should attack the first premise; that we should sever the public’s attachment to religion and in doing so change their opinion to our own needs. Religion is, after all, deeply ingrained in not only our culture, but also our minds. Religious beliefs, which can even encompass a sort of reverence of nature such as that present in the Green movement, is not likely to go away.

I would argue that we should attack the second premise. It’s not that this tactic would be easier: the second premise – that public opinion matters – is at the core of democracy. But, I would argue that the outcomes of removing democracy would be much better than removing religion. Not only does removing democracy sever the effect of religion on politics, but is also severs the effects that other forms of public ignorance have on governance.

The fact of the matter is that the public is not infallible, and nor is it even likely to be more correct than any given expert in most situations. Unless human enhancement technology can see to it that the majority of the population is more intelligent, more informed or more rational than any given expert, then 51-99% of the population can easily be totally wrong. And yet in a democracy, the final say ultimately rests with that majority.

Under the politic view which I espouse – Technocracy (with a capital T) – the decision making should be left to those most informed and most reasonable, and therefore most competent to make decisions. It is wrong for the well-reasoned and well-informed arguments of an expert to be dismissed in favour of an Argumentum ad populum.

We know that public opinion is useless in determining how to engineer chemicals to suit our needs (because most people are not chemists), yet we accept without question the idea that public opinion should influence whether it would be a good idea. We know that public opinion is useless in determining the efficient ways to derive stem cells, but we trust the public to determine where those stem cells come from. We know that public opinion won’t find a way to dramatically increase the intelligence of our children, but that same public is trusted to decide if we should be doing that in the first place.

When it comes to making laws and managing countries, we should follow what we do when making drugs and managing cell cultures. We should seek answers from the sources that are most likely to get the information right. Ignore the public and trust the experts.