Archive for the ‘transhumanism’ Category

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Is germline genetic enhancement better than somatic genetic enhancement?

Monday, 25 July, 2016

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The various types of human genetic modifications can be divided along two lines – the therapy-enhancement divide and the somatic-germline divide. The former refers to whether a modification is therapeutic or enhances and the latter refers to whether a modification is affects children (by affecting reproductive cells or whole embryos) or just affects the body (without affecting reproductive cells).

We are therefore left with four categories (Resnik 2000):

1. Somatic gene therapy (SGT)
2. Germline gene therapy (GLGT)
3. Somatic genetic enhancement (SGE)
4. Germline genetic enhancement (GLGE)

What I want to explore is whether, in a world where adults can opt to be genetically enhanced, there would ever be any benefit to germline genetic enhancement. That is, can we avoid all the ethical issues with germline engineering and genetically enhance only consenting adults?

I think there are three general reasons why it might be beneficial to genetically modify the germline, rather than waiting until people are old enough to consent. (However, note that some of these benefits might be achieved by somatic engineering in infancy, which would essentially create a ‘designer baby’ while leaving the germline untouched. This wouldn’t side-step any ethical issues around consent so I’m ignoring this possibility)

1. GLGE could be in the child’s best interests

The vast majority of enhancements people would seek in adulthood would also be things people would want their children to have as they grow up. It is likely also that children themselves would choose (if they were legally able to consent) to go through school with improved intelligence, to play with better reflexes or to be physically attractive while experiencing the first teenage romance. And that’s not mentioning things like resistance to disease or faster wound healing that exist on the cusp of the therapy-enhancement divide.

2. GLGE may be technically superior to SGE

Some modifications may be technically difficult to achieve in an already developed body consisting of billions of cells, and may prove much easier when only single celled gamete or zygote is modified. It might be difficult to get the DNA to every cell that needs to be modified, and some modifications might, at least initially, only prove possible if the genes are edited before the body’s organs and systems develop.

However, it’s quite possible that an enhancement which was only possible with germline methods would 18 years later could be achieved – or even surpassed – by somatic methods. In this case, if you imagine persons could give consent at age 18 for somatic gene enhancement, then any advantages of GLGE over SGE would only be temporary ones during childhood and at the age of consent everyone would be on an equal playing field again.

A fast pace of biotechnological progress would also mean that inherited germline enhancements might be little benefit to future generations compared to somatic enhancements that exist by that time. If a mobile phone could survive over generations, you’d still not pass it down to your children because it would be hopelessly outdated. So barring major disasters that set humanity back into a dystopia with little technology, passing your enhancements on to your children would only be a benefit if germline enhancements remain far superior to somatic enhancements over that time.

3. GLGE can affect motivations

Though a person choosing a somatic enhancement will choose based on their wants, the effects of a germline enhancement can directly affect what it is that a person will want (once they are old enough to choose). To paraphrase German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer: “Man can choose to do what he wants but he cannot choose what it is that he wills”. I should point out that genes cannot control everything, but they can have some affect on the future choices a person will make.

This means that narrow-focus enhancements which are desired by only a few, or even undesirable to anyone who could choose, may be only be possible by way of modifying the germline (or somatic modifications in children). Portrayals of germline enhancement in science fiction often involve armies of soldiers or slaves engineered from conception or childhood to not only excel at their designated role but also to enjoy being perfectly obedient. These portrayals often involve growth rate enhancements to get around the reality that such such soldiers or slaves would take decades to ‘manufacture’. In practice, anyone with the power, resources and decades worth of time to commission and care for their own soldiers or slaves would either be ethically prepared to use somatic techniques to modify the desires of adults or be otherwise be able to pay/bribe adults to do the same job.

Because people sometimes make choices they regret or that aren’t in their best interests, there may be benefits to altering a person’s motivations. It may be reasonable to desire that your children make ethically good and smart choices once they become adults. So, if any germline enhancements can improve logical reasoning and moral motivations, children gifted with such enhancements will be in a better place to make wise choices, including when selecting which somatic enhancements they pursue as adults.

Conclusion

I think there are some very good practical reasons to pursue genetic enhancement of the germline and of children. There may still be ethical reasons to oppose it, but I think the potential gains are large enough some at least will feel it ethically acceptable (or ethically right) to pursue germline genetic enhancement even in a world where somatic genetic enhancement was possible. If parents are pursuing enhancements out of love, they may be prepared to do ethically questionable things to achieve what they believe is best for their children.

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Superhuman reflexes

Tuesday, 24 May, 2016

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Though perhaps best exampled by Neo in the 1999 film The Matrix, superhuman reflexes to some extent are an attribute of so many superheroes that it’s basically a default superpower. But just how realistic would it be for us to expect genetic enhancement to enable people to have such quick reflexes? That’s what I’m going to attempt to answer in this post.

First we need to define some terms. Biologically, a reflex is a simple and automatic response to a stimulus. If you touch something painfully hot you will automatically withdraw your hand, so it’s a reflex. You can still learn or unlearn a reflex, but the important thing is that a reflex is done without thinking: your brain isn’t really involved. If, out of the corner of your eye, you see something falling off a table and quickly grab it, that’s not a reflex. You don’t automatically grab any falling object, and if that object was a knife you’d leap away from the table rather than try to grab it, which is a sure sign your brain is processing the situation rather than it being automatic.

As you’re probably aware, there is a delay between the stimulus (e.g. touching something painful) and the response (e.g. pulling your hand away) of a reflex. The main factor determining this delay is how fast the signal can travel along the nerve cells (neurons) from the hand, to the spinal cord, and back down to the muscles (there’s a slight delay as the signals cross the synapse from one neuron to another, but its contribution is minor). In humans, the neuronal conduction velocity varies between different nerves, but let’s just look at the ones sending the signal from the hand to the spinal cord (which travel at about 50 meters per second) and those that send signals from the spinal cord down to the muscles (which travel at about 100 meters per second). So travelling a meter along your arm and then another meter back means the fastest possible reflex would occur after 30ms (it’s a bit slower than this in reality, but let’s go with this).

So the question now turns to how we can get neurons to conduct signals faster. There are three tactics that animals use to do this. The first is making the neurons thicker in diameter, which is why the neurons that control our muscles are the some of the thickest in our body at up to 20 micrometers. But some animals, like squid, have neurons that are are 500 micrometers, but our neurons are still 4 times faster. This is because animals like humans have a second strategy, which is to insulate the neurons with a substance called myelin. This allows the neurons to be much smaller while still being really fast, which is essential for packing as many brain cells as possible into a small skull. But the record for the fastest neuronal conductional velocity in the animal kingdom belongs to a penaeid shrimp, which not only has fairly big neurons (at 120 microns) and myelin insulation but also has a third mechanism where in between the neuron and the insulation is a gap filled with super conductive salty fluid that further speeds up how fast the signals can travel (for a discussion of these mechanisms, see Castelfranco & Hartline 2016). Their neurons can send signal at 200 meters per second, twice the speed of our fasted human neurons.

Given that we need to fit our nerves through the holes our vertebrae (the neural foramina), we can’t really rely on increasing the size of our neurons. And we’re already fairly well insulated. Maybe we could use some shortcuts like the penaeid shrimp do, but without the increase in size it’s unlikely we’d get to the velocities of 200 meters per second the shrimp achieve. Any genetic enhancement to human reflexes is realistically going to be much more modest.

But let’s say we do manage to double the speed of our neurons, what would that be like? Well, a simple doubling of conduction speed would more or less halve our reaction time. Our reflexes would be faster, but so too would the speed at which we could think and perceive things. Our sense of time wouldn’t change, but given the limitations of our current neurons the closest we can come to seeing what the world would look like with double speed neurons is watching a video at half speed (which you can easily do on YouTube). This would give a massive advantage in martial arts and many sports like sprinting, fencing, tennis, football and baseball.

But would this magnitude of reflex enhancement be enough to dodge a bullet? Almost certainly not, and not least because we have only speed up the nerves while leaving the muscles as slow as ever. The simplest test of visual reaction time of the sort you’d need to dodge a bullet is the ruler drop test, where you try to catch a measuring stick as quickly as you can after noticing it has been dropped. This therefore captures both the ability to visually detect movement and perform a simple movement (a pinch grip) in response. The average reaction time, on this test, for athletes is about 200ms. Even if your reaction time has been enhanced to be half that of a normal man, a Glock 17 has a muzzle velocity of 375m/s so in the 100ms it takes you to react by moving your muscles the bullet would have traveled 37.5 meters. The gunman would have to be quite a distance away to allow you to duck behind cover as soon as you see the gunshot. And the bullet would still be traveling too fast for you to see, because we only enhanced reflexes not your visual perception speed (which would involve making photoreceptors in the retina work more rapidly), so you would still be attempting to dodge a bullet that you cannot actually see.

So genetic enhancement of reflexes has many practical limitations in comparison to the fanciful portrayals we see in fiction, but would still be immensely advantageous in competitive sport or hand-to-hand combat where every millisecond matters.

In order to get extremely rapid reflexes, we’d need to do away with the limits of biological systems altogether and transmit signals through electronic circuits, which could a million times faster. When it comes to quick reaction times, robots or perhaps cyborgs will have a massive advantage. At the moment robots already have faster “reflexes” than humans, but the human brain still outperforms artificial intelligence if the stimulus requires complicated visual or spatial processing or if performing a novel movement requiring coordination. But maybe one day, robots won’t only be beating us at chess but also fencing, tennis, baseball and martial arts. And by then, maybe we’ll be able to implant that technology into our own body, and truly gain reflexes faster than anything the biological world can offer.

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There’s no gene for stopping bullets.

Wednesday, 24 August, 2011

There’s been a bit of talk recently about the bio-artist who managed to create a fabric of human skin and spider silk that managed to stop a .22 calibre round. Unfortunately the bullet didn’t ricochet off the skin, Superman-style. This skin acts a bit like a net stopping a soccer ball, in that it simply catches the bullet. Now imagine you kick the ball with superhuman strength into the net of soccer goal. If the net can’t stop the ball, one or both of two things will happen: either the net will break leaving a hole where the ball went through or the net will just tear right off the goalposts and both net and ball will keep sailing by.

In the case of this bulletproof skin/fabric, the skin wasn’t broken by the bullet. Instead, the bullet (now wrapped in spider silk and skin) still penetrated a couple of inches into the ballistics gel behind it.

For a visual, watch the video below (specifically the frame at 7:48).

Note that a Petri-dish sized piece of fabric was attached (through indeterminate means) to the ballistics gel. So as the bullet hits the middle of this circle of fabric, it pulls taut and in the case of the spider silk fabric, pulls off completely and envelopes the bullet. To go back to the soccer goal analogy, you can have a really strong net but if it’s poorly attached to the goalposts, it won’t stop a really fast ball. So while it’s possible that the tensile strength of the spider silk is enough that, if the fastening held, the bullet would be stopped completely, it is also possible that the skin would have broken had the fastening not broken first. More tests are needed, of course.

But anyway, if that gel was your heart, you’d still be very dead. So despite claims that the skin was ‘bulletproof’, the skin didn’t even stop a .22 bullet travelling at reduced speed. To be classified as a Type I vest (the lowest class of ballistic vest), the skin would have to completely stop a full velocity .22 round.

So, it’s not even bulletproof. And, it is just spider silk fabric covered in skin, it’s not really skin either. And so of course the press reports that bulletproof skin has been created and we transhumanists can rejoice at the promise of invulnerability.

That bastion of great reporting, The Daily Mail, quotes Dutch bio-artist Jalila Essaidi as saying:

“Now, let’s take this one step further, why bother with a vest: imagine replacing keratin, the protein responsible for the toughness of the human skin, with this spidersilk protein. This is possible by adding the silk producing genes of a spider to the gnome[sic] of a human: creating a bulletproof human. Science-fiction? Maybe, but we can get a feeling of what this transhumanistic idea would be like by letting a bulletproof matrix of spidersilk merge with an in vitro human skin.”

Yes, they said gnome. I lolled. But anyway, why would we bother with a vest? I don’t know, the fact that it actually works might be one reason. Or that it can be much tougher without having to also be nice and supple enough to allow you to move like skin does. And we can trade up to the newer models without having to have a new skin transplant or more genetic modification. The only disadvantage of a vest is not being bulletproof all the time.

Still, it’s kind of cool to have bio-artists out in the world experimenting with weird and wacky ideas like bulletproof skin, while all the ‘real’ doctors and scientists are trying to find ways to heal people with severe burns or gunshot wounds. Then again, it doesn’t mean much if the research is poorly tested and demonstrated on YouTube instead of at a scientific conference.

So will it ever be possible to have bulletproof skin? Probably not.

You see, our skin is flexible and can stretch pretty easily. If it didn’t stretch, we’d to moult and grow a new skin as we grow, get pregnant or gain weight. Also, we’d find movement difficult too (as anyone who has tried to squat in a pair of skin-tight jeans knows). Skin has to be this flexible even if we make it strong enough to stop a bullet. So despite a bullet not actually penetrating the skin, the skin will rapidly deform allowing the impact to cause severe underlying trauma, fracture bones or injure vital organs. (This happens with any soft body armour, and is called ‘behind armour blunt trauma’ or BABT). So although stronger, bulletproof skin might prevent penetrating injuries (and yes, save lives), bullets will still be potentially lethal. Bullet resistant skin? Possible. Nigh invulnerability thanks to bulletproof skin? Highly unlikely.

Or at least, it won’t look like skin. An hard exoskeleton like a crab, perhaps. But if we’re going for exoskeletons, I think Iron Man’s looks like a better option.

(And I know I totally glossed over the part where the spider silk was produced from the milk of a transgenic goat, but that’s because it’s 11-year-old news.)

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Keeping the brain plastic

Wednesday, 31 March, 2010

Neural plasticity, the capacity for neurons to change their connections, is a fundamental property of the brain. It’s what allows us to learn. But as we age, the plasticity of the brain decreases. Indeed, there are developmental windows called ‘critical periods’ where the brain is especially plastic, usually when very young. The neural basis for vision, as an example, is laid down at during infancy, and doesn’t change easily thereafter. This is why kittens, raised in a visual environment of many vertical stripes, find it difficult as adult cats to see horizontal stripes – their brains, while plastic, had adapted for certain visual features, and found it difficult to adapt to new ones.

Recently, researchers at the University of California San Francisco have found a way to renew the infant-like plasticity of the mouse brain, allowing childlike learning to begin again. They did this by injecting embryonic mouse neurons (not to be confused with embryonic stem cells) into young mice, which had been raised with one eye deprived of light. Without the injection, mice that were deprived up until around a month old (the usual critical period for mouse ocular dominance) would have difficulty adapting to seeing through the eye that had been deprived of light. But with an injection of embryonic neurons into the brain, the mice went through sort of a second critical period, when the injected brain cells were about a month old, thereby aiding the mice to learn to see from their deprived eye.

This has profound consequences for enhancement of human intelligence. The obvious therapeutic outcome would be using embryonic human neurons, taken from human embryos or cultured from human embryonic stem cells, and injecting these into adult humans to give a second chance at a critical period of learning, which would be useful for re-learning to walk after an injury or learning to adapt to blindness (or, I don’t know…learning to control your new cyborg limbs?). But on a grander scale, if we could have a constant trickle of neural stem cells, developing into immature neurons, throughout life, we could very well keep our critical periods going for the rest of our lives, allowing our brains to stay young and malleable!

There is one caveat I can think of. There must be a reason why the brain has evolved to shut off critical periods of learning. Most likely, learning is a costly process in some way, thereby creating a pressure to keep learning periods are short as possible.  If this is merely an increased energy cost, humans in the first world can probably deal with it (seeing as most of us eat too much food energy anyway). But if shutting down mechanisms of learning is necessary for enhancing the function of the newly learned circuits (that is, if we don’t perform as well if we keep ‘changing our minds’), there may be a question of whether learning is worth the cost.

I would assume in this ever changing technological environment and with our lives getting longer and longer (making what we learned during our critical period more and more irrelevant), that keeping the brain plastic would be very useful indeed.

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Perfect humans are not the goal

Wednesday, 20 January, 2010

Just a brief post to clear up a misconception. Proponents of human enhancement sometimes are portrayed as if we want to create a race of perfect human beings, or bring everyone closer to an ideal. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

The truth of it is summed up nicely by Kyle Munterick of IEET (See original article by Kyle Munkittrick, titled ‘No concept of “Perfect” in transhumanism’ ):

“Transhumanists and technoprogressives don’t imagine or want a perfect world, they imagine, want, and work towards a world with fewer problems and more choices.”

Enhancement is very much a personal choice – what one person may see as an enhancement, another person may see as detrimental. Proponents of human enhancement simply seek to let every person decide for themselves what they should be.

Furthermore, as I’ve argued previously,  it’s actually the opponents of human enhancement that seek to ensure a race of perfect humans. They have a certain idea of what constitutes a perfect human (and it usually is very close to what we already are, with the possible exception perhaps of better health), and seek to ensure that even those who don’t agree with them can never access enhancements. They use loaded phrases like ‘humans are meant to have X’ or ‘without Y, we would no longer be human‘ to construct their perfect human. And the fact they support therapies (reducing disabilities), but not enhancements (adding abilities), proves conclusively that they have a concept of a perfect human being.

In their mind, a perfect human has a genome based on the random reassignment of two (no more or no fewer) other genomes. A perfect human is entirely biological, with no bionics or cybernetics of any kind (except if such are needed for ‘therapeutic use’). A perfect human has two arms and two legs but no wings, no tail, no gills and no scales. A perfect human can only be either male or female, and reproduces only with the opposite sex (and doesn’t reproduce too young or too old). A perfect human has to slip into a state of semi-consciousness every day for approximately eight hours (no more, no less). A perfect human takes a long time to learn new things and eventually forgets. With each passing year, a perfect human gets older (not too quickly, not too slowly) and no later than a century after birth (but not too much earlier), a perfect human dies.

Most proponents of human enhancement don’t just replace this pathetic and outdated idea of perfection with another. We do away with the concept entirely. It’s your body, don’t let anyone else tell you what you can’t do to it. Become what you want to become so that you can be what you want to be. That is human enhancement.

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Homo evolutis – the backlash

Monday, 9 February, 2009

The old speciation argument has raised its head again, with Juan Enriquez (Chairman and CEO of a company called Biotechonomy), giving a talk at TED (Technology Engineering Design) this year. He argued that

humanity is on the verge of becoming a new and utterly unique species, which he dubs Homo Evolutis.

Now, I’ve no issue with him stating speciation may occur, because it might. What I feel is wrong, and what also rubbed a lot of other people the wrong way, is his reasoning for why. He was portrayed as saying:

What makes this species so unique is that it “takes direct and deliberate control over the evolution of the species.”

This sort of talk made George Dvorsky, a fellow futurist, quite uncomfortable. And it made biologist P.Z. Myers quite cranky at futurists.

The point is, Enriquez appears to not quite know what the usual definition of a biological species actually is. In strict biological terms, a species is defined as a “group of actually or potentially interbreeding natural populations, which is reproductively isolated from other such groups”. Having brain-interfaced cybernetic wings or genetic enhancements to your somatic cells won’t make you a new species any more than having a wooden peg leg and drinking rum make you a new species of human (Homo pirata?). To become a new species, you must be able to reproduce with some others, but not with natural humans. This specific desire to control evolution directly, as Juan is said to have discussed, would not do this. At most, it could reprsent some sort of difference in opinion within our one species – between humans who were for enhancement technology, and those who were against. It would be hard enough to even say this represents a new subspecies or even race of humans.

In Enriquez’s defense, after some degree of ‘taking deliberate control over evolution’, it is possible that this could lead to speciation. It could be as simple as restricting breeding through totalitarian reproductive regulations, as in the eugenics of the past, isolating a number of humans from one another until speciation occurred. Alternatively, genetic modifications to the germline could introduce a genetic incompatibility between engineered humans and normal humans (the most obvious example being the addition of an extra chromosome). It’s even possible for some form of simple modification to a structure involved in reproduction (i.e. genitalia) to introduce a physical incompatibility prohibiting easy mating. But merely taking such control over evolution doesn’t imply you actually guide evolution to the degree that speciation occurs.

All that said, I do feel it is difficult for the species concept to be applied rigidly to technologically-assisted reproduction. The definition of species specifies the population must be a natural population, so as to exclude inter-species matings caused by human intervention. But can human intervention be excluded from the definition of a human species? Is it natural for humans to technologically-assist in their own reproduction? These are important questions, because one must consider the advances in genetic technology which come to mind in this sort of dicussion; it is difficult to imagine how any human could not be able to potentially reproduce with any other human given access to sufficient technology. Yet by the same token, such technology may allow Homo sapiens to potentially interbreed with chimpanzees or gorillas (or even farther afield genetically!), so should we extend our species then? How much technological assistance do we allow into our definition of interbreeding?

These same sort of questions come up every time somebody dreams up a new idea for what humans will become, be it Homo superior, Homo artificialis, Homo novus or Homo evolutis.