Posts Tagged ‘Cyborgs’

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Boosting brainpower

Thursday, 14 May, 2009

The practical and ethical issues with intelligence enhancement are receiving more attention, with a recent article in New Scientist titled “Will designer brains divide humanity“.

For the most part, the article is quite basic, but I have an issue with one part in particular:

The next stage of brainpower enhancement could be technological – through genetic engineering or brain prostheses. Because the gene variants pivotal to intellectual brilliance have yet to be discovered, boosting brainpower by altering genes may still be some way off, or even impossible. Prostheses are much closer, especially as the technology for wiring brains into computers is already being tested.

This is none other than cybernetic favoritism! I mean sure, genes effecting intelligence aren’t obvious, but it’s also not obvious how and where to interface a brain chip to increase intelligence. And though neural prostheses are being tested, no neural prosthesis has increased any aspect of intelligence in any brain, whereas there have been 33 genetic alterations that increase the learning and memory of mice (not to mention that all the differences in intelligence between animals are genetic in origin). Considering the annoyance of having surgery for neural implants compared to the ease of a simple injection for genetic modification, I would personally put my money on the genetic enhancement of intelligence. Nonetheless, both avenues should be pursued, and might eventually complement one another.

Onto the ethical issues discussed in the article, most are fairly basic. Starting with human dignity, referring to comments made by Dietrich Birnbacher, a philosopher at the University of Düsseldorf in Germany:

One potential problem arises from altering what we consider to be “normal”: the dangers are similar to the social pressure to conform to idealised forms of beauty, physique or sporting ability that we see today. People without enhancement could come to see themselves as failures, have lower self-esteem or even be discriminated against by those whose brains have been enhanced, Birnbacher says.

These concerns are all quite valid, but aren’t necessarily impossible barriers. If enhancement technology was supported by the government, then no people wanting such technology would be left without it. And the discrimination I will deal with in a minute, after looking at the next section:

The perception that some people are giving themselves an unfair advantage over everyone else by “enhancing” their brains would be socially divisive, says John Dupré at the University of Exeter, UK. “Anyone can read to their kids or play them music, but put a piece of software in their heads, and that’s seen as unfair,” he says. As Dupré sees it, the possibility of two completely different human species eventually developing is “a legitimate worry”.

I do actually worry about enhancement being socially divisive, but I am not sure this would occur only by discrimination of the enhanced towards the un-enhanced. As I have argued previously, it’s entirely possible that the enhanced will be viewed as unnatural disgraces to humanity, and the pure, natural humans would discriminate against them because of it.

The rest of the article deals with issues such as brain plasticity, evolution and epigenetics. These are not particularly relevant to any ethical concerns and neither will they significantly enhance the intelligence of the average reader of this blog, so I’m not going to address them here.

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Hollywood hates the posthumans?

Thursday, 29 May, 2008

Do movies consistently portray the posthumans in a negative light? Do they have a case for defamation? Charlie Jane Anders at io9.com presents the evidence:

Whenever you see someone going beyond standard-issue humanity in movies or TV, it’s portrayed as monstrous and evil. Whether it’s cyborgs, mutants or humans hacking their bodies, Hollywood exercises its anti-posthuman agenda. Meanwhile, novels have been celebrating the customizers and reinventers for years now. What can we do to derail Hollywood’s insidious campaign against our posthuman brothers and sisters? The first step is understanding where it comes from.

Oh, and read the comments too. Contrast the opinions of the sci-fi fans at io9 with that of the public about the HFEA in the UK, it’s an amazing difference.

In related news, James Hughes’ ChangeSurfer Radio this month had an interview with Patricia Manney, the new chair of the World Transhumanist Association, called BioHollywood – with emphasis on the portrayal of monsters and posthumans in cinema.

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Wednesday’s Words of Wisdom

Wednesday, 7 May, 2008

This weeks wisdom, though limited, is nonetheless refreshing. It comes from the May 5 issue of ESPN magazine, from an article titled “Let ‘Em Play“. It about prosthetics and bionics in sport, and the author, Eric Adelson, makes a good point for regulatory acceptance of these technologies:

The bottom line is this: Sports do not need knee-jerk segregation, they need rational and fair regulation. Every organized sport begins the same way, with the creation of rules. We then establish technological limits, as with horsepower in auto racing, stick curvature in hockey, bike weight in cycling. As sports progress, those rules are sometimes altered. The USGA, for instance, responded to advances in club technology by legalizing metal heads in the early ’80s. In Chariots of Fire, the hero comes under heavy scrutiny for using his era’s version of steroids: a coach, at a time when the sport frowned upon outside assistance. So if we can adjust rules of sports to the time, why not for prosthetics?

Very good. A nice first step, and it is good that a magazine like ESPN is getting some bioethics in amongst their pages. The article does come off a little too much in favour of restorative bionics rather than enhancement bionics, but nonetheless the day will come when Paralympians will run faster, throw farther and shoot more accurately than Olympians, thanks to their prosthetic legs, cyborg arms and bionic eyes.

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Why can’t I have wings?

Tuesday, 1 April, 2008

Dr Samuel Poore, a reconstructive surgeon, has an interesting article in The Journal of Hand Surgery about how to transform a human arm into a bird wing (why that would be a popular idea, I don’t know). Read the write-up at New Scientist if you don’t have journal privileges. He ends up concluding that it is too hard (at least if the wings were intended to facilitate flight), and ends with this advice:

Despite advances in surgical technique that could theoretically lead to the ability to construct wings from arms, it is evident that humans should remain human, staying on the ground pondering and studying the intricacies of flight while letting birds be birds and angels be angels.

Unfortunately, even though I read the whole article, I do not think it is at all ‘evident that humans should remain human’ (emphasis mine). Plus, I don’t want to. Poore provides some good reasons why we can’t yet build working wings out of our arms, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do if we one day can.

There are a few issues that I would raise regarding Poore’s reasons for not being able to give humans any wings:

1. Turning our arms into wings is not what most people would want.

Just look at Archangel from X-Men. Most fictional conceptions of flying humanoids have wings AND arms (except maybe harpies), because arms and hands are just so amazingly useful to human beings that I don’t see why anyone would want to give them up permanently for the mere advantage of flight.

2. What about bat wings? Or pterosaur wings, or even insect wings!

The article is titled ‘ The Morphological Basis of the Arm-to-Wing Transition’, but doesn’t look one of the three historical arm-to-wing transitions – that of the chiropterans (bats). Going down this road would overcome the problem which Poore considers the most difficult – how to give humans the ability to grow feathers. Being mammals, we have a skin structure that probably wouldn’t support feathers (though Poore did not consider the possibility of genetically modifying our skin, so that the areas supporting feathers would have avian-like skin structure). Plus, bats have clawed wings, so by increasing the number of digits on our hand, we might be able to have bat wings and still maintain some sort of ability to pick things up and manipulate objects. I don’t think people would mind looking more like gargoyles rather than angels, would they?

3. Forget about the trabeculae?

Bird, at least the big ones that fly, have rather hollow bones. Mammals have these hollows in their bones too, but not to the dramatic extent that birds do (a bird’s bone has a density of about 0.3g/cm3, whereas a human would average 1.5g/cm3). Bones are mostly air-filled, but reinforced by cross-beams known as trabeculae (Latin for ‘small beams’). This makes the bones of large flying birds extremely light. But Poore overlooks this when he states:

…for a 170-lb human to achieve any type of flight, he or she would need wings with approximately 20 square feet of surface area.

Any person seeking to achieve flight will likely seek hollow bones too, decreasing their weight (though not by much, because bones only represent ~15% of total body mass – so reducing bone weight by 80% will only reduce total body mass by 12%).

If wings are ever to be part of a future human being, the scientists of that age will probably also will look at avian lungs too, which are far more efficient for their size than mammalian lungs. This enables smaller avian lungs to do the same work as big mammalian lungs, will also reduce the weight of the body.

So, why can’t I have wings?
Basically, the reason why humans (probably) can’t ever have any functional wings is that we’re too big.

The power required to flap the wings enough to raise the body is the major roadblock in giving humans wings. Birds, bats and pterosaurs have very large pectoral muscles, (making up about 30-35% of their body mass), which powers their wings. If you think you’ve got enough muscle to flap wings, try doing a push-up and generating enough force to lift your body off the ground and imagine doing that repeatedly. Maybe you just want to glide? Well, lie on your stomach and spread your arms out as far as they can go, and push with your arms enough to raise your chest just off the ground (without bending at your elbows), and hold that position for as long as you can. To glide or fly, you have to use only your arms/wings to hold your entire bodyweight above the ground, such as in the gymnastic position known as the Maltese Cross. The human body is not adapted to this position, and only a few well-muscled gymnasts can hold it for any length of time.

This position is known as the Maltese Cross. You are not even strong enough to glide until you can hold this position.

The addition of the massive chest muscles that a human would require for sustained powered flight would add too much weight, which would necessitate increased wingspan and therefore increase the power needed to fly, thereby requiring more muscles…and so on. There is a point where you simply cannot get any more advantage by adding more muscle mass. But it’s not known what this upper limit is. Existing flying animals don’t get much bigger than 20kg (such as the Great Bustard), but some extinct animals might have been able to fly and were quite large, such as the ~85kg bird Argentavis and the 90-200kg pterosaur Quetzalcoatlus (and both of those animals are predicted to have been mostly soaring animals). Evolution has so far gone through at least three different pathways to sustained flight (birds, bats and pterosaurs), and proven sustained fliers all seem to have very strict constraints on body mass.

So because humans are at least three times heavier than a flying animal should be, maybe the ability for humans to fly will only be possible when we have bionic muscles of super-strength, that are lighter and stronger than biological muscle. Failing that, we could make humans two-thirds smaller. But small humans with large pectoral muscles – they’d look less like fairies and more like…well, birds.

As for wing size, Poore estimates a wing area of 20 square feet (1.85m2) for a 170lb (77kg) human. This seems surprisingly low, as Argentavis weighed about as much as a human but had a wing area of 7m2 (75 square feet) and a wingspan of up to 8m. But Argentavis had a relatively typical wing loading of 11.5kg/m2, and the maximum known for birds is 25kg/m2, so perhaps it could have done some very basic flight with wings half that size. Given his superhuman strength, Archangel’s 4-5m wingspan might be enough, but a better estimate would be almost around 7m for a winged human. But without the necessary pectoral muscles for powered flight, even 7m wings on a person would only be usable for gliding.

Anyway, I’m not saying it is impossible – a gliding human is probably possible (but far easier with a hang glider). But the important thing is, there is no reason I can see of why we shouldn’t try to give humans the ability to fly (and keep them looking mostly like humans). Many humans have wished they could fly, and I don’t see why we couldn’t allow them to grant that wish if it ever becomes possible. There’s nothing morally wrong with granting that wish.

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Wednesday’s Words of Wisdom

Wednesday, 19 March, 2008

Today is a sad day, as Sir Arthur C. Clarke has just passed away at the unfortunately young age of 90. Therefore, in remembrance for such an influential science fiction author and scientist (published theoretical work on the premise of satellite communication twelve years before the launch of Sputnik 1, and therefore widely credited as the inventor, though it is probable that is was invented independently thereafter) , I have decided to make this week’s quote one of his. Unusually though, I have selected a work of futurism, rather than science fiction, in quoting from Sir Arthur’s Profiles of the Future, first published in 1962 and revised in 1973. I quote a few select sentences from the closing words of Chapter Eighteen (titled ‘The Obsolescence of Man’), which seem much more complete without the truncation I have given them, but in the interests of conciseness, I wish to give a broader picture with fewer words:

“[T]his is, perhaps, the moment to deal with a conception which many people find even more horrifying than the idea that machines will replace or supersede us. It is the idea […] that they may combine with us. ”

“But how long will this partnership last? Can the synthesis of Man and Machine ever be stable, or will the purely organic component become such a hindrance that it has to be discarded? If this eventually happens – and I have given good reasons for thinking that it must – we have nothing to regret, and certainly nothing to fear.”

“No individual exists for ever; why should we expect our species to be immortal? Man, said Nietzsche, is a rope stretched between the animal and the superman – a rope across the abyss. That will be a noble purpose to have served.”

In broaching these subjects so early, with works such as Childhood’s End (1953), The City and the Stars (1956), the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey (and both the preceding work – The Sentinel – and the sequels), plus many others, all dealing with the subject of human enhancement (albeit usually mediated by an alien intelligence rather than our own), it is surely true that Sir Arthur C. Clarke served such a noble purpose. He will be missed.