On BioScience and Life and Such

Archive for January, 2009|Monthly archive page

Decision time, become a transhumanist or not.

In Transhumanism on January 25, 2009 at 9:10 pm

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Ama-gi, an early human symbol representing fre...
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Endpoint: become a transhumanist or not (join Humanity +).

People often go through three stages in considering the impact of future technology: awe and wonderment at its potential to overcome age-old problems; then a sense of dread at a new set of grave dangers that accompany these novel technologies; followed finally by the realization that the only viable and responsible path is to set a careful course that can realize the benefits while managing the dangers. – Ray Kurzweil “The Singularity is near” p. 408.

After almost a year of personal (re)search and pondering, I find myself leaning more and more towards Transhumanist ideas and principles. My three remaining major concerns are:

1. Technology accessibility in the future. If technology is available only to the fortunate, then technology can easily be a source of conflict, death and destruction rather than an instrument for peaceful, prosperous and healthy living for all. Humanity + deals with this concern saying:

……everybody should have the opportunity to become posthuman. It would be sub-optimal if the opportunity to become posthuman were restricted to a tiny elite. Taken from here

2. A question that has been bugging me, and one that I feel the needed to find an answer to before calling myself a Transhumanist is

“why is something natural also regarded as something good ? – by default”.

And I think I have come up with (a somewhat unsophisticated) answer: Natural is good because many people (most of us ?) believe that we need to remain as self-sustainable as possible. Dependency on technology is just that….dependency, and that, together with lack of knowledge, may be what is scaring many of us. I do not however, feel scared myself, – and knowledge is out there to be grabbed by anyone….

3. The right to say no to technology. When it comes to medical genetic technologies, I have come to the conclusion that the single most important right is the right to say “no”. Freedom to say no to any technology must be an essential part of our technological future. To ensure personal freedom, but more importantly – to keep non-technological options alive – preserving diversity as well as potentially life-saving alternatives……The people that many transhumanists and singularitariens derogatorily label “bio-pundits” or “bio-conservatives” will be an important balancing factor in the future we are developing. Transhumanists do not have to agree with them, only respect their opinions and rights to make personal anti-technological choices.

Those three concerns out of the way, the only thing that remains now is to take the test leaflet to see if me and the Human + society is a match. Result:

7-10 points: You are a transhumanist. Go forth and share the memes.

I refuse to use the word meme, but be open about my transhumanist membership I will. One small reservation will be made in making this last quote my own…..:

………transhumanism is very diverse. It’s a phenomenon that may well look different in Italy (say) from how it looks in (say) California or Nairobi. Not only that, there may be considerable debate about the essence of transhumanism, or what is important to it, among different thinkers in Italy (or in California, or Nairobi, or wherever). Transhumanism is a cultural, social, and political movement with much internal variety and debate. –

And with that, I am filling in the form and joining the fold. I am officially a transhumanist.

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On Addiction

In Uncategorized on January 20, 2009 at 2:22 pm

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I used to be a heavy smoker. I smoked 20 cigarettes a day. Smoking a cigarette was the first thing on my mind in the morning (I always started the day with one), smoking was the last thing I did before going to bed and my day would be organized around cigarette-breaks.

Psychological  dependency (note: different from physical dependency) stems from dopamine release in certain parts of the brain (see herehere and here for more). This dependency is based on the need for an organism to reward beneficial behavior. But, the system is easily fooled by drugs of addiction (nicotine in the case of cigarettes), which are, arguably, not beneficial.

I got rid of my smoking addiction by realizing that being a non-smoker is something I can identify with as easily as being a smoker. My identity as a smoker could be removed and I would still have a likable self. Also, I was sick and tired of cigarettes dictating how I organized my days – they stole my time.

I am certain that I have kicked the habit. It’s been almost five years without a cigarette, and I do not feel any desire to have one, – ….usually

The other day I was listening to an interview of surgeon Dr. Mads Gilbert who had just come back from operating on wounded Palestinians in Gaza – which is admirable ! But, and this is my point in this post – when I heard him say the following:

I usually do not smoke, but when I am in Gaza I smoke – a lot.

My first thought, – a thought that took all focus away from his plea for peace in the Gaza-region, was…..:  – hey, I could go to Gaza to smoke !!

This is addiction. And it is a reminder that I was an addict and still have addict thoughts. The reward circuits are hardwired now, and have become almost instinctive.

However, me being comfortable with my identity as a non-smoker is what is going to keep me away from cigarettes also in the future. And this leads me to the second point I wanted to make in this post: when anonymous alcoholics and similar organizations always confirm to themselves that they are alcoholics/addicts – don’t they then reaffirm their identity as an addict ? And, is that a good thing ? Isn’t not being an addict their identity now  ?

What works for me is to know my biology, but at the same time to know that I can choose to follow up un neurological signals or not, – and while that makes me a previous smoker with hard-wired memories of the past – it most certainly does not make me an addict – not anymore.

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BIOpinionated quote-fest 0109

In Uncategorized on January 14, 2009 at 3:17 pm

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1. From “Darth Vader’s “Management” Secrets“:

Darth Vader is a Dark Lord of the Sith and second-in-command in the Galactic Empire, where he is the pupil of Emperor Palpatine. He studied the Jedi arts under Obi-Wan Kenobi and serves a Sith apprenticeship with Darth Sidious. Darth’s brother, Chad, is the Day-Shift Manager at Empire Market.

2. From ERV in response to George Johnson critizing science blogging:

Do you realize what this means to people, George? How much a preventative HIV vaccine or cheaper/better/easier medications for HIV/AIDS means to people? How fucking scary HIV is to people? What these kinds of messages (WE CURE AIDZ NAU! LOL NOT REALLY!) do to the general public? What it does to their trust of scientific research in this country?

3. From an Effect Measure post on research into effects of the the virginity pledge:

82% of pledgers denied ever having taken the pledge

4. A comment on this YouTube video:

not so far in the future, humans are taken over by the elite using this so called helpful science.

5. From this friendfeed discussion:

In order to die someday, you have to be alive. Everything is dangerous, I suggest not leaving your home, not using any type of equipment, electricity, gas, etc inside, and not eating any food from unknown sources. Also filter the inbound air, water and any other fluid. And don’t read the interwebs, there are crazy people out there. – Paulo Nuin

6. From another friendfeed discussion:

There are many scary things about today’s world. But one that is truly thrilling is that the means of spreading both knowledge and inspiration have never been greater. Five years ago, an amazing teacher or professor with the ability to truly catalyze the lives of his or her students could realistically hope to impact maybe 100 people each year. Today that same teacher can have their words spread on video to millions of eager students. There are already numerous examples of powerful talks that have spread virally to massive Internet audiences. – Will Richardson

7. From this post on Eye On DNA:

But sometimes, what’s in your genes isn’t in your heart. I’d rather my children followed their heart.

8. A tweet from Neil Saunders:

“not sure how a ceasefire is “unworkable”; surely you just stop firing?”

9. A comment on this post on A Blog Around The Clock:

This plays right into the hand of the sick-fuck right-wing, as all they have to do is trot out some phony propaganda shill, and the dumbfuck “journalists” go all “while it has been asserted that X, some critics say that not X”, without doing even the slightest bit of investigation that would reveal to them that the OVERFUCKINGWHELMING CONSENSUS among people who know what the fuck they are talking about, and are not either deranged wackaloon fuckwits or intentional propagandists, is “not X”. – Comrade PhysioProf

10. A tweet from Walter Jessen:

“@Berci What would be the alternative to evidence-based medicine? Hearsay medicine? Best-guess medicine?”

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Anyone seen a nanobot lately

In Uncategorized on January 11, 2009 at 4:19 pm

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After finishing Ray Kurzweils book “The singularity is near” I had some thoughts on why his predictions on timing was probably a bit off.  One thing I didn’t mention, because I wanted to do some research on the concept first, was nanorobotics or “nanobots“. His singularity- at least for the biological part of it, is highly dependent on these. Kurzweils vision is that these nanobots will crawl around inside our blood vessels and neurons fixing everything from infections to physical damage.

And Kurzweil is not alone in his beliefs. Dr Anirban Bandyopadhyay of the International Center for Young Scientists, Tsukuba, Japan as reported this (really cool) nanobot formed by 17 identical molecules (and capable of performing a lot of computations) and says that it may be able to guide future nanobots through the body and control their functions:

“If [in the future] you want to remotely operate on a tumour you might want to send some molecular machines there,”……..”But you cannot just put them into the blood and [expect them] to go to the right place.” – quotes taken from BBC-news.

Others like Robert Freitas have similarly voiced their hopes for nanobots. But the problem is that so far there hasn’t been a single biological application for nanobots that I know of. I have been looking and looking, but have not seen a single experiment involving a nanorobotic structure doing anything inside a biological entity – much less a human body.

Of course, I may not have looked hard enough and I am by no means saying that nanobots is never to have its place in biomedicine. Who’s to say that nanobots will even look like robots:

“But even if such nano-devices were actually created some day, it would be their function that would matter, not their appearance. They’re not going to look like a robot or an other ultra-miniaturized version of machines that exist on a macroscopic scale in our everyday world”……”If you come into our lab, you’re not going to see a little micron toaster popping up nano pieces of toast.” – Neil Branda, professor of organic materials at Simon Fraser University in B.C quoted from here.

After all, nanomaterials like silver oxide nanoparticles and molecular drug delivery assemblies like liposomes have been known for a while and many, many more have future potential.

But, if the timing of singularity is dependent on robotic nanostructures in biomedical applications, then the singularity is further away than the predicted 2-4 decades.

Let’s hope it isn’t.

Image from: Microscopy-UK

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Quote of the month January 09

In Uncategorized on January 6, 2009 at 3:30 pm

Led Zeppelin Stairway To Heaven

And it’s whispered that soon if we all call the tune
Then the piper will lead us to reason.
And a new day will dawn for those who stand long
And the forests will echo with laughter.

There’s this piper coming (20/1-09).

……….let’s just hope (!) it’s the right tune,

……….and also that not all can be lead……to the same reason.

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Diving into Transhumanism III – Singularity

In Transhumanism on January 2, 2009 at 9:51 am

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Endpoint: Become a Transhumanist or not (previous posts Epiphany: Transhumanism, – not ? and Diving into Transhumanism I and II).

The Singularity is defined by Wikipedia as : “a theoretical future point of unprecedented technological progress, caused in part by the ability of machines to improve themselves”. Ray Kurzweil predicts that we will reach singularity in a couple of decades from now. He sees the law of accelerating returns for technological development (a refinement of Moores law) as proof  that this drastic endpoint is imminent. Kurzweil outlines the process in his book “The Singularity in near“. This post comments on the book and summarizes some of my thoughts on the singularity, which again will be pivotal in my own decision to embrace Transhumanism or not (next blog post).

Image from KurzweilAI.net

I am not going to discuss the concept of singularity itself as others have already done that extensively. The IEEE Spectrum Online’s special edition on Singularity is a recent example where several papers presents intelligent criticism of Kurzweils view on singularity:

The singularity debate is too rarely a real argument. There’s too much fixation on death avoidance. That’s a shame, because in the coming years, as ­computers become stupendously powerful—really and truly ridiculously powerful—and as electronics and other technologies begin to enhance and fuse with biology, life really is going to get more interesting. – Glenn Zorpette, IEEE Spectrum Online.

Reading the book from a biology/biochemistry perspective I myself find a number of flaws in Kurzweils arguments. He clearly is not a biologist by training and his lack of knowledge in biology fundamentals, in my view, puts a dent in his predictions. An illustrating example is when he mislabels the E. coli bacteria as a virus (p. 392, 1st chapter, 3rd bulletpoint). This in itself is a minor error, and could easily be excused if it wasn’t for the fact that he throughout the book,  displays a lack of understanding of the complexity in biology. Which in turn leads to oversimplified solutions like the one for antiviral medications and treatments:

We have new tools suited to this task. RNA interference for example can be used to block gene expression. Virtually all infections (as well as cancer) rely on gene expression at some point during their life cycles (p. 422)

The basic biological fact is that all cells rely on gene expression, and consequently, simply knowing about RNA interference will not cure viral disease. Similar oversimplifications are displayed when discussing our brains  (the quote below is also a quote in the book, but Kurzweil voices similar views throughout his book):

….The brain is bad: it is an evolved, messy system where a lot of interactions happen because of evolutionary contingencies…….(Anders Sandberg, quote p. 143)

I am convinced as I have argued before,  that this brainy mess is a good thing and I most certainly do not think our brains are bad, – although granted, there is room for significant improvement. The problem with biology however, is that it sometimes is hard to predict what side effects such improvements can have (see this Sentient Development post for illustrative examples).  This last point is my major issue with Kurzweil’s time-line predictions.

That said, none of the things discussed above diminish the essential message in the book :

Only technology, with its ability to provide orders of magnitude of improvement in capability and affordability, has the scale to confront problems such as poverty, disease, pollution and the other overriding concerns of society today (p. 408).

More worryingly, oversimplification is sometimes combined with throwing caution aside.  I strongly feel that a warning is in place when Kurzweil argues towards speeding up medical treatment approval by loosening up FDA guidelines and regulations (p. 417). Safety should always be put first, regardless of the treatment potential. Deviating from this rule truly puts us at risk.

The complexity of biology and the much needed regulative process for approving medical treatments suggest that the singularity is further away than Kurzweil predicts. However, the timing is of minor importance. My conclusion from reading this book, and a personal revelation that has had profound impact on my view of the world, is that the singularity will come in one form or another. It may take a 4-5 decades or it may take longer – but, it is relentlessly approaching. And importantly, … we need to be aware of the far reaching social and ethical issues that lie ahead.

To me, transhumanism needs to be about how we can best prepare for the singularity. What I have to consider in my personal quest is whether the actions, life choices and political stands (that I as a member of the transhumanist society would have to adhere to) are the right ones for me and my consciousness.

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