Printed: 2019-08-21

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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More Than Human? And science roundup!

David Brin

Contrary Brin

May 12, 2017

== More than we are? ==

Elon Musk is backing a brain-computer interface venture that was founded to allow humans to keep up with the advancements made in machines. The interface is intended to work by augmenting that which makes us human: our brains.  I’ve written extensively, in both science and fiction, about the quandaries of human consciousness and the murky, non-linear paths that might have brought us here. For example.

A panel has recommended the development of an A.I. index, analogous to the Consumer Price Index, to track the pace and spread of artificial intelligence technology. That technical assessment, they said, could then be combined with detailed data on skills and tasks involved in various occupations to guide education and job-training programs.
The Next Human: taking evolution into our own hands. National Geographic offers Beyond Human: how humans are shaping our own evolution. Read this excellent  article, which reviews human genetic change… how many ways we have changed - at the level of genes - since technologies began altering our way if life, letting us occupy Tibetan and Andean highlands or drink the milk of animals, or consume alcohol. The authors go on to examine how techniques like In Vitro Fertilization and CRISPR are opening the science fictional worlds of deliberate gene slicing.  

When asked whether this is ethical, Linda MacDonald Glenn, a bioethicist at California State University, Monterey Bay, comments; “For this sort of technology to be banned or not used is to suggest that evolution has been benign. That it somehow has been a positive. Oh Lord, it has not been! When you think of the pain and suffering that has come from so many mistakes, it boggles the mind.”
And it goes farther: Hundreds of people have radio-frequency identification (RFID) devices embedded in their bodies that allow them to unlock their doors or log on to their computers without touching anything. One company, Dangerous Things, claims to have sold 10,500 RFID chips, as well as do-it-yourself kits to install them under the skin. The people who buy them call themselves body hackers or grinders.” 

How soon to Molly, from Neuromancer?  Or even my dittoes from Kiln People? But oops, some things are predictable: “Another grinder …wants to implant a vibrator beneath his pubic bone and connect it via the web to others with similar implants."
Yeow. Very interesting article. Though alas, things are much more complicated. Take the implication that we can increase human lifespan and human intelligence by simply finding the right genetic (or nutrition) switches to flick. In both cases, indicators suggest the the smartest or longest lived humans are crowding against glass ceilings that will be very hard to shatter. 

Yes, certainly we have crashed through other limitations before!  But in the case of IQ, it seems that when smart people breed together, their odds of brainy offspring rise in company with their chances of having kids with problems like autism spectrum. (In Existence I portray how tech might overcome this by empowering autistic folks and freeing them.)
== Can we delay aging? ==
This could be among the scariest bits of science, especially in an era of rising aristocracy and wealth disparity. Researchers at Stanford University led by neuroscientist Tony Wyss-Coray showed in a 2014 study that infusions of blood from young mice reversed cognitive and neurological impairments seen in old ones.” 

If this brings to mind some of the 1950s science fiction tales about rich old coots having young men and women squeezed for their life essence (in some cases it was prescient about blood transfusions) then how about “parabiosis,” abizarre technique in which two mice were sutured together in such as way that they shared a circulatory system - which found old mice joined to their youthful counterparts showed changes in gene activity making them more youthful. And the younger mice aged.
The article is more optimistic, showing preliminary evidence that the juvenizing factors may be in blood plasma, which millions of teens could easily donate to millions of elderly without it becoming a matter of being preyed upon.  Indeed, science might decipher the elixir components and synthesize them and that will be that… 

And now credible news that billionaire Peter Thiel may be trying it.
Only not so fast.  Results in mice almost never apply to humans, when it comes to lifespan extension - and there are reasons. Sorry.
A chemical switch to slow the aging of cells? Again and again I point out that human are probably slready using all these ‘low-hanging fruit” for lengthening lifespan. anti-senescence treatments that work in mice almost never do a thing in already methuselah humans. Now, to be fair, these results do seem to apply to human cells. Still, see my story "Chrysalis' in my collection, Insistence of Vision to see how this might not go as expected!
== Next Steps in Tech ==

Speaking of our generation's irreplaceable man... Elon Musk has revealed his new tunnel boring machine -- an ambitious plan aimed at reducing traffic congestion. I've thought a lot about tunneling over the years and we spoke about it recently. Though dinner was mostly about Mars.

Oh, and see the next transportation revolution… electric planes!
A game changer? Announced: a water harvester that uses only ambient sunlight to pull liters of water out of the air each day in conditions as low as 20 percent humidity.  
A team has invented a revolutionary way to remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from air by triggering artificial photosynthesis in a synthetic material — breaking down carbon dioxide while also producing fuel.  Well, tentatively. 
Wish you had this in school? A tiny module you could put on a professor’s lectern and it not only records but transcribes the lecture as text.  Now to have an AI explain it all…
Remember this breakthrough. “Graphene oxide can be produced by simple oxidation in the lab. Then, as an ink or solution, it can be spread on a substrate or porous material. Use it as a membrane, and apparently it can separate salty from seawater. The sought-after development could aid the millions of people without ready access to clean drinking water.”
Have a look at the Deep Space Gateway, the habitat Boeing wants to send to cislunar space. It could house critical research for human exploration and could dock other vehicles using a system similar to the International Space Station’s, though more modern and compact and possibly apropos for  use as an interplanetary spacecraft.
American farmers are using Ukrainian hacker firmware to free their tractors from lock-in to John Deere for all repairs. Seven states are considering laws to allow people to hack or repair their own private property, an issue that has been riling libertarian spirits all over, and where I find my libertarian roots aroused.  Only note, the villains are not exactly "big bad government."
Are we wired for numbers? Human understanding of counting is central to our understanding of the world around us.  Numbers and the Making of Us: Counting the Course of Human History, by anthropologist Caleb Everett examines the evolution of our perception of numbers -- and how it has influenced human behavior in societies across the globe.

An accidental discovery of real potential importance. Wax worms can apparently eat and break down polyethylene plastic bags.
Deriving traces of human DNA(Neanderthals, Denisovans, etc) from ancient caves… but not from bones? Rather from dirt?  
Heroes of Science(!) action figures! Unfortunately, not yet available.

There. Down with the war on science and all of its practitioners.  They want all this to stop.

David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."


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