Timeline of the Future…

hyperspace4I love to study this thing we call “the future”, and began to do so as a hobby the day I made the decision to become a sci-fi writer. And if there’s anything I’ve learned, its that the future is an intangible thing, a slippery beast we try to catch by the tail at any given moment that is constantly receding before us. And when predict it, we are saying more about the time in which we are living than anything that has yet to occur.

As William Gibson famously said: “…science fiction was always about the period in which it was written.” At every juncture in our history, what we perceive as being the future changes based on what’s going on at the time. And always, people love to bring up what has been predicted in the past and either fault or reward the authors for either “getting it right” or missing the mark.

BrightFutureThis would probably leave many people wondering what the point of it all is. Why not just wait and let the future tend to itself? Because it’s fun, that’s why! And as a science fiction writer, its an indispensable exercise. Hell, I’d argue its absolutely essential to society as a whole. As a friend of one once said, “science fiction is more of a vehicle than a genre.” The point is to make observations about society, life, history, and the rest.

And sometimes, just sometimes, predictive writers get it right. And lately, I’ve been inspired by sources like Future Timeline to take a look at the kinds of predictions I began making when I started writing and revising them. Not only have times changed and forced me to revise my own predictions, but my research into what makes humanity tick and what we’re up to has come a long way.

So here’s my own prediction tree, looking at the next few centuries and whats likely to happen…

21st Century:

2013-2050:

  • Ongoing recession in world economy, the United States ceases to be the greatest economic power
  • China, India, Russia and Brazil boast highest rates of growth despite continued rates of poverty
  • Oil prices spike due to disappearance of peak oil and costs of extracting tar sands
  • Solar power, wind, tidal power growing in use, slowly replacing fossil fuel and coal
  • First arcologies finished in China, Japan, Russia, India and the United States

arcology_lillypad

  • Humanity begins colonizing the Moon and mounts manned mission to Mars
  • Settlements constructed using native soil and 3D printing/sintering technology
  • NASA tows asteroid to near Earth and begins studies, leading to plans for asteroid mining
  • Population grows to 9 billion, with over 6 living in major cities across the all five continents
  • Climate Change leading to extensive drought and famine, as well as coastal storms, flooding and fires
  • Cybernetics, nanotech and biotech leading to the elimination of disabilities
  • 3D Construction and Computer-Assisted Design create inexpensive housing in developing world

europa_report

  • First exploratory mission to Europa mounted, discovers proof of basic life forms under the surface ice
  • Rome ordains first openly homosexual priests, an extremely controversial move that splits the church
  • First semi-sentient, Turing compatible AI’s are produced and put into service
  • Thin, transparent, flexible medical patches leading to age of “digital medicine”
  • Religious orders formed opposed to “augmentation”, “transhumanism” and androids
  • First true quantum computers roll off the assembly line

quantum-teleportation-star-trails-canary-islands-1-640x353

  • Creation of the worldwide quantum internet underway
  • Quantum cryptography leads to increased security, spamming and hacking begins to drop
  • Flexible, transparent smartphones, PDAs and tablets become the norm
  • Fully immersive VR environments now available for recreational, commercial and educational use
  • Carbon dioxide in the upper atmosphere passes 600 ppm, efforts to curb emissions are redoubled
  • ISS is retired, replaced by multiple space stations servicing space shuttles and commercial firms
  • World’s first orbital colony created with a population of 400 people

2050-2100:

  • Global economy enters “Second Renaissance” as AI, nanomachinery, quantum computing, and clean energy lead to explosion in construction and development
  • Commercial space travel become a major growth industry with regular trips to the Moon
  • Implant technology removes the need for digital devices, technology now embeddable
  • Medical implants leading to elimination of neurological disorders and injuries
  • Synthetic food becoming the rage, 3D printers offering balanced nutrition with sustainability

3dfood2

  • Canada, Russia, Argentina, and Brazil become leading exporters of foodstuffs, fresh water and natural gas
  • Colonies on the Moon and Mars expand, new settlement missions plotted to Ganymede, Europa, Oberon and Titan
  • Quantum internet expanding into space with quantum satellites, allowing off-world connectivity to worldwide web
  • Self-sufficient buildings with water recycling, carbon capture and clean energy becomes the norm in all major cities
  • Second and third generation “Martians” and “Loonies” are born, giving rise to colonial identity

asteroid_foundry

  • Asteroid Belt becomes greatest source of minerals, robotic foundries use sintering to create manufactured products
  • Europe experiences record number of cold winters due to disruption of the Gulf Stream
  • Missions mounted to extra-Solar systems using telexploration probes and space penetrators
  • Average life expectancy now exceeds 100, healthy children expected to live to 120 years of age
  • NASA, ESA, CNSA, RFSA, and ISRO begin mounting missions to exoplanets using robot ships and antimatter engines
  • Private missions to exoplanets with cryogenically frozen volunteers and crowdfunded spaceships

daedalus_starship_630px

  • Severe refugee crises take place in South America, Southern Europe and South-East Asia
  • Militarized borders and sea lanes trigger multiple humanitarian crises
  • India and Pakistan go to war over Indus River as food shortages mount
  • China clamps down on separatists in western provinces of Xinjian and Tibet to protect source of the Yangtze and Yellow River
  • Biotechnology begins to grow, firms using bacteria to assemble structural materials

geminoid

  • Fully sentient AIs created and integrated into all aspects of life
  • Traditionalist communities form, people seeking to disconnect from modern world and eschew enhancement
  • Digital constructs become available, making neurological downloads available
  • Nanotech research leading to machinery and materials assembled at the atomic level
  • Traditional classrooms giving way to “virtual classrooms”, on-demand education by AI instructors
  • Medical science, augmentation, pharmaceuticals and uploads lead to the first generation of human “Immortals”

space_debris

  • Orbital colonies gives way to Orbital Nexus, with hundreds of habitats being established
  • Global population surpasses 12 billion despite widespread famine and displacement
  • Solar, wind, tidal, and fusion power replace oil and coal as the dominant power source worldwide
  • Census data shows half of world residents now have implants or augmentation of some kind
  • Research into the Alcubierre Drive begins to bear experimental results

alcubierre-warp-drive-overview22nd Century:

2100-2150:

  • Climate Change and global population begin to level off
  • First “Neural Collective” created, volunteers upload their thought patterns into matrix with others
  • Transhumanism becomes established religion, espousing the concept of transcendence
  • Widespread use of implants and augmentation leads to creation of new underclass called “organics”
  • Solar power industry in the Middle East and North Africa leading to growth in local economies
  • Biotech leads to growth of “glucose economy”, South American and Sub-Saharan economies leading in manufacture of biomaterials
  • Population in Solar Colonies and Orbital Nexus reaches 100,000 and continues to grow

asteroid_belt1

  • Off-world industry continues to grow as Asteroid Belt and colonies provide the majority of Earth’s mineral needs
  • Famine now widespread on all five continents, internalized food production in urban spaces continues
  • UN gives way to UNE, United Nations of Earth, which has near-universal representation
  • First test of Alcubierre FTL Drive successful, missions to neighboring systems planned
  • Tensions begin to mount in Solar Colonies as pressure mounts to produce more agricultural goods
  • Extinction rate of wild animals begins to drop off, efforts at ecological restoration continue
  • First attempts to creating world religion are mounted, met with limited success

networked_minds

  • Governments in most developed countries transitioning to “democratic anarchy”
  • Political process and involvement becoming digitized as representation becomes obsolete
  • “Super-sentience” emerges as people merge their neural patterns with each other or AIs
  • Law reformed to recognize neural constructs and AIs as individuals, entitled to legal rights
  • Biotech research merges with AI and nanotech to create first organic buildings with integrated intelligence

2150-2200:

  • Majority of the world’s population live in arcologies and self-sufficient environments
  • Census reveals over three quarters of world lives with implants or augmentation of some kind
  • Population of Orbital Nexus, off-world settlements surpasses 1 million
  • First traditionalist mission goes into space, seeking world insulated from rapid change and development
  • Labor tensions and off-world riots lead to creation of Solar policing force with mandate to “keep the peace”

Vladivostok-class_Frigate

  • First mission to extra=Solar planets arrive, robots begin surveying surface of Gliese 581 g, Gliese 667C c, HD 85512 b, HD 40307 g, Gliese 163 c, Tau Ceti e, Tau Ceti f
  • Deep space missions planned and executed with Alcubierre Drive to distant worlds
  • 1st Wave using relativistic engines and 2nd Wave using Alcubierre Drives meet up and begin colonizing exoplanets
  • Neighboring star systems within 25 light years begin to be explored
  • Terraforming begins on Mars, Venus and Europa using programmed strains of bacteria, nanobots, robots and satellites
  • Space Elevator and Slingatron built on the Moon, used to transport people to space and send goods to the surface

space_elevator_lunar1

  • Earth’s ecology begins to recover
  • Natural species are reintroduced through cloning and habitat recovery
  • Last reported famine on record, food production begins to move beyond urban farms
  • Colonies within 50 light years are established on Gliese 163 c, Gliese 581 g, Gliese 667C c, HD 85512 b, HD 40307 g, Tau Ceti e, Tau Ceti f
  • Off-world population reaches 5 million and continues to grow
  • Tensions between Earth and Solar Colonies continue, lead to demands for interplanetary governing body
  • Living, breathing cities become the norm on all settled worlds, entire communities build of integrated organic materials run by AIs and maintained by programmed DNA and machinery

self-aware-colony

23rd Century and Beyond:

Who the hell knows?

*Note: Predictions and dates are subject to revision based on ongoing developments and the author’s imagination. Not to be taken literally, and definitely open to input and suggestions.

The End of HIV: Vaccine Aces Clinical Tests

HIV_virusThe news that Caltech was developing a potential vaccine for HIV was considered one the biggest stories of 2012. And now, less than a year later, researchers at the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry at Western University in London, Ontario have announced that the vaccine not only passed its first round of clinical testing, but even boosted the production of antibodies in patients it was tested on.

The SAV001 vaccine is one of only a handful of HIV vaccines in the world, and is based on a genetically-modified ‘dead’ version of the virus. U.S. clinical testing began in the in March 2012, looking at HIV-infected men and women between the ages of 18 and 50. Half the target group was administered a placebo, while the other group was given SAV001. The first phase of trials wrapped up last month, with researchers optimistic about the vaccine’s future.

HIV_vaccine_westernDr. Chil-Yong Kang, a professor of microbiology and immunology and the head of the Western research team, explained the process in a recent interview with the Ontario Business Report:

We infect the cells with a genetically modified HIV-1. The infected cells produce lots of virus, which we collect, purify and inactivate so that the vaccine won’t cause AIDS in recipients, but will trigger immune responses.

This is the reverse of what researchers at Caltech did, who relied on a technique known as Vectored ImmunoProphylaxis (VIP) to stimulate antibody formation in lab mice. Here too, the researchers received immensely positive results. After introducing up 100 times the amount of HIV virus that what would be required to cause infection,  the mice remained protected.

vaccineBy demonstrating that not one, but two different methods of preventing the spread of HIV are effective, we could be looking at turning point in the war on HIV/AIDS. The only question is, when will a vaccine be commercially available? According to Sumagen, the South Korean biotech firm sponsoring the creation vaccine, manufacturing, as well as the USFDA requirements and other bureaucratic hurdles remain to contend with.

But, if all goes well with future trials, it could be commercially available in as little as five years. As CEO Jung-Gee Cho said in a press release:

We are now prepared to take the next steps towards Phase II and Phase III clinical trials. We are opening the gate to pharmaceutical companies, government, and charity organization for collaboration to be one step closer to the first commercialized HIV vaccine.

Paired with a possible cure which relies on nanoparticles and bee venom, we could even be looking at the beginning of the end of the pandemic, one which has caused between 25 and 30 million deaths worldwide since its discovery in 1981.

And in the meantime, check out this interview of Dr. Chil-Yong Kang as he explains how he and his research team developed their HIV vaccine, courtesy of the CHIR Canadian HIV Trial Network:

Sources: huffingtonpost.ca, mri.gov.on.ca, aids.gov, unaids.org

 

A Tribute to Israeli Scientific Achievements

jerusalem_israelWelcome everyone to my first special-request piece! As some of you who read this blog regularly may know, I was recently done a solid by a friend who brought the existence of my latest book (Whiskey Delta) to the attention of Max Brooks, Mr. World War Z man himself! Because of this, I told him he was entitled to favor, redeemable whenever he saw fit. Especially if the favor he did me allowed me to make it big!

Emblem_of_Israel.svgMuch to my surprise, he called it in early. Yes, instead of waiting for me to become a success and demanding 50 grand and pony, he asked that I do a tribute piece in honor of Israeli Independence Day, one that acknowledges the collective scientific, medical and technological achievements of this nation.

So hang tight. Not the easiest thing in the world to sum up an entire nation’s contributions in several fields, but I shall try. And for the sake of convenience, I broke them down into alphabetical order. So to my Israeli readers and those with family in the Levant, Shalom Aleichem, and here we go!

Aerospace:
GurwinTechSatModel
When it comes to space-based research, aviation and aeronautics, Israel has made many contributions and is distinguished as one of the few nations outside of the – outside of the major space players – that is able to build and launch its own communications, navigation and observation satellites. This is performed through the Israel Aerospace Industries(IAI), Israel’s largest military engineering company, in cooperation with the Israel Space Agency, which was created in 1982.

What’s more, Technion, the Israeli Institute of Technology,  is home to the Asher Space Research Institute (ASRI), which is unique in Israel as a university-based center of space research. In 1998, the Institute built and launched its own satellite – known as the Gerwin-II TechSAT – in July 1998 to provide communications, remote sensing and research services for the nation’s scientists.

Israel’s first ever satellite, Ofeq-1, was built and launched using the locally-built Shavit launch vehicle on September 19, 1988. Over the course of its operational history, Ofeq-1 has made important contributions in a number of areas in space research, including laser communication, research into embryo development and osteoporosis in space, pollution monitoring, and mapping geology, soil and vegetation in semi-arid environments.

AMOS-1 and AMOS-2, which were launched in 1996 and 2003 respectively. AMOS-1 is a geostationary satellite that also has the honor of being Israel’s first commercial communications satellite, built primarily for direct-to-home television broadcasting, TV distribution and VSAT services. AMOS-2, which belongs to the Spacecom Satellite Communications company, provides satellite telecommuncations services to countries in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Additional space-based projects include the TAUVEX telescope, the VENUS microsatellite, and the MEIDEX (Mediterranean – Israel Dust Experiment), which were produced and launched in collaboration the Indian Space Research Organizations (ISRO), France’s CNES, and NASA, repsectively. In addition to conducting research on background UV radiation, these satellites are also responsible for monitoring vegetation and the distribution and physical properties of atmospheric desert dust over the a large segment of the globe.

Ilan_RamonIlan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut, was also a member of the crew that died aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. Ramon was selected as the missions Payload Specialist and trained at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, from 1998 until 2003.  Among other experiments, Ramon was responsible for the MEIDEX project in which he took pictures of atmospheric aerosol (dust) in the Mediterranean. His death was seen as a national tragedy and mourned by people all over the world. 

According to the Thomson Reuters agency, in a 2009 poll, Israel was ranked 2nd among the 20 top countries in space sciences.

Alternative Fuel and Clean Energy:
When it comes to developing alternative sources of energy, Israel is a leader in innovation and research. In fact – and due in no small part to its lack of conventional energy resources – Israel has become the world’s largest per capita user of solar power, with 90% of Israeli homes use solar energy for hot water, the highest per capita in the world.

Solar_dish_at_Ben-Gurion_National_Solar_Energy_Center_in_IsraelMuch of this research is performed by the Ben-Gurion National Solar Energy Center, a part of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (in Beersheba). Pictured above is the Ben-Gurion parabolic solar power dish, the largest of its kind in the world. In addition, the Weizman Institute of Science, in central Israel, is dedicated to research and development in the field of solar technology and recently developed a high-efficiency receiver to collect concentrated sunlight, which will enhance the use of solar energy in industry as well.

Outside of solar, Israel is also heavily invested in the fields of wind energy, electric cars, and waste management. For example, Israel is one of the few nations in the world that has a nationwide network of recharching stations to facilitate the charging and exchange of car batteries. Denmark and Australia have studied the infrastructure and plan to implement similar measures in their respective countries. In 2010, Technion also established the Grand Technion Energy Program (GTEP), a multidisciplinary task-force that is dedicated to alternative fuels, renewable energy sources, energy storage and conversion, and energy conservation.

Private companies also play a role in development, such as the Arrow Ecology company’s development of the ArrowBio process, which takes trash directly from collection trucks and separates organic from inorganic materials. The system is capable of sorting huge volumes of solid waste (150 tons a day), salvaging recyclables, and turning the rest into biogas and rich agricultural compost. The system has proven so successful in the Tel-Aviv area that it has been adopted in California, Australia, Greece, Mexico, and the United Kingdom.

Health and Medicine:
Israel also boasts an advanced infrastructure of medical and paramedical research and bioengineering facilities. In terms of scientific publications, studies in the fields of biotechnology, biomedical, and clinical research account for over half of the country’s scientific papers, and the industrial sector has used this extensive knowledge to develop pharmaceuticals, medical equipment and treatment therapies.

In terms of stem cell research, Israel has led the world in the publications of research papers, patents and studies per capita since the year 2000. The first steps in the development of stem cell studies occurred in Israel, with research in this field dating back to studies of bone marrow stem cells in the early 1960s. In 2011, Israeli scientist Inbar Friedrich Ben-Nun led a team which produced the first stem cells from endangered species, a breakthrough that could save animals in danger of extinction.

capsule_camNumerous sophisticated medical advancements for both diagnostic and treatment purposes has been developed in Israel and marketed worldwide, such as computer tomography (CT) scanners, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) systems, ultrasound scanners, nuclear medical cameras, and surgical lasers. Other innovations include a device to reduce both benign and malignant swellings of the prostate gland and a miniature camera encased in a swallowable capsule used to diagnose gastrointestinal disease.

ReWalkIsrael is also a leading developer of prosthetics and powered exoskeletons, technologies designed to restore mobility to amputees and people born without full ambulatory ability. Examples include the SmartHand, a robotic prosthetic hand developed through collaboration between Israeli and European scientists. ReWalk is another famous example, a powered set of legs that help paraplegics and those suffering from partial paralysis to achieve bipedal motion again.

Science and Tech:
In addition, Israeli universities are among 100 top world universities in mathematics (Hebrew University, TAU and Technion), physics (TAU, Hebrew University and Weizmann Institute of Science), chemistry (Technion and Weizmann Institute of Science), computer science (Weizmann Institute of Science, Technion, Hebrew University, TAU and BIU) and economics (Hebrew University and TAU).

 

Ilse Katz Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology - Ben-Gurion University
Ilse Katz Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology – Ben-Gurion University

Israel is also home to some of the most prestigious and advanced scientific research institutions in the world. These include the Bar-Ilan University, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the University of Haifa, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, Tel Aviv University and the Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, the Volcani Institute of Agricultural Research in Beit Dagan, the Israel Institute for Biological Research and the Soreq Nuclear Research Center.

Israel has also produced many Noble Prize Laureates over the years, four of whom won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. These include Avram Hershko and Aaron Ciechanover of the Technion, two of three researchers who were responsible for the discovery ubiquitin-mediated protein degradation in 2004. In 2009, Ada Yonath of the Weizmann Institute of Science was one of the winners for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome. In 2011, Dan Shechtman of the Technion was awarded the prize for the discovery of quasicrystals.

Koffler Accelerator - Weizman Institute of Science
Koffler Accelerator – Weizman Institute of Science

In the social sciences, the Nobel Prize for Economics was awarded to Daniel Kahneman in 2002, and to Robert Aumann of the Hebrew University in 2005. Additionally, the 1958 Medicine laureate, Joshua Lederberg, was born to Israeli Jewish parents, and 2004 Physics laureate, David Gross, grew up partly in Israel, where he obtained his undergraduate degree.

In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly’s Economic and Financial Committee adopted an Israeli-sponsored draft resolution that called on developed countries to make their knowledge and know-how accessible to the developing world as part of the UN campaign to eradicate hunger and dire poverty by 2015. The initiative is an outgrowth of Israel’s many years of contributing its know-how to developing nations, especially Africa, in the spheres of agriculture, fighting desertification, rural development, irrigation, medical development, computers and the empowerment of women.

Water Treatment:
WaTecAnd last, but certainly not least, Israel is a leader in water technology, due again to its geography and dependence and lack of resources. Every year, Israel hosts the Water Technology Exhibition and Conference (WaTec) that attracts thousands of people from across the world and showcases examples of innovation and development designed to combat water loss and increase efficiency.

Drip irrigation, a substantial agricultural modernization, was one such developed which comes from in Israel and saved countless liters of farm water a year. Many desalination and recycling processes have also emerged out of Israel, which has an abundance of salt water (such as in the Dead Sea and Mediterranean), but few large sources of freshwater. The Ashkelon seawater reverse osmosis (SWRO) plant, the largest in the world, was voted ‘Desalination Plant of the Year’ in the Global Water Awards in 2006.

In 2011, Israel’s water technology industry was worth around $2 billion a year with annual exports of products and services in the tens of millions of dollars. The International Water Association has also cited Israel as one of the leaders in innovative methods to reduce “nonrevenue water,” (i.e., water lost in the system before reaching the customer). By the end of 2013, 85 percent of the country’s water consumption will be from reverse osmosis, and as a result of innovations in this field, Israel is set to become a net exporter in the coming years.

Summary:
It’s hard to sum up the accomplishments of an entire nation, even one as young and as geographically confined as Israel. But I sincerely hope this offering has done some justice to the breadth and width of Israel’s scientific achievements. Having looked though the many fields and accomplishments that have been made, I have noticed two key features which seem to account for their level of success:

  1. Necessity: It’s no secret that Israel has had a turbulent history since the foundation of the modern nation in 1948. Due to the ongoing nature of conflict with its neighbors and the need to build armaments when they were not always available, Israel was forced to establish numerous industries and key bits of infrastructure to produce them. This has had the predictable effect of spilling over and inspiring developments in the civilian branches of commerce and development as well. What’s more, Israel’s location in a very arid and dry region of the world with few natural resources to speak of have also demanded a great deal of creativity and specialized resource management. This in turn has led to pioneering work in the fields of energy, sustainable development and agricultural practices which are becoming more and more precious as Climate Change, population growth, hunger and drought effect more and more of the world.
  2. Investment: Israel is also a nation that invests heavily in its people and infrastructure. Originally established along strongly socialist principles, Israel has since abandoned many of its establishment era practices – such as kibbutz and equality of pay – in favor of a regulated free market with subsidized education and health care for all. This has led to a successive wave of generations that are strong, educated, and committed to innovation and development. And with competition and collaboration abroad, not to mention high demand for innovation, this has gone to good use.

And with that, I shall take my leave and wish my Israeli readers at home and abroad a happy belated Independence Day! May peace and understanding be upon you and us all as we walk together into the future. Shalom Aleichem!

Patenting Genes: New Questions over Property Rights

People walk in front of the Supreme Court building in WashingtonToday, in Washington DC, the US Supreme Court heard arguments made for and against the belief that the human genome can be claimed as intellectual property. For almost thirty years now, US authorities have been awarding patents on genes to universities and medical companies. But given the recent publication of the human genome, this practice could have far reaching consequences for human rights.

Ever since USC researchers published ENCODE – The Encyclopedia of DNA Elements Project – scientists and law-makers have been scrambling to determine what the next step in human genetics research will be. In addition to using the complete catalog of genetic information for the sake of bioresearch, medicine and programmable DNA structures, there are also legal issues that go back decades.

encodeFor example, if companies have the right to patent genes, what does that say about the human body? Do property rights extend to our mitochondrial DNA, or do the rights over a particular gene belong to those who discovered it, mapped its functions, or those who just plain planted their flag in it first? One of the most interesting aspects of the 21st century may be the extension of property wars and legal battles down to the cellular level…

Currently, researchers and private companies work to isolate genes in order to use them in tests for gene-related illnesses, and in emerging gene therapies. According to researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College in the US, patents now cover some 40% of the human genome, but that is expected to increase in the coming years, accounting for greater and greater swaths of human and other living creature’s DNA.Genes1This particular lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union in conjunction with the Public Patent Foundation, relates to seven specific patents that were made on two human genes held by US firm Myriad Genetics. These genes are linked to breast and ovarian cancer, and Myriad has developed a test to look for mutations in these genes that may increase the risk of developing cancer.

The company argued that the genes patented were “isolated” by them, making them products of human ingenuity and therefore patentable. But of course, The ACLU rejected this argument, saying that genes are products of nature, and therefore can’t be patented under US or any other man-made law.

genesWithout a doubt, there concerns are grounded in what this could mean for future generations, if people themselves could be subject to patents simply because they carry the gene that a company holds the patent on. And who can blame them? With almost half of the stuff that makes our bodies tick belonging to private companies, how big of a stretch would it be for companies to effectively own a human being?

Alternately, if companies are not allowed to patent genes, what will this mean for medical and bio research? Will cures, treatments, and medical processes become a complete free for all, with no one holding any particular distribution rights or having their exclusive work recognized. And of course, this would have the effect of hurting a research or corporate firms bottom line. So you can expect them to have something to say about it!

It’s a new age, people, with patents and prospecting extending not only into space (with asteroids), but into the human genome as well. Predictable I suppose. As humanity began expanding its field of view, focusing on wider and more distant fields, as well as gaining a more penetrating and deeper understanding of how everything works, it was only a matter of time before we started squabbling over territory and boundaries again!

Sources: bbc.co.uk, reuters.com

Biotech News: Artificial Ears and Bionic Eyes!

3d_earLast week was quite the exciting time for the field of biotechnology! Thanks to improvements in 3D printing and cybernetics – the one seeking to use living cells to print organic tissues and the other seeking to merge the synthetic with the organic – the line between artificial and real is becoming blurrier all the time. And as it turns out, two more major developments were announced just last week which have blurred it even further.

The first came from Cornell University, where a team of biotech researchers demonstrated that it was possible to print a replacement ear ear using a 3D printer and an injection of living cells. Using a process the team refers to as “high-fidelity tissue engineering”,  they used the cartilage from a cow for the ears interior and overlaid it with artificially generated skin cells to produce a fully-organic replacement.

3dstemcellsThis process builds on a number of breakthroughs in recent years involving 3D printers, stem cells, and the ability to create living tissue by arranging these cells in prearranged fashions. Naturally, the process is still in its infancy; but once refined, it will allow biomedical engineers to print customized ears for children born with malformed ones, or people who have lost theirs to accident or disease.

What’s more, the Cornell research team also envision a day in the near future when it’ll be possible to cultivate enough of a person’s own tissue so that the growth and implantation can happen all within the lab. And given recent the breakthrough at Wake Forest Institute of Regenerative Medicine- where researchers were able to create printed cartilage – it won’t be long before all the bio-materials can be created on-site as well.

Eye-cameraThe second breakthrough, which also occurred during this past week, took place in Germany, where researchers unveiled the world’s first high-resolution, user-configurable bionic eye. Known officially as the “Alpha IMS retinal prosthesis”, the device comes to us from the University of of Tübingen, where scientists have been working for some time to build and improve upon existing retinal prosthetics, such as Argus II – a retinal prosthesis developed by California-based company Second Sight.

Much like its predecessor, the Alpha IMS helps to restore vision by imitating the functions of a normal eye, where light is converted into electrical signals your retina and then transmitted to the brain via the optic nerve. In an eye that’s been afflicted by macular generation or diabetic retinophathy, these signals aren’t generated. Thus, the prosthetic works by essentially replacing the damaged piece of your retina with a computer chip that generates electrical signals that can be understood by your brain.

biotech_retinal-implantBut of course, the Alpha IMS improves upon previous prosthetics in a number of ways. First, it is connected to your brain via 1,500 electrodes (as opposed to the Argus II’s 60 electrodes) providing unparalleled visual acuity and resolution. Second, whereas the Argus II relies on an external camera to relay data to the implant embedded in your retina, the Alpha IMS is completely self-contained. This allows users to swivel the eye around as they would a normal eye, whereas the Argus II and others like it require the user to turn their head to change their angle of sight.

Here too the technology is still in its infancy and has a long way to go before it can outdo the real thing. For the most part, bionic eyes are still rely heavily on the user’s brain to make sense of the alien signals being pumped into it. However, thanks to the addition of configurable settings, patients have a degree of control over their perceived environment that most cannot begin to enjoy. So really, its not likely to be too long before these bionic implants improve upon the fleshy ones we come equipped with.

biotech_dnaWow, what a week! It seems that these days, one has barely has to wait at all to find that the next big thing is happening right under their very nose. I can foresee a future where people no longer fear getting into accidents, suffering burns, or losing their right eye (or left, I don’t discriminate). With the ability to regrow flesh and cartilage, and replace organic tissues with bionic ones, there may yet come a time when a human can have a close-shave with death and be entirely rebuilt.

I foresee death sports becoming a hell of a lot more popular in this future… Well, crap on me! And while we’re waiting for this future to occur, feel free to check out this animated video of the Alpha IMS being installed and how it works:


Sources:
IO9.com, Extremetech.com

Criminalizing Transhuman Soldiers

biosoldiersIt seems to be the trend these days. You take a predictions that was once the domain of science fiction and treat it as impending science fact. Then you recommend that before it comes to pass, we pre-emptively create some kind of legal framework or organization to deal with it once it does. Thus far, technologies which are being realized have been addressed – such as autonomous drones – but more and more, concepts and technologies which could be real any day now are making the cut.

It all began last year when the organization known as Human Rights Watch and Harvard University teamed up to release a report calling for the ban of “killer robots”. It was soon followed when the University of Cambridge announced the creation of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) to investigate developments in AI, biotechnology, and nanotechnology and determine if they posed a risk.

X-47BAnd most recently, just as the new year began, a report funded by the Greenwall Foundation examined the legal and ethical implications of using biologically enhanced humans on the battlefield. This report was filed in part due to advances being made in biotechnology and cybernetics, but also because of the ongoing and acknowledged efforts by the Pentagon and DARPA to develop super-soldiers.

The report, entitled “Enhanced Warfighters: Risks, Ethics, and Policy”, was written by Keith Abney, Patrick Lin and Maxwell Mehlman of California Polytechnic State University.  The group, which investigates ethical and legal issues as they pertain to the military’s effort to enhance human warfighters, received funding from the Greenwall Foundation, an organization that specializes in biomedicine and bioethics.

In a recent interview, Abney expressed the purpose of the report, emphasizing how pre-emptive measures are necessary before a trend gets out of hand:

“Too often, our society falls prey to a ‘first generation’ problem — we wait until something terrible has happened, and then hastily draw up some ill-conceived plan to fix things after the fact, often with noxious unintended consequences. As an educator, my primary role here is not to agitate for any particular political solution, but to help people think through the difficult ethical and policy issues this emerging technology will bring, preferably before something horrible happens.”

US_Army_powered_armorWhat’s more, he illustrated how measures are necessary now since projects are well-underway to develop super soldiers. These include powered exoskeletons to increase human strength and endurance. These include devices like Lockheed Martin’s HULC, Raytheon’s XOS, UC Berkeley’s BLEEX, and other projects.

In addition, DARPA has numerous projects on the books designed to enhance a soldiers abilities with cybernetics and biotech. These include VR contact lenses, basic lenses that enhance normal vision by allowing a wearer to view virtual and augmented reality images without a headset of glasses. There’s also their Cognitive Technology Threat Warning System (CT2WS), which is a computer-assisted visual aid that instantly identifies threats by augmenting their visual faculties.

CREATOR: gd-jpeg v1.0 (using IJG JPEG v62), quality = 90And in the cognitive realm, there are such programs as Human Assisted Neural Devices (HAND) that seeks to strengthen and restore memories and the Peak Soldier Performance (PSP) program that will  boosthuman endurance, both physical and cognitive. But of course, since post-traumtic stress disorder is a major problem, DARPA is also busy at work creating drugs and treatments that can erase memories, something which they hope will give mentally-scarred soldiers a new lease on life (and military service!)

And of course, the US is hardly alone in this regard. Every industrialized nation in the world, from the EU to East Asia, is involved in some form of Future Soldier or enhanced soldier program. And with nations like China and Russia catching up in several key areas – i.e. stealth, unmanned aerial vehicles and aeronautics – the race is on to create a soldier program that will ensure one nation has the edge.

bionic_handsBut of course, as Abney himself points out, the issue of “enhancement” is a rather subjective term. For example, medical advancements are being made all the time that seek to address disabilities and disorders and also fall into the category of “enhancement”. Such ambiguities need to be ironed out before any legal framework can be devised, hence Abney and his associates came up with the following definition:

“In the end, we argued that the best definition of an enhancement is that it’s ‘a medical or biological intervention to the body designed to improve performance, appearance, or capability besides what is necessary to achieve, sustain or restore health.”

Working from this starting point, Abney and his colleagues made the case in their report that the risk such enhancements pose over and above what is required for normal health helps explain their need for special moral consideration.

These include, but are not limited to, the issue of consent, whether or not a soldier voluntary submits to enhancement. Second, there is the issue of long-term effects and whether or not a soldier is made aware of them. Third, there is the issue of what will happen with these people if and when they retire from the services and attempt to reintegrate into normal society.

It’s complicated, and if it’s something the powers that be are determined to do, then they need to be addressed before they become a going concern. Last thing we need is a whole bunch of enhanced soldiers wandering around the countryside unable to turn off their augmented killer instincts and super-human strength. Or, at the very least, it would be good to know we have some kind of procedure in place in case they do!

What do you think of when you hear the word "super soldier"? Yeah, me too!
What do you think of when you hear the word “super soldier”? Yeah, me too!

Source: IO9.com

The Future is Here: Paper-Thin Smartphones!

paperthin_smartphoneAt last years Consumer Electronics show, the AMOLED flexible display concept was a huge hit. AMOLED – which stands for active-matrix organic light-emitting diode – is new a display technology that utilizes both organic compounds and an active matrix to form electroluminescent material and address pixels. But what is truly awesome about it is how it allows for displays that are both and flexible.

In the wake of that show, many developers have been presenting some cutting edge technologies and concepts that are still in development, but which build on the technology and are expected to be available within a few years time. One such concept comes from a collaborative group composed of researchers from Queens University’s Human Media Lab and the Motivational Environments Research Group from Arizona State. Their concept: the PaperPhone!

Like the Nokia Kinetic concept, a user is able to control through a series of bending and flexing gestures. The device’s internal circuit memorizes these gestures and responds accordingly whenever they are repeated. Ergo, if you register that earmarking is the command for making a call, the paper-thin phone will bring up a call prompt whenever you bend the corner. In addition, mp3’s will be available on the device, and presumably, internet access.

Paper-Thin-Pamphlet-Smartphone-Concept-2In addition to its ultra-thin profile, flexible nature and smartphone functions, this proposed design represents a growing trend in personal digital devices, which is towards the organic. In terms of design, interface and assembly, the eventual goal is devices that will be indistinguishable from organics. This could take the form of machinery composed of entirely out of “smart” DNA – aka. programmable biological cells –  hybrid devices that utilize organic compounds, and even machinery assembled by DNA structures.

Sure, this may seem like a long way from that eventual, lofty goal, but its certainly a step in that direction. And if technology can and will be manufactured with organic materials, there’s even a chance it could be used as biowaste when we’re done with them. Maybe even compost, assuming they can break down into soil-enriching organic compounds.

Keep your eyes open for more breakthroughs, they are sure to be coming soon. And while you’re at it, check out of the video of the PaperPhone in action!