The Cronian Incident – Factions in the Future

 

future_city
Future City [3] by josueperez79 at deviantart.com
Hi again folks! I’m back with some thoughts from my most recent story project – The Jovian Incident. I know, what else is new, right? Writing can be a self-indulgent process. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, its that sharing helps when it comes to developing a story. It helps you articulate your thinking and ideas, especially if respected peers tell you what they think (hint, hint!)

As I also learned a long time ago, any science fiction piece that deals with the distant future has to take into account how human beings in the future go about organizing themselves. In this future world, what are the political blocs, the alliances, the rivalries – the ways in which people are united and divided? Well, I gave that a lot of thought before sitting down to pen the book (which is into chapter 11 now). And this is the basic breakdown I came up with.

Extro Factions:
For starters, people in the future I am envisioning are tentatively divided into those that live in the inner and outer Solar Systems. But that geographic divide is merely representative of a much bigger issue that divides humanity. Whereas the people living on Earth, Mars and Venus largely fall into the category of “Extro” (i.e. Extropian, people who embrace the transhuman ethic) people in the outer Solar System live simpler, less augmented and enhanced lives (“Retro”).

But within this crude division between people who believe in going beyond their biological limitations and those who believe in respecting them, there are plenty of different social, political and ideological groups to be found. Here’s a rundown on them, starting with the Extro factions…

The Formists:
Founded by Piter Chandrasekhar, one of the first colonists of Mars, the Formists are a faction dedicated to the full-scale terraforming of the Red Planet. The purpose of this, obviously, is to allow for full-scale colonization, which is something that remains impossible at this point in the story. All inhabitants on Mars lived in sealed domes, all transit takes place in pressurized tubes or on flyers, and anyone venturing out onto the surface is forced to wear a pressure suit with life-support systems.

Mars_terraforming
Mars Terraformed by Daein Ballard

Currently, the Formist faction is run by Emile Chandrasekhar, Piter’s grandson. And for the past few decades, they have been busy procuring resources from the outer Solar System to aid in the terraforming process. This includes supplies of methane, ammonia, ices, and lots and lots of comets.

However, they are also busy trying to ensure that the process will have a minimal impact on the settlements and those living within them. Altering the planet’s atmosphere will definitely have a significant impact on the landscape in the short-term, such as sublimating all the water ice in the Martian soil and in the polar caps. Once that water begins to flow, much of the surface will find itself being swallowed up by newly-created oceans. So naturally, the Formists must proceed slowly, and make sure all settlements on Mars agree to their plans.

While the Formist faction is largely centered on Mars, they have counterparts on Venus as well – known as The Graces (after the children of Aphrodite). Here, the process is significantly different, and involves converting the existing atmosphere rather than increasing its density. But the goal is the same: to one day make Venus a living, breathing world human beings can set foot on.

The Dysonists:
Among the Extros, there are also those who believe humanity’s future lies not in the stars or in the terraforming the Solar System’s planets, but in the space that surrounds our Sun. They are known as the Dysonists, a faction that is intent on building a massive swarm of structures in the inner Solar System. For some, this calls for a series of rings which house the inhabitants on their inner surface and provide gravity through endless rotation.

fractal_dyson_sphere_by_eburacum45-d2yum16
This artist’s concept of a Dyson sphere is via SentientDevelopments.com

For other, more ambitious Dysonists, the plan involves massive swarms of computronium that will contain a sea of uploaded personalities living in simulated environments. Both the swarms and the powerful bandwidth that connects them will draw energy from the Sun’s rays. These individuals consider themselves to be the more puritan of Dysonists, and believe those who advocate buildings rings structures are more properly known as Nivenists.

The process of converting all the “dumb matter” in the Solar System into smart matter has already begun, but in limited form. Within a few generations, it is believed that the Sun will be surrounded by a “Torus” of uploaded minds that will live on while countless generations come and go. Dysonists and their enclaves can be found on Near-Earth Asteroids, in the Main Asteroid Belt, and with committed supporters living on Venus, Mars, Earth, the Moon, and Ceres.

The Habitationists:
Inspired by Gerard K. O’Neill, the inventor of the O’Neill Cylinder, the Habitationists began as an architects dream that quickly expanded to fill all of known space. In the 21st century, Earthers looking to escape the growing population crisis began migrating to space. But rather than looking to live on distant worlds or the Moon, where the environment was harsh and the gravity limited, they decided to set up shop in orbit. Here, supplies could be shipped regularly, thanks to the advent of commercial aerospace, and gravity could be simulated at a full g thanks to rotating toruses.

By the mid 22nd century, Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Habs had become all the rage and the skies became somewhat saturated. The existence of Earth’s space elevator (The Spindle) only made deploying and supplying these Habs easier, and a steady drop in the costs of manufacturing and deploying them only made them more popular. As such, Terran architect Hassan Sarawak, who had designed many of the original habitats in space, began to busy himself designing a new series of Habs that would allow human beings to live in space anywhere in the Solar System.

Lightfarm Studios
Artistic impression of the inside of an O’Neil Cylinder. Lightfarm Studios

By the end of the 22nd century, when the story takes place, large cylinders exist in several key places in the Solar System. Most are named in honor of either their founders, those who articulated the concept of space habitats, or those who believed in the dream of colonizing space itself (and not just other planets and moons).  These places are thusly named O’Neil’s Reach, Clarkestown, Sawarakand, and New Standford.

The Seedlings:
As the name would suggest, the Seedlings are those intrepid Extropians who believe humanity should “seed” the galaxy with humanity, spreading to all solar systems that have confirmed exoplanets and building settlements there. But in a slight twist, they believe that this process should be done using the latest in nanotechnology and space penetrators, not slow interstellar ships ferrying human colonist and terraformers.

To the Seedlings, who can be found throughout the inner Solar System, and on some of its most distant moons, the idea is simple. Load up a tiny projectile-ship with billions of nanobots designed to slowly convert a planet’s climate, then fire it on a trajectory that will take it to an exoplanet many generations from now. Then, prepare a ship with colonists, send it on its merry way into space, and by the time they reach the distant world, it will be fully prepared for their arrival.

utility_fog
At this point in the story, the Seedlings first few missions are still in the planning stages. They’ve got the technology, they’ve got the know-how, and they know where the right candidate planets are located. All they need to do know is test out their machines and make sure the process works, so that they won’t be sending their colonists into a deathtrap.

Sidenote: this idea is actually one I explored in a short story I am trying to get published. If all goes well, I am the short story and this full-length idea can be connected as part of a singular narrative.

Retro Factions:
And now we come to the people who live predominantly in the outer Solar System, the folks who found life on Earth and the inner worlds unlivable thanks to its breakneck pace and the fact that life was becoming far too complicated. These are the people whom – for religious, personal, or moral reasons – chose to live on the frontier worlds in order to ensure something other than humanity’s survival as a species. For these people, it was about preserving humanity’s soul.

Organics:
In the mid to late 21st century, as biotech and cybernetics became an increasingly prevalent part of society, a divide began to emerge between people who enhanced their biology and neurology and those who did not. While the former were in the minority for the first few decades, by the latter half of the 21st century, more and more people began to become, in essence, “transhuman” – (i.e. more than human).

Cyber_Girl
Cyber Girl by Fausto De Martini

At the same time, fears and concerns began to emerge that humanity was forsaking the very things that made it human. With lives becoming artificially prolonged, human parts being swapped for bionic or biomimetic implants, and brains becoming enhanced with neural implants and “looms”, humanity seemed on course to becoming post-human (i.e. not human at all).

And while the concerns were justified, few who could afford such enhancements seemed to be willing to forsake the convenience and necessity they represented. In a world where they conferred advantage over the unenhanced, choosing not to augment one’s body and mind seemed foolish. But between those who could not afford to, those who were forbidden to, and those who chose not to, eventually a new underclass emerged – known as “Organics”.

Today’s organics, who live predominantly in the outer Solar System or isolated pockets in the inner worlds, are the descendants of these people. They live a simpler life, eschewing most of the current technology in favor for a more holistic existence, depending on various levels of technology to maintain a certain balance.

Fundies:
Naturally, human beings in the late 22nd century still have their faiths and creeds.  Despite what some said in previous centuries, mankind did not outgrow the need for religion as it began to explore space and colonizing new worlds. And when the Singularity took place in the mid 21st century, and life became increasingly complex, enhanced, and technologically-dominated, the world’s religiously-devout began to feel paradoxical. On the one hand, religion seemed to be getting more unpopular and obsolete; but at the same time, more rare and precious.

The-Common-Foundations-of-Religions-and-Theology-Evolutionary-Tree-of-Religions
To be fair, there was a time when it seemed as though the prediction of a religion-less humanity might come true. In the early to mid 21st century, organized religion was in a noticeable state of decline. Religious institutions found it harder and harder to adapt to the times, and the world’s devout appeared to be getting increasingly radicalized. However, in and around all of these observable trends, there were countless people who clung to their faith and their humanity because they feared where the future was taking them.

In the current era, the outer Solar System has become a haven for many sects and religious organizations that felt the Inner Worlds were too intolerant of their beliefs. While there will always be people who embrace one sort of faith or another on all worlds – for instance, billions of Extros identify as Gnosi or Monist – the majority of devout Kristos, Sindhus, Mahavadans, Mahomets, and Judahs now call the worlds of Ganymede, Callisto, Europa, Titan, Rhea, Iapetus, Dione, Tethys, Titania, Oberon, Ariel and Umbriel home.

The vast majority of these people want to live in peace. But for some, the encroachment of the Inner Worlds into the life and economies of their moons is something that must be stopped. They believe, as many do, that sooner or later, the Extro factions will try to overtake these worlds as well, and that they will either be forced to move farther out, colonizing the moons of Neptune and the Kuiper Belt, or find homes in new star systems entirely. As such, some are joining causes that are dedicated to pushing back against this intrusion…

Chauvians (Independents):
Many in the past also thought that nationalism, that sense of pride that is as divisive as it is unifying, would also have disappeared by this point in time. And while humanity did begin to celebrate a newfound sense of unity by the late 21st century, the colonizing of new worlds had the effect of creating new identities that were bound to a specific space and place. And given the divisive political climate that exists in the late 22nd century, it was only natural that many people in the Outer Worlds began preaching a form of independent nationalism in the hopes of rallying their people.

Révolution_de_1830_-_Combat_devant_l'hôtel_de_ville_-_28.07.1830
Collectively, such people are known as “Chauvians“, a slight bastardization of the word “Jovian” (which applies to inhabitants of any of the outer Solar System’s moons). But to others, they are known simply as Independents, people striving to ensure their worlds remain free of external control. And to those belonging to these factions, their worlds and their people are endangered and something must be done to stop the intrusion of Extros into the outer Solar System. For the most part, their methods are passive, informative, and strictly political. But for others, extra-legal means, even violent means, are seen as necessary.

Examples include the Children of Jove and the Aquilan Front, which are native to the Galilean moons of Jupiter. On the Cronian moons, the Centimanes are the main front agitating for action against the Extros. And on the Uranian moons, the organizations known as The Furies and the Sky Children are the forces to be reckoned with. Whereas the more-moderate of these factions are suspected of being behind numerous protests, riots, and organized strikes, the radicals are believed to be behind the disappearance of several Extro citizens who went missing in the Outer Worlds. In time, it is believed that a confrontation will occur between these groups and the local authorities, with everyone else being caught in the middle.


And those are the relevant players in this story I’m working out. Hope you like them, because a few come into play in the first story and the rest I think could become central to the plots of any future works in the same universe. Let me know what you think! 🙂

 

The Fate of Humanity

the-futureWelcome to the world of tomorroooooow! Or more precisely, to many possible scenarios that humanity could face as it steps into the future. Perhaps it’s been all this talk of late about the future of humanity, how space exploration and colonization may be the only way to ensure our survival. Or it could be I’m just recalling what a friend of mine – Chris A. Jackson – wrote with his “Flash in the Pan” piece – a short that consequently inspired me to write the novel Source.

Either way, I’ve been thinking about the likely future scenarios and thought I should include it alongside the Timeline of the Future. After all, once cannot predict the course of the future as much as predict possible outcomes and paths, and trust that the one they believe in the most will come true. So, borrowing from the same format Chris used, here are a few potential fates, listed from worst to best – or least to most advanced.

1. Humanrien:
extinctionDue to the runaway effects of Climate Change during the 21st/22nd centuries, the Earth is now a desolate shadow of its once-great self. Humanity is non-existent, as are many other species of mammals, avians, reptiles, and insects. And it is predicted that the process will continue into the foreseeable future, until such time as the atmosphere becomes a poisoned, sulfuric vapor and the ground nothing more than windswept ashes and molten metal.

One thing is clear though: the Earth will never recover, and humanity’s failure to seed other planets with life and maintain a sustainable existence on Earth has led to its extinction. The universe shrugs and carries on…

2. Post-Apocalyptic:
post-apocalypticWhether it is due to nuclear war, a bio-engineered plague, or some kind of “nanocaust”, civilization as we know it has come to an end. All major cities lie in ruin and are populated only marauders and street gangs, the more peaceful-minded people having fled to the countryside long ago. In scattered locations along major rivers, coastlines, or within small pockets of land, tiny communities have formed and eke out an existence from the surrounding countryside.

At this point, it is unclear if humanity will recover or remain at the level of a pre-industrial civilization forever. One thing seems clear, that humanity will not go extinct just yet. With so many pockets spread across the entire planet, no single fate could claim all of them anytime soon. At least, one can hope that it won’t.

3. Dog Days:
arcology_lillypadThe world continues to endure recession as resource shortages, high food prices, and diminishing space for real estate continue to plague the global economy. Fuel prices remain high, and opposition to new drilling and oil and natural gas extraction are being blamed. Add to that the crushing burdens of displacement and flooding that is costing governments billions of dollars a year, and you have life as we know it.

The smart money appears to be in offshore real-estate, where Lillypad cities and Arcologies are being built along the coastlines of the world. Already, habitats have been built in Boston, New York, New Orleans, Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong and the south of France, and more are expected in the coming years. These are the most promising solution of what to do about the constant flooding and damage being caused by rising tides and increased coastal storms.

In these largely self-contained cities, those who can afford space intend to wait out the worst. It is expected that by the mid-point of the 22nd century, virtually all major ocean-front cities will be abandoned and those that sit on major waterways will be protected by huge levies. Farmland will also be virtually non-existent except within the Polar Belts, which means the people living in the most populous regions of the world will either have to migrate or die.

No one knows how the world’s 9 billion will endure in that time, but for the roughly 100 million living at sea, it’s not a going concern.

4. Technological Plateau:
computer_chip4Computers have reached a threshold of speed and processing power. Despite the discovery of graphene, the use of optical components, and the development of quantum computing/internet principles, it now seems that machines are as smart as they will ever be. That is to say, they are only slightly more intelligent than humans, and still can’t seem to beat the Turing Test with any consistency.

It seems the long awaited-for explosion in learning and intelligence predicted by Von Neumann, Kurzweil and Vinge seems to have fallen flat. That being said, life is getting better. With all the advances turned towards finding solutions to humanity’s problems, alternative energy, medicine, cybernetics and space exploration are still growing apace; just not as fast or awesomely as people in the previous century had hoped.

Missions to Mars have been mounted, but a colony on that world is still a long ways away. A settlement on the Moon has been built, but mainly to monitor the research and solar energy concerns that exist there. And the problem of global food shortages and CO2 emissions is steadily declining. It seems that the words “sane planning, sensible tomorrow” have come to characterize humanity’s existence. Which is good… not great, but good.

Humanity’s greatest expectations may have yielded some disappointment, but everyone agrees that things could have been a hell of a lot worse!

5. The Green Revolution:
MarsGreenhouse2The global population has reached 10 billion. But the good news is, its been that way for several decades. Thanks to smart housing, hydroponics and urban farms, hunger and malnutrition have been eliminated. The needs of the Earth’s people are also being met by a combination of wind, solar, tidal, geothermal and fusion power. And though space is not exactly at a premium, there is little want for housing anymore.

Additive manufacturing, biomanufacturing and nanomanufacturing have all led to an explosion in how public spaces are built and administered. Though it has led to the elimination of human construction and skilled labor, the process is much safer, cleaner, efficient, and has ensured that anything built within the past half-century is harmonious with the surrounding environment.

This explosion is geological engineering is due in part to settlement efforts on Mars and the terraforming of Venus. Building a liveable environment on one and transforming the acidic atmosphere on the other have helped humanity to test key technologies and processes used to end global warming and rehabilitate the seas and soil here on Earth. Over 100,000 people now call themselves “Martian”, and an additional 10,000 Venusians are expected before long.

Colonization is an especially attractive prospect for those who feel that Earth is too crowded, too conservative, and lacking in personal space…

6. Intrepid Explorers:
spacex-icarus-670Humanity has successfully colonized Mars, Venus, and is busy settling the many moons of the outer Solar System. Current population statistics indicate that over 50 billion people now live on a dozen worlds, and many are feeling the itch for adventure. With deep-space exploration now practical, thanks to the development of the Alcubierre Warp Drive, many missions have been mounted to explore and colonizing neighboring star systems.

These include Earth’s immediate neighbor, Alpha Centauri, but also the viable star systems of Tau Ceti, Kapteyn, Gliese 581, Kepler 62, HD 85512, and many more. With so many Earth-like, potentially habitable planets in the near-universe and now within our reach, nothing seems to stand between us and the dream of an interstellar human race. Mission to find extra-terrestrial intelligence are even being plotted.

This is one prospect humanity both anticipates and fears. While it is clear that no sentient life exists within the local group of star systems, our exploration of the cosmos has just begun. And if our ongoing scientific surveys have proven anything, it is that the conditions for life exist within many star systems and on many worlds. No telling when we might find one that has produced life of comparable complexity to our own, but time will tell.

One can only imagine what they will look like. One can only imagine if they are more or less advanced than us. And most importantly, one can only hope that they will be friendly…

7. Post-Humanity:
artificial-intelligence1Cybernetics, biotechnology, and nanotechnology have led to an era of enhancement where virtually every human being has evolved beyond its biological limitations. Advanced medicine, digital sentience and cryonics have prolonged life indefinitely, and when someone is facing death, they can preserve their neural patterns or their brain for all time by simply uploading or placing it into stasis.

Both of these options have made deep-space exploration a reality. Preserved human beings launch themselves towards expoplanets, while the neural uploads of explorers spend decades or even centuries traveling between solar systems aboard tiny spaceships. Space penetrators are fired in all directions to telexplore the most distant worlds, with the information being beamed back to Earth via quantum communications.

It is an age of posts – post-scarcity, post-mortality, and post-humansim. Despite the existence of two billion organics who have minimal enhancement, there appears to be no stopping the trend. And with the breakneck pace at which life moves around them, it is expected that the unenhanced – “organics” as they are often known – will migrate outward to Europa, Ganymede, Titan, Oberon, and the many space habitats that dot the outer Solar System.

Presumably, they will mount their own space exploration in the coming decades to find new homes abroad in interstellar space, where their kind can expect not to be swept aside by the unstoppable tide of progress.

8. Star Children:
nanomachineryEarth is no more. The Sun is now a mottled, of its old self. Surrounding by many layers of computronium, our parent star has gone from being the source of all light and energy in our solar system to the energy source that powers the giant Dyson Swarm at the center of our universe. Within this giant Matrioshka Brain, trillions of human minds live out an existence as quantum-state neural patterns, living indefinitely in simulated realities.

Within the outer Solar System and beyond lie billions more, enhanced trans and post-humans who have opted for an “Earthly” existence amongst the planets and stars. However, life seems somewhat limited out in those parts, very rustic compared to the infinite bandwidth and computational power of inner Solar System. And with this strange dichotomy upon them, the human race suspects that it might have solved the Fermi Paradox.

If other sentient life can be expected to have followed a similar pattern of technological development as the human race, then surely they too have evolved to the point where the majority of their species lives in Dyson Swarms around their parent Sun. Venturing beyond holds little appeal, as it means moving away from the source of bandwidth and becoming isolated. Hopefully, enough of them are adventurous enough to meet humanity partway…

_____

Which will come true? Who’s to say? Whether its apocalyptic destruction or runaway technological evolution, cataclysmic change is expected and could very well threaten our existence. Personally, I’m hoping for something in the scenario 5 and/or 6 range. It would be nice to know that both humanity and the world it originated from will survive the coming centuries!

The Future of Medicine: The Era of Artificial Hearts

05Between artificial knees, total hip replacements, cataract surgery, hearing aids, dentures, and cochlear implants, we are a society that is fast becoming transhuman. Basically, this means we are dedicated to improving human health through substitution and augmentation of our body parts. Lately, bioprinting has begun offering solutions for replacement organs; but so far, a perfectly healthy heart, has remained elusive.

Heart disease is the number one killer in North America, comparable only to strokes, and claiming nearly 600,000 lives every year in the US and 70,000 in Canada. But radical new medical technology may soon change that. There have been over 1,000 artificial heart transplant surgeries carried out in humans over the last 35 years, and over 11,000 more heart surgeries where valve pumps were installed have also been performed.

artificial-heart-abiocor-implantingAnd earlier this month, a major step was taken when the French company Carmat implanted a permanent artificial heart in a patient. This was the second time in history that this company performed a total artificial heart implant, the first time being back in December when they performed the implant surgery on a 76-year-old man in which no additional donor heart was sought. This was a major development for two reasons.

For one, robotic organs are still limited to acting as a temporary bridge to buy patients precious time until a suitable biological heart becomes available. Second, transplanted biological hearts, while often successful, are very difficult to come by due to a shortage of suitable organs. Over 100,000 people around the world at any given time are waiting for a heart and there simply are not enough healthy hearts available for the thousands who need them.

carmat_heartThis shortage has prompted numerous medical companies to begin looking into the development of artificial hearts, where the creation of a successful and permanent robotic heart could generate billions of dollars and help revolutionize medicine and health care. Far from being a stopgap or temporary measure, these new hearts would be designed to last many years, maybe someday extending patients lives indefinitely.

Carmat – led by co-founder and heart transplant specialist Dr. Alain Carpentier – spent 25 years developing the heart. The device weighs three times that of an average human heart, is made of soft “biomaterials,” and operates off a five-year lithium battery. The key difference between Carmat’s heart and past efforts is that Carmat’s is self-regulating, and actively seeks to mimic the real human heart, via an array of sophisticated sensors.

carmat-artificial-heartUnfortunately, the patient who received the first Carmat heart died prematurely only a few months after its installation. Early indications showed that there was a short circuit in the device, but Carmat is still investigating the details of the death. On September 5th, however, another patient in France received the Carmat heart, and according to French Minister Marisol Touraine the “intervention confirms that heart transplant procedures are entering a new era.”

More than just pumping blood, future artificial hearts are expected to bring numerous other advantages with them. Futurists and developers predict they will have computer chips and wi-fi capacity built into them, and people could be able to control their hearts with smart phones, tuning down its pumping capacity when they want to sleep, or tuning it up when they want to run marathons.

carmat_heart1The benefits are certainly apparent in this. With people able to tailor their own heart rates, they could control their stress reaction (thus eliminating the need for Xanax and beta blockers) and increase the rate of blood flow to ensure maximum physical performance. Future artificial hearts may also replace the need for some doctor visits and physicals, since it will be able to monitor health and vitals and relay that information to a database or device.

In fact, much of the wearable medical tech that is in vogue right now will likely become obsolete once the artificial heart arrives in its perfected form. Naturally, health experts would find this problematic, since our hearts respond to our surroundings for a reason, and such stimuli could very well have  unintended consequences. People tampering with their own heart rate could certainly do so irresponsibly, and end up causing damage other parts of their body.

carmat_heart2One major downside of artificial hearts is their exposure to being hacked thanks to their Wi-Fi capability. If organized criminals, an authoritarian government, or malignant hackers were dedicated enough, they could cause targeted heart failure. Viruses could also be sent into the heart’s software, or the password to the app controlling your heart could be stolen and misused.

Naturally, there are also some critics who worry that, beyond the efficacy of the device itself, an artificial heart is too large a step towards becoming a cyborg. This is certainly true when it comes to all artificial replacements, such as limbs and biomedical implants, technology which is already available. Whenever a new device or technique is revealed, the specter of “cyborgs” is raised with uncomfortable implications.

transhuman3However, the benefit of an artificial heart is that it will be hidden inside the body, and it will soon be better than the real thing. And given that it could mean the difference between life and death, there are likely to be millions of people who will want one and are even willing to electively line up for one once they become available. The biggest dilemma with the heart will probably be affordability.

Currently, the Carmat heart costs about $200,000. However, this is to be expected when a new technology is still in its early development phase. In a few years time, when the technology becomes more widely available, it will likely drop in price to the point that they become much more affordable. And in time, it will be joined by other biotechnological replacements that, while artificial, are an undeniably improvement on the real thing.

The era of the Transhumanism looms!

Source: motherboard.vice.com, carmatsa.com, cdc.gov, heartandstroke.com

The Future of Medicine: Muscle-Powered Pacemaker

piezoelectric-pacemakerOver the past few decades, cardiac pacemakers have improved to the point that they have become a commonplace medical implant that have helped improve or save the lives of millions around the world. Unfortunately, the battery technology that is used to power these devices has not kept pace. Every seven years they need to be replaced, a process which requires further surgery.

To address this problem, a group of researchers from Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) has developed a cardiac pacemaker that is powered by harnessing energy from the body’s own muscles. The research team, headed by Professor Keon Jae Lee of KAIST and Professor Boyoung Joung, M.D. at Severance Hospital of Yonsei University, has created a flexible piezoelectric nanogenerator can keep a pacemaker running almost indefinitely.

piezoelectric_nanogeneratorTo test the device, Lee, Joung and their research team implanted the pacemaker into a live rat and watched as it produced electrical energy using nothing but small body movements. Based on earlier experiments with piezoelectric generator technology used by KAIST to produce a low-cost, large area version, the team created their new high-performance flexible nanogenerator from a thin film semiconductor material.

In this case, lead magnesium niobate-lead titanate (PMN-PT) was used rather than the graphene oxide and carbon nanotubes of previous versions. As a result, the new device was able to harvest up to 8.2 V and 0.22 mA of electrical energy as a result of small flexing motions of the nanogenerator. This voltage was sufficient enough to stimulate the rat’s heart directly.

pacemaker3The direct benefit of this experimental technology could be in the production and use of self-powered flexible energy generators that could increase the life of cardiac pacemakers, reduce the risks associated with repeated surgeries to replace pacemaker batteries, and even provide a way to power other implanted medical monitoring devices. As Professor Keon Jae Lee explains:

For clinical purposes, the current achievement will benefit the development of self-powered cardiac pacemakers as well as prevent heart attacks via the real-time diagnosis of heart arrhythmia. In addition, the flexible piezoelectric nanogenerator could also be utilized as an electrical source for various implantable medical devices.

Other self-powering experimental technologies for cardiac pacemakers have sought to provide energy from the beating of the heart itself, or from external sources, such as in light-controlled non-viral optogenetics.But the KAIST pacemaker appears to be the first practical version to demonstrate real promise in living laboratory animals and, with any luck, human patients in the not-too-distant future.

heart_patchesAnd while this does represent a major step forward in the field of piezoelectrics – a technology that could power everything from personal devices to entire communities by harnessing kinetic energy – it is also a boon for non-invasive medicine and energy self-sufficiency.

And be sure to check out this video of the pacemaker at work, courtesy of KAIST and the Severance Hospital of Yonsei University:


Sources: gizmag.com, circep.ahajournals.org, kaist.edu

Immortality Inc: Google’s Kurzweil Talks Life Extension

calico-header-640x353Human life expectancy has been gradually getting longer and longer over the past century, keeping pace with advances made in health and medical technologies. And in the next 20 years, as the pace of technological change accelerates significantly, we can expect life-expectancy to undergo a similarly accelerated increase. So its only natural that one of the worlds biggest tech giants (Google) would decide to becoming invested in the business of post-mortality.

As part of this initiative, Google has been seeking to build a computer that can think like a human brain. They even hired renowed futurist and AI expert Ray Kurzweil last year to act as the director of engineering on this project. Speaking at Google’s I/O conference late last month, he detailed his prediction that our ability to improve human health is beginning to move up an “exponential” growth curve, similar to the law of accelerating returns that governs the information technology and communications sectors today.

raykurzweilThe capacity to sequence DNA, which is dropping rapidly in cost and ease, is the most obvious example. At one time, it took about seven years to sequence 1% of the first human genome. But now, it can be done in a matter of hours. And thanks to initiatives like the Human Genome Project and ENCODE, we have not only successfully mapped every inch of the human genome, we’ve also identified the function of every gene within.

But as Kurzweil said in the course of his presentation – entitled “Biologically Inspired Models of Intelligence” – simply reading DNA is only the beginning:

Our ability to reprogram this outdated software is growing exponentially. Somewhere between that 10- and 20-year mark, we’ll see see significant differences in life expectancy–not just infant life expectancy, but your remaining life expectancy. The models that are used by life insurance companies sort of continue the linear progress we’ve made before health and medicine was an information technology… This is going to go into high gear.

immortality_dnaKurzweil cited several examples of our increasing ability to “reprogram this outdated data” – technologies like RNA interference that can turn genes on and off, or doctors’ ability to now add a missing gene to patients with a terminal disease called pulmonary hypertension. He cited the case of a girl whose life was threatened by a damaged wind pipe, who had a new pipe designed and 3-D printed for her using her own stem cells.

In other countries, he notes, heart attack survivors who have lasting heart damage can now get a rejuvenated heart from reprogrammed stem cells. And while this procedure awaits approval from the FDA in the US, it has already been demonstrated to be both safe and effective. Beyond tweaking human biology through DNA/RNA reprogramming, there are also countless initiatives aimed at creating biomonitoring patches that will improve the functionality and longevity of human organs.

avatar_imageAnd in addition to building computer brains, Google itself is also in the business of extending human life. This project, called Calico, hopes to slow the process of natural aging, a related though different goal than extending life expectancy with treatment for disease. Though of course, the term “immortality” is perhaps a bit of misnomer, hence why it is amended with the word “clinical”. While the natural effects of aging are something that can be addressed, there will still be countless ways to die.

As Kurzweil himself put it:

Life expectancy is a statistical phenomenon. You could still be hit by the proverbial bus tomorrow. Of course, we’re working on that here at Google also, with self-driving cars.

Good one, Kurzweil! Of course, there are plenty of skeptics who question the validity of these assertions, and challenge the notion of clinical immortality on ethical grounds. After all, our planet currently plays host to some 7 billion people, and another 2 to 3 billion are expected to be added before we reach the halfway mark of this century. And with cures for diseases like HIV and cancer already showing promise, we may already be looking at a severe drop in mortality in the coming decades.

calico1Combined with an extension in life-expectancy, who knows how this will effect life and society as we know it? But one thing is for certain: the study of life has become tantamount to a study of information. And much like computational technology, this information can be manipulated, resulting in greater performance and returns. So at this point, regardless of whether or not it should be done, it’s an almost foregone conclusion that it will be done.

After all? While very few people would dare to live forever, there is virtually no one who wouldn’t want to live a little longer. And in the meantime, if you’ve got the time and feel like some “light veiwing”, be sure to check out Kurzweil’s full Google I/O 2014 speech in which he addresses the topics of computing, artificial intelligence, biology and clinical immortality:


Sources: fastcoexist.com, kurzweilai.net

First Ever Organism with “Alien” DNA

alien-dna-640x353Normal DNA, which is characterized by the double helix and its the four bases that bond it together – known as T, G, A, and C – is at the heart of all living organisms. While permutations and differences exist between species, this basic structure has existed unchanged for billions of years. That is, until now. This past May, researchers announced that they had created the first ever organism with synthetic DNA that has two new bases – X and Y. Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells must be turning over in their graves, as scientists are officially playing God now!

This landmark study, 15 years in the making, was carried out by scientists at the Scripps Research Institute and published in Nature today under the title “A semi-synthetic organism with an expanded genetic alphabet”. In normal DNA, the four bases combine in predictable ways. A always bonds with T, and C always bonds with G, creating a fairly simple “language” of base pairs — ATCGAAATGCC, etc. Combine a few dozen base pairs together in a long strand of DNA and you then have a gene, which tells the organism how to produce a certain protein.

DNA-MicroarrayIf you know the sequence of letters down one strand of the helix, you always know what other letter is. This “complementarity” is the fundamental reason why a DNA helix can be split down the middle, and then have the other half perfectly recreated. In this new study, the Scripps scientists found a method of inserting a new base pair into the DNA of an e. coli bacterium. These two new bases are represented by the letters X and Y, but the actual chemicals are described as “d5SICS” and “dNaM.”

A previous in vitro (test tube) study had shown that these two chemicals were compatible with the enzymes that split and copy DNA. For the purposes of this study, the scientists began by genetically engineering an e. coli bacterium to allow the new chemicals (d5SICS and dNaM) through the cell membrane. Then they inserted a DNA plasmid (a small loop of DNA) that contained a single XY base pair into the bacterium.

dnaheadAs long as the new chemicals were available, the bacterium continued to reproduce normally, copying and passing on the new DNA, alien plasmid and all, and continued to carry on flawlessly for almost a week. For now, the XY base pair does nothing; it just sits there in the DNA, waiting to be copied. In this form, it could be used as biological data storage which, as a new form of biocomputing, could result in hundreds of terabytes of data being stored in a single gram of synthetic, alien DNA. 

Floyd Romesberg, who led the research, has much grander plans:

If you read a book that was written with four letters, you’re not going to be able to tell many interesting stories. If you’re given more letters, you can invent new words, you can find new ways to use those words and you can probably tell more interesting stories.

Now his target is to find a way of getting the alien DNA to actually do something, such as producing amino acids (and thus proteins) that aren’t found in nature. If Romesberg and his colleagues can crack that nut, then it will suddenly become possible to engineer cells that produce proteins that target cancer cells, or special amino acids that help with fluorescent microscopy, or new drugs/gene therapies that do weird and wonderful things.

dna_cancerUltimately it may even be possible to create a wholly synthetic organism with DNA that contains dozens (or hundreds) of different base pairs that can produce an almost infinitely complex library of amino acids and proteins. At that point, we’d basically be rewriting some four billion years of evolution. The organisms and creatures that would arise would be unrecognizable, and be capable of just about anything that a researcher (or mad scientist) could dream up.

In the future, this breakthrough should allow for the creation of highly customized organisms – bacteria, animals, humans – that behave in weird and wonderful ways that mundane four-base DNA would never allow. At the same time, it raises ethical dilemmas and fears that may be well founded. But such is the nature of breakthroughs. The potential for harm and good are always presumably equal when they are firts conceived.

Source: extremetech.com

Frontiers of Neuroscience: Neurohacking and Neuromorphics

neural-network-consciousness-downloading-640x353It is one of the hallmarks of our rapidly accelerating times: looking at the state of technology, how it is increasingly being merged with our biology, and contemplating the ultimate leap of merging mind and machinery. The concept has been popular for many decades now, and with experimental procedures showing promise, neuroscience being used to inspire the next great leap in computing, and the advance of biomedicine and bionics, it seems like just a matter of time before people can “hack” their neurology too.

Take Kevin Tracey, a researcher working for the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, N.Y., as an example. Back in 1998, he began conducting experiments to show that an interface existed between the immune and nervous system. Building on ten years worth of research, he was able to show how inflammation – which is associated with rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease – can be fought by administering electrical stimulu, in the right doses, to the vagus nerve cluster.

Brain-ScanIn so doing, he demonstrated that the nervous system was like a computer terminal through which you could deliver commands to stop a problem, like acute inflammation, before it starts, or repair a body after it gets sick.  His work also seemed to indicate that electricity delivered to the vagus nerve in just the right intensity and at precise intervals could reproduce a drug’s therapeutic reaction, but with greater effectiveness, minimal health risks, and at a fraction of the cost of “biologic” pharmaceuticals.

Paul Frenette, a stem-cell researcher at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, is another example. After discovering the link between the nervous system and prostate tumors, he and his colleagues created SetPoint –  a startup dedicated to finding ways to manipulate neural input to delay the growth of tumors. These and other efforts are part of the growing field of bioelectronics, where researchers are creating implants that can communicate directly with the nervous system in order to try to fight everything from cancer to the common cold.

human-hippocampus-640x353Impressive as this may seem, bioelectronics are just part of the growing discussion about neurohacking. In addition to the leaps and bounds being made in the field of brain-to-computer interfacing (and brain-to-brain interfacing), that would allow people to control machinery and share thoughts across vast distances, there is also a field of neurosurgery that is seeking to use the miracle material of graphene to solve some of the most challenging issues in their field.

Given graphene’s rather amazing properties, this should not come as much of a surprise. In addition to being incredibly thin, lightweight, and light-sensitive (it’s able to absorb light in both the UV and IR range) graphene also a very high surface area (2630 square meters per gram) which leads to remarkable conductivity. It also has the ability to bind or bioconjugate with various modifier molecules, and hence transform its behavior. 

brainscan_MRIAlready, it is being considered as a possible alternative to copper wires to break the energy efficiency barrier in computing, and even useful in quantum computing. But in the field of neurosurgery, where researchers are looking to develop materials that can bridge and even stimulate nerves. And in a story featured in latest issue of Neurosurgery, the authors suggest thatgraphene may be ideal as an electroactive scaffold when configured as a three-dimensional porous structure.

That might be a preferable solution when compared with other currently vogue ideas like using liquid metal alloys as bridges. Thanks to Samsung’s recent research into using graphene in their portable devices, it has also been shown to make an ideal E-field stimulator. And recent experiments on mice in Korea showed that a flexible, transparent, graphene skin could be used as a electrical field stimulator to treat cerebral hypoperfusion by stimulating blood flow through the brain.

Neuromorphic-chip-640x353And what look at the frontiers of neuroscience would be complete without mentioning neuromorphic engineering? Whereas neurohacking and neurosurgery are looking for ways to merge technology with the human brain to combat disease and improve its health, NE is looking to the human brain to create computational technology with improved functionality. The result thus far has been a wide range of neuromorphic chips and components, such as memristors and neuristors.

However, as a whole, the field has yet to define for itself a clear path forward. That may be about to change thanks to Jennifer Hasler and a team of researchers at Georgia Tech, who recently published a roadmap to the future of neuromorphic engineering with the end goal of creating the human-brain equivalent of processing. This consisted of Hasler sorting through the many different approaches for the ultimate embodiment of neurons in silico and come up with the technology that she thinks is the way forward.

neuromorphic-chip-fpaaHer answer is not digital simulation, but rather the lesser known technology of FPAAs (Field-Programmable Analog Arrays). FPAAs are similar to digital FPGAs (Field-Programmable Gate Arrays), but also include reconfigurable analog elements. They have been around on the sidelines for a few years, but they have been used primarily as so-called “analog glue logic” in system integration. In short, they would handle a variety of analog functions that don’t fit on a traditional integrated circuit.

Hasler outlines an approach where desktop neuromorphic systems will use System on a Chip (SoC) approaches to emulate billions of low-power neuron-like elements that compute using learning synapses. Each synapse has an adjustable strength associated with it and is modeled using just a single transistor. Her own design for an FPAA board houses hundreds of thousands of programmable parameters which enable systems-level computing on a scale that dwarfs other FPAA designs.

neuromorphic_revolutionAt the moment, she predicts that human brain-equivalent systems will require a reduction in power usage to the point where they are consuming just one-eights of what digital supercomputers that are currently used to simulate neuromorphic systems require. Her own design can account for a four-fold reduction in power usage, but the rest is going to have to come from somewhere else – possibly through the use of better materials (i.e. graphene or one of its derivatives).

Hasler also forecasts that using soon to be available 10nm processes, a desktop system with human-like processing power that consumes just 50 watts of electricity may eventually be a reality. These will likely take the form of chips with millions of neuron-like skeletons connected by billion of synapses firing to push each other over the edge, and who’s to say what they will be capable of accomplishing or what other breakthroughs they will make possible?

posthuman-evolutionIn the end, neuromorphic chips and technology are merely one half of the equation. In the grand scheme of things, the aim of all of this research is not only produce technology that can ensure better biology, but technology inspired by biology to create better machinery. The end result of this, according to some, is a world in which biology and technology increasingly resemble each other, to the point that they is barely a distinction to be made and they can be merged.

Charles Darwin would roll over in his grave!

Sources: nytimes.com, extremetech.com, (2), journal.frontiersin.orgpubs.acs.org