The Future is… Worms: Life Extension and Computer-Simulations

genetic_circuitPost-mortality is considered by most to be an intrinsic part of the so-called Technological Singularity. For centuries, improvements in medicine, nutrition and health have led to improved life expectancy. And in an age where so much more is possible – thanks to cybernetics, bio, nano, and medical advances – it stands to reason that people will alter their physique in order slow the onset of age and extend their lives even more.

And as research continues, new and exciting finds are being made that would seem to indicate that this future may be just around the corner. And at the heart of it may be a series of experiments involving worms. At the Buck Institute for Research and Aging in California, researchers have been tweaking longevity-related genes in nematode worms in order to amplify their lifespans.

immortal_wormsAnd the latest results caught even the researchers by surprise. By triggering mutations in two pathways known for lifespan extension – mutations that inhibit key molecules involved in insulin signaling (IIS) and the nutrient signaling pathway Target of Rapamycin (TOR) – they created an unexpected feedback effect that amplified the lifespan of the worms by a factor of five.

Ordinarily, a tweak to the TOR pathway results in a 30% lifespan extension in C. Elegans worms, while mutations in IIS (Daf-2) results in a doubling of lifespan. By combining the mutations, the researchers were expecting something around a 130% extension to lifespan. Instead, the worms lived the equivalent of about 400 to 500 human years.

antiagingAs Doctor Pankaj Kapahi said in an official statement:

Instead, what we have here is a synergistic five-fold increase in lifespan. The two mutations set off a positive feedback loop in specific tissues that amplified lifespan. These results now show that combining mutants can lead to radical lifespan extension — at least in simple organisms like the nematode worm.

The positive feedback loop, say the researchers, originates in the germline tissue of worms – a sequence of reproductive cells that may be passed onto successive generations. This may be where the interactions between the two mutations are integrated; and if correct, might apply to the pathways of more complex organisms. Towards that end, Kapahi and his team are looking to perform similar experiments in mice.

DNA_antiagingBut long-term, Kapahi says that a similar technique could be used to produce therapies for aging in humans. It’s unlikely that it would result in the dramatic increase to lifespan seen in worms, but it could be significant nonetheless. For example, the research could help explain why scientists are having a difficult time identifying single genes responsible for the long lives experienced by human centenarians:

In the early years, cancer researchers focused on mutations in single genes, but then it became apparent that different mutations in a class of genes were driving the disease process. The same thing is likely happening in aging. It’s quite probable that interactions between genes are critical in those fortunate enough to live very long, healthy lives.

A second worm-related story comes from the OpenWorm project, an international open source project dedicated to the creation of a bottom-up computer model of a millimeter-sized nemotode. As one of the simplest known multicellular life forms on Earth, it is considered a natural starting point for creating computer-simulated models of organic beings.

openworm-nematode-roundworm-simulation-artificial-lifeIn an important step forward, OpenWorm researchers have completed the simulation of the nematode’s 959 cells, 302 neurons, and 95 muscle cells and their worm is wriggling around in fine form. However, despite this basic simplicity, the nematode is not without without its share of complex behaviors, such as feeding, reproducing, and avoiding being eaten.

To model the complex behavior of this organism, the OpenWorm collaboration (which began in May 2013) is developing a bottom-up description. This involves making models of the individual worm cells and their interactions, based on their observed functionality in the real-world nematodes. Their hope is that realistic behavior will emerge if the individual cells act on each other as they do in the real organism.

openworm-nematode-roundworm-simulation-artificial-life-0Fortunately, we know a lot about these nematodes. The complete cellular structure is known, as well as rather comprehensive information concerning the behavior of the thing in reaction to its environment. Included in our knowledge is the complete connectome, a comprehensive map of neural connections (synapses) in the worm’s nervous system.

The big question is, assuming that the behavior of the simulated worms continues to agree with the real thing, at what stage might it be reasonable to call it a living organism? The usual definition of living organisms is behavioral, that they extract usable energy from their environment, maintain homeostasis, possess a capacity to grow, respond to stimuli, reproduce, and adapt to their environment in successive generations.

openworm-nematode1If the simulation exhibits these behaviors, combined with realistic responses to its external environment, should we consider it to be alive? And just as importantly, what tests would be considered to test such a hypothesis? One possibility is an altered version of the Turing test – Alan Turing’s proposed idea for testing whether or not a computer could be called sentient.

In the Turing test, a computer is considered sentient and sapient if it can simulate the responses of a conscious sentient being so that an auditor can’t tell the difference. A modified Turing test might say that a simulated organism is alive if a skeptical biologist cannot, after thorough study of the simulation, identify a behavior that argues against the organism being alive.

openworm-nematode2And of course, this raises an even larger questions. For one, is humanity on the verge of creating “artificial life”? And what, if anything, does that really look like? Could it just as easily be in the form of computer simulations as anthropomorphic robots and biomachinery? And if the answer to any of these questions is yes, then what exactly does that say about our preconceived notions about what life is?

If humanity is indeed moving into an age of “artificial life”, and from several different directions, it is probably time that we figure out what differentiates the living from the nonliving. Structure? Behavior? DNA? Local reduction of entropy? The good news is that we don’t have to answer that question right away. Chances are, we wouldn’t be able to at any rate.

Brain-ScanAnd though it might not seem apparent, there is a connection between the former and latter story here. In addition to being able to prolong life through genetic engineering, the ability to simulate consciousness through computer-generated constructs might just prove a way to cheat death in the future. If complex life forms and connectomes (like that involved in the human brain) can be simulated, then people may be able to transfer their neural patterns before death and live on in simulated form indefinitely.

So… anti-aging, artificial life forms, and the potential for living indefinitely. And to think that it all begins with the simplest multicellular life form on Earth – the nemotode worm. But then again, all life – nay, all of existence – depends upon the most simple of interactions, which in turn give rise to more complex behaviors and organisms. Where else would we expect the next leap in biotechnological evolution to come from?

And in the meantime, be sure to enjoy this video of the OpenWorm’s simulated nemotode in action

IO9,, gizmag, openworm

Judgement Day Update: The Human Brain Project

brain_chip2Biomimetics are one of the fastest growing areas of technology today, which seek to develop technology that is capable of imitating biology. The purpose of this, in addition to creating machinery that can be merged with our physiology, is to arrive at a computing architecture that is as complex and sophisticated as the human brain.

While this might sound the slightest bit anthropocentric, it is important to remember that despite their processing power, supercomputers like the D-Wave Two, IBM’s Blue Gene/Q Sequoia, or MIT’s ConceptNet 4, have all shown themselves to be lacking when it comes to common sense and abstract reasoning. Simply pouring raw computing power into the mix does not make for autonomous intelligence.

IBM_Blue_Gene_P_supercomputerAs a result of this, new steps are being taken to crate a computer that can mimic the very organ that gives humanity these abilities – the human brain. In what is surely the most ambitious step towards this goal to date, an international group of researchers recently announced the formation of the Human Brain Project. Having secured the $1.6 billion they need to fund their efforts, these researchers will spend the next ten years conducting research that cuts across multiple disciplines.

This will involve mapping out the vast network known as the human brain – a network composed of over a hundred billion neuronal connections that are the source of emotions, abstract thought, and this thing we know as consciousness. And to do so, the researchers will be using a progressively scaled-up multilayered simulation running on a supercomputer.

Human-Brain-project-Alp-ICTConcordant with this bold plan, the team itself is made up of over 200 scientists from 80 different research institutions from around the world. Based in Lausanne, Switzerland, this initiative is being put forth by the European Commission, and has even been compared to the Large Hadron Collider in terms of scope and ambition. In fact, some have taken to calling it the “Cern for the brain.”

According to scientists working on the project, the HBP will attempt to reconstruct the human brain piece-by-piece and gradually bring these cognitive components into the overarching supercomputer. The expected result of this research will be new platforms for “neuromorphic computing” and “neurorobotics,” allowing for the creation of computing and robotic architectures that mimick the functions of the human brain.

^According to a statement released by the HBP, Swedish Nobel Laureate Torsten Wiesel had this to say about the project:

The support of the HBP is a critical step taken by the EC to make possible major advances in our understanding of how the brain works. HBP will be a driving force to develop new and still more powerful computers to handle the massive accumulation of new information about the brain, while the neuroscientists are ready to use these new tools in their laboratories. This cooperation should lead to new concepts and a deeper understanding of the brain, the most complex and intricate creation on earth.

Other distinguished individuals who were quoted in the release include President Shimon Peres of Israel, Paul G. Allen, the founder of the Allen Institute for Brain Science; Patrick Aebischer, the President of EPFL in Switzerland; Harald Kainz, Rector of Graz University of Technology, Graz, Austria; as well as a slew of other politicians and academics.

Combined with other research institutions that are producing computer chips and processors that are modelled on the human brain, and our growing understanding of the human connectome, I think it would be safe to say that by the time the HBP wraps up, we are likely to see processors that are capable of demonstrating intelligence, not just in terms of processing speed and memory, but in terms of basic reasoning as well.

At that point, we really out to consider instituting Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics! Otherwise, things could get apocalyptic on our asses! 😉


The Future is Here: The Neuromimetic Processor

Neuromorphic-chip-640x353It’s known as mimetic technology, machinery that mimics the function and behavior of organic life. For some time, scientists have been using this philosophy to further develop computing, a process which many believe to be paradoxical. In gleaming inspiration from the organic world to design better computers, scientists are basically creating the machinery that could lead to better organics.

But when it comes to Neuromoprhic processors, computers that mimic the function of the human brain, scientists have been lagging behind sequential computing. For instance, IBM announced this past November that its Blue Gene/Q Sequoia supercomputer could clock 16 quadrillion calculations per second, and could crudely simulate more than 530 billion neurons – roughly five times that of a human brain. However, doing this required 8 megawatts of power, enough to power 1600 homes.

connectomeHowever, Kwabena Boahen, a bioengineering professor at Stanford University recently developed a new computing platform that he calls the “Neurogrid”. Each Neurogrid board, running at only 5 watts, can simulate detailed neuronal activity of one million neurons — and it can now do it in real time. Giving the processing to cost ratio in electricity, this means that his new chip is roughly 100,000 times more efficient than other supercomputer.

What’s more, its likely to mean the wide-scale adoption of processors that mimic human neuronal behavior over traditional computer chips. Whereas sequential computing relies on simulated ion-channels to create software-generated “neurons”, the neuromorphic approach involves the flow of ions through channels in a way that emulates the flow of electrons through transistors. Basically, the difference in emulation is a difference between software that mimics the behavior, and hardware.

AI_picWhat’s more, its likely to be a major stepping stone towards the creation of AI and MMI. That’s Artificial Intelligence and Man-Machine Interface for those who don’t speak geek. With computer chips imitating human brains and achieving a measure of intelligence which can be measured in terms of neurons and connections, the likelihood that they will be able to merge with a person’s brain, and thus augment their intelligence, becomes that much more likely.


Immortality Is On The Way!

William Gibson must get a kick out of news items like these. According to a recent article over at IO9, it seems that an entrepreneur named Dmitry Itskova and a team of Russian scientists are developing a project that could render humans immortal by the year 2045, after a fashion. According to the plan, which is called the 2045 Initiative, they hope to create a fully functional, holographic avatar of a human being.

At the core of this avatar will be an artificial brain containing all the thoughts, memories, and emotions of the person being simulated. Given the advancements in the field of computer technology, which includes the Google Neural Net, the team estimates that it won’t be long before a construct can be made which can store the sum total of a human’s mind.

If this concept sounds familiar, then chances are you’ve been reading either from Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy or Ray Kurzweil’s wishlist. Intrinsic to the former’s cyberpunk novels and the latter’s futurist predictions is the concept of people being able to merge their intelligence with machines for the sake of preserving their very essence for all time. Men like Kurzweil want this technology because it will ensure them the ability to live forever, while novelists like Gibson predicted that this would be something the mega-rich alone would have access to.

Which brings me to another aspect of this project. It seems that Itskova has gone to great lengths to secure investment capital to realize this dream. This included an open letter to roughly the world’s 1226 wealthiest citizens, everybody on Forbes Magazine’s list of the world’s richest people, offering them a chance to invest and make their mark on history. If any of them have already chosen to invest, it’s pretty obvious why. Being so rich and powerful, they can’t be too crazy about the idea of dying. In addition, the process isn’t likely to come cheap. Hence, if and when the technology is realized, the world’s richest people will be the first to create avatars of themselves.

No indication of when the technology will be commercially viable for say, the rest of us. But the team has provided a helpful infographic of when the project’s various steps will be realized (see above). The dates are a little flexible, but they anticipate that they will be able to create a robotic copy of a human body (i.e. an android) within three to eight years. In eight to thirteen, they would be able to build a robotic body capable of housing a brain. By eighteen to twenty-three, a robotic humanoid with a mechanical brain that can house human memories will be realizable. And last, and most impressive, will be a holographic program that is capable of preserving a person’s memories and neural patterns (aka. their personality) indefinitely.

You have to admit, this kind of technology raises an awful lot of questions. For one, there’s the inevitable social consequences of it. If the wealthiest citizens in the world are never going to die, what becomes of their spoiled children? Do they no longer inherit their parent’s wealth, or simply live on forever as they do? And won’t this cramp this style, knowing that mommy and daddy are living forever in the box next to theirs?

What’s more, if there’s no generational turn-over, won’t this effect the whole nature and culture of wealth? It is, by its very nature, something which is passed on from generation to generation, ensuring the creation of elites and their influence over society. In this scenario, the same people are likely to exert influence generation after generation, wielding a sort of power which is virtually godlike.

And let’s not forget the immense spiritual and existential implications! Does technology like this disprove the concept of the immortal soul, or its very transcendent nature? If the human personality can be reduced to a connectome, which can in turn be digitized and stored, then what room is left for the soul? Or, alternately, if the soul really does exist, won’t people who partake in this experiment be committing the ultimate sin?

All stuff to ponder as the project either approaches realization or falls flat on its face, leaving such matters for future generations to ponder. In the meantime, we shouldn’t worry to much. As this century progresses and technology grows, we will have plenty of other chances to desecrate the soul. And given the advance of overpopulation and climate change, odds are we’ll be dying off before any of those plans reach fruition. Always look on the bright side, as they say 😉