The Future is Here: Using 3D Printing and DNA to Recreate Faces

strangervisions-1In what is either one of the most novel or frightening stories involving 3D printing and genetic research, it seems that an artist named Heather Dewey-Hagborg has been using the technology to recreate the faces of litterbugs. This may sound like something out of a dystopian novel – using a high-tech scenario to identify perpetrators of tiny crimes – but in fact, it is the basis of her latest art project.

It’s known as Stranger Visions, a series of 3D printed portraits based on DNA samples taken from objects found on the streets of Brooklyn. Using samples of discarded gum and litter collected from the streets, a her work with a DIY biology lab in Brooklyn called Genspace – where she met a number of biologists who taught her everything she now knows about molecular biology and DNA – she was able to reconstruct what the strangers looked like and then printed the phenotypes out as a series of 3D portraits.

According to Dewey-Hagborg, the inspiration for this project came to her while waiting for a therapy session, when she noticed a framed print on the wall that contained a small hair inside the cracked glass. After wondering who the hair belonged to, and what the person looked like, she became keenly aware of the genetic trail left by every person in their daily life, and began to question what physical characteristics could be identified through the DNA left behind on a piece of gum or cigarette butt.

strangervisions-3In a recent interview, Dewey-Hagborg explained the rather interesting and technical process behind her art:

So I extract the DNA in the lab and then I amplify certain regions of it using a technique called PCR – Polymerase Chain Reaction. This allows me to study certain regions of the genome that tend to vary person to person, what are called SNPs or Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms.

I send the results of my PCR reactions off to a lab for sequencing and what I get back are basically text files filled with sequences of As, Ts, Cs, and Gs, the nucleotides that compose DNA. I align these using a bioinformatics program and determine what allele is present for a particular SNP on each sample.

strangervisions-5

Then I feed this information into a custom computer program I wrote which takes all these values which code for physical genetic traits and parameterizes a 3d model of a face to represent them. For example gender, ancestry, eye color, hair color, freckles, lighter or darker skin, and certain facial features like nose width and distance between eyes are some of the features I am in the process of studying.

I add some finishing touches to the model in 3d software and then export it for printing on a 3d printer. I use a Zcorp printer which prints in full color using a powder type material, kind of like sand and glue.

The resulting portraits are bizarre approximations of anonymous people who unknowingly left their genetic material on a random city street. Naturally, there are plenty of people who wonder how accurate her approximations are. Well, according to Dewey-Hagborg, the portraits bear a “family resemblance” to the subject, and at this time, no person has never recognized themselves in any of her exhibitions. Yet…

strangervisions-4And of course, there are limitations with this sort of phenotype-DNA identification. For starters, it is virtually impossible to determine the age of a person from their DNA alone. In addition, facial features like scars and hair growth cannot be gauged, so Dewey-Hagborg casts each portrait as if the person were around 25 years of age.

And yet, I cannot help but feel that there is some awesome and terrible potential in what Dewey-Hagborg has created here. While her artistic vision had to do with the subject of identity and anonymity in our society, there is potential here for something truly advanced and invasive. Already it has been considered that DNA identification could be the way of the future, where everyone’s identity is kept in a massive database that can either be used to track them or eliminate as suspects in criminal cases.

But in cases where the person’s DNA is not yet on file, police would no longer need to rely on sketch artists to identify potential perps. Instead, they could just reconstruct their appearances based on a single strand of DNA, and use existing software to correct for age, hair color, facial hair, scars, etc, and then share the resulting images with the public via a public database or press releases.

strangervisions-2And as Dewey-Hagborg’s own project shows, the potential for public exposure and identification is huge. With a sophisticated enough process and a quick turnover rate, cities could identity entire armies of litterbugs, polluters, petty criminals and even more dangerous offenders, like pedophiles and stalkers, and publicly shame them by posting their faces for all to see.

But of course, I am forced to acknowledge that Dewey-Hagborg conducted this entire project using a DIY genetics lab and through her own ardent collection process. Whereas some would see here an opportunity for Big Brother to mess with our lives, others would see further potential for a democratic, open process where local communities are able to take genetics and identification into their own hands.

Like I said, the implications and potential being shown here are both awesome and scary!

Source: thisiscolossal.com

Movie Trailer Monday: Elysium

ElysiumHello people and welcome back to another installment of MTM! Today, its a full-length trailer for the upcoming movie Elysium, a dystopian tale that takes place in the year 2159, where the class divide between rich and poor extends into orbit. The very wealthy live on a man-made space station (named Elysium) while the rest of the population resides on a ruined Earth.

Into this, a cybernetically-enhanced man from Earth takes on a mission that could bring equality to the polarized worlds. Written and directed by Neil Blomkamp, who wrote District 9, and starring Matt Damon, Jodie Foster and Sharlto Copley (who played the protagonist of District 9), the sci-fi makes use of a lot of classic dystopian themes and showcases some very impressive looking sets.

I for one shall bookmark this movie as a must-see/must rent/catch on Netflix/worst-case-scenario must download. Stuff happens, what can I say?

Of Cybernetic Hate Crimes

Google Glass_CalaLast week, a bar in Seattle banned the use of Google Glass. The pub declared on their Facebook page that if anyone wanted to order a pint, they had better remove their $1500 pair of augmented reality display glasses beforehand. Citing the glasses potential to film or take pictures and post them on the internet, the bar owner unflinchingly declared that “ass-kickings will be encouraged for violators.”

This is the second case of what some are dubbing a new wave of “Cybernetic hate crimes”. The first took place back in July 2012 when Steve Mann, a Canadian university professor known as the “father of wearable computing”, was physically assaulted at a McDonalds in Paris, France. In this case, three employees took exception with his wearable computer and tried to physically remove it, an impossibility since it is permanent screwed into his head, and then three him out of the restaurant.

steve-mann1Taken together, these two incidents highlight a possible trend which could become commonplace as the technology grows in use. In some ways, this is a reflection of the fears critics have raised about the ways in which these new technologies could be abused. However, there are those who worry that these kinds of fears are likely to lead to people banning these devices and becoming intolerant to those who use them.

By targeting people who employ augmented reality, bionic eyes, or wearable computers, we are effectively stigmatizing a practice which may become the norm in the not too distant future. But Google responded to the incident with optimism and released a statement that cited shifting attitudes over time:

It is still very early days for Glass, and we expect that as with other new technologies, such as cell phones, behaviors and social norms will develop over time.

smartphonesYes, one can remember without much effort how similar worries were raised about smartphones and camera phones not that long ago, and their use has become so widespread that virtually all doubts about how they might be abused and what effect they would have on social norms have gone quiet. Still, doubts remain that with the availability of technologies that make it easier to monitor people, society is becoming more and more invasive.

But to this, Mann, responds by raising what he had always hoped portable computing would result in. Back in the 1970’s when he first began working on the concept for his EyeTap, he believed that camera-embedded wearables could be both liberating and empowering. In a world permeated by security cameras and a sensory-sphere dominated by corporate memes, he foresaw these devices a means for individuals to re-take control of their environment and protect themselves.

EyeTapThis was all in keeping with Mann’s vision of a future where wearable cameras and portable computers could allow for what he calls sousveillance — a way for people to watch the watchers and be at the ready to chronicle any physical assaults or threats. How ironic that his own invention allowed him to do just that when he himself was assaulted!

And in the current day and age, this vision may be even more important and relevant, given the rise in surveillance and repressive measures brought on in the wake of the “War on Terror”. As Mann himself has written:

Rather than tolerating terrorism as a feedback means to restore the balance, an alternative framework would be to build a stable system to begin with, e.g. a system that is self-balancing. Such a society may be built with sousveillance (inverse surveillance) as a way to balance the increasing (and increasingly one-sided) surveillance.

Raises a whole bunch of questions, doesn’t it? As the issue of dwindling privacy becomes more and more of an issue, and where most people respond to such concerns by dredging up dystopian scenarios, it might be helpful to remind ourselves that this is a form of technology that rests firmly in our hands, the consumers, not those of an overbearing government.

google_glass_banBut then again, that doesn’t exactly ease the fears of a privacy invasion much, does it? Whether it is a few functionaries and bureaucrats monitoring us for the sake of detecting criminal behavior or acts of “sedition”, or a legion of cyberbullies and gawking masses scrutinizing our every move, being filmed and photographed against our will and having it posted is still pretty creepy.

But does that necessitate banning the use of this technology outright? Are we within our rights, as a society, to deny service to people sporting AR glasses, or to physically threaten them if they are unable or unwilling to remove them? And is this something that will only get better, or worse, with time?

Sources: IO9, (2), news.cnet.com, eecg.toronto.edu

Relaunching an Idea: Genome!

GenomeIn recent months, I did what I often do when I find myself in the midst of a few projects, where none of them are occupying my attenti0n completely. I went back to an old idea that never got finished, but which I felt pretty passionate about at the time. This idea was one a friend and I came up with while we chatted about human nature and genetic engineering.

Specifically, we talked about how people in the future might try to tailor their children to weed out self-doubt and the self-directed critical tendencies we all seem to have. That got the ball rolling, and in short order, I began writing the full-length concept into a story I called Genome. Unfortunately, this project, like so many others, lost my interest part way through and got stock in the Incomplete folder.

Luckily, writing for China Daily Mail got me interested in it again. You see, the story takes place in one of my favorite environments: the Northeaster Megapolitan region known as BosWash – aka. the Boston-Washington D.C. metropolitan axis. In the story, I decided to add a little symbolic feature known as the BWHM, or BosWash Health Monitor, which rates the cities pollution based on the Air Toxicity Factor (or ATF).

The scale was out of 100 and during the course of the story, it kept getting higher. Well after reading about China’s air pollution and the AQI (Air Quality Index) which has a maximum ranking of 500, but which needs to be revised to account for Beijing’s 700 plus ratings of late, I began to think I had stumbled onto something golden!

Or, I had simply stolen something without knowing it and ought to pursue it since it’s relevant. But of course, to make the reference accurate and work for readers, I had to since revise it to make the BWHM out of 1000 so people would know exactly how toxic and polluted this future, dystopic megacity really was!

In addition, I also began thinking I should do with Genome what I did with Whiskey Delta and begin sharing it here, chapter by chapter. And so here it is, the first-ever installment of Genome, which is the prologue chapter entitled “The Big Sink”. As you can probably tell, I was going for a real urban noire feeling, with some cyberpunk elements thrown in for good measure. This, you will find, is offset by some dry humor down the road…

Enjoy, and feel free to let me know if it’s any good, in need of a full-scale rewrite, or a short trip to the Recycle Bin! 🙂

*                    *                    *

It was an evening like any other. The sky was ashen grey, rain clouds and thunderclaps flashing over the urban landscapes. Outside of the establishment, a few people lingered in the rain, taking in their carcinogenic fixes and staring with blank faces.

In the distance, the sound of thunderclaps and sirens set the nighttime scene. And the rain, it fell hard. So hard it could almost wash the scum off the sidewalk for another night. But even if it could, the scum would return tomorrow. It came in endless supplies, and the fight to keep it at bay was always constant.

Bastion stepped out of the twenty-four café and made a quick appraisal of the evening. The prospects were grim, much like the weather. No one to go home to, few women adequate enough to invite home, and a whole lot of pain and misfortunate to look forward to tomorrow. Another day of bills, alimony and hard-luck stories from perps, policemen and unaffiliated scumbags, nothing but the bottle and takeout meals to keep him company in the one bedroom flat that passed for a home.

Just another day in the life of a Detective working the Big Sink.

Sparking up his torch, Bastion lit up the stubby green tube between his lips and inhaled deeply. Everyone who stood out in the rain with him was taking their daily smoke break, sucking in the terrible tasting shit that was supposed to ward off the tumors and slow death that city living brought on.

It was a constant feature in the news, the build-up of toxins that was forcing everyone to ingest one kind of poison to offset the others, and every day the count got higher, bringing the city closer to the brink.

Last he checked, the experts said it was at a robust eight-hundred eighty-five on a scale that reached to one thousand, though that could be updated in the near future, as it had in the past. No one in his immediate surroundings could say with any certitude what would happen once they reached the top of that index, but all indications said it would be bad.

He looked around and gauged the people next to him by the tired, sunken looks in their eyes. Already he could tell how long they had been on the medication just by the look of them.

Sandra, the head waitress, the one with the yellowing skin and eyes to match: five years.

The gentleman in the nice linen suit with the bowler cap on: three or so.

The server boy with the terrible nostalgic get-up that was supposed to be the theme of the restaurant, red suspenders and a white collared shirt. A year tops. And then there was the old Manchu fella with the white hair and the terrible wrinkles, his skin the color of leather and just as tough: ten years!

Of course, he himself wasn’t too enthused about taking up this particular dirty habit. But the nice doc had summarized it for him thusly: Smoke it, and live to the ripe old age of sixty-five, then proceed steadily downhill. Don’t, and die of melanoma or an inoperable tumor at fifty-five. Twenty years was what he was buying with this terrible, stinking stick that was smoldering in the corner in his mouth then. It smelt awful and tasted a hell of a lot worse!

One could fit a lot of living in the space of twenty years, consuming one poison to kill another. And they learned a valuable lesson from it too. Just another gift the Big Sink provided for anyone lucky enough to be born into her. Just like life, it was a gift nobody asked for and was unreturnable, so you enjoyed it while you could.

If only, he thought, bringing him smoke to a quick conclusion and then stubbing it out on the ground. He checked his right side to make sure his piece was still there. On the way home, he might just get lucky tonight and have someone try to kill him. Then he knew he’d get the added excitement of a life or death struggle, a nice trip to the emergency room, and maybe a new lease on life. They always said you had to have a brush with death to find the value in living. Bastion was eager to find out.

Fears of a Police-Drone State

UAVsIn a decision which has been decried by countless community activists and civil rights leaders, the Alameda  County Sheriff’s Department announced plans last month to deploy up to two small, lightweight drones to assist in police surveillance. Despite resistance from the community, the town seems poised to join many other cities in using UAV’s for domestic security, effectively steam-rolling over concerns over privacy and “Big Brother” government.

As it stands, several police agencies across the US are currently using drones, including the Miami-Dade Police Department and the Texas Department of Public Safety. Until recently, the Seattle Police Department also employed a two-drone fleet, but grounded them amidst growing concerns over privacy and a recent government report, which warned that drone use could become even more commonplace.

california_dronesBefore anyone gets too worried, rest assured that the drones in question are a far cry from the UAV’s currently conducting armed missions overseas. Unlike the Predator and Reaper drones that carry multiple Hellfire missiles and can level entire villages, these drones are relatively benign, weighing only a few pounds and relying on a series of propellers to keep them aloft. But of course, the potential for harm resides in their ability to monitor, not to kill…

UAV_scoutConcerns over domestic drone surveillance reached a sort of climax  last February after federal lawmakers signed the Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 into law. Among other things, the act required the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to accelerate drone flights in U.S. airspace. In response, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) warned that the act would allow drone use to become commonplace in the US.

In accordance with that law, drones, known in the report as “unmanned aerial systems,” are currently limited in the United States to law enforcement activities, search and rescue, forensic photography, monitoring or fighting forest fires, border security, weather research, scientific data collection and even hobbies. However, the law calls for expansion so drones can be used for commercial, utility and public  uses.

UAV_dom1Naturally, the FAA feels that the new law doesn’t take into account several key problems – notably concerns surrounding privacy, security and even GPS jamming and spoofing. In short, they pointed out that despite drone’s on-board navigation and detection system that allow them to avoid crashes, said systems could cause complications if and when drones share airspace with private aircraft.

Among other things, the FAA recommended that drone GPS systems undergo encryption so they would be resistant to jamming and hacking, which is apparently a danger in non-military unencrypted drones. They also advised that the government set up secure operation centers for unmanned drones, and recommended that the government formulate privacy protections to head off potential “abuses”.

UAV_domObviously, the FAA’s report and public concern struck a note. Just last month, federal lawmakers introduced legislation regulating state and federal government use of unmanned drones in the United States. This legislation prohibits drones from being armed, and would demand that agencies register drones and adopt privacy polices. What’s more, the proposal would allow drones to be used only in criminal matters, in which warrants would be required.

Once again, it appears that the Obama administration is willing to step in where public concerns over developing technology are concerned. Recall the instruction signed by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter back in December of last year designed to limit the development of autonomous aerial drones? Well here too, instructions have been given, but the general sense of worry is far from alleviated.

X-47BIt puts me in mind of a prediction Arthur C. Clarke made shortly before he died in 2008. He predicted that despite concerns over “Big Brother”-type monitoring, that digital surveillance would be adopted by every city within the civilized world, until such time that crime was virtually eliminated. Much like many predictions he made, this one proved a little optimistic and futurist for some of his fans (including this one!).

As it stands, the use of remote machines to monitor our world is an ongoing and growing concern, and the debate will hardly be decided so easily. In the end, we all just have to ask if we really want to live in a post-privacy state, what the costs of living in that kind of world will be, and whether or not it will truly mean the emergence of dystopian scenarios, as envisioned by George Orwell and others.

Source: Wired.com, (2)

The Future is Here: Brain to Brain Interfaces!

?????????????????And I thought the month of February was an already exciting time for technological breakthroughs! But if a recent report from Nature.com is any indication, February will go down in history as the biggest month for breakthroughs ever! Why just last week, researchers in Natal, Brazil created the first ever electronic link between the brains of two living creatures.

The creatures in question were rats, and the link between their brains enabled one to help the other solve basic puzzles in real time — even though the animals were separated by thousands of kilometers of distance. The experiment was led by Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University, a pioneer in the field of brain-machine interfaces (BMIs), and a team of neurobiologists who’ve been working in the field for some time.

BMIHere’s how it works: An “encoder” rat in Natal, Brazil, trained in a specific behavioral task, presses a lever in its cage which it knows will result in a reward. A brain implant records activity from the rat’s motor cortex and converts it into an electrical signal that is delivered via neural link to the brain implant of a second “decoder” rat. The second rat’s motor cortex processes the signal from rat number one and – despite being thousands of km away and unfamiliar with what rat one is up to — uses that information to press the same lever.

MMIBack in 2011, Nicolelis and his colleagues unveiled the first such interface capable of a bi-directional link between a brain and a virtual body, allowing a monkey to not only mentally control a simulated arm, but receive and process sensory feedback about tactile properties like texture. And earlier this month, his team unveiled a BMI that enables rats to detect normally invisible infrared light via their sense of touch.

However, this latest experiment really takes the cake. Whereas brain-machine interfaces have long been the subject of research, generally for the sake of prostheses, a brain-to-brain interface between two living creatures in something entirely new, especially one that enables realtime sharing of sensorimotor information. And while it’s not telepathy, per se, it’s certainly something close, what Nicolelis calls “a new central nervous system made of two brains.”

Obviously, this kind of breakthrough is impressive in its own right, but according to Nicolelis, the most groundbreaking application of this brain-net (or n-mind) is yet to come:

These experiments demonstrated the ability to establish a sophisticated, direct communication linkage between rat brains, so basically, we are creating an organic computer that solves a puzzle. We cannot predict what kinds of emergent properties would appear when animals begin interacting as part of a brain-net. In theory, you could imagine that a combination of brains could provide solutions that individual brains cannot achieve by themselves.

neural-networksNaturally, there are some flaws in the process, which were made evident by the less-than-perfect results. For starters, the untrained decoder rats receiving input from a trained encoder only chose the correct lever around two-thirds of the time. Those results could not be the result of random odds, but they are also a far cry from the 95% accuracy where the signals were reversed, going from the untrained decoder to the trained encoder. As any student of science knows, one-way results are not the basis of a sound process.

And I imagine the people who are lobbying to make biosoldiers illegal and limit the use of autonomous drones will be on this like white on rice! Hence why we can probably look forward to many years of research and development before anything akin to human trials or commercial applications of this technology seem realizable.

And of course, there is a video demonstrated the mind link at work. a word of warning first though. If you’re an animal lover, like me, the video might be a little difficult to take. You be the judge:


Source:
IO9, nature.com

Relaunching an Idea: Apocrypha!

future-city-1Recently, I began to seriously contemplate revisiting an old idea. Not just any old idea, mind you. This was an idea that went back to 2008, to the point where I first decided I wanted to move away from far-reaching, distant future speculative writing. It was also my first real stab at social commentary, predating Data Miners by several months, and which called for a lot of research.

The name I had in mind for it was Apocrypha. Basically, the two threads that came together to form this idea for me were the ideas of Demarchy and Apocalypticism. At the time, the idea that digital technology and wireless communication might one day lead to direct democracy, while religious fervor might actually spike within the current century due to climate change and the social impacts thereof.

singularity.specrepHowever, after a lot of tinkering and writing the story halfway, I found I couldn’t really make the idea work. It was my first attempt to write something contemporary and it really didn’t go so well. I’ve since tried to reboot it at least once and found I could only get a few chapters out of myself. But I couldn’t dispose of it entirely, not after all the work I put into it and all the bits of wheat I felt were buried in the chaff. And so, its lingered in my files for years.

And now, years later and after all the tech research I’ve done, I find myself coming back to the idea. This is due in part to to trends which I’ve been researching in the last few months. The way I see it, by the middle of this century, two trends will be coming together, and its anybody’s guess which will come to determine our future. The one is technological growth and change – culminating in a future of post-scarcity – and the other is Climate Change, which will lead to a future of nothing but!

Megalopolis'And that’s where this story opens up. The year is 2030, and the world is a fast-changing place. On the one hand, mega-cities have taken root in several places, such as the Nanjing Peninsula, the Gangetic Plain, Cascadia, the Northeast Megalopolis, the “Blue Banana”, and the west coast of Japan. Life in these megalopolis’ is increasingly characterized by violence, poverty, unemployment, bigotry, and an ever increasing fast-pace of life due to increasingly advanced technologies trickling down to the street.

Meanwhile, the wealthy and privileged continue to buy up property and move to higher altitudes and latitudes in order to avoid the coming difficulties. It is widely accepted that within the next few decades, waves of immigration and refugees will pour into the coastal and border regions of the developed parts of the world (those that exist outside the equatorial regions that is) and life is likely to get more difficult.

In the midst of all this, a new group is taking to the streets, a group of quasi-apocalyptics who claim that the End of Days is coming. Their message is code-named Apocrypha, since it is really a cover for their more deeply laid plans to usher about something far more sinister. As they say, some spend their lives waiting for the apocalypse, while others are determined to make it happen in their lifetime.

Crashland.ebookThis story was actually the basis for my short Hunluan, which is part of the proposed Grim5Next anthology known as World’s Undone. It’s also the basis for the serial novel Crashland that I began posting over Story Time.me back when 2012 first started. Funny thing, the year 0f 2012 was marked by a lot of dystopian and apocalyptic lit. Maybe that’s why I want to revisit it now, seeing as how we’re in the clear for the time being!

In any case, as soon as Yuva is complete, Pappa Zulu is all wrapped up, and I’m done editing and releasing Data Miners (one of these days I’ll get that damn book finished!), I plan to return to this concept and give it my full attention. There’s plenty of potential to make some predictions about the future and that’s something I can’t pass up! In addition, it was my first attempt at something truly speculative and relevant and I definitely want to pursue that again.

It is my dream, after all, to produce something that capture the spirit of this age, and since Climate Change, break-neck progress, and fears for the future seem to be the dominant trends as I see them, this might just be the book to do it with! Look for it soon, I hope it will please the discerning reader!

climatewars