Of DIY Cybernetics and Biohacking

transhuman3It seems that biohackers and enthusiasts of body augmentation could be setting a new trend, and doing it all from the comfort of their basements. That’s the essence of an article filed by Neal Ungerleider this past September, in which he stated that biohackers have not only cloned the innovation strategies of Silicon Valley, but could also be reshaping how technology is being created.

Amongst their efforts are such things as brain interfaces that can control video games with human thoughts, Bluetooth sensors that are meant to go under the skin and send vital signs to mobile phones, tissue engineering that can create in vitro “steaks” and leather, and devices that convert brainwaves into actual speech. These efforts are collaborative in nature and connect numerous basements, labs and research facilities together to share research, resources, and breakthroughs.

Those who take an active part in this trend are often known as grinders or biohackers, people who have chosen not to wait for cybenetic enhancements and body augmentation to become commercially available and seek to create them on their own.

According to Ungerleider:

“West Coast biohackers and grinders were the pioneers of this tech-driven, California brand of utopianism… For biohackers everywhere, augmentation of humanity itself—whether through technology or more traditional methods—is the primary goal. Common conversation points include DIY cyborgs, the quantified self, and diet…

“But a growing community on the East Coast—in greater New York, Boston, and Pittsburgh—is synthesizing Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial DNA for its unique innovation model. Experimentation and science here is not only an exercise in advancing humanity through tech but is often applied toward creating viable cybernetic products for the market.”

One such group is Biohackers NYC, a group that was formed in 2012 largely in response to all the innovation that was taking place on the opposite coast. In additi0n to the initial startup group, it was joined by numerous startups, incubators, and workspaces scattered across the outer boroughs. As group founder and psychiatrist Lydia Fazzio claimed in an interview back in September:

“Our intent was to cover the spectrum of biohacking from manipulating non-human genomes to also the body and the mind. It’s a holistic approach to the meaning of biohacking, whether technology or nutrition. However you get there, we all have the innate potential to be an optimal functioning human in society. Our question is: How do we get there?”

davinci_transhumanOne of the attractions of this new movement is that it allows the merger of skilled professionals and dedicated hobbyists a chance to collaborate on projects of mutual interest. It also takes advantage of new business and development models – i.e. crowdsourcing – which is made possible thanks to the digital revolution.

Already, message boards have sprung up that allow disparate “labs” to post information on their work and share with others who have similar interests and projects on the go. These include DIYbio, which deals with the larger field of DIY biotechnology labs; and biohack.me, where the possibilities of subdermal bone conduction headphones and echolocation implants are being contemplated.

TranshumanIn the end, this is really just a small part of a much larger movement, which takes on various names. On is transhumanism, a movement which believes that human limitations can and must be transcended with the help of technological innovation. Another is Singularitarianism, a movement popularized by such Futurists as Ray Kurzweil. These individuals believe that technology will (or has) reached the point where human beings can take control of their own mortality, abilities and evolution. While some are willing to wait, others are intent on making it happen sooner other than later.

Naturally, there is a great deal of skepticism towards this new trend. For one, there are countless people who believe it to be the stuff of “science fiction”, and not real science. But, as Ungerleider claims, this represents the culmination of trends that have been in the works for some time. What’s more, it represents the monetization and mass marketing of technologies which have been under development for many years. And in truth, the line between science fiction and science fact has always been a fine one. All that’s ever been needed for us to transcend it is for people to make it happen.

Sources: fastcompany.com, Wired.com, IO9.com

Scientists Raise the Alarm on Human Enhancements

enhancementThe concept of technological progress and its potential consequences has been the subject of quite a bit of attention lately. First, there was the announcement  from Harvard University and Human Rights Watch that a ban on killer robots was needed before the current pace of innovation led to the machines that could so without human oversight.

Then came the University of Cambridge’s announcement about the creation of the Center for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) to evaluate new technologies. And last, there was the news the news that the DOD had signing a series of instructions to “minimize the probability and consequences of failures that could lead to unintended engagements,” starting at the design stage.

bionic_handConcordantly, back in early November, the Royal Society along with the Academy of Medical Sciences, British Academy, and Royal Academy of Engineering concluded a workshop called “Human Enhancement and the Future of Work” in which they considered the growing impact and potential risks of augmentation technologies. In their final report, they raised serious concerns about the burgeoning trend and how humanity is moving from a model of therapy to one in which human capacities are greatly improved. The implications, they concluded, should be part of a much wider public discussion.

Specifically, the report raised concerns on drugs and digital enhancements that will allow people to work longer, hard and faster. Such technologies could easily give rise to a culture of enhanced competitiveness, more than we currently know, where the latest in cybernetics, bionics and biomedical devices are used to gain and edge, not to remedy medical problems. Currently, things like bionic prosthesis are being created to aid amputees and injury victims; but as the technology improves and such devices become more effective than organic limbs, the purpose could change.

cyberpunk-eyeWhat’s more, there are the ethical implications of having such technology available to human beings. If people can upgrade their bodies to enhance their natural abilities, what will it means for those who get “left behind”? Will the already enormous gulf between the rich and poor expand even further and take on a new dimension? Will those who want to succeed in the business world be forced to scrounge so they can get the latest upgrades.

Or, as the panel’s final report put it:

“Work will evolve over the next decade, with enhancement technologies potentially making a significant contribution. Widespread use of enhancements might influence an individual’s ability to learn or perform tasks and perhaps even to enter a profession; influence motivation; enable people to work in more extreme conditions or into old age, reduce work-related illness; or facilitate earlier return to work after illness.”

At the same time however, they acknowledge the potential efficacy and demand for such technologies, prompting the call for open discourse. Again, from the report:

“Although enhancement technologies might bring opportunities, they also raise several health, safety, ethical, social and political challenges, which warrant proactive discussion. Very different regulatory regimes are currently applied: for example, digital services and devices (with significant cognitive enhancing effects) attract less, if any, regulatory oversight than pharmacological interventions. This raises significant questions, such as whether any form of self-regulation would be appropriate and whether there are circumstances where enhancements should be encouraged or even mandatory, particularly where work involves responsibility for the safety of others (e.g. bus drivers or airline pilots).”

In many ways, this report is overdue, as it is offering some rather obvious commentary on a subject which has been the subject of speculation and fiction for some time. For example, in the Sprawl Trilogy, William Gibson explored the idea of human enhancement and the disparity between rich and poor at length. In his world, the rich were ensured clinical immortality through AI and biotech while everyone else was forced to spend their savings just to afford the latest tech, merely so they could stay in the running.

However, just about all of the panel’s recommendations were most appropriate. They included further investigations into ensuring safety, affordability, and accessibility, not to mention that some of these enhancement technologies —  be they pharmaceutical, regenerative medicines, or cybernetics — should be regulated by the government. This last article is especially appropriate given the potential for personal misuse, not to mention the potential exploitation by employers.

With all the harm that could result from having technologies that could render human beings “postmortal” or “posthuman”, some degree of oversight is certainly necessary. But of course, the real key is a public educated and informed on the issue of cybernetics, bionics, and human enhancement, and what they could mean for us. As with so much else, the issue is one of choice, and awareness of what the consequences could be. Choose wisely, that’s the only guarantee! Hey, that rhymed… I smell a quote!

Source: IO9.com

“How Nanotech Could Reengineer Us.”

My personal thanks to kwolph, the unidentified fellow who was nice enough to stop by and forward me the link to this rather interesting infographic. Courtesy of the Keithley Center, which designs electronic systems for measurement and analysis, this infographic shows how advances in nanotechnology might aid us in reinventing and augmenting the human body.

These include augmenting our brain chemistry by either delivering drugs directly to our receptors (which can include anti-depressants, stimulants, or pain killers), or the more audacious approach of enhancing our thought pattens and memory by actively building and repairing neural tissue. As such, things like mental illness, brain injuries and trauma could be overcome at last.

In addition, there’s plenty of enhancing our hearts, lungs, reinforcing our bones, repairing muscle tissue, enhancing our eyes, reflexes, strength, endurance. And, as they point out, by virtue of the female model, the scourge of breast cancer, which effects one in eight women, could be be wiped out. No mother’s or young women dying before their time anymore!

And of course, other entirely too common ailments, heart disease, prostate cancer, ovarian cancer, lung cancer, and every form of degenerative disease, could be nipped in the bud either through regular maintenance of the bodily tissues, or by correcting the fault at the genetic level.

There’s really no limit to what programmable nanomachines could do, once the technology was realizable of course. And above all, proven to be safe and effective. And since it would mean that human beings no longer would be subject to disease or degenerative conditions (a la aging), lives could be extended indefinitely, which is part and parcel of the whole “transhuman”, “posthuman” and “postmortal” concept.

Naturally, they used the image of a very pretty young woman for the display. Had it been a man I’m guessing they would have gone with a six foot tall dude with washer board abs and only 1 percent body fat. Why can’t they ever use a porked out old dude with man boobs? That’s what I’d like to know? Well, for one, such regular individuals don’t exactly inspire confidence in the consumer market, do they?

Transhumanism… The Shape of Things to Come?

“Your mind is software. Program it. Your body is a shell. Change it. Death is a disease. Cure it. Extinction is approaching. Fight it.”

-Eclipse Phrase

A lot of terms are thrown around these days that allude to the possible shape of our future. Words like Technological Singularity, extropianism, postmortal, posthuman, and Transhuman. What do these words mean? What kind of future do they point to? Though they remain part of a school of thought that is still very much theoretical and speculative, this future appears to be becoming more likely every day.

Ultimately, the concept is pretty simple, in a complex, mind-bending sort of way. The theory has it that at some point in this or the next century, humanity will overcome death, scarcity, and all other limitations imposed on us by nature. The means vary, but it is believed that progress in any one or more of the following areas will make such a leap inevitable:

Artificial Intelligence:
The gradual evolution of computers, from punch cards to integrated circuits to networking, shows an exponential trend upwards. With the concordant growth of memory capacity and processing speed, it is believed that it is only a matter of time before computers are capable of independent reasoning. Progress is already being made in this domain, with the Google X Labs Neural Net that has a connectome of a billion connections.

As such, it is seen as inevitable that a machine will one day exist that is capable of surpassing a human being. This sort of machinery could even be merged with a human’s own mind, enhancing their natural thought patterns, memory, and augmenting their intelligence to the point where their intelligence is immeasurable by modern standards.

Just think of the things we could think up once that’s possible. Well… you can’t exactly, but we can certainly postulate. For starters, such things as the Grand Unifying Theory, the nature of time and space, quantum mechanics, and other mind-bendingly complex fields could suddenly make sense to us. What’s more, this would make further technological leaps that much easier.

Here we have an area of development which can fall into one of three categories. On the one hand, advancements in medical science could very well lead to the elimination of disease and the creation of mind-altering pharmaceuticals. On the other, there’s the eventual development of things like biotechnology, machinery that is grown rather than built, composed of DNA strands or other “programmable” material.

Lastly, there is the potential for cybernetics, a man-machine interface where organic is merged with the artificial, either in the form of implants, prosthetic limbs, and artificial organs. All of these, alone or in combination, would enhance a human beings strength, mental capacity, and prolong their life.

This is the meaning behind the word postmortal. If human beings could live to the point where life could be considered indefinite (at least by current standards), the amount we could accomplish in a single lifetime could very well be immeasurable.

The concept of machines so small that anything will be accessible, even the smallest components of matter, has been around for over half a century. However, it was not until the development of microcircuits and miniaturization that the concept graduated from pure speculation and became a scientific possibility.

Here again, the concept is simple, assuming you can wrap your head around the staggering technical aspects and implications. For starters, we are talking about machines that are measurable only on the nanoscale, meaning one to one-hundred billionths of a meter (1 x 10-9 m). At this size, these machines would be capable of manipulating matter at the cellular or even atomic level. This is where the staggering implications come in, when you realize that this kinds of machinery could make just about anything possible.

For starters, all forms of disease would be conquerable, precious metals could be synthesized, seamless, self-regenerating structures could be made, and any and all consumer products could be created out of base matter. We’d be living in a world in which scarcity would be a thing of the past, our current system of values and exchange would become meaningless, buildings could build themselves, and out of raw matter (like dirt and pure scrap) no less, societies would become garbage free, pollution could be eliminated, and manufactured goods could be made of materials that are both extra-light and near-indestructible.

All of this progress, either alone or in combination, will add to a future that we can’t even begin to fathom. This is where the concept of the Technological Singularity comes in. If human beings were truly postmortal (evolved beyond death), society was postscarce (meaning food, water, fuel and other necessities would never be in short supply), and machines would be capable of handling all our basic needs.

For Futurists and self-professed Singularitarians, this trend is as desirable as it is inevitable. Citing such things as Moore’s Law (which measures the rate of computing progress) or Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns – which postulates that the rate of progress increases exponentially with each development – these voices claim that it is humanity’s destiny to conquer death and its inherent limitations. If one looks at the full range of human history – from the Neolithic Revolution to the Digital – the trend seems clear and obvious.

For others, this prospect is both frightening and something to be avoided. When it comes right down to it, transhumanity means leaving behind all the things that make us human. And whereas some people think the Singularity will solve all human problems, others see it as merely an extension of a trend whereby our lives become increasingly complicated and dependent on machinery. And supposing that we do cross some kind of existential barrier, will we ever be able to turn back?

And of course, the more dystopian predictions warn against the cataclysmic possibilities of entrusting so much of our lives to automata, or worse, intelligent machines. Virtually every apocalyptic and dystopian scenario devised in the last sixty years has predicted that doom will result from the development of AI, cybernetics and other advanced technology. The most technophobic claim that the machinery will turn on humanity, while the more moderate warn against increased dependency, since we will be all the more vulnerable if and when the technology fails.

Naturally, there are many who fall somewhere in between and question both outlooks. In recent decades, scientists and speculative fiction writers have emerged who challenge the idea that technological progress will automatically lead to the rise of dystopia. Citing the undeniable trend towards greater and greater levels of material prosperity caused by the industrial revolution and the post-war era – something which is often ignored by people who choose to emphasize the down sides – these voices believe that the future will be neither utopian or dystopian. It will simply be…

Where do you fall?