Reciprocity – First Peek

shutterstock_117410959Happy Holidays everyone! Hope this post finds everyone safe, snug and warm in their homes, preferably surrounded by loved ones and lots of new swag! While I’m on break from my writing jobs, I thought I’d switch gears and get back to my personal writing for a bit.

And as luck would have it, I made some headway with my latest story idea – the near-future thriller Reciprocity – and I thought I’d share some of it. So far, I’ve got a few introductory chapters, and a prologue that introduces the antagonist. So, over the next few days, I thought I might share some of this work and see how it stacks up.

Here is the first snippet, which takes place in the Philippines in the year 2029. Enjoy!

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Manila, Philippines, Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperative

He was bathing in a sea of connectivity, looking out onto the second skin that blanketed the Earth. There was virtually no corner of it now that wasn’t covered, but finding oneself in a major city was like standing directly in a pivot. After spending many weeks off the grid, it was like stepping back into the light of day after days in a dark cave. His entire body awash with high-fidelity photonic light and a microwave glow.

He felt like his skin should be burning, and yet it wasn’t…

Setting his glasses to normal view, the microwave landscape disappeared and was replaced by the stark, colorful reality of the favela. At once, his sense adjusted the combination of movement and sound that was so common to such places. A world of congestion, decay, and waste, yet teeming with so much life. Shen remembered coming to the region before, back in the day before reality could be mediated and augmented.

Now, the unseen energy and information that coursed through the landscape was illustrated in any number of ways.

At the moment, it took the form of a dozen colorful overlays that played across his contacts. He looked left and right along the thoroughfare and was awarded with helpful icons and some less-than-helpful adverts. Compared to the Metro area, the visual landscape here was not nearly as cluttered. But there were still tourist markers and small tags that he could access if he so chose. Slum tourism had become its own business of sorts, a form of adventure tourism that appealed to the reckless and irresponsible.

And for their convenience, Tondo’s checkered past and the locales that had played a role were mapped out and catalogued. They walked a few more blocks, sticking to the overhang that shaded them from the beating sun. Bagyó season was fast approaching, and the air had taken on a sticky, wet quality. For those unaccustomed, it could be the most stifling thing in the world. But for expats accustomed to venturing across the Pacific, it was within the realm of the ordinary.

They passed several rows of vendors; men, women and children who had brought their stands directly out into the street, offering large piles of oranges, bananas, watermelon, dragonfruit, mangosteens, and lychees. Farther on, they were hit with the scent of fresh and rotted produce, and the stands changed their offering to provisions of cassava, okra, pak choi, and bitter melon.

Much like the clothiers, toy sellers and peddlers or wearables that resided not far away, they would be sitting on the very edge of the streets until the weather turned. Until the rain began to pelt down with incredible fury and the flooding began. A tenacious folk, and one that seemed to respond to escalating catastrophes like the coming and going of the tide.

“Is that it?” asked Ping, pointing to a hazy standing structure at the end of the block.

Shen squinted to allow his contacts to zoom in on the building, shrouded by dew and smog. An icon appeared over top that read Cathay Towers, and a small stub explaining the nature of the housing project and how its status was currently listed as Postponed Indefinitely.

“Yes, it is,” Shen replied, tapping on his glasses again to adjust the display. He cycled to IR and noted the sheer number of heat signatures located on the first three floors. “Looks like Wáng has found himself a colorful place to live.”

“Is it safe to just walk in?”

Shen looked to the fourth floor, noted the few bodies that were standing about. Another tap and the display adjusted again, aided by the small sensor suite attached to the outer frame. He zoomed and adjusted until the scanner had just the right resolution, producing signature of a different kind and in different color. Opal and green came together to indicate the outline of weapons, all small arms from the look of it.

“There’s not many protecting him. And their weapons are antiquated. We’ll have no trouble.”

They pressed on, moving through the sea of humanity and commerce. Upon reaching the thoroughfare that ran perpendicular to them, they passed into a different crush. Countless vehicles, smart and dumb, forced them to pick up their feet and weave through the tangled mass of metal and plastic. The shouts of vendors were replaced by cab drivers and commuters exchanging expletives in Tagalog, Spanish and English – often in the same sentence.

At the front entrance, a large set of double doors that were permanently open, they paused. Shen touched the small protrusion in his jacket pocket to make sure it was still there. An odd thing to do, but if things went awry in there, it was his assurance that they might make it through.

He looked to Ping, who appeared to be doing the same. Except in his case, his fingers tapped against the PDW stashed under his coat and next to his hip. In a pinch, he knew the boy could be counted on to retrieve it and squeeze off a maelstrom before anyone else got a shot. Hopefully, his old friend would be in a talking mood and it wouldn’t come to that.

“You ready?” he asked. Ping nodded, a look of hard resolve on his face. “Good. Stay close and try not to be appalled by what you see inside.”

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

Computex 2014

https://download.taiwantradeshows.com.tw/files/model/photo/CP/2014/PH00013391-2.jpgEarlier this month, Computex 2014 wrapped up in Taipei. And while this trade show may not have all the glitz and glamor of its counterpart in Vegas (aka. the Consumer Electronics Show), it is still an important launch pad for new IT products slated for release during the second half of the year. Compared to other venues, the Taiwanese event is more formal, more business-oriented, and for those people who love to tinker with their PCs.

For instance, it’s an accessible platform for many Asian vendors who may not have the budget to head to Vegas. And in addition to being cheaper to set up booths and show off their products, it gives people a chance to look at devices that wouldn’t often be seen in the western parts of the world. The timing of the show is also perfect for some manufacturers. Held in June, the show provides a fantastic window into the second half of the year.

https://i1.wp.com/www.lowyat.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/140602dellcomputex.jpgFor example, big name brands like Asus typically use the event to launch a wide range of products. This year, this included such items as the super-slim Asus Book Chi and the multi-mode Book V, which like their other products, have demonstrated that the company has a flair for innovation that easily rivals the big western and Korean names. In addition, Intel has been a long stalwart at Computex, premiered its fanless reference design tablet that runs on the Llama Mountain chipset.

And much like CES, there were plenty of cool gadgets to be seen. This included a GPS tracker that can be attached to a dog collar to track a pet’s movements; the Fujitsu laptop, a hardy new breed of gadget that showcases Japanese designers’ aim to make gear that are both waterproof and dustproof; the Rosewill Chic-C powerbank that consists of 1,000mAh battery packs that attach together to give additional power and even charge gadgets; and the Altek Cubic compact camera that fits in the palm of the hand.

https://i0.wp.com/twimages.vr-zone.net/2013/12/altek-Cubic-1.jpgAnd then there was the Asus wireless storage, a gadget that looks like an air freshener, but is actually a wireless storage device that can be paired with a smartphone using near-field communication (NFC) technology – essentially being able to transfer info simply by bringing a device into near-proximity with it. And as always, there were plenty of cameras, display headsets, mobile devices, and wearables. This last aspect was particularly ever-present, in the form of look-alike big-name wearables.

By and all large, the devices displayed this year were variations on a similar theme: wrist-mounted fitness trackers, smartwatches, and head-mounted smartglasses. The SiMEye smartglass display, for example, was every bit inspired by Google Glass, and even bears a strong resemblance. Though the show was admittedly short on innovation over imitation, it did showcase a major trend in the computing and tech industry.

http://img.scoop.it/FWa9Z463Q34KPAgzjElk3Tl72eJkfbmt4t8yenImKBVvK0kTmF0xjctABnaLJIm9In his keynote speech, Microsoft’s Nick Parker talked about the age of ubiquitous computing, and the “devices we carry on us, as opposed to with us.” What this means is, we may very well be entering a PC-less age, where computing is embedded in devices of increasingly diminished size. Eventually, it could even be miniaturized to the point where it is stitched into our clothing as accessed through contacts, never mind glasses or headsets!

Sources: cnet.com, (2), (3), computextaipei.com

The Future is Here: Brain Scanning for Pets!

Up_Doug_talkingdogRemember that scene in the Disney Pixar’s Up, where the old man and the little boy discover a dog who, thanks to a special collar, is able to talk to them? As it stands, that movie may have proven to be more prophetic than anyone would have thought. Thanks to improvements in wearable tech and affordable EEG monitors, it may finally be possible to read your dog’s mind and translate it into speech.

This is not the first case of commercial technology being used to monitor an animal’s habits. In recent years, wearable devices have been made available that an track the exercise, sleeping and eating patterns of a dog. But now, thanks to EEG devices like the “No More Woof”, it might be possible to track their thoughts, learning exactly what they think of that new couch, their new dry food, or the neighbors cat.

Woof_no_more1Tomas Mazzetti, the devices inventor, came up with the idea after he got as to what would happen if he strapped an off-the-shelf EEG machine to his mother’s Australian terrier. The observations that followed inspired the launch of a new project for Mazzetti and his team of fellow creatives at the Nordic Society for Invention and Discovery.

This society – which represents a collaboration between the ad agency Studio Total and Swedish retailer MiCasa – has spawned a number of quirky products in the past. These include a rocking chair that charges your iPad, a weather forecasting lamp, and a levitating carpet for small-ish pets. No More Woof is the society’s latest work, and the team recently launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise more funding for research.

Woof_no_moreSo far, Mazzetti and his team have been able to determine three baseline dog emotions to translate into speech: sleepiness, agitation, and curiosity. In time, they hope to be able to decipher hunger pangs as processed by a dog’s brain, and come up with appropriate verbalizations for all:

When the dog is sleepy, we translate to ‘I’m tired.’ And if they are really agitated, we can translate to ‘I’m excited!’ And the most active brainwave is when the dog sees a human face and tries to recognize that face. Then the brain is working overtime.

Mazzetti and the NSID are also working on finding cheaper EEG machines, after which they can fine-tune the software. They’ve done tests on roughly 20 dogs, of which they found that short-haired pets were able to communicate with the EEG machine better. If NSID receives more funding, its researchers hope to have something for sale by March or April of next year.

Brainwave-Frequency-ChartBut while Mazzetti’s primary goal is to produce something commercially viable for use with dogs, he’s also hopeful that other research institutions or retailers will pick up where NSID leaves off. For example, what thoughts could be translated if someone were to put a more sophisticated version of No More Woof on the head of a primate, or another highly intelligent mammal?

Looking even further afield, Mazzetti has suggested that such a device could work both ways, translating human speech into concepts that a dog (or other animal) could understand. As we all know, dogs are very good at learning verbal commands, but again, the idea of two-way communication offers possibilities to convey complex messages with other, more highly-intelligent animals.

humpbackCould it be possible someday to communicate with simians without the need for sign language, to commune openly with dolphins and Orcas, or warn Humpbacks about the impending dangers of whalers and deep sea fishers? Perhaps, and it would certainly be to the benefit of all. Not only would we be able to get our mammalian brethren to better understand us, we might just learn something ourselves!

After all, the line that separates humanity from all other species is a rather fine one, and tends to blur to closer we inspect it. By being able to commune with other species in a way that can circumvent “language barriers”, we might just learn that we have more in common than we think, and aren’t such a big, screaming deal after all.

And in the meantime, enjoy this video of the No More Woof in action:


And be sure to check out this clip from Up where Doug (the talking dog) is introduced, with hilarious results!