Friday, January 11, 2008

Martin Rees: We should take our posthuman future seriously

Edge Foundation`s World Question Center has a very interesting question this year: What have you changed your mind about?. Some of the answers are very interesting and a lot of interesting people are answering. Surprisingly, I have met quite a few of them at Scifoo 2007.

Martin Reese's answer
surprised me a lot, even if it should not:

We Should Take the 'Posthuman' Era Seriously


Human-induced changes are occurring with runaway speed. It's hard to predict a mere century from now, because what will happen depends on us — this is the first century where humans can collectively transform, or even ravage, the entire biosphere. Humanity will soon itself be malleable, to an extent that's qualitatively new in the history of our species.


We are custodians of a 'posthuman' future — here on Earth and perhaps beyond — that can't just be left to writers of science fiction.

Slowly, H+ is spreading among intellectuals and scientists, slowly we are getting to the point where our views of the future will get more attention and respect.

PS: Speaking about H+, I am running for the board of the WTA, even if I am very doubtful about my chances of winning, there are a lot of excellent candidates. Whether I get to the board or not, I want to contribute to build this future for all of us. I probably will post my candidacy statement once elections are over.

My thesis is going well, soon I hope to post a preliminary model.

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Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Allons enfants de la patrie, le chauvinisme et arriveè

It seems that people all around the world are yearning for earlier times of grandeur. Not only Iranians, but also French.

President Sarkozy wants the people to listen to France, all around the world. And how is he going to do it? Shutting down the English and Arabic broadcasting channels from France.

According to me, this is almost the stupidest PR move I have seen from a government, second only to the way America treats tourists. According to Sarkozy:

"Between Al Jazeera -- the Arab vision -- and CNN -- the Anglo-Saxon vision -- we would like to express a French vision, but to express a French vision, I would really prefer that we express it in the French language,"
French is not a predominant language anymore and broadcasting in French is going to be only preaching to the converted. I have to say that I can speak a little bit of French and I am interested in learning it well, so my position is not prejudiced against the language. I cannot understand TV in French now, and I doubt that billions of people around the world would learn the language just to know what France has to say. They will just skip France.

Sarkozy should learn from DWTV, one of my favorite news service, offered in several languages. I find DW programming very interesting, when I watch TV. By the way, Ich spreche kein Deustch, but I am more comfortable and familiar with German viewpoints than with French, even if I can read a little bit of the latter language.

I do not know in which world Sarkozy lives, but it's time for him to wake up.

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Sharing LSD via Bluetooth at the Oldest Place in the World

A friend from the US, involved in one of my current projects, wanted to go to Angel Falls, inside the Canaima National Park, this December. He invited me to come along and discuss our plans while we were there. I got a tour at a reasonable price, departing from Caracas, staying one night at Ciudad Bolivar and departing the next day for Canaima, where we stayed 3 days and 2 nights. The place was excellent and I really felt an interest in geology for the first time in my life. Knowing that the rocks where we were standing were almost as old as the whole planet made me realize the relative insignificance of every human and, at the same time, admire the fact that we are here and as ephemeral as we are, we are much more complex both in physiology and behavior than any inanimate structure. The feeling of humility to the universe that such structures impose is overwhelming.

In the boat ride (3 ass-numbing hours) to the falls, we learned the Transhumanist meaning of extreme sports: Whatever activity that implies risk, Alcor says they cannot retrieve your body if you die during it. Near the falls we took a very impressive shower with the mist that came down from them, clothes and all.

The guides were aboriginals, from the Pemon people. These guys spoke Spanish, a fairly good English and their own language. On the night previous on our excursion to the Falls, I was listening to music in a new phone-camera-MP3 player (Nokia 5200) that I got as Christmas gift from my father, when our Pemon guide asks me if I have music that he might like. He had a phone with Bluetooth capacity also and much more sophisticated than mine. There, at less than two miles from the Angel Falls, in the heart of the Jungle (with capital J), in the deep of the oldest geological formation in the world, the Macizo Guayanes, information wanted to be free. I showed him the playlist of the phone, not a lot of music, and my taste is somewhat strange. But something got his attention: Beatles-Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (LSD). That was the almost the only thing he asked me to send him. And so did I, swapping files using modern high tech in that strange place, hostile to mankind, with a member of a people that have lived there since long ago, slowly mutating their ways to adapt the modern life, but still living from the jungle, albeit in a different sense today.

The Pemon people have been exposed to modern technology and they use it frequently. The above picture, albeit fuzzy, shows a Pemon on his traditional hammock, listening to his iPod (Hell, most of the people I know, and that includes me, do not own an iPod here), at the camp, less than two miles from the Falls. They have also DirecTV antennas and computers back in the town. The antennas are not for the tourists, it seems, since many of them are in particular households. They use e-mail and cellphones to coordinate with the tourists and get more profits, cutting out the middlemen from travel agencies and tour operators. The drawback of all this is that the village was very neglected, unpaved roads, very clean, but there were parasitic flies that attacked an otherwise beautiful dog that was there. iPods and DirecTV but bad roads and ectoparasites are not promising symptoms however, I can understand that paving the roads and establishing pest control programs are fairly expensive initiatives that need a huge local commitment or government's funding, but buying an iPod, a DirecTV receiver or a computer can be done with no other approval than self and is comparatively modest, these people get good money from tourism. I can see kids using XO laptops here, getting connected and contributing to the web. Maybe they will set up a live webcasting from the Angel Falls or put a webcam in a viewpoint, so people from all over the world can see its magnificent beauty and they will get even more tourists. Maybe they will request hybrid or totally solar off-shore engines for their boats, as these oil based engines depend on oil supply and pollute a lot the otherwise pristine rivers. But certainly it is a problem that all the use they have for the latest tech is entertainment while many of their needs are still unmet. They have solved their income problem using the Internet, now, what else can they solve by themselves if given the tools? This is a very interesting question that I hope to see answered in few years. At least it is obvious that they can use the Internet as a tool for getting a better life and network with people from all around the world (The camp was full with Australians, and I realized sadly that I cannot understand Australian accent, and sometimes, not even British). In these days the Pemon are also Globally Connected.

PS: The tour operator that prepared our trip was Osprey Tours:
This operator is ideal if you want to leave everything in their hands, arrive in Caracas and just leave for the Falls, no worries about cabs, airplane tickets or light aircraft (the scary Cessna single engine planes that we used to go to Canaima). They were extremely helpful and responsible, we didn't have any problem with them and all I can say is that if you want a headache free tour, they are the right people.
If you prefer to get your plane tickets from Caracas to Ciudad Bolivar and back, the taxis, and live the Venezuelan adventure with no assistance (As a Venezuelan, I would not recommend it to foreigners), but arrange better prices, you can contact directly to the Pemon operators here:
Excursiones Kavac:
m16_sapiens[at]hotmail.comm (Anthon Alex, one of the guides)

WARNING: The tour can be somewhat expensive depending on how you choose to pay. If you pay in dollars, using your credit cards, you'll get 2150 bolivares per each dollar. If you exchange your dollars in the black market, on the street, and then pay with bolivares, you can get a much better exchange rate (But I cannot say how much, it is illegal according to the Venezuelan law). What is legal, however, is to exchange your dollars at a border, for instance, in Colombia to Colombian Pesos and then exchange to Bolivares, you'll get a fairly good rate, but not as much as you could on the streets, however, in the streets you could be ripped off. Be aware of that and you are advised that it is illegal.
But, nobody really cares a lot about this law. Besides getting the bolivar at the right prices, you'll have to visit the banks and deposit money, you will also have to get the plane ticket and probably deal with people that cannot speak even the most basic English.

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Friday, January 4, 2008

2007: The Transmurine year

It seems that 2007 was a good year to be a lab mouse.

Some outstanding developments in cell biology, genetics, evo-devo, and several other branches of Biology, have improved the murine condition and given more lifespan, strength or stamina to mice. Exactly what we, transhumanists hope to achieve for our own kind. These mice, as the Betterhumans motto says, are “better than well”.

We were used to seeing mice with impaired functions, some of them extremely dysfunctional and with shocking phenotypes. Often they died before long, destroyed by its own conditions, after a painful life. Now, after understanding better the mechanisms of several body systems, after gaining a better viewpoint of genetic regulatory circuits, we have begun to tinker more delicately and exquisitely with the genes of these mice, now with superb results that give us hope and further enthusiasm for the promise of enhancing human capacities. This new generation of mice is only the beginning of a new era of improved mammals that will beat their natural counterparts in several aspects and aren't impaired in any sense, compared to them.

The first of these mice is only a mouse with scientific and aesthetic value, as its phenotype is not visible and not useful for itself, but to us, human experimenters. The Brainbow mice express genes for Green, Yellow, Red and Cyan. Fluorescent Proteins are coupled to the Cre/lox recombination systems. A probabilistic recombination event renders these genes functional and the combined expression of several (but not all at the same time, as the recombination is an stochastic event, different in every cell) different genes create as many as 90 possible shades of colors for each neuron (or any other cell). The differential gene expression and coloring of each cell allow experimenters to keep track of individual cells, which have the same color across all their lengths. Yes, this modification is not helpful to its bearers, but surely is interesting, beautiful and offers interesting body modification perspectives if it were possible to achieve in adult individuals rather than only in embryos. Coupling the expression of Cre to a Turing Pattern-like expression system would lead to extremely interesting skin color patterns, similar in shape to tigers or leopards, but with many different colors in a random way. Maybe we could even figure how to tweak cell receptors and gene expression to create fractal patterns on skin. Maybe in the future tattoos will be induced spreading different substances over the skin, one for each color, and maybe this gene expression could be turned off and return skin to its normal state. In any case, this is good news for Morphological Freedom fans.

I already commented on another post about one of the star mice from this year, the myostatin deficient mice that develop four times more muscle than regular mice. In this case, possibly we could mimic the effects of the alterations using drugs that modulate the activity of these proteins and therefore we would not need any gene modification to have the effect in humans. Possibly these drugs will be heavily regulated and their use for other than medical conditions as muscular dystrophy, deemed illegal, however, they are going to be used for other purposes, whether we like it or not. Again, I would say that the honest thing to do would be to end the hypocrisy and allow this kind of modification to be used in professional sports, but only limited to a league of enhanced athletes, separated from regular athletes, as pairing unaided persons with the ones who use this kind of tech would be unfair. What will happen with public attention to both leagues? Would it lead to a mass approval and support of transhumanist points of views, once the people realize that their beloved sport heroes are de facto transhumans? I do not have the slightest idea, but certainly that is going to be very interesting.

The overexpression of the SAC domain of the prostate apoptosis response-4 gene causes resistance to tumors in mice, both spontaneous and induced by oncogenes. The SAC domain seems to induce apoptosis when the cell machine gets out of control, not in normal or immortalized cells, where proliferation is out of control. This apoptosis is independent of p53 and other tumor supressor genes. The specificity of the action is conferred by Protein Kinase A, an enzyme that has increased activity in tumoral cells. The overexpression of SAC does not affect the growth, development or lifespan of mice, that stay tumor free and normal in every other sense.

Maybe the most impressive performance of the year is the one from PEPCK-mus mice. These mice overexpress the enzyme PEPCK in muscle, that converts Phosphoenol Pyruvate to Piruvate, generating ATP from ADP in the process. This might sound dull and uninteresting, but the effects are simply breathtaking. PEPCK-mus mice can run more than ten times the normal distance that regular mice can run, at higher speeds. The levels of lactic acid in the cells of these mice remain the same during heavy exercise as during rest. Here's the video of the comparison between both mice:

Simply impressive. I barely have words to describe what I feel when I see this. These mice also remain fertile for a longer time and live longer than normal mice. These are truly transmice, improved, enchanced. However, there are problems, as they eat more food (but they stay fit) and have slightly more agressive behaviour. These drawbacks must be studied in depth before we can port the mechanism to humans (And it might be not possible due to physiological differences), but overall, the sole fact that it is possible to achieve such effects overexpressing a single gene is tremendously encouraging.

I think that the experiment that will beat the current M Prize holder is already on its course or will begin in 2008 and that even more interesting mice will show up this year at an even faster pace. Maybe we are at the point where we need a metric that accounts for the number of modified genes in a mouse, the number of ways in that it differs from regular mice and how different it is. Maybe a better option is some ratio between the number of genes modified and the number of pathways that are affected by these genes, multiplied by some measure of longevity. Maybe this hypothetical number is impossible to calculate, as we would have to assign values to staying cancer-free, running for longer, seeing in the ultraviolet region, or being able to photosynthetize and digest cellulose. This is utterly absurd, but maybe we could find a measure other than the lifespan of the enhanced mice, maybe the resistance of cultured cells to carcinogenic agents, its behavior concerning fasting or radiation poisoning. It is a complex issue but I still think it would be worthy to acknowledge the fact that as a result of several extensive modifications these new mice show improved phenotypes. The crux of the problem, I guess, is that we would be trying to assign values to what we think that ultimately would lead to improved humans themselves, and there is no single concept of what it means to be “better” when options, situations and viewpoints are almost endless. But even for something as widely adopted as Moore's law, measuring the speed of the processor alone, without accounting for software requirements is not a reliable way to predict end-user experience, as a relatively new processor with Windows Vista can do much worse than an older one running an older version of Windows or a lightweight distro of Linux, so maybe sticking to a number as a guide of what's inside the mouse is not as crazy as it sounds.

When will the Transhuman Year arrive? Hard to say. All these developments have been used to create new animals, not applied to an existing mouse that then changed its phenotype. Before we can benefit form this research we still have to develop safe ways of transfecting genes into existing animals and triggering their expression in a controlled fashion. Current viral vectors are unreliable and dangerous, however, even if safer methods are developed, they still will have to go through a regulatory nightmare before we are able to use them, unless unethical paradises and biotech havens arise, probably in developing countries. A way to get funding for clinical tests and support a successful industry before human application of the tech is ready could be use the technology in pets: life extension, rejuvenation, enhancing of beloved pets, selling colorful kittens, extra fast greyhounds for racing, developing dogs and cats that will live for longer but that won't reproduce unless given a pill, avoiding the need of neutering processes. This temporary and selective sterilization would be fairly easy to develop given that we have safe transfection vectors. Then it could be applied to existing animals, inoculating the vector on them and maybe help to solve the problem of urban canine overpopulation. I think that a lot of people would buy these treatments for their pets, if the alternative is death or hurting them with unnecessary organ removals, and that revenue could be used to fund further research in humans.

It has been a good year for H+ ideas, a good year for scientific research and a good year for mice. There are a lot of unsolved issues and a lot of problems that require not tech solutions but political and social ones. Sadly we cannot do much about it, other than keep trying to give education and critical thinking tools to as many people as possible. Expose people to other world views and experiences, so they realize that life can be different, can be improved. That leaders should be accountable for their actions and that the real wealth of nations lies not on the land, the industry or even on computers, but on human ingenuity and love for knowledge.

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