On October 15, 2007, in Acceleration

We at HFD are as susceptible as everyone else to the accelerating growth of information. The amount of relevant raw material we have clipped in the past three months is enough to fill a book, never mind a monthly (give or take) newsletter.


To solve the problem (at least until the tsunami starts to overwhelm us again) we have decided to eliminate the article summaries and simply provide the links to the source articles, in the body of our commentary. Some publications remove their articles to a “morgue” after a certain amount of time, in which case you may need to use the source site’s own search engine to find, and pay a fee to access, the source article.


As well, we will publish only one topic per issue. For the current issue, we have chosen the topic of Acceleration, which illustrates how accelerating advances in the sciences and technologies of health and medicine are moving us into uncharted territory as human beings and as society.



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Artificial Life: Steps Toward Creationism

In June this year, human genome pioneer Dr. Craig Venter announced that his team of 20 top scientists (led by a Nobel laureate) at the Venter Institute and the Synthetic Genomics Company had successfully transplanted the entire genome (a natural, native chromosome) from one bacterium cell to another. By October, the Guardian was reporting that Venter would soon announce the transplant of a synthetic chromosome into a natural bacterial cell. Christened Mycoplasma laboratorium, the synthetic life form is modeled on the bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium, minus genetic material not essential to life and reproduction. M. laboratorium has 580,000 base pairs in 381 genes.


The artificial chromosome is expected to take control of the cell. Some might argue that it’s not really artificial because the container is a natural cell, but there are several efforts underway to create an artificial cell membrane – a container – from fatty acids, for example. Perhaps then that argument can be settled beyond doubt.


Venter and his colleagues are not the only ones working on artificial life. An Italian company, ProtoLife, is also trying to create synthetic living cells from the basic chemicals in DNA, and a Florida lab is developing eight new bases to add to the four-letter genetic alphabet A(denine), T(hymine), G(uanine), and C(ytosine).


A Canadian ethicist commented that “Governments, and society in general, [are] way behind the ball. This is a wake-up call — what does it mean to create new life forms in a test-tube?” He said Venter was creating a “chassis on which you could build almost anything. It could be a contribution to humanity such as new drugs or a huge threat to humanity such as bio-weapons.” Venter of course views it as a contribution, suggesting it could lead to artificial bacteria that mop up carbon dioxide from the environment, or produce fuels, for example.


It seems to us that the philosophical questions – and answers – which the advent of artificial life will generate are more fundamental and important than the issue of the technology’s application or misapplication. Is “artificial life” an oxymoron, a contradiction? Life would seem to be life, no matter how it came about. “Alien life” might be a better epithet. (Speaking of alien life: It has been discovered that inorganic galactic dust in space can take on the characteristics of living organisms – DNA-like helical structures, memory, and the power to reproduce.)

Top 10 Emerging Technologies of 2007

You would think an artificial/alien lifeform would top any list emerging technologies, but it is not mentioned in MIT Technology Review magazine’s 2007 list of top ten emerging technologies “most likely to alter industries, fields of research, and even the way we live.” Nevertheless, as has been the norm in recent years’ lists, most of the Top 10 are medicine-related. They include:


  • a single-cell analyzer to detect minute differences between individual cells;
  • nanofibers to stop bleeding and aid recovery from brain injury;
  • “compressive sensing” for better camera and scanner imaging;
  • personalized medical monitors with in-built diagnostics; and
  • a genetically engineered switch to turn on or off selected parts of the brain.


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Worlds Apart

Children are growing up partly in virtual worlds such as Clubpenguin, Imbee, Whyville, Nicktropolis, and Webkinz, where they can socialize and even hold down a virtual job in return for virtual toys and accoutrements. “It’s parents who can’t keep up,” laments a New York Times writer. A psychologist confirmed what the Times father of a nine-year-old already knew: “Children fairly quickly are surpassing their own parents’ expertise in understanding online worlds.”


With some virtual worlds, or parts of virtual worlds, starting to look more like the real one and less like a Hollywood fantasy movie set, the children may at least have an opportunity to learn something about the real world. One virtual reality simulation in which visitors travel back in time to experience ancient Rome may be made available within the bigger virtual world called Second Life.


Virtual reality and artificial intelligence (VR and AI) have reached the tipping point of being able to deliver healthcare services, such as a virtual health coach, that people are actually prepared to use and benefit from. VR and AI will feed the trend to automated care and self-care, reduce health access disparities, and ameliorate the forecasted shortage of clinicians.


We expect virtual worlds, like some already emerging next-generation toys and games, to be able to read and affect a person’s moods, concentration, and – at a coarse, superficial, level — thought. This has obvious medical application, and indeed a game with these capabilities is now available for treating autism and other developmental disorders (successfully or not, we don’t know.) The discovery that altruism is essentially a circuit in the brain further suggests that we are accelerating toward technologies that will read the mind at a deeper level and in finer grain.



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Superhealth and the Cyborg

It will not be many years, we predict, before Cyborgian athletes surpass ordinary athletes as the state-of-the-art in prosthetics advances. An embedded computer chip in the Rheo artificial knee constantly modifies the knee’s resistance according to its position and load, allowing it to adjust to changes in terrain and speed. One double leg amputee athlete uses a pair of lightweight knees for biking and special sprinting knees for running. The Flex-Foot Cheetah carbon-fiber prosthetic, modeled on the hind leg of the world’s fastest land animal, has helped another amputee athlete achieve a world record in the 100-meter dash at the US Paralympics. And a powered robotic ankle that captures the energy generated when the foot hits the ground is expected to make the wearer’s gait more efficient than natural gait.


Cyborgism (the condition of being part biological, part machine) may have more important implications than spectacular sports and athletics. After living for seven years with a left ventricular assist device, its recipient is physically strong. He walks long distances, travels internationally, and works hard. But his personality has changed. He says he has also become less careful with money, less religious, and more “coldhearted.” For example, he can’t “be bothered to have a reasonable relationship” with his eight-year-old twin grandsons,” though the fact does bother him, since he is a psychologist. He recognizes, however, that other factors, such as the drugs he has to take, could be the culprit, not the tin heart.


There are few data on the psychology and cognition of cyborgs, in part because there are not yet that many of them, though their number is accelerating. Cardiologists had noted a decline in psychological and cognitive capacity associated with surgery using heart pumps, introduced in 1953, but it was not until 2001 that the observation received research attention. Similarly, a psychological and cognitive deficit known as “chemofog” resulting from chemotherapy has only recently attracted serious research attention.


If the hypothesis that bionic devices affect not just the body but the mind and spirit as well is true, then nanobots, cell-sized robots being designed to cruise the bloodstream and fix problems they find, could also change people’s personality and sense of identity. On the other hand, people adapt to eyeglasses and eventually stop thinking of themselves as odd or abnormal, though it would seem possible that they are in fact changed in some way. Recipients of cosmetic surgery may also undergo psychosocial change. It is another sign of the trend to superhealth that the number of couples electing to take undergo plastic surgery is rising, according to the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery. Some cosmetic surgery facilities have created joint recuperation facilities where couples can recover side by side.


Serious people are paying serious attention to these accelerating trends that are contributing to fundamental change in human beings and in being human. Transvision 2007, the World Transhumanist Association’s annual meeting, was attended by such visionary dignitaries as MIT’s Marvin Minsky, the X-Prize Foundation’s Peter Diamandis, author Ray Kurzweil, and Second Life’s Philip Rosedale.


Minsky predicted we may one day upload our minds into machines which will be free to roam the universe. Rosedale saw the virtual world replacing the real world for the exchange of ideas and knowledge, and predicted that artificially intelligent avatars will learn so much from interacting with human avatars they could soon acquire artificial general intelligence.


Noting that average life expectancy now increases by about 3 months every year. Kurzweil said longevity trends are accelerating so fast that in about 15 years life expectancy will increase more than one year for each year that passes, which means, essentially, immortality.



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So there you have it: Artificial or alien life; intelligent virtual environments that know what you are thinking and how you are feeling; and immortal, superhealthy cyborgs. Whatever will next month’s tsunami of clips bring?


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