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Preventing Skynet is Online May 23, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Transhumanism.
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Preventing Skynet is the new blog created by Michael Anissimov, founder of the Immortality Institute and owner of Accelerating Future.  The purpose of the site is to showcase some of the dangers that synthetic intelligence could pose if we are not careful (for those of you living in a cave, Skynet is a reference to the fictional SI in the Terminator movies.) 

So far there are only three essays up but content will grow as people submit writings.  More importantly though, one of the articles up there is mine!  Yes, that was a bit of shameless self-promotion.  Anyways, the essays up are quite good and the themes they touch on are ones we need to be thinking about and discussing.  Give it a look.

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Letter From Utopia May 20, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Transhumanism.
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I absolutely love this essay.  It’s by Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom, the director of the Future Humanity Institute at Oxford University and one of the most well known transhumanist thinkers in the world.  As the title implies it is a letter from utopia, the twist being that utopia in the article is one of our possible futures.  Bostrom lays out a wonderful case for striving for a utopia is desirable (an easy task) and attainable (a much harder task) and he does it with some truly beautiful prose.   If you have any interest in the future, transhumanism… you know what, scratch that.  Even if you don’t have an interest in those things you owe it to your self to read this essay.

http://www.nickbostrom.com/utopia.html

One Step Closer to Fully Functional Prosthetics May 14, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Bionics.
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Technology Review has a very interesting article about a new surgical technique that is giving arm amputees a chance to regain most of their lost mobility.

The technique, called targeted muscle re-innervation and developed by Todd Kuiken of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago’s Center for Bionic Medicine, involves transplanting surviving arm motor nerves into other parts of the body, most commonly the chest.  These nerves then function much as they would were they still in the arm, flexing the muscle they are innervating whenever the person thinks of say, performing a high five or opening a jar.  Electrodes placed on the muscle detect contractions that a motorized prosthetic arm translates into the appropriate movement.  This gives the amputee intuitive control of the arm and the ability to perform fine motor movements that have typically not been possible, such as “[slicing] hot peppers, [opening] a bag of flour, [and putting] on a belt.”

As I mentioned in my post on the Open Prosthetics Project, prosthetic devices have until recently been nowhere near as efficient as a regular biological arm.  They’ve been cumbersome and with only a few degrees of freedom have been unable to perform anywhere near the level of biological arms.  Partly this is due to the primitive technology of the arms themselves (which in many cases are no more than a claw and a hook) but it is also due to the primitive technology controlling them.  As stated in the article, “prosthetic arms have been controlled in a rudimentary way, by transforming residual shoulder movements or muscle signals in to the simplest of movement commands.”This new technique gives amputees the ability to perform activities of daily living that had previously been impossible.

What is even more incredible is the possibility that this technology can give back to amputees not only motion, but sensation.  Currently no prosthetics possess tactile abilities.  They cannot feel texture, heat, pressure and so on.  But while most research into muscle re-innervation has focused on motor nerves, “it appears that sensory nerves, which carry signals from the skin to the brain, are affected as well.  Patients, including Mitchell, have reported that when certain areas of their rewired chest muscles are touched, they feel as if their missing hand is being touched.”

If a prosthetic arm can be developed to detect the sensations we feel through our skin, it appears that the nerve wiring would already be in place to make it work.