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Apologies March 18, 2010

Posted by Matt Brown in Transhumanism.
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My apologies to all those who read this blog as I have not posted in quite a while.  I’ve been undergoing a bit of a mid life crisis (which is weird since I’m only 24) and haven’t really had the motivation to post.  Never fear though, I do intend to continue either on this blog or another one.  I feel I still have more to say on transhumanism and human enhancement.  Whatever happens I will keep you updated.


Alcor, Larry Johnson and Ted Williams: The Circus Continues October 13, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Transhumanism.
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Larry Johnson has a bone to pick with Alcor.  The author and former COO of Alcor Life Extension Foundation is coming out with a new book, “Frozen: My Journey Into the World of Cryonics, Deception and Death” that he says details the gruesome world of cryogenic freezing, where bodies or sometimes just heads are suspended at freezing temperatures in the hope that future technologies will one day be able to revive the dead.

Before we go too much farther lets take a step back and look at how this story got to this point.  For those that don’t know, Alcor Life Extension Foundation is an Arizona based non-profit that offers cryogenic freezing services to its patients.  Cryogenic freezing, as I said above, it the process by which humans or animals are frozen and preserved in the hope that one day technology will progress to the point where they will be able to be reanimated.  It’s a very slim chance that it will actually work but it certainly gives you a better chance of prolonging life then getting cremated or buried.   Alcor, which has been around since 1972 and has over 900 members, describes itself as “the world leader in cryonics, cryonics research, and cryonics technology.”  In 2003 Larry Johnson came to Alcor and worked as Chief Operating Officer for a total of eight months.  At the end of that time he left and that’s where our story really begins.

You see Johnson claims that during his time at Alcor he witnessed and heard of gruesome acts being committed by staff there.  He says he saw one employee hit the frozen head of Ted Williams (yes, that Ted Williams) with a monkey wrench while trying to dislodge a tuna can which had frozen to the head.  He presents a taped conversation that seems to show an Alcor employee hastened the death of a terminally ill patient.  He presents photos of a patient being decapitated so his head may be preserved in one of Alcor’s suspension systems.

Johnson clearly expects us to be disgusted by this and if his accusations are true then we surely should be.  Ah, but there in lies the rub.  First of all, lets look at the biggest accusation here, the one that Ted Williams head was abused and used for batting practice by an Alcor employee.  According to the AP, Johnson was not even employed at Alcor when the freezing took place.  He based his story on “conversations with the Alcorians who were in the room and performed the procedures, the files I have read, and the discussions I’ve had with other people involved, including members of Ted’s family.”  Secondly, Johnson’s photos and descriptions of the “gruesome” decapitations of patients would be more effective if Alcor didn’t advertise the procedure on their fucking homepage.  Neuropreservation, as it is called, is a commonly performed procedure that seeks to preserve the brain of the patient, something which makes sense considering the brain is the seat of consciousness and therefore the only part that really needs to be preserved.  Johnson’s tactic will certainly gross out the more squeamish among us (it’s hard to make a decapitated head not look gross) but there is no evidence that Alcor is misleading or lying to people about what they do.  Thirdly, as to the taped conversations Mr. Johnson does indeed possess tapes that he alleges show an Alcor employee admitting that another Alcor employee hastened the death of a terminally ill patient.  That tape was handed over to police who apparently launched an investigation but it does seem that anything came of it.

The most damning thing against Mr. Johnson however are his own actions.  After breaking his story to Sports Illustrated in 2003 Johnson set up a website where people could view photos of Ted Williams body being defiled, but only after buying a $20 membership.  Now he’s selling a book (violating a court order which forbids him from talking about Alcor) with the same allegations.  Whether or not Mr. Johnson is profiteering from this story, and from where I’m sitting it certainly looks like that, he is certainly profiting from it.

Now, despite all I’ve said it is completely possible that Mr. Johnson is correct in his accusations.  That seems to be the angle most of the media is reporting from and if Alcor is guilty of what there being accused of they should be prosecuted.   The problems are that Mr. Johnson’s past actions cast doubt on his motives and therefore his story and that his evidence seems to be composed mostly of hearsay.  I’ve read some reviews of the book that say it “reads as a captivating thriller” and is “a page turner.”  Perhaps I’m overstepping the bounds here but in my experience stuff that reads like great fiction usually is great fiction.

BIL-PIL Conference October 9, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Transhumanism.
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I will be attending the BIL-PIL Healthcare Innovation Conference on October 30-31 in San Diego and like a kid going to his first day of school I’m excited.  For those who don’t know the BIL-PIL conference is an offshoot of the BIL conference, a medical technology conference that has positioned itself as an alternative to the TED conference.  Like the BIL conference, BIL-PIL is held in what they are calling the unconference format.  Basically what that means is there are no fees to attend, no sponsored speakers and theoretically anyone can attend and participate.  Think of it as the open source model of conferences.

Anyways, as the name implies the BIL-PIL conference covers healthcare and medical technology and while it is not strictly a transhumanist event the issues that will be discussed are all transhumanist issues.  To quote from the website:

A few examples of topics to be addressed by those already scheduled to speak:

  • What are the consequences of the personal genomics revolution?
  • How can patients relate to each other as never before using Web 2.0 technologies?
  • How can science address life extension and aging?
  • How can diagnostics more accurately match a patient to the right therapy?
  • What does new legislation imply for the future of the biotechnology industry?
  • How can we revolutionize the way we think about paying for healthcare?
  • What if your iPhone could “look” at your pills and spot a possible drug interaction?

Genomics?  Life extension?  Biotechnology?  We might as well be reading Citizen Cyborg.  For those of you in San Diego or with the means to get there I really suggest checking this conference out.  Should be a fun time with lots of interesting info presented.  Oh, and I did mention it was free right?

Caster Semanya and the Purity of Sport September 10, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Sports, Transhumanism.
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Caster Semanya is all over the news.  By now you’ve probably heard the details (if not you can read them below) so I won’t go into them here.  Suffice to say that Ms. Samanya, the woman’s 800m champion, possess internal testes and is thus not technically a women.  When I first read this story I thought it was an interesting end to a story I had been following for awhile.  What I missed at the time was that this story is not simply about Semanya but has implications for the very foundation of sports.

To understand what I mean you have to understand why people are so concerned with whether or not Semanya is a woman.  In regards to the testing performed on Semanya the IAAF says, “These tests do not suggest any suspicion of deliberate misconduct but seek to assess the possibility of a potential medical condition which would give Semenya an unfair advantage over her competitors. There is no automatic disqualification of results in a case like this.”

A potential medical condition which gives her an unfair advantage.  Think about that for a minute.  Forget for a second that it is her gender which is in question and what the IAAF is saying is that they are investigating whether or not she has a natural advantage over the other athletes.  This is really not the issue as she clearly does have an advantage, her testes giving her far more testosterone (the prime muscle building hormone) than other female competitors.  The issue is whether or not she, and by extension other athletes, can and should be punished for having a natural gift, whether or not an athlete can be punished for having a body with a natural advantage.  Should the IAAF answer yes the implications are staggering.   Could Michael Phelps be banned from competing because of his genes have given him an almost perfect swimmer’s body?  Should Lance Armstrong be stripped of his titles because his cancer treatment left him with a different, possibly more advantageous, physique?  What conditions are allowed and which ones can get you banned?  Believe me I realize this sounds crazy but it’s not unthinkable.  It is exactly where the purity of sport argument takes us.

The purity of sport argument is the overarching reason why things like this or performance enhancing drugs are even talked about.  The argument basically goes that we must ensure that sports is a level playing field, where no athlete has an unfair advantage over the other and all are free to succeed or fail based only on there own talent and determination.  It is a wonderful ideal that, at least for Americans, touches at the very heart of what we consider our core values; belief in individualism, fair play and the idea that if you work hard enough you can do anything.  Unfortunately, as I have said many times before, it’s also complete rubbish.   There is one major flaw in the argument and Caster Semanya exemplifies it perfectly: there is no such thing as a level playing field.  Caster Semanya, like most champions, was born with an innate advantage over her opponents.  Yes, she had to work very hard to get to the level she is at today, but the fact remains that she possess physical gifts that set her apart from the rest of her competition.  To punish her for that is to admit that the purity of sport argument has failed, that there is no level playing field and attempts to enforce the idea are doomed to fail.

The thing is, while there isn’t a level playing field now there could be one in the future if we allow it.  Far from widening the gulf between athletes, things like performance enhancers could serve to make all athletes essentially equal at the biological level.  If Caster Semanya’s excess testosterone gives her an advantage then the solution is not to punish her for something she didn’t do but to give her opponents the option to have that same advantage.   With all athletes biologically equal the only advantage one could have would be in skill or the will to succeed, which is what sport is all about anyway. Give athletes control over their own bodies and far from destroying sports you may just make it better.

Womens 800m Champion Not Exactly A Woman September 10, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Sports, Transhumanism.
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I have been following this story since I first heard about it but I must admit that this is a twist I didn’t see coming.  For those of you who don’t know there has been a bit of controversy hanging over the current women’s 800m world champion, Caster Semenya.  A few months ago the South African runner won the 800m at the world championships, absolutely destroying her competition in the process.  Almost immediately questions were raised about whether or not Semanya was actually a woman, those questions being fueled by her dominating performance, her deep voice and masculine features.

Well, the IAAF tested Semanya and discovered that she is not a man, but neither is she technically a woman.  It turns out that while Semanya possess a vagina she lacks ovaries.  Instead she has a pair of internal testes making her technically a hermaphrodite.  Those testes have been producing an abundance of testosterone which probably accounts for her masculine voice and features.

The presents a bit of a problem for the IAAF.  It’s clear that Semanya didn’t violate anti-doping rules and she probably was unaware herself of her condition.  However, the fact remains that Semanya is not technically female.  Oddly enough, had Semanya been transgender (i.e. male to female) this would have been a much easier process.  While I’m unsure about the IAAF I know that the IOC has guidelines allowing for the participation of transgender athletes in athletics.

But Semanya isn’t transgender, nor is she technically female, nor technically male.  She is something sports hasn’t had to deal with yet, at least not at this level of competition. You can be sure though that we’ll see more episodes like this in the future as technologies like germline genetic engineering become commonplace.  If we have controversy over a competitor who isn’t technically female, what will we see with competitors who aren’t “technically” human.

On a side note, I personally think she should be allowed to keep her medal as she clearly wasn’t trying to cheat and thankfully that seems like what is going to happen.

Surrogates: Make Your Own Surrogate September 1, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Transhumanism.
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So you’ve probably heard of the new Bruce Willis movie coming out soon, Surrogates.  In short, it’s set in the near future where everyone lives life as a surrogate, a physically perfected android controlled remotely by the person.  The movie looks pretty cool but that’s not why I’m posting.

On the Surrogates website they have a feature that allows you to construct your own surrogate.  Normally these movie marketing features are pretty poorly made but this is… well, pretty damn cool.  You start by uploading a photo of yourself, which the program then turns into a 3-d CG image.  This image is really good, like scary good.  You then have the option of altering your facial features including your hair, eye color, clothing, any tattoos or piercings and even change your race.  This part isn’t as robust as I would have liked but it still gives you the opportunity to personalize yourself.

Next you get to add some audio and this  is probably my favorite part.  The text to speech system is quite robust.  I started off just typing in basic things like “Hello” and “My name is Matt” but before long I was typing in “The Singularity is near.  Transcend your biology and live forever,” all of which the program faithfully rendered.  It even gives you the option of choosing an accent for yourself and while there does seem to be an overabundance of American accents it’s still a nice touch (I chose a British accent.)

What’s the point of all this you ask?  Well besides being a fun movie tie in, not much.  I was already planning of seeing Surrogates so this probably won’t change my mind on whether or not to see it.  It does get you thinking about the major theme of the movie, how in the future we will have complete control over our appearance, which according to the movie will result in a world of supermodels which I’m not sure I agree with.

Personally if I could control how I look I’d rather look like this…

then like this.

But that’s just me.

P.S. For those of you who don’t know, the guy in the top picture is Zeratul and he is awesome.

Running Robot August 10, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Bionics, Transhumanism.
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Now this is cool.  As far as I can tell this is the first demonstration of a robot actually running.  That’s even more impressive when you realize just how hard running as a movement actually is.  We take it for granted because most of us can do it fairly well but bipedal running is an incredibly complex movement.   To illustrate this think of two seemingly very different populations: young children and the elderly.  Both groups often suffer from a lack of strength, balance and coordination (though for very different reasons) and as such have similar running characteristics; they run more slowly, take shorter strides, often point there toes outward and generally have a much more inefficient running motion.  Compare this to a healthy adults running motion and it becomes apparent that a certain amount of physical ability is necessary for running to become a practical means of conveyance and the fact that these designers have accomplished that is impressive to say the least.

Now before we all start worrying about Terminators chasing us down it’s important to note that this robot is not at a human’s level when it comes to running.  The flight phase, the time when both feet are off the ground, is pathetically short by our standards and the designers don’t seemed to have solved the problem of counterbalance when the robot runs.  Notice how the torso has to turn side to side in order to keep the robot from falling whereas most humans can perform the same function using only the arms.  Still those are relatively minor problems when you realize how far the technology has already come.  I look forward to the first robot sprinter winning the 100m dash in the 2016 Olympics, or more seriously I look forward to this technology being used in improved prosthetic designs that allow amputees to live better lives.

British Government Looks to Ban Intelligence…Enhancers July 31, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Human Enhancement, Transhumanism.
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If I told you that a government was planning on banning performance enhancing drugs because of issues like preventing unfair advantages, you’d probably think I was talking about sports.  You would be wrong.  The British government has recently asked their expert on illegal drugs to look into whether nootropics, intelligence-enhancing drugs, should be banned.  The use of nootropics is becoming a very common phenomena as students and workers search for every possible advantage they can find to get an edge in school or in the workplace.  One study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence found that in 2002 more than 7 million Americans used intelligence-enhancers, with 1.6 million of those being student age.

So why is the British government spending it’s valuable time talking about banning smart drugs?  It began with a study published by the Academy of Medical Science entitled “Brain Science, Addiction and Drugs.”  The study looked at three types of drugs (recreational drugs, medicine for mental health and cognition enhancers,) assessed the risk of there use and recommended what steps be taken.  I’ll skip the first two parts and go right to cognitive enhancers.  In brief, the study looked at the types of cognitive enhancers that are currently on the market and looked at what effects they have, how they improve cognition and what potential risks come with there use.  The list of drugs was fairly extensive and included some well known ones such as methylphrenidate (Ritalin) and modafinil (Provigil.)  According to the study most of the substances listed have been shown to improve cognition in one way or another (short term memory, learning, focus) though not all improve all areas of cognition and some may even detract from some areas while improving others.

Where the study became interesting is where they began to discuss the ethical issues involved in intelligence-enhancers and what form of regulation may need to be put in place.  The first paragraph of this section went right to the heart of the matter stating:

“Any potential human enhancement challenges traditional ideas about medicine, i.e. that the role of medicine is to overcome some sort of impediment to normal physical or mental functioning, and thereby restore an individual to ‘normal’ health.”

This is a common belief in most of the medical community and has been used by prominent bioconservatives such as Leon Kass as an argument against human enhancement.  Naturally I disagree with this position and it is interesting do note that the study did not come out unequivocally in support of it and made note of the fact that physical enhancement (i.e. cosmetic surgery) has been gaining widespread acceptance.  Unfortunately, it then made quite possibly the stupidest argument against enhancement I have ever heard:

“Currently, individuals with higher than average cognitive abilities are valued and rewarded, but making such attributes available to all individuals could reduce the diversity of cognitive abilities in the population, and change ideas of what is ‘normal’.” (emphasis mine)

If by reduce the diversity of cognitive abilities they mean reduce the number of stupid people then I agree that is what cognitive enhancement could very well do.   What I have a hard time seeing is how this could be anything but a good thing.  In many cases diversity is very desirable since an abundance of different traits in a population often enhances that species adaptability and thus odds of survival.  However there is no benefit to having a diversity of cognitive abilities, to having a population where some people are less intelligent, less creative and more forgetful.  This is akin to saying that some forms of medicine should be abolished because it is might reduce the diversity of health in a population.  There is no benefit to taking this action, and generally that’s a good enough reason not to do it.

As to the popular argument as to whether use of cognitive enhancers should be banned in certain situations such as athletic or competitive event the study didn’t take one side or another, only stating that more discussion was necessary.  It did trot out the same tired argument we hear every time this discussion comes up, that performance enhancers are an unfair advantage.  This was a stupid argument against enhancement in sports and it’s a stupid argument now.  Genetics and upbringing already give some people an advantage over others and if anything cognitive enhancers could help to level the playing field.  It also didn’t address the largely arbitrary way we decide which drugs should be banned and which are acceptable, such as why a powerful stimulant such as caffine is not being considered in this ban or why dangerous drugs like nicotine or alcohol are legal while drugs like cannabis are not.  Please note that I am not advocating the banning of said drugs, quite the opposite, I merely wish to point out the ban’s arbitrary nature.

The study did contain one thing that advocates of human enhancement can look to approvingly.  In closing the study stated :

“Further debate is needed about whether it is, in fact, desirable for pharmaceutical companies to have explicit programmes for developing
cognitive enhancing drugs to be used by ‘healthy’ individuals in non-medical contexts.  If such programmes are found to be desirable, incentives for their development should also be considered.” (emphasis mine)

Could a top science academy be advocating the potential of human enhancement?  Could we be seeing the beginning of a redefinition of the purpose of medicine?  Time will tell.


What Does It Mean To Be Human July 16, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Transhumanism.
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What does it mean to be human?  This question has been with us for as long as we as a species can remember.  Entire libraries could be filled with all the opinions, rebuttals, debates and ruminations that have cropped up around it.   Its answer has confounded our greatest philosophers, eluded our best scientists and even after 10,000 years of recorded history we are still no closer to unraveling it.  It is a question I have no intention of trying to answer here.

You’re probably confused now.  You’re probably scratching your head and thinking, “What is this, a bait-and-switch?  Why did you start this with a question you‘re not going to answer?”  The reason I began this essay with it is because it is a question that is at the heart of much of the debate surrounding human enhancement and needs to be addressed, and the reason I do not intended to answer it is because it is a meaningless question.  You read that right.  It is meaningless, pointless, unimportant.

I am aware of how strange this may sound, but bear with me.  Many of the arguments against human enhancement can be boiled down to the idea that there is something special about humanity, something that would be lost should we begin to drastically change ourselves.  So what are these unique qualities, these traits that we stand to lose?  To answer that we must ask, what is a human?  What defines a being as belonging to humanity?  It is not our tools.  Many animals have been shown to use tools.  What about our intelligence?  It is impressive in its scope but it is certainly not unique.  Self consciousness?  Many animals are aware of their own existence.  Our capacity for kindness and altruism?  Anyone who has owned a pet knows we are not alone in that.  Is it simply a combination of all of these, or is that we do all these things better than the rest of the animal kingdom?  Ah, now that requires a slightly longer answer.  Let us say for the sake of argument that one day we take a dolphin and alter it.  Through genetic engineering and biomechanical augmentation we change it so that it’s abilities rival our own.  It can speak, it can manipulate tools, it can think like we do with long term memory, abstract thinking and problem solving, it can do all the things we can do.  Let us say we do all these things and ask yourself: have we made this dolphin into a human?  No.  We have made it a smarter dolphin, a handier dolphin, a more eloquent dolphin, but through all of this it remains a dolphin.  It does not become a human because it is not our language, our tools, our intelligence or any combination of these or other features that make us human.  A human is defined as belonging to the species Homo Sapiens Sapiens, and the only thing that makes us Homo Sapiens is our DNA, our 36 pairs of chromosomes containing all the genes that when expressed and put together give us a human.   That’s it.

If we except that our genes are all that make us who we are then I put the question to you: what is so special about being human?   Nothing, there is nothing special about being human and therefore there is no special meaning of being human.  If being human is not important, then one of the major arguments against transhumanism and human enhancement falls flat on it‘s face.  Then we are left with a different question; if being human is not important, than what is.  The purpose of this article is not to answer this question but since different people will have different opinions I’ll offer my own here.  What is important is not being human but being a person, where a person is defined as a being capable of self-awareness.

Still, there are those who will never except this more humble position for humanity.  For many of us our whole view of the world is based around the idea that we are at the center of it, an idea that has survived since ancient times.  It used to be that we were at the center of the very universe, put there by the hand of God himself.  When that idea fell by the wayside our position changed slightly.  If we are not the center of the universe we said at least we are the only possible intelligent life in that universe, living on our unique little life bearing planet.  That view was defeated when we saw the sheer size of the universe and found our first extra solar planet.  How, in the face of so many worlds around so many stars in so many galaxies, could we possibly believe that we are the only ones.   If not that, then at least we are the masters of our own planet we said, the top predator on earth, and for 10,000 years we have been.  But that time is coming to an end.

We are approaching a time in the history of our species when the ability to alter ourselves will be in our grasp.  In the coming decades we will gain the ability to change our bodies, our minds, our very DNA.  We can, if we choose, become something other than human.  What will it mean to be post-human.  No more than what it means to be human.

Improving IQ by Improving the Brain’s Wiring June 10, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Human Enhancement, Transhumanism.
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Don’t get your hopes up, they haven’t invented a a smart pill for us yet.  Scientists at Utrecht University Medical Center have found that how efficiently your brain is wired may account for a large part of you intelligence.  Researchers studied the brains of subjects at rest using MRI and found that connectivity accounted for 30% of the difference between subjects studied, though interestingly enough researchers did not find a link between the total number of connections in the brain and IQ.   All this sounds pretty interesting but allow me to rain on your parade by pointing out that the study only contained 19 subjects.  Not to say the findings are false but I’d like to see a larger study.  Read the full story in the link below.