.comment-link {margin-left:.6em;}

Future Imperative

What if technology were being developed that could enhance your mind or body to extraordinary or even superhuman levels -- and some of these tools were already here? Wouldn't you be curious?

Actually, some are here. But human enhancement is an incredibly broad and compartmentalized field. We’re often unaware of what’s right next door. This site reviews resources and ideas from across the field and makes it easy for readers to find exactly the information they're most interested in.


The future is coming fast, and it's no longer possible to ignore how rapidly the world is changing. As the old order changes -- or more frequently crumbles altogether -- I offer a perspective on how we can transform ourselves in turn... for the better. Nothing on this site is intended as legal, financial or medical advice. Indeed, much of what I discuss amounts to possibilities rather than certainties, in an ever-changing present and an ever-uncertain future.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

What a Difference a Week Makes -- Contemplating the Rapid March Towards Human Augmentation -- Bio

One way to see just how close we are to radical human enhancement (creating de facto superhumans) is to take a look at the last week or so of biotech breakthroughs. Actually, let’s look at just a small selection of them, with a few comments. See if you notice a pattern here. And yes, before you ask, though I didn’t mess with the chronological order, this list is basically going to get “worse and worse.” Assuming you pay attention to the trends involved. And that accelerated human evolution really bothers you.

A new report notes “A contentious stem cell surgery is reportedly helping a New Zealand woman with motor neuron disease regain function.” The article adds “The disease was progressively affecting her ability to perform daily activities such as eating and walking.
In a bid to maintain function, Terpstra sought a treatment in China in which stem cells from aborted fetuses were inserted into her brain through holes in her skull.”

Here’s the first thing we should consider.

If you have treatments of any kind that handle major degenerative diseases, at what point do you slip across the line from simply treating a disease to increasing human longevity? And even fighting the basic symptoms of aging itself? And secondly, when you can reverse mental degeneration from a disease, how much easier does it become to enhance “normal function”? (This is more of an issue with pharmaceuticals designed to affect memory loss, etc.)

Another study notes, “Research in animals has shown that adult stem cells injected directly into heart muscle can restore heart function to its original condition within two months.” So here we’re looking a major treatment for heart attacks, actually reversing the “permanent muscle damage” of these incidents with injections. Heart disease being one of the most common forms of death by “natural causes,” is such a powerful treatment again crossing that line into longevity research? Only more so?

Researchers seem to have found a prolific source of adult stem cells for the above treatment (among many others). “Stem cells from hair follicles can develop into neurons, muscle and more, suggesting that hair is a potent and accessible source of cells for regenerating tissues.” This is one of those “little steps” that serves as a building block to many other treatments, be they therapeutic, longevity or enhancement-oriented.

And meanwhile, strides are being made on using embryonic stem cells as well (important for the same reason as adult stem cells). “A human protein has been used to grow and maintain embryonic stem cells in the latest step towards eliminating animal products that hinder the cells' therapeutic use.”

Now combine this next breakthrough with what you read above about regenerating hearts (and the new means to generate the adult stem cells for that treatment). “Acupuncture combined with low levels of electrical stimulation can lower blood pressure by up to 50% in animals, suggesting that it could be a good drug-free intervention for treating hypertension.” I repeat, “by up to 50%.” So now we can cut blood pressure by up to 50% with electrostim acupuncture and can reverse muscle damage from heart attacks. And this is essentially one week of developments, people. Selected developments. =)

But how much more could they do to push enhancement therapy in a mere week? Especially when no one seems to be deliberately doing so? Ask the researchers working on sequencing DNA with lasers. “Lasers have been used to hasten DNA sequencing in a step towards fast, portable gene reading that can be performed at a patient's bedside or even the scene of a crime.”

So not only old fashioned doctors who make house calls are against us, but even those CSI guys are working to break down our mundane “human identity.” Personally, I’m not surprised. But if you feel an urge to break out in a chorus of “Whooo are you?” please restrain yourselves. This site has a certain reputation to live up to.

Still, my point here is simple. The more we move forward on making genetic analysis cheap, fast and easy, the more progress we’re going to make on manipulating genes. So when you see seemingly unconnected genetics developments like this, you should know that it’s feeding directly into genetic enhancement research as well as “normal” therapeutic research.

Now here’s one of those breakthroughs that makes you wonder why they didn’t mark it with a screaming neon sign that says “Blatant Human Enhancement Research.” It starts out innocently enough. “A protein that's key to determining the developing brain's size and shape could be used to manipulate stem cells to rebuild the organ in adults.” But then they add, “Underscoring the protein's impact, over-expressing it in rats gave them enlarged brains with grooves and furrows similar to those in evolved mammalian brains.”

All right. I’m assuming they over-expressed this protein in very young or in-vitro rats. (Or that they would have to in order to get the fullest possible impact.) But nevertheless, we would appear to have the basic method necessary for developing superintelligent infants. Now sure, we don’t know how greatly a broad-based expansion of the brain would improve human minds, which abilities it would most effect or what drawbacks would exist. (Or how those factors would change with greater or lesser or targeted uses of this protein.) But nevertheless. We now have the means to literally create a whole generation of “superbabies.” And obviously, any applications for adult enhancement would be intriguing as well. And apparently, no one has even noticed.

Let’s step back from the blatantly revolutionary stuff for a moment. Scientists have also discovered a protein that shortens telomeres. “A protein discovery has furthered understanding of how telomere length is regulated, important to aging and cancer.” Actually, that last bit says it all. This is basic scientific research that is critical to fighting both aging and cancer. You couldn’t be more blunt in showing how intertwined therapy and enhancement technology are in the biotech realm. Of course, if you’re willing to halt all medical research to thwart enhancement, then no problem. But I think it’s useful to understand how thorny a problem that could be. We’re not looking at just a few esoteric studies that feed into potential enhancements. Rather, strides are being made at every turn.

Oh, and here’s another potential longevity breakthrough, this one coming at the issue directly. And in a big way. “A UK scientist says that a hormone already used in human treatments could extend lifespan by 30 extra years. Researchers at Aberdeen University have found in studies that mice with the highest metabolic rate live around 25% longer than mice with the lowest.”

All right, now even vitamins and minerals are against us. “Daily zinc supplements can boost adolescents' mental performance, according to a new study in seventh graders.
Given 20 mg of zinc five days a week for 10 to 12 weeks, participants showed improved mental performance, responding faster, more accurately and with greater sustained attention on memory tasks than classmates not taking the supplements.”

Furthermore, “Against the baseline established by the tests, Penland and colleagues found that students who consumed an additional 20 mg of zinc each day decreased reaction time on a visual memory task by 12% versus 6%, increased correct answers on a word recognition task by 9% versus 3% and increased scores on a sustained attention and vigilance task by 6% versus 1%. Beneficial effects were seen regardless of participants' previous zinc status.”

So we’re looking at a 5 to 6% improvement in three major areas of ability… from taking zinc. Which brings up one of the best questions about human enhancement. Is it okay to improve human abilities by 5 or 6% across the board? How about 15 to 16%? Or 50 to 60%? At what point does it become “wrong” or “too disturbing”? And for that matter, if it’s okay to enhance people using vitamins or minerals, is it okay to do so using drugs with no side effects? Drugs with minor side effects? Drugs with side effects you can live with? Or that some people can (like steroids)?

Rather than offer my own solutions, I prefer to suggest that these are extremely important questions, and the more minds we have working on them, the better. Especially if we want people to listen to whatever guidelines we come up with in our collective wisdom. If most people aren’t part of the conversation, they’re less apt to agree with its conclusions.

Our next find relates to the last one – critical improvements in ability owing to mineral supplementation. Or actually limited abilities due to a lack thereof. “A mild iron deficiency has been found to negatively affect women's ability to care for their newborn children. Such a deficiency, common after childbirth in women who aren't properly nourished, can make women less emotionally available or in tune with their babies, according to a new study from Pennsylvania State University.”

There’s not much to say here except to point out that extremely fuzzy line between therapy and enhancement. Is iron supplementation enhancement? What about the zinc supplements above? Or do we reserve that title for more radical interventions?

This one is almost too much on top of everything else we’ve had so far. Now even onions have decided to jump on the radical therapy bandwagon. When even your vegetables are in on the conspiracy, something big is going on. “Researchers at the University of Bern in Switzerland have found that a compound in onions fights bone loss in laboratory studies using rat bone cells.”

Yes, bone loss is another major debilitating condition involved in aging. Again, how many symptoms of aging are we allowed to treat before we’re basically going after aging itself?

Now here’s an innovation that on the surface doesn’t seem too earthshaking or broadly applicable. “A method of gene therapy has been developed that exploits a natural process to accurately and permanently correct disease-causing genetic mutations.” This system “exploits a process called homologous recombination that occurs when DNA strands of one chromosome break. In this process, damaged chromosomes are repaired using healthy copies of genetic information from corresponding chromosomes in a cell.”

So when you first consider this option, it may not sound too “enhancement-friendly.” After all, if you’re simply repairing mutated DNA with the correct DNA patterns that are already in your cells, you’re not inserting genetic augmentations. But then look at this next discovery in light of this one…

Because this discovery’s fun: “Damaged mitochondrial DNA has been linked to age-related muscle weakness, providing a target for treating and preventing physical decline associated with aging.”

That’s right. Yet another longevity application. If all you have to do is repair mitochondrial DNA, then something that uses the DNA present to do it will work just fine (of course, you’ll need a source in the mitochondria instead of the chromosomes in your nuclei, but it’s still conceivable). And this technique has another obvious “enhancement” spin, since body-building advantages and resisting the effects of age on your athletic potential are rather closely linked.

On the other hand, perhaps you’re just trying to get your osteoporosis treated. Or something scarier. “A drug widely prescribed for osteoporosis also appears to reduce women's risk of mild cognitive impairment by 33%. The drug, raloxifene, modulates the activity of the hormone estrogen. Manufactured by Eli Lilly, it is also used to treat breast cancer.” Yes, reduces that risk by a third. (They only tested women, but I wouldn’t be shocked if it helped men as well.)

Think about how many scientists are over 30 (or 40, 50 or 60). If most of our, say, scientific elite can have their mental abilities protected (or, using other methods, expanded) through treatments designed to counter mental degeneration, are we not engaged in enhancement of one of our most critical populations?

And let me offer one last discovery, this time on cancer. “A virus engineered to kill cancer can significantly increase survival of mice with advanced human brain tumors.
Infecting and reproducing only in malignant glioma cells, killing them while leaving normal tissue unharmed, the virus's ability to prolong the life of mice with advanced tumors is considered important because such tumors are often diagnosed late in humans.”

This is another fun convergence. Of course fighting cancer plays into the whole longevity issue. But engineering viruses also plays into the practicality of some forms of gene therapy – which can be used for both therapies and genetic augmentations. Which makes this development something of a “double threat” if imminent human evolution gives you the heebie-jeebies.

If you read the book Redesigning Humans; Our Inevitable Genetic Future by Gregory Stock you’ll get a terrific discussion of how intertwined straightforward medical research is with “enhancement research” despite the fact that no one is throwing money at human augmentation. Why? Because every tool human enhancement needs is absolutely critical to saving lives in the here and now. And so delaying human development will at least take a huge slowdown in conventional medical research. Which no one is proposing.

Just some thoughts. Oh, and my apologies for anyone waiting for an update. I lost my last version of this post a couple days ago when the site unexpectedly balked at accepting outside contact. I should have more material soon.

Monday, April 04, 2005

"Plant's Genetic Repairs Astound Scientists" -- Bio

"'Plant's Genetic Repairs Astound Scientists' by Joe Palca

"All Things Considered, March 23, 2005 · In a surprising finding that challenges the conventional rules of inheritance, scientists have shown that the cress plant arabidopsis can overwrite the genetic code it inherits from its parents and revert to that of its grandparents or even great grandparents. Scientists say they now hope to learn whether this is just an aberration, or something that could be happening in other plants and even animals."

Hmm. You know where this could prove to be [i]really[/i] important? If you read a book like Redesigning Humans you'll find out that we'll probably be able to modify the genes of embryoes to produce far stronger, smarter, faster, more attractive, etc people.

But gene therapy -- altering the genetic codes of kids and adults -- is more challenging. I wonder if having a plant that can alter its own genetic code could provide clues as to how to enable humans to make that shift.

Of course, it may be the equivalent of the idea of adding an extra pair of easily-modified chromosomes in vitro to humans, and thus having a set of genes that can be tinkered with at will as the child grows older. Still, worth looking into...

And, of course, repairing one's genes always brings up a potential cure for that pesky cancer thing...