Archive for the ‘human evolution’ Category

How to colonize Mars…

October 23, 2008

OK, I won’t go into the debate as to whether we should colonize Mars  (although I love the bumper sticker that reads “Earth First! We’ll mine the pother planets later”). I am making the assumption that life in general, be it sentient or not, likes to expand tho places where it might not be or places where other versions might be.

Granted this comes from terrestrial observations, but hey, you work with what you have got.

Recently , in a missive published by Agence France Presse, former moonwalker Buzz Aldrin stated that we should send people to live on Mars for ever rather than exploratory back and forth trips. He likens this to how the western world colonized the new world (Gee, I hope we don’t just go and kill the aliens , take their land and remember them in a once a year holiday where we feast on farm raised decendants of local wildlife).

I think Buzz has an interesting concept , but I think it needs to be taken one step further.

Most of the current literature and visions involving Martian explorationa nd Martian explotation circle aorund some eventual terra-forming project. I am not sure our soceiteies have ever been stable and reliable long enough to fund , let alone carry through, a project like that (think of an abandoned Jamestown like Mars colony).

Instead our current feasibility is probably closer to something that faces a less daunting barrier: fashionable morality.

What am I talking about? Why genetically altering humans to more readily survive on  Mars. Sure, we should start with Bacteria, Lichen, Guinea Pigs and Dogs first, but eventually, we can probably go about creating Martians rather than trying to change a whole plaent.

The process of duplicating a Mars-like environment and then adapting our vegetables, fruit and fruitflies to live in that venue shoudl be far easier than trying to change th climate of an entire world (we still no so little about the climate of our own orb).

Now why do I say the barrier is “fashionable morality.” Simply becasue it is. Morality changes just as fashion does over time. Historcially, lots of societies practiced activities that we see as morally repgunant today. in Europe, the Middle East and pre-Columbian America, infanticide and cannibalism were seen as standard practices (the Christian Communion ritual of eating Christs flesh and drinking his blood is a remanant of those times in some ways). More recently slavery was seen a normal part of life as little as two hundeed years ago. Morality changes with time and there is no reason to believe that the current view against genetically modified humans (as wellas human cloning)  will hold as a moral position.

So the next time someone asks how we will colonize Mars, tell them, “with home grown Martians, that’s how.”


You can improve your IQ

June 6, 2008

“Come on! Stretch that Medula Oblongata, remember that detail. I barely see you breakin’a thought”.

Is that what you might soon here from your personal brain trainer?

Until recently, it was pretty much assumed that one is born with a certtain possible Iq set. Sure, you can educate yourself to have more knowledge, but your basic intelligence faculties were pre-determined.

Well, it seem that this may not be the case.

Research, led by Swiss postdoctoral fellows Susanne M. Jaeggi and Martin Buschkuehl, working at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, suggests that at least one aspect of a person’s IQ can be improved by training a certain type of memory.

Most IQ tests attempt to measure two types of intelligence–crystallized and fluid intelligence. Crystallized intelligence draws on existing skills, knowledge and experiences to solve problems by accessing information from long-term memory.

Fluid intelligence, on the other hand, draws on the ability to understand relationships between various concepts, independent of any previous knowledge or skills, to solve new problems. The research shows that this part of intelligence can be improved through memory training. This type of intelligence relies on “working memory” or short term retention. This is not just the type of memory that is used to recall recentlky learned items, but it is alos used to help the mind work free from distraction. You can think of it as the RAM of your brian as opposed to the disk storgae (long term) meoery of your brain.

In the research experiments, they had one group go through a set of exercizes to boost short term meory usage while another control goup didnl;t.

They found that the exercizing group made real gains in IQ. Seems that the brain,or at least a part of it, can behave like a muscle. This may have a “use it or lose it” type of impact on memory loss in later life and should eventually lead to rethinking how we educate out young.

Will there be apractice test for an IQ test in the future? Or will we add the notion of brain exercise for the portions that are indeed plastic to the list of good hygene practices?

While the braingym (which I have written about previously) continues to be sold by your local PBS fundraiser, are a slew of new “BrainFlex” infomercials not far behind?

Fiddling with your Genes, Google or Government?

April 24, 2008

A few days ago, the senate, following the lead of the house, has offered the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination act.

In a nutshell, they wish to make it illegal to discriminate in the work place against someone based on their genetic make up. While I can see why they are pursing this path (you would not want to have DNA tests preclude you from getting a job because you had a statistically higher chance of developing an infirmity that could cost your employer in raised health insurance premiums), I believe it may be a little short sighted.

One of the predicates seems to be that your DNA, your genetic make up so to speak, is an immutable part of whom you are. But as we keep hearing of near breakthroughs in eventual genetic medicine, what will happen as people begin to cure conditions or alter themselves with the addition of new DNA? If your Lyme disease can be cured by the introduction of a gene pattern from someone else that allows your body to handle it differently, well, which set of DNA is really you after that?

The issue comes down to the fact that DNA is information and information has value and information can change.

In a previous segment I wrote about designer genes and even coined the term LSDNA for what may eventually be recreational genetics. The new laws notion of genetic immutability may indeed wind up in the Supreme Court when some baseball player has genetically modified his eyesight to be able to improve is visual reaction time and allow him to up his batting average.

We have all seen that the senate and the media are ready to stop focusing on war, foreign policy, the economy and general state of the planet in order to investigate any possible method that baseball players may use to gain some slight advantage. So obviously a serious national issue.

I can just see some centerfielder testifying before congress about how he is being discriminated against due to his new genetic make up.: “Genetic information Discrimination law , yer Lordship. That’s my story an ah’m stickin’ to it.”

In the mean time, folks in the information business are beginning to sniff out the fact that DNA is mostly about information. Lat year, Google invested over $4 million in 23andme , a company that will test your genes and tell you if your ancestors were more likely to have been the invaders or the invadees in the glorious past written deep in your chromosomes. Since this company is all about accessing and organizing genetic data, it stands to reason that Google would invest based on their mission: organizing the worlds information and making it universally accessible and useful while stuffing as much money in our pockets as we possibly can until we can get our ourselves more, bigger pockets.

More recently, Google quietly invested an undisclosed amount in Navigenics. This company has a different approach. They too function with the cotton Q-Tip method (remind me to invest in the companies that make these cotton swabs) but their goal is to let you know if are likely or not to develop cancer or Alzheimer’s the heartbreak of psoriasis and give you the tools to alert your doctor and have both his accountant and lawyer respond to this new situation.

This all leads me to the issue at hand which is, who owns that information (yes, that again)?

After all, if the data gets published then is it then public domain? This may be important for privacy issues but will really become important when we begin to discover that some of us may hold certain genetic patterns that could have real value.

Imagine dear reader, that you are one of the fortunate who possesses the genetic make up that would allow you to smoke two packs of lucky strikes a day without any predisposition toward lung cancer. There seems to be some proof that certain people are more susceptible to cigarette smoke than others (the luck of the draw , so to speak).

Now, if this gene combination that your blessed ancestors have so carefully selected for arrives in your body, how would you feel about some company exploiting that for gain.

Wouldn’t you feel that you have a right to be remunerated for this DNA that is your own?

And how will it stand with you if Google, who is out there making the data available (monetized in some God-knows what pay-per-chromosome auction model) without ever letting you in on the bounty celebrated from the wonderful cure springing from deep in your cells?

Which brings me back to the new senatorial initiative, it seems to predicate that not only will your DNA be immutable, but that the data will be easily available to those who may want to type you.

If a day at the motor vehicle bureau never frightened you about nationalized health care, this one should scare the be-geneses out of you.

If Artificially Intelligent Machines Were Here, How Would We Know?

April 6, 2008

In his 1950 paper, “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” , mathematician Alan Turing described a test of a machines ability to achieve intelligence. This has been popularly named the Turing Test. Essentially, it asks a human judge to have a conversation (in written text and real time) with another human and a machine. If the judging human cannot distinguish between the human and the machine, the machine is said to have passed the test and at least mimicked intelligence. This has spawned a whole school of research about “natural language dialogue systems”.

We all know that unless there is a good financial reason to build such machines, the exercise of doing so will remain just an exercise. So what I am curious about is that when machines successfully pass the test and can imitate human conversations, what are the applications that may be applied?

Of course, one of them would be sex and the other crime.

A Russian program called CyberLover conducts fully automated flirtatious conversations in a bid to collect personal data from unsuspecting real humans behaving all too humanly. The program can be found in dating chat sites and is designed to lure victims into sharing their identities or get them to visit web sites that provoke malware infestations. It can do so with up to 10 simultaneous partners making it quite an efficient machine as well.

With the rapid expansion of social networks and websites focused on conversation and discussion, this type of approach leads one to think that there may soon be a plethora of intelligent machines conversing with online denizens with the goal of gathering their personal data or zombifying their machines (and perhaps thus replicating themselves).

This leads me to the title of this missive. If artificially intelligent machines were here, how would we know? After all, the purpose of the Turing test is to have the machine fool the human into thinking it isn’t a machine. So, by Turing’s early definition, fooling a human is how one detects artificial intelligence. But if the human is fooled, who does the detecting?

Now, while I do subscribe to the notion that even paranoids can have real enemies, I don’t think this calls for panic just yet. But it does bring me back to my notion of the hive mind.

If we were indeed developing a larger, collective intelligence, how would we know? Perhaps that intelligence would be of a nature that we would not recognize it as not us. Or perhaps it would contain so much of us that we would not recognize its whole.

If we were made up of intelligent cells, would the cells know they belonged to a greater mind? Would we know that we were made up of intelligent cells?

Could we be creating an intelligent design and not know it?

The End of Human Evolution, or the Beginning?

March 25, 2008

Recently, researchers at Washington University school of Medicine in St Louis announced that they had corrected a genetic mutation in a fish embryo prior to birth. More importantly, they announced that the research could lead to the prevention of up to one fifth of birth defects in humans caused by genetic mutation.

While I will avoid the over discussed topic of when does an embryo become a human, it made me wonder whether we would be actively interfering in human evolution. One of the precepts of evolution is that mutation id often occurring as a form of trial and error in which we bring about new and improved (read more successful) forms of life. Now, I do think a portion of the creationist argument against human evolution is the notion that we might continue to evolve. Afterall, if we are already in God’s image, how can that be improved upon?

 But even with the massive success of homo sapiens on this planet, nothing seems to assure us that a sudden mutation may not offer some improved form of human (the variety of possible mutations is huge). Additionally, as we go on to explore and possibly colonize other planets, the mutative effects of lesser gravity and increased radiation will forcibly engender changes in the humans born under those conditions. If they are to survive, I suppose the ones with improved adaptability will be displaying some features or functions that will help them be more successful in their environment. Remember that Darwin claimed that evolutionary success was not about survival of the strongest or smartest, but of those most able to adapt. In fact, although it may be difficult to imagine, a dumber human that had other attributes that permitted for better survival might be an evolutionary improvement from Darwin’s point of view.

 What the Washington U announcement got me thinking was what if we use this wonderous medical break-through to put a halt to hap hazard mutational changes.

Despite the political will to try to stop people from experimenting with stem cells and human genetic manipulation, it is rather unrealistic to imagine that it will not occur (even though we may legally declare that a genetically modified human is not a human , much the same way certain European politicians are trying to do with GM corn).

 So, if humans begin to prevent mutations and actively change themselves, does that mean evolution (in the traditional format that we have come to know and argue about) is coming to an end or are we just about to begin.

 To add a little extra thought to this, remember that dogs as a species are only about 10,000 years old (obviously human developed from wolves) and that the vast majority of dog breeds are less than 500 years old. We are not strangers to altering the evolution of life forms.

LSDNA – will we pee in the genetic pool?

March 10, 2008

So far, the term “recreational genetics” has been used primarily to denote the “pastime” of tracking someone’s genetic heritage in order to discover who they may have been related to, or how far they can trace their family tree back to some nomadic tribesman of inner Youfreakistan.

I think we will be able to go well beyond that. The entertainment value of discovering that Barack Obama and Dick Cheney is temporal at best. I mean, who doubts that all politicians have some evil, twisted gene that leads them to the desire to dominate the masses under the barely disguised moniker of being concerned for the welfare of their fellow human?

No, I am thinking of a far more amusing form of using genetic manipulation: temporary retroviral reshaping of ones genetic structure as a source of entertainment.

Wayne Porter, in his blog entitled “Second Life is Real Life,”

touches on the notions of using tiny computers inside the body in order to fully simulate the experiences on can have in the here-to-fore named “virtual worlds.”

But I think we will go several steps further.

Genetic manipulation is being worked on and tested all over the world (except perhaps in Us government funded labs) through stem cell research and retroviral experimentation. The notion that we can “fix” a faulty gene set and in that way change a person’s health condition is very appealing to science, the pharma industry and the general population.

Of course, as we get closer to being able to do this on an economically efficient scale, we will see other uses deployed. If steroids can give an athlete such an edge in building muscles that he may be willing to perjure himself before congress about it ( a congress who feels the country has so little or importance on it’s plate that it spends time reviewing the drug habits of baseball players – a subject that they must be certain will impact the war, the economy, social security and health care) then what would they be willing to do if they can alter their body to see like a hawk , or improve the response time of their nervous system or speed the time it takes to recuperate or heal the body?

Will these be the methods that will allow us to affectively adjust our genetic makeup enough that colonizing the moon, other planets and asteroids will become feasible (if we modify ourselves to use less of or more efficiently the resources that are scarce in other areas, we would be continuing the human tradition of adapting to our environment in or to better subjugate it).

We have shown that humans are willing to spend big money on personal body enhancement be-it boob jobs, tattoos or Botox. I think there will be a tremendous market in not just genetic fixes and alterations, but an even more interesting one in temporary genetic transformation. You could decide to be a freckled red head for a week or month or have your lung capacity increased for that vacation hiking in the mountains. Or even just have the size of your g-spot doubled and twice as sensitive in time for that honeymoon or big weekend date.

The possibilities are mind bending far beyond anything we have seen done with drugs or surgery. The questions of what constitutes a human will be more than interesting.


Update: the Vatican has just announced that “Genetic Manipulation” has been added to the list of “sins.” Ii guess the discussion is getting here sooner than I thought it would.