Science, technology & design

New bodies, new minds, new identities

There has been a lot of progress in invasive medicine over the past 100 years, so what might the next 100 years hold in store? To answer the question at a superficial level, one only has to look at what’s already happening at the frontiers of neuroscience, robotics, biomechanics, mathematics, computer science, materials science, tissue engineering and nanotechnology – all of which are some degree starting to merge. The result is tools to replace lost body functions or enhance existing functions.For example, we already have heart-regulating pacemakers, cochlear implants and prosthetic legs and it’s reasonable to speculate that retinal-implants and artificial legs that are better for running than human legs aren’t very far away. There is currently work being done on an epilepsy sensor, which can give an early warning about an attack. One day this device may be linked to drug delivery so that attacks can be stopped altogether. Spinal implants should allow women to have an orgasm at the press of a button and exoskeletons will allow older people to remain mobile and physically active for longer. Indeed, it’s highly probable that in the future nervous systems, IT and robotics could all be linked, essentially creating a class of technologically-enhanced human hybrids for those of us that can afford it. Robotics is particularly interesting because we are at an intersection where computing power is increasing but decreasing in cost. This leads to some interesting ethical dilemmas, although if the ‘robots’ are not around us but inside us, the issue becomes even more complicated. For example, should an athlete with synthetic legs be able to compete in the Olympics? However, such questions are minor compared to the thought of one day linking the human brain (and nervous system) directly to the Internet. If this ever happens things will get very interesting indeed, because the human body will no longer be limited to one physical place or dimension. Yikes.
Ref: The Times (UK), 22 July 2007, ‘The Blade Runner Generation’, C. Hunt-Grubbe.
Search words: human enhancement surgery, robotics, ethics
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Is biology the new physics?

It’s hard to believe, but atoms were only proven to exist 100 years ago. And it wasn’t until 1932 that neutrons were discovered and things really started to make sense. Progress in physics was quick after that, and a mere 13 years later the atomic bomb was built. We could be in a similar situation with biology today. We’ve known about genes and DNA for some 50 years, but biology has quite recently had its own ‘neutron event’ with the insight into something called RNA, which has been known about for a while, but until very recently its importance as a cell’s operating system wasn’t really understood. Implications? All of a sudden biologists are realising that they have hardly a clue what’s going on. What is understood is that we are on the edge of a transformation in knowledge and where this will lead, nobody knows. In other words, just as physics shaped the 20th century by giving mankind power over nature (and resulted in physical technologies such as aeroplanes, cars, computers and the Internet), biology is quite likely to define the 21st century. If you think this is far-fetched, just consider that genetic engineering is already routine and corporations already own (via patents) artificial living organisms. Biology could also be ‘the next big thing’ in science for another reason. Necessity. Several of the biggest issues facing humankind kind are, in part, biological. First, there is human ageing. This is directly a biological process. Secondly, climate change is largely a biological issue. We are releasing CO2 into the atmosphere faster than plants can remove it. Solutions to the latter will almost certainly involve creating fuels that are grown in the ground rather than dug up, which again involves biology. Finally there’s the challenge of disease and global pandemics. So if in the past century physics began to describe our place in the universe, perhaps biology will start to describe humanity itself in this one.
Ref: The Economist (UK), 16 June 2007, ‘Biology’s Big Bang’.
Search words: Biology, RNA
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Brain-to-machine interfaces

In the US, clinical trials have begun on a new technology called the BrainGate Neural Interface System, which has been developed by Prof John Donoghue from the Department of Neuroscience at Brown University. The idea is to use the power of human thought to operate computers and other equipment. This is obviously very useful for people that have lost the use of their arms or legs, but it also opens up some fascinating possibilities with regard to autonomous human communication with external devices.Prof Donoghue has set up a company, Cyberkinetics, to co-ordinate the trials and thought has already been given to the development of future devices such as ‘thought activated typewriters’. BrainGate works by implanting a 4mm x 4mm silicon wafer in the cerebral cortex. Electrodes on this wafer then protrude into the brain and pick up on electrical impulses that can be fed into a computer.
Ref: Saab magazine (Sweden)
Search words: Thought control, mind-machine interfaces, computers
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Climate change: Cold hard facts versus hot air

Here’s a little thought experiment. Suppose, for a second, that a department responsible for keeping weather records had made a mistake. Suppose, for instance, that annual temperatures had been overestimated and that the hottest year on record was not 1998 but 1934. Indeed, suppose that the hottest decade on record was the 1930s not the 1990s. How would that influence your thinking about global warning? Well keep thinking, because this has actually happened in the US as there was an error in the data created by the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the government agency responsible for collecting temperature records. Does this matter? Some people say no, because the US represents only a small percentage of total land mass. This is true, but one does start to wonder how accurate the data from other regions might be. The Chinese, for example, have moved their own weather stations quite frequently, which casts doubt on their data, and since the collapse of the USSR, half their weather stations have closed down. The result is, perhaps, a lack of reliable cold-weather weather stations around the world amongst other things. Moreover, a few scientists are questioning whether putting weather stations close to rapidly expanding urban areas is polluting the data through something known as the ‘heat island effect’. Interesting, don’t you think?
Ref: The Sydney Morning Herald (Aus), 18-19 August 2007, ‘Cold hard facts take the heat out of some hot claims’, M. Duffy.
Search words: Climate change, global warming, temperature
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The Future of Search technology

The keynote speech at ‘Searchnomics 2007’ highlighted eight areas that Google is focusing on in the immediate future. The areas are; automated translation, Google book search, image and video search, free phone-based search (that is, voice-based search), universal search (integrated content), maps & local search, client software (Google gears & gadgets) and iGoogle (personalised homepage 'skins'). With regard to Google book search, Google is working with 16 libraries (10 US, six international) to scan all their books and bring the resultant digital content online. There are obviously significant copyright issues but these are, apparently, being addressed. In terms of images and video you can expect all of the world's 70 million blogs to be fully searchable soon and podcasts won’t be far behind once voice-to-text translation becomes easier. Anything to worry about? The issue of Too Much Information immediately springs to mind. What really worries me though is a new search function called Google Street View (part of maps and local search). This is essentially like Google Earth but more down-to-earth. It shows pictures of individual streets from a pedestrian perspective. Ultimately every street in the world could in theory be hooked up to create one gigantic real time map of the world. Why is this an issue? I’d say it brings up some very important privacy issues.
Ref: Read/WriteWeb, 28 June 2007, ‘Google’s Marrissa Mayer of the Future of Search’. N. Karandikar.
Search words: TMI, privacy, search, Internet search, digital content, Google
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