Scientists and transhumanists such as Ray Kurzweil talk a lot about radical life extension and immortality, which they think can be achieved in a few different ways. One approach involves improving our physical bodies to the point that they’re pretty much immune to disease and aging, either through cellular and genetic manipulation or the use of nanotechnology that cleanses the body from the inside. Another method of achieving immortality involves ditching our biological bodies and uploading our brains into computers — not unlike the plot of Transcendence, but presumably with a lot less stupid evil. Anyway, the idea is that, eventually, we can all be body-less avatars flying around doing whatever we want, leaving these earthly trappings behind. Of course, that raises some pretty hefty questions, such as whether or not one’s avatar or virtual self is really that person, or if something’s lost in the translation. Given that it’s pretty tough to know for sure either way, scientists are trying to do more than simply speculate about this possible future. Thus, scientists wanted to start small — with a worm brain.
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The 2016 presidential race just got a lot more interesting. I’m not talking about Hillary Clinton or Rick Perry, or even Sarah Palin—I’m talking about someone with a far cooler name: Zoltan Istvan.
Istvan is a one of the most famous transhumanists out there, largely because of his prolific and popular writings. He writes for the Huffington Post, Vice, Psychology Today, and many other publications, and his novel The Transhumanist Wager, details one man’s search for immortality through technology.
People just keep coming up with new ways to make use of 3D printing that never would have occurred to most of us. Lithuania’s Kaunas Library for the Blind is the latest entity to come up with an innovative new use of the technology: printing 3D models of notable landmarks, local buildings, and busts of famous people to give blind people a better sense of what these people and places look like.
Braille blows my mind, even more than sign language. The idea that someone’s fingers can read is paradigm shifting, and while Ray Kurzweil invented a revolutionary reading machine for the blind that converts text to speech all the way back in 1976, the machine is limited to printed words. While access to text and books is certainly huge, focusing on the page makes it easier to forget that blind people have an entirely different experience of the entire world, especially when it comes to absorbing the aesthetics of three-dimensional objects.
When Stephen Hawking issues a warning about something, we generally listen carefully. This time he’s not talking about black holes or time travel or telling us that the human race has to expand to other planets to prevent our extinction. This time, he’s warning us against developing artificial intelligence and predicting that if we do, the consequences could be disastrous.
In an article for the Independent, Hawking refers to Transcendence as a movie that, despite its grim technological consequences, may make us less inclined to take the ramifications of artificial intelligence seriously. He refers to a number of recent developments, such as driverless cars, Siri, Google Now, and Watson as examples of how quickly AI is progressing. While none of these are particularly threatening, he says that they’re “symptoms of an IT arms race fuelled by unprecedented investments and building on an increasingly mature theoretical foundation,” and that these advancements are only the beginning. He doesn’t specifically mention the deep learning software used by Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, nor does he mention Google and Facebook racing to bring the Internet to everyone, though I imagine these thoughts may not have been far from his mind when he noted the “IT arms race.”
Each year, I teach a research seminar on artificial intelligence and other futuristic technologies, and each year, my students become obsessed with something a little bit different. The Ray Kurzweil/Singularity year was a while back, as were drones and 3-D printing. This year’s hot research topics are the pursuit of immortality and prosthetics. The latter has particularly captured students’ attention both because of the incredible strides in the field and because we’re in Boston, where fairly recently a bunch of residents of our fair city found themselves in need of prosthetics. One of the aspects we talk about frequently is the affordability and accessibility of prosthetics and bionic limbs, which my students fear will further cleave the rich and the poor. Thus, a recent comparison of a $42,000 prosthetic hand to a $50 3D-printed one caught my eye.
53-year-old Jose Delgado, Jr. was born without a left hand and over the years has tried countless prosthetics. The cream of the crop was a $42K myoelectric device that operates via muscle signals in his arm. He could open and close his hand, and differentiate between, say, holding a baseball and holding an egg. Even though his insurance covered half of the cost of the device, Delgado still had a hefty sum to pay, which supports the notion that these technologies aren’t affordable for everyone. While the device is impressive, Delgado wondered if it was indeed the best option out there, especially when considering the cost.
Scientists and transhumanists like Ray Kurzweil and Aubrey de Grey believe that humans can, should, and will eventually “solve” the problem of aging and death. They believe the human body can be altered on a biological and genetic level and programmed away from age-related decay and disease. It’s a controversial topic, but regardless of your stance on the pursuit of radical life extension and immortality, science has moved one step closer to realizing this goal. For the first time, scientists have regenerated a living organ.