Brains on Loan

Instantaneously, your brain power increases by an order of magnitude. Previously difficult problems are now trivial. Tip-of-the-tongue moments are a thing of the past. All manner of intellectual and creative pursuits are at your fingertips.

This is the new reality with the Brain Cloud.

When brain-computer interfaces are the new normal, we’ll prosper from the selective advantages of both silicon and biology.

Think of the electrical grid. If I install solar panels outside my house that provide more energy than I need, that energy flows back into the grid. Then, I’m provided an energy credit toward my next bill. I’ve made the investment in something that society can harness, and I’m repaid for that investment.

Take another example: SETI@home allows you to loan out the processing power of your computer to analyze data for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. When you’re not using the computer, it’s still providing something useful to society.

Enter the Brain Cloud. When I’m asleep, let’s say, I’ll be able to loan a portion my brain’s processing power to the grid through a brain-computer interface. I can do this because much of my brain is actually a back-up system, a sort of biological insurance policy. Case studies have shown that some individuals are born with only half a brain, only portions of their cortex, or no cerebellum at all. Yet, astonishingly, they lead relatively normal lives.

Of course, the beauty of the Brain Cloud is that no one has to permanently give up portions of their brain. Instead, processing power is out on loan only temporarily.

At this point, a reasonable person might be wondering: Why would I do that?

Just like with the electrical grid, there’s much to be gained. Each time I put my brain on loan, a portion of the processing power I lend out will be used to mine for cryptocurrency through a blockchain. I’ll receive compensation for putting processing power in the grid, and others will be able to harness that power when they need it.

The blockchain will serve another purpose. It will keep an exact, private, and non-refutable ledger of how much processing power I’ve loaned. While anyone will be able to observe that a transaction occurred in the blockchain, no party will have access to the contents of that transaction – allowing me to keep the contents of my brain private.

We are all perpetually hamstrung by our lack of brain power. Yet, for the processing they do, brains are fantastically efficient. Processing in computers, on the other hand, requires massive amounts of energy. Most of this energy ends up as heat, rather than the actual computational processes we want in the first place.

By moving processing power through a brain-computer interface grid, we would be selecting for the best of both worlds: super-efficient conduction of signal through machines, and super-efficient processing of signal through brains.

It’s a win-win.

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Mine an Asteroid and Become a Trillionaire!

Asteroids have a staggeringly high net worth and the United States needs to take advantage of this. Ryugu, a near-Earth object currently being visited by the Japanese probe Hayabusa-2, has an estimated value of USD$83 million. Davida, the 7th largest known asteroid, has an estimated value of >USD$100 trillion. These asteroids are so valuable because of their potential stores of minerals and water, supplies that would be critical to any long-term space colonization attempt.

We can launch, and are currently launching, these supplies into orbit from Earth. But just one liter of water from Earth costs $10,000! And platinum-group metals, a group of elements essential to current and emerging technologies, are very rare in the Earth’s crust. We need to develop celestial resources so that we can (1) increase the availability of supplies critical to space missions and (2) reduce delivery costs.

Approximately 1/2000 near-Earth objects are predicted to have platinum-group metals present in concentrations large enough to ensure a profitable return on investment. With over 20,000 near-Earth objects already discovered and more being found every day, there is already a sizable number of targets for metal mining. Carbanaceous asteroids, about 10% of near-Earth objects, are up to 10% water. These are incredible potential sources waiting to be tapped.

Nations are beginning to take notice at the potential economic boon that asteroid mining presents. The United States, Luxembourg, and the United Arab Emirates have all passed laws granting legal and regulatory protection to asteroid miners, granting them ownership of all material recovered. In 2017, Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates signed a memorandum of understanding to start bilateral cooperation on space activities with a particular focus on the exploration and utilization of space resources. Luxembourg has also invested in Planetary Resources, a firm preparing for a set of data-gathering missions that will visit multiple near-Earth objects to determine the location of the first mine.

The United State needs to rapidly ramp up activities to take the lead and capitalize on the most profitable asteroids. To facilitate the production of operational asteroid mines, the Unites States should promote research efforts into the improved remote determination of elemental compositions to enable the accurate targeting of asteroids without sending expensive probes. Landing on asteroids, particularly tumbling asteroids, is difficult and will require advanced engineering.

To encourage industrial attempts at asteroid mining, the U.S. should adopt a regulatory framework that protects miners’ ownership rights while acknowledging liability issues, and a taxation scheme that mimics that of terrestrial mining. A space-based military force should also be developed to ensure the security of U.S.-flagged mining operations with a space diplomatic corps to mitigate international issues.

One Pill to Rule Them All

Say goodbye to doctor’s visits and pharmacies. A revolution in healthcare may be on the horizon: It’s time to treat disease before it makes you sick. Taking just one pill could do that.

This proposed pill takes advantage of the fact that cells in our internal organs – liver, lungs, heart, and even brain – release a litany of chemicals at every moment. When someone has signs of pending disease – say, inflammation in the lungs or clogged arteries – the pill would detect how this release of chemicals changes over time. Then, it would sense and determine what combination of medications would be required to rectify the situation. Finally, it would instantly order and deliver the precise medication needed.

This technological idea already exists for diabetes. When a diabetic person’s blood sugar dips too low, an automated pump delivers insulin to combat the low blood sugar. And biocompatible, stretchable sensors are currently in clinical trials for monitoring infants’ health in the neonatal ICU.

But more sophisticated techniques are hitting the scene now. At the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Dr. Canan Dagdeviren has invented a device called a “Conformable Decoder.” It comes in pill form, unfurls in the stomach, sticks to the stomach lining, and then provides data on how the gut is doing at all hours. You can imagine the same technology being used to prevent heart attacks: biosensors embedded in the heart would detect a pending attack well before it takes place, and deliver the precise medications needed to prevent it from occurring.

It’s possible these devices could be implanted into each of our organs. We could swallow a pill that breaks apart and delivers microscopic biosensor devices to each organ. There, the biosensors would spend their time diagnosing potential problems and prescribing the precise chemical elixirs needed to fix them. No need for a pharmacy. All you have to do is go outside; a drone delivery service would bring the solution directly to you.

These biosensor technologies – and the artificial intelligence networks governing their operation – could prevent any number of diseases. When these advances come to fruition, the healthcare system would undergo vast automation. In doing so, human beings would be to live beyond the risk of disease.

Trust-Busting Nature

Nature should not have a monopoly on the creation of new life. Monopolies at their core prevent competition that spur new ideas and innovation. Humans have advanced technologically far enough to be allowed entry into the market place of life creation and redesign. There are practical reasons for humans to assume the responsibility of engineering new life forms and molecules with novel biological functions.

With synthetic biology, we have the solution to devastating problems facing the world such as ecological destruction, fast-evolving pathogens and information overload. Furthermore, using synthetic biology we can re-imagine the design of the human body, remedy its inefficiencies and create new biological functions that are beyond the scope of natural evolution.

In the past several years, scientists have created synthetic cells whose DNA was designed on a computer and synthesized in a lab. While this was a monumental stepping stone, the potential of synthetic biology is much more exciting. We could use ambient light to power ourselves using artificial organs or prosthesis. We could rescue ecosystems and halt the sixth great extinction event with new life forms, that are designed to sustain food chains and purify their local habitats. We can design DNA less prone to mutations, so it can function as a data storage device to assist with our exponentially growing demand for information storage.

The future outlined above is achievable but will require targeted investments and creative ideas. I outline some of them below:

Proposal 1: Harness the power of machine learning to compare the genetic and proteomic profile of all sequenced organisms. Nature is highly creative, using a small library of molecular building blocks to generate the millions of species that exist. Using machine learning and artificial intelligence, we can learn how nature engineer’s biodiversity and improve upon its biological designs.

Proposal 2: Invest in the research and development of cheap DNA synthesizing technology, that would be available on the lab bench for scientists. The current process of synthesizing unique DNA fragments requires placing an order to a third party, followed by a wait period for the product to be delivered. This is inefficient as it narrows the pace and scope of research.

Proposal 3: Facilitate the development of technology that automates biology labs. Too much human labor in labs is spent on mundane tasks such as preparing cell cultures, maintaining animal stocks and pipetting. Widespread automation of such tasks will allow scientists to use their time and expertise on creative problem solving, rather than monotonous work that is suited for robots.

Proposal 4: Think big and re-imagine the design of DNA. Scientists have recently expanded the vocabulary of the genetic code and created new types of proteins from it. We should increase investment in research that examines how we can expand the genetic vocabulary to create new biological molecules with unique functions.

A Vision for Infrastructure Investment

What is infrastructure?  Possible answer: The basic capabilities and support necessary for some form of existence…..

This could mean food, clothes (particularly when its cold), protection from threats.  Maybe that is the basic level.

Once you have all that you tend to think of other stuff, like transportation, power, housing, and civil justice as infrastructure.

Once you have achieved a modern, western-world level of existence where such things are all provided, you start to consider healthcare, living wage or job, full education, and internet connectivity as infrastructure.

Somewhere in the future we might consider civilization on the planets, travel to and from, and genetic engineering for all as infrastructure.

What does it mean in 2018, with a booming economy, and a political class willing to spend vast resources on it?

I suggest that it means all of the above.

We need to spend ‘infrastructure’ money to make sure all the basic stuff (food, housing, jobs) are there for all.  Not the food, housing, and jobs of the past- but the food we know to be better today, the fully tech-enabled housing of today, and the jobs of tomorrow.

We will also need to make sure that the transportation system, the power grid, and the civil justice system are redesigned for today and tomorrow.  Let us not just rebuild the old systems.  Let us build the new ones, designed for our time and the future.

Let us design the healthcare system of the future, not the waste time on the fixes needed in the present one.  Let us invest in the bioengineering and technology of tomorrow, not just rebuild the inadequate hospitals of today.

Science and Technology have taken humankind from a lifespan of 35 years to more than 80 today.  S&T has provided and defined what we call infrastructure, making life better every day.

When we say it is time to invest in Infrastructure, we are really saying it is time to invest in the science and technology that will become tomorrow’s infrastructure, and today’s.

Michael Swetnam is the CEO & Chairman of the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. 

Gaming for the Greater Good: Using Video Games to Advance Science

By Damien O’Connell

Want to revolutionize science research and education in this country? Use video games.

Imagine combining highly-engaging (and highly addictive) games in the vein of Angry Birds, Candy Crush, and Call of Duty with solving science’s hardest problems and increasing science literacy. The benefits would be enormous and wide-ranging. On one level, it could usher in medical breakthroughs, new technologies, and even applications for defense. On another, with a citizenry more conversant in science, it could help solve our nagging STEM problem, moving us from the middle of the pack internationally to the front, where we ought to be.

America, according to the head of the Electronic Software Association, is a nation of gamers. 67% of American households (that’s over 84,000,000 households) own at least one device used for video gaming. Beyond this, the video gaming industry generates money – lots of it. In 2016, the video game industry contributed $11.7 billion to the US GDP. This fueled the direct employment of 65,678 Americans and $30.4 billion in consumer spending. Combining games and science might not just be good for knowledge, technology, and education; it might be highly profitable.

So, what might a game that combines science with the pull and replayability of Clash of Clans look like? We’ll have to leave that to the designers and scientists, but a good start might be Mozak. Developed together by Washington University’s Center for Game Science and the Allen Institute for Brain Science, Mozak tasks players with tracing the intricate structure of actual animal and human neurons – in a nutshell, it’s crowdsourced neuroscience. The goal of the game includes reconstructing a full 3-D model of a human brain. Imagine similar games for curing cancer, getting astronauts to Mars, or tackling existential threats.

Mozak shows that we can harness video games in incredibly powerful ways. So, to that end, government should launch something like a ‘Gaming for the Greater Good’ Initiative. This would provide financial incentives for industry leading-gaming companies (like Activision, Electronic Arts, and Rovio Entertainment) universities, and research institutes to collaborate on developing highly-engaging, socially popular, addictive games that further science and science education.

Video games may hold the key to our next big scientific breakthrough. They can also play an immeasurably important role in teaching our citizens about the value of science and the role it should play in both our public and private lives. So, grab your controllers, everyone. It’s time to game.

Take it to the Moon: Repurposing Space Junk

By Damien O’Connell

750,000. That’s the amount of space junk larger than 1 cm orbiting our planet. On average, these objects travel at 40,000 kilometers per hour, and when they hit other objects, like satellites, the result’s comparable to a grenade going off.

Outer space refuse has already given us some headaches. The Soviet Union’s Mir Space Station endured several impacts. In 1996 and 2009, debris destroyed active satellites. In 2013, space junk hit a Russian satellite, changing its spin rate and orbit. And just last year, suspected space debris struck the Copernicus Sentinel – 1A Satellite, but luckily caused only little damage.

So far, we’ve been lucky, but that luck may soon run out. As space junks continues to accumulate, we could face the Kessler Syndrome, a situation where space junk becomes so numerous as to destroy all active satellites. As of June 2016, 1,419 satellites currently orbit earth. What if these disappeared? The world would take a very, very hard hit, both in lives and treasure. Beyond this, debris could potentially destroy the International Space Station and even make it impossible for space vehicles to enter or exit the atmosphere.

We’ve got to act. We could try to destroy space junk, sure, but that may very well just create more, leading us, again, to a Kessler Syndrome scenario. So, here’s another thought: Why don’t we repurpose it?

Here’s one idea: Collect the stuff and use it as raw materials to build a colony on the moon. Just last year, leading scientists, to include prominent members of NASA, produced a special edition of New Space journal where they laid out ideas and plans for colonizing the moon. The ultimate purpose for such a colony would be to support missions to Mars. And all that space junk orbiting us? We could use it to build the foundations of this future lunar home.

So, how do we get there? For starters, the government should fund research into finding ways to collect and move space debris. Cooperation with industry likely holds the key to success here. Government incentives could possibly even lead to an entire space debris reclamation sector. Right now, there’s little money in collecting space junk, but with the Moon colony mission (and Mars) on the minds of many leading scientists at NASA, this could change with a few nudges from the government.

Let the race for the first galactic garbage man begin.