Asleep At The Wheel

By Charles Mueller

We are blindly directing the evolution of this planet. Last week I came across an article discussing the discovery of a new bacterium that digests PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastics. The authors of the article discovered the microbes by examining the trash we are continually filling up the world with. These microbes evolved on their own to digest plastic because we created an environment where the only thing they had to eat was PET plastic.

This is blindly directing evolution. We are responsible for this, yet at no point in time was this ever our intent. It is just a side effect of the choices we’ve blindly made as we continue to take more and more control over how the world evolves. At least with things like GMOs we are consciously making these choices on how certain organisms “evolve”. While in many ways this was a really cool discovery that could help us deal with things like trash pollution, it just makes me wonder what other kinds of ways life on this planet are evolving due to our visionless choices. It is likely that for every cool accident we create like this there is an equally bad one right around the corner.

There is a more intelligent way to do this that can help us create the good and prevent the bad. Technologies like CRISPR are enabling a future where we can open our eyes and begin to put more thought into how our choices will go on to impact the evolution of life on this planet. The discovery of this new bacterium reminds us that we are driving the car of evolution blindfolded with no steering wheel or brakes. While we debate whether or not we should use technologies like CRISPR to engineer ourselves for fear we might direct our evolution in damaging way, let’s remember we are already doing this with little to no control or knowledge of how it is currently playing out.

I get that directing evolution with intent sounds crazy, but the reality is it is crazier to do it blindly. The future of humanity, of life, is a future of design. Let’s make sure we acknowledge this and do our best to ensure that intelligent rather than blind choices are directing the future of evolution.

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If I can talk to you, you deserve rights too.

by Rebecca McCauley Rench

The ability to communicate between two life forms is a defining characteristic in whether those beings deserve rights, and we should re-examine our current stance on non-human rights. Human civilization has been struggling with how we define the rights of individuals in our societies for millennia. We can see the evolution of civil rights from a time when rights were decided by your gender, your land ownership, your age, and the color of your skin. In fact, to think that these are not still deciding factors in the way someone is treated in the eyes of the law suggests a limited exposure to the variety of societies in the world. In the United States, we believe that fundamental civil rights are a defining feature of an advanced civilization and necessary for stability in our culture and government. We are still not perfect, but we are continually improving our system and finding ways to be inclusive in those we grant rights.

However, how will we define a person as we begin to push the boundaries of integrating technology into our physiology and control over our genetics? How will we adapt those rights for life forms that do not fit into our current picture of a human yet are sentient beings? What does it mean to be a sentient life form and are there current beings on our planet that deserve more rights than we currently grant?

It is impossible to define a sentient being on their genetics as there is no one gene that makes one sentient nor is it necessary to have a genome to be a sentient being. As we begin to manipulate our own genome, integrate non-biological components into our physiology, and explore the Universe, defining a person by genomic similarity to a baseline is unlikely to hold up despite being very quantitative. The human race is full of genetic diversity and is not the same species it was 40,000 years ago. If one of our ancestors showed up today, would they have the same rights as all other humans on Earth or would we treat them differently in the eyes of the law? I do not think we would want to treat them differently if we uphold the values that urge us to grant rights to individuals. We do not interact with someone based off their genomic similarity to ourselves and this would completely negate the possibility of providing rights to alien life forms, silicon-based intelligence, and the emergence of new intelligent species on our own planet. The fundamental reasons we grant rights to all persons in society apply to these non-humans as well.

Perhaps the more important defining characteristic of being a sentient being deserving of rights is the ability to communicate with other sentient beings in society. For humanity, this has changed through time as we have moved from communication by verbal language, to written words, and now a plethora of media options. Soon we might even be able to communicate our thoughts directly with neural implants allowing us to have an even greater understanding to the ideas being shared. We would not deny a person of their rights in a court of law because we couldn’t understand what they were saying. We would spend time acquiring an interpreter to ensure that they could understand us as well as we understand them. We will face similar issues when communicating with other sentient non-humans and we should hold ourselves to the same standards of communication in those situations. This will become easier as we develop technologies that allow us to communicate directly with other species on our planet, such as neural implants that allow you to carry on a boring conversation with your house cat. Currently, we find ourselves capable of communicating with other primates through sign language and yet we do not provide them with the same rights as humans. Is this due to our inability to think outside the box on who deserves rights or rooted in our group definition of what it means to be a person? If we want to embrace a society where rights are granted to all sentient beings, we should re-examine the interactions we have with other life forms sharing our planet today. This would allow us to set standards and gradations in rights that can be easily adapted for the not too distant future. We already have gradations in rights that we give our children until they reach the age of majority, and these same guidelines can be used in determining the level of rights granted to varying levels of intelligence. This is a question we will have to tackle in the not too distant future as we continue to evolve and adapt humanity to a rapidly changing technological environment.

All I Want For Christmas Is The Future

Dear Santa,

This year I want something for the world. I want to bring a bright future to the people of today so that our lives can be better and more fulfilling.  There are technologies and areas of science that just need a little help to flourish into the kinds of things that can revolutionize our daily lives.  I have two things I really want this year Santa.

My first wish is for a tomorrow where the human experience is truly enhanced.  I want a world where my best friend can be a sentient robot, where I can visualize my dreams and memories on my iPhone, where I can surf the web and learn new languages using just my thoughts and where I can enhance things like my ability to think critically or recover from ailments by altering the code of my existence.

We live at a time where if we dedicate the time and resources into areas of science like artificial intelligence, biotechnologies and neurotechnologies we can literally start to make our dreams become a reality. My hope is that these opportunities will free people from the limitations nature puts on us and bring the world together in a new way.

My second wish is that I want to live in a world where the laws and rules are rational and make sense.  I want a life where I can be a citizen of the world, not bound by the borders of nations.  I wish for a world where governance embraces the digital reality of our times and evolves as the technology does.

We are a digital society and we should govern ourselves like one.  We could and should be doing things like creating education policy that leverages customized software interfaces built on fifty thousand years of human evolution where we learned by mentorship and not classrooms.  We can use S&T to create a smarter world, a more rational world and a more stable world, but in order to do that we have to change, we have to embrace a future of digital governance and evolve it.

I know these are big wishes, but that is why I need your help.

If we do it right the world will come together and we will realize our future today.

Charlie

Making Our Existence Better with S&T

By Charles Mueller

Imagine a world where there is no such thing as a genetic disease, a world where nobody dies of cancer, takes insulin shots for diabetes or loses their life’s memories from Alzheimer’s. Imagine a world where you can learn anything instantly. Imagine a world where you don’t have to worry about how many times you go to the gym per week because your cells work naturally to keep you in better shape. Imagine a world where we control our existence and anything is possible.

Let’s create that world.

Who we are today and the world we live in have only been made possible because of our continued belief in science & technology (S&T). As we have continued to invest our time and resources into S&T, we have continually been given better knowledge and tools to help us understand and navigate our world. S&T has helped us create a world that a few centuries ago would have been pure fantasy. A world where people can fly over oceans, communicate instantly with the touch of a button and prevent contracting a deadly disease by simply taking a shot. We live in a truly awesome time thanks to S&T and as long as we continue to invest and believe in it, it will only help us make the future better.

There are several areas of S&T today that are working day and night to figure out the next great way to enhance our existence, to make our lives better. Advancements in the development of neurotechnologies are making a future possible where people can communicate and access any information with just our thoughts. New developments and applications of biotechnologies are beginning to provide real solutions to things like world hunger and genetic disease. We have always had control of our existence, but today’s world of S&T has given us a level of control we’ve never had before, a level where anything is possible. In such a world, it becomes up to us to figure out what the next chapter in our existence will be.

We need to approach the next phase in our existence with the kind of wisdom that is required for the control we have. With tools that can help us create the world we envision, it is important we have a vision of what that world should be. Without a strategy we open up the real possibility of making things worse rather than better. We can strain out those bad realities and make only the good ones possible with if we elect leaders who understand this new reality and have a real strategy for creating a better future. The right leaders can ensure we have the right policies for investments into S&T and are using the right S&T to make policies that will create the world we want.

Imagine the world you want to be a part of. Imagine a future where that world is possible. Then remember we live at time when we can start making that happen.

Let’s create that world. Let’s make our existence better.

New Intelligence

by Paul Syers

Who’s ready to be a cyborg? I am! In discussions about the future of intelligence, most people think about A.I. or bioengineering. With both technologies, people worry about the dangerous consequences. I see promise, however, in a third option: human enhancement through electronics. In today’s society, we have already developed a symbiotic relationship with technology. Why not embrace that symbiosis and enhance it for the betterment of mankind?

Instead of worrying about developing an independent intelligence in a computer that could one day overpower humanity, why not develop ways to use computers like just another organ? I imagine a future where our brains can interact directly with multiple soft A.I. programs, allowing us to outsource many functions – like sensory systems, memory storage, and data mining – while still using the human brain to retain overall awareness and analytic control.

Unlike genetic engineering, this type of intelligence augmentation would have the advantage of not being permanent. Humans could plug into and unplug out of the added capabilities. This allows us to continue to answer the question of “what it means to be human” on an individual level. Those who reject augmentation can opt out at any time and we can build in ways to reasonably prevent people from forcing augmentation on others.

Some might argue that intelligence augmented in this way is not human intelligence They cannot deny, however, that at least some part of it is human, and at least in the earliest stages, the human part will have control. Eventually this path leads to the ability to fully download a human brain into a computer, but there is much more understanding we can gain along the way.

There will still tough questions to answer, such as how best to provide access, how to ensure some amount of fairness, and who owns the products of augmented intellects. I think these questions, however, will be much easier to reach a consensus on than the questions brought up by fully independent A.I. or radical genetic manipulation. I see this hybrid approach as containing the possibility to create something that is better than the sum of its parts, while at the same time lessening the consequences of failure.

We already have many of the tools and knowledge to move in this direction. Microelectronics are more than cheap, small, and light enough. Advancements in prosthetics and other R&D projects are discovering how to make electronics talk to neurons. The research being done through the BRAIN initiative could also be harnessed to help us reach this goal, but sadly it is not. Mapping the brain is a noble goal, but it won’t lead to the advancements in medical technologies that it promises. Similar promises about curing diseases and genetic defects were made at the outset of the Human Genome Project and they have not materialized. With just a minor shift in the goals and policy of the BRAIN initiative, we could reap so many more benefits. Let’s do it, so that in a few years I can read this blog post directly on my retina.

Constitutional Evolution

Charles Mueller

I think it is time we reexamine our Constitution. The purpose of the Constitution, as laid forth by our founding fathers, was to have a set of rules that protected our rights. Our rights are reflected in the values and cultural norms of our society. They are a product of the times. Therefore, the Constitution should evolve with the times. It’s not to say that we have to change the Constitution just because things change, but we should have a habit (either forced or by due diligence) of reexamining the Constitution every 20 years or so; each generation should have at least one chance to reexamine how their rights are protected.

Thomas Jefferson’s 1789 letter to James Madison examined the argument that the Constitution should be dynamic and reflect the times of those being governed under it. So why doesn’t our Constitution reflect the current era? Why was the most recent amendment to it (the 27th) really an idea from 1789 that took over 200 years to ratify? When we refuse to acknowledge the needs and demands of society are different now than what is portrayed in our Constitution, we cement our governance to the will of those who last laid pen to it.

The idea of having flexibility in the rules for an organized system is not a human invention. In fact, our cellular constitution (our DNA) already embodies this concept. For example, if a virus enters our body, it triggers our immune system to search our DNA for a solution to stop the virus. If we have encountered the virus before, our DNA likely has a solution for stopping it (an antibody gene). However, if it has never seen this virus before, something interesting happens: a new gene is created that is optimized to deal with this new change in the environment. This makes the human body both dynamic and rapid in its ability to adjust to a changing environment, and is just one example of the many ways the human body is built to adapt.

If humans are nature’s best design for an organizational life system, and this system is designed so that its cellular constitution must be rapidly adaptive, then isn’t there some sort of lesson to be learned here? Why isn’t the US Constitution designed and being used in a manner that allows for it to be rapidly adaptive? Why, in a time when the global environment is changing at an exponential pace, do we still insist on being governed by a Constitution that is frozen in time? Shouldn’t our Constitution, like the DNA inside our cells, have some sort of flexibility that allows our “blueprints” for running this country to properly reflect the state of the world?

Thomas Jefferson once said, “The earth belongs always to the living generation. They may manage it then, and what proceeds from it, as they please, during their usufruct…every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years. If it be enforced longer, it is an act of force, and not of right”. I think it is time we change the way we manage our rights. I think it’s time we come together to update the Constitution in such a way that it protects not just the rights of the citizens of today, but also allows it to adapt with the times.   Let’s get serious about our future and have a Constitutional Convention were we reexamine the fundamentals of our nation like our forefathers intended.