Don’t Be Afraid of Our Bright Future

By Charles Mueller

 The story of human history has been about becoming healthier, smarter and stronger.  We have always been searching for ways to overcome the limitations imposed on us by Mother Nature using science and technology.  Through a conscious effort aimed at making us the best we can be, we have proven time and again that we can make what was once impossible, possible, always improving our way of life along the way.

 So then why did a Pew Research Center survey find evidence to support the claim that the majority of American’s are afraid of the technologies on the horizon that will make us healthier, smarter and stronger?  Why are we afraid of enhancing ourselves with bio- and neuro-technologies that can help us fight off disease and/or perform miracles like restoring vision to the blind?   

 The reality is we’ve been using S&T to improve our lives since we could.  Today millions can walk because of prosthetics, they can breathe because of organ transplants and they can access the largest database of human knowledge in the blink of an eye thanks to the Internet and their Smart phones.  We love technology, and modern advancements, while mysterious in how they work for most, are just the next phase in what we’ve always been doing.  

 We need these next generation human enhancement technologies.  Their proper use today could drastically improve the quality of life for billions.  Aside from that, the human species is a fragile, intelligent and creative species.  These technologies, if developed and applied in the right ways, can help us overcome our fragility, increase our intelligence and expand our creativity.  The future versions of us will have very different problems than the ones of today and ensuring they have the tools to survive their challenges, which might range to dealing with a natural ice age to colonizing another planet, is the greatest gift we could hope to give.  These tools, properly developed, are that gift. 

 Using these technologies is the first step in developing the knowledge about how to properly develop, manage and control these awesome technologies.  It is the first step in learning how to control and adapt our human systems to the environments of the future, be they here on Earth or out in the cosmos.  We will never be able to remove all the risk associated with their use, and there are bound to be accidents, but as humans we take equivalent risks all the time, every day.  It is good we are starting this conversation because it means there is public pressure to ensure we evolve these technologies with foresight and caution.  However, we have to ensure the dialogue doesn’t halt the progress these tools promise.  Abandoning a transparent, global pursuit of these technologies will only relegate their development to the shadows, an environment primed to foster our greatest fears. 

 We need to continue to embrace the technologies that will help us grow to be healthier, smarter and stronger, not be afraid of them.  These tools can help us start evolving ourselves with some foresight instead of blindly hoping we get to where we need to go.  We need these human new enhancement technologies so let’s figure out how to manage this reality instead of denying it.  Our future literally depends on it.

A Revolutionary Future

By Charles Mueller

At the Center for Revolutionary & Scientific Thought (CReST) we spend a lot of our time contemplating the future and imagining the kinds of impacts (both good and bad) science & technology (S&T) can have on the world.  We talk about S&T impacts in terms of 3 phases:

  • Phase I is where S&T changes the way an existing process is implemented, making it more efficient.
  • Phase II is where S&T leads to new processes that affect businesses, government and society
  • Phase III is where S&T leads to entirely new paradigms, with new systems, industries and/or governments.

Last night, with all the world watching the President’s last State of the Union (SOTU) address, I thought the President was finally going to say the things we at CReST have been saying.  I thought he was going to finally call out to the world that it is time to imagine the kind of future only created by the Phase II and III impacts of revolutionary S&T.  Instead he described a future where we only imagined a world changed by Phase I impacts.  A world of automation would change things, but a world where we co-exist with AI or communicate to each other with our thoughts would revolutionize things more.  I’m sorry Mr. President, but the next moon shot is not a cure to cancer, it would be closer to a cure to all disease.

I wish the President had painted a future maximized by the Phase III impacts of revolutionary S&T.  Maybe he didn’t paint that picture because he knows his audience.  Maybe we have become so obsessed with “now” that we’ve started to forget to imagine tomorrow.  Maybe we simply don’t know where to look anymore for information to help us imagine a future where anything is possible.

When we go to a restaurant we ask to see the menu; our leaders need to be distilling the kinds of futures S&T can foster into a menu.  People need to talk about this menu of the future, people need to get excited about this menu and people need to elect leaders that will bring some of the those items of the menu to the table.  While I am glad our President told us to think about the future, I had hoped he would talk about a bigger future, a bolder Phase III impact kind of future. There are many more items that should have been on his menu.

At CReST we will continue to do our best to communicate to the world about the important S&T, the ones whose Phase III impacts will revolutionize the world.  If we do it right, hopefully next year in the SOTU address we will hear of a future maximized by the benefits of revolutionary S&T and well prepared to deal with its potential misuses.

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.

A National Focus on Neuroscience

Brian Barnett

Neuroscience and neurotechnology have the potential to greatly improve our society, but the field needs significant investment in the form of a National Neurotechnology Initiative. We need a federal initiative that will bolster basic research and technology development for the entire field of neuroscience. There is a discrepancy between our neuroscientists’ efforts to study the brain and our available knowledge on the subject. Last month, thousands of neuroscientists came to our nation’s capital to attend the Society for Neuroscience annual conference to report on their research. During the conference, Nature put out an issue focusing on the difficulty in understanding depression and other mental disorders. We have so many great scientists who have dedicated their lives to studying the brain, and large portions of them are performing research to find cures for neurological disorders and disease. We put millions of dollars into research and we have a cohort of capable neuroscientists, so why are we still so ineffectual in our efforts to help those in need? The answer is that neuroscience is a complex field that currently has insufficient funding and resources to address all of its issues.

More than 350 million people worldwide are affected by depression, and as many as two thirds of those who commit suicide are afflicted by the condition. Hundreds of other neurological conditions affect our population across all age groups. We are still using drugs and technology from the 1950’s to address mental disorders and perform research. We develop new methodologies like cognitive behavioral therapy and we can’t explain the mechanisms by which they help patients. These observations plainly show that we are not doing enough to invest in neuroscience and provide our researchers with the tools and technologies to better understand the brain. Unfortunately, there is not one single problem area or deficiency that we can target to improve the situation. To succeed, we need to address a fundamentally incomplete understanding of all mechanisms and scales of brain function, from intercellular communication to the cognitive bases of behavior.

The solution is a large, long-term federal investment in neuroscience research and technology. Basic research, technological advances, and industry development will improve our scientific knowledge about the brain and give us methods and instruments for effecting positive change. We will be able to cure diseases and disorders when we understand the brain’s basic mechanisms, languages, and systems. We will share and combine findings from separate laboratories and research centers when we incorporate big data and IT infrastructure. We will create positive feedback loops where scientific knowledge informs novel technology development, and this technology enables entirely new methodologies for research investigations.

Our neuroscientists want to present research that truly demonstrates our essential understanding of the brain when they attend conferences. Our scientific journals want to publish great news about improvements to our health and well-being. Our innovators want to develop neurotechnologies that will better all of society. In light of the President’s BRAIN Initiative, national scientific journals’ coverage of mental illness, and an ever-growing national research society, the spotlight has never shone brighter on the field of neuroscience. The inspiration and motivation is readily apparent, so the only missing piece is a bold federal initiative that makes progress in neuroscience and neurotechnology a reality.

Fear of Science

Brian Barnett

Injecting a conflated understanding of ethics into journalism negatively affects scientific progress. That is to say, unethically performed research such as the fraudulent Wakefield paper on autism and vaccines or the Tuskegee syphilis experiment should be reported on and brought to the attention of the public. In contrast, journalism involving research findings should not jump to conclusions about the potential for research to be used unethically. When these unwarranted ethical questions are presented in the media, their only utility is to propagate a mistrust of science research.

A recent Atlantic article presents recent neuroscience research as a potential treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The research focuses on altering memories that trigger PTSD symptoms. When a memory is retrieved, it can be affected by additional stimuli or neural signals. This is generally useful, as memories need a way to update themselves in response to changes in the environment or behavior. The research targeted the unstable nature of recalled memories by giving participants a dose of propranolol (a beta blocker drug) before asking them to recall a fearful memory. The idea is that these drugs reduce emotional responses (e.g. some musicians take beta blockers before a big audition so that their nervousness or anxiety is lowered and they are able to play well). If a person’s emotional responsiveness is reduced, then recalling a fearful memory might not produce the usual physiological response. Over time, repeated and directed therapy could cause this memory to reconsolidate into a non-stressful version.

The article does a great job of explaining the content of the research in a concise fashion, but its attempt to incorporate ethical concern is harmful. The subheading at the top of the article is as follows: “A controversial area of brain research suggests [changing memories] may be possible – but is it ethical?” The article does not mention ethics again until the very last sentence, where the author asks the same exact question. The author wants to make sure that the first thing that the reader sees after the title is this question. I find this disconcerting. When a proposed treatment is not even close to being verifiable, and the scientific community understands the limitations of a specific study, we do not need to spend time questioning its ethical nature.

It is easy to take our science findings and extrapolate them to their scary extremes. Tacking on a question of ethics probably generates controversy and can be good for an author’s page views. It is telling that the author asks the question but does not address it. It can be hard to make definitive statements about what is right or wrong when it comes to a complex concept like memory alteration. Regardless of how difficult this question is to answer, science research on memory alteration should not be stopped. When our scientists are not close to figuring out how to reliably alter memories in a benign, therapeutic context, then we do not need to worry about their ability to perform unethical experiments. The research studies presented in the article followed Institutional Review Board guidelines and underwent stringent peer review (processes which are largely meant to prevent unethical research from occurring). There is a distinction between ethically performed research and the ethical use of a technology or process. This neuroscience research followed all established ethical guidelines and it should not be stopped because of the fear that it might lead to unethical practices later on.

If we are going to worry about anything at all involving this research, it would be that a rogue actor, who somehow does understand how to manipulate memories, starts to cause undue harm and suffering to others. If this hypothetical situation occurs, what can we do? Our only option would be to perform even more research to figure out how to undo his or her actions! Opportunists will always try to take advantage of science and technology advancements. We cannot avoid that fact, unless we become complacent, halt all research, and never solve another difficult problem again. Performing solid, peer-reviewed research on topics like PTSD therapy is a valuable endeavor and placing unnecessary questions of ethics around it will limit our abilities to succeed. Ethics are an important aspect of our society and are the vehicle by which we demonstrate fair and just treatment of our fellow citizens. However, scientific research should not be hampered by premature concern about its ethical consequences.