Monday, June 4, 2007

The Moth Effect

In chaos theory, there exists the butterfly effect. Now, I’ve never been partial to butterflies, although my father has a very old, extensive and very impressive collection of butterflies from around the world. However, I have a fondness for moths, which again comes from my father having on many occasions raised cecropia moths from first instar and setting them free after a long winter inside their cocoons.

And so it comes as a great surprise when I realized that one day these moths could be spying on me.

[ Allow me to quickly apologize as the ‘news’ inherent in this post is over a week old now, but this being one of my first posts on this blog, I feel I’m allowed to backtrack a tad. -A]

Now, I could bitch and moan for a while that funding for military practices is evil etc, but that’s not what I’m after here. Fact is, the history of civilization can be largely categorized by the rise and fall of Superpowers who attain status through strength in both their militaristic and economic endeavors (which typically feed off one another). The military doesn’t always invent new technologies, but the history of war reveals that certain technologies are given the time and resources they need to develop at the hands of militaristic will. Iron wasn’t invented, in so far as we can tell, as a means to kill, but the use of iron weapons on the fields of battle define the Iron Age and the rise of the Roman war machine. Gunpowder wasn’t invented to propel cannon balls, but again the awareness of its power to attain a technological edge in war refined and perfected it. Robotics, computing and micro-technologies follow the same trend, but have recently united and teamed up with biologists in the war on terror.

And so we come to the meat and potatoes of this post. Cyborg Moths. To summarize, the intent here is to implant a computer chip in to a developing moth (pupa stage, in the cocoon) such that the nervous system develops around it. When the adult moth emerges, it can be controlled remotely, and even fitted with a tiny camera for reconnaissance missions in enemy territory. I use the word “intent” here, but make no mistake – this is happening. No fiction, just science.

"A bunch of experiments have been done over the past couple of years where simple animals, such as rats and cockroaches, have been operated on and driven by joysticks,” noted Rod Brooks, director of the computer science and artificial intelligence lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). “But this is the first time where the chip has been injected in the pupa stage and 'grown' inside it. Once the moth hatches, machine learning is used to control it." These cyborg moths have been described as one of the most ambitious robotics projects ever conceived by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the research and development arm of the U.S. Department of Defense.

He continues on the importance and increased interest in robotics in U.S. military research, stating by 2015, “[The Department of Defense] wants one third of all missions to be unmanned.

Now this brings up all manner of ethical questions. Could these moths be weaponized? Could they be used to spy on civilians? But in my mind, there is really only one question. Could we implant these chips in humans and control some aspects of their physiology (or even more specifically, their myo- and neurophysiology) for the better?

I can only hope the answer is yes.

Biological engineering is coming. There are already more than 100,000 people with cochlear implants, which have a direct neural connection, and chips are being inserted in people’s retinas to combat macular degeneration.

Normally I would take this all one step at a time. First we could discuss the ramifications of a chip implanted, perhaps even prenatal, that could monitor the health of a human at every stage of its life. A trip to the doctor could be a simple scan of the chip to check for all possible infections, diseases and irregularities. But this idea of total control of the organism is what really sets this moth apart. In science fiction we commonly see a future where robots (androids or whatever you wish to call them) perform all manner of tasks for the betterment of mankind. Now imagine that same future where instead of walking metal contraptions, you had real human beings walking around but controlled entirely by remote. Sounds creepy? I’m sure it does, although I’m also positive it sounds a little less creepy to those people who play video games like The Sims or Second Life where the impact would be a little more familiar already. As for myself, I don’t find it the least bit odd, but it doesn’t really do much to propel us towards that Posthuman goal, does it?

I tend to look at ideas and inventions as part of an ever expanding mosaic. A chip that could be used to control a human is just another tile, and one that can match a myriad of other advancements. Could it improve cognition or physical strength? Not directly, but if we can improve upon the brain, it could allow matter to keep up with mind. We could force ourselves to read or exercise and push our limits.

Of course, we could also grow humans in labs, chips in place early on, and control them as slaves. Would one of these slaves, used in war, count towards the third of unmanned missions?

In any event, I find these cyborg moths infinitely entertaining. This post is already exceedingly long so I’m going to cut it before I start rambling on about possible synergies and turn this blog in to a lecture. Originally I wanted to report only a few quick opinions on neurological implants.

Suffice it to say that although many technologies are improved upon in the military, they are once again brought back to the peaceful side of civilization. Nuclear power, jet propulsion, cyborg moths… In chaos theory, the butterfly effect is a sensitive dependence on initial conditions, which holds true for this transhumanist’s moth theory that, in turn, holds true for this blog as a whole.

Additional reading Here, Here and Here.

- Alex

Extra Tidbit: I don’t really like or watch the show, but THIS was hilarious. I wish I had rhythm :(

Sunday, June 3, 2007

An Introduction

The word transhumanist is tossed around a lot (as are clich̩ opening lines, but I digress). By a widely accepted definition it simply refers to any person who welcomes - with open arms and minds Рtechnology, and how it can serve to improve human health span (and subsequently, lifespan) as well as intellectual, physical, cognitive and psychological capacities to elevate humans to a state where they are decidedly different from, well, us. It is a realization that modern day humans are not at the end of the developmental tree, and that technology can emancipate us from our current human limitations and subsequently allow us to take some control of our evolution. And, of course, that this is good thing for our species.

Obviously, you can tear that definition apart from a hundred angles. After writing it, I’m already doing so in the back of my mind. The word “decidedly” is by far the trickiest one in there, but for all intent and purposes of this blog, you’ll just have to assume that in my mind, we are not Posthuman. Not yet at least from my vantage point, though it’s worth nothing that only in retrospect will the actual pivot point be clear (if it ever is). But it is a comfortable medium; a compromise of sorts that we can build upon.

Given the aforementioned definition, it’s easy for the mind to steer down the road of medical sciences. Make no mistake; medical sciences are crucial to the transcendence of humanity, but they alone cannot take a human and evolve him. A true Posthuman is a complete package, able to see things from new angles; to realize critical thought and elevate creativity to new levels.

My aim for this blog (aside from appeasing peer pressure) is to look at all things in the current world through my transhumanist eyes and analyze them, discuss them, or simply report on them.

Originally, I was going to write “all things in the current world of science” but there is so much more out there. If I discover something remarkable in the fields medical sciences, of course I will write about them! But that’s only a small part of the whole that is the future of humans, and indeed our planet.

I hope to walk a wide spectrum in this blog, for your amusement and my own.

- Alex

Extra Tidbit: I’m borrowing the Extra Tidbits idea from my favorite movie news site - - and every post will close with one. Typically, they will have nothing to do with the actual blog.