Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Future of Genetic Engineering (2005-2030)

"How neat it would be to have genetic engineering treatments to get extra eyes, fur or tentacles?", asked Conan K. Woods on wta-talk.

I am normally not psychologically comfortable to speculate too much, chiefly because I feel (perhaps wrongly) that everything was already said by someone more competent (e.g. by one of the book authors such as Kurzweil, Naam, etc.) and I will be just stating obvious. But perhaps this is due to me having read only a few of the transhumanist books. :)

Anyway, without further ado, this is how I think genetic engineering will unfold in the next 25 years.

The foretaste of things to come

First (now-2015) we will see more and more smart drugs, i.e. drugs increasingly designed based on understanding on how genes and proteins work and not just random hit-and-miss experiments with organic molecules. It will become increasingly possible to regulate the human metabolism using the THIRD way (i.e. not neural or hormonal, but artificial drug-induced way). Things like Viagra, working drugs for losing (not gaining) weight, nootropic drugs, etc.

Then (2015-2025) we are going to see first health-related genetic modifications. As e.g. Naam describes in his book, there are several ways to modify ourselves - inject the protein (drug - see above), add the DNA into the cell (noninsertional vectors) or into the nucleus (insertional). By that time we will strongly feel the fallout from the Human Genome project, understanding a signficant part of the complex genetic chemistry. First we are going to change the DNA to fix the health defects, removing bad genes or fixing them.

At the same time we will have genetic treatments in competitive sport (Olympics) to enhance the strength, endurance, etc. Some say that first such treatments are already being used. Each next Olympics will have more and more and by 2016 a very large portion of athletes will be using some form of genetic enhancement.

Ossur bionic leg (video)

By that time (mid-2010s) we will have some cyborgisation in healthy humans going on. Chips for interacting with the electronic environment, some enhanced senses (e.g. cochlear implants for healthy people). Enhancement surgery will be growing in popularity (things like LASIK, muscle surgery, lots of cosmetic surgery and a bit more advanced stuff). The "traditional" body modification techniques will be gradually improving. Everything that is cool today will be already passe and retro. Hard to predict these things, since they are irrational and random to a large extent like all fashion is. But one may speculate about subdermal displays, limited neuro-electronic connectivity (i.e. "implanted remotes"). Disabled people will have their artificial hands, legs, eyes and stuff in increasing numbers. But we still won't see genetically modified people with tentacles, except in a few freaks, like the leet body modders today (however, even those would probably opt for surgery + drugs, not full-scale GE).

Real-time avatar face modification (video)

Starting from about 2015 we will spend more and more time in both virtual and augmented reality. We will be more and more comfortable with modifying our appearance in arbitrary ways, spending time in animal bodies (even though only virtually), etc.

By, say, 2020 we (at least the early adopters, not luddites) will be controlling our metabolism artificially a lot (using a combination of implanted automatic smart drug-release devices and genetic therapies). There will be a few cases when humans will be enhanced significally changing their genetic code, when this can be done in a very safe manner and without side effects (this might come from one of the sports modifications). The parents will have great freedom in defining the DNA code of their kids to get rid of all bad stuff and ensure that good stuff is there, but no fins or fur yet. We will also have many artificial parts and will spend a lot of time in virtual worlds.

The onset of extensive genetic engineering

Around 2020-2025 we will see the spread of biotechnologies to the general population. We will also have desktop fabrication labs by then (and robots), some pretty useful (but not fully mature) nanotech (to compliment the biotech that we are talking about). We will have some good AI (but not human-level), so a lot of R&D will be possible to do using existing software. Software methodologies will be more advanced than today, so ordinary people will be able to get digital designs for a bio-lab, assemble it using their (may be not personally owned) desktop fab lab, get the information databases with genetic and other biological information and synthesise the DNA.

There are likely to be some regulatory issues by than. Both scaremongers and responsible scientists/politicians will demand some control mechanisms and some will definitely be established, but we can also expect bio-hackers (and pirates) to emerge. There will obviously be a gradient - if some people are doing legit body-modifications (like people in tattoo/piercing parlors today), they can add a bit of illicit modifications, provide access to illegal drugs (controlled substances) without prescriptions (like offshore Internet pharmacies today), etc. This may end up looking a little bit like the cyberpunk predictions (e.g. traditional Gibsonesque cyberpunk).

In 2025-2030 people will start to notice the exponential technological growth. Kids born in 2010 will be getting through their teenage phase (modified using mind-enhancing drugs, but not enough to turn them into obedient zombies). They will probably be the first to use the technology in radical ways. The transplantation industry would be mature by that time, with millions of transplantations performed every year - cloned parts, xenotransplants, artificial organs, etc. Stem cells would also be used to grow new organs (in vitro and in vivo). So it would be quite easy to do heavy cyborg and biological body-mods with little risk (and almost zero risk of serious complications that can't be fixed). As much as I am uncomfortable with that (today), more and more people will be experimenting with heavily modified bodies. Genetic engineering will be used in conjunction with surgery. We will also have the ability to direct body reconstruction - first selective apoptosis, then generation of stem cells and regrowth of the organs/tissues. This will obviously first be used for corrections, but eventually for rebuilding the body for other reasons.

A mermaid (from Cross Genetics)

By that time technologies for genetic engineering will be widespread and accessible. Software products would exist (not in the form of products, but downloadable routines, AI modules) that can be used easily. By 2030 most people will have the ability to design new organisms from scratch and change their own bodies at will. My imagination is betraying me a bit, but when walking (or otherwise moving) on the street (or the future analogue of it) you will see people of different colours (including pink, orange and striped yellow-green), people with fur, people with animated skin, people with various additional parts (combs, spikes, etc.) added for aesthetic reasons, people with various face adjustments ("unnatural" eyes, nose, lips, teeth, etc.), people with parts of them resembling animal parts (feline eyes, etc.).

By that time the society will likely change enough to make these things not only more acceptable, but in a sense expected. Mind-enhancement techniques, significant social changes will mean that there won't be conservative job-places that don't let you come to work with wings and horns. Many people will not be working in the traditional sense, but living life in more creative ways, while the society/nature supplies them with necessities.

The precise nature of the future society in regards to the look of its members will depend on an unpredictable factor - the relative success of different development approaches. It is clear that virtual reality, cyborgisation and genetic engineering will all provide almost unlimited possibilities for human expression. But which of the three methods will be more populat (at certain point) is hard to predict, because it depends on which one will be more advanced, more efficient, safer, cheaper, more available, easier to use, etc. It is likely that all methods will complement each other to some extent, but personally I am not ready to predict with certainty whether the society of 2030 will consist mostly of people inhabiting VR worlds, robots walking the streets or mutated chimeras flying and swimming around...

Well, that was me imagining what the future will be like. Stay tuned (or not) for the visions of life in the world of mature nanotech and life after uploading.

Comments, criticism and discussion obviously welcome.

This text can be edited at the Future Wiki

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Children of the Secret State - North Korea

"Children of the Secret State" (ed2k link) is a propaganda movie made in 2000. The film was mostly likely planned by psyops specialist and is a good example of the information warfare campaign waged against North Korea. But North Korea is not the only victim — we all are the victims too when we are led to believe lies and fabrications. I believe it is useful to train yourself in critical thinking skills and to try to build up some mental defences against manipulation. That's why I wrote this commentary.

This review present an analysis of some of the scenes of the film. My conclusion is that this film is an attempt at manipulating the viewer to believe that North Korea is a horrible place, its leader Kim Jonh Il is evil, his regime is brutal and the economic system has collapsed. But a careful and impartial viewing of the film with a critical eye and constant online doublechecking demonstrates that there is very little in this film that should be believed. In this film no evidence was presented, although the authors tried extremely hard to make it seem as if such evidence was in fact shown. And I have no doubt that most viewers believed that it was.

North Korea pioneers

The film starts with the video of hungry child orphans (still, apparently looking healthy enough) that is going to shock everyone, especially combined with the matter-of-fact narrative. The narrator claims that 3 million people died from hunger. Another claim is made - that UNICEF estimated there are 200000 orphans in the country (BTW, don't trust all statistics about orphans, lies and manipulations are an ever present danger). It's awfully hard to find data on orphans in the US, but it appears to me from what data is available that the number of children without parents as a percentage of general population is about the same in the US - about 1%.

The population of the North Korea is 23 million, BTW, the population growth rate in 2005 was 0.9% (0.38% in South Korea), life expectancy 71.73 years (75.82 in SK) and infant mortality 24 deaths/1000 live births (7 in SK). While we are at it, the literacy rate is 99% (compared with 97.9% in SK). But everyone is still shocked, that's expected, even I am. However, I now start to think what they are trying to say, whether I am being manipulated and how this agrees with other things I know.

OK, we move into the capital. The presenters never ignore a chance to manipulate the viewer. From mentioning the Big Brother to emphasising the censorship. First they are trying to make a ridiculous point by implication. They present the visuals as if the whole capital is essentially fake and everyone else lives in poverty and hunger in secret towns. Well, to begin with, that doesn't make any sense. Why would the North Korean government want that? Do they really care that much about impressing foreign journalists who manage to enter the country despite the apparent restrictions? That doesn't make sense (since they actually try to prevent foreign journalists from visiting).

Pyongyang street

Then every image is twisted as the presenters need. For example, there is no one in the street in the middle of the day, there aren't many other guests in the hotel and there are few cars on the streets. Somehow all this proves that North Korea is bad. But, of course, there is no one in the streets - everyone is working. Then the hotel is empty, because it was designed and built in a different time, but it turned out to be a mistake and there aren't many foreign tourists today. And there aren't many cars, but there is examplanation - cars are too expensive, not very efficient and North Korea is short on fuel.

The fact that the journalists are well fed is somehow a proof of how evil and corrupt the regime is (if they weren't, doubtless they would use this as another proof of the hunger). Supposedly, one can't find such a stark contrast in the US, no way. But filming a dinner in an expensive Manhattan restaurant and some child suffering from hunger (there are millions of those in the US) doesn't enter the minds of the journalists. Then we hear some unsubstantiated claims that all well-fed children rehearsing for the parade are the children of the elite. How do they know it? Of course, the American viewer is unlikely to question the words of the journalists.

I mean, you don't need to go far. Russia is no longer a totalitarian state, but you can find children, who are drug addicts, alcoholics, homeless, orphans, prostitutes and theives. How are isolated facts (even filmed on video) a condemnation of a country? Also, how is it a fault of the government, when the people living in that town/village do not help the kids?

Pyongyang Palace of Pioneers and Children

Then the Children's Palace. Here even the fact that there are apparently some children who are not hungry presented as an evil deed of the Dear Leader. He is told to have "decided to favour these children". I wonder if the journalists have any ideas of why exactly did he make this decision. Does he have anything against those other, hungry children? Does he have an evil plan?

The journalist is near the Chinese border. He is allowed to drive there in a car and he has to exaggerate the dangers. If they spend too much time in one place, they may be interrogated by the police. Well, try to spend too much time in one place next to the Mexican border. I bet you would be interrogated by the police as well. It's illegal to film at the border (like in many other countries), but the brave fighters for freedom managed to do it. Apparently, they filmed some border guards, who appear to be guarding the border. Clearly, that is some evil North Korean plot. Is it possible that they are looking for possible violators, who intend to cross the border illegally? Well, I am sure no civilized nation would ever do such a thing. Certainly not the United States... Well, pardon me my sarcasm, but insinuations are everything. It is possible to film perfectly legitimate activities, but if they are in North Korea, they suddenly become menacing, dark and evil. Such as border guards hiding in bunkers.

Then we get a lie about refugees facing execution after being returned from China to North Korea. There is no evidence, just hearsay. Signs such as "Never help an illegal alien" are presented as something horribly wrong, even though (no sarcasm this time) most countries have some regulations against illegal aliens and helping illegal aliens is a misdemeanour in many countries as well (North Koreans are facing a fine, which, supposedly, is horrible).

We are in China now. The woman buying some foodstuffs who is looking strangely at the foreigner filming her is presented as visual evidence of "paranoia and suspicion" filling the air. Perfectly ordinary images of normal life, combined with a alarming music reinforce the feeling that the air is indeed filled with paranoia. It might be the paranoia of the journalist, however. Then we have one interview, where we are not told anything substantial except that some people died from hunger.

OK, we're back. Here a child repeats to the journalists some hearsay about cannibalism. I don't think this can be considered evidence, but the guy appears to have some very lax journalistic standards. Some child drawings and "a friend told me he saw" are now considered sufficient evidence.

OK, now we are shown some Chinese girl eating some soup. We are told that "these children are well-fed". This time we aren't told that Chinese leaders "decided to favour these children", no, it's implied that there is no hunger in China. But, as a matter of fact, China (the "nice" neighbour of North Korea) is still home to the world's second largest number of undernourished people after India. According to some estimates, all over the world over 1 billion people are chronically undernourished. 20 millions die each year from hunger and its effects (almost the population of North Korea). And yet the US and its venal journalists chose to pick on North Korea. Even though, the United States isn't without its own share of problems... Particularly, 3.5 million people are homeless and 35.9 million people live in poverty. They don't seem to notice the mote in their eye...

It's part three and franly I am tired. It's not easy to consciously withstand attempted psyops. But I can't leave the task unfinished, I will have to endure the lies and deceit for 20 minutes more.

We are shown some positively chubby North Korean children, but the disquieting music somewhat compensates for that. We feel that all is not well. We are shown something which is claimed to be a "ghost town" (shot from the nearby mountain). Then we are informed that "industrial activity has ground to a halt". We are made to think that this isn't an exaggeration, but a statement of fact - this is accompanies by the image of the supposed "ghost town". Of course, simple logic dictates that it's impossible for all industrial activity to stop in a country and even the CIA factbook admits real GDP growth of 1% in 2004. But who needs logic in a times like this? Then we hear an account of a well-dressed "escapee" from the town, who tells us that the town's poor stole the equipement and parts from the factories and sold them... The question of whom did they sell factory equipment in small town in a country with a planned economy is not discussed, perhaps, for the better.

We are shown some more children and told some more stories about hunger.

Then a random guy tells us about growing opium. There are some links online that support this claim, however, they all tend to rely on people who make questionable claims such as "Ninety-nine percent of their factories are not operating"...

OK, we are going to South Korea now. In passing we are told that one in every 100 North Koreans is in prison camps. We are not told that 1 in 142 USA residents is in prison as of 2002. One in a hundred (if accurate at all) doesn't sound that bad now, does it? Anyway, images of capitalism (skyskrapers, well-dressed people, etc.) demonstrate that South Korea is clearly a better place.

Then we hear a story of a former guard, which (if genuine) does make a point. What is happening in the camps, if true, is brutal and horrible. However, no other evidence is presented and it's extremely easy to exaggerate (or downplay) the reality.

Who needs photos when you can draw your evidence?
I am going online to look up some information related to aid. In one place we find that "An estimated 200,000 to two million people died in the famine." Well, that's bad, but that's not 3 million people claimed in the beginning of the program. It does confirm the fact (which no one really doubted) that a large fraction of children ("62 percent of children under the age of seven" in 1998) is chronically malnourished. Thanks to the aid, the "chronic malnutrition has dropped to 21%" by 2002. However, in order to blackmail North Korea over its nuclear program, the US and Japan severely decreased their aid, knowing well what would be the effect of it. The film claims that the US didn't do that.

We are told that North Korea receives more food per capita in aid than any other country. Well, it appears to have received about 30$ per person served per year (in total), which is about average of what WFP does... Other sources, while providing some criticism of North Korea's handling of aid, disagree that it's a deliberate diversion and say that the problems are not as significant.

We see the black market, but the opinion of experts is that this diversion of aid doesn't affect the situation that much.

Again we are shown some children. This time the journalist claims "but children go empty-handed as these pictures reveal". I don't know what these pictures reveal, other than blatant attempts at manipulation. Does he claim that all children are denied food in Korea according to some evil plan? Does he claim that Korean government actively discriminates against children? He is trying to mislead. The footage of children he presents is biased so much as to be almost useless.

Well, the film is over. What can we say? That Discovery, Channel 4 and the journalist are manipulative? Yes. That people are being systematically mislead about North Korea? Certainly. That people in North Korea suffer from hunger? Yes. That Kim Jong Il is evil, his regime is brutal and the economic system has collapsed? That's not so clear. In this film no evidence was presented, although the authors tried extremely hard to make it seem as if such evidence was in fact shown. And I have no doubt that most viewers believed that it was.

See my previous post about North Korea: Remembering the Revolutions

The photos are from a report of a Russian visitor to North Korea, who saw a very different picture while travelling around the country.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

NISTEP 2030 forecast

The Japanese National Institute of Science and Technology Policy (NISTEP) runs a technology foresight project every five years, looking 30 years into the future. The last such exercise was carried out in 2000, producing the report Future Technology in Japan toward the Year 2030 (download).

The 2007-2030 timeline in this report is one of the most methodologically sound.It was produced in a large Delphi study involving several thousand experts. Past NISTEP reports had predictive accuracy of 60-70%.

But the forecast shies away from advanced transhumanist technologies and looks rather traditionalistic and non-controversial (this is not to say these were not included among the original topics, but that they were not considered important by experts and so less attention is paid to them).

  • The report barely makes a passing mention of nanotechnology: only one item — "Practical use of single atom/molecule manipulation techniques as methods for device fabrication and gene manipulation.", scheduled for 2015, is included.
  • Artificial intelligence is apparently ignored. It's mentioned in only one topic: "Development of software (expert systems) capable of completely taking the place of specialist professions such as judges, lawyers and patent attorneys.", is slated for 2025 and is deemed unlikely to ever be realised by 48% of respondents.
  • Brain enhancements are mostly ignored, despite predictions of understanding much of how the brain functions between 2015-2025.
  • Despite listing a plethora of medical advances, the report says nothing about possibilities of life extension, reversal of aging and achiving immortality.

One non-traditional area (although it is much more traditional for the Japanese) that features prominently is robotics.

A forecast that ignores nanotechnology and artificial intelligence — undoubtly the key enabling technologies for human transformation in the coming decades — can not be deemed accurate and is at best extremely misleading.

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Sunday, October 09, 2005

My Personal Answers to 15 Global Challenges

My Personal Answers to 15 Global Challenges.

1. How can sustainable development be achieved for all?
By making technological development sustain itself and not rely on frail Earth's ecosystem.

2. How can everyone have sufficient clean water without conflict?
With technologies, such as nanotech, that will be widely available by 2015-2020.

3. How can population growth and resources be brought into balance?
They will never be. Population growth simply won't catch up with the exponentional growth of resources provided by the supertechnologies such as nanotech and AI.

4. How can genuine democracy emerge from authoritarian regimes?
We need to realise that "genuine democracy" is a fiction and that democracy is simply one of the ways to structure the society, worthless by itself. Authoritarian regimes usually have a valid reason to be such.

5. How can policymaking be made more sensitive to global long-term perspectives?
By eschewing democracy of uninformed idiots and encouraging an autocratic government of educated technocrats.

6. How can the global convergence of information and communications technologies work for everyone?
As a result of people, companies and governments working on this issue. The digital divide is unsustainable and is easy to bridge - all it takes is work.

7. How can ethical market economies be encouraged to help reduce the gap between rich and poor?
By replacing them with planning, taking the profit motive out of the economy and nationalising capitalist enterprises.

8. How can the threat of new and reemerging diseases and immune micro-organisms be reduced?
By spending more on medical and biotech research and controlling big pharma better.

9. How can the capacity to decide be improved as the nature of work and institutions change?
By promoting intelligence, rationalism and science, by destroying the plutocratic elite and by instituting public control of the media.

10. How can shared values and new security strategies reduce ethnic conflicts, terrorism, and the use of weapons of mass destruction?
By disarmanent of the United States, by stopping the exploitation of the third world and by building strong national economies there. Shared values can't do anything if you don't share the bread as well.

11. How can the changing status of women help improve the human condition?
By having them do some work more useful than cooking and doing laundry, perhaps?

12. How can transnational organized crime networks be stopped from becoming more powerful and sophisticated global enterprises?
A better question would be how can powerful transnational global enterprises be stopped from becoming more like organized crime networks?

13. How can growing energy demands be met safely and efficiently?
By using solar and fusion power and by severely restricting private ownership of cars, while building better public transport systems.

14. How can scientific and technological breakthroughs be accelerated to improve the human condition?
By spending more on science, promoting future-oriented thinking, taking public control of all media and starting intensive atheist and rationalist propaganda.

15. How can ethical considerations become more routinely incorporated into global decisions?
By replacing the plutocratic capitalist society with meritocratic socialist or communist society, so that the leaders are more motivated to work for the benefit of all people.