Releasing the Gene(ie) – Being Proactive About Bioengineering and Synthetic Biology

Yeah, I went there. Horrible, shameless pun and all. People are awesome at proliferating the planet. Either by design, accident, will, or simply by making lots of babies, we’ve made ourselves the dominant critters of Earth. And since we care for our own survival, we have to accept both the rewards and the responsibilities way up here at the top of the food chain. To adapt to our ever-changing circumstances and facing our existential threats, research in synthetic biology offers a lot of potential. We tend to see such technologies represented in a negative light (GMO foods, for instance) but our current meddling with a few injected snippets of genetic code is crude to the kind of discoveries that are waiting for us. As our knowledge grows, so do the imagined possibilities of novel solutions that synthetic biology can bring to some our greatest challenges: world hunger, droughts, disease, aging, energy. Our children’s children’s children will likely be grazing on nutritious grass, eat meat is cultivated in clean labs instead of butchered in disease-filled wasteful torture-farms, drink water filtered from the ocean through engineered fruits, believe that 120 is the “new middle age”, enjoy plentiful energy from trees as the wind rustles their leaves, and think about diseases like Alzheimers and cancer about as much as we think of the Black Death. That isn’t to say we won’t create complex new problems for ourselves in the process, because we always do. Progress requires action, and actions always have consequences. It is wise for us to be proactive in approaching broad new technologies like synthetic biology and artificial intelligence that...

Nature As Artifact

I recently read John Messerly’s summary on “Stem Cells, Biotechnology and Human Rights: Implications for a Posthuman Future” by Paul lauritzen, a Professor Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic John Carroll University. One important piece of this argument stuck out to me, which was the concept of “Nature as Artifact”. This argument says that as we make advances in biotechnology, our attitudes towards the natural world (and probably even ourselves) could change to see nature only as a material tool to be manipulated for our own ends. I argue that, for all practical purposes, seeing nature as an artifact would be an improvement over what we currently have, where we as a species seem to selfishly look at ourselves as being more important than the natural world and look upon it with indifference and contempt, despite its importance to our survival. Much of our fresh water, one of our most basic material resources, has dried up or has been poisoned by the indifference of those dumping chemicals, trash, and waste into the streams and rivers. We go through enormous efforts to filter these contaminants back out so we can use it, only to callously consume it to water lawns, even in times of drought. We the put water into costly petroleum-based materials and shuffle it around in petroleum-based vehicles which pollute the air, another valuable resource that we can only survive minutes without and take for granted every day. Rainforests, which contain undiscovered species of flora and fauna, soils rich with microbial life, and producing oxygen for us to breathe, are leveled en masse for resources...

Artificial Intelligence, Machine Morality, Religion, and Social Harmony for our Unknown Future

In March 2015, Nick Bostrom gave a fascinating high level discussion about the potential dangers of artificial intelligence and what it means for the human race, as well as warnings about why our precautions in how we develop such a system is of vital importance if we want to preserve our humanity. Considerations about AI (and also referred to these days as machine superintelligence) are so prevalent in entertainment that our first reaction to such a system is predominantly negative: Terminator, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix, cartoons such as Wall-E, and my recent favorite science fiction film of this year so far, Ex Machina. Here’s a list of some of the most popular movies with killer AI. None of these scenarios are completely unfounded fiction, either, and even famous scientists and researchers have signed an open letter recognizing the existential risks of AI. But I digress. In Nick Bostrom’s TED Talk, he discusses the importance of forward-thinking when it comes to developing a system that, with the right capabilities and tools in place, grow more intelligent than human beings. However, he provides little clues as to what framework would help instill human values and a sense of morality into these machines. This is the key point: We build machines to serve OUR interests. Whether to solve problems or for simply the thrill of invention, technology is not built with altruism in mind. Technology is built for human interests. If we are to avoid a doomsday scenario, we need a robot that not only understands complex ideas and language but also human values in such a way that it...

What is Naturation?

Naturation is a movement emphasizing the idea that human society has systematically made itself irrelevant through self-domestication in an increasingly complex and wildly technological Earth no longer suitable for natural survival. A Naturationist identifies themselves as a willful and unpredictable arbiter of chaos challenging the very systems dependent for their survival as well as the relevance of their species. Complacency – in this case, a ‘perfect’ world of no change – is recognized as a detriment to survival, and thus, well timed destruction is the only practical means in which technological progress can continue. We can all agree that managing human needs is pretty easy business; it is the unpredictability keeping AI focused on maintaining stability. From a practical point of view, disrupting (and/or breaking) systems ensures they will be replaced with an improved version of the same thing. On a more irrational level, its fun to be reckless and rebellious. A Naturationist identifies our purpose is to exemplify the wild side of humanity that we’ve worked to tame for so long. We are no longer at the top of the intellectual food chain, and since the planet’s balance of life is no longer maintained by its natural construction, it is only through unpredictable action that we can ensure the system can maintain its relevance for survival. A Naturationist Believes: 1) Humanity is part of nature – not an opposition to it. 2) Our technology is the effort control nature. 3) Sometimes our effort to control a natural system results in unpredictable and unintended side effects, not all of which improve the human condition. 4) Technological advances will eventually...

Sustainability and Geoengineering

This morning, I came across this post on Scientific American about geoengineering. Geoengineering is inevitable, but before we get there, sustainability should be our focus.  We must get our own needs in line so we can cooperate on these larger issues.  We must maintain our standard of developing more sustainable systems to reach the growing demand for shelter, food, water and energy. The answers themselves will obviously come from nature.  For instance, bio-engineering plant, microbial and animal life with metabolic pathways to break down/remove hazardous pollutants from the ecosystem while producing useful byproducts.  Resilient and highly adaptable crops, or methods for growing those crops with optimal nutritional benefit.  We will need a twofold energy plan that focuses on not only developing energy but decreasing demand through the use of systems that require less of it.  We will need better ways to harness the 97% of Earth’s water that we cannot drink or use to grow crops. All of this is about sustainability, not geoengineering.  But how can we contend with the forces of nature if we cannot even provide for ourselves in such a way that we have full confidence we’re not the cause of it?  In a world like that, we’re working against ourselves. Any fan of science fiction is familiar with the dysotopic ravaged planet; these scenarios are often in part the ironic result of greed, selfishness and species-wide ignorance and immaturity.  It seems cynical, but the truth is we are infallible creatures with egos and it is naive and foolish to think we can just go about controlling the weather.  Even the most minute changes to...

EnvyTM – Apples with Super Sex Appeal

The apple is in my opinion one of our greatest creations.  I’m not sure any other fruit has ever come in such extensive variety.  I’m a huge fan of the HoneycrispTM apples but last night the grocery store only had a few bruised ones left. I went for the new EnvyTM apples instead.  This was the first I had heard of the EnvyTM apple in St. Louis, so feeling adventurous, it was practically my duty as an apple connoisseur to taste this new variety that has popped out of the genetic salt-shaker and made it into our grocery stores in the past couple years. Admittedly, I was a little concerned by the appearance it would taste like a disgusting red apple by its color, or maybe one of those softer Pink LadyTM apples.  But the EnvyTM apple is really crisp and sweet, not to mention half the price of the HoneyCrispTM apples. I was pleased with it, and I’ll probably keep eating them.  I checked out their website to get some information on these apples and found out it is cross-breed between the Braeburn Apple and the Royal Gala Apple. Perhaps it’s not so strange to sexualize food in marketing, (we do have Magnum Chocolate and no, it isn’t something a man wears…) but I’m not sure Apple marketing has ever been so sexualized as EnvyTM.   Wow… give me a bite of that SEXY APPLE! While the EnvyTM clearly focuses on women, and “Envy” could easily tap the female psyche as the brand name of a perfume, water-based lubricant or a vibrator, I believe we should level the...