Sunday, July 23, 2006

Genes, Memes, and the Population Problem: Rapproachment Scenarios

Okay, I know I promised this post a week ago but I've been kinda busy (check out 一+白=百 to find out why.)

If anyone hasn't read the post to which this is a follow-up - in which I discuss the link between memetics (particularly memes passed along horizontal vectors) and the declining birthrate - you might find it helpful do so .

Back? Let's get started.

I could only think of five scenarios. There is of course lots of overlap, but it's important to note that I don't see any of these as being mutually exclusive: they might happen sequentially, and all five could well coexist. Without further ado, then, here's my list of scenarios for how the birthrate problem might get solved in the coming century.

This is the one that is probably easiest for most people to envision:

1) Tax-tweaks: Natalist government policies attempt to encourage child-bearing with tax incentives, and perhaps even discourage non-medical childlessness with tax penalties. An example system (I haven't worked out the numbers on this, it's for discussion purposes only) would be a 10% income tax cut for the first child, 30% for the second, and 90% for the third; the missing tax dollars are made up with punitive taxation on the childless. I say this solution is 'easy to envision' to because I could see any governments seriously proposing it tomorrow, but simply because it's not that big a leap for welfare states to make. Indeed, the most natural thing for socialist governments to do is to attempt social engineering by jury-rigging the tax code (which is why it's such a kludgy shambles at the moment.)

While natalist tax-tweaking is easy to envision, I don't see it being very effective. Too easy for the childless to simply abandon whatever nations try it; as a general rule, childless people are unmarried and don't have close family ties, so they're the most likely to leave.

The next scenario is similar, but quite a bit darker:

2) The Three-Child Policy: Just as China slowed its population growth enormessly by forbidding parents to have more than one child, a natalist government might attempt to do the opposite with a similar policy: legally requiring all women to have three children by, say, their 30th birthday. Obviously this solution would require throwing women's emancipation right out the window, but a desperate natalist state driven by a hysterical population might not care (especially if, for instance, tax-tweaks have been tried and found wanting.) The potential for civil disobedience would be high: what do you do with a women who's edging up on the 27th birthday and still hasn't given birth? Well, you could take her in and forcibly inseminate her, a sort of institutionalized laboratory rape, but then what if she goes out and gets an abortion (almost certainly illegal, in this environment?) Well, you send her back to the hospital, inseminate her again, and don't let her out until she's given birth.

Coercive child-bearing is obviously somewhat of a nightmare scenario, and I doubt it would work out too well in the long run. Any society that tried it might indeed boost their birth-rate, but at the sacrifice of their civil liberties (at least for half of the population.) The societies most likely to try something like this would, I think, be Islamic, if only because the legal status of women in those cultures is already analogous to that of my room-mate's pet caterpillar. I don't see this every becoming a serious policy option in the West.

A lot of smart people have warned about the following scenario, which is where we end up if present trends continue:

3) Triumph of the Traditionalists: All around the world, there are reactionary religious groups that go to great pains to isolate themselves from mainstream society. Many of these subcultures maintain birthrates significantly higher than the mainstream average. Given time (and we're talking centuries here) these groups will have outbred the rest of the population, simply because they had lots of babies and no one else much bothered with kids (careers, toys, and nice vacations being preferable.) This could well be a Dark Ages scenario, not because religious people are inherently stupid, but because the religious memeplexes embraced by these subcultures are so uncompromising that they refuse to allow new or conflicting memes inside. Thus, a wholesale rejection of science, and thus an end to technological change.

That's a scary scenario, but luckily it relies on present trends continuing indefinitely. Luckily, this is unlikely.

The next scenario I stole from Brave New World:

4) Baby Factories: This comes in two flavors, mild (supplemental) and extra-strength (total replacement.) The basic idea is that a state might decide that, as it's citizens aren't bothering to replenish themselves, it'll do it for them. Embryos are grown in machines that mimic the function of the womb, and the resulting children are raised in institutions that are essentially boarding schools on steroids. In the mild version, the state simply takes note of how many people are born in any given year, and orders a number of babies made to bring the birth-rate up to replacement. In the extra-strength version, no one bothers to have kids the old-fashioned way; everyone comes from a bottle. This scenario is thus a logical endpoint of the growing disconnect between sex and reproduction.

This option suffers from a big instinctive ick factor, but there are actually a number of advantages. Since the womb environment is totally controlled, health risks to infants are cut down to an absolute minimum. A certain degree of genetic engineering is likely to make the adult population healthier, by eliminating birth defects and congenital diseases, and ensuring all children have useful traits such as high IQ, emotional stability, verbal agility, etc.

Most of the disadvantages from this scenario grow out of the likelihood of state control. Governments are notoriously poor at long-range forecasting; letting committees determine which genes are expressed in the next generation could be disastrous. I can't see such an activity being undertaken by corporations (absent some form of slavery or indentured servitude, there's no potential for profit) nor by private individuals (the undertaking would be simply too massive.) A collection of private non-profits would be a possible alternative candidate, but their collective size, in terms of manpower and funding, would have to be unprecedented. It's possible the cons and the ick factor will combine to prevent baby factories from ever being used; if they are eventually built, whether the cons outweigh the pros is something reasonable people can disagree on.

The final scenario is the one I personally like the most, but which will probably seem like pure sci-fi fantasy to anyone who isn't always a singulatarian:

5) Uploading: The history of our species has been one largely defined by the synergies and conflicts between the genetic replicators we share with every other living thing, and the memetic replicators that are unique to us. At present memes have the upper hand: they replicate themselves faster, evolve faster, and as a result have largely outsmarted genes. In many species (our own, as well as the hundreds of domesticated plants and animals) genes dance to a tune played by memes.

This is something that could change within a generation. Computers increase exponentially in power, carrying a number of technologies (gene sequencing, brain scanning) and sciences (biotech, cognitive science, neuroscience) along with it. Within 25 years it could well be possible for a person's mind to be extracted from their brain and instantiated in a computer. If this should happen, genes will no longer be of any importance to humans or to human civilization, save as a sort of species memory. Reproduction will be accomplished either by direct copying, or by design of new personalities; reproducing bodies via genetic technology will be irrelevant. Essentially, humans will become wholly memetic creatures; memes and genes will become utterly decoupled.

Of course, it's debatable whether the creatures on the far side of this development would be human in any recognizable sense. What isn't deniable is that the uploading scenario would render declining birthrates a moot point.
These various scenarios could be seen as a chronological progression. Sometime in the next decade, people start to panic about declining birthrates, and governments start to tweak the tax code. When this proves insufficiently effective, coercive childbearing is introduced in some states, which gives way to baby-making; other states might bypass the coercion stage altogether, and go straight to the factories. Meanwhile, there would be states controlled by reactionary religious movements that simply block out the outside world, encouraging high birthrates through adherence to traditional, agrarian ways of life. These states or regions would be economically moribund and largely ignored by the outside world, whose technology is racing ahead, eventually making possible mind-uploading. Once that option becomes available, modernists around the world excercise it and leave the human condition behind forever. In the long run, the traditionalists inherit the Earth, making up the entirety of the human population; but the modernists, having left their humanity behind, inherit the universe.
An important final point is that, in all of these scenarios, I'm assuming the survival of the human species (or at least, of civilization.) It's entirely possible that the issue of declining birthrates will be mooted by the growing extinctionist movement, as I've discussed in previous posts .

Friday, July 21, 2006

Fuji Kicks My Ass

Read all about it at my other blog, 一+白=百.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Hey Gormless!

I think your comments might be busted. I keep trying to leaves pearls of wisdom beneath your posts, and it keeps telling me that they're being held for approval (and then never showing up) ... unless maybe I've been offending you somehow?

Genes, Memes, and the Population Problem

People are starting to sit up and take notice of declining birth-rates in a big way. On the left, the main worry seems to be that less people means less workers means less tax money to fritter away on welfare projects. On the right, people are more concerned with Western cultures being crowded out by third world barbarians whose birth-rates are still well above the replacement level (though to be fair, their's are declining to.) Both of these are valid worries, but they're not really something I'm concerned about with this post. I'm more interested in the underlying dynamics, and the possible outcomes.

The main explanation for the decline seems to be a mixture of the economic, the technological, and the social.

The economic argument blames the fact that kids are a lot of cost and not a lot of monetary benefit, in stark contrast to agrarian societies, where kids were a useful source of cheap labor on the farm. This makes a certain level of sense, but then how to account for the fact that high birthrates persisted well into the industrial revolution? Granted that many lower-class families sent their kids to work in the factories, but this practice was abolished (at least in the West) around the turn of the last century, and birthrates stayed high until relatively recently.

The technological argument is basically the birth control argument: in the age of the Pill, people don't hafta have kids unless they wanna. Once again, this is part of the story, but it can't be everything: infanticide was an easily available - and widely used - practice throughout much of history, and even beyond that women since time immemorial have known of plenty of ways (herbal remedies, various excercises) that could be used to abort an unwanted child, or at least raise the probability of miscarriage. They could and did do this, in order to prevent children being born out of wedlock or into families too poor to support another hungry mouth (even on the farm, after all, kids aren't much good until they're three or four, and in lean years that short time can make a big difference.)

The social argument comes down to the emancipation of women. In almost every previous society, the primary role of women - due to unavoidable biological realities - was reproduction. Now that women have stormed the bastions of almost every male sanctum, they're too busy with careers to bother with kids. Despite the dirty looks I get in public when I say such things (at least from women) this is, I think, the hardest to refute. Still, though, one has to ask the question of why, exactly, women decided that now was the time to climb the corporate ladder? The usual explanation is that in previous societies the 'patriarchy' kept women down, but while there's plenty of evidence for patriarchy, there isn't so much evidence that previous generations of women were all that interested in doing guy stuff.

Now, it's obvious that none of these three theories are mutually exclusive, and may well be mutually reinforcing. Chemical birth control and safe abortions are undoubtedly new; modern economies certainly do inhibit child-rearing, to the extent that they make kids massively expensive. The former trend makes it easier for women to put off kids indefinately, while the latter discourages having kids at all. Add in a healthy dollop of ideological feminism (but once again, Why did that ideology thrive in the modern environment?) and you'd seem to have a complete explanation.

I used to be more or less satisfied with that smorgasbord, at least, until I came upon a slightly different explanation in Susan Blackmore's fascinating The Meme Machine. For anyone unacquainted with memetics (and I'll assume that's almost everyone, despite 'meme' having become one of the internet's favorite buzzwords), here's a crash course. It's the theory that culture can be profitably viewed from a Darwinian standpoint, but treating it in a very similar fashion to biology: only instead of genes built of nucleic acid, its memes, built out of synapses. The environment memes replicate in is the human brain; the method they use to replicate themselves is imitation. Every time someone imitates someone else, whether by copying someone's haircut, by humming a tune, or by repeating an opinion or a piece of news, they're spreading a meme. This illustrates one of the primary differences between memes and genes: whereas genes are restricted to vertical transmission (parent to child) memes can also use horizontal transmission, ie transmission between unrelated individuals.

Of course, throughout the vast majority of human history this horizontal transmission didn't actually make much difference. That's not to say it didn't give us a huge competitive advantage over other animals: by enabling technology, and rapid behavioural adaptations - in essence a form of evolution that operates orders of magnitude faster than sexual reproduction, the previous evolutionary record-setter - it made us the most versatile species the world has ever seen. What I mean by 'not making much difference' is that, since humans tended to live in small homogeneous groups, they tended to get the vast majority of their memes from their parents. There was limited memetic transmission within the tribe (though very little as members of the tribe would have virtually identical memeplexes), and probably a tiny trickle between (for instance, a hunter seeing a slightly better-made bow, or a gatherer cottoning on to the idea of hitching her baby up in a harness so her hands stayed free for more gathering) but for the most part memes followed exactly the same vector as genes. Their interests were thus almost (though not quite) perfectly aligned.

Modern societies, of course, are quite different. We have books, newspapers, radio, television, and the internet. The majority of the species now lives in vast metropolises, which in turn participate in a globally linked economy consisting of literally billions of people. We're in constant contact with huge groups of people, spending large amounts of time talking, reading, writing and (for some, and more every day) blogging. If a meme wants to spread in this environment, it'll do a lot better if it's geared for horizontal transmission.

One of the predictions of memetics is that the interests of memes and genes will diverge more or less proportionately to the number of horizontal vectors available to the memes. Put another way, people who read a lot have less babies. After all, spreading memes takes time and energy. Child-rearing uses both intensively. From a meme's point of view, any time spent raising a child - even if you spend part of that time passing said meme onto the child - is wasted time. You could, after all, be out there with an active social life, talking to lots of people, and spreading that meme to a lot more than just one tiny little brain. Logically, in such a world, memes that discourage child-rearing (at the expense of meme-spreading) will tend to prosper, as carriers of those memes will have more time and energy to spread them. The logical result of this is a world full of people who don't have kids (or if they do, have the bare minimum: after all, if you do have children, it makes good memetic sense to only have one, as you can maximize the resources expended on the child and thus best prepare them for a life spreading lots and lots of memes.)

If you look at the world, one of the interesting things you notice is that societies really do seem to see their birthrates fall more or less in proportion to how connected they are. The more satellite TVs, computers, and books, the less babies. You also notice that some societies seem to sense this, instinctively, and try to stop it: look at the Taliban, banning every possible vector by which foreign memes might enter their society, or for that matter the recent identical actions of the Islamic Courts Union in Mogadishu. Iran and Saudi Arabia have both attempted similar measures, though with a great deal less success.

Now obviously this is one of those situations that can't last forever. If the birthrate crashes and stays low, eventually the population follows. A falling population is of no benefit to memes; like an epidemic that kills its hosts, being too virulent screws you over in the long run. It's likely that the memeplexes that survive and thrive in the twenty-first century and beyond will be the ones that consciously ensure a high, or at least replacement-level, birth-rate. I'll discuss what some of those might be in the next post.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

The Philosophy Test

Never read a word he wrote (I think) but apparently my personal philosophy matches up pretty well with John Stuart Mill. Which don't sound half bad, what?

Here are the full results:

1. John Stuart Mill (100%) Click here for info
2. Kant (87%) Click here for info
3. Jean-Paul Sartre (86%) Click here for info
4. Ayn Rand (85%) Click here for info
5. Epicureans (80%) Click here for info
6. Jeremy Bentham (78%) Click here for info
7. Prescriptivism (77%) Click here for info
8. Aquinas (73%) Click here for info
9. Aristotle (67%) Click here for info
10. Spinoza (59%) Click here for info
11. Ockham (48%) Click here for info
12. Nel Noddings (40%) Click here for info
13. Thomas Hobbes (36%) Click here for info
14. Stoics (34%) Click here for info
15. Nietzsche (33%) Click here for info
16. St. Augustine (31%) Click here for info
17. Cynics (30%) Click here for info
18. Plato (24%) Click here for info
19. David Hume (16%) Click here for info

And here's the test (found by way of Gormless Norman, you can see his results here.) I find it a little troubling that the test says I agree more with Sartre (ick) than Ayn Rand. And kind of weird that Nietzsche is waaaay down near the bottom, at 33%, despite having read a lot of his stuff when I was younger ... easily more than any other philosopher.

The Men of the North

Baron Bodissey at Gates of Vienna writes an interesting article putting American culture in perspective with its Celtic, Germanic, and Nordic roots. Well worth the read.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Sustainability and the Value of Human Life

A couple of discussions at the Speculist over the Friendliness problem in AI (basically, how do we ensure that superintelligent AIs don't squish us like bugs as soon as they develop) got me thinking, somewhat tangentially, about an interesting question: the value of a human life. What is that value? And why do assign that value, instead of some other value? Is the value fixed, or variable?

Now, the obvious answer is that 'human life is priceless', and though this is an admirable thought it fails a number of tests in the real world. Societies regularly make tradeoffs between economic efficiency and human lives: sure, reducing the concentration of pollutants in the air might save the one-in-one-hundred-thousand cancer deaths it causes, but the billions of dollars it costs to implement the necessary regulations simply isn't worth it.

Consider human beings as an economic resource. There's a certain supply of people (the population) and a certain demand for them (the unemployment rate in the economy.) Now, for most goods, if you hold demand constant, and increase supply, the value of the good decreases. Thus you'd expect that in a society whose population has increased enourmessly, you'd see the value of human life plunge.

Oddly this hasn't happened, at least in developed nations. Despite the population increasing by probably an order of magnitude over the past thousand years, the value of human life has increased still more. Back in the dark ages, life was cheap. Now it's more precious than ever.

I'd suggest the logical reason for this would be that demand hasn't remained constant; rather, it's growth has outstripped the growth in supply. As the economy increases in size and complexity, the contribution of each worker (more productive than his ancestors could ever have been) is more valuable, even though that worker consitutes a smaller overall percentage of the economy and the population.

I had an interesting discussion with a colleague today during which this came up. He brought up the sustainability question (you know, "Is all this economic growth really sustainable?") which immediately made another connection for me. The sustainability argument rests on the idea, more or less in the face of the evidence, that the productivity of a human being is more or less fixed. One more human in the population is just another mouth to feed, sucking up resources and producing little of value. If the premises of 'sustainability' were correct, then the economy wouldn't have grown at all in the past several hundred years and (assuming similar population growth) we'd all be much, more poorer than a Dark Ages peasant. The value of a human life would likely have declined over the same period, down to virtually nil.

Given that the opposite has happened, I think it's safe to assume that the sustainability argument is bunk.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Thoughts on the Near-Future

You know when you leave one of those really long comments, and you're so proud of it that you can't bare to leave it buried at the bottom of a long thread on someone else's blog? So I'm reproducing one here, written in response to a post of Charles Stross' over at his Diary, in which he discusses various issues and problems that have cropped up in his latest project, a near-future scifi thriller.

So, the comment:

On a slightly more blue-sky basis, consider the possible fallout of RepRaps. The project is slated for completion by the end of the decade, and given the nature of a self-replicating manufacturing technology, it should spread - and evolve - quite rapidly. After all, the Net achieved massive penetration in something like 1/4 the time television took; it doesn't take a lot of imagination to see desktop manufacturing (even the crude non-nanotech kind) spreading in 1/4 the the time it took the Net to spread, ie, half of all households have one within two or three years.

A lot of people have pointed out that the prevailing zeitgeist, at least amongst the twenty-something professional set, is likely to be one of general exasperation. I can sympathize; I'm feeling that right now, to a certain degree. I'm a 25 year old university grad, B.Sc. Physics, currently teaching English in Japan because it was a better option than doing crappy temp-work, which was all I could find in Toronto.

But, let's say we've got a situation where home-ownership and children are both simply too expensive; where politics is increasingly divorced from reality due to its domination by boomers, few of whom understand the 21st century, to say nothing of the destructive effect of a half-century of politicians doing everything in their power to dismantle real democracy; where the official economy is ever-more restrictive and predatory; where the legitimate options of people within the System are increasingly unpalatable.

We're talking about probably the best-educated, most technology-empowered generation in history here. If the system as currently constituted doesn't appeal, well, why stay in the system? You've got your computers, the use of which is second nature; just a few years ago, you got your reprap (or fab or whatever you want to call it). Between global comms and desktop manufacturing, the potential is there to just say, screw it, let's build a different system.

I call that one the Hippy Option. Another option is simple migration: let's say John, who went deep into debt to study computer science, sees his job outsourced to India. Now his only options in his home country consist of low-paid temp work, doing clerical stuff in the office, or various service jobs; all of them dull, none secure, and all ensuring he'll spend the rest of his natural life paying for the education that was supposed to guarantee future prosperity (and never mind owning a home or having kids.) Then John thinks, now wait a minute, what's more important to me? Getting paid in British pounds? Or doing work I enjoy and getting a decent standard of living besides? Put that way the choice is obvious; John scrapes together the cash for a one-way to India, gets a job as a programmer at 1/20 the salary he earned back home, and starts to make a new life for himself which is much more comfortable than the one he left behind (as that 1/20 stretches a hell of a lot further than the equivalent in Britian.)

As for the political zeitgeist, well, I'd see too biggies, both related to population. First, the pension/healthcare crisis, in which an aging and sickening population acts as a great sucking maw for tax dollars (a situation exacerbated by a combination of dropouts and expatriates, both groups leaving the whole thing behind like rats fleeing a sinking ship). Second, the birthrate crash. I can see things getting a lot more draconian in order to deal with the two of them. Some possibilities:
- making passports much more difficult to get
- predatory taxation to prevent capital flight
- protectionist trade regimes, in order to guard against globalization
- 'three-child' policies, in which women are legally required to reproduce

Not that any of these would be exactly helpful, but then hysteria has a tendency to be counterproductive.

Despite all this I'm an optimist. As a previous poster said, every generation has faced big problems, usually caused by the stupidity, greed, selfishness, and/or lack of foresight of their parents. As a general rule we solve them, more-or-less, (and in the process manage to foul things up for our own kids.) Somehow everything manages to shamble along, the standard-of-living continues its upward trend, technological progress races forward, and life goes on.

Bioterror Watch - Security and Hobbyists

Over at MIT's excellent Technology Review site, there's an interview with Drew Endy, an MIT biotech engineer who recently helped organize the Synthetic Biology 2.0 conference, during which an entire day was devoted to discussing security concerns, ie how to keep terrorists from getting their hands on the DNA for a microbial weapon. The result was the Synthetic Biology/SB2 Declaration, in which

The researchers pledged, for example, to develop better software to detect when orders for dangerous DNA sequences have been placed with DNA synthesis companies, and they recommended that scientists work only with companies who use such software.

Which is an excellent idea. Given the potential of biological warfare, it only makes sense that there should be some stringent security being used at the companies involved in synthesizing DNA. Not all do, at the moment:

Most of the recommendations in the declaration revolve around using software to detect when a dangerous order has been made. This isn't as easy as you might think: people don't usually request whole genomes, just small fragments. Given as there's a lot of overlap between the genomes of harmless symbiotes and dangerous pathogens, there are problems with this approach:

DE: One limitation is the high false positive rate. If you're comparing the requested sequence against a set of sequences that includes the entire genome of a pathogenic bacterium, many of those genes look like genes of E. coli [bacteria commonly used in research]. Sorting out what's actually versus apparently dangerous is slow and expensive. It often requires a PhD to manually make the decision. A second limitation is the fact that it's naive to ask a computer program looking at DNA sequences to infer the intent of the designer of the DNA sequence. Instead, you want the software nested in a decision-making process. Who is ordering the DNA and where is it being shipped? As important, by asking these questions it helps to ensure that the people designing the DNA and their local community are paying attention to issues of biological safety and security.

And that comment about paying as much attention to who's doing the ordering as is paid to what is ordered leads to my only really problem with the plan as presently constituted (or at least, as laid out by Dr. Endy.) Earlier in the interview, he has this to say:

DE: First, we want to make sure that the use of DNA synthesis technology is subject to the same community and institutional oversight mechanisms that have been used successfully with recombinant DNA work for the past 30 years. The main challenge here is that DNA synthesis technology is becoming easy to access anonymously via the Internet. Thus, we are asking DNA synthesis companies to work together to develop an open framework that can be used to ensure that all synthesis orders are placed by qualified individuals who have proper authority for handling the requested DNA.

Sounds pretty innocent, right? Make sure all the people ordering genetic material are licensed, authorized professionals. How better to make sure no dirty terrorists get their hands on it? Well, there's just one problem with that suggestion: it would, I think, gut the embryonic hobbyist community. This short piece at Wired gives a glance at where things are now:

Eugene Thacker is a professor of literature, culture and communications at Georgia Tech and a member of the Biotech Hobbyist collective. Just as the computer hobbyists sought unconventional applications for computer circuitry, the new collective is looking for "non-prescribed uses" of biotechnology, Thacker said.

The group has published a set of informal DIY articles, mimicking the form of the newsletters and magazines of the computer hobbyists -- many of which are archived online. Thacker walks readers through the steps of performing a basic computation using a DNA "computer" in his article "Personal Biocomputing" (PDF). The tools for the project include a $100 high school-science education kit and some used lab equipment.

Other how-to articles guide readers through cultivating skin cells and "Tree Cloning" -- making uniform copies of plant tissue.

As the piece at Wired makes clear, there's a strong parallel with the early computer hobbyists, guys that did a lot to advance computing technology for nothing more than the simple joy of working with new technology. Let's not forget that the giants of the modern IT industry (people with names like Gates and Jobs) came out of these communities.

If companies did start issuing blanket refusals to synthesize DNA for non-accredited hobbyists, it would crush these communities. There's precedent: once again from the Wired article, the case of Steve Kurtz:

All the members of the collective are familiar with the case of Steve Kurtz, a professor and artist who has had to defend himself against accusations of "bio-terrorism" after local police happened upon his amateur home lab in May 2004.

He says his case has had a moderate "chilling effect."

"Amateurs need experts," Kurtz said. "We come to them with ideas and ask them for help. Scientists are (now) a lot more hesitant to get involved."

Kurtz adds that Tepnel, the company selling a biokit used to conduct a homebrew test for genetically modified organisms designed by Critical Art Ensemble, now refuses to sell to the general public.

As much as the prospect of a synthetic plague causing a dieback worries me, I also wouldn't want to severely jeopardize economic and technological growth by crushing hobbyist movements; these have a tendency to be massive sources of innovation, especially in fields where the barriers to entry - at least in terms of capital - are low and falling.

Whether or not companies do adopt a policy of only selling to in-group members (ie universities and corporations), it can only ever be a stopgap. At some point - and probably sooner than later - it will become possible for people to synthesize their own DNA, at which time any security procedures used by the synthesis companies would be moot.

That's why I'd forget all about persecuting hobbyists, and instead look for network solutions. In the long run, the only real way to deal with bioterror is a sort of technological immune system. The first line of defense would be vigilance: keeping an eye out for potential pandemics (as is currently being done with avian influenza) and attempting to synthesize effective countermeasures, antibiotic or antiviral as the case may be, beforehand. The second is to respond fast when there is an outbreak, as happened with SARS: rapid quarantining, rapid genetic sequencing of the pathogen, and rapid development of a counteragent. At the moment such a network is already developing, consisting primarily of a partnership between corporations and various national and international government organizations (this is one of the very few cases where I'm all for government involvement.) However, I'm of the opinion that a fully mature bioterror defense network would almost have to include hobbyists. What they lack in resources, they'd make up for in numbers. A volunteer organization of biotech hobbyists would be invaluable for detecting potential threats, developing vaccines on short notice, and most anything else that required a distributed effort. Shutting such organizations down before they even get a chance to get strikes me as a hysterical, counterproductive move.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Cosmic Bitchslap

This is freakin' scary: Japanese CGI (embedded YouTube) showing what would happen if a giant meteorite smacked the planet upside the head. Admittedly, by giant, we're talking significantly bigger than a dinosaur killer, but still, it's worth remembering that weaponized germs aren't the only existential risk to human life.

Repurposing Life

A couple of very interesting articles - one very in-depth report at Wired, and a fluffier piece at MSNBC - deal with the fascinating subject of programmable biology. For all that I bang on sometimes about the dangers of superplagues unleashed by crazed extinctionists, it's only fair that I also take a look at some of the more positive developments.

First, the MSNBC article, Making Factories and Computers With DNA. According to the article (and I've seen referrences to this kind of work before) DNA is being exploited by many researchers, not for it's information-carrying and processing capability, but for it's structural talent. Essentially, DNA loves to hook up with DNA, and if you arrange the base-pairs just right - something that's getting cheaper to do all the time - you can get it to self-assemble into complex three dimensional mechanical structures. On it's own this isn't all that useful, as DNA is kind of floppy: you can make something that looks like a gear, but when you try to use it like one it'll disappoint pretty quick. But you can use it as what amounts to a scaffold. The result: smaller, faster electronics, and an on-ramp to molecular nanotechnology.

The Wired, Life, Reinvented, looks at a completely different aspect of programmable biology. Rather than using DNA as a simple construction platform, programmable biology aims to create wholly synthetic life-forms, starting with a from-the-ground-up rewriting of the genetic code.

Part of this involves making 'biobricks', a standardized set of genetic components that would perform functions analogous to logic gates. This would radically simplify biological engineering, bringing it into the same ballpark as writing computer code.

Another trick they're looking at is reassigning various codons (three-nucleotide sequences) in order to widen the 'vocabulary' of life, allowing the inclusion of far more than the 20 amino acids that life has heretofore been limited to; this has the added benefit that such organisms would find everything else in the biosphere inedible, thus somewhat reducing the risk of an intentional pandemic.

The initial goal is to create industrial bacteria whose genomes have been stripped down to the raw essentials so as to make them much easier to program for various tasks, such as cleaning pollution or synthesizing everything from drugs to plastics. Further down the line, well, imagine planting a seed and digging up a car a year later.

Faster, Please

Here's a collection of links to things I've added to my Christmas wish-list (though even with the galloping pace of the modern world, it'll probably be a few years before any of those items will ever get ticked off.)

Check out this demo (embedded YouTube) of an operating system called BumpTop that incorporates a physics-engine to help you organize your desktop in a more intuitive way. I want one for my next computer.

Imagine being able to print a robot out onto flexonic paper. The robot folds itself up like magic origami, and then goes about it's business doing, well, whatever you'd like it to do.

I've already got some ink (and used to have an eyebrow piercing, until a regrettable incident at one of my schools in which a staff member surprised me while taking it out. Those little beads are devilishly hard to find....) But this is way, way cooler than any of that: a programmable tattoo, capable of changing shape, size, and color. And of course, animation.

And while we're on the body-modification trip: I remember back when I was a ten-year-old, infatuated with R. Talsorian's CyberPunk 2020, that I told my dad I wanted to be a cyborg. Well, it looks like that just got a little bit more plausible, as scientists have finally figured out how to attach prostheses directly to bone. Now all I need is a reflex boost, a skulljack, and eyes capable of seeing infrared, and we're in business.