Archive for January, 2000

From The Transhuman Planet

Monday, January 3rd, 2000

Jan 03, 2000

Technology will make human beings their own ancestors

We should start this with “As we stand at the threshold of a new millennium…”, but…

My father remembers walking two miles as a boy once a week to listen to the radio. And a few months ago, in a Calcutta operation theatre, I watched the inside of my mother’s lungs on a screen as the surgeon sent in a fibre optic cable tipped with a pin-sized camera to detect exactly where and how bad the damage was. So. As we stand at the threshold of a new millennium, it is imperative to recognise that mankind’s ability to absorb, use and adapt to technology is truly amazing. Only 35 years ago, IBM thought there was a global market for only five computers.

As we at Outlook researched the way our lives could change in the 21st century, time and again we felt disbelief: How will they ever manage to do that? Even if they did, what use would it be? We had to then remind ourselves that when Alexander Graham Bell tried to sell his struggling telephone company in the late 1800s to Western Union, its president William Orton retorted: “What use could we make of an electrical toy?” And that, according to Sir Arthur C. Clarke, great scientific inventions are indistinguishable from magic.

Faust’s Flight

In an 1884 letter, Thomas Carlyle narrates his first train journey in ‘apocalyptic’ terms. “The whirl through the confused darkness, on those steam wings, was one of the strangest I have ever experienced-hissing and dashing on, one knew not whither…snorting, roaring, we flew: likest thing to Faust’s flight on the Devil’s mantle; or as if some huge night-bird…was sweeping through unknown space with you…Wretched feelings of all sorts were holding carnival within me.”

What would Carlyle have felt, sitting in a magnetic-levitation train of the 21st century, floating four inches above ground and moving at 500 km-an-hour? These trains are coming soon. Scientists only have to crack one problem: currently, the liquid helium that powers the levitating magnets is too bloody expensive.

Will we too react a bit like Carlyle, sitting in “smart cars” zooming down “smart highways”, along which they’re tracked and guided through sensors implanted in by the roads? These cars will be able to see one another, maintain distance and sense aberrations to preempt accidents. Cities like Los Angeles and Berlin are developing virtual 3-D models of themselves, where every single structural detail is depicted within inches of accuracy. The smart car will access these maps to navigate. You get in, tell it where to go, and it gets you there, downloading directions and traffic information all the way.

Science fiction? Today, in some Jaguar models, you can control the audio system, air-conditioning and more by talking to the car. US-based Visteon is already offering global positioning systems which instructs cars turn-by-turn. If you miss a turn, it calculates a revised route and advises you on upcoming detours!


Tomorrow’s smart homes will wake you up with your favourite music. The nightlamp will automatically switch off and blinds will be drawn to let in the sun. Next, slip into the bathtub, already filled with water warmed to your preferred degree. By the time you’re through, your toast, juice and coffee will be ready.

As you enjoy your breakfast watching the news on a large wall-screen, your computer will dictate your daily planner. The refrigerator’s contents checked and groceries ordered via e-mail. If you left the bath on or forgot to unplug some appliance, the smart home will do the needful. If a device isn’t working, it will diagnose the fault and alert a servicing technician. You will be able to instruct your home over your mobile phone to cook some more food if you’re expecting guests. The house that Bill Gates has built does a few of these things already. Just a matter of time before “home computer” gets a new meaning for you too?

Drug Dreams

If Volvo trucks currently plying in India can connect to headquarters in Sweden and get engine problems corrected over the modem automatically, don’t you find it strange that if your pacemaker or artificial heart misbehaves, you have to physically meet the doctor, by which time it may be too late?

The day may not be very far when your pacemaker, the moment it spots a malfunction, dials up from the nearest phone available and sends a message to the closest hospital. The next step could be that our clothes incorporate tiny devices that monitor various life signs and inform about aberrations.

Telecom is also making surgeries safer. Today, a surgeon fitted with a camera on the forehead and microphone in the ear allows other surgeons thousands of miles away to stand “inside him” to experience new surgical techniques. This technology is equally applicable to flying a plane or dousing an oil fire or any other hands-on activity that requires specialised expertise.

We will also increasingly see silicon implants substituting for damaged neurons in our brains. Connecting silicon feeds to nerves does not seem to be a problem. Cochlear implants inside the ear are already widely used to cure deafness. Electronic eyes, which provide the sightless some vision, will be next.

And yes, the World Impotence Association has announced that it will be possible within 25 years to grow artificial penises and vaginas that can be implanted as functioning organs in humans. In the near future, scientists will be able to construct genitalia by culturing and growing human cells in appropriately shaped moulds. That should be a load off everyone’s mind.

How far to go?

But perhaps the most radical way healthcare and medicine will change in the near future is through genetic research. The DNA that stuffs our chromosomes stores all information necessary for life-from shape of nose to whether you will one day contract Alzheimer’s disease. The complete genetic text of a human contains three billion letters of DNA. Researchers across the planet are competing and cooperating to decipher that text.

Scientists’ hopes that they will be able to identify the exact location and biochemical sequence of each human gene by 2005 may be optimistic, but one day they will. Already, genes for many hereditary diseases have been hunted down. An example of what could then be possible: doctors at the National Institute of Health in the US focused on ADA deficiency, in which children lack a specific gene, resulting in their immune systems degenerating to cause certain death. The doctors selected a virus which not only infects human cells but also copies a part of its own genetic code in that cell. They replaced that part of its genetic code with the missing gene, and injected the virus into an afflicted girl called Ashanthi De Silva. In time, the virus infected every cell in her body, downloading the critical gene every time. Ashanthi today is fully cured and lives a normal life. It’s certain that one day, we’ll cure every hereditary defect.

But are we tampering with Nature a bit too much? For, the final result of all this will be parents choosing what sort of child they want-what colour hair, sort of build, sort of brain. And in time, some crazy somewhere will try to create a master race.For the 20th century, the greatest science-ethics debate was on nuclear power. The 21st century ethical problems raised by genetic engineering will make that one look like tic-tac-toe.

Thinking Machines

Today, the heart of computer hardware is the transistor, whose size has dramatically shrunk over the last 40 years, but cannot be reduced any more. But computers of the future will use, not transistors, but sub-atomic particles like protons and electrons and even smaller ones. The effect will be, as BT’s research chief Peter Cochrane puts it, “the world’s entire computing power today in a jam jar of fluid”. In 10 years’ time, the first “quantum computer” may be ready, and in 20 years, it could be sitting on your desk.

Or be in your pocket. Andrew Lippman, co-founder and associate director of the MIT Media Lab, envisages a future when computer screens “will be like a handkerchief which can be folded and kept in your pocket, or hung in your house as wallpaper. You could even have things like electronic paper which could be reused for writing, or viewing television.”

Electronic paper will be based on a new display technology called gyricon invented by Xerox. The gyricon sheet is a thin layer of transparent plastic in which millions of beads are randomly dispersed. When a voltage is applied to the surface, the beads form text and pictures. When you want to read a new page, change the voltage, and the text and pictures change!

Meanwhile, you’ll have with you at all times a tiny chip carrying all the information you need to get by-passport, credit card, insurance policy, chequebook, none of which you will need to carry physically and separately. Anywhere in the world, in airports and banks and police departments, you will be recognised from the unique identity of the chip. The chip will help you access your home and car and calculate the exact fare and debit it from your bank account when you board an intelligent train or plane.

In time that chip will be implanted in your skin. Sounds scary? South Korean giant Samsung has recently launched a device called “Smart Media”, a flash memory chip, just 0.76 mm thick and the size of your mosquito-repellent mat, which will control the telephone, computer, TV, e-mails, and visual or audio signals. Carry any kind of data in the card and use it in any machine.

In time, we will wear our computers. MIT Media Lab is working on an outfit where the computer is a small device on your belt. You turn the ring on your finger and change the computer application. The computer screen is your eyeglasses, which turn slightly opaque when the monitor comes up. But if you can have a screen in your eyeglasses, why not in the eye itself? Direct a beam of photons to your retina, and your visual cortex becomes the screen!

Lastly, the power source for the devices we wear. Sitting still, we radiate approximately 60W of power from our torso and head. When animated, this can exceed 100W. We’ll be our own power stations, supplying the energy needed to run these smart devices without worrying about electricity bills.

Learning Curve

All these advances will have profound effects on education. Says Kiran Karnik, MD, Discovery, who, in the ‘80s, set up site, the world’s first satellite-driven education project: “There’ll be more learning through machines. To an extent, it’s already happening. We’ll eventually see information being directly downloaded into the brain. Physiology and neurology are already interfacing with computers, and this will soon become possible.”

This, says Karnik, will effect a shift in how we view learning. Today, most of learning consists of accumulating information, using the brain as a memory bank, rather than for analysis and creativity. But tomorrow, when the same information can be downloaded into a brain, learning will need to be more a process of placing into context what you have in mind. Since everybody will be able to accumulate the same amount of knowledge, the creative side will be more valued. “The challenge for the future will be,” says Karnik, “how do you teach creativity?”

Working Solution

In industries like IT, the concept of the “virtual office” is old. No one gives a damn if you work from home or sitting on Mount Kilimanjaro, as long as you’re connected to the office computer.

Surely, one-on-one meetings are better than bursts of e-mail? Welcome to “telecubicles”. Suppose you had a pair of glasses which would receive 3-D images from your colleague’s cabin in the Amsterdam office? That is, for all practical purposes, as long as you have the glasses on, you are sitting in his cabin. Your colleague too has his “telecubicle” glasses on, so as far as he is concerned also, you are in his cabin. Both of you can now walk over to a third executive’s cabin in Singapore, as long as all three have the glasses on. One of the key technical problems here is how to keep the glasses transparent, since much of the benefits of a face-to-face meeting will be lost if colleagues see each other wearing oversized opaque goggles.
They’re working on it.

A Jigsaw of beads

Manufactured products are made of atoms. The properties of these products depend upon how these atoms are arranged. If we rearrange the atoms in coal, we get diamond. Suppose we could do that actually, at will?

Nanotechnology aims at getting essentially every atom in the right place, make almost any structure consistent with the laws of chemistry that can be specified in atomic detail, and, if possible, have these atomic structures replicate themselves. To give a crude example, nanotechnology could turn a bicycle into a table, table into cooking oven, and cooking oven back into bicycle!

Can this be possible? Nobel laureate Richard Feynman once said: “The principles of physics, as far as I can see, don’t speak against the possibility of manouvering things atom by atom.” Can there be anything left to achieve after nanotechnology?

The last Frontier

What will be left is the most complex organism in the universe. It weighs about a kg, is around 10 cm in diameter, is squishy and resides between your ears. The Neanderthal Man had a brain 15 per cent bigger but far less efficient. Every second, it processes 2 gigabytes of data through the eyes and another 20 megabytes through the ears, skin, tongue and nose. Besides, it has something called “consciousness”. Cochrane of BT defines the C-word as “a combination of sensory experience, memory and an overlay of search, find and correlate software, an ability to take a word or concept, and retrieve all related memories, pull together the core features, and then deliver them appropriately. Quite a trick”.

That’s the good news. The bad news: brains can’t get any bigger (read better). The key reason being that childbirth, already so painful for the mother, would get worse. The vagina has not been able to keep up with the growth of our brain, and the cranium. If our brains got bigger, every childbirth would kill the mother. And, there is of course this other problem. If our heads did get much bigger, we’d hardly be able to walk straight.

Like all biological systems, our brains seem to have hit a point where physical constraints limit evolution. Or, as biologist Richard Dawkins believes, technology itself helps evolution, changing our neural configurations to adapt and seek newer futures. The evolution of the spider’s web also marks the evolution of the spider as a species. Both evolutionary moves feed on each other. Suppose human evolution now continues not through DNA-based genes but through memes, roughly equivalent to ideas that spread like viruses? Meme replaces gene in the transhuman world and unlike its counterpart is not recorded in DNA but in say a CD-ROM or a book? Could our brain then transcend its physical limits, find ways to grow through creations outside it, by reconfiguring itself to beat the size guillotine?

If not, how long will it be before we start augmenting our “wetware” with silicon? We allow silicone in our breasts, how long before we permit silicon in our brains? Evolution till now has been carbon-based. Is the next step a carbon-silicon mix?
The question that springs to mind immediately is: what sort of creatures would we be then? The scientist’s answer is: we use artificial limbs without philosophical debate, pacemakers and artificial hearts inside our bodies, so what’s the big deal?
All that can be said with certainty about the 21st century is that our children will have to solve moral riddles that will be many times more complex than any we have had to grapple with.
The 21st century will redefine the concept of being human.

The Immortality Code

Monday, January 3rd, 2000

The science of cryonics claims that if you can freeze a dead man at ultra-low temperatures quickly, before the essential brain structures have degenerated, it will one day be possible to bring him back to life.

“Being born is not a crime, so why must it carry a death sentence?”

– Robert Ettinger, head of Cryonics Institute, a US-based organisation which promises to freeze your corpse and bring it back to life when the right technology to do that is available. (There’s a membership fee discounton offer till March 2000.)

From Ashwatthama in the Mahabharata to Highlander: The Raven (Tuesday nights on axn), we humans have always dreamt, worried and fussed about life without end.

To many, it’s a terrifying prospect; to others, a liberating one. And to scientists, it’s a grandly juicy problem to crack.

Here’s the state of play. The science of cryonics claims that if you can freeze a dead man at ultra-low temperatures quickly, before the essential brain structures have degenerated, it will one day be possible to bring him back to life. The body is kept suspended at liquid nitrogen temperatures, a point where molecular physical decay completely stops. The medical procedures to bring the person back to continue with his life have still to be developed. But, till date, whole insects, certain eels, many types of human tissue including brain tissue and a few small mammalian organs, have been frozen and revived. Indeed, hundreds of human embryos have been frozen and revived.

“Granted, reviving a mature adult is different from reviving an embryo,” says the institute. “But not in principle. Progress is taking place, freezing methods are improving and successes are accumulating. We have little reason to doubt that the technology of the near future will be equal to the task.” A cheaper option is “neuro-suspension”, where they freeze only your head, in the hope that the rest of you can be cloned and attached to your noggin sometime in the future. This is cheaper, because a head takes up less space than the full body, so less liquid nitrogen, less power consumption etc. What cryonicists are banking on to be able to re-incarnate you is “nanotechnology”, a nascent science that aims to build molecule-sized robots that will repair virtually any damage to any physical object by manipulating individual atoms. These nano-robots will build your brain tissues and muscles back, and you’ll be towelled dry and let loose on the face of the earth again.

Will your life insurance company then want all its money back?

Jokes apart, however science-fictional all this sounds, it could happen. There are too many things around us today, the prospects of which we relegated to the realm of the impossible with a sneer even 10 years ago. Also, the only absolute truth about scientific research is that ethical, religious or philosophical resistance can slow it down but can never stop it. Once Pandora unlocks her box, it can’t ever be shut again. I may find the idea of coming back 50 years after death repugnant – eternal life, to me, promises only a terrible endless boredom, but the quest for knowledge is a self-fuelling process. The word “immortality” evokes two images instantly in my mind. One is the figure of Sisyphus, cursed by Zeus, king of gods, to push a boulder up a steep mountain, watch it roll down and then push it back up again, till the end of time. The other is the spectre of Ashwatthama, again cursed (this time by Krishna) traversing the earth in eternal leprous remorse. But my mental associations notwithstanding, the fact remains that the first human immortal could step back on to the street by 2040-2050. I may find some chance philosophical support for my views in medical terminology, where “immortalisation” means the process of cancerous growth of cells, but I cannot wish away the website where the Cryonics Institute, which offers the cheapest immortality schemes going, points out that “membership and suspension can cost you less than your monthly cable bill!”

And cryonics is not the only route to eternal life. It’s only a matter of time before humans are able to clone themselves.

So you could die, but as long as someone preserves a fingernail or a bit of your skin, those white-coated men in the labs will be able to build you back again from scratch. So no matter how many times you die, you can be back in action once more. Except that they’re building back only your genetic structure. You can be fully you again only when you also have your memories intact, for they inform your attitudes and behaviour; and memories are extragenetic. How do you do that?

Suppose somebody (most likely your parents) stuck a tiny video camera just between your eyes as soon as you were born, and it recorded everything that you saw and heard till the moment of your death. Suppose all that data could be stored. Suppose when they clone you from your toenail, they can also download all that data into your head? Would that clone then be really you? By 2025, the speculation goes, you will be able to store all that you ever do or experience on computers for less than $100!

But why, if your sentience can exist in digital form – an endless string of 1s and 0s – would you like to have your body back? Why do you need the backaches and running noses and sweaty armpits of a carbon-based biped? Will you then prefer to live on as just an electronic brain, able to, whenever you desire, re-experience the sensations of slurping the most luscious ice-cream you ever had, relive the best holiday you ever took, re-relish the best sex you ever had? Are we then looking at a thousand-year-away future when anyone who can afford it will choose to live an eternal electronic life and only the wretched impoverished will have to suffer their bodies?

Will these electronic brains be capable of poetry? Assured of immortality, will they even want to write a fairy tale, paint a sunset, work out the mathematics of infinity? Will they have free will? If they are incapable of forgetting, will they also be incapable of wonder? Will they still be prone to jealousy and if so, why? When they sleep, will they know they’re sleeping? Will they perchance dream?

And as prices keep falling due to competition and the inherent economics of silicon, one day, every human being will be able to afford to turn himself into electronic data. The numbers of homo sapiens – perhaps the only life form that ever lived in this vast universe which had a sense of humour and figured out the value of pi – will dwindle exponentially, till one day, the last man will press the last key ever to be smudged with a fingerprint and convert himself into a blizzard of bytes, leaving his body to putrefy next to the giant humming computers. But neither he nor any of his friends would ever experience the stench.

Will that be the end of the human race, or its transcendence?