Tag: "augmentation"

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Science Future: Aggrandize Aptitude

This time on Science Future: Various stepping-stones to human augmentation.

Science fiction inspires the world around us. It inspires us to create our future. So we look to the future of science to find our next fiction. We look to Science Future. The Science Future series presents the bleeding edge of scientific discovery from the viewpoint of the science fiction reader, discussing the influences science and science fiction have upon each other.

Aggrandize Aptitude

Last month we were treated to a story about human performance. EP318: The Prize Beyond Gold by Ian Creasey was about a human with incredible abilities surrounded by transhumans with mediocre abilities. It took place in a world where humans regularly modified their bodies beyond what we consider to be the human normal but focused on one human who hadn’t and might not and yet still had the chance to exceed all of them.

Yet the story was cheating in asense for the protagonist already had a capability that far exceeded that of the standard human template. So much so that he was under constant surveillance for the possibility of actual augmentation. The stealthiest augmentation for one competing in sports today is drugs. In the future, the definition of drugs might be expanded beyond simple chemical concoctions. Rohit Talwar, the founder of Fast Future Research, gave a talk at Intelligence Squared’s If conference about the possibility of digital drugs via direct manipulation of brain chemistry using transcranial magnetic stimulation. One could only assume this kind of manipulation would be extremely hard to detect. No chemical traces and nothing invasive or even ingested. Except that in The Prize our protagonist had his doppelgänger, which was an atomic scale simulation of himself. This copy could easily have been used as both a training and surveillance device.

It is hard to believe the precision needed to copy someone down to the atomic level could be easily done via external sensors and implants would obviously not be allowed for competitive reasons but they likely used a more advanced version of this system. Researchers led by the California Institute of Technology have created a series of microchips that can quickly and inexpensively assess immune function of a human from one single cell harvested from their body. With a device like that, occasionally sampling the body for a drop of blood and building a clone that could forecast the physical changes one might undergo after eating cake seems almost feasible.

The Gift focused more on the possibility of human enhancement. Changing a the body to give one abilities that they could never hope to achieve within a human genetic code. Two of the enhancements referenced were increasing intelligence and empathy. The brain is a complicated organ in charge of many things that we don’t understand and the idea of enhancing seems far off. Repairing it, less so. There is promising research in the field of cybernetics that helps repair brain damage. Created by Theodore Berger and his team at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering’s Department of Biomedical Engineering and researchers at Wake Forest University, a neural prosthesis is able to restore  a rat’s ability to form long-term memories after they had been pharmacologically blocked. This is the first step to augmenting something like intelligence and empathy.

But what if dramatic enhancement was not really what someone like Michito was looking for? Well a discovery by Columbia University Medical Center researchers may lead to a better understanding how to fundamentally change the human body in subtle ways. They have shown that not all traits passed on to offspring without the use of DNA but instead naturally occurring viral agents called viRNAs which modify the creature’s RNA. RNA acts like DNA’s messenger in the body, relaying the code. So if the RNA is modified, then the DNA of the being is effectively bypassed. This kinda of science could be harnessed to create a slightly faster person or creating large-scale immunity against difference diseases.

Obviously research into human augmentation continues, be through a biological, technological, or chemical means. Stories like The Prize Beyond Gold will continue to give us reasons to achieve new and different levels of augmentation. Afterall, most of us will never be Michito but we could possibly be better than him.

There are two ways of being happy: We must either diminish our wants or augment our means – either may do – the result is the same and it is for each man to decide for himself and to do that which happens to be easier.Benjamin Franklin

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Science Future: Harking Hugos

Science fiction inspires the world around us. It inspires our future. To discover these influences, we look to the future of science, to Science Future. The Science Future series presents the bleeding edge of scientific discovery and links it back to science fiction in order to discuss these influences and speculate on the future of science fiction.

Harking Hugos

Each year the Noble Prizes are given out to people who have achieved great things in their life. They is given out to people who have furthered the advancement of the fields of science and the humanities and represent great personal achievements for both the recipients and society. Like science, science fiction has its own award called the Hugo Awards, given yearly to the best science fiction stories. As regular listeners may know, Escape Pod has a tradition of presenting the short stories nominated for the Hugo Awards and keeping in theme with the celebration of the Hugo Awards, Science Future is going to present scientific breakthroughs that relate to the Hugo nominated short stories and novellas presented here on Escape Pod.

Artificial Intelligence is something science fiction has dreamed about since the first computer was built. The story Want of a Nail By Mary Robinette Kowal introduces us to an artificial intelligence that lives as a guardian of the memories of a human family traveling the stars. This artificial intelligence acts the family’s historian, both selecting and storing important events for the family to remember. Modern computers couldn’t hope to perform such a complex task, at least not without a major breakthrough, which it may have created at the University of Exeter. Researchers have created a processor which copies how the human brain processes information. The human brain doesn’t differentiate between processing and collecting information like current computer processors and but this new one  uses phase-changing materials that allows it to both process and store data at the same time.

It is not certain, however, that we’ll ever create a true artificial being but science fiction has presented us with other options for our electronic creations such as implanting them in their own bodies. In the story Plus or Minus By James Patrick Kelly deep space explorers have augmentations which allow them to communicate with simple thought alone. Today we are limited to using external devices such as cellphones to communicate with people beyond the range of our physical presence but the University of Michigan has taken steps to fix that with the BioBolt. The BioBolt is a minimally invasive brain implant which is placed on the skull and is connected to a small film of microcircuits that rests on the brain and listens to neurons. Since the entire device is under the skin with nothing sticking out, the chances of infection are greatly reduced. In order to communicate it uses the electrical field produced by skin to transmit to any other device touching the skin, creating a simple way for the brain to be listened to without wires sticking out of the skin.

An entirely new and wondrous place will open up to us the day we can think at each other and be heard. This world will be full of exciting possibilities like direct knowledge transference, language-less communication, and body hacking! Oh wait, we already have that last one. A joint effort by the University of Tokyo, Japan, and Sony Computer Science Laboratories have created the PossessedHand project which has produced a device which lets someone hijack another person’s hand movements. It does this by directly lightly shocking the muscles in the arm allowing people to program a sequence of specific finger movements. The device doesn’t work perfectly yet it does successfully control the fingers of another human being, which is hauntingly familiar to one of Hugo nominees, The Things by By Peter Watts. In The Things creatures find it easy to control the bodies of the humans they find but like the controllers of the PossessedHand project, they can not fathom their prey’s minds.

The creatures in The Things embodied the idea of self-preservation not by fight or flight but with breeding. The ability to breed is also one of the main themes of the story Amaryllis by Carrie Vaughn. In Amaryllis a woman is born to a society where food is strictly rationed and therefore the act of breeding is also tightly controlled. The ability to give birth to a child is something perhaps too undervalued in the modern day except by doctors at the University of Gothenburg’s Sahlgrenska Hospital in Sweden. There doctors are preparing to attempt to complete the first successful transplant of a human womb. Among the subjects under review include a fifty six year old woman who is donating her womb to her twenty five year old daughter.

The miracles and breakthroughs envisioned and brought to us by science  and science fiction all deserve our appreciation regardless of any awards given. Congratulations to all the Hugo Award nominees.

Literature that keeps employing new linguistic and formal modes of expression to draft a panorama of society as a whole while at the same time exposing it, tearing the masks from its face – for me that would be deserving of an award.Elfriede Jelinek