Yep, it's another longwinded essay by Alan Grimes. Like all of the essays on this site, this is an opinion piece intended to lend some insight into our thinking and positions on these subjects. This is not to say that this is an official position.
What is Bioengineering?
Bioengineering is what you do with biotechnology. Biotechnology is what you get from studying and learning how to manipulate biology. It has been known for more than a hundred years that life is basically a machine which takes in fuel and performs work. This machine is remarkable in that it arose through variation and selection from a very primitive self replicating molecule. The closest analogue of this molecule present in our contemporary biology is the ribosome. It has been found that this ribosome consists, in part, of a strand of RNA. Inside the nucleus of a human cell there are twenty two pairs of chromosomes and either another pair or two different. These, as you are probably tired of hearing, are mostly DNA. In our cells is also an organelle which is called a mitochondria. This organelle was, once, a separate life-form. It evolved separately from the type of cells that make up most of our body and its internal structure is significantly different from the cell it is now a part of. These mitochondria have their own DNA but have come to live within our cells as symbiotes. These scientific findings will underlie the rest of this essay.
What is the significance of DNA? It's just a molecule, right? Yes it is. That is exactly what it is. It has no magical properties whatsoever. Science fiction notions of being able to mutate an adult human by changing their DNA to that of another species, perhaps, would not have any morphological change on the person because there is not, yet at least, a gene that can reshape bone. Most random gene changes result in some kind of disease such as cancer. This should seem weird to you. I am talking about changing a DNA molecule but I'm not suggesting that it becomes anything other than a DNA molecule. I mean changing your garden variety molecule by changing even a single bond usually makes something totally different. What is DNA that it is different? For one thing DNA is actually a family of molecules composed of adenine, thymine, cystine, and guinine. RNA uses a molecule called uracil in place of thymine. A strand of DNA is a linked chain of any number of any combination of those four "base pairs". When we talk about modifying DNA we are talking about rearranging sequences of base pairs.
The DNA molecule serves a function no different from the hard drive on your computer. It stores information. The three billion year history of the DNA molecule is a testament to its effectiveness as a storage medium. RNA is more like your computer's working memory. It is natural to consider the act of designing a DNA strand in the same way we would consider the act of writing a program for a computer. A bioengineer, or as it was put in Blade Runner, a genetic designer, is a DNA programmer. I am trying to express these ideas in these terms because a certain mysticism has arisen around DNA that needs to be dispelled before we can consider the questions of what we might be able, or want, to do with our newfound ability to manipulate it.
We can become our own authors, so...
There are a great many who are so shocked by these ideas that they immediately rush to outlaw research as soon as they are informed of its possibility. These feelings of fear and anxiety extend to many areas of reproductive medicine and general angst about self-modification. All these things boil down to one simple fact. People are afraid to acknowledge what they are. If they ever dared, they may have tried to feel their bodies as being made of cells and molecules and existing in a void of randomly moving gasses and a hard empty floor. They might be able to open their eyes wide enough to see the functioning of their minds and understand that it is merely a computation running on some very impressive but ultimately kludged together hardware. I do this from time to time to keep my bearings. It is not a pleasant experience. Throughout history this truth has been an inevitability. No matter how keen your vision is there was nothing you could do about it. Being, quite literally, helpless people constructed fictions about souls, gods, and the tooth fairy and just about any other entity or idea that people tend to bring into these debates. These are beloved lies.
Until now, they've been the lies that have allowed us to live. With bioengineering we will have the power to change that. We will soon have complete power. You no longer have to be afraid of the beat of your heart knowing that each one has a number and the number is counting downward. You no longer have to feel alone in your own skull. You can have a neural interface. You will no longer need to fear crippling injury, it can be repaired. You will be able to live for years in zero gravity in perfect health. You will be able to tolerate significant doses of radiation. You will be able to metabolize poisonous chemicals. You will never suffer a serious illness. These are the possibilities. All we, as a people, need to do is face our fears with the sword called Biotechnology. Lies need no longer be our only shield.
In the past all changes to your body were either impossible or irreversible. To live a long and healthy life one had no choice but to take the best care possible of their bodies so that it would remain healthy for as long as possible. For this reason the body became an object of worship. Something that deserves special consideration above all others. While the health and safety of our embodiment will always be a concern it is no longer necessary to treat it as holy and untouchable. It is foreseeable that people might be struck by some fancy or other that they want to follow for a few years. These people will no longer be forced to consider their long term health because it will be taken care of by advanced medical nanotechnology which will be able to implement or reverse just about any change.
Considering that there is nothing in the universe that has any opinion one way or another what we do to ourselves we might just as well do whatever we want. All of you have are your desires and your tools. It would be a tragedy in more ways than one if the conservative elements in our psyches strangle this one eighty year opportunity we are given to do what ever we want with our body. There is no such thing as a crime against one's self and nothing should be considered as such. We live in a free universe if not in a free country. So to these conservative voices I ask "why not?"
A Living Future With Room For Everyone
On the other extreme there is a faction in the singularitan community which thinks that people who wish to use biotechnology are, to pick a word, backwards. They think that the singularity means that their nanoscale robots are inherently better than the biological cells which have served us from, practically, the beginning of time merely because they happen to process information in a slightly different way which would allow them to be faster and more vicious in the war of evolution. Although their machines are made out of the same atoms that compose the bulk of our own bodies, they have told me that their "machine phase life" will quickly supersede biological life. They wish to plunge the universe into a new epoch of life which they will direct from their own computer simulations as uploads. To these people my question is WHY?
Creating a "doom goo" is behavior fit for a script kiddie, the lowest grade of computer abusers. It would be no different from the Mac users getting their final revenge on all the PC users. Civilized people who choose to use ultra-technologies should have the, well, civility to respect the people who want to take a little more time to figure out what they want to be or to be something completely different. It is wrong, in every way, to unleash such destruction on people who only wish to remain human regardless how superior the replacements are. The only reason we develop technology at all is to make our own, human, lives better. Lets take these nanotechnologies and let them become our symbiotes just as the mitochondria are. Lets build a massively powerful computer not to run simulations of our brains but rather simulations of our proteins. Let us apply bioengineering to our own cells to make the very stuff of our body better than it has ever been before.
The ultimate use of nanotechnology is in our own cells. We, ourselves, in our present incarnation can take advantage of everything I am talking about here (except, perhaps, certain mental upgrades). We will start with the cell and reengineer it from the first atom. We will use nanites, DNA, hydrocarbons, or whatever else to make a stable, resilient, and vital whole. Our new biologies will be limited only by our imaginations and the laws of physics. These bold dreams excite only ridicule in the most radical computronium-heads. The universe is billions of light-years across and they don't see any room in it for us. In my article on the singularity I mentioned the use of legal and military controls to preserve personal liberties. This is one of the most important areas that this force should be applied. The singularity is a neutral thing. It can be spectacularly good if it can be kept under human[oid] control. It has an equal potential to be unimaginably bad for everything we, today, call living things.
As radical and audacious as my ideas about cyborgs and bioengineering may seem they are, in the grand scheme of things, quite conservative and an appropriate mean between the two extremes. Lets bring on the future but lets do it with our eyes open and our own interests in heart and mind.
Science, Technology, and the Art of Design
Body blueprints are passed around all the time by their own natural functions. Only in the last fifty years we have been able to appreciate sexual reproduction as an information exchange. In the muck at the bottom of ponds you can find that the bacteria that live there have established a commune of sorts in which DNA is passed back and shared among them. Things won't be so easy-going with the blueprints of the new cellular structure I mentioned above because of the intense effort required to produce them. I think that because of this and the importance of a fair and equal access that the core sciences and technologies behind cyborg biologies, and everything else for that matter, should forever be kept in the public domain.
The people who think it would be only fair that the people who put the direct effort into the direct design work should receive a patent for a few years in order to recoup their costs. Lets think about this. How did these people get the scientific knowledge about DNA and the proteins? Where did they get their computers? Who provided the computing services? How did they figure out how to program the AI that helped them organize the gigabytes of data that is required to build a cyborg and its accompanying technologies? The answer to all of these is millions of people. More than a million biologists and chemists made significant contributions to the project. Every single person who has purchased a computer has helped fund further research and industrial development that made the project possible. Hundreds of thousands of people contribute their spare computer cycles to on-line projects such as folding@home which studies the very proteins that are the subject of this essay. Their AI wasn't the result of some eureka moment but the culmination of five thousand years of mathematical research. They also owe debts to the neurologists and psychologists who have spent the last two hundred years mapping the brain.
To take all this effort from practically the entire human race and then try to sell it back to us at a price is outrageous. As I mentioned above, DNA and any nanotech design is merely data which, in fact, can be stored on a hard disk. This means that you can download it to your hard disk from the internet. As the science of cellular biology is completed the finished proteins and core science should be made available on the internet to anyone who wants it. This might not seem very useful to you as an individual. I will return to that shortly.
This isn't to say that all data should be made available. There is a difference between the right to know everything about a brick and the right to know how to build a luxury home. Unlike the basic science and technology which is our birthright the actual integrated designs of original bodies are a form of art. The service of designing a body is one that should be paid for. Designers work alone from the common knowledge and create something new that is from themselves and hence worth being sold. More generally it is best that designs be kept private so that there will, necessarily, be many more of them and greater variation. It is not at all my goal for anyone else to even be the same species as me except, perhaps, my offspring. Others might say that it is always best to be an upload running on computronium. Some say that doing anything at all to one's self is wrong. Aside from my own personal desires, my goal is to defend everyone's right to be what they want to be. I want the singularity to be an enabler of deep personal desires rather than the realization of some grand master plan. The latter would be an absolute horror.
One of the concerns that might be raised regarding the notion of keeping designs proprietary is how all these, potentially radically, different breeds of people will interact in society. A major concern will be whether these new species will be able to form families and have children like humans do. This is not a terrible concern as there will be the possibility of creating offspring from scratch. This may not be the most reliable means as one would prefer not to abandon the old way as a fallback. With intelligent machines it should be possible to take even the most different designs and to generate some integration of the two. This function can be integrated into the body of a cyborg female or hermaphrodite. With these two functions of differentiation through separate design and intelligently controlled recombination the mechanism of evolution will continue into the future but not in its old merciless clothes.
The process of evolution is about to be changed radically. In the past evolution proceeded on the basis of genes that are passed from parent to offspring and changes that arise from semi random mutations. In the future traits will be passed in the form of binary strings and edited by the intelligent design of conscious minds. Ever since we gained the ability to talk our minds have had the ability to create, transmit, and process things that are sometimes called memes. A meme shares many of the same properties as genes. The period of time between the creation of language some 40,000 years ago and these decades in which we live today when the genome was cracked and will soon be the subject of arbitrary manipulation can be understood as a process by which memes have arisen from genes and now are in a position to replace them. This replaces the evolution of genes with what I call the hyper-evolution of memes.
I mean hyper-evolution to mean nothing more or less than evolution by conscious design. In terms of biology alone the coming years promise to be very chaotic. The new reflexive relationship of an individual to his own genetic makeup will result in a dynamic feedback loop which will significantly alter the historic patterns and equilibrium. It is reasonable to assume that after a few decades or centuries the process will result in some new stable equilibrium. It is very difficult to speculate on the dynamics of such a process as there is little historic data to fall back upon. The closest analogue might be the evolution of the automobile or of computer software especially open source software.
Hyper-evolution is very good news for individuals because it disconnects the process of evolution from the lives and deaths of individual bodies. As Dawkins said, a chicken is an egg's way of creating another egg. With nano-enhanced cells we can disconnect our lives from the process which selects our traits. The classical idea of eugenics can be completely discarded. It is no longer necessary to make sure that people have the right genes at birth because they can be changed later in life. The easiest way to make such a change would be to add the nano symbiote to the zygote (a fertilized egg). These nanites could be activated at any time in the individual's life to whatever effect desired. Retrofitting an adult individual with these will be immensely more difficult but not altogether inconceivable.
Above all, evolution is renown for its cruelty. It "de-selects" traits by killing individuals. Proposals for directed evolution from Plato forward have been little better. Because hyper-evolution has the potential to select and propagate traits without the necessity of creating and destroying individuals. This means that the way we contemplate the population dynamics of a hyper-evolutionary system vary differently from the traditional. Instead of considering the population of chickens in the universe we consider the populations of memes in the hosts that are capable of sustaining them. The fitness of a given meme is therefore dictated by the probability of it being chosen by a given host and by how well it serves that host in order that it may be propagated. In this way the memes that we can transmit through computer networks have the relationship to us as DNA does to a cellular membrane which houses it.
To us, it means that the race of competition between individuals will be over as the war of replicating memes has moved to a new level. We have the prospect of an eternity of peace, health, opportunity, and unlimited choice. A threat to this is the observation that evolutionary forces might interact with government structures as a means to self-propagation. The value of personal freedom must be maintained above all others.
In trying to guess at the directions Hyper-evolution might go one looks at what memes are in play today that might one day become parts of our very being in the coming years. One memeplex (bundle of memes) that I feel is particularly exemplary is the notion that there is a part of ourselves that, in the language of other memeplexes, is sinful and should be cut out at the earliest opportunity. The idea is that some of the features that have been consistently selected for over the history of evolution are, in some way, inherently bad and should be discarded. The idea is that we should all become a version of a totally fictitious Mr.Nice.
I suppose that this is not a terribly bad memeplex but it does have flaws. For one, evolution does not give us things that we don't need. While I think it is a fine idea to redesign those emotions to work better in today's world I also think that discarding them completely would be a big mistake. A major function of these emotions give us the will to resist things that should be resisted. This bit of design philosophy is not terribly interesting or radical. The point is that in the past it was a part of life that was not accessible to modification or subject to political influence. Biopsychoengineering changes that. For the first time in history someone can contemplate actually implementing an agenda to make everyone friendly. Here is where things get interesting.
It's very easy to form and get locked into strong opinions about attempts to engineer the psyche. The question is not whether a given modification is good or not but whether it is a big enough concern to become a governmental issue. Or, on the other hand, whether these things are too important for us to allow them to fall into the hands of our pandering legislators. In creating a new person there is no "natural" to fall back upon. It is impossible to simply say "leave it alone" because at some point a decision will need to be made about what exactly goes into the design. So our question is whether we need to do anything about genetic designers or even cyborg mothers who might be able to do the work of a genetic designer within their own body.
When we consider what it would take to enforce a regulation on biopsychoengineering we have to accept that it is not practical. If it were legislated, what would the law say? Would it constrain everyone to some law of mediocrity, a single standard of design? In thinking about this question we have to consider the actual risks posed by people randomly designing the minds of their children. When we do we see that what would first seem to be a matter of great concern is merely a triviality. When balanced against the risks inherent in a regulatory regime in the enforcement and the outcome of forced conformity the risks of a few misdesigned children, children who's design can be adjusted at any time, is negligible.
One threat to laissez-faire openness is the ancient religious memes. For the first few decades they will viciously resist this new memetic intruder as a threat. Later, as it has done many times before, religion will assimilate these technologies and contrive some model of saintliness that all of its members will be pressured to apply to themselves. These and other pressures do pose a risk to the individual so the government does have an active and vital role to play in defending individual liberties from the memetic forces in society which would work to regulate and constrain individual lives.
Yes, Immortality. You can be bio-engineered to be, practically, immortal. Age will mean nothing to you and accidental death won't be nearly as great a risk as it is today as your body will be more resistant and resilient to all but the most grave injuries. The dynamics of evolution have made genetics extremely good at constructing bodies. Unfortunately there was no selective pressure pushing for better mechanisms of maintenance and repair. In the future not only the more ambitious among us but also the very memes that will specify the fabric of our bodies will select for the most stable possible host. You may not choose to take advantage of this for yourself but some will.
There is nothing magical about the elixir of life that's coming to a health food store near you. It will merely be a type of nanotech which will be designed to repair and, occasionally, tweak the designs of your cells. In this manner your body can be perpetuated indefinitely. There are no catches, no hidden costs, you won't even have to sell your soul. You will, if you choose to, simply continue to live as long as you like. You will not be constrained to a decrepit old body either. Your nanites can restore you to any appearance or level of health you desire. A few years after this is brought to market the cost will come down so low that your next body could be cheaper than the car you might have bought last month.
Some people object to immortality based on the idea that they should make room for the next generation. That's not a problem because soon we will be able to emigrate to other planets. You could become a homesteader on Mars. The question of whether some people should seek immortality is not an issue because it would be highly unethical to kill someone who wants to live. The problem arises in the cultural conflicts between the community of immortalists and the traditionalists. The key is tolerance on both sides.
Each person must make their own choice about whether to try for immortality. There shouldn't even be a universal code of all bodies must be immortal unless otherwise specified. As long as the choice remains open there is no problem. We can think of lives like rockets. Every once and a while we design one, haul it out to the pad and hit the big red button. In many cases these rockets have exploded into flames, never getting off the launch pad. Others launch, make it all the way to the edge of space, and do whatever small mission is theirs and come down without ever reaching orbit or orbiting for only a few years before coming down. Sometimes they go up there, serve out their useful life and then continue to operate for many decades, sometimes exceeding their intended lifespans by a large multiple. In 1974 the Amateur Satellite service (AmSat) launched the seventh in their Oscar series. It continued to work over the next seven years until the battery shorted out. Sometime in the two decades that followed the short was cleared by the constant flow of electricity. Today it only needs the sun. Its beacon is still loud and its transponders open and clear after having gone around the planet some 127,000 times.
Likewise some of us will live to see the year 3,000 and some won't. There is no imperative to change the natures of the people who simply don't want to live so long just as there is no need to set some expiration date for those who do. Nobody has yet lived past 135 or so. Reports of longer lifespans are dubious. We can't say we know for sure what it really means to live so many years. We can say with confidence that we can make a humanoid body that doesn't grow old. We cannot say what will happen to the mind over a long period of time. Studies have shown that the brain looses a significant amount of plasticity during adolescence and the slowness of the elderly to adopt new ideas is almost a cliché. If you think about it too hard you start questioning the meaning of life and all the other fundamental questions of existence. In the future these questions will no longer be abstract philosophy but matters of practical importance.
Let's say that you have decided to choose immortality and you are now 120 years old. The world is changing and it is becoming clear, even to you, that you will need to adapt to keep up. In theory it will be possible to use neural stem cells to restore the plasticity of youth. When you do this you discover that while this does, indeed, restore your ability to learn new skills and ways of thinking it overwrites parts of your mind so that your memories of the past tend to be less clear and your personality starts to shift towards the modern norm. You feel that you have become a new person through biotechnical intervention. While your body and mind remain continuous your inner self has been changed in such a way that it seems, to everybody, that the old you is dead.
Another approach to solving this problem would be to gradually replace your brain, as it deteriorates, with a physical implementation of the best AI around. This new brain works very differently from your original. You chose it because it also performs about a million times better in every way and offers a number of interesting extended capabilities that lie outside of the scope of this essay. While such a brain would be able to function at its peak indefinitely into the future there is a serious question of whether your mind can do like a hermit crab and move into the new host. It can be foreseen that in the protracted future people who choose not to upgrade their original brains significantly will be at a serious disadvantage. Only when we understand the mind well enough to construct artificial intelligences will we be able to begin to answer these questions.
An Invitation To Dream and Live
The bulk of this essay has been about the basic concepts and issues surrounding bioengineering. I could just tie it up with a nice conclusion. If I did that I would give up the chance to share some of the hope I have for this coming age. Bioengineering didn't just arise out of many diverse human activities it can also serve people in ways hardly even imagined now. There is no reason to be ashamed of wanting to change, even if it is into something very different. It is a wonderful thing to have desires, even crazy ones. Bioengineering will enable us to go places that our current bodies can't even survive such as the oceans or worlds that receive too much radiation for our current forms. Even if your interests are much more personal bioengineering is still the right tool.
It is time to begin dreaming like children again because it is our dreams that are the fuel of all adventures. The times ahead will be both strange and wonderful. With hard work and constant vigilance far more dreams than nightmares will come true. The singularity itself is a nexus of dreams and terrors. To make it happen for us we must invest our dreams in it with the knowledge that our hard work will bring them true. We can make it wonderful for us and everyone.
If, perchance you are not yet inspired by my presentation or simply don't want to change your body in any significant way I have perfect sympathy for you and will respect you always. If you think that there is something inherently wrong with what I am talking about here and think that these developments must be halted I ask you to reconsider. Without considering any modification to yourself, think of all the costs of maintaining your current body. Consider the prescriptions, the doctor's appointments, and the costs of a visit to a hospital should you run into some misfortune. Now think about the most advanced hospital in the world staffed with the best doctors in the world. Think of a hospital which can provide you with every treatment or medicine you could ever need or want. Now imagine that it only cost you five dollars per visit. This is not a joke, this is possible.
Consider the technologies of AI, Nanotechnology, and Biotechnology. Now imagine all these wonders integrated into a single pod which you could purchase for as little as $2,000. Medicine can be automated, completely. You can purchace one of thes for yourself or your family and only need to pay for the raw molecules required to construct the supplies it needs. This pod will contain within it a mind a hundreds times smarter than the most brilliant physician that ever lived and completely devoted to your service. Its internal systems will be able to integrate new procedures and inventions simply by downloading the blueprints from the internet and performing an auto-upgrade. You will be free of the medical establishment entirely. Such pods should only be regulated to the minimal extent required to ensure the accountability of their designers for any malfunction.
Such devices should be an enablement technology for individuals and not, in any way, constraining on personal choice and freedoms. My only fear about them is that they would be used to maintain some ancient standard of morality and end up serving only to stifle progress and crushing hopes for many generations. The only thing you have to loose in all of this is your mortality so think it over and look forward.
See you in the future. :o)
Singularity Action Group website frames version.