“February 23, 2005” – In this edition of RADIO Frontier Channel, I will explain a little bit more about this podcast, discuss the latest planetary science missions, review the iPod Photo and iPod Shuffle, and briefly explore the Technological Singularity.
“February 20, 2005” – This week, in addition to listening to the winds of Titan, we will train our ears on the winds of change here on Earth. The first human-animal chimeras have emerged in laboratories around the world and with them a new debate in bioethics. Biology continues to merge with silicon-based technology. And if you think science fiction becoming science fact is unsettlingly, then you may not want to listen to my commentary on transhumanism and rumors of current life on Mars.
UPDATE – NASA Responds to Mars Life Rumor – Friday, February 18, 2005 – NASA posted the following press release about media reports of evidence for extant life on Mars:
News reports on February 16, 2005, that NASA scientists from Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., have found strong evidence that life may exist on Mars are incorrect.
NASA does not have any observational data from any current Mars missions that supports this claim. The work by the scientists mentioned in the reports cannot be used to directly infer anything about life on Mars, but may help formulate the strategy for how to search for martian life. Their research concerns extreme environments on Earth as analogs of possible environments on Mars. No research paper has been submitted by them to any scientific journal asserting martian life.
File this under “Rumors”…Space.com is reporting that two scientists from NASA’s Ames Research Center have submitted a paper to the journal Nature detailing possible signatures of current biological activity on Mars. The scientists apparently reached this conclusion after discovering activity on Mars similar to the activity of novel subsurface life forms in extreme conditions near the Rio Tinto river in Spain.
One of the signatures is the presence of methane in the martian atmosphere, independently detected by the ESA orbiter Mars Express and ground-based observatories last year. Another rumor has Vittorio Formisano, one of the lead scientists for the Mars Express mission, announcing next week the detection of other gases in the martian atmosphere that strongly hint at biological activity. The official program for the 1st Mars Express Science Conference appears to confirm this rumor, with a talk entitled “Methane, formaldehyde and water by PFS” to be presented by Formisano on Thursday, February 24, 2005.
In September 2004 the ESA team announced an overlap of water vapor and methane in the atmosphere above Arabia Terra and two other regions on Mars. In the background image the highest concentrations of water vapor are in green.
Even if these rumors are confirmed, the evidence may not be conclusive. The above work is allegedly undergoing peer review prior to release. Other scientists will need to confirm the results and then new missions to Mars will need to be launched to explore areas of interest and search out the potential Martians. The process may take more than a decade, but could lead to one of the most profound discoveries in human history.
Scientists at chipmaker Intel Corporation have successful built and operated a continuous silicon laser, something that until recently was believed to be impossible. Silicon tends to scatter photons. As reported in an article in the current issue of the journal Nature, the new silicon laser makes use of a diode to prevent this scattering, resulting in a continuous laser beam.
Current computer and communication technologies depend on converting photons of light into electrons for use by electronic equipment. The holy grail of photonics is to eliminate this inefficient conversion and create equipment that uses only photons. This would lead to optical computers that run cooler and faster than current microchips. Communication speeds, including Internet access would see a similar jump in speed. Intel’s new laser brings the benefits of photonics to silicon, which is much cheaper to work with than current photonics equipment made from more exotic and expensive materials.
Chips and equipment making use of this technology are still several years away, but a clear development path appears to have opened up.
Google recently completed a project to archive the past 20 years of Usenet messages within their free Google Groups service. These are text messages posted on newsgroups (kind of like electronic bulletin boards) since the early days of computer networking. Usenet predates personal computers, DOS, the World Wide Web (WWW), and Internet browsers; in essence, most of the Information Age. Usenet eventually became accessible through the web interface after the first web browsers began to appear in the early 1990’s.
The messages are a unique historical record on a wide range of topics. For example, there is an announcement by Tim Berners-Lee’s regarding the World Wide Web project way back in 1991, two years before another post announcing a beta version of Mosaic, the ancestor of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Netscape’s Navigator web browsers. Google provides a fascinating Usenet timeline covering the two decades between 1981 and 2001.
One of the top news stories about the future of medical technology making the rounds last week was based on a journal article now almost a year old. In the April 2004 issue of the Archives of Ophthalmology doctors reported on “The Artificial Silicon Retina Microchip for the Treatment of Vision Loss From Retinitis Pigmentosa.” These tiny chips contain about “5000 microelectrode-tipped microphotodiodes”, or solar collectors which send their signal to still-functioning retinal neurons. The six patients in the study, all suffering from retinitis pigmentosa, reported improved vision and no side effects, such as infection.
The prospect of silicon computer technology and human biological cells working together to correct and cure medical conditions was once dismissed as fantasy. This work, along with the many other threads of technology being tested successfully elsewhere, is proving just how adaptive biology can be.
The Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity is heading south on a long and flat expanse of desert. There are few rocks in the region, low dunes, and uninterrupted views of the horizon. Because of the lack of obstacles, Opportunity is covering record distances (sometimes over 150 meters a day).
The Frontier Channel is launching a podcast called Radio Frontier Channel on Sunday, February 20, 2005. Podcasting is the emerging phenomena of audio broadcasts on the Internet. The audio feeds can be automatically downloaded using podcast subscription software like iPodder using the RSS standard. Wikipedia has an article explaining what podcasting is all about.
Radio Frontier Channel will be available in MP3 format. My goal is to put a new podcast out every weekend. As I gain experience expect Radio Frontier Channel to evolve.
California Assembly Member Lloyd Levine is calling for a ban on pet cloning. Why?
- Pet cloning is unregulated.
- Animal shelters are filled to capacity.
- “Who knows what’s going to happen if these things get released into the wild?”
- Vulnerable people are being exploited.
My response to Mr. Levine:
- Instead of banning pet cloning, why not regulate the industry? Better yet, let people decide for themselves.
- If people are paying good money to clone their beloved pet, what makes you think they are going to end up sending them to an animal shelter? If someone prefers a clone of their pet to a pet from an animal shelter, who are you to judge their preference?
- Things? Sounds like a xenophobic statement. What do you expect to happen?
- The service of cloning is expensive. If someone wants to pay $50,000 for a pet clone, why not? The price will likely come down over the next few years as the technology is improved and competitors enter the market. How exactly are individuals who choose this service being exploited and why are they vulnerable?
This fear of new technology is going too far. What’s next? Banning Apple’s iPod as a weapon of mass destruction?
There are many debates these days about the ethics of human enhancement through technology. Should we draw a line between medical treatment and human enhancement? For bioethicists calling for the outright bans on some research, the potential benefits for treatments and cures of common medical conditions are outweighed by negative consequences. Others argue that it is okay for people to be cured but not okay for people to become superhuman.
The hosts of the “Ethically Speaking” radio show recently discussed transhumanism. They feel there are “yuck” and “affordability” factors to emerging technologies but neither are good arguments against transhumanism. They end the segment with the following scenario:
“Let’s say that you go to the eye doctor. Instead of 20/20 vision, the doctor offers you glasses that make your eyes 20/10—much better than normal. Would you say, “Don’t enhance my vision please. I want no better than normal vision?”
The most common arguments against transhumanism might as well be from the school yard:
- “You are NOT better than me!”
- “If I can’t afford it, you can’t buy it either!”
- “Yuck! You want computers in your body?”
Many transhumanists are as passionate about making advanced technologies available to all humans regardless of cost as they are for using that technology to enhance themselves. Every new technology that changed our way of life has had its critics, including the first airplanes. Critics argued that man was not meant to fly and would be punished for his impudence. Humans have not and will not be punished. Instead, humans will deal with the consequences, both good and bad, of all of our inventions, including those that begin to redefine what it means to be human.
Thank you, doctor. I choose the glasses that will give me 20/10 vision.