New drug for Eternal Life

From Wired, via Digg.com. This could be huge.

“Genetically altered mice discovered accidentally at the Wistar Institute in Pennsylvania have the seemingly miraculous ability to regenerate like a salamander, and even regrow vital organs. If the results can be translated to humans, it would be a dream come true for people who want to live forever.”

read more | digg story

Name Change to Cybernudism

What is up with the name change? “Leis On Life” did not exactly fit what I am trying to do with this blog. Sure, this is me commenting on life, but it has become a bit more specific than that. I focus mostly on science and technology and how humanity is dealing with the rapid progress in both.

Cybernudism is a word I coined that represents that Internet-inspired drive to expose yourself to the world, in more ways than just visually and nakedly. Now that everyone and their grandmother seems to have a blog, every inane photograph and video clip is showing up on the net, amateurs are trying to be talk show hosts, and (unavoidably) all sexual mores appear to be well-represented somewhere in cyberspace, it is time to reflect on what it all means for humanity.

Cybernudism is also a response to “Big Brother” and “Little Brother”. The escalating invasion of privacy by the government and your next door neighbor can be combated with a philosophy that there are no secrets to exploit if you no longer keep secrets. Cybernudism suggests leaving behind anonymity (without any requirement to volunteer information) and instead taking responsibility for your own revealing to the rest of the world.

And then again, maybe not. The point of this blog is to discuss those possibilities, while highlighting the several ways science and technology are radically changing what it means to be human, sentient, and free.

The Google Code

All the excitement of a Dan Brown bestseller, but real. The hot new obsession for the technology geek in the know is trying to figure out what Google is up to. While conspiracy theorists spend years weaving dire tales from the fewest of crumbs, the Google devout can feast upon an absolute smorgasbord of Google activity, with new surprises occurring almost every day. Netizens are on a cyberspace-trotting hunt for information, including a self-described “Google Addict”, columnists, technology news sites, an ebook author, and the multitudes of social bookmarking “diggers” at Digg.com. Here is the partial list of Google’s activities, including:

  • searching for and buying up untold miles of dark fiber optics, left over from the Internet bubble burst five years ago;
  • the opening of Google WiFi spots in San Francisco and the release of Google Secure Access to “ensure your connection is secure.”
  • hiring Internet pioneer, Vint Cerf;
  • new media-specific search engines, including Google Video, Google Blog Search, and Google Scholar;
  • releasing the first episode of the new Chris Rock UPN sitcom “Everybody Hates Chris” on Google Video;
  • the purchase of domain names related to television and high definition television;
  • providing over 2.5 gigabytes of free storage in their email service Gmail;
  • the development of free software like Google Earth, Google Desktop, Google Talk, and Picasa (3-D Earth map, local desktop searching, VoIP and instant messaging, and image management, respectively);
  • raising over US$4,000,000,000 in cash from a recent stock sale;
  • and, most recently, inviting 400 bloggers and reporters to an event called Google Zeitgeist 05, on the proviso that they all keep their mouths shut about what they hear.

Is Google about to unveil a free, advertisement-supported nationwide wireless network? Are they building a supercomputer with a centralized Google operating system, accessible by anyone with an Internet connection? Are they expanding their efforts in China? Are they backing the long-fabled “Internet over power lines” technology? All of the above?

Is there a pattern to all of this activity? Cybersleuths are hot on the trail, but Google just might surprise everyone with what they actually have in mind. What would you do with a mission to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” billions of dollars in cash, several top scientists and engineers, and a loyal and creative employee base in an era that is seeing the most rapid acceleration of progress in human history?

Zeitgeist, indeed.

EBay Buys Skype – The Communication Platform Wars Begin

The announcement today that eBay was paying US$2.6 billion for Skype left many people scratching their heads. What in the world is an online auction retailer doing buying a two-year old VoIP telecommunications company?

The mistake confused people are making is that eBay is not an online auction retailer, and Skype is not a VoIP telecommunications company. Recently they might have been so easily described, but in the world of Google, a world where a search engine is no longer just a search engine, these companies must become something else entirely.

Bidding on an auction, making an audio call between computers, and typing in a keyword at a search engine, are all related activities. Each is a form of communication, person to person, person to computer, computer to person, and computer to computer. The meme emerging, a meme that these big companies cannot quite bring themselves to articulate, is the rise of the communications platform.

Communication platforms have existed before, in the form of traditional telecommunications industries including radio, television, telephone, cable and satellite. In addition, and separately, software development companies have provided other forms of communication.

What eBay, Google, Amazon, and Yahoo are becoming is the next step in the evolution in communication. They are positioning themselves as the perfect merger of the above traditional media platforms with the Internet, in a package that will be much more than a sum of their parts.

The cost of entry into the telecommunications industry has plummeted, leaving the traditional companies in shock. When a small band of software developers can independently create in just two years a gigantic voice network that uses the computer and networking infrastructure that already preexists, all bets are off. Suddenly computer to computer voice calls are free, computer to phone and phone to computer calls cost a fraction of traditional price plans, and the platform itself gets put to new uses by third party developers nearly every day. This is Skype, a company that freely released a small VoIP client to the public and one year later shocked the existing telecommunications world by announcing that they had over 30 million users after only one year.

Ebay started on their current path several years ago with a decision to treat their auction site as a communications platform that brought buyers and sellers together in a virtual marketplace full of advanced and efficient tools. Their decision to buy Skype enhances that virtual marketplace with more cutting-edge technology, just as their purchase of Paypal allowed them to provide a convenient payment option to their buyers and sellers. Also just like Paypal, Skype will provide new opportunities outside of eBay’s virtual marketplace. After all, Paypal is not just used for making eBay auction payments. It has become a payment option for many other companies and vast amounts of small entrepreneurs.

The company most aware of the changes afoot is the very company driving companies like eBay to purchase companies like Skype. Google, the maelstrom of change that began with a better search engine, has quietly been diversifying into other opportunities, including shopping, advertisement, email, VoIP, mapping, social networking, and many others. Again, each one is a form of communication. Google is building a platform that dwarfs anything AT&T or the cable companies have every imagined.

This seamless platform will be something never seen before in human history. It will be your phone, radio, television, newspaper, library, email, daily planner, map, address book, yellow pages, shopping list and coupons, and dating service.

Google Earth is one early convergent platform for many of the above. It is a 3-D globe of the Earth pieced together from increasingly high resolution satellite images overlain with layers of information as varied as the third party developers that created them. Locating nearby businesses is easier than thumbing through the phone book, with additional conveniences like a map and the ability to fly over the landscape so that you know exactly where to drive and exactly what landmarks to look for. Soon the ability to call a company you found will be as easy as a click on their 3-D representation on Google Earth, provided by local VoIP networking with existing landline systems.

EBay starts out with different initial products but heading toward the same direction. Their marketplace will eventually merge with a 3-D globe of the earth while Skype allows another communications option between buy and seller. Beyond auction sites, small and large businesses alike will save enough amounts of money currently spent on telephony services by networking their existing computer infrastructure with Skype. As more and more people start using Skype, the price of a business telephone call will collapse to near zero, just as it has already begun to do with personal telephone calls. Value-added services like video conferencing, social networking, automated recording of all calls, and others will become cheaper for end users while still providing a huge windfall for the parent communications platform company.

Yahoo, unlike its search engine competitor Google, is betting on content to be the launch pin for their own communications platform. After developing relationships with existing media content providers, Yahoo has recently begun to provide its own original video programming. It has hired a seasoned reporter to provide original news reports just for Yahoo (pitting it against the existing news media companies.)

And then there is Amazon, the direct sale retailer who has an obvious competitor in eBay and, until recently, a not so obvious competitor in Google. Amazon has launched its own search engine initiatives, building off of the technology it developed for its main ecommerce site. Its relationship with book sellers, publishers, and authors has allowed it to begin accruing a vast library of digital material. Its dependence on buyers to provide their own personal recommendations about books and other products has lead to a vast experiment in social networking, while creating a platform with an active membership it can offer for a fee to interested parties keen on integrating the platform into their own business models.

The real breakthrough in all this activity is the convergence of services and communication tools into a much larger whole. Microsoft, while trying to keep up with these developments, did not see that convergence was the endgame. Instead, they thought they simply needed to have their fingers in as many different pies as possible. Google understood that a million different tools were ultimately useless if they were not integrated into a userfriendly, flexible, and adaptable platform that could be adapted for many different situations.

This is why eBay, Google, Amazon, and Yahoo are not just software companies, or retailers, or search engines, or telecommunications providers, or media companies. They are all of these and more, setting up a future littered with the remains of traditional players in each separate industry who could not quite manage to get their heads around the convergence of all human activity into just a few communications platforms.

Space Elevator Gets FAA Lift

I ran across this great news on Digg.com. Pay attention, folks. We are turning the exponential bend…

“LifePort has received approval from the FAA test its space elevator prototype. In early fall, a balloon will carry a elevator ribbon up to a mile high. Robotic lifters will then crawl up and down the cable testing the feasibility of the project.”

read more | digg story

“It’s about life” – Mark McAllister and the 2.0 Project

Mark McAllister is a twenty-year-old man with Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), a rare condition that causes the degeneration of motor neurons and the weakening and wasting away of muscle. In a wheelchair since age 3, McAllister is fighting the inevitability of his death: victims of SMA do not live much past 30 years of age. His fight is as epic as any told in human literature, but as personal as the questions each of us ask about the nature of our existence.There are the usual hopes for a medical breakthrough that will spare McAllister further deterioration in health. The effectiveness of using valproic acid and carnitine to treat SMA in children is currently in phase II clinical trial. “The results of the study won’t come for a while yet,” says McAllister, “but it looks more like a treatment than an actual cure.” Research into other genetic diseases and human genome research in general also provide promising avenues to discoveries that might have some bearing on SMA.

The question is, will treatments become available soon enough to extend McAllister’s life just a little bit longer, leading up to that wonderful day when SMA is cured forever? The prospects are improving, but McAllister understands the reality. “The push for a cure waxes and wanes depending on the funding available at the time.”

At age 16, McAllister learned just how fast his physical abilities could deteriorate. “I’ve always been in a wheelchair, but up to that point I had adequate use of both my arms, At this time, however, my left arm began weakening. The degeneration was alarming, and within a year and a half I had completely lost the use of that arm. This was the first event in a series that would ultimately leave me frailer than I had been before. It was at this time that my mortality became very apparent to me.”

Humans, regardless of their preexisting conditions, face a period near the end of their life when their body rapidly begins to fail them. Though it might seem a lot worse to live only 30 years with already limited physical abilities before dying, to some people of reasonable health, death at any age is a horrifying prospect.

McAllister discovered people with this view of death while exploring the philosophy of transhumanism. Horror of the finality of death has lead some to embrace this philosophy and its exploration of alternatives to oblivion or a supernatural afterlife. While a majority of people continue to believe that death is simply a natural part of a larger cycle involving birth and existence, transhumanists hope to overturn such thinking by showing that humans can, through science and technology, obtain physical immortality.

McAllister provides reasons why physical immortality could be positive. “First off, we live in a fast paced society that focuses on immediate gratification. This doesn’t provide a person much of a chance to explore their potential. In a world inhabited by immortals, we could see the rebirth of the ‘Renaissance Man’, with individuals mastering several disciplines. Second, immortality provides for the best chance at societal growth. For all intents and purposes we hit the reboot button with each generation. Sure, society does evolve over time, but every generation basically starts with a blank slate. Image what would happen if we had leaders with centuries of wisdom and experience. Society would grow,learning from mistakes experienced on its own instead of learning from history texts.”

Recent scientific research indicates we might be heading rapidly toward just such a world. Unfortunately, for many with preexisting conditions, this progress might not come soon enough. The plight of actor Christopher Reeve, who suffered an accident that left him without the use of his body below his neck and who became an outspoken advocate for cutting-edge medical research, comes immediately to mind. He remained hopeful for a breakthrough within his lifetime, but he did not live to see the announcement by South Korean scientists late last year that they had used adult stem cells to allow Hwang Mi-Soon at 37 years of age to walk again after 20 years of paralysis.

What does one do when future treatments and cures are tantalizing out of reach and every day is a race against time? To transhumanists and other technology progressives, cryonics offers one possible solution. Cryonics is a speculative technology used to freeze or vitrify the human body after clinical death for indefinite storage. If the body can be vitrified soon after death – thereby halting or slowing down significantly the process of decay – then maybe it can be held in indefinite stasis until future technology has progressed far enough to cure, repair and revive the individual. Although those few people who have paid for cryonics plans generally agree that the chance of their resurrection is low, they feel it is a fair gamble. After all, once they are clinically dead, they have nothing else to lose, and everything to gain should their slim hopes be realized.

Alcor and the Cryonics Institute, the two primary facilities for cryonics in this country, allow members to use a life insurance policy as payment, along with annual fees. Upon clinical death, the member’s insurance policy is signed over to the cryonics facility. For many people, this is their only option, as full-body internment at cryonics containment facilities can cost as much as US$100,000, before annual fees are added in. A neuropreservation plan that retain only the head and brain still costs up to US$80,000.

Some people cannot get enough insurance to cover the cost of cryonics preservation. McAllister is an example, a person with a preexisting condition not covered by most life insurance plans. Any life insurance policy he might qualify for will come with particular limitations and may not be large enough in value to cover the cryonics costs. Without a life insurance policy of sufficient value, McAllister must raise the money to pay for this service upfront.

Enter the 2.0 Project.

Conceived by McAllister while reflecting on his options after not winning a lottery, the 2.0 Project serves dual purposes. The first is to raise enough money to let McAllister sign up for a cryonics plan, and the other is to raise awareness about transhumanism, physical immortality, and the plight of the uninsured and uninsurable in a world of rapid life extension. McAllister argues that ultimately “the 2.0 project isn’t about me, it’s about life.”

The 2.0 Projects hopes to raise US$130,000 to cover Mark’s neuropreservation at Alcor as well as other expenses including the cost to move near their facility in Scottsdale, Arizona, USA, from his current residence in Canada, and living and medical care costs should Mark’s health take a drastic turn for the worst. To date, with a mix of donations and McAllister’s own personal financial contributions, the 2.0 Project has raised US$443.06 on word of mouth alone.

McAllister is also trying to build a team of graphic, industrial, environment, interior and other designers and artists to help turn the 2.0 Project into “a giant communications project.” McAllister’s own work in graphic design has been supported by the use of technology to augment physical abilities limited by SMA. “Computers have been a blessing for me,” he explains, “and I wouldn’t be in this line of work without them. My drawing skills can be a bit sketchy (no pun intended) at times, but I still have enough strength in my right arm to carry out my job.” Knowing through his work the potential impact of design on society, politics and individuals, McAllister and his team will create a visual language for disseminating and leading discussion about technology progressive ideas.

Because the 2.0 Project is informed by transhumanism, it faces its own obstacle of image. There is already a growing backlash against technology progressive philosophies, led by some of the leading bioethicists in the United States, in addition to religious and conservative interests. When Foreign Policy asked invited writers in its September-October 2004 issue what they believed the world’s most dangerous ideas were, Francis Fukuyama, a member of The President’s Council on Bioethics, Professor of International Political Economy at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, and author of several books critical of future progress, responded that it was transhumanism. The coming transformation of modern humans into transhumans with enhanced abilities enabled by science and technology led Fukuyama to wonder “what rights will these enhanced creatures claim, and what rights will they possess when compared to those left behind?”

When asked about possible criticism leveled at the 2.0 Project, McAllister states that “[d]eath is a major concern for everyone on this planet, whether they like to admit it or not. Every world religion has come up with its own answer to death. In fact, I believe that at the core of all religious belief lies the fear of death. So really, seeking immortality through science is no different than seeking it through spiritual means. The only hitch is when people can’t see past their own paradigm. I understand those who would feel adversely towards the 2.0 Project, and I respect their viewpoint. It’s impossible to get everyone to agree on something (especially the concept of death), so room must be made for different beliefs and opinions.”

The pursuit of immortality through supernatural and mystical means, our myths of eternal human-like gods, the latest diet craze, Botox – each is another way that humans try to hold on to their existence just a little bit longer, a desire that is at least as old as recorded human history. But the idea that there is no set limit to human lifespan is as new as the breakthroughs being reported in the scientific literature on a nearly daily basis. Biology tells no lies, but it tells a difficult truth. With each result, we are forced to rethink what we thought we knew about our existence and destiny.

When the research stopped being speculative and began to produce measurable results, critics that had previously called the entire endeavor “science fiction” and a waste of time and money immediately began calling for limits and outright bans, culminating with suggestion by Leon Kass, another member of the President’s Council on Bioethics, and others that people who live too long might need to be euthanized for the sake of society, regardless of their level of health. A rapidly growing population of centenarians, many of them now in their eleventh decade, might argue otherwise.

Through the 2.0 Project, McAllister hopes to encourage further discussion about these issues within the transhumanist movement and beyond. He says that he does “consider myself a transhumanist, but I use futurist to describe myself just as often. I’m not one who cares much for labels, and futurist is a bit more generalistic. I do, however, use transhumanist on the website for the simple fact that I consider myself a transhuman. I’m an individual in transition, whose ultimate goal is posthumanity (whatever that turns out to be). Whatever form it may take in the coming years, I believe this to be the core of transhumanism. All other facets are negotiable.”

It is this human face on topics unfamiliar to most of the public and frightening to critics that may be the 2.0 Projects strongest asset. McAllister dreams find flight beyond a cure for SMA and a rejuvenated body. He envisions a bright future of possibilities available to everyone, regardless of their current status.

“Transhumanism is an optimistic philosophy. Likewise, the 2.0 Project is an optimistic mission. My philosophy is based largely around transhumanism, thus the project is based largely around transhumanism. I don’t want this to sound like it’s just for technophiles though. Above all else, the project is about life. I’m hoping that this will appeal to people of various philosophies.”

More Information