Sunday, September 6, 2009

how I got to thinking about human nature, and the future of science.


Recently I finished reading the book “Radical Evolution” by Joel Garreau. At some point while reading it, I also watched the movie “Watchmen”, and I was surprised when both of them covered essentially the same topic of human nature, albeit in very different respects.

0767915038 watchmen-final-poster

First, about the book. Right off the bat the author tells you that it’s not a book about future technology, but rather about how or if this new technology will fundamentally change human nature. Garreau lays out 3 different scenarios to how the future may unfold given the current pace of technology: the Heaven scenario, the Hell scenario and the Prevail scenario.

The Heaven scenario takes the stance that Ray Kurzweil has championed, predicting a (relatively-near)  future where robots live to do our bidding, and where we have engineered our bodies both through machine interfaces and genetics to become essentially perfect, where we can all interact with each other through the internet in our brains. People can live out seemingly real situations in virtual reality due to direct stimulation to the brain. I found these expectations to be awesome, though actually kind of eerie, which is saying a lot since I am usually all for that kind of thing.

On the flip side, you have Bill Joy (the guy who essentially invented the internet).  In his essay entitled “Why the future doesn’t need us”, Joy quotes a passage from the manifesto of the Unabomer (who was also quite scared of the future), which talks about how more and more decisions will be handed over to computers, until it gets to the point that we will need computers to make the decisions and then to the point where the decisions will become so complicated that humans won’t be about to make them any more, and to “turn off” the computers would be essentially suicide. At this point we will essentially become slaves to the machine- sure we could be happy, but definitely not free. Sort of like a pet. I guess this struck a chord with Joy as he has become a major proponent of a technological doomsday. He predicts that the human race will fall victim to some sort of technological mishap, be it through wrongful genetic engineering, a biological weapon or the nightmarish “grey goo”. Some of his arguments are actually quite compelling.

The third scenario is largely detailed by Jaron Zepel Lanier, the guy who invented virtual reality. Lanier claims that is is unlikely that we will see a singularity, either for good or bad, like the other guys predict. Rather, he thinks that humans will continue to adapt along with technology, with the end goal always being to find higher ways to connect with one another. He says that humanity has a history of overcoming seemingly overwhelming odds to prevail and adapt to new situations, and he thinks that our interaction with new forms of technology will be no different.

What is disconcerting is that all of guys who discuss their scenarios believe them to be essentially inevitable, with the agreement between them that the human species is going to be drastically changed almost beyond recognition- and soon, no less. Like, 30 years soon. As to how, I guess that is up for debate.

Overall I really enjoyed the book and found all of it quite interesting, and a lot of it quite provoking. It does a pretty good job of being relatively neutral between all scenarios, so you get a pretty balanced view from all three view points. I would recommend this book to anyone who wonders about what the future may be like. This book will give you plenty to think about.

So that’s the book.

As for Watchmen, I reckon that most people already know the premise, so I will give just a brief recap. The story takes place in a politically unstable world where there are costumed crime fighters who people are increasingly beginning to distrust because they don’t seem to have to answer to anyone for anything. It shows heroes which have taken protecting people to the extreme, where at one point one of the guys fires into a crowd of protesters just to “protect them from themselves”. The movie gets to a point (spoiler alert) where one of the heroes sets off a bunch of explosions in all the major cities in the world making it look like an attack from a single super villain.  He does this with the plan that it will unite the world against a single common enemy and avoid an imminent nuclear war- “to sacrifice millions to save billions”. The crux of the movie is essentially: if you are in a position of power, is it better force humanity into a perhaps better and safer way of life, or is it better to let humanity, with all its flaws, struggle through on its own, even if the end result could be disastrous?

This point has caused me to do a lot of thinking, particularly because I can’t seem to figure out what the better answer is. After finishing Radical Evolution, I also realized that this question was also an underlying theme throughout the book. For instance, if we are at a point in human history where we can use technology to drastically alter ourselves and our environment, what changes should we make? What things should we engineer out of society? Dependence on fossil fuels?  Disease? What about things like expanding our memory storage by linking our brains to the internet? Or what about altering our metabolisms so we hardly need to eat anything? Surly these things would be beneficial to humanity as a whole. Would it not be the responsible thing to do to  implement these technologies for everyone as soon as we can to avoid things like global warming, disease and famine, even if people didn’t want to adopt the technology?  Or rather should we avoid these changes, and just let humanity struggle through without technology? Moreover, according to the guys in Radical Evolution, we are nearing a point where we will be able to create designer babies- babies where we can select what traits we think would be valuable to our children. Should we force parents to choose things like intelligence and pass over things like aggression? I guess the point I’m trying to make is that it is quite possible we could be at a point in time where we will be making drastic choices regarding what we think will be most beneficial to the human species in the future. Do we have the insight to select the “right” traits and technologies for the betterment of future humans, or should we avoid these technologies and just let things keep happening they way they are happening, even if it means the end of our species due to some disease or environmental disaster? It seems like a lot of responsibility, and like I said before, I have no idea what the right answer is.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

5 things science promised me that haven’t happened (yet)

I’ve spent most of the day working on my thesis, and instead of taking a break outside in the sun, I will continue to sit in front of my computer screen, longingly looking out the window…

I recently read somewhere that all internet journalism has turned into a 10 ten list. Consider me now on that band wagon. Here I have compiled a list of cool things that science promised me when I was a kid, but I have yet experience any manifestation of them. Here they are, in the order that I can think of them in.

1: Flying cars.

What I was promised

I grew up with bugs bunny teaching me that the year 2000 would harbour cars that zipped through the sky, completely eliminating the need for “roads”. And don’t even get me started on what I thought I had to look forward to from Back to the Future II, where they not only had flying cars in the future, but flying hover boards as well.

mcfly and docRoads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads. 

Where we stand now

Enter: Moller Skycar. I remember watching a video about this bad boy a couple of years ago. It seems that the idea has not really taken off since then, but that doesn’t diminish the cool factor for me. This baby boasts a top speed of 375MPH and 20 miles to the gallon on ethanol fuel. The M600 model even comes with 6 seats so the whole family can go for a ride. Apparently, in the future we will all be driving these.


2: Things made of carbon nanotubes.

What I was promised

I remember reading about carbon nanotubes many years ago. I first pictured them something like long strands of spider silk. I pictured braiding them together and tying one end to the moon and making a space elevator. I pictured weaving them together to make wall paper that could conduct electricity and store information. At the very least, I was hoping for web shooters.

web_slinging2  Thanks, quantum-chemistry!

Where we stand now

From what I was able to understand, there is still a long way to go on the carbon nanotube front. Apparently the longest tubes that have been created are only about 1cm long (which, if you think of it is pretty impressive since that is about 10 million times longer then it is thick). What I did gather however, is that the length of the nanotube is not necessary important. Apparently researchers are now using nanotubes to create ridiculously small circuits, which can be used to create super fast and efficient computer chips. If Moore’s Law has anything to say about this, hopefully they will be the standard in the next few years, and my cell phone will be able to do science for me.


3: Robot butlers.

What I was promised

It is no secret that I like robots. How could you not? They work hard, are super smart, and are capable of carrying messages that will thrust you into an intergalactic adventure. True, robots have received some bad press, all with your “terminators”, “Megatons” and  your robots that are powered by human flesh1, and robots that think we taste like bacon (thanks shane). All that aside though, wouldn’t it be nice to have your own Rosie or Wadsworth ready to wash your dishes or bring you a beer from the fridge?

rosie Trying to fatten you up? Don’t be silly Mr. J….

Where we stand now

Surprisingly, thanks to those crazy Japanese, robotic butlers actually already exists, albeit without the sass that robots from my childhood had. Get ready to have your mind blown:

And Asimo is just one example. If you type “robots” into the old youtube, you can spend all kinds of time watching them dance, play violin, self assemble and just generally try to look like humans (which is almost unnerving). I rue the day when they become self-aware.


4: Cyborgs.

What I was promised

The idea of a cybernetic organism has been around since the 1960s when the term “cyborg” was coined by Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline in an article talking about how it would be useful if man could easily adapt himself to new environments during space travel. This idea inspired a book called (appropriately) “Cyborg”, which then inspired the show, “The six million dollar man”, bringing cyborgs to the masses2.


logo Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology.

Other notable cyborgs include Jax, from mortal kombat, who I’d imagine was pretty good at punching. The Borg, of course, is another classic example. And yet, after all these great ideas we have yet to shed our inferior organic forms.

Where we stand now

This is the paragraph were I finally get to talk about the monkey that control a robotic arm with her brain. I will let the video do the talking:

The crazy thing about this experiment though, is that the monkey is actually using the part of its brain that normally controls its arm. If I have understood the write-up correctly, the researchers spent a bunch of time mapping the neurons in the monkeys cortex that fired when it reached for things in 3 dimensions. They then implanted electrodes that would pick up this firing, and translated that into artificial arm movements that mimic the intended movements. So in other words, working this arm should feel exactly like using your normal arm. Wild.

Here is another one from Dean Kamen (the guy who invented the Segway and a wheelchair that will go upstairs amongst many other things). This blew my mind:

If this is what it’s like now, imagine what this will be like 10, 15 years from now…

Other cyborg-like things I’ve heard of include using only your brain to send twitter messages, figuring out what word a person is seeing by only reading their visual cortex activity through fMRI and controlling a wheelchair using only your thoughts (and for the record, the end of this video shows someone controlling our friend Asimo using only his brain).


Now, I know I said 5 things, but writing this is taking me forever, so I’m going to stop at 4. Is there anything else of the future you guys can think of? I’d be interested to hear what everyone is waiting patiently for….


1 A gross exaggeration

2 I have probably left out some parts

Friday, July 17, 2009

Synesthesia: the neurological disorder you wish you had

Lately I’ve been thinking1 about synethesia. Synethesia is a neurological condition in which there is a mix-up between the senses, whereby the person will experience things described as “tasting colour” or “feeling sound” (i.e. when they experience a taste, a colourful aura specific to the taste will appear in front of their eyes).  I’ve included a couple videos here which give an idea what this condition is like. The first video is a snappy overview of what synethesia is all about. Personally I think the condition is exemplified best at the end of the clip when it shows a guy eating chicken with vanilla ice cream and orange sauce on it with a big smile on his face as a whole bunch of blue colours come up in front of his eyes.  The second video is a TED talk from superstar neurologist VS Ramachandran talking about a whole bunch of things which are all very cool, but he starts talking about synethesia around 17:45, if you only want to hear about that. He brings up a cool point right near the end about how we all have synethesia to a certain extent. Please enjoy:

Synethesia is one of things which makes neuroscience really interesting to me, because it leads to so many questions. Questions such as, if these people can live essentially normal lives with the condition, what is the evolutionary advantage to not having synethesia? Is it really only a result of a faulty gene, or a couple of faulty genes, and if so, could we engineer synethesia genes and demonstrate them in an animal model? Is it something that we all have lying dormant in our brains, and can we somehow “tap in” to it? And lastly, why not me? 

Dr. Richard Cytowic (the author of the book that I got) argues that synethesia is actually a normal brain function that we all have, but only a small percentage of people are actually conscious of it. He gives a few examples where “normal” people can/may experience synethesia-like effects, including deep meditation, LSD induced hallucinations and also he mentions a case where a guy had a tumor of the left medial temporal lobe, who would see colours when hearing certain frequencies. Upon removing the tumor he could no longer experience any sort of synethetic effects.

So if synethesia is potentially lingering in all of our brains, can we train ourselves to become synethetic? Beats me. But I did have an idea to test it out. I think it would be interesting to create a keyboard with a big screen right in front of it, which would display auras of colours on it, each colour representing a different note. For example, E could be yellow, and an E major chord could be predominantly yellow with the other colours for G# and B subtlety mixed in.  If you were to start from childhood and learn to play the piano like this, I wonder if the association of colour and sound would become cemented in the brain, and whether or not this association would be transferred to listening to music on a CD or in a concert or even just ambient noise?

Synethesia is an interesting case of what the human brain can be capable of, and one of the many cases where I wonder why the mass of neurons in my head can’t do it, while the neurons in someone else’s head can. Perhaps someday we will have a better understanding of how the brain works, and how synethetic experiences arise. Until then however, the rest of us will just have to stick to LSD.


1 and by thinking I mean I got a book out of the library about synethesia and put it on my desk.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Viruses and Life

Recently it has come to my attention that viruses are really cool.

In terms of biomass (and numbers for that matter), they are by far a much more abundant organism on the earth then humans. They can infect essentially every living species from bacteria to plants to mammals, and can, in some cases, be notoriously hard to beat. In the oceans, viruses play important roles in geochemical cycles and carbon turnover. They kill approximately 20% of all microbial biomass every day, which has a major impact on nutrient and energy cycles.

This new found interest in viruses also is a result of the current projects I am working on. Viruses work by floating around in your system until they find a cell in your body that they are capable of latching on to. Once they`ve done this, they inject their DNA into the cell, and basically ``hijack`` the cell and use it to create more viruses. We can exploit this system in the lab. By taking out the genes in the virus that cause the cell to create new virus particles, and replacing them with genes who`s products we are interested in, we can use the virus as an efficient delivery system to insert new genes into cells. In my case, I have a plate of cells which I bombard with literally millions of virus particles. The virus particles will then dock on the cells (mouse embryonic cells in the case) and insert the gene for Cre recombinase , which will then act to cut out a different gene out of tGFP cellshe cell genome... though that part is a different story. You can just as easily have the virus inject green fluorescent  protein, which will cause the cells to glow a neon green in certain light.

Despite all this, there is still an ongoing debate as to whether or not viruses can be considered “alive”. I recently just read an article entitled “Ten reasons to exclude viruses from the tree of life” (Moreira, D. et al. Nat. Rev. Microbiol 7, 306-311 (2009).) which, as you can probably deduce, argued the negative. The main idea that this article was getting at was that essentially viruses can not reproduce, evolve or pretty much even survive unless it makes use of another cell.  They go as far as to say that if you were to take all of the world’s viruses and dump them onto a new, sterile planet, eventually they would all eventually die and decay. In contrast, they argue, if you were to do the same with all the different bacteria species on the Earth, it is likely that at least some of them would thrive.  The authors bring up a number of other points as well, such as the fact that it is impossible to trace a virus lineage back to a common ancestor (i.e. not a single gene is shared between all viruses) and that viruses only “steal” genes from cells, and do not develop them on their own.

While I can agree with most of the points that the authors make, I still feel unsatisfied accepting the view that viruses are not alive, and I think (for me at least) what it comes down to is the operational definition of life that is being used. This definition, which we all learned in grade 9 science class, basically sets down a check list of things that you need to be considered alive such as the ability to produce energy, waste, the ability to reproduce and adapt to surroundings… etc. This definition though, seems almost too stringent. To me, a much more fitting (though perhaps a too broad) definition would be this: life is the ability of a bit matter to actively work to persist its information throughout time. For example, how is it that the atoms that make up a virus “know” to seek out similar atoms and organize them into a similar form as itself before they fall apart? Where did this intrinsic “desire” to pass on this information come from? What makes some particular organization of matter more able to pass on this information while other random organizations just float around? To me this idea represents the very essence of what it means to be alive. You can even think of it on a larger scale. When we die, we lose the ability to maintain our organization of matter, and we decompose. During the time we are alive though, we take in atoms and molecules from our food and the air, and use those molecules as building blocks for our cells. When I think about it, it is a sobering thought. What would the world be like today if matter could not organize itself into reproducible forms? Probably pretty boring, I’d wager.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Leaving the fine city of Vancouver

Hello. Sorry I have not posted anything recently, but the hotel was charging me $15 a day to use the internet, which was starting to get expensive.

I am at the airport now waiting to board the plane home, so I just thought I would put up a few final thoughts about the conference (I will hopefully be able to upload some more talks and neurosceince related stuff when I get home).
- There seems to be a lot of promising new therapies for the treatment of stroke on the horizon. Between the use of neural stem cells, and the right kind of intensive rehabilitation, it would seem as if you may someday be able to show almost a complete recovery after the brain damage caused by stroke.
- There is more and more evidence that physical exercise is extremely beneficial to the brain. In one of the lectures the speaker talked about how exercise promotes the formation of new neurons, and actually also causes your old neurons to grow and enhance their dendritic arbors, forming new connections (he was showing actual images of neurons from rats that exercised compared to rats that did not).
- Adding "neuro" in front of words to make buzz words, is not necessary.
Anyway, I would add more, but it is time for me to board.
So long for now.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

A few more pictures

Another view from the balcony

Saw this poster and thought it would be quite relavent to what I'm working on.

One of about 20 rows of posters. I think I heard someone say there were about 150 posters set up.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Interview with Sam Weiss

Well, I managed to muster all of my courage and asked Sam Weiss if I could interview him for this little blog I have going (that will be my brave thing for this month) and he agreed, which I was quite pleasantly surprised about. He was a really nice guy who seemed really excited about his work, which was awesome. I only asked him a couple questions because I didn't want to take up too much of his time, but I think it was pretty interesting none-the-less. So here it is:

Key note lecture

There is a bit of a break in the day right now, so I decided I'd come up and upload the keynote lecture. I apologize for the not-great audio quality, but my recording technology consisted of my mp3 player resting on my knee. Also, thank you very much to Dr. Sam Weiss for allowing me to upload his talk in full. When I have some more time, I might try to break the file up in to pieces so that it is easier to listen to.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The view here is nicer than the one from my Guelph house.

Just got to the hotel and took a bunch of picutes. I'm sitting at a desk in front of my balcony which overlooks a marina and a bunch of mountains.

Excited to be leaving and on a floor that does the walking for me.

probably Mt. Everest.

The view from the balcony.

From up here it's just like google maps...

We've hit a bit of a bumpy section, so I figured I would do a little writing to distract myself. I don`t understand why flying through a cloud makes things so rough... they look so peaceful from the ground. Anyways... The flight has progressed without a hitch so far. There was a brief moment of concern when Mandi was making jokes about bombs and other touchy airport subjects, but we made it onto the place without getting arrested, which is nice. So far I've had a ham sandwich and watched The Wrestler. I found both to be more than satisfying.

We should be getting in to Vancouver in about two hours or so I think, and then we have a bit of time to hang out before conference stuff starts. Registration starts at 3.00 and then there is a reception at 6.00. Tomorrow morning the day starts off with a talk about the future of Neuroscience funding from the president of CIHR. Perhaps he will know the status of my scholarship application. After that is the first Keynote, Dr. Sam Weiss who will be talking about applications of adult neural stem cells. Dr. Weiss was one of the first people to show that neurogenesis occurs in adulthood in mammals, replacing the idea that after birth we had a finite number of neurons and that was that. It should be an interesting talk, and I am quite looking forward to it. Next there are parallel symposia where there are several different topics and talks to choose from. I was planning on hitting up the talks on growth cone guidance, as I am hoping I might hear something that would be applicable to ShcD, but we`ll see what happens. There is also a session on receptor trafficking though, which could also be kind of useful. Decisions, decisions....

In the mean time, we have broken through the clouds so I can get back to not being paralysed with fear. I will check in again when we make it to the hotel.

So long for now.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

First post FTW

This will be my attempt at cataloguing my life in science on the "interweb". Mostly it will just be used to prove that I am doing things in Vancouver that are worth while, but perhaps it will become more in time... we will see.