Category Archives: biotech

The future of reproductive choice

I’m not taking sides on the abortion debate, just drawing maps of the potential future, so don’t shoot the messenger.

An average baby girl is born with a million eggs, still has 300,000 when she reaches puberty, and subsequently releases 300 – 400 of these over her reproductive lifetime. Typically one or two will become kids but today a woman has no way of deciding which ones, and she certainly has no control over which sperm is used beyond choosing her partner.

Surely it can’t be very far in the future (as a wild guess, say 2050) before we fully understand the links between how someone is and their genetics (and all the other biological factors involved in determining outcome too). That knowledge could then notionally be used to create some sort of nanotech (aka magic) gate that would allow her to choose which of her eggs get to be ovulated and potentially fertilized, wasting ones she isn’t interested in and going for it when she’s released a good one. Maybe by 2060, women would also be able to filter sperm the same way, helping some while blocking others. Choice needn’t be limited to whether to have a baby or not, but which baby.

Choosing a particularly promising egg and then which sperm would combine best with it, an embryo might be created only if it is likely to result in the right person (perhaps an excellent athlete, or an artist, or a scientist, or just good looking), or deselected if it would become the wrong person (e.g. a terrorist, criminal, saxophonist, Republican).

However, by the time we have the technology to do that, and even before we fully know what gene combos result in what features, we would almost certainly be able to simply assemble any chosen DNA and insert it into an egg from which the DNA has been removed. That would seem a more reliable mechanism to get the ‘perfect’ baby than choosing from a long list of imperfect ones. Active assembly should beat deselection from a random list.

By then, we might even be using new DNA bases that don’t exist in nature, invented by people or AI to add or control features or abilities nature doesn’t reliably provide for.

If we can do that, and if we know how to simulate how someone might turn out, then we could go further and create lots of electronic babies that live their entire lives in an electronic Matrix style existence. Let’s expand on that briefly.

Even today, couples can store eggs and sperm for later use, but with this future genetic assembly, it will become feasible to create offspring from nothing more than a DNA listing. DNA from both members of a couple, of any sex, could get a record of their DNA, randomize combinations with their partner’s DNA and thus get a massive library of potential offspring. They may even be able to buy listings of celebrity DNA from the net. This creates the potential for greatly delayed birth and tradable ‘ebaybies’ – DNA listings are not alive so current laws don’t forbid trading in them. These listings could however be used to create electronic ‘virtual’offspring, simulated in a computer memory instead of being born organically. Various degrees of existence are possible with varied awareness. Couples may have many electronic babies as well as a few real ones. They may even wait to see how a simulation works out before deciding which kids to make for real. If an electronic baby turns out particularly well, it might be promoted to actual life via DNA assembly and real pregnancy. The following consequences are obvious:

Trade-in and collection of DNA listings, virtual embryos, virtual kids etc, that could actually be fabricated at some stage

Re-birth, potential to clone and download one’s mind or use a direct brain link to live in a younger self

Demands by infertile and gay couples to have babies via genetic assembly

Ability of kids to own entire populations of virtual people, who are quite real in some ways.

It is clear that this whole technology field is rich in ethical issues! But we don’t need to go deep into future tech to find more of those. Just following current political trends to their logical conclusions introduces a lot more. I’ve written often on the random walk of values, and we cannot be confident that many values we hold today will still reign in decades time. Where might this random walk lead? Let’s explore some more.

Even in ‘conventional’ pregnancies, although the right to choose has been firmly established in most of the developed world, a woman usually has very little information about the fetus and has to make her decision almost entirely based on her own circumstances and values. The proportion of abortions related to known fetal characteristics such as genetic conditions or abnormalities is small. Most decisions can’t yet take any account of what sort of person that fetus might become. We should expect future technology to provide far more information on fetus characteristics and likely future development. Perhaps if a woman is better informed on likely outcomes, might that sometimes affect her decision, in either direction?

In some circumstances, potential outcome may be less certain and an informed decision might require more time or more tests. To allow for that without reducing the right to choose, is possible future law could allow for conditional terminations, registered before a legal time limit but performed later (before another time limit) when more is known. This period could be used for more medical tests, or to advertise the baby to potential adopters that want a child just like that one, or simply to allow more time for the mother to see how her own circumstances change. Between 2005 and 2015, USA abortion rate dropped from 1 in 6 pregnancies to 1 in 7, while in the UK, 22% of pregnancies are terminated. What would these figures be if women could determine what future person would result? Would termination rate increase? To 30%, 50%? Abandon this one and see if we can make a better one? How many of us would exist if our parents had known then what they know now?

Whether and how late terminations should be permitted is still fiercely debated. There is already discussion about allowing terminations right up to birth and even after birth in particular circumstances. If so, then why stop there? We all know people who make excellent arguments for retrospective abortion. Maybe future parents should be allowed to decide whether to keep a child right up until it reaches its teens, depending on how the child turns out. Why not 16, or 18, or even 25, when people truly reach adulthood? By then they’d know what kind of person they’re inflicting on the world. Childhood and teen years could simply be a trial period. And why should only the parents have a say? Given an overpopulated world with an infinite number of potential people that could be brought into existence, perhaps the state could also demand a high standard of social performance before assigning a life license. The Chinese state already uses surveillance technology to assign social scores. It is a relatively small logical step further to link that to life licenses that require periodic renewal. Go a bit further if you will, and link that thought to the blog I just wrote on future surveillance: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2019/05/19/future-surveillance/.

Those of you who have watched Logan’s Run will be familiar with the idea of  compulsory termination at a certain age. Why not instead have a flexible age that depends on social score? It could range from zero to 100. A pregnancy might only be permitted if the genetic blueprint passes a suitability test and then as nurture and environmental factors play their roles as a person ages, their life license could be renewed (or not) every year. A range of crimes might also result in withdrawal of a license, and subsequent termination.

Finally, what about AI? Future technology will allow us to make hybrids, symbionts if you like, with a genetically edited human-ish body, and a mind that is part human, part AI, with the AI acting partly as enhancement and partly as a control system. Maybe the future state could insist that installation into the embryo of a state ‘guardian’, a ‘supervisory AI’, essentially a deeply embedded police officer/judge/jury/executioner will be required to get the life license.

Random walks are dangerous. You can end up where you start, or somewhere very far away in any direction.

The legal battles and arguments around ‘choice’ won’t go away any time soon. They will become broader, more complex, more difficult, and more controversial.

Advertisements

The future for women, pdf version

It is several years since my last post on the future as it will affect women so here is my new version as a pdf presentation:

Women and the Future

If you’re looking for aliens visiting Earth, what might they look like?

I don’t believe stories about aliens capturing isolated nutters and probing them on their spaceships before bringing them home, but who don’t bother to make their presence known to anyone else. That makes no sense. I theorized many years ago that perhaps the main reason we don’t see aliens visiting is that by the time a civilization gets to the technology level that permits interstellar travel, they are most likely to eradicate themselves via high-tech weaponry, nanotech accidents or some other tech-enabled extinction route. I suggested that almost all civilizations would become extinct within 300 years of discovering radio.

I also wrote a blog about how genetically engineered fairies would make ideal space travelers, since they could be made very small, and therefore only need small and cheap space ships, but thanks to electronic brains or use of external IT as brain space, be just as smart as real people, and have wings to fly around zero gravity spaceships.

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/06/06/fairies-will-dominate-space-travel/

Extending that thought to what aliens might look like, they would likely have the same capability in genetic engineering, and face the same engineering constraints, so would likely come up with a similar solution.

Miniaturization could go much further, and it’s possible in principle to make tiny capsules, microns across, that contain all the data needed to make a human or android body, and a few nano-fabricators that could do the building of other fabricators that make the infrastructure, robots, androids and organisms once they land on another planet. Maybe an advanced civilization might have the technology to make small wormholes through which to fire these tiny capsules in many directions so as to rapidly explore and colonize a galaxy. Given reasonably expectable morality, they wouldn’t want to geoengineer planets that are already inhabited, so the capsules would only activate if they land on uninhabited planets.

So, given these two quite likely technology capabilities for an interstellar space-fairing civilizations, aliens would either be in a micron-sized capsule or two that could be anywhere on the planet, and therefore highly unlikely to ever be found… or they might look like fairies.

Many people through history claim to have seen fairies of various descriptions, and usually they have magical powers. Via Arthur C Clarke, we of course know that any sufficiently advanced technology looks like magic. So, although I don’t believe they exist or existed, and think that those who claim to have seen them probably have poor eyesight or overly vivid imaginations or are drugged or pissed, or hallucinating, there is a small but finite possibility that they have existed and were visiting aliens.

Maybe fairies, pixies and other magical tiny people were simply aliens from different star systems.

 

2018 outlook: fragile

Futurists often consider wild cards – events that could happen, and would undoubtedly have high impacts if they do, but have either low certainty or low predictability of timing.  2018 comes with a larger basket of wildcards than we have seen for a long time. As well as wildcards, we are also seeing the intersection of several ongoing trends that are simultaneous reaching peaks, resulting in socio-political 100-year-waves. If I had to summarise 2018 in a single word, I’d pick ‘fragile’, ‘volatile’ and ‘combustible’ as my shortlist.

Some of these are very much in all our minds, such as possible nuclear war with North Korea, imminent collapse of bitcoin, another banking collapse, a building threat of cyberwar, cyberterrorism or bioterrorism, rogue AI or emergence issues, high instability in the Middle East, rising inter-generational conflict, resurgence of communism and decline of capitalism among the young, increasing conflicts within LGBTQ and feminist communities, collapse of the EU under combined pressures from many angles: economic stresses, unpredictable Brexit outcomes, increasing racial tensions resulting from immigration, severe polarization of left and right with the rise of extreme parties at both ends. All of these trends have strong tribal characteristics, and social media is the perfect platform for tribalism to grow and flourish.

Adding fuel to the building but still unlit bonfire are increasing tensions between the West and Russia, China and the Middle East. Background natural wildcards of major epidemics, asteroid strikes, solar storms, megavolcanoes, megatsumanis and ‘the big one’ earthquakes are still there waiting in the wings.

If all this wasn’t enough, society has never been less able to deal with problems. Our ‘snowflake’ generation can barely cope with a pea under the mattress without falling apart or throwing tantrums, so how we will cope as a society if anything serious happens such as a war or natural catastrophe is anyone’s guess. 1984-style social interaction doesn’t help.

If that still isn’t enough, we’re apparently running a little short on Ghandis, Mandelas, Lincolns and Churchills right now too. Juncker, Trump, Merkel and May are at the far end of the same scale on ability to inspire and bring everyone together.

Depressing stuff, but there are plenty of good things coming too. Augmented reality, more and better AI, voice interaction, space development, cryptocurrency development, better IoT, fantastic new materials, self-driving cars and ultra-high speed transport, robotics progress, physical and mental health breakthroughs, environmental stewardship improvements, and climate change moving to the back burner thanks to coming solar minimum.

If we are very lucky, none of the bad things will happen this year and will wait a while longer, but many of the good things will come along on time or early. If.

Yep, fragile it is.

 

Future sex, gender and relationships: how close can you get?

Using robots for gender play

Using robots for gender play

I recently gave a public talk at the British Academy about future sex, gender, and relationship, asking the question “How close can you get?”, considering particularly the impact of robots. The above slide is an example. People will one day (between 2050 and 2065 depending on their budget) be able to use an android body as their own or even swap bodies with another person. Some will do so to be young again, many will do so to swap gender. Lots will do both. I often enjoy playing as a woman in computer games, so why not ‘come back’ and live all over again as a woman for real? Except I’ll be 90 in 2050.

The British Academy kindly uploaded the audio track from my talk at

If you want to see the full presentation, here is the PowerPoint file as a pdf:

sex-and-robots-british-academy

I guess it is theoretically possible to listen to the audio while reading the presentation. Most of the slides are fairly self-explanatory anyway.

Needless to say, the copyright of the presentation belongs to me, so please don’t reproduce it without permission.

Enjoy.

Diabetes: Electronically controlled drug delivery via smart membrane

This is an invention I made in 2001 as part of my active skin suite to help diabetics. I’ve just been told I am another of the zillions of diabetics in the world so was reminded of it.

This wasn’t feasible in 2001 but it will be very soon, and could be an ideal way of monitoring blood glucose and insulin levels, checking with clinic AI for the correct does, and then opening the membrane pores just enough and long enough to allow the right dose of insulin to pass through. Obviously pore and drug particle design have to be coordinated, but this should be totally feasible. Here’s some pics:

Active skin principles

Active skin principles

Drug delivery overview

Drug delivery overview

Drug delivery mechanism

Drug delivery mechanism

New book: Society Tomorrow

It’s been a while since my last blog. That’s because I’ve been writing another book, my 8th so far. Not the one I was doing on future fashion, which went on the back burner for a while, I’ve only written a third of that one, unless I put it out as a very short book.

This one follows on from You Tomorrow and is called Society Tomorrow, 20% shorter at 90,000 words. It is ready to publish now, so I’m just waiting for feedback from a few people before hitting the button.

Frontcover

Here’s the introduction:

The one thing that we all share is that we will get older over the next few decades. Rapid change affects everyone, but older people don’t always feel the same effects as younger people, and even if we keep up easily today, some of us may find it harder tomorrow. Society will change, in its demographic and ethnic makeup, its values, its structure. We will live very differently. New stresses will come from both changing society and changing technology, but there is no real cause for pessimism. Many things will get better for older people too. We are certainly not heading towards utopia, but the overall quality of life for our ageing population will be significantly better in the future than it is today. In fact, most of the problems ahead are related to quality of life issues in society as a whole, and simply reflect the fact that if you don’t have to worry as much about poor health or poverty, something else will still occupy your mind.

This book follows on from 2013’s You Tomorrow, which is a guide to future life as an individual. It also slightly overlaps my 2013 book Total Sustainability which looks in part at future economic and social issues as part of achieving sustainability too. Rather than replicating topics, this book updates or omits them if they have already been addressed in those two companion books. As a general theme, it looks at wider society and the bigger picture, drawing out implications for both individuals and for society as a whole to deal with. There are plenty to pick from.

If there is one theme that plays through the whole book, it is a strong warning of the problem of increasing polarisation between people of left and right political persuasion. The political centre is being eroded quickly at the moment throughout the West, but alarmingly this does not seem so much to be a passing phase as a longer term trend. With all the potential benefits from future technology, we risk undermining the very fabric of our society. I remain optimistic because it can only be a matter of time before sense prevails and the trend reverses. One day the relative harmony of living peacefully side by side with those with whom we disagree will be restored, by future leaders of higher quality than those we have today.

Otherwise, whereas people used to tolerate each other’s differences, I fear that this increasing intolerance of those who don’t share the same values could lead to conflict if we don’t address it adequately. That intolerance currently manifests itself in increasing authoritarianism, surveillance, and an insidious creep towards George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. The worst offenders seem to be our young people, with students seemingly proud of trying to ostracise anyone who dares agree with what they think is correct. Being students, their views hold many self-contradictions and clear lack of thought, but they appear to be building walls to keep any attempt at different thought away.

Altogether, this increasing divide, built largely from sanctimony, is a very dangerous trend, and will take time to reverse even when it is addressed. At the moment, it is still worsening rapidly.

So we face significant dangers, mostly self-inflicted, but we also have hope. The future offers wonderful potential for health, happiness, peace, prosperity. As I address the significant problems lying ahead, I never lose my optimism that they are soluble, but if we are to solve problems, we must first recognize them for what they are and muster the willingness to deal with them. On the current balance of forces, even if we avoid outright civil war, the future looks very much like a gilded cage. We must not ignore the threats. We must acknowledge them, and deal with them.

Then we can all reap the rich rewards the future has to offer.

It will be out soon.

Future sex, gender and design

This is a presentation I made for the Eindhoven Design Academy. It is mostly self-explanatory

Slide1

Slide2Slide3 Slide4 Slide5 Slide6 Slide7 Slide8 Slide9 Slide10 Slide11 Slide12 Slide13 Slide14 Slide15 Slide16 Slide17 Slide18 Slide19 Slide20

 

Smart packaging: Acoustic sterilisation

I should have written this on the ides of March, but hey ho. I was discussing packaging this morning for an IoT event.

Imagine a bacterium sitting on a package on a supermarket shelf is called Julius Caesar. Now imagine Brutus coming along with a particularly sharp knife and stabbing him hundreds of times. That’s my idea, just scaled down a bit.

selfsterilising

This started as a slight adaptation of an idea I developed for Dunlop a few years ago to make variable grip tires. (Still waiting for Dunlop to make those, so maybe some other tire company might pick up the idea).

The idea is very simple, to use tiny triangular structures embedded in the surface, and then pull the base of the triangle together, thereby pushing up the tip. My tire idea used electro-active polymers to do the pulling, and sharp carbon composites to do the grip bit, or in this antibacterial case, the sharp knife. Probably for packaging I’d use carbon nanotubes or similar as the sides with which to stab the bacteria, but engineers frequently come up with different nanostructure shapes so I’m pretty agnostic about material and shape. If it ruptures a bacterium, it will be good.

An easier to use alternative for widespread use in packaging would be to ditch the electro-active polymer and associated electronics, and instead to use a tuned acoustic wave to move the blades in and out of the surface. All that is needed to activate them is to put out that frequency of sound through a speaker system in the supermarket or factory. The sound needed would likely be ultrasonic, so it doesn’t irritate all the shoppers, and in any case, nano-structures will generally be associated with high frequencies.

So the packaging would include tiny structures that act as the dagger attached to a particular acoustic mass acting as Brutus, that would move when the appropriate resonant frequency is broadcast.

This technique doesn’t need any nasty chemicals, though it does need the nanostructures and sound and if they aren’t designed right, the nanostructures could be just as harmful. Anyway, that’s the basic idea.

Image

Self-sterilizing surfaces & packaging

selfsterilising