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Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Elon Musk is best known for Space X, Tesla, smoking weed on Joe Rogan’s podcast, and sending outlandish tweets.  But there’s another secretive project that this real life Tony Stark is involved in that could be even more transformative than everything else he’s doing combined: Neuralink.  This neuroscience venture wants to give paralyzed people the ability to control devices with their minds but it’s their long-term goal that’s truly exciting: creating a brain to computer interface similar to the fictitious Neuralace from Ian M. Bain’s Culturenovels that will let people access the Internet with their minds.  Armed with this new-found ability to reference an unlimited amount of information at a moment’s notice humanity will be able to rise to incredible new heights.

As exciting as this possibility seems it was long considered to be a science fiction dream. The longest of long shots.  After all, if we don’t fully understand how our mind’s work, where consciousness comes from, why we dream, etc. then how can we really expect to figure out how to merge them with computers? Doing so would be a daunting task that would involve unnecessarily drilling holes into our skulls and implanting chips that may get rejected by our existing wetware.  How many of us would really be comfortable becoming early adopters for a technology like that?

Well, as it turns out the answer is a lot of us.  Thousands of people are already clamoring for the opportunity to become enhanced cybernetic organisms.  Especially since the idea is coming to us from the messiah Elon Musk.  And now they’ll have a better understanding of exactly what this new technology may look like as we get our first public look at Neuralink’s line of thinking with several advances setting the stage for what is to come.

According to The Verge, “The first big advance is flexible ‘threads,’ which are less likely to damage the brain than the materials currently used in brain-machine interfaces. These threads also create the possibility of transferring a higher volume of data, according to a white paper credited to ‘Elon Musk & Neuralink.’ The abstract notes that the system could include ‘as many as 3,072 electrodes per array distributed across 96 threads.’  The threads are 4 to 6 μm in width, which makes them considerably thinner than a human hair. In addition to developing the threads, Neuralink’s other big advance is a machine that automatically embeds them.”

Obviously, there is still a long way to go before “threading” becomes the hottest new trend. For starters, learning to use the implant is said to be the equivalent of learning to play the piano.  No easy task.  But that won’t stop Musk from continuing to push the envelope, from continuing to dare us to dream bigger.  And now that the groundwork has been laid and the initial technology developed there’s no going back.  In fact, we may even be on the verge of conducting the first human tests as early as 2020 with successful mouse testing already taking place.  Suffice it to say, at this point the cat is out of the bag.

If human testing is successful Neuralink could wind up giving us an unprecedented fourth brain region. The first is the Basal Ganglia, the reptilian or primal brain that less evolved species operate from.  The second is the limbic system which imbues us and certain other mammals with emotions.  And the third is what separates us from everyone else, our neocortex which provides us with the ability to have rational thoughts.  But soon we may have a fourth threaded layer, voluntarily implanted into us by Neuralink, enabling us to take evolution into our own hands and keep pace with the latest advances in AI.

Perhaps now you see why I said that Neuralink could be more impactful than everything else that Musk is working on which is really saying something when you consider that he is also working on revolutionizing energy, transportation, and space travel!

Image result for neuralinkIs Neuralink the Greatest Idea Ever?

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I’ve spent a pretty significant amount of time on Earth so far.  Thirty seven years.  About half of an average lifespan.  And yet I don’t feel like I’ve lived a significant amount of time.  Don’t feel satisfied at all with the time I’ve had.  When I find myself on my deathbed I’ll be lamenting that it all went by too fast, wishing that I had just a little bit more time to explore. So is there anything that we can do to rectify the situation that I find myself in?  Any way that we can make it so that I can live longer?  Can we reverse the aging process or download our consciousnesses when The Singularity hits in a few years?  Maybe.  Perhaps. But in the interim there may be something else that we can try that won’t involve playing God with our biology or merging with machines: hacking time.

As Wired explains, “Seekers of immortality are saddled with the body, the physical brain, the fact of entropy. Eventually, things fall apart; cells stop dividing, DNA mutates, organs fail. In a piece for The New Yorker, Tad Friend neatly divided the ‘Immortalists’ into two camps: the Meat Puppets, who ‘believe that we can retool our biology and remain in our bodies’; and the RoboCops, who ‘believe that we’ll eventually merge with mechanical bodies and/or with the cloud.’ Both groups face potentially insurmountable challenges. The Meat Puppets struggle against the laws of nature and forces of decay. The RoboCops, who speak of ‘uploading’ minds as if by zip file, are stuck with the complexities of consciousness. But there may be a third way forward, a workaround that sidesteps some of the problems of the first two and targets subjective experience. Call them the Time Hackers.  Like the RoboCops, the Time Hackers want to tap into your brain. But their goal isn’t to transfer the mind—’the ghost in the machine’—elsewhere. Instead, the Time Hackers want to modify consciousness, deceive the ghost inside your head, and make you feel as though you’re living forever.”

How would they do this? It’s simple.  Sort of.

You see, we all experience time distortions.  Gym class seems to fly by while math class seems to drag on forever.  Weekends are gone in an instant while boring workdays hit a lull at 2:30 and never end.  Same amount of time.  Different results.  Dreams are the same way. An action packed series of events that seems like a full length feature film unfurling in your mind all takes place in a manner of minutes since you last hit the snooze button.  It seems impossible, improbable even, but our night long dreams never last for the full time that we’re asleep.  Rather they all take place in a much shorter amount of time during a particular sleep cycle.  Why is that?  Why is it that we are able to perceive time differently depending on what we’re doing or what our minds are doing?  And can we use that fact to our advantage?

Well, as it turns out we may very well be able to.  Consider hallucinogenic drugs.  Similar to dreaming they help to alter our consciousness and our perceptions of time by disrupting our mind’s ability to detect where our physical bodies are in space.  As Einstein famously pointed out space and time are intrinsically connected.  It may therefore stand to reason that if we can physically alter how our bodies perceive space then we also can alter how our bodies perceive time.  Cause and effect. In theory, this may mean that there could be a way, perhaps with some kind of neural implant or virtual reality device, that we could alter our perception of time on demand.  While real life is essentially paused, you would be free to explore some other virtual world for hours on end just like you do when you’re dreaming.  Your own private Narnia.  The plot of Inception brought to life.  With these so called Time Hackers being the ones to pursue the development and implantation of such a device.

If this actually happens, if we actually get to the point where we have technology at our disposal that lets us manipulate time this opens up a whole slew of possibilities for in addition to feeling like we had more time we’d actually have more time with which to be productive.  Time that we could use to binge-watch shows, learn new things, or get more work done.

As Wired puts it:

“As neurotechnology improves and social mores shift, what sounds strange will become mundane, even as ethical dilemmas arise. (Would it be wrong for a student to spend 30 simulated hours to one real-world hour learning calculus? What about thirty simulated years?) Complications aside, wouldn’t you buy yourself more time if you could?”

Of course, this creates all sort of ethical dilemmas as well.  Would there be a socio-economic rift that develops when it’s only the rich people that get to use this technology?  Would regular society come to a screeching halt when everyone prefers to live in time distorted virtual reality instead? Would evil corporations force their workers to work overtime inside of these virtual worlds in order to maximize a worker’s full potential during the day?  Would prisoners be forced to live out multiple life sentences within just one normal lifespan?  In short, is too much of a good thing a bad thing? The answer is probably yes.

So, while we’d all probably prefer to have a little bit more time with which to work we have to be careful not to go overboard and completely neglect the organic human experience, losing ourselves in the process.  Because no matter how much more time we have there’s no substitute for pausing time the old fashioned way, by stopping to smell the roses and living more in the present moment. As Master Shifu put it in Kung Fu Panda: “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery.  But today is a gift, that’s why they call it the present.”

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Is hacking time the Greatest Idea Ever?

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I’ve always been fascinated by novel new materials especially the recent wave of 2D materials with unique properties that aren’t generally found in nature.  For instance, thanks to one of these new wonder materials, Graphene, we may soon have new building blocks that are light-weight, stronger than steel, capable of conducting electricity, and much more.

However, when it comes down to it my favorite new materials are those based on biomimicry, designs already found in nature that we tap into to create new innovations capable of filling the gaps in our tool kit.  Such as we just did when we recently created snail inspired reversible super glue!

As Phys.Org puts it, “If you’ve ever pressed a picture-hanging strip onto the wall only to realize it’s slightly off-center, you know the disappointment behind adhesion as we typically experience it: it may be strong, but it’s mostly irreversible. While you can un-stick the used strip from the wall, you can’t turn its stickiness back on to adjust its placement; you have to start over with a new strip or tolerate your mistake. Beyond its relevance to interior decorating, durable, reversible adhesion could allow for reusable envelopes, gravity-defying boots, and more heavy-duty industrial applications like car assembly.”

And if we can achieve this incredible feat of engineering we’ll have slimy snails to thank.

“A snail’s epiphragm—a slimy layer of moisture that can harden to protect its body from dryness—allows the snail to cement itself in place for long periods of time, making it the ultimate model in adhesion that can be switched on and off as needed.”

The perfect solution to those sticky situations that we may find ourselves in.

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Is Reversible Super Glue the Greatest Idea Ever?

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I would be remiss if I spend an entire week talking about Black Mirror style sci-fi scenarios and didn’t mention rogue scientists creating new lifeforms.  Or at least entities that exhibit lifelike qualities.  Such as a breakthrough from Cornell University involving what has come to be known as “Artificial Metabolism”.

According to Futurism, “Scientists just got one step closer to creating living machines — or at least machines that mimic biological life as we know it.

A new biomaterial built in a Cornell University bioengineering lab uses synthetic DNA to continuously and autonomously organize, assemble, and restructure itself in a process so similar to how biological cells and tissues grow that the researchers are calling [it] “artificial metabolism,” according to research published in Science Robotics last week.”

While this remarkable biomaterial stops short of being considered an actual living organism it certainly does appear to mimic some life-like characteristics.  Following, or at least appearing to follow, biological imperatives.

“The biomaterial mimics a biological organism’s endless metabolic cycle of taking in energy and replacing old cells. When placed in a nutrient-rich environment, the material grew in the direction of the raw materials and food it needed to thrive — not unlike how a developing brain’s neurons grow out in the direction of specific molecules.  Meanwhile, the material also let its tail end die off and decay, giving the appearance of a constantly-regrowing slime mold traveling around toward food.”

Could this strange biomaterial eventually get to the point where we do consider it to be alive? Certainly anything is possible.  But more troubling is the fact that it may soon be possible to make existing animals as smart as humans by mixing our DNA with theirs.  At least that’s what some Chinese scientists are attempting to do by adding genes suspecting of playing a role in the formation of human intelligence into some macaque monkeys.  Essentially bringing the plot of Planet of the Apes to life.  And shockingly the efforts seem to be working.

As Technology Review puts it, “According to their findings, the modified monkeys did better on a memory test involving colors and block pictures, and their brains also took longer to develop—as those of human children do. There wasn’t a difference in brain size.”

Ethicists are likely going to be concerned with these developments as we continue to play God with technologies that we don’t yet fully understand.  The potential for creating smarter monkeys exists. But so too does the potential for introducing other genetic diseases, birth defects, or cognitive deficiencies into their germ line.  By trying to enhance them in one area we may be weakening them in another.  At this point we just don’t know how things will play out.  What we do know is that from artificial metabolism to smart monkeys the future is likely to resemble science fiction in more ways than one.  Whether or not that’s a good thing remains to be seen.

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Are we on the verge of creating new forms of life?

 

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I think about death all the time.  Literally, all the time.  Most notably every night before I go to bed. “Welp, I’m now one day closer to dying.” Surviving a car accident that nearly took your life will do that to you.

Unfortunately, this latest new about what happens to the body after we die isn’t going to make me feel any better.  For death in some cases may not be instantaneous.  If you get crushed to death by a falling boulder, then yes probably instantaneous.  Or if Thanos snaps you out of existence, then yes probably instantaneous.  But for everyone else…well, there’s a chance that you’ll remain conscious even after your heart stops pumping, making it so that you’re fully aware of the fact that you just died.  If you happen to die in a hospital you’ll even hear your own time of death announced.

As Outerplaces puts it, “What happens to the body after death? We’ve all heard the stories about how some animals – namely snakes – can still bite after they’ve been decapitated because their brains require less oxygen and thus stay active longer, but what about humans? According to a new study, it may actually take hours for our brains to fully shut down after our hearts stop pumping, which means we are technically dead but may be somewhat aware of what is happening around us.

In studying patients with cardiac arrest both in the United States and Europe, scientists at Stony Brook University of Medicine in New York found that a small percentage of those who were successfully resuscitated after their hearts stopped beating were aware of the room and could remember conversations that the medical teams had around them. Those patients (around 2 percent of the 140 interviewed) shared, in detail, what they remembered even though they were clinically dead.”

The million dollar question now becomes how long do we stay conscious for?  Are we talking about minimal lag time here? A few minutes? Maybe an hour?  Or are we talking about hours and hours? Or even longer than that?  Are we essentially getting buried alive?  Cue Black Mirror music.

If this is true then I think we should change our practice on multiple fronts.  Instead of having hospitals declaring a time of death based on when the heart stops beating they should declare a time of death only after all brain wave activity has ceased.  This way no one, not even a dying person in their final moments, ever has to be subjected to the horror of hearing their own time of death being declared.  And secondly we should also use the time immediately after a person has died to talk to them.  To tell them how much we loved them.  To maybe tell them a secret that they never knew.  If they are still conscious and able to hear us then they will be able to process this information and possibly take that knowledge with them to the afterlife, if there is one.  Either away, we should get to the point where we consider just walking away from someone as soon as they die as an act of cruelty.  Even if the person is a total stranger.  Instead, you should immediately go up to someone who has just died and talk to them to comfort them along their final journey.

Personally, I will continue to hope that I never get to the point.  That thanks to medical and technological breakthroughs I am somehow able to reverse the aging process or have my consciousness downloaded into a machine so that I can live forever! For contemplating my own death isn’t something that I want to do again anytime soon.  I’ve already been there, done that.

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What really happens when we die?

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Good news for people who worry about the inhumane treatment of lab rats.  In the near future it may be possible to test for new drugs without the need for animal testing at all.  Instead, new therapies will be tried out on a human brain.  But don’t worry.  This isn’t Black Mirror and we’re not talking about real people.   Instead we’re talking about a “mini-brain platform” that would allow for more humane testing to occur.

Originally developed by researchers at John Hopkins University, and then commercialized by AxoSim, the platform could become a real game-changer in the expensive and never-ending search for new drugs.

As Live Science puts it, “This is your bedbug-size brain on drugs. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore are growing ‘mini-brains’ — smaller than the period at the end of this sentence — that may contain enough human brain cells to be useful in studying drug addiction and other neurological diseases.

The mini-brains, grown in a laboratory dish, could one day reduce the need for the use of laboratory animals to conduct this type of research or to test therapeutic drugs, the researchers said.

Labs from around the world have been racing to grow these and other organoids — microscopic, yet primitively functional versions of livers, kidneys, hearts and brains grown from real human cells. The version of the mini-brain from Johns Hopkins represents an advance over others reported in the last three years, in that it is quickly reproducible and contains many types of brain cells that interact with each other, just like a real brain, the researchers said.”

But what if these mini-brains were to develop, um, a mind of their own?!? In that case wouldn’t this research be even more inhumane than animal testing?! In theory, yes.  But, I’ll leave that speculation for the ethicists.  And Charlie Brooker.

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Are Mini Brains the Greatest Idea Ever?

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A quick look at everything that tickled my fancy over the last week:

SABRE Engine

One of my favorite topics to write about are new modes of transportation and this latest idea is a real doozy: a new rocket design with the potential to revolutionize society.

According to Futurism, “The Synergistic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine (SABRE) runs partially on oxygen collected from the atmosphere rather than relying on heavy fuel. That means serious weight savings, according to the European Space Agency — such that a payload could be delivered to orbit at ‘half the vehicle mass of current launchers.’”

Weight savings that could be used to transport passengers from London to Sydney, Australia in just four hours! Making near instantaneous worldwide travel a real possibility.

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Horizontal Skyscrapers

I always imagined that cities of the future would resemble The Jetsons with impossibly tall skyscrapers rising about the clouds to escape smog smothered landscapes.  China though had other ideas, deciding to flip the script on its side.  Literally.  By building a horizontal skyscraper.

According to Fast Company, “China is nearing completion of a new architectural landmark. The building is actually four distinct skyscrapers rising above the city of Chongqing. But what makes the project truly impressive is a 1,000 foot steel and glass sky bridge that connects them all, filled with trees, lagoons, observation decks, shops, and restaurants. Its developers call it ‘The Crystal.’”

And while it sounds like something you’d find in a movie starring the The Rock’s it’s entirely possible that The Crystal paves the way for even more horizontal skyscrapers in the future.

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Night Vision

Humans may be one step closer to obtaining night vision and other super powers thanks to a new breakthrough recently tested on mice.

According to Futurism, “In the new research, described in a paper published in the journal Cell today, the researchers injected ‘ocular injectable photoreceptor-binding up conversion nanoparticles’ into the eyes of mice.

The stunning result: after the injection, the mice were able to see normally invisible near-infrared light — both humans and mice are normally unable to perceive light with wavelengths longer than 700 nanometers — effectively extending ‘mammalian vision,’ according to the paper.”

This is exciting research that could one day pave the way for enhancing human capabilities.

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Synthetic Brain

In the future it may be possible to create an artificial human brain or at least a brain that resembles a human one in the way that connections are formed and memories are stored.

According to Futurism, “Gimzewski and his team found that a grid of tightly-packed copper posts, when treated with silver nitrate, grew nanowires out in seemingly random directions that mirror the branching, interconnect neurons found in a brain.  On the atomic scale, the connections among the silver nanowires resemble synapses, which are the junctions at which two neurons meet up and transmit signals among with each other. The way that the nanowires organized themselves mirrors the sort of structures that would pop up during an MRI of a brain as it stores memories, according to ZDNet.”

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Squid Teeth New Material

I’m a huge fan of materials science and especially of biomimicry but this next idea has me feeling a little bit squeamish.

As Science Focus explains, “A newly-discovered material made from squid teeth could one day replace man-made fibers like nylon and polyester, according to a review by scientists at Pennsylvania State University. This would help to reduce microplastic pollution in the oceans, as well as paving the way for new possibilities such as self-repairing safety clothing, or garments with built-in, flexible screens.

The smart materials in question are made from a material found in the suckers on a squid’s tentacles. In some species, these suckers have a ring of ‘teeth’ to help the squid grip onto a surface. These are known as SRTs – squid ring teeth – and it’s the proteins they’re made of that have scientists excited.”

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Are any of these the Greatest Idea Ever?

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