Tag Archives: body hackers

Thinking about nanotechnology, synthetic biology, body hacking, corporate responsibility, and zombies

In the wake of Craig Venter’s announcement (last week) of the creation of a synthetic organism (or most of one), Barack Obama, US President, has requested a special study (click here to see the letter to Dr. Amy Gutmann of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues). From Andrew Maynard’s 2020 Science blog (May 26, 2010) posting,

It’s no surprise therefore that, hot on the heels of last week’s announcement, President Obama called for an urgent study to identify appropriate ethical boundaries and minimize possible risks associated with the breakthrough.

This was a bold and important move on the part of the White House. But its success will lie in ensuring the debate over risks in particular is based on sound science, and not sidetracked by groundless speculation.

The new “synthetic biology” epitomized by the Venter Institute’s work – in essence the ability to design new genetic code on computers and then “download” it into living organisms – heralds a new era of potentially transformative technology innovation. As if to underline this, the US House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce will be hearing testimony from Craig Venter and others on the technology’s potential on May 27th – just days after last week’s announcement.

Andrew goes on to suggest while the ethical issues are very important that safety issues should not be shortchanged,

The ethics in particular surrounding synthetic biology are far from clear; the ability to custom-design the genetic code that resides in and defines all living organisms challenges our very notions of what is right and what is acceptable. Which is no doubt why President Obama wasted no time in charging the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues to look into the technology.

But in placing ethics so high up the agenda, my fear is that more immediate safety issues might end up being overlooked.

Hilary Sutcliffe in an opinion piece for ethicalcorp.com (writing to promote her organization’s [MATTER] Corporate responsibility and emerging technologies conference on June 4, 2010) suggests this,

Though currently most of the attention is focused on the scientists exploring synthetic biology in universities, this will also include the companies commercialising these technologies.

In addition, many organisations may soon have to consider if and how they use the applications developed using these new technologies in their own search for sustainability.

This is definitely an issue for the ‘Futures’ area of your CSR [corporate social responsibility] strategy, but there is a new ‘ology’ which is being used in products already on the market which may need to be moved up your priority list – ‘Nanotechnology’ or (‘nanotechnologies’ to be precise) – nano for short.

What I’m doing here is drawing together synthetic biology, nanotechnology, safety, and corporate social responsibility (CSR). What follows is an example of a company that apparently embraced CSR.

In the wake of BP’s (British Petroleum) disastrous handling of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the notion of corporate social responsibility and  ethics and safety issues being considered and discussed seriously seems unlikely. Sure, there are some smaller companies that act on on those values but those are the values of an owner and are not often seen in action in a larger corporate entity and certainly not in a multinational enterprise such as BP.

Spinwatch offers an intriguing perspective on corporate social responsibility in an article by Tom Borelli,

To demonstrate “responsibility”, BP spent huge sums of money on an advertising campaign promoting the notion that fossil fuel emissions of carbon dioxide is to blame for global warming and its investment in renewable energy was proof the company was seeking a future that was “beyond petroleum”.

The message was clear: oil is bad for society and BP is leading the way in alternative energy.

The BP experience shows there are serious consequences when companies demagogue against its core business. …

… “If you drew up a list of companies that Americans are most disappointed in, BP would definitely feature,” said James Hoopes, professor of business ethics at Babson College, Massachusetts.

Ironically, BP’s experience delivered the exact opposite of CSR’s promise: the company’s reputation was ruined, the company is the target of government agency investigations and Congressional hearings and its stock price lags far behind its competitors and the S&P 500.

Unfortunately, in the aftermath of BP’s failures, many critics blamed corporate greed – not CSR – as the cause. They believed the profit motive forced the company to skimp on basic pipeline maintenance and worker safety.

This conclusion is far from the truth. If profit were its only goal, BP would define its role in society as a company that safely producing oil while providing jobs and energy for the economy.

This article was written in 2006 and presents a view that would never have occurred to me. I find Borelli’s approach puzzling as it seems weirdly naïve. He seems to be unaware that large companies can have competing interests and while one part of an enterprise may be pursuing genuine corporate social responsibility another part of the enterprise may be pursuing goals that are antithetical to that purpose. Another possibility is that the company was cynically pursing corporate social responsibility in the hope that it would mitigate any backlash in the event of a major accident.

Getting back to where this started, I think that nanotechnology, synthetic biology and other emerging technologies require all of the approaches to  ethics, safety rules, corporate social responsibility, regulatory frameworks, and more that we have and can dream up including this from Andrew (from May 26, 2010 posting),

Rather, scientists, policy makers and developers urgently need to consider how synthetic biology might legitimately lead to people and the environment being endangered, and how this is best avoided.

What we need is a science-based dialogue on potential emergent risks that present new challenges, the plausibility of these risks leading to adverse impacts, and the magnitude and nature of the possible harm that might result. Only then will we be able to develop a science-based foundation on which to build a safe technology.

Synthetic biology is still too young to second-guess whether artificial microbes will present new risks; whether bio-terror or bio-error will result in harmful new pathogens; or whether blinkered short-cuts will precipitate catastrophic failure. But the sheer momentum and audacity of the technology will inevitably lead to new and unusual risks emerging.

And this is precisely why the safety dialogue needs to be grounded in science now, before it becomes entrenched in speculation.

You can read more about the science behind Venter’s work in this May 22, 2010 posting by Andrew and Gregor Wolbring provides an excellent roundup of the commentary on Venter’s latest achievement.

I agree we need the discussion but grounding the safety dialogue in science won’t serve as a prophylactic treatment for public panic. I believe that there is always an underlying anxiety about science, technology, and our place in the grand scheme of things. This anxiety is played out in various horror scenarios. I don’t think it’s an accident that interest in vampires, werewolves, and zombies is so high these days.

I had a minor epiphany—a reminder of sorts—the other night watching Zombiemania ( you can read a review of this Canadian documentary here) when I heard the pioneers,  afficionados and experts comment on the political and social implications of zombie movies (full disclosure: I’m squeamish  so I had to miss parts of the documentary).This fear of losing control over nature and destroying the natural order (reversing death as zombies and vampires do) and the worry over the consequences of augmenting ourselves (werewolves, zombies and vampires are stronger than ordinary humans who become their prey) is profound.

Venter’s feat with the bacterium may or may not set off a public panic but there is no question in my mind that at least one will occur as synthetic biology, biotechnology, and nanotechnology take us closer to real life synthetic and transgenic organisms, androids and robots (artificial humans), and cyborgs (body hackers who integrate machines into their bodies).

Let’s proceed with the discussions about safety, ethics, etc. on the assumption that there will be a public panic. Let’s make another assumption, the public panic will be set off by something unexpected. For the final assumption, a public panic may be just what we need. That final comment has been occasioned by Schumpeter’s notion of ‘creative destruction’ (Wikipedia essay here). While the notion is grounded in economics, it has a remarkably useful application as a means of understanding social behaviour.

Hearing like a dolphin and seeing like a cat; videopoetry; GI Joe’s nanotechnology; Casimir force research

As I’ve been exploring ideas around multimodal discourse and sensing, this article, Tech gives humans animal senses, caught my eye. Animals see and/or hear more than humans do unless the human had access to a virtual reality display at the SIGGRAPH09 conference (August 3 – 7, 2009) in New Orleans. From the article by Jason Palmer on BBC News,

The virtual reality scene is based loosely on Cocos Island, west of Costa Rica, and visitors to the exhibit can wander through the island’s forests or swim in its tropical waters, navigating with the aid of a modified Nintendo Wii game controller.

They can switch between ranges of sounds or sights that they might see.

An ultraviolet setting paints a picture rich with both normal colour and reflections we can’t normally see. Visualisation expert Fred Parke has designed the system such that it corrects for perspective as users navigate the space. The programme allows visitors to hear the infrasound vocalisations of whales or the ultrasound clicks of tiger moths.

(There’s more here including a video [prefaced by a Blackberry ad featuring U2] of visitors enjoying the display.) The article goes on to mention that animals have senses that we don’t, for example, “sharks’ ability to sense electric fields.” It’s true true you don’t have that sense unless you’re a body hacker,  “a subculture of people who embed magnetic chips into their bodies so they can sense magnetic and electromagnetic fields thereby giving themselves a sixth sense.” (I posted about body hackers here in my exploratory series about robotics and human enhancement) I’m not coming to any conclusions; I’m exploring possible connections and in that context, the interest in extending senses beyond their ‘normal’ range or adding senses come from various sectors seems significant.

On another note, it seems like a good time to mention Heather Haley’s videopoetry event which will take place in Vancouver at Pacific Cinémathèque (usually) in November. Right now she’s asking for submissions,

SEE THE VOICE: Visible Verse 2009

Call For Entries

Nearing 10 years of screenings! Please help spread the word. Thanks!

Pacific Cinémathèque and curator Heather Haley are seeking videopoem submissions from around the world for the annual Visible Verse screening and performance poetry celebration. SEE THE VOICE: Visible Verse is North America’s sustaining venue for the presentation of new and artistically significant poetry video and film.

Official guidelines:

* Visible Verse seeks videopoems, with a 15 minutes maximum duration.
* Either official language of Canada is acceptable, though if the video is in French, an English-dubbed or-subtitled version is required for consideration. Videos may originate in any part of the world, however.
* Works will be judged on true literary merit. The ideal videopoem is a wedding of word and image, the voice seen as well as heard.
* Please, do not send documentaries, as they are outside the featured genre.
* Videopoem producers should provide a brief bio, full name, and contact information in a cover letter. There is no official application form nor entry fee.

Send, at your own risk, videopoems and poetry films/preview copies (which cannot be returned) in DVD NTSC format to: VISIBLE VERSE c/o Pacific Cinémathèque, 200–1131 Howe Street, Vancouver, BC, V6Z 2L7, Canada. Selected artists will be notified and receive a screening fee.

DEADLINE: Sept. 1, 2009

For more information contact Heather Haley at: hshaley@emspace.com

You can also check out her website here.

Moving from the artsy to the commercial, the movie GI Joe opened this weekend with a villain determined to take over the world by using nanotechnology weapons. Yes, nanobots or, for this movie, nanomites. Unfortunately, the critics are more interested in excoriating the film than in explaining the ‘technology’ and my eardrums are not up to the task of watching the film but it does seem that this is another variation of K. Eric Drexler’s nanoassemblers eating up the world scenario from his book, Engines of Creation. In contrast, scientists continue their every day nanotechnology research, (from the media release on Phyorg.com)

Today’s advances in nanofabrication include the manufacture of micro- and nano-machines with moving parts separated by distances less than a micron (a micron is a millionth of a meter; a single strand of hair is approximately 100 microns). Because the distances are extremely small, the Casimir force needs to be considered in the design and function of the micro/nano-machines for efficient operation.

“The Casimir force, which is usually attractive, is also large at short separation distances between objects,” explained Mohideen, a professor of physics and the principal investigator of the grant.

Nanotechnology enables robots and human enhancement: part 3

There’s another way of looking at the robot situation. Instead of making machines more like people, why not make people more like machines? That seems to be the subtext when you read about human enhancement and, like yesterday’s discussion about robots, you find yourself talking to a transhumanist or two.

Tracy Picha writing in Flare magazine’s August 2009 issue (The Future of Our Body) starts her article with an anecdote about Aimee Mullins, a record-breaking paralympian (and double amputee), wearing prosthetic legs to an event that boosted her standard height from 5’8″ to 6’1″.

As the story goes, Mullins reconnected with an old friend who had known her only at her shorter height. “Her mouth dropped when she saw me,” recalls Mullins, “and she said, ‘But you’re so tall!'”

“I know, isn’t it fun?” was Mullins’ reply.

“But, Aimee, that’s not fair.”

Picha finishes off the anecdote after a discussion of augmentation and enhancement that includes the story of a guy in Finland needing a prosthetic to replace part of a severed finger and choosing one that has a USB port in its tip. She goes on to discuss a subculture of people who embed magnetic chips into their bodies so they can sense magnetic and electromagnetic fields thereby giving themselves a sixth sense. There’s also a discussion with a transhumanist and a contrasting view from Susie Orbach, author of Bodies. Orbach has this to say,

… the body has become a casing for fantasy rather than a place from which to live.

It’s all becoming a metaphysical question. What is it to be human? I have misgivings about all this talk about enhancement and, as mentioned yesterday, improving the human genome.

Meanwhile, Picha’s article is thought-provoking and it’s in a fashion magazine, which bears out my belief that a lot science communication takes place outside its usual channels.  In one of my papers, I likened science communication to a conversation with several threads taking place.

Government studies such as the one from the UK (July 27, 2009 ETA this should read European Parliament not UK) that Michael Berger on Nanowerk Spotlight recently featured are definitely part of this conversation. From Berger’s article,

The authors of the study do not rely on the still widespread conceptual distinction between “therapy” and “enhancement”, but instead, in line with recent political statements on the issue, adopt a notion of human enhancement that includes non-therapeutic as well as some therapeutic measures.
Defining human enhancement as any “modification aimed at improving individual human performance and brought about by science-based or technology-based interventions in the human body”, they distinguish between
1) restorative or preventive, non-enhancing interventions,

2) therapeutic enhancements, and

3) non-therapeutic enhancements.

Faced with the often highly visionary and strongly ideological character of the debate on human enhancement, one must strive for a balance between advancing a rational discussion through critical analysis of the relevant visions and normative stances, and taking a close look at the diversity of HE technology and their actual social, technological and political significance

Berger’s article is well worth reading and  links to the report itself and other articles that he’s written on the topic. Monday, July 27, 2009, I should be wrapping up this series.

In keeping with today’s ‘fashionable theme, I leave you with something musical from Manolo’s Shoe Blog. The writer who is not The Manolo, recently posted on one of his favourite rock songs (and one I’ve always loved), Runaway by Del Shannon. The posting is poignant and touching. Manolo has included two versions of the song, one sung by Shannon in the 1960s and again in the 1980s (this one includes part of an interview about the song Shannon wrote so many years before). Both are well worth checking out as you can see how an artist matures and develops over time. Seeing both enhances the experience of listening to each one. Go here.