Tag Archives: Gregor Wolbring

Brain and machine as one (machine/flesh)

The essay on brains and machines becoming intertwined is making the rounds. First stop on my tour was its Oct. 4, 2016 appearance on the Mail & Guardian, then there was its Oct. 3, 2016 appearance on The Conversation, and finally (moving forward in time) there was its Oct. 4, 2016 appearance on the World Economic Forum website as part of their Final Frontier series.

The essay was written by Richard Jones of Sheffield University (mentioned here many times before but most recently in a Sept. 4, 2014 posting). His book ‘Soft Machines’ provided me with an important and eminently readable introduction to nanotechnology. He is a professor of physics at the University of Sheffield and here’s more from his essay (Oct. 3, 2016 on The Conversation) about brains and machines (Note: Links have been removed),

Imagine a condition that leaves you fully conscious, but unable to move or communicate, as some victims of severe strokes or other neurological damage experience. This is locked-in syndrome, when the outward connections from the brain to the rest of the world are severed. Technology is beginning to promise ways of remaking these connections, but is it our ingenuity or the brain’s that is making it happen?

Ever since an 18th-century biologist called Luigi Galvani made a dead frog twitch we have known that there is a connection between electricity and the operation of the nervous system. We now know that the signals in neurons in the brain are propagated as pulses of electrical potential, whose effects can be detected by electrodes in close proximity. So in principle, we should be able to build an outward neural interface system – that is to say, a device that turns thought into action.

In fact, we already have the first outward neural interface system to be tested in humans. It is called BrainGate and consists of an array of micro-electrodes, implanted into the part of the brain concerned with controlling arm movements. Signals from the micro-electrodes are decoded and used to control the movement of a cursor on a screen, or the motion of a robotic arm.

A crucial feature of these systems is the need for some kind of feedback. A patient must be able to see the effect of their willed patterns of thought on the movement of the cursor. What’s remarkable is the ability of the brain to adapt to these artificial systems, learning to control them better.

You can find out more about BrainGate in my May 17, 2012 posting which also features a video of a woman controlling a mechanical arm so she can drink from a cup coffee by herself for the first time in 15 years.

Jones goes on to describe the cochlear implants (although there’s no mention of the controversy; not everyone believes they’re a good idea) and retinal implants that are currently available. Jones notes this (Note Links have been removed),

The key message of all this is that brain interfaces now are a reality and that the current versions will undoubtedly be improved. In the near future, for many deaf and blind people, for people with severe disabilities – including, perhaps, locked-in syndrome – there are very real prospects that some of their lost capabilities might be at least partially restored.

Until then, our current neural interface systems are very crude. One problem is size; the micro-electrodes in use now, with diameters of tens of microns, may seem tiny, but they are still coarse compared to the sub-micron dimensions of individual nerve fibres. And there is a problem of scale. The BrainGate system, for example, consists of 100 micro-electrodes in a square array; compare that to the many tens of billions of neurons in the brain. The fact these devices work at all is perhaps more a testament to the adaptability of the human brain than to our technological prowess.

Scale models

So the challenge is to build neural interfaces on scales that better match the structures of biology. Here, we move into the world of nanotechnology. There has been much work in the laboratory to make nano-electronic structures small enough to read out the activity of a single neuron. In the 1990s, Peter Fromherz, at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry, was a pioneer of using silicon field effect transistors, similar to those used in commercial microprocessors, to interact with cultured neurons. In 2006, Charles Lieber’s group at Harvard succeeded in using transistors made from single carbon nanotubes – whiskers of carbon just one nanometer in diameter – to measure the propagation of single nerve pulses along the nerve fibres.

But these successes have been achieved, not in whole organisms, but in cultured nerve cells which are typically on something like the surface of a silicon wafer. It’s going to be a challenge to extend these methods into three dimensions, to interface with a living brain. Perhaps the most promising direction will be to create a 3D “scaffold” incorporating nano-electronics, and then to persuade growing nerve cells to infiltrate it to create what would in effect be cyborg tissue – living cells and inorganic electronics intimately mixed.

I have featured Charles Lieber and his work here in two recent posts: ‘Bionic’ cardiac patch with nanoelectric scaffolds and living cells on July 11, 2016 and Long-term brain mapping with injectable electronics on Sept. 22, 2016.

For anyone interested in more about the controversy regarding cochlear implants, there’s this page on the Brown University (US) website. You might also want to check out Gregor Wolbring (professor at the University of Calgary) who has written extensively on the concept of ableism (links to his work can be found at the end of this post). I have excerpted from an Aug. 30, 2011 post the portion where Gregor defines ‘ableism’,

From Gregor’s June 17, 2011 posting on the FedCan blog,

The term ableism evolved from the disabled people rights movements in the United States and Britain during the 1960s and 1970s.  It questions and highlights the prejudice and discrimination experienced by persons whose body structure and ability functioning were labelled as ‘impaired’ as sub species-typical. Ableism of this flavor is a set of beliefs, processes and practices, which favors species-typical normative body structure based abilities. It labels ‘sub-normative’ species-typical biological structures as ‘deficient’, as not able to perform as expected.

The disabled people rights discourse and disability studies scholars question the assumption of deficiency intrinsic to ‘below the norm’ labeled body abilities and the favoritism for normative species-typical body abilities. The discourse around deafness and Deaf Culture would be one example where many hearing people expect the ability to hear. This expectation leads them to see deafness as a deficiency to be treated through medical means. In contrast, many Deaf people see hearing as an irrelevant ability and do not perceive themselves as ill and in need of gaining the ability to hear. Within the disabled people rights framework ableism was set up as a term to be used like sexism and racism to highlight unjust and inequitable treatment.

Ableism is, however, much more pervasive.

You can find out more about Gregor and his work here: http://www.crds.org/research/faculty/Gregor_Wolbring2.shtml or here:
https://www.facebook.com/GregorWolbring.

Swinging from 2015 to 2016 with FrogHeart

On Thursday, Dec. 31, 2015, the bear ate me (borrowed from Joan Armatrading’s song “Eating the bear”) or, if you prefer this phrase, I had a meltdown when I lost more than 1/2 of a post that I’d worked on for hours.

There’s been a problem dogging me for some months. I will write up something and save it as a draft only to find that most of the text has been replaced by a single URL repeated several times. I have not been able to source the problem which is intermittent. (sigh)

Moving on to happier thoughts, it’s a new year. Happy 2016!

As a way of swinging into the new year, here’s a brief wrap up for 2015.

International colleagues

As always, I thank my international colleagues David Bruggeman (Pasco Phronesis blog), Dexter Johnson (Nanoclast blog on the IEEE [International Electrical and Electronics Engineers website]), and Dr. Andrew Maynard (2020 science blog and Risk Innovation Laboratory at Arizona State University), all of whom have been blogging as long or longer than I have (FYI, FrogHeart began in April/May 2008). More importantly, they have been wonderful sources of information and inspiration.

In particular, David, thank you for keeping me up to date on the Canadian and international science policy situations. Also, darn you for scooping me on the Canadian science policy scene, on more than one occasion.

Dexter, thank you for all those tidbits about the science and the business of nanotechnology that you tuck into your curated blog. There’s always a revelation or two to be found in your writings.

Andrew, congratulations on your move to Arizona State University (from the University of Michigan Risk Science Center) where you are founding their Risk Innovation Lab.

While Andrew’s blog has become more focused on the topic of risk, Andrew continues to write about nanotechnology by extending the topic to emerging technologies.

In fact, I have a Dec. 3, 2015 post featuring a recent Nature article by Andrew on the occasion of the upcoming 2016 World Economic Forum in Davos. In it he discusses new approaches to risk as occasioned by the rise of emerging technologies such synthetic biology, nanotechnology, and more.

While Tim Harper, serial entrepreneur and scientist, is not actively blogging about nanotechnology these days, his writings do pop up in various places, notably on the Azonano website where he is listed as an expert, which he most assuredly is. His focus these days is in establishing graphene-based startups.

Moving on to another somewhat related topic. While no one else seems to be writing about nanotechnology as extensively as I do, there are many, many Canadian science bloggers.

Canadian colleagues

Thank you to Gregor Wolbring, ur Canadian science blogger and professor at the University of Calgary. His writing about human enhancement has become increasingly timely as we continue to introduce electronics onto and into our bodies. While he writes regularly, I don’t believe he’s blogging regularly. However, you can find out more about Gregor and his work  at  http://www.crds.org/research/faculty/Gregor_Wolbring2.shtml
or on his facebook page
https://www.facebook.com/GregorWolbring

Science Borealis (scroll down to get to the feeds), a Canadian science blog aggregator, is my main source of information on the Canadian scene. Thank you for my second Editors Pick award. In 2014 the award was in the Science in Society category and in 2015 it’s in the Engineering & Tech category (last item on the list).

While I haven’t yet heard about the results of Paige Jarreau’s and Science Borealis’ joint survey on the Canadian science blog readers (the reader doesn’t have to be Canadian but the science blog has to be), I was delighted to be asked and to participate. My Dec. 14, 2015 posting listed preliminary results,

They have compiled some preliminary results:

  • 21 bloggers + Science Borealis hosted the survey.
  • 523 respondents began the survey.
  • 338 respondents entered their email addresses to win a prize
  • 63% of 400 Respondents are not science bloggers
  • 56% of 402 Respondents describe themselves as scientists
  • 76% of 431 Respondents were not familiar with Science Borealis before taking the survey
  • 85% of 403 Respondents often, very often or always seek out science information online.
  • 59% of 402 Respondents rarely or never seek science content that is specifically Canadian
  • Of 400 Respondents, locations were: 35% Canada, 35% US, 30% Other.

And most of all, a heartfelt thank you to all who read this blog.

FrogHeart and 2015

There won’t be any statistics from the software packaged with my  hosting service (AWSTATS and Webalizer). Google and its efforts to minimize spam (or so it claims) had a devastating effect on my visit numbers. As I used those numbers as motivation, fantasizing that my readership was increasing, I had to find other means for motivation and am not quite sure how I did it but I upped publication to three posts per day (five-day week) throughout most of the year.

With 260 working days (roughly) in a year that would have meant a total of 780 posts. I’ve rounded that down to 700 posts to allow for days off and days where I didn’t manage three.

In 2015 I logged my 4000th post and substantially contributed to the Science Borealis 2015 output. In the editors’ Dec. 20, 2015 post,

… Science Borealis now boasts a membership of 122 blogs  — about a dozen up from last year. Together, this year, our members have posted over 4,400 posts, with two weeks still to go….

At a rough guess, I’d estimate that FrogHeart was responsible for 15% of the Science Borealis output and 121 bloggers were responsible for the other 85%.

That’s enough for 2015.

FrogHeart and 2016

Bluntly, I do not know anything other than a change of some sort is likely.

Hopefully, I will be doing more art/science projects (my last one was ‘A digital poetry of gold nanoparticles’). I was awarded a small grant ($400 CAD) from the Canadian Academy of Independent Scholars (thank you!) for a spoken word project to be accomplished later this year.

As for this blog, I hope to continue.

In closing, I think it’s only fair to share Joan Armatrading’s song, ‘Eating the bear’. May we all do so in 2016,

Bonne Année!

Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement

First the news, Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement is going to be broadcast on KCTS 9 (PBS [Public Broadcasting Service] station for Seattle/Yakima) on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015 at 7 pm PDT. From the KCTS 9 schedule,

From botox to bionic limbs, the human body is more “upgradeable” than ever. But how much of it can we alter and still be human? What do we gain or lose in the process? Award-winning documentary, Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement, explores the social impact of human biotechnologies. Haunting and humorous, poignant and political, Fixed rethinks “disability” and “normalcy” by exploring technologies that promise to change our bodies and minds forever.

This 2013 documentary has a predecessor titled ‘Fixed’, which I wrote about in an August 3, 2010 posting. The director for both ‘Fixeds’ is Regan Brashear.

It seems the latest version of Fixed builds on the themes present in the first, while integrating the latest scientific work (to 2013) in the field of human enhancement (from my August 3, 2010 posting),

As for the film, I found this at the University of California, Santa Cruz,

Fixed is a video documentary that explores the burgeoning field of “human enhancement” technologies from the perspective of individuals with disabilities. Fixed uses the current debates surrounding human enhancement technologies (i.e. bionic limbs, brain machine interfaces, prenatal screening technologies such as PGD or pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, etc.) to tackle larger questions about disability, inequality, and citizenship. This documentary asks the question, “Will these technologies ‘liberate’ humanity, or will they create even more inequality?”

You can find out more about the 2013 Fixed on its website or Facebook page (they list opportunities in the US, in Canada, and internationally to see the documentary). There is also a listing of PBS broadcasts available from the Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement Press page.

I recognized two names from the cast list on the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) page for Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement, Gregor Wolbring (he also appeared in the first ‘Fixed’) and Hugh Herr.

Gregor has been mentioned here a few times in connection with human enhancement. A Canadian professor at the University of Calgary, he’s active in the field of bioethics and you can find out more about Gregor and his work here.

Hugh Herr was first mentioned here in a January 30, 2013 posting titled: The ultimate DIY: ‘How to build a robotic man’ on BBC 4. He is a robotocist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The two men offering contrasting perspectives, Gregor Wolbring, ‘we should re-examine the notion that some people are impaired and need to be fixed’,  and Hugh Herr, ‘we will eliminate all forms of impairment’. Hopefully, the 2013 documentary has managed to present more of the nuances than I have.

Chemistry of Cyborgs: review of the state of the art by German researchers

Communication between man and machine – a fascinating area at the interface of chemistry, biomedicine, and engineering. (Figure: KIT/S. Giselbrecht, R. Meyer, B. Rapp)

Communication between man and machine – a fascinating area at the interface of chemistry, biomedicine, and engineering. (Figure: KIT/S. Giselbrecht, R. Meyer, B. Rapp)

German researchers from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), Professor Christof M. Niemeyer and Dr. Stefan Giselbrecht of the Institute for Biological Interfaces 1 (IBG 1) and Dr. Bastian E. Rapp, Institute of Microstructure Technology (IMT) have written a good overview of the current state of cyborgs while pointing out some of the ethical issues associated with this field. From the Jan. 10, 2014 news item on ScienceDaily,

Medical implants, complex interfaces between brain and machine or remotely controlled insects: Recent developments combining machines and organisms have great potentials, but also give rise to major ethical concerns. In a new review, KIT scientists discuss the state of the art of research, opportunities, and risks.

The Jan. ?, 2014 KIT press release (also on EurekAlert with a release date of Jan. 10, 2014), which originated the news item, describes the innovations and the work at KIT in more detail,

They are known from science fiction novels and films – technically modified organisms with extraordinary skills, so-called cyborgs. This name originates from the English term “cybernetic organism”. In fact, cyborgs that combine technical systems with living organisms are already reality. The KIT researchers Professor Christof M. Niemeyer and Dr. Stefan Giselbrecht of the Institute for Biological Interfaces 1 (IBG 1) and Dr. Bastian E. Rapp, Institute of Microstructure Technology (IMT), point out that this especially applies to medical implants.

In recent years, medical implants based on smart materials that automatically react to changing conditions, computer-supported design and fabrication based on magnetic resonance tomography datasets or surface modifications for improved tissue integration allowed major progress to be achieved. For successful tissue integration and the prevention of inflammation reactions, special surface coatings were developed also by the KIT under e.g. the multidisciplinary Helmholtz program “BioInterfaces”.

Progress in microelectronics and semiconductor technology has been the basis of electronic implants controlling, restoring or improving the functions of the human body, such as cardiac pacemakers, retina implants, hearing implants, or implants for deep brain stimulation in pain or Parkinson therapies. Currently, bioelectronic developments are being combined with robotics systems to design highly complex neuroprostheses. Scientists are working on brain-machine interfaces (BMI) for the direct physical contacting of the brain. BMI are used among others to control prostheses and complex movements, such as gripping. Moreover, they are important tools in neurosciences, as they provide insight into the functioning of the brain. Apart from electric signals, substances released by implanted micro- and nanofluidic systems in a spatially or temporarily controlled manner can be used for communication between technical devices and organisms.

BMI are often considered data suppliers. However, they can also be used to feed signals into the brain, which is a highly controversial issue from the ethical point of view. “Implanted BMI that feed signals into nerves, muscles or directly into the brain are already used on a routine basis, e.g. in cardiac pacemakers or implants for deep brain stimulation,” Professor Christof M. Niemeyer, KIT, explains. “But these signals are neither planned to be used nor suited to control the entire organism – brains of most living organisms are far too complex.”

Brains of lower organisms, such as insects, are less complex. As soon as a signal is coupled in, a certain movement program, such as running or flying, is started. So-called biobots, i.e. large insects with implanted electronic and microfluidic control units, are used in a new generation of tools, such as small flying objects for monitoring and rescue missions. In addition, they are applied as model systems in neurosciences in order to understand basic relationships.

Electrically active medical implants that are used for longer terms depend on reliable power supply. Presently, scientists are working on methods to use the patient body’s own thermal, kinetic, electric or chemical energy.

In their review the KIT researchers sum up that developments combining technical devices with organisms have a fascinating potential. They may considerably improve the quality of life of many people in the medical sector in particular. However, ethical and social aspects always have to be taken into account.

After briefly reading the paper, I can say the researchers are most interested in the science and technology aspects but they do have this to say about ethical and social issues in the paper’s conclusion (Note: Links have been removed),

The research and development activities summarized here clearly raise significant social and ethical concerns, in particular, when it comes to the use of BMIs for signal injection into humans, which may lead to modulation or even control of behavior. The ethical issues of this new technology have been discussed in the excellent commentary of Jens Clausen,33 which we highly recommend for further reading. The recently described engineering of a synthetic polymer construct, which is capable of propulsion in water through a collection of adhered rat cardiomyocytes,77 a “medusoid” also described as a “cyborg jellyfish with a rat heart”, brings up an additional ethical aspect. The motivation of the work was to reverse-engineer muscular pumps, and it thus represents fundamental research in tissue engineering for biomedical applications. However, it is also an impressive, early demonstration that autonomous control of technical devices can be achieved through small populations of cells or microtissues. It seems reasonable that future developments along this line will strive, for example, to control complex robots through the use of brain tissue. Given the fact that the robots of today are already capable of autonomously performing complex missions, even in unknown territories,78 this approach might indeed pave the way for yet another entirely new generation of cybernetic organisms.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the English language version of the paper, which is open access (as of Jan. 10, 2014),

The Chemistry of Cyborgs—Interfacing Technical Devices with Organisms by Dr. Stefan Giselbrecht, Dr. Bastian E. Rapp, & Prof.Dr. Christof M. Niemeyer. Angewandte Chemie International Edition Volume 52, Issue 52, pages 13942–13957, December 23, 2013 Article first published online: 29 NOV 2013 DOI: 10.1002/anie.201307495

Copyright © 2013 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

For those with German language skills,

Chemie der Cyborgs – zur Verknüpfung technischer Systeme mit Lebewesen.  by Stefan Giselbrecht, Bastian E. Rapp, and Christof M. Niemeyer. Angewandte Chemie. Volume 125, issue 52, pages 14190, December 23, 2013. DOI: 10.1002/ange.201307495

I have written many times about cyborgs and neuroprosthetics including this Aug. 30, 2011 posting titled:  Eye, arm, & leg prostheses, cyborgs, eyeborgs, Deus Ex, and ableism, where I mention Gregor Wolbring, a Canadian academic (University of Calgary) who has written extensively on the social and ethical issues of human enhancement technologies. You can find out more on his blog, Nano and Nano- Bio, Info, Cogno, Neuro, Synbio, Geo, Chem…

For anyone wanting to search this blog for these pieces, try using the term machine/flesh as a tag, as well as, human enhancement, neuroprostheses, cyborgs …

Almost Human (tv series), smartphones, and anxieties about life/nonlife

The US-based Fox Broadcasting Company is set to premiere a new futuristic television series, Almost Human, over two nights, Nov. 17, and 18, 2013 for US and Canadian viewers. Here’s a description of the premise from its Wikipedia essay (Note: Links have been removed),

The series is set thirty-five years in the future when humans in the Los Angeles Police Department are paired up with lifelike androids; a detective who has a dislike for robots partners with an android capable of emotion.

One of the showrunners, Naren Shankar, seems to have also been functioning both as a science consultant and as a crime writing consultant,in addition to his other duties. From a Sept. 4, 2013 article by Lisa Tsering for Indiawest.com,

FOX is the latest television network to utilize the formidable talents of Naren Shankar, an Indian American writer and producer best known to fans for his work on “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” “Star Trek: Voyager” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” as well as “Farscape,” the recently cancelled ABC series “Zero Hour” and “The Outer Limits.”

Set 35 years in the future, “Almost Human” stars Karl Urban and Michael Ealy as a crimefighting duo of a cop who is part-machine and a robot who is part-human. [emphasis mine]

“We are extrapolating the things we see today into the near future,” he explained. For example, the show will comment on the pervasiveness of location software, he said. “There will also be issues of technology such as medical ethics, or privacy; or how technology enables the rich but not the poor, who can’t afford it.”

Speaking at Comic-Con July 20 [2013], Shankar told media there, “Joel [J.H. Wyman] was looking for a collaboration with someone who had come from the crime world, and I had worked on ‘CSI’ for eight years.

“This is like coming back to my first love, since for many years I had done science fiction. It’s a great opportunity to get away from dismembered corpses and autopsy scenes.”

There’s plenty of drama — in the new series, the year is 2048, and police officer John Kennex (Karl Urban, “Dr. Bones” from the new “Star Trek” films) is trying to bounce back from one of the most catastrophic attacks ever made against the police department. Kennex wakes up from a 17-month coma and can’t remember much, except that his partner was killed; his girlfriend left him and one of his legs has been amputated and is now outfitted with a high-tech synthetic appendage. According to police department policy, every cop must partner with a robot, so Kennex is paired with Dorian (Ealy), an android with an unusual glitch that makes it have human emotions.

Shankar took an unusual path into television. He started college at age 16 and attended Cornell University, where he earned a B. Sc., an M.S. and a Ph.D. in engineering physics and electrical engineering, and was a member of the elite Kappa Alpha Society, he decided he didn’t want to work as a scientist and moved to Los Angeles to try to become a writer.

Shankar is eager to move in a new direction with “Almost Human,” which he says comes at the right time. “People are so technologically sophisticated now that maybe the audience is ready for a show like this,” he told India-West.

I am particularly intrigued by the ‘man who’s part machine and the machine that’s part human’ concept (something I’ve called machine/flesh in previous postings such as this May 9, 2012 posting titled ‘Everything becomes part machine’) and was looking forward to seeing how they would be integrating this concept along with some of the more recent scientific work being done on prosthetics and robots, given they had an engineer as part of the team (albeit with lots of crime writing experience), into the stories. Sadly, only days after Tserling’s article was published, Shankar parted ways with Almost Human according to the Sept. 10, 2013 posting on the Almost Human blog,

So this was supposed to be the week that I posted a profile of Naren Shankar, for whom I have developed a full-on crush–I mean, he has a PhD in Electrical Engineering from Cornell, he was hired by Gene Roddenberry to be science consultant on TNG, he was saying all sorts of great things about how he wanted to present the future in AH…aaaand he quit as co-showrunner yesterday, citing “creative differences.” That leaves Wyman as sole showrunner, with no plans to replace Shankar.

I’d like to base some of my comments on the previews, unfortunately, Fox Broadcasting,, in its infinite wisdom, has decided to block Canadians from watching Almost Human previews online. (Could someone please explain why? I mean, Canadians will be tuning in to watch or record for future viewing  the series premiere on the 17th & 18th of November 2013 just like our US neighbours, so, why can’t we watch the previews online?)

Getting back to machine/flesh (human with prosthetic)s and life/nonlife (android with feelings), it seems that Almost Human (as did the latest version of Battlestar Galactica, from 2004-2009) may be giving a popular culture voice to some contemporary anxieties being felt about the boundary or lack thereof between humans and machines and life/nonlife. I’ve touched on this topic many times both within and without the popular culture context. Probably one of my more comprehensive essays on machine/flesh is Eye, arm, & leg prostheses, cyborgs, eyeborgs, Deus Ex, and ableism from August 30, 2011, which includes this quote from a still earlier posting on this topic,

Here’s an excerpt from my Feb. 2, 2010 posting which reinforces what Gregor [Gregor Wolbring, University of Calgary] is saying,

This influx of R&D cash, combined with breakthroughs in materials science and processor speed, has had a striking visual and social result: an emblem of hurt and loss has become a paradigm of the sleek, modern, and powerful. Which is why Michael Bailey, a 24-year-old student in Duluth, Georgia, is looking forward to the day when he can amputate the last two fingers on his left hand.

“I don’t think I would have said this if it had never happened,” says Bailey, referring to the accident that tore off his pinkie, ring, and middle fingers. “But I told Touch Bionics I’d cut the rest of my hand off if I could make all five of my fingers robotic.” [originally excerpted from Paul Hochman’s Feb. 1, 2010 article, Bionic Legs, i-Limbs, and Other Super Human Prostheses You’ll Envy for Fast Company]

Here’s something else from the Hochman article,

But Bailey is most surprised by his own reaction. “When I’m wearing it, I do feel different: I feel stronger. As weird as that sounds, having a piece of machinery incorporated into your body, as a part of you, well, it makes you feel above human. [semphasis mine] It’s a very powerful thing.”

Bailey isn’t  almost human’, he’s ‘above human’. As Hochman points out. repeatedly throughout his article, this sentiment is not confined to Bailey. My guess is that Kennex (Karl Urban’s character) in Almost Human doesn’t echo Bailey’s sentiments and, instead feels he’s not quite human while the android, Dorian, (Michael Ealy’s character) struggles with his feelings in a human way that clashes with Kennex’s perspective on what is human and what is not (or what we might be called the boundary between life and nonlife).

Into this mix, one could add the rising anxiety around ‘intelligent’ machines present in real life, as well as, fiction as per this November 12 (?), 2013 article by Ian Barker for Beta News,

The rise of intelligent machines has long been fertile ground for science fiction writers, but a new report by technology research specialists Gartner suggests that the future is closer than we think.

“Smartphones are becoming smarter, and will be smarter than you by 2017,” says Carolina Milanesi, research vice president at Gartner. “If there is heavy traffic, it will wake you up early for a meeting with your boss, or simply send an apology if it is a meeting with your colleague. The smartphone will gather contextual information from its calendar, its sensors, the user’s location and personal data”.

Your smartphone will be able to predict your next move or your next purchase based on what it knows about you. This will be made possible by gathering data using a technique called “cognizant computing”.

Gartner analysts will be discussing the future of smart devices at the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo 2013 in Barcelona from November 10-14 [2013].

The Gartner Symposium/Txpo in Barcelona is ending today (Nov. 14, 2013) but should you be curious about it, you can go here to learn more.

This notion that machines might (or will) get smarter or more powerful than humans (or wizards) is explored by Will.i.am (of the Black Eyed Peas) and, futurist, Brian David Johnson in their upcoming comic book, Wizards and Robots (mentioned in my Oct. 6, 2013 posting),. This notion of machines or technology overtaking human life is also being discussed at the University of Cambridge where there’s talk of founding a Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (from my Nov. 26, 2012 posting)

The idea that robots of one kind or another (e.g. nanobots eating up the world and leaving grey goo, Cylons in both versions of Battlestar Galactica trying to exterminate humans, etc.) will take over the world and find humans unnecessary  isn’t especially new in works of fiction. It’s not always mentioned directly but the underlying anxiety often has to do with intelligence and concerns over an ‘explosion of intelligence’. The question it raises,’ what if our machines/creations become more intelligent than humans?’ has been described as existential risk. According to a Nov. 25, 2012 article by Sylvia Hui for Huffington Post, a group of eminent philosophers and scientists at the University of Cambridge are proposing to found a Centre for the Study of Existential Risk,

Could computers become cleverer than humans and take over the world? Or is that just the stuff of science fiction?

Philosophers and scientists at Britain’s Cambridge University think the question deserves serious study. A proposed Center for the Study of Existential Risk will bring together experts to consider the ways in which super intelligent technology, including artificial intelligence, could “threaten our own existence,” the institution said Sunday.

“In the case of artificial intelligence, it seems a reasonable prediction that some time in this or the next century intelligence will escape from the constraints of biology,” Cambridge philosophy professor Huw Price said.

When that happens, “we’re no longer the smartest things around,” he said, and will risk being at the mercy of “machines that are not malicious, but machines whose interests don’t include us.”

Our emerging technologies give rise to questions abut what constitutes life and where human might fit in. For example,

  • are sufficiently advanced machines a new form of life,?
  • what does it mean when human bodies are partially integrated at the neural level with machinery?
  • what happens when machines have feelings?
  • etc.

While this doesn’t exactly fit into my theme of life/nonlife or machine/flesh, this does highlight how some popular culture efforts are attempting to integrate real science into the storytelling. Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Cosima Herter, the science consultant and namesake/model for one of the characters on Orphan Black (from the March 29, 2013 posting on the space.ca blog),

Cosima Herter is Orphan Black’s Science Consultant, and the inspiration for her namesake character in the series. In real-life, Real Cosima is a PhD. student in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine Program at the University of Minnesota, working on the History and Philosophy of Biology. Hive interns Billi Knight & Peter Rowley spoke with her about her role on the show and the science behind it…

Q: Describe your role in the making of Orphan Black.

A: I’m a resource for the biology, particularly insofar as evolutionary biology is concerned. I study the history and the philosophy of biology, so I do offer some suggestions and some creative ideas, but also help correct some of the misconceptions about science.  I offer different angles and alternatives to look at the way biological science is represented, so (it’s) not reduced to your stereotypical tropes about evolutionary biology and cloning, but also to provide some accuracy for the scripts.

– See more at: http://www.space.ca/article/Orphan-Black-science-consultant#sthash.7P36bbPa.dpuf

For anyone not familiar with the series, from the Wikipedia essay (Note: Links have been removed),

Orphan Black is a Canadian science fiction television series starring Tatiana Maslany as several identical women who are revealed to be clones.

The ultimate DIY: ‘How to build a robotic man’ on BBC 4

British Broadcasting Corporation’s Channel 4 (BBC 4) will be telecasting the ultimate do-it-yourself (DIY) project, How to build a bionic man on Feb. 7, 2013, 9 pm GMT. Corinne Burns in a Jan. 30, 2013 posting for the Guardian science blogs describes the documentary (Note: Links have been removed),

Created by Darlow Smithson Productions (DSP, the TV company behind Touching The Void and Richard Hammond’s Engineering Connections), with the help of robotics experts Shadow Robot Company, the bionic man was conceived as a literal response to the question: how close is bionic technology is to catching up with – and even exceeding – the capabilities of the human body?

DSP got in touch with Dr Bertolt Meyer, a charismatic young researcher from Zurich University and himself a lifelong user of prosthetic technology, and invited him to, essentially, rebuild himself in bionic form. The result can be seen in How to Build a Bionic Man, to be broadcast on Channel 4 on 7 February. The Bionic Man himself will then reside in the Science Museum’s Who Am I? gallery from 7 February until 11 March.

Richard Walker (left), chief roboticist, and Dr Bertolt Meyer (right) at the Body Lab. On the table is an iWalk BiOM ankle. Photograph: Channel 4  [downloaded from http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2013/jan/30/build-bionic-man]

Richard Walker (left), chief roboticist, and Dr Bertolt Meyer (right) at the Body Lab. On the table is an iWalk BiOM ankle. Photograph: Channel 4 [downloaded from http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2013/jan/30/build-bionic-man]

Burns goes on to discuss some of the issues raised by the increasing sophistication of prosthetics (Note: Links have been removed),

The engineering behind modern prosthetics is certainly awe-inspiring. The iLimb Ultra, of which Bertolt is a user, is part of the new class of myoelectric prosthetics. These custom-made devices function by placing electrical sensors directly in contact with the skin. These sensors pick up the signals generated by muscular movements in the residual limb – signals that are then translated by software into natural, intuitive movement in the prosthetic limb.

We all know about prosthetic limbs, even if many of us are not aware of just how sophisticated they now are. Less familiar, though, is the idea of bionic organs. Far removed from the iron lung of yore, these new fully integrated artificial body parts are designed to plug directly into our own metabolism – in effect, they are not within us, they become us. They’re the ultimate in biomimicry.

It’s one thing to use a bionic organ to replace lost function. But in a future world where we could, feasibly, replace virtually all of our body, will we blur the boundaries of artificial and natural to an extent that we have to recalibrate our definition of self and non-self? That’s especially pertinent when we consider the reality of neural prosthetics, like the “memory chips” developed by Dr Theodore Berger. Instinctively, many of us are uncomfortable with brain implants – but should we be? And will this discomfort be reduced if we broaden our definition of self?

Bertolt himself is pleased with the increasing normalisation, and even “coolness”, of prosthetics. But he expresses caution about the potential for elective use of such technology – would we ever choose to remove a healthy body part, in order to replace it with a stronger, better prosthetic?

Burns’ posting isn’t the only place where these discussion points and others related to human enhancement and robotic technologies are being raised, in a Jan. 18, 2013 posting I mentioned *a television advertisement for a new smartphone that ‘upgrades your brain’ that ‘normalises’ the idea of brain implants and other enhancements for everybody. As well, The Economist recently featured an article, You, robot? in its September 1st – 7th, 2012 issue about the European Union’s RoboLaw Project,

SPEAKING at a conference organised by The Economist earlier this year [2012], Hugh Herr, a roboticist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, described disabilities as conditions that persist “because of poor technology” and made the bold claim that during the 21st century disability would be largely eliminated. What gave his words added force was that half way through his speech, after ten minutes of strolling around the stage, he unexpectedly pulled up his trouser legs to reveal his bionic legs, and then danced a little jig. In future, he suggested, people might choose to replace an arthritic, painful limb with a fully functional robotic one. “Why wouldn’t you replace it?” he asked. “We’re going to see a lot of unusual situations like that.”

It is precisely to consider these sorts of situations, and the legal and ethical conundrums they will pose, that a new research project was launched in March. Is a prosthetic legally part of your body? When is it appropriate to amputate a limb and replace it with a robotic one? What are the legal rights of a person with “locked in” syndrome who communicates via a brain-computer interface? Do brain implants and body-enhancement devices require changes to the definition of disability? The RoboLaw project is an effort to anticipate such quandaries and work out where and how legal frameworks might need to be changed as the technology of bionics and neural interfaces improves. Funded to the tune of €1.9m ($2.3m), of which €1.4m comes from the European Commission, it brings together experts from engineering, law, regulation, philosophy and human enhancement.

There have been some recent legal challenges as to what constitutes one’s body (from The Economist article, You, robot?),

If you are dependent on a robotic wheelchair for mobility, for example, does the wheelchair count as part of your body? Linda MacDonald Glenn, an American lawyer and bioethicist, thinks it does. Ms Glenn (who is not involved in the RoboLaw project) persuaded an initially sceptical insurance firm that a “mobility assistance device” damaged by airline staff was more than her client’s personal property, it was an extension of his physical body. The airline settled out of court.

RoboLaw is a European Union Framework Programme 7-funded two year project, which started in 2012. There is a conference to be held in the Netherlands, April 23 – 24, 2013, from the RoboLaw home page,

RoboLaw Authors Workshop and Volume on ‘Opportunities and risks of robotics in relation to human values’

23-24 April 2013, Tilburg University, Tilburg (The Netherlands)

Call for paper and participation. Robotic technologies, taken to encompass anything from ‘traditional’ robots to emerging technologies in the field of biomedical research, such as nanotechnologies, bionics, and neural interfaces, as well as innovative biomedical applications, such as biomechatronic prostheses, hybrid bionic systems and bio- mechatronic components for sensory and motor augmentation, will have a profound impact on our lives. They may also affect human values, such as privacy, autonomy, bodily integrity, health, etc. In this workshop, we will focus on the impact of new technologies, and particularly robotics, on fundamental rights and human values. …

Important dates
Before 1 January 2013: Send an email to Ronald Leenes confirming your attendance, expressing your intention to either submit a paper or act as a commentator/reviewer.
Before 1 February: Send a 300 word abstract of the intended paper to Ronald Leenes
Before 8 February: Notification of acceptance.
Before 1 March: If your abstract has been accepted, send a draft of your full paper in PDF format to Ronald Leenes
Before 5 March: Circulation of papers
23-24 April 2013: Workshop
10 May: Selected final papers to be handed in.

According to the schedule, it’s a bit late to start the process for submitting an abstract but it never hurts to try.

Canadian academic, Gregor Wolbring, assistant professor, Dept of Community Health Sciences, Program in Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies at the University of Calgary and past president of the Canadian Disability Studies Association, offers a nuanced perspective on human enhancement issues and the term, ableism. From my Aug. 30, 2011 posting on cyborgs, eyeborgs and others,

… Gregor’s June 17, 2011 posting on the FedCan blog,

The term ableism evolved from the disabled people rights movements in the United States and Britain during the 1960s and 1970s.  It questions and highlights the prejudice and discrimination experienced by persons whose body structure and ability functioning were labelled as ‘impaired’ as sub species-typical. Ableism of this flavor is a set of beliefs, processes and practices, which favors species-typical normative body structure based abilities. It labels ‘sub-normative’ species-typical biological structures as ‘deficient’, as not able to perform as expected.

The disabled people rights discourse and disability studies scholars question the assumption of deficiency intrinsic to ‘below the norm’ labeled body abilities and the favoritism for normative species-typical body abilities. The discourse around deafness and Deaf Culture would be one example where many hearing people expect the ability to hear. This expectation leads them to see deafness as a deficiency to be treated through medical means. In contrast, many Deaf people see hearing as an irrelevant ability and do not perceive themselves as ill and in need of gaining the ability to hear. Within the disabled people rights framework ableism was set up as a term to be used like sexism and racism to highlight unjust and inequitable treatment.

Ableism is, however, much more pervasive.

Ableism based on biological structure is not limited to the species-typical/ sub species-typical dichotomy. With recent science and technology advances, and envisioned advances to come, we will see the dichotomy of people exhibiting species-typical and the so-called sub species-typical abilities labeled as impaired, and in ill health. On the other side we will see people exhibiting beyond species-typical abilities as the new expectation norm. An ableism that favours beyond species-typical abilities over species-typical and sub species-typical abilities will enable a change in meaning and scope of concepts such as health, illness, rehabilitation, disability adjusted life years, medicine, health care, and health insurance. For example, one will only be labeled as healthy if one has received the newest upgrade to one’s body – meaning one would by default be ill until one receives the upgrade.

You can find more about Gregor’s work on his University of Calgary webpage or his blog.

Finally, for anyone who wants a look at BBC 4’s ‘biionic man’,

A television company asked Dr Bertolt Meyer – who has a prosthetic arm – to rebuild himself in bionic form. Photograph: Channel 4 [downloaded from http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2013/jan/30/build-bionic-man]

A television company asked Dr Bertolt Meyer – who has a prosthetic arm – to rebuild himself in bionic form. Photograph: Channel 4 [downloaded from http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2013/jan/30/build-bionic-man]

* The articles ‘an’ was corrected to ‘a’ on July 16, 2013.

Carbon and neural implants

I’ve been meaning to do more about brains and implantable devices for a while so this Mar. 2, 2012 news item on Nanowerk comes at a timely moment,

The blind see, the lame walk, and the deaf hear: in the future, neural implants could replace destroyed sensory cells in the eye or ear – a dream come true for humanity. One of the greatest challenges yet to be addressed is designing the interface between medical technology and human tissue. In order to overcome the limitations of existing models, scientists from Forschungszentrum Jülich and eleven other institutions involved in the NeuroCare project, which kicked off on 1 March 2012, will develop novel biointerfaces made of carbon.

After reading some of Dr. Gregor Wolbring’s materials (last mentioned in my Aug. 30, 2011 posting on ‘ableism’) I’m not so sure about this business of making the ‘blind see’, etc. For example, there’s been  a lot of discussion in the deaf community about cochlear implants and whether or not there should be an automatic assumption that to be ‘normal’, one must hear. Wolbring’s latest writing on these topics is here in a Feb. 23, 2012 posting on the Nordic Network on Disability Research blog. Excerpted from the posting,

I coined a couple of years ago the term Ability Studies (Wolbring, 2008) which I defined, among others, to investigate: (a) the social, cultural, legal, political, ethical and other considerations by which any given ability may be judged, and which may lead to favouring one ability over another; (b) the impact and consequence of favouring certain abilities and rejecting others; (c) the consequences of ableism in its different forms, and its relationship with and impact on other isms [racism, ageism, sexism, etc.].

I think Wolbring asks some very provocative questions in light of the enthusiasm so often expressed in descriptions of greater therapeutic interventions. From the news item,

For several years, biomedical researchers have been working on implants to compensate for damage to the nervous system caused by an accident or illness. They focus on tools that correct problems with basic cognitive abilities, such as a loss or impairment of eyesight or the ability to hear. In addition, they may also be used to treat traumatic injuries to the spine, drug-resistant epilepsies, psychiatric disorders, and chronic neurodegenerative diseases.

However, the technology is still in its infancy. What makes it so difficult to implement is primarily connecting living tissue and electric circuits, with flexible cell structures containing water on one side and rigid solid electrodes on the other side. NeuroCare therefore uses materials based on carbon as they are better suited to medical purposes than the metals or silicon conventionally used.

In order to optimize the contact to biological tissue, the researchers are planning to experiment with flexible materials and test different surface structures on the nanometre scale. Within the next three years, the project coordinated by the French Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique et aux Energies Alternatives (CEA) will produce prototypes of retinal, cortical and cochlear implants, which will then be refined until they can be brought to the market in the following ten years.

The NeuroCare (Neuronal NanoCarbon Interfacing Structures) project is described in a more technical fashion on the Cordis website where contact information for various partners in the project is also offered.

2011 roundup and thoughts on the Canadian science blogging scene

Last year I found about a dozen of us, Canadians blogging about science, and this year (2011) I count approximately 20 of us. Sadly, one blog has disappeared; Elizabeth Howell has removed her PARS3C blog from her website. Others appear to be in pause mode, Rob Annan at the Researcher Forum: Don’t leave Canada behind (no posts since May 4, 2011), The Bubble Chamber at the University of Toronto (no posts since Aug. 12, 2011), Gregor Wolbring’s  Nano and Nano- Bio, Info, Cogno, Neuro, Synbio, Geo, Chem…  (no new posts since Oct. 2010; I’m about ready to give up on this one) and Je vote pour la science (no posts since May 2011).

I’ve been fairly catholic in my approach to including blogs on this list although I do have a preference for blogs with an individual voice that focuses primarily on science (for example, explaining the science you’re writing about rather than complaining about a professor’s marking of your science paper).

Piece of Mind is Nassif Ghoussoub’s (professor of mathematics at the University of British Columbia) blog which is largely about academe, science, and grants. Nassif does go much further afield in some of his posts, as do we all from time to time. He’s quite outspoken and always interesting.

Cool Science is John McKay’s blog which he describes this way ” This site is about raising a creative rationalist in an age of nonsense. It is about parents getting excited about science, learning and critical thinking. It is about smart parents raising smart kids who can think for themselves, make good decisions and discern the credible from the incredible. ” His posts cover a wide range of topics from the paleontology museum in Alberta to a space shuttle launch to the science of good decisions and more.

Dave Ng makes me dizzy. A professor with the Michael Smith Laboratories at the University of British Columbia, he’s a very active science communicator who has started blogging again on the Popperfont blog. This looks like a compilation of bits from Twitter, some very brief postings, and bits from other sources. I’m seeing this style of blogging more frequently these days.

The queen of Canadian science blogging, Rosie Redfield, was just acknowledged as a ‘newsmaker of the year’ by Nature magazine. The Dec. 22, 20111 Vancouver Sun article by Margaret Munro had this to say,

A critical thinker in Vancouver has been named one of the top science newsmakers of the year.

“She appeared like a shot out of the blogosphere: a wild-haired Canadian microbiologist with a propensity to say what was on her mind,” the leading research journal Nature says of Rosie Redfield, a professor at the University of B.C.

The journal editors say Redfield is one of 10 individuals who “had an impact, good or bad, on the world of science” in 2011. She was chosen for her “critical” inquiry and “remarkable experiment in open science” that challenged a now-infamous “arsenic life” study funded by NASA.

Rosie has two blogs, RRResearch and RRTeaching. She used to say she wasn’t a blogger but I rather think she’s changed her tune.

Jeff Sharom’s Science Canada blog isn’t, strictly speaking, a blog so much as it is an aggregator of Canadian science policy news and a good one at that. There are also some very useful resources on the site. (I shamelessly plundered Jeff’s list to add more blogs to this posting).

The Black Hole is owned by Beth Swan and David Kent (although they often have guest posters too). Here’s a description from the About page,

I have entered the Post Doctoral Fellow Black Hole… I’ve witnessed a lot and heard about much more and, while this is the time in academic life when you’re meant to be the busiest, I have begun this blog. Just as a black hole is difficult to define, the label Post Doc is bandied about with recklessness by university administrators, professors, and even PDFs themselves. One thing is certain though… once you get sucked in, it appears to be near impossible to get back out.

David, Beth, and their contributors offer extensive discussions about the opportunities and the failings of the post graduate science experience.

Nicole Arbour, a Science and Innovation Officer at the British High Commission Office in Ottawa, Canada, blogs regularly about Canadian science policy and more on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office blogs.

Colin Schultz, a freelance science journalist, blogs at his website CMBR. He focuses largely on climate change, environmental research, space, and science communication.

exposure/effect is a blog about toxicology, chemical exposures, health and more, which is written by a scientist who chooses to use a pseudonym, ashartus.

Mario’s Entangled Bank is written by theoretical biologist, Mario Pineda-Krch at the University of Alberta. One of Pineda-Krch’s most recent postings was about a special section of a recent Science Magazine issue on Reproducible Research.

Boundary Vision is written by Marie-Claire Shanahan, a professor of science education at the University of Alberta. She not only writes a science blog, she also researches the language and the social spaces of science blogs.

Eric Michael Johnson writes The Primate Diaries blog which is now part of the Scientific American blog network. With a master’s degree in evolutionary anthropology, Johnson examines the interplay between evolutionary biology and politics both on his blog and as part of his PhD work (he’s a student at the University of British Columbia).

The Atoms and Numbers blog is written by Marc Leger. From the About Marc page,

I am a scientist who has always been curious and fascinated by how our universe works.  I love discovering the mysteries and surprises of our World.  I want to share this passion with others, and make science accessible to anyone willing to open their minds.

Many people have appreciated my ability to explain complex scientific ideas in simple terms, and this is one motivation behind my website, Atoms and Numbers.  I taught chemistry in universities for several years, and I participated in the Scientists in the Schools program as a graduate student at Dalhousie University, presenting chemistry magic shows to children and teenagers from kindergarten to grade 12.  I’ve also given presentations on chemistry and forensics to high school students.  I’m even acknowledged in a cookbook for providing a few morsels of information about food chemistry.

Massimo Boninsegni writes about science-related topics (some are about the academic side of science; some physics; some personal items) on his Exponential Book blog.

The Last Word on Nothing is a group blog that features Heather Pringle, a well-known Canadian science writer, on some posts. Pringle’s latest posting is, Absinthe and the Corpse Reviver, all about a legendary cure for hangovers. While this isn’t strictly speaking a Canadian science blog, there is a Canadian science blogger in the group and the topics are quite engaging.

Daniel Lemire’s blog is known simply as Daniel Lemire. He’s a computer scientist in Montréal who writes one of the more technical blogs I’ve come across and his focus seems to be databases. He does cover other topics too, notably in this post titled, Where do debt, credit and currencies come from?

Confessions of a Science Librarian by John Dupuis (head of the Steacie Science & Engineering Library at York University) is a blog I missed mentioning last year and I’m very glad I remembered it this year. As you might expect from a librarian, the last few postings have consisted of lists of the best science books of 2011.

Sci/Why is a science blog being written by Canadian children’s writers who discuss science, words, and the eternal question – why?

I have mixed feelings about including this blog, the Dark Matter science blog by Tom Spears, as it is a ‘newspaper blog’ from the Ottawa Citizen.

Similarly, the MaRS blog is a corporate initiative from the Toronto area science and technology business incubator, MaRS Discovery District.

The last three blogs I’m mentioning are from medical and health science writers.

Susan Baxter’s blog Curmudgeon’s Corner features her insights into various medical matters, for example there’s her Dec. 5, 2011 posting on mammograms, along with her opinions on spandex, travel, and politics.

Peter Janiszewski and Travis Saunders co-own two different blogs, Obesity Panacea, which is part of the PLoS (Public Library of Science) blogs network, and Science of Blogging (nothing posted since July 2011 but it’s well worth a look).

I don’t have anything particularly profound to say about the state of Canadian science blogging this year. It does look to be getting more populous online and I hope that trend continues. I do have a wish for the New Year; I think it should be easier to find Canadian science blogs and would like  to see some sort of network or aggregated list.

Eye, arm, & leg prostheses, cyborgs, eyeborgs, Deus Ex, and ableism

Companies are finding more ways to publicize and promote themselves and their products. For example there’s Intel, which seems to have been especially active lately with its Tomorrow Project (my August 22, 2011 posting) and its sponsorship (being one of only four companies to do so) of the Discovery Channel’s Curiosity television programme (my July 15, 2011 posting). What I find interesting in these efforts is their range and the use of old and new techniques.

Today I found (August 30, 2011 article by Nancy Owano) a documentary made by Robert Spence, Canadian filmmaker and eyeborg, for the recently released Deus Ex: Human Revolution game (both the game and Spence are mentioned in my August 18, 2011 posting) from the company, Eidos Montréal. If you’re squeamish (medical operation is featured), you might want to miss the first few minutes,

I found it quite informative but curiously US-centric. How could they discuss prostheses for the legs and not mention Oscar Pistorius, the history-making South African double amputee runner who successfully petitioned the Court for Arbitration for Sport for the right to compete with able-bodied athletes? (In July this year, Pistorius qualified for the 2012 Olympics.) By the way, they do mention the Icelandic company, Össur, which created Pistorius’ “cheetah” legs. (There’s more about Pistorius and human enhancement in my Feb. 2, 2010 posting. [scroll down about 1/3 of the way])

There’s some very interesting material about augmented reality masks for firefighters in this documentary. Once functional and commercially available, the masks would give firefighters information about toxic gases, temperature, etc. as they move through a burning building. There’s a lot of interest in making augmented reality commercially available via smartphones as Kit Eaton notes in an August 29, 2011 article for Fast Company,

Junaio’s 3.0 release is a big transformation for the software–it included limited object recognition powers for about a year, but the new system is far more sophisticated. As well as relying on the usual AR sensor suite of GPS (to tell the software where the smartphone is on the planet), compass, and gyros to work out what angle the phone’s camera is looking, it also uses feature tracking to give it a better idea of the objects in its field of view. As long as one of Junaio’s channels or databases or the platforms of its developer partners has information on the object, it’ll pop up on screen.

When it recognizes a barcode, for example, the software “combines and displays data sources from various partner platforms to provide useful consumer information on a given product,” which can be a “website, a shopping micro-site or other related information” such as finding recipes based on the ingredients. It’s sophisticated enough so you can scan numerous barcoded items from your fridge and add in extras like “onions” and then get it to find a recipe that uses them.

Eaton notes that people might have an objection to holding up their smartphones for long periods of time. That’s a problem that could be solved of course if we added a prosthetic to the eye or replaced an organic eye with a bionic eye as they do in the game and as they suggest in the documentary.

Not everyone is quite so sanguine about this bright new future. I featured a documentary, Fixed, about some of the discussion regarding disability, ability, and human enhancement in my August 3, 2010 posting. One of the featured academics is Gregor Wolbring, assistant professor, Dept of Community Health Sciences, Program in Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies, University of Calgary; and president of the Canadian Disability Studies Association.  From Gregor’s June 17, 2011 posting on the FedCan blog,

The term ableism evolved from the disabled people rights movements in the United States and Britain during the 1960s and 1970s.  It questions and highlights the prejudice and discrimination experienced by persons whose body structure and ability functioning were labelled as ‘impaired’ as sub species-typical. Ableism of this flavor is a set of beliefs, processes and practices, which favors species-typical normative body structure based abilities. It labels ‘sub-normative’ species-typical biological structures as ‘deficient’, as not able to perform as expected.

The disabled people rights discourse and disability studies scholars question the assumption of deficiency intrinsic to ‘below the norm’ labeled body abilities and the favoritism for normative species-typical body abilities. The discourse around deafness and Deaf Culture would be one example where many hearing people expect the ability to hear. This expectation leads them to see deafness as a deficiency to be treated through medical means. In contrast, many Deaf people see hearing as an irrelevant ability and do not perceive themselves as ill and in need of gaining the ability to hear. Within the disabled people rights framework ableism was set up as a term to be used like sexism and racism to highlight unjust and inequitable treatment.

Ableism is, however, much more pervasive.

Ableism based on biological structure is not limited to the species-typical/ sub species-typical dichotomy. With recent science and technology advances, and envisioned advances to come, we will see the dichotomy of people exhibiting species-typical and the so-called sub species-typical abilities labeled as impaired, and in ill health. On the other side we will see people exhibiting beyond species-typical abilities as the new expectation norm. An ableism that favours beyond species-typical abilities over species-typical and sub species-typical abilities will enable a change in meaning and scope of concepts such as health, illness, rehabilitation, disability adjusted life years, medicine, health care, and health insurance. For example, one will only be labeled as healthy if one has received the newest upgrade to one’s body – meaning one would by default be ill until one receives the upgrade.

Here’s an excerpt from my Feb. 2, 2010 posting which reinforces what Gregor is saying,

This influx of R&D cash, combined with breakthroughs in materials science and processor speed, has had a striking visual and social result: an emblem of hurt and loss has become a paradigm of the sleek, modern, and powerful. Which is why Michael Bailey, a 24-year-old student in Duluth, Georgia, is looking forward to the day when he can amputate the last two fingers on his left hand.

“I don’t think I would have said this if it had never happened,” says Bailey, referring to the accident that tore off his pinkie, ring, and middle fingers. “But I told Touch Bionics I’d cut the rest of my hand off if I could make all five of my fingers robotic.” [originally excerpted from Paul Hochman’s Feb. 1, 2010 article, Bionic Legs, i-Limbs, and Other Super Human Prostheses You’ll Envy for Fast Company]

I don’t really know how to take the fact that the documentary is in fact product placement for the game, Deus Ex: Human Revolution. On the up side, it opens up a philosophical discussion in a very engaging way. On the down side, it closes down the discussion because drawbacks are not seriously mentioned.