Far away into the future, when people look back at the 20th century, they’ll say that it was the century when mankind has truly begun rejecting Nature.
What is “Nature”? That term, which some of us regard so highly today, is simply the current products of an ongoing evolutionary process – just the same as us. Human beings are a similar product of an evolutionary process which has left us with physical, hormonal and mental characteristics that have served us well in the prehistorical past, but are far from beneficial in our present society.
The most impressive way in which we’ve rejected Nature in the 20th century is probably with the invention and proliferation of use of birth control measures.
The 20th century has seen women reject Nature with the establishment of the first permanent birth-control clinic in 1921, where women were taught how to use a cervical cap, in a time when distribution of birth control information was illegal by law in the United States. In 1957, the FDA approved the first contraceptive pill to be taken orally, but only “for severe menstrual disorders,” which has led to an unusually large number of women suddenly reporting severe menstrual disorders. Those women were desperate to escape the decrees of Nature which have been enforced on their bodies without their willingness or consent. Just how much do they want that? According to a series of 2012 surveys in developing countries, the number of women who want to avoid pregnancy has reached 867 million out of 1520 million, or 57%. Many of those women want to promote their careers or expand their education before having a child. In short, they want to fulfill their potential as human beings instead of plodding blindly along the path evolution has set for them. They want to choose for themselves.
Society, of course, has been trying to hold them back in the meantime. While it is no longer illegal to use contraceptives, the clergy is still speaking harshly against such practices. Even the currently reigning Pope Francis has not authorized the use of contraceptives, and Pope Pius XII explained in 1951 that the teaching against contraceptives –
“is in full force today, as it was in the past, and so will be in the future also, and always, because it is not a simple human whim, but the expression of a natural and divine law”
Society keeps on holding people to the standards of that ‘natural and divine law’, even if those human beings aren’t catholic. Breastfeeding, for example, has been promoted in recent decades as contributing to the baby’s health, wellbeing and development. Now new evidence begins to appear that contradicts some of these claims. Specifically, it seems studies from the last 25 years that have compared between breastfed babies and non-breastfed ones, have not ruled out some important economic, social and cultural confounding factors. When those factors are taken into account, it turns out that breastfeeding is marginally better, at best, for babies.
Does that mean women shouldn’t breastfeed? Of course not. There are plenty of studies out there showing that breastfeeding has benefits for mothers as well as for babies. But we shouldn’t forget that it has its share of issues as well: for many it’s a painful, stressful and time-consuming exercise, making it difficult for women to continue advancing their careers, education and yes, their sex lives too. This is a noble sacrifice many mothers make – but what if it’s not needed after all? What if our technology has already improved formulas enough to replace breastfeeding with no damage to babies?
I fear that even in that case, many people will remain convinced that “breast is best”. Why? They will say that it’s natural, that it’s just the way Nature designed us. And they won’t consider that just a hundred years ago, it was deemed unnatural and illegal for women to use contraceptives, and that two hundred years ago life-saving vaccines were considered unnatural too.
This all means that we need to be more suspicious towards arguments that advocate for the ‘natural means’. The scientific evidence for ‘breast is best’ for babies seems to have been shaky right from the outset, and I suspect that had it not resonated so well with our natural fallacy and bias, the scientific and medical establishment would not have accepted them as easily.
There is a widespread perception that Nature is an infallible and benevolent mistress. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Nature is that semi-random evolutionary process which has shaped us in ways that would’ve been beneficial (occasionally) ten-thousand years ago, but which now come into conflict with our modern values and ways of life. Every aspect of our biology and psych that is considered ‘natural’ should (and will) be scrutinized carefully in the 21st century, and if it does not fit our modern values – it should be reconsidered.
Does that mean we should tell women not to give birth to children, or to avoid breastfeeding them? Of course not. We should, however, give them the choice over their bodies.
Even though, you know, that sort of thinking would’ve been considered unnatural a hundred years ago.
It’s always nice when news items that support each other and indicate a certain future appear in the same week, especially when each of them is exciting on its own. Last week we’ve seen this happening with three different news items:
A scientific finding that a single bacteria type grows 60 percent better in space than on Earth. The germs used in the experiment were collected by the public;
A new Kickstarter project for the creation of a DNA laboratory for everyone;
A new project proposed on a crowdfunding platform, requesting public support for developing the means for rapid detection of Zika virus without the need for a laboratory in Brazil.
Let’s go over each to see how they all come together.
Between the years 2012 and 2014, citizens throughout the United States collected bacteria samples from their environment using cotton swabs, and mailed them to the University of California Davis. Out of the large number of samples that arrived at the lab, 48 strains of germs were isolated and selected to be sent to space, on board the International Space Station (ISS). Most of the bacterial strains behaved similarly on Earth and in space. One strain, however, surpassed all expectations and proliferated rapidly, growing 60% better in space.
Does this mean that the bacteria, going by the name of Bacillus safensis, is better adapted for life in space? I would stay wary of such assertions. We don’t know yet whether the improved growth was a result of the micro-gravity conditions in the space stations, or of some other unquantified factor. It is entirely possible that the levels of humidity, oxygen concentrations, or the quality of the medium were somehow altered or changed on the space station. The result, in short, could easily be a fluke rather than an indicator that some bacteria can grow better in micro-gravity. We’ll have to wait for further evidence before reaching a final conclusion on this issue.
The most exciting thing for me here is that the bacteria in question was collected by the public, in a demonstration of the power of citizen science. People from all over America took part in the project, and as a result of their combined effort, the scientists ended up with a large number of strains, some of which they probably would not have thought to use in the first place. This is one of the main strengths of citizen science: providing many samples of research material for the scientists to analyze and experiment on.
DNA Labs for Everyone
Have you always wanted to check your own DNA? To find out whether you have a certain variant of a gene, or identify the animals whose meat appears in your hamburger? Well, now you can do that easily by ordering the Bento Lab: “A DNA laboratory for everyone”.
The laptop-sized lab includes a centrifuge for the extraction of DNA from biological samples, a PCR thermocycler to target specific DNA sequences, and an illuminated gel unit to visualize the results and ascertain whether or not the sample contains the DNA sequence you were looking after. All that, for the price of less than one thousand dollars. This is ridiculously cheap, particularly when you understand that similar lab equipment easily have cost tens of thousands of dollars just twenty years ago.
The Kickstarter project has already gained support from 395 backers, pledging nearly $150,000 to the cause, and surpassing the goal by 250% in just ten days. That’s an amazing progress for a project that’s really only suitable for hard-core makers and bio-hackers.
Why is the Bento Lab so exciting? Because it gives power to the people. The current model is very limited, but the next versions of mobile labs will contain better equipment and provide better capabilities to the bio-hackers who purchase them. You don’t have to be a futurist to say that – already there are other projects attempting to bring CRISPR technology for highly-efficient gene editing to the masses.
This, then, is a great example for the ways citizen science is going to keep on evolving: people won’t just collect bacterial samples in the streets and send them to distinguished scientists. Instead, private people – joes shmoes like you and me – will be able to experiment on these bacteria in their homes and garages.
Should you be scared? Obviously, yeah. The power to re-engineer biology is nothing to scoff at, and we will need to think up ways to regulate public bio-engineering. However, the public could also use this kind of power to contribute to scientific projects around the world, to conduct DNA sequencing of one’s own genetics, and eventually to create biological therapeutics in one’s own house.
Which brings us to the last news item I wanted to write about in this post: citizens developing means for rapid detection of Zika virus.
Despite the fact that the World Health Organization declared Zika virus a public health emergency merely two months ago, citizen scientists are already working diligently to develop new ways to detect the virus. A UK-IL-BR team has sprung up, with young biotech entrepreneurs leading and doing research to create a better system for rapid detection of the virus in human beings and mosquitos. The group is now requesting the public to chip in and back the project, and has already gathered nearly $6,000.
This initiative is a result of the movement that brings the capabilities to do science to everyone. When every citizen armed with an undergraduate degree in biology can do science in his or her home, we shouldn’t be surprised when new methods for the detection of viruses crop up in distant places around the world. We’re basically decentralizing the scientific community – and as a result can have many more people working on strange and wonderful ideas, some of which will actually bear fruit to the benefit of all.
As scientific devices and appliances become cheaper and make their way to the hands of individuals around the world, citizen science becomes more popular and provides ever greater impact. Today we see the uprising of the citizen scientists – those that are not supported by universities or research centers, but instead start conducting experiments in their homes.
In a decade from now, we will see at least one therapeutic being manufactured by citizen scientists in an easy and cheap manner that will undermine the expensive prices demanded by pharma companies for their drugs. Heck, even kids would be able to deliver that kind of science in garage labs. Less than a decade later, we will witness citizen scientists actually conducting medical research on their own, by running analysis over medical records of hundreds – maybe millions – of people to uncover how new or existing therapeutics can be used to treat certain medical conditions. Many of these research projects will not be supported by the government or big pharma with the intent to make money, but will instead be supported by the public itself on crowdfunding sites.
Of course, for all that to happen we need to support citizen scientists today. So go ahead – contribute to the campaign against Zika, or purchase a Bento Lab for your kitchen, or find a citizen science projects or games for kids you can join in SciStarter. We all can take part in improving science, together.
For a long time now, scientists were held in thrall by publishers. They worked voluntarily – without getting any pay – as editors and reviewers for the publishers, and they allowed their research to be published in scientific journals without receiving anything out of it. No wonder that scientific publishing had been considered a lucrative business.
Well, that’s no longer the case. Now, scientific publishers are struggling to maintain their stranglehold over scientists. If they succeed, science and the pace of progress will take a hit. Luckily, the entire scientific landscape is turning on them – but a little support from the public will go a long way in ensuring the eventual downfall of an institute that is no longer relevant or useful for society.
To understand why things are changing, we need to look back in history to 1665, when the British Royal Society began publishing research results in a journal form called Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Since the number of pages available in each issue was limited, the editors could only pick the most interesting and credible papers to appear in the journal. As a result, scientists from all over Britain fought to have their research published in the journal, and any scientist whose research was published in an issue gained immediate recognition throughout Britain. Scientists were even willing to become editors for scientific journals, since that was a position that demanded request – and provided them power to push their views and agendas in science.
Thus was the deal struck between scientific publishers and scientists: the journals provided a platform for the scientists to present their research, and the scientists fought tooth and nail to have their papers accepted into the journals – often paying from their pockets for it to happen. The journals publishers then had full copyrights over the papers, to ensure that the same paper would not be published in a competing journal.
That, at least, was the old way for publishing scientific research. The reason that the journal publishers were so successful in the 20th century was that they acted as aggregators and selectors of knowledge. They employed the best scientists in the world as editors (almost always for free) to select the best papers, and they aggregated together all the necessary publishing processes in one place.
And then the internet appeared, along with a host of other automated processes that let every scientist publish and disseminate a new paper with minimal effort. Suddenly, publishing a new scientific paper and making the scientific community aware of it, could have a radical new price tag: it could be completely free.
Let’s go through the process of publishing a research paper, and see how easy and effortless it became:
The scientist sends the paper to the journal: Can now be conducted easily through the internet, with no cost for mail delivery.
The paper is rerouted to the editor dealing with the paper’s topic: This is done automatically, since the authors specify certain keywords which make sure the right editor gets the paper automatically to her e-mail. Since the editor is actually a scientist volunteering to do the work for the publisher, there’s no cost attached anyway. Neither is there need for a human secretary to spend time and effort on cataloguing papers and sending them to editors manually.
The editor sends the paper to specific scientific reviewers: All the reviewers are working for free, so the publishers don’t spend any money there either.
Let’s assume that the paper was confirmed, and is going to appear in the journal. Now the publisher must:
Paginate, proofread, typeset, and ensure the use of proper graphics in the paper: These tasks are now performed nearly automatically using word processing programs, and are usually handled by the original authors of the paper.
Print and distribute the journal: This is the only step that costs actual money by necessity, since it is performed in the physical world, and atoms are notoriously more expensive than bits. But do we even need this step anymore? I have been walking around in the corridors of the academy for more than ten years, and I’ve yet to see a scientist with his nose buried in a printed journal. Instead, scientists are reading the papers on their computer screens, or printing them in their offices. The mass-printed version is almost completely redundant. There is simply no need for it.
In conclusion, it’s easy to see that while the publishers served an important role in science a few decades ago, they are just not necessary today. The above steps can easily be conducted by community-managed sites like Arxive, and even the selection process of high quality papers can be performed today by the scientist themselves, in forums like Faculty of 1000.
The publishers have become redundant. But worse than that: they are damaging the progress of science and technology.
The New Producers of Knowledge
In a few years from now, the producers of knowledge will not be human scientists but computer programs and algorithms. Programs like IBM’s Watson will skim through hundreds of thousands of research papers and derive new meanings and insights from them. This would be an entirely new field of scientific research: retrospective research.
Computerized retrospective research is happening right now. A new model in developmental biology, for example, was discovered by an artificial intelligence engine that went over just 16 experiments published in the past. Imagine what would happen when AI algorithms cross and match together thousands papers from different disciplines, and come up with new theories and models that are supported by the research of thousands of scientists from the past!
For that to happen, however, the programs need to be able to go over the vast number of research papers out there, most of which are copyrighted, and held in the hands of the publishers.
You may say this is not a real problem. After all, IBM and other large data companies can easily cover the millions of dollars which the publishers will demand annually for access to the scientific content. What will the academic researchers do, though? Many of them do not enjoy the backing of the big industry, and will not have access to scientific data from the past. Even top academic institutes like Harvard University find themselves hard-pressed to cover the annual costs demanded by the publishers for accessing papers from the past.
Many ventures for using this data are based on the assumption that information is essentially free. We know that Google is wary of uploading scanned books from the last few decades, even if these books are no longer in circulation. Google doesn’t want to be sued by the copyrights holders – and thus is waiting for the copyrights to expire before it uploads the entire book – and lets the public enjoy it for free. So many free projects could be conducted to derive scientific insights from literally millions of research papers from the past. Are we really going to wait for nearly a hundred years before we can use all that knowledge? Knowledge, I should mention, that was gathered by scientists funded by the public – and should thus remain in the hands of the public.
What Can We Do?
Scientific publishers are slowly dying, while free publication and open access to papers are becoming the norm. The process of transition, though, is going to take a long time still, and provides no easy and immediate solution for all those millions of research papers from the last century. What can we do about them?
Here’s one proposal. It’s radical, but it highlights one possible way of action: have the government, or an international coalition of governments, purchase the copyrights for all copyrighted scientific papers, and open them to the public. The venture will cost a few billion dollars, true, but it will only have to occur once for the entire scientific publishing field to change its face. It will set to right the ancient wrong of hiding research under paywalls. That wrong was necessary in the past when we needed the publishers, but now there is simply no justification for it. Most importantly, this move will mean that science can accelerate its pace by easily relying on the roots cultivated by past generations of scientists.
If governments don’t do that, the public will. Already we see the rise of websites like Sci-Hub, which provide free (i.e. pirated) access to more than 47 million research papers. Having been persecuted by both the publishers and the government, Sci-Hub has just recently been forced to move to the Darknet, which is the dark and anonymous section of the internet. Scientists who will want to browse through past research results – that were almost entirely paid for by the public – will thus have to move over to the Darknet, which is where weapon smugglers, pedophiles and drug dealers lurk today. That’s a sad turn of events that should make you think. Just be careful not to sell your thoughts to the scholarly publishers, or they may never see the light of day.
Dr Roey Tzezana is a senior analyst at Wikistrat, an academic manager of foresight courses at Tel Aviv University, blogger at Curating The Future, the director of the Simpolitix project for political forecasting, and founder of TeleBuddy.
At the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris, French artists made an attempt to forecast the shape of the world in 2000. They produced a few dozens of vivid and imaginative drawings (clearly they did not succumb to the Failure of the Paradigm!)
Here are a few samples from the World Exhibition. Can you tell what all of those have in common with each other?
“If you leaf through a few of them, you quickly notice that each of these books says more about the times in which it was written than about the times it was meant to foretell.”
You only need to take another look at the images to convince yourselves of the truth of Gilbert’s statement. The women and men are dressed in the same way they were dressed in 1900, except for when they go ‘bird hunting’ – in which case the gentlemen wear practical swimming suits, whereas the ladies still stick with their cumbersome dresses underwater. Policemen still employ swords and brass helmets, and of course there are no policewomen. Last but not least, it seems that the future is entirely reserved to the Caucasian race, since nowhere in these drawings can you see persons of African or Asian descent.
The Failure of Myth
While some of the technologies depicted in these ancient paintings actually became reality (Skype is a nice example), it clear the artists completely failed to capture a larger change. You may call this a change in the zeitgeist, the spirit of the generation, or in the myths that surround our existence and lives. I’ll be calling this A Failure of Myth, and I hope you’ll agree that it’s impossible to consider the future without also taking into account these changes in our mythologies and underlying social and cultural assumptions: men can be equal to women, colored folks have rights similar to white folks, and people of the LGBT have just the same right to exist as heterosexuals. None of these assumptions would’ve been obvious, or included in the myths and stories upon which society is bases, a mere fifty years ago. Today they’re being taken for granted.
Could we ever have forecast these changes?
Much as in the Failure of the Paradigm, I would posit that we could never accurately forecast the future ways in which myths and culture is about to change. We could hazard some guesses, but that’s just what they are: a guesswork that relies more on our myths in the present, than on solid understanding of the future.
That said, there are certain methodologies used by foresight researchers that could help us at least chart different solutions to problems in the present, in ways that force us to consider our current myths and worldviews – and challenge them when needed. These methodologies allow us to create alternative futures that could be vastly different from the present in the ways that really matter: how people think of themselves, of each other, and of the world around them.
In the rest of this blog post, I’ll sum up the practical principles of CLA, and show how they could be used to analyze different issues dealing with the future. Following that, in the next blog post, we’ll take a look again at the issue of aerial drones used for terrorist attacks, and use CLA to consider ways to deal with the threat.
CLA – Causal Layered Analysis
The core of CLA the idea that every problem can be looked at in four successive layers, each deeper than the previous one. Let’s look at each layer at its turn, and see how each layer adds depth to a discussion about a certain problem: the “high rate of medical mistakes leading to serious injury or death”, as Inayatullah describes in his book. My brief analysis of this problem at every level is almost entirely based on his examples and thoughts.
First Layer: the Litany
The litany is the day-to-day talk. When you’re arguing at dinner parties about the present and the future, you’re almost certainly using the first layer. You’re basically repeating whatever you’ve heard from the media, from the politicians, from thought leaders and from your family. You may make use of data and statistics, but these are only interpreted according to the prevalent and common worldview that most people share.
When we rely on the first layer to consider the issue of medical mistakes, we look at the problem in a largely superficial manner. We can sum the approach in one sentence: “physicians make mistakes? Teach them better, and if they still don’t improve, throw them to jail!” In effect, we’re focusing on the people who are making the mistake – the ones whom it’s so easy to blame. The solutions in this layer are usually short-term solutions, and can be summed up in short sentences that appeal to audiences who share the same worldview.
Second Layer: the Systemic View
Using the systemic view of the second layer, we try to delve deeper into the issue. We don’t blame people anymore (although that does not mean we remove the responsibility to their mistakes from their shoulders), but instead we try to understand how the system itself can contribute to the actions of the individual. To do that we analyze the social, economic and political forces that meld the system into its current shape.
In the case of medical mistakes, the second layer encourages us to start asking tougher questions about the systems under which physicians operate. Could it be, for example, that physicians are rushing their treatments since they are only allowed to talk with each patient 5-10 minutes, as is the custom in many public medical services? Or perhaps the shape of the hospital does not allow physicians to consult easily with each other, thus reaching more solid solutions via teamwork?
The questions asked in the second layer mode of thinking allow us to improve the system itself and make it more efficient. We do not take the responsibility off the shoulders of the individuals, but we do accept that better systems allow and encourage individuals to reach their maximum efficiency.
Third Layer: Worldview
This is the layer where things get hoary for most people. In this layer we try to identify and question the prevalent worldview and how it contributes to the issue. These are our “cognitive lenses” via which we view and interpret the world.
As we try to analyze the issue of medical mistakes in the third layer, we begin to identify the worldviews behind medicine. We see that in modern medicine, the doctor is standing “high above” in the hierarchy of knowledge – certainly much higher than patients. This hierarchy of knowledge and prestige defines the relationship between the physician and the patient. As we understand this worldview, solutions that would’ve fit in the second layer – like the time physicians spend with patients – seem more like a small bandage on a gut wound, than an effective way to deal with the issue.
Another worldview that can be identified and challenges in this layer is the idea that patients actually need to go to clinics or to hospitals for check-ups. In an era of tele-presence and electronics, why not make use of wearable computing or digital doctors to take care of many patients? As we see this worldview and propose alternatives, we find that systemic solutions like “changing the shape of the hospitals” become unnecessary once more.
Fourth Layer: the Myth
The last layer, the myth, deals with the stories we tell ourselves and our children about the world and the ways things work. Mythologies are defined by Wikipedia as –
“a collection of myths… [and] stories … [that] explain nature, history, and customs.”
Make no mistake: our children’s books are all myths that serve to teach children how they should behave in society. When my son reads about Curious George, he learns that unrestrained curiosity can lead you into danger, but also to unexpected rewards. When he reads about Hensel and Gretel, he learns of the dangers of trusting strangers and step-moms. Even fantasy books teach us myths about the value of wisdom, physical prowess and even beauty as the tall, handsome prince saves the day. Myths are perpetuated everywhere in culture, and are constantly strengthened in our minds through the media.
What can we say about medical mistakes in the Myth level? Inayatullah believes that the deepest problem, immortalized in myth throughout the last two millennia, is that “the doctor knows best”. Patients are taught from a very young age that the physician’s verdict is more important than their own thoughts and feelings, and that they should not argue against it.
While I see the point in Inayatullah’s view, I’m not as certain that it is the reason behind medical mistakes. Instead, I would add a partner-myth: “the human doctor knows best”. This myth is spread to medical doctors in many institutes, and makes it more difficult to them to rely on computerized analysis, or even to consider that as human beings they’re biased by nature.
Consolidating the Layers
As you may have realized by now, CLA is not used to forecast one accurate future, but is instead meant to deepen our thinking about potential futures. Any discussion about long-term issues should open with an analysis of those issues in each of the four layers, so that the solutions we propose – i.e. the alternative futures – can deal not only with the superficial aspects of the issue, but also with the deeper causes and roots.
The Failure of Myth – i.e. our difficulty to realize that the future will not only change technologically, but also in the myths and worldviews we hold – is impossible to counter completely. We can’t know which myths will be promoted by future generations, just as we can’t forecast scientific breakthroughs fifty years in advance.
At most, we can be aware of the existence of the Failure of Myth in every discussion we hold about the future. We must assume, time after time, that the myths of future generations will be different from ours. My grandchildren may look at their meat-eating grandfather in horror, or laugh behind his back at his pants and shirt – while they walk naked in the streets. They may believe that complicated decisions should be left solely to computers, or that physical work should never be performed by human beings. These are just some of the possible myths that future generations can develop for themselves.
In the next blog post, I’ll go over the issue of aerial drones use for terrorist attacks, and analyze it by using CLA to identify a few possible myths and worldviews that we may need to change in order to deal with this threat.
When I first read about the invention of the Right Cup, it seemed to me like magic. You fill the cup with water, raise it to your mouth to take a sip – and immediately discover that the water has turned into orange juice. At least, that’s what your senses tell you, and the Isaac Lavi, Right Cup’s inventor, seems to be a master at fooling the senses.
Lavi got the idea for the Right Cup some years ago, when he was diagnoses with diabetes at the age of 30. His new condition meant that he had to let go of all sugary beverages, and was forced to drink only plain water. As an expert in the field of scent marketing, however, Lavi thought up of a new solution to the problem: adding scent molecules to the cup itself, which will trick your nose and brain into thinking that you’re actually drinking fruit-flavored water instead of plain water. This new invention can now be purchased on Indiegogo, and hopefully it even works.
“My two diabetic parents are drinking from this cup for the last year and a half.” Lavi told me in an e-meeting we had last week, “and I saw that in taste testing in preschool, kids drank from these cups and then asked for more ‘orange juice’. And I told myself that – Wow, it works!”
What does the Right Cup mean for the future?
A Future of Nano-technology
First and foremost, the Right Cup is one result of all the massive investments in nano-technology research made in the last fifteen years.
“Between 2001 and 2013, the U.S. federal government funneled nearly $18 billion into nanotechnology research… [and] The Obama administration requested an additional $1.7 billion for 2014.” Writes Martin Ford in his 2015 book Rise of the Robots. These billions of dollars produced, among other results, new understandings about the release of micro- and nano-particles from polymers, and the ways in which molecules in general react with the receptors in our noses. In short, they enabled the creation of the Right Cup.
There’s a good lesson to be learned here. When our leaders justified their investments in nano-technology, they talked to us about the eradication of cancer via drug delivery mechanisms, or about bridges held by cobwebs of carbon nanotubes. Some of these ideas will be fulfilled, for sure, but before that happens we might all find ourselves enjoying the more mundane benefits of drinking Illusory orange-flavored water. We can never tell exactly where the future will lead us: we can invest in the technology, but eventually innovators and entrepreneurs will take those innovations and put them to unexpected uses.
All the same, if I had to guess I would imagine many other uses for similar ‘Right Cups’. Kids in Africa could use cups or even straws which deliver tastes, smells and even more importantly – therapeutics – directly to their lungs. Consider, for example, a ‘vaccination cup’ that delivers certain antigens to the lungs and thereby creates an immune reaction that could last for years. This idea brings back to mind the Lucky Iron Fish we discussed in a previous post, and shows how small inventions like this one can make a big difference in people’s lives and health.
A Future of Self-Reliance
It is already clear that we are rushing headlong into a future of rapid manufacturing, in which people can enjoy services and production processes in their households that were reserved for large factories and offices in the past. We can all make copies of documents today with our printer/scanner instead of going to the store, and can print pictures instead of waiting for them to be developed at a specialized venue. In short, technology is helping us be more geographically self-reliant – we don’t have to travel anymore to enjoy many services, as long as we are connected to the digital world through the internet. The internet provides information, and end-user devices produce the physical result. This trend will only progress further as 3D printers become more widespread in households.
The Right Cup is another example for a future of self-reliance. Instead of going to the supermarket and purchasing orange juice, you can buy the cup just once and it will provide you with flavored water for the next 6-9 months. But why stop here?
Take the Right Cup of a few years ahead and connect it to the internet, and you have the new big product: a programmable cup. This cup will have a cartridge of dozens of scent molecules, each of which can be released at different paces, and in combination with the other scents. You don’t like orange-flavored water? No problem. Just connect the cup to the World Wide Web and download the new set of instructions that will cause the cup to release a different combination of scents so that your water now tastes like cinnamon flavored apple cider, or any other combinations of tastes you can think of – including some that don’t exist today.
A Future of Disruption?
As with any innovation and product proposed on crowdfunding platforms, it’s difficult to know whether the Right Cup will stand up to its hype. As of now the project has received more than $100,000 – more than 200% of the goal they put up. Should the Right Cup prove itself taste-wise, it could become an alternative to many light beverages – particularly if it’s cheap and long-lasting enough.
Personally, I don’t see Coca-Cola, Pepsi and orchard owners going into panic anytime soon, and neither does Lavi, who believes that the beverage industry is “much too large and has too many advertising resources for us to compete with them in the initial stages.” All the same, if the stars align just right, our children may opt to drink from their Right Cups instead of buying a bottle of orange juice at the cafeteria. Then we’ll see some panicked executives scrambling around at those beverages giants.
It’s still early to divine the full impact the Right Cup could have on our lives, or even whether the product is even working as well as promised. For now, we would do well to focus only on previously identified mega-trends which the product fulfills: the idea of using nano-technology to remake everyday products and imbue them with added properties, and the principle of self-reliance. In the next decade we will see more and more products based on these principles. I daresay that our children are going to be living in a pretty exciting world.
Disclaimer: I received no monetary or product compensation for writing this post.
Somewhere in the world, in an undisclosed location, an individual is being genetically engineered right now in order to fulfill humanity’s long-time dream: to reverse biological aging, and become young again. The treatment is provided by BioViva, a small company with incredibly large dreams.
BioViva’s CEO, Elizabeth Parrish, announced that the treatment is composed of two different therapies, which have been developed and applied outside the USA. The patient is doing well at the moment, and will be routinely checked and evaluated, so that within twelve months we can expect some preliminary results.
I wrote a lot in the past about the future of radical longevity – i.e. extending the lifespan of ordinary human beings to a hundred years and more. The field excites me – and quite frankly, if you’re not exhilarated about any progress at all that happens in the field of life extension, then you must have completely managed to forget that you’re going to die someday from old age. Yeah, sorry about that.
I contacted Parrish and requested an interview, and she was kind enough to grant it, and to reveal a vision for humanity’s future that is truly radical and fascinating, but may well come true within the next few decades. It is a vision in which humanity largely eradicates old age and diseases, reaches equality between human beings and nations, and dares greatly in order to achieve greatness.
Disclaimer: I edited the quotes by Ms. Parrish for clarity.
Are They for Real?
After reading all the above, you would be justified asking: is Parrish and her company for real? Are they the real deal, doing actual science instead of general quackery?
While there is no way to know for sure, BioViva’s scientific advisory board contains some highly influential and prestigious scientists in the field of synthetic biology and longevity. It includes Prof. George Church from Harvard Medical School, who is one of the top experts in the world when it comes to genetic engineering. You can also find in there Dr. Aubrey de Grey – an advocate and a prophet of radical longevity.
The treatment enacted by BioViva, while still largely kept under wraps from the public, involves a combination of two different gene therapies: telomerase induction and myostatin inhibition. Telomerase controls the internal clock of each cell, and there’s evidence that myostatin inhibitors can reverse the accumulation of atherosclerotic plaques in veins. “We have that data in animals and in humans, but we need to run a clinical trial.” Says Parrish.
That is where the patient – the one receiving the combined therapy – comes into the picture. Apparently, he is a volunteer who has decided to sacrifice – or enhance – his body for science. While Parrish is reluctant to reveal his identity, she agreed to say that he’s in his 40s, and relatively healthy.
“We believe it is perfect because we could work with someone who was not in the worst stage of illness.” She explains.
The experiments are taking place outside the U.S. since “we didn’t want to deal with legal issues giving the treatment in the US, and it’s less expensive,” as Parrish puts it. If this sounds callous to you, you should know that many other pharmaceutical companies, including industry giants like Merck and Johnson & Johnson, are conducting their research outside the U.S. as well.
In general, Parrish isn’t holding much stock with the FDA and other governmental bodies that attempt to regulate medicine in the United States. “The first amendment protects your right over your body, to do with as you wish.” She states calmly. “I don’t think the government has a right to tell you what to do with your body, as long as it does not affect other people.”
And herein seems to lie one of the most interesting questions for the future of aging: assuming BioViva’s treatment strikes water and succeeds, the public will surely clamor for the new fountain of youth. Will governments worldwide be able to regulate it? Or will this become the great new illegal drug of the new century? At the moment, governments largely endorse medicine that is focuses on repairing the body. Will those governments be as happy to support human enhancement procedures?
“I think that what matters is the public demand, and the government will change its regulation according to public demand.” Says Parrish. And if the government doesn’t budge, then “a lot of people will go outside the country to get the treatment, and it may make some small countries very rich. Israel may become one of these countries, since it is very much ahead in research and very open to biotech. Another place is Japan, which has recently loosened its regulation on experimental medicine.”
The Future of Aging
So far, the medical sciences have mostly focused on repairing the damages being caused to the body over one’s lifetime. Parrish’s solution is much more radical and pro-active: she wants to hold back aging itself, since aging is correlated with so many other diseases. And she’s certain of success.
“The line between enhancement and preventative medicine will be blurry in the future.” She forecasts. “People will be taking gene therapy at younger and younger ages. This will probably be a twenty years process, but I believe that when you get to middle age, gene therapy will be given essentially as immunization to aging.”
This forecast, of course, partly relies on the current experiment having successful outcomes. Parrish is hopeful to see several different effects in the human patient, which include “outward markers like skin becoming youthful again, internal organs becoming healthy, increase in brain function and muscle mass, and better cardiovascular health.” All of the above effects were demonstrated in animal models, but never before in an experiment dedicated specifically to show that we can turn back biological aging.
Parrish expects to have preliminary results in the next twelve months. Until that happens, I take the chance to ask her what their next move will be, should the patient indeed regain some of his youth back. In that case, she says, BioViva would love to take this treatment through the FDA treatment approval process. But there is only one problem: “The FDA doesn’t consider aging as a disease.”
This is a mindset that Parrish has set out to change. Instead of trying to pop a pill for every different disease, we should go deeper and fix the aging process itself. “Every drug the FDA has passed, is still an experiment, and you’ll probably die – usually because of the disease the drug was supposed to take care of.” She says.
Parrish hopes that in twenty years they will get the costs down so that the average citizen would be able to pay for this treatment. “It’s cost effective,” she says, “because the US government is spending trillions for treating age-related diseases. So we hope it would get to everyone.”
As soon as the treatment becomes cheap enough, she will be the first to give it a shot. “I am 44, and I would say I have a chance to enjoy this treatment myself. I would absolutely take it right now, and my whole team would (our medical advisor has undergone the myostatin inhibition treatment five years ago), but the costs of the therapeutic are very high.”
It is almost certain that BioViva’s treatment will fail in the short run. Virtually no experiment in biology or in medicine ever works out the way it should for the first time, and there’s no reason to believe that BioViva’s treatment will be any different. However, we should not view this experiment as a one-time effort, but as one of the cobblestones in the path ahead.
The convictions upon which Parrish makes her case rely on the right of the individual over his or her body, the disillusionment with the power of the government to decide what’s best for the citizen, and moreover – on the realization that we can fix nature and reprogram our body as we desire. And in her words, as they are quoted in the BioViva site: “we want to make you smarter, stronger, faster and more visually accurate, and I think that is a good thing.”
Your child comes home from school, crying again. As you try to gently comfort him, he weeps openly on your shoulder – “The numbers won’t stop moving on the blackboard, and I couldn’t do my homework again and Tom said I was stupid!”
After a prolonged talk on the phone with Tom’s mother, you decide that something needs to be done. By now you know that your son has been diagnosed as suffering from dyscalculia: a difficulty in understanding numbers, which afflicts 3 – 6 percent of the population. But what can you do about it? If he had ADHD, you would’ve prescribed Ritalin for him, but there’s no easy and simple treatment you can give him to fix the problem. He’ll just have to work much harder than everyone else to understand math, because of the way his brain is shaped. That’s just the way nature works, right?
Well, we humans are particularly good at circumventing Mother Nature’s whims, and now there’s a new treatment for dyscalculia of a very different sort than anything else before it: basically, this treatment is all about re-engineering the brain of the child, from the inside.
The treatment, which goes by the scary name of Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), relies on a helmet that generates magnetic fields inside the brain. Those magnetic fields, which can be focused on small areas in the brain, can enhance or inhibit the communication of the neurons in those areas. Essentially, we’re performing a brain surgery from within the skull, without lifting a finger or using an invasive tool of any sort. And the results are nothing less than astounding.
Despite the fact that TMS is a relatively young technology (the first successful study using TMS was conducted in 1985), it has already been approved by the FDA to treat depression and migraine. The only problem with TMS was that it requires a strong magnetic field, which can be generated (currently) only by a large and cumbersome equipment. In short, this means that TMS can only be used in the lab.
But we did say that humans are good at circumventing problems, right? And so, meet TMS’ more nimble brother, the Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation, or TDCS. The idea here is to deliver a low electrical current to the area of the brain you want to influence. Scientific studies have shown that by focusing on specific areas of the brain we can enhance language skills, attention span, memory and – yes, you guessed it – mathematical ability. What’s more, the technology can be used with a pinpoint accuracy, and without having any serious side effects (at least as far as we know).
You’re waiting at the school for children with learning difficulties. Your son sits in front of you, serene and calm, with his eyes closed. After twenty minutes, the school’s nurse removes the electrodes from his forehead, and he opens his eyes again and smiles. She shows him the numbers on a blackboard, and this time he reads them all fluently.
This scenario is not science fiction or fantasy. In fact, it’s happening right now. In a recent research conducted by Roi Cohen-Kadosh from the University of Oxford, twelve children at the Fairley House school received nine training sessions with a variant of the TDCS technology. Six of them received the actual treatment, and the rest wore the cap and the electrodes, but did not receive any stimulation. As expected, the children who received the stimulation reached significantly better mathematical achievements than their friends.
The Age of Brain Engineering
There is still a debate whether or not TMS and TDCS can be used to enhance the brain’s function to more-than-human levels, or ‘just’ to negate quirks in the brain like dyscalculia and ADHD, and elevate the person to the normal level of the population. But what are those ‘normal’ levels? Is that an IQ of 100? Or maybe 120, or even 150? Approximately half of the population has an IQ lower than 100. How much would they benefit from a weekly treatment that would jumpstart their brains to the average level?
The debate about human enhancement, therefore, largely misses the full consequences of brain-engineering technologies like TMS and TDCS. Those technologies allow us to engineer the brain, and what’s more – they’re becoming cheap and easy enough to use, that anyone who really wants to can use them. There are already companies working on bringing the technology to the masses, like Foc.us – a company that sells transcranial stimulators that should enhance the brain’s functions for gamers. There’s even a Youtube vid that shows you how to make a TDCS of your own for about 20 dollars (careful, I’m not endorsing that!)
Cohen-Kadosh himself is already envisioning a future in which people “…plug a simple device into an iPad so that their brain is stimulated when they are doing their homework, learning French or taking up the piano.” And while we are obviously not quite there yet, there is no reason we couldn’t get to that point within ten years. After all, Facebook changed the entire way people communicate in just ten years. Why not brain technologies, particularly when they are of the non-invasive sort?
Admittedly, these commercial technologies are still in their diapers right now, and are probably more razzle dazzle than real substance. However, as the technologies mature, we will gain the ultimate power over our brains, and will reach a time of Cosmetic Neurology – when we’ll be able to alter our moods, our abilities and our perceptions according to our wishes. This development might happen in ten or twenty or even thirty years from now, but when it comes, you, me and everyone else will need to answe the question: will we re-engineer our brains?
You’re back at the house. The kid is happily solving mathematical equations in his notebook, while simultaneously watching TV and chatting with his friends on Facebook. You, in the meantime, are still struggling with that new coding language the boss asked you to study this week. You’re tired and miserable from exerting your brain so much. You take a glance at the kid’s TDCS kit, which the school supplied you with, and for a moment… you wonder.
Maggie had never worn shorts around her parents. She had a secret she never wanted them to find out about: under her clothes, her body is covered in secret tattoos. The tattoos range in size and shape, from a tiny cross-shaped drawing on her hip, to a large one covering her entire side, depicting a colorful heart with the words MOM and DAD etched above it.
Many people would view Maggie’s body and skin as beautiful, but her parents are conservative Christian folks. Maggie believes they consider tattooed people as people “…who probably dabble in drugs”. Nonetheless, when she decided to reveal her painted body to her parents, she found out to her great surprise that they accepted her, and that they had no problem with her tattoos.
When Norms Change
As Maggie’s story demonstrates, the public acceptance of tattoos in America has undergone a sharp change over the past fifteen years. In 1936, Life magazine assessed that only 6% of Americans had a tattoo. Today, the total percentage of American individuals who have at least one tattoo has more than doubled itself to 14%, and of all American adults aged 26 – 40, a whopping 40% are tattooed. That’s basically almost half of all the population at that age category.
Why are tattoos gaining in popularity all of a sudden? Nobody really knows. Some academics, like Anne Velliquette, believe that people use tattoos to adhere to a certain aspect of themselves that exists in the moment. In a recent article in The Atlantic, Vellinquette describes our current society as chaotic and fragmented, leading people to look for anchors to feelings and states of mind that will never go away.
Whether the explanation is right or wrong, the acceptance of tattoos in society demonstrates how quickly the horrors of the previous generation can become the norms of the present one. So here’s an interesting and entertaining question for us to consider: what body modifications that we view with horror today, will our children consider to be absolutely normal, and possibly even necessary for the expression of the self?
The list of possible body modifications can be quite large. It includes tattoos, ear stretching, horn implants, changing iris color, changing the color of your skin, and even implanting magnets under your skin, and hanging electric appliances on them. If you feel sure that one of these (or another which I haven’t mentioned) is going to become widespread in the future, feel free to say so in the comment section. In the meantime, I’d like to highlight just one category of body modification that has never been applied to a healthy human body so far – but may become a reality within the next few decades.
You walk into a body modification parlor. All around you are samples of the art that you can graft onto your body: from colorful tattoos, to small horns to be implanted on the forehead. After spending a long time staring at the possibilities in front of you, you finally select one.
“I’ll take this robotic hand.” You tell the modification artist. He explains to you, slowly and carefully, that to graft the hand onto your arm he would have to remove your biological, original hand, fingers and all. You just shrug. The biological hand you currently possess has way too many tattoos on it anyway, of past memories you’d rather forget.
This scenario is obviously quite detached from the present, in which every kind of surgical intrusion into the body is considered taboo without a good medical reason. However, the taboo is there for a very specific reason: to protect people from undergoing medical procedures that could expose them to infections. According to the CDC, even if you’re being treated in the most sterilized surgery rooms in the world there’s still a chance of somewhere between 1.9% and 3% for infection.
Let us assume that medicine is about to experience exponential development in the next few decades – an assumption that is very hard to dispute, but which is a topic for another blog post. Such exponential development would result in a society in which infections are a thing of the past, body parts are being grown in vats or printed fully, and robotic prostheses can be implanted onto the body and complement it just as well as our biological limbs do.
There are hints that this future is starting to become true. The most sophisticated prostheses currently are probably made and programmed by Hugh Herr – a professor in the MIT Media Lab, who is also a double amputee by himself. He has designed his own bionic legs and feet, and changes them as though they were fashion items, in order to become taller, shorter or more fitting for mountain hiking. His bionic legs are sophisticated enough that people can actually use them to dance, as though they were real limbs.
Prostheses that are also forms of art start making their way into the public awareness. Models with bionic arms walk the runways at top fashion events, and they no longer bother using a look-alike prosthesis. Instead, they opt for prostheses that – like tattoos – have a deeper meaning. The Alternative Limb Project actually produces prostheses that look intentionally bizarre and extraordinary. And while such prostheses must be extremely expensive, the Makers Movement is starting to 3-D print fully functional prostheses for a few hundred dollars. Some of those ‘house-made’ prostheses will doubtless be drab and grey; others will be as individual as can be, and will come in the shape of robot arms, animal arms, arms with drawings (tattoos?) on them, and many other variations.
Considering the need for prostheses in society, and the advances in technology, it is clear that we are going to see many more amputees going around with robotic or static limbs that will better reflect their character, occupations and needs. Will we ever reach a state when healthy people actually ask to remove their limbs and replace them with alternative ones? That will take some time, but ultimately I cannot see a good reason against such a social development.
The Impassible Barrier?
At this point you may be asking yourselves: where do we stop? Are there kinds of bodily modifications that society will shun forever? The fact of the matter is that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, and the beholder is part of a larger social construct than herself. Tribal societies throughout the world have come to the conclusion that stretched ears are beautiful, or that scrotal implants (be careful: after I Googled that one up, I got some really weird ads in my browser) look sexy. Western society seems to be going with tattoos right now, and with unnecessary enlargement of women’s mammary glands by way of breast implant. So yeah, we are definitely up for altering and modifying the human body. The only question is how, and when.
Considering all of the above, who is to say that stretched ears, or alternative prostheses, won’t become part of our future? Bodily modification has been part of all societies so far, and it is only expanding. The current generation will always be disgusted, repulsed and visibly shaken by novel changes to the human body. And the next generation? They’ll consider those changes perfectly normal.
One thing for certain: the future of the human body is going to be much more colorful, vibrant and heterogeneous than it is today.
Quite honestly, I cannot wait for the future to come.