Archives For science

futurama heads in jars

Italian surgeon Sergio Canavero has been planning to do something that sounds like a scene straight out of Frankenstein: transplanting a head onto a new body. He’s been trying to figure out how to do it for many years, publishing a paper detailing how he sees the procedure could work a bit over a year ago, and making his case to the medical community since then. As of a few days ago, however, his work has exploded into the mainstream because there is a public volunteer for this radical surgery, Valery Spiridonov, a Russian programmer suffering from a rare genetic condition which rendered him unable to walk and take care of himself. As he sees his options, a head transplant is the only chance he has to ever live a normal life, and there’s someone who says he will be ready to perform the procedure in two years. However, despite Canavero’s enthusiasm, much of the science he presents as settled is still not ready for prime time, and the procedure is more likely to kill the patient than give him a new body.

Basically, as the history of head transplant experiments shows, connecting a head to a brand new body is the easy part. Giving it control of this new body and avoiding rejection is the real struggle, and this is where Canavero and the majority of the medical community aren’t seeing eye to eye. Most surgeons have little doubt that Spiridonov would survive the surgery, it’s the subsequent inability to join the spinal cords and the tissue rejection that worries them. They’re not really concerned as to whether he would be able to walk or have a normal life afterwards, believing these questions to be irrelevant since they’re not sure he’ll survive more than a few days after the procedure. In fact, they’re betting that the whole idea will be dropped since the odds of Canavero actually being ready to do a head transplant in 2017 are virtually nil. And if we’d look at the broader medical context, this might never be a viable procedure anyway.

Here’s the problem. Patients already wait for years to get organ transplants. Can you imagine how long someone would have to wait for an entire donor body suitable for the operation? On top of being intact, it also has to be that of an otherwise healthy person compatible enough to reduce the risk of rejection, otherwise whatever organ failure, trauma, or illness that ended the donor’s life would kill the patient as well. We would have to be able to quickly and easily get the body into a healthy state, limiting potential donors to solely head trauma or stroke victims who are otherwise young and healthy. But as they get the body ready to receive a new head, there will be a different calculus to consider. Yes, they can give this body to a patient for a very risky experimental procedure unlikely to end well, or they could use the body for parts to give new organs and tissues to dozens of people, doing far less risky surgeries with high success rates and adding many quality years to those patients’ lives. Its a sad but clear choice.

Still, there is a reason why head transplants even came up as an idea. Some people basically need a new, well, body because nothing short of that would help them. Sadly, there is nothing medical science can do today for Spiridonov. We’re making strides towards 3D printed organs and implantable devices that can bypass damaged sections of spinal cords to allow paralyzed patients to walk again under their own power, as well as honing genetic engineering to treat a host of powerful cancers and some genetic diseases. But while there is light at the end of the proverbial tunnel for patients who could benefit from these advancements, they’re still several decades away from being new standards of care and will require countless trials and hundreds of billions of dollars from government grants and private companies to be readily available. It’s awful to say this, but for patients like Spiridonov, these potential cures will come too late and a lot of patients like him will succumb to their ailments before medical science can help.

Canavero is trying to help people and Spiridonov is trying to aid him in pioneering a hope for a normal life for those to whom nature didn’t give a fighting chance. Unfortunately, we’re still just now making a few baby steps towards the technologies they would need to be successful, and it’s our sad duty as scientific skeptics to point out that while all death is awful, some ways to die are far, far worse than others, and it would be more humane not to try head transplants. In the future, when we can rebuild bodies with advanced robotics, harmless viruses that can purge a genome of life-threatening defects, and 3D printed tissues, it may be possible for many would-be volunteers for a head transplant to end up living healthy, happy lives. But today, we are just too far away from making this a reality, and while volunteering to advance medicine should be praised, there are some cases where allowing an experiment to go forward, even when all the participants involved know the risks, would still be cruel. And that’s the bad thing about the real world. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you still won’t get a happy ending…

meat plate

Allow me to declare something that will quickly make the blood of many modern, trendy vegans run cold. Meat is very, very delicious and humans have an innate hunger for it. There’s a good reason why meat prices and consumption are surging upwards across world. When people in developing nations make more money, they don’t rush out to buy more rice or vegetables, but instead, substitute them with meat and seafood. Yes, it’s possible to live and long and healthy life as a vegan if you know what you’re doing and find the right balance of proteins and various supplements to make up for the loss of iron and beneficial fats in meat, but most people will be craving a burger or a steak at some point because humans are omnivorous, and the only way that our bodies know to make up for some vitamin or nutrient deficiency is to hit us with a very strong desire to eat something full of those vitamins and nutrients.

However, there’s really no denying that meat is very environmentally and medically expensive over the long run. As much as I enjoy biting into seared flesh after a long day of work, and as much as I’d love for it not not be true, livestock and fish farming are turning into disasters. We use too many antibiotics which greatly contribute to a rise in antibiotic resistance, coupled with our constant overuse of them in medicine — which is actually a whole other problem — and the amount of water wasted and runoff generated by animal farms is troublesome at best and way out of control at worst. And this is why some entrepreneurs with serious funding behind them have been trying to create meat alternatives in a lab to significantly curtail the impact of cattle farming and help the environment by either making meat a thing of the past, or turning to high tech tools that redefine meat as we know it.

It’s a noble goal to be sure, but as a savvy food critic who was recently sent to investigate their efforts notes, all we have so far is paste that sort of looks and tastes like meat if you empty the contents of your spice rack into the pan when cooking it, and a piece of bio-engineering which wouldn’t look out of place in Star Trek, but with which would set you back $332,000 for just one burger, enough to buy the entire population of Greenland a light breakfast. In other words, we don’t have much to show for it and what we do actually have, will pale in comparison to a steak from a real animal cooked by a professional. And as he opined after dining in an LA eatery on slices of cow, a meal I’m positive was expensed as “research,” the best he can see happening over the next decade is synthetics replacing low grade, mass produced meat…

With work on flavor and moisture, Anderson and Geistlinger will be able to get beyond the cooked-dog-food appearance of the Beast. They might even perfect the Salisbury steak, that staple of school cafeterias, [something] Anderson says he can imagine achieving in his lifetime (he doesn’t mention the school-cafeteria part), or the skinless chicken breast that both men think might not be far down the road.

Now, as some of his critics note in the comments, he’s a food critic worried about the palette of those who’ll be eating these meat substitutes so we can take his prognostication with a grain of salt and safely assume that people would opt for a veggie burger that’s indistinguishable from a real burger and has a quarter of the calories and saturated fat. Fast food chains serving patty after patty of something nutritious and meat-like with significant success would have profound positive implication for the nation’s health and waistline. How much farmland could be returned to nature? How many antibiotics put back on the shelves? Farmers raising livestock would find themselves in need of new cash cows, but we’re not talking about this happening overnight so there are chance to adjust to growing the synthetics’ nutritious components.

But these visions of a less meaty utopia assumes that people will really want to put all this not- meat in their mouths, an assumption that should absolutely not be treated as a given. People loathe the idea of eating filler, or something that’s substituting for what they really wanted, and they sure as hell won’t be thrilled putting something called “engineered muscle tissue” on their dinner plates just based on knowing its origin. They may be curious, but their diet won’t change at the drop of a hat. And on top of this, can you imagine the reaction from the dedicated “anti-chemical” foodies out there? I would try and imagine the Food Babe’s take on this technology, but lacking the desire to smash my head into a brick wall enough times to forget middle school chemistry, basic logic, and human decency, I leave that as an exercise to the reader.

Still, despite all that being said, there is a way to make synthetic meat popular and there will be uses for it if we get a little creative. Considering that we still do want to explore space, it would be far more cost effective to grow meat tissue in space, rather than sending it dehydrated at a cost of over $10,000 per pound on a $80 million rocket. Streamlining the current technology to lower costs and increase amount of grown muscle tissue would the the first priority, after which extensive testing on the ISS could tinker with making the results reliable, nutritious, and healthy for humans. Getting the taste right might be tricky since in micro-gravity, everything would be a lot blander than it actually is due to the redistribution of fluids in your body, but since we’re very close to the required meaty taste from bio-engineered muscle tissue already, it shouldn’t be an insurmountable leap. From there, we can bring this manufactured meat back down to Earth for sale with a far more exciting origin story than a sterile private lab. So what do you say, wouldn’t you want to try an astronaut burger? You know, just out of curiosity…

radio telescope

Well, as you were warned, Weird Things is back in action, coming to you from Los Angeles with the latest in high tech, astrobiology, strange, bleeding edge science, and skepticism, and I can’t think of a better way to return than with tackling an alien contact story that spread across much of the web like wildfire, appearing in everything from IBI, university blogs, Forbes, and featured by the usual suspects like New Scientist. According to this story, fast radio bursts, or FRBs, are not actually the bizarre, millisecond-length death cries of distant exotic neutron stars collapsing into black holes, as one of the front-running hypotheses states, but may be aliens trying to ping our radio telescopes to see if we’re out there and listening. Think of them as a Wow! Signal on repeat, something not giving us much to work with, but ultimately fascinating by the possibilities they offer, in one of which, SETI’s Seth Shostack sees the work of his alien colleagues…

These fast radio bursts could conceivably be ‘wake up calls’ from other societies, trying to prompt a response from any intelligent life that’s outfitted with radio technology.

But what exactly makes these FRBs so special that someone would even consider them as the work of an intelligent mind? It all comes down to a number called a dispersion measure in radio astronomy, the density of free electrons affected by the signal on its way to our receivers. This might not tell you exactly how far away a radio source is, you’ll have to do some work to adjust your measurements for what’s known to exist in the direction from which you’re getting a signal to do that, but it does tell you something about the distance and power of the object. And when one cluster of FRBs was recently observed in real time, this measurement consistently came in as some multiple of 187.5 which, according to the experts, has a 1 in 2,000 chance of occurring naturally. This is not a wandering, random signal we happened to pick up. There is a very clear and distinct pattern.

Of course all this doesn’t mean that we have a slam dunk case of alien contact because we’ve already gotten some very steady, regular pulses the distance and location of which we did pin down to fixed points in space, unlike FRBs. We also wondered if these were otherworldly minds trying to see if there was anyone out there because the pings were so regular, predictable, and clear, also unlike these FRBs. Now, when we get such regular signals, we know it’s a neutron star with a powerful magnetic field pointing at us, not a distant alien civilization saying hello. A pattern in a signal doesn’t necessarily mean intelligence, even if the pattern is odd. All that was determined so far is that some pattern exists with significant certainty. What’s actually causing this signal is still a mystery, and the best we can do for now to identify a culprit is to say that the FRBs are most likely coming from our own galaxy. So how did we go from basic signal analysis to a deluge of announcements about the possibility of first contact with extraterrestrials?

You see, when the researchers were speculating about what causes FRBs, they spent the vast majority of their time talking about the relationship between the bursts, the pattern they found in the distribution measure, and the Earth’s integer second, a number used for syncing devices to keep very precise track of time. In fact, the explanation they consider most likely involves some sort of a ping between cell towers bouncing around high in the atmosphere, confusing delicate equipment, and the scatter plot of distribution measures show that the signal coming from deep space would either be on the move, or going through a very irregular cloud of gas and dust. So just for the sake of completeness, they add the the following thought…

A more likely option could be a galactic source producing quantized chirped signals, but this seems most surprising. If both of these options could be excluded, only an artificial source (human or non-human) must be considered, particularly since most bursts have been observed in only one location (Parkes radio telescope). A re-assessment of man-made phenomena, such as perytons, would then be required.

They then go on to say that the strong relationship between the detected FRBs and a common timekeeping standard we use in precision equipment pretty much “clinches” the case for a very straightforward explanation that we’re detecting our own electronic noise. So out of a four page paper talking about how likely it is the FRBs are noise form our devices trying to stay in sync to provide us with reliable communication channels, a single speculative mention of “non-human” sources from space which is dismissed in light of the collected evidence turned a summation of some purely technical analysis of radio noise into “we’re being called by aliens!” splattered on a thousand news sites and pop sci blogs. Did no one read the paper? Looking at some dates, it’s possible to find to at least one of the big culprits of this very inventive take on this research.

Bet you won’t act too shocked when I point the finger to the Daily Mail since they’ve done the same sort of thing before, claiming that an astronomer detected signals he didn’t detect from a planet which never actually observed, and it appears they did it again, to be copied by as many other sources as possible to get the traffic. Considering that their journalistic standards are not so much lax as they are completely non-existent, they’re not going to be above warping what a scientific paper says to manufacture news where there really aren’t any. They’re technically not lying as such; the researchers did say that we could consider a non-human artificial sources of the signals they detected. It’s just that the Mail and those rushing to run with the same story in editorial haste just so happened to omit that the researchers followed this thought up with “but seriously, no, don’t, it’s pretty much certainly our own noise” to draw in a few million clicks…


This might seem a little odd, but think about it. Single stage to orbit, or SSTO, space flight is the holy grail of aerospace design right now. If you can fly a plane into space, you can easily reduce launch costs by a factor of ten and still build a profitable business. Not only would you make it a lot more tempting for companies and universities to exploit space, but you can also offer shorter commutes between far flung, attractive destinations, and take space tourism to the next level. A big problem with SSTO however, is that it’s been tried before with few positive results because physics tend to get in the way of a smooth ascent to orbit. If you need to drag tons of oxidizer to incredibly high altitudes, you may as well just use a rocket. If you try to gulp down the incoming air, you’ll be dealing with blistering heat that will be monstrously difficult to compress and use to provide thrust. But the brainchild of engineer Alan Bond, Reaction Engines, has recently shown that it has a solution to a viable hybrid engine for the SSTO craft it wants to build.

By cooling the super-heated air coming into the intakes at the speed of sound with liquid helium, the SABRE engine can ignite a rocket motor while traveling at supersonic speed. Now mind you, this was only a test and we’re still a few years away from an engine ready to go to market, but a technical audit by the ESA found no flaws with the design. So while Reaction Engines may seem like it’s pitching something out of a science fiction movie, its technical chops seem to be in order and it’s not hiding behind invocations of or trade secrets when faced with tough questions. This is why they’ve gotten several grants from the ESA to keep working on SABRE. However, the final tally for the Skylon spaceplane fleet is estimated at $14 billion, several orders of magnitude more than government grants being offered and out of reach for the vast majority of private investors. So far, the plan seems to be to solicit another $4 million or so in funding to finish SABRE to then license the engine to other manufacturers and use the proceeds to start building Skylons. It’s certainly an interesting idea, but who exactly would want to license an SSTO engine?

How about SpaceX? Right now, to advance its strategy of licensing SABRE, the company has a derivative design called the Scimitar and bills it as already being 50% funded by the EU to bring intercontinental travel at Mach 5 to the world at large. Now, this would certainly help big airlines make more profits by flying trans-oceanic routes more often in theory, but in practice, the really, really burdensome regulations against supersonic travel thanks to the kind of NIMBYism which played a major role in preventing the supersonic travel revolution predicted by many futirists, as well as the lead time to finish, test, and prove these planes in operation, Reaction Engines may as well forget about Skylon for the next several decades. If it wants to raise money and interest for a spaceplane, it should focus on creating a spaceplane and selling the Scimitar to militaries as the child of the successful SABRE. Yes, SpaceX is working on its Dragon capsule for sending humans to the ISS, and it has rockets capable of getting there, but if it can offer rocket launches to deliver larger spacecraft into orbit, ready for a Skylon to deliver the crew, it can build a major competitive advantage. An extra 20 or 30 tons of cargo capacity can help enable a less spartan mission beyond Earth orbit, and Dragon could be an emergency habitat in deep space.

We should no longer have just one launch stack for sending humans into space, but instead, we need to mix and match our technology for optimal results. Doing heavy lifting with rockets while the orbit is given to SSTO craft and inflatable space stations for staging, assembly, research, or all of the above, is probably our best way to steadily expand upward into space. So maybe Elon Musk should consider working with Reaction Engines in the near future. The investment wouldn’t be small and returns on it won’t be quick, but they’ll not only be an investment in furthering how far SpaceX can go and what it can do for its clients, but also an investment in the infrastructure of the dawning space tourism and exploration industry. And judging from many proposals for the future of NASA and space travel in general, he’s rather likely to find deep-pocketed and willing partners to make it all work. After all, sticking to space capsules and heavy lift rockets for almost everything would be a huge technological step back to doing what we know rather than using all our past skills to build something for the future. Why should we circle back now, especially when there’s promising technology to make it happen just waiting for people with a big vision and the resources to make it come together, especially at a profit when all is said and done?

mystery astronaut

As long time readers know, I’m a sucker for a good counter-intuitive think piece and pretty much every professional blogger knows that to start a big debate and draw a crowd, you need a view way out of left field once in a while to mix things up. But the really big catch for posts like these, especially in science and tech, is that they need to be based on sound criticism and have logical consistency and flow. This is why Morozov’s rebellion against TED was spot on while the attempt at a shot across the bow of human spaceflight programs by Srikanth Saripalli in Future Tense is basically a train wreck of an argument. Unlike Morozov, Saripalli isn’t willing or able to explore or engage with the issues he brings up, and his grasp of some very basic technological concepts comes off as shoddy at best. He even veers off into Singularity territory to argue for that future robotic probes will be smarter and uses transhumanism as an excuse to ground astronauts. The whole thing was so badly written that I was dead sure Saripalli must have been a journalist with exactly zero STEM credentials, but shockingly, he’s actually a robotics researcher at ASU.

Maybe he’s a terrific robotics person, but it certainly doesn’t get conveyed in his piece because much of it is spent on rehashing the very same claims from Kurzweil and his disciples that I have debated time and time again on this blog. From promises of digital immortality to artificial minds that can out-think all of humanity, Saripalli parrots it all with zero caveats or skepticism and then barrels right ahead to transhumanist effots in life extension to declare the future of our bodies to be very much uncertain, and thus reason enough to replace astronauts with robots. Then, after seemingly providing for cyborg space exploration he never returns to the topic again, wandering off to the current buzzword in bleeding edge robotics, evolving robot networks. Yes, they’re very awesome and their potential is mind-blowing. But put light years between them and you’re going to have to radically rethink how they could be deployed and used. Though you know what, we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Let’s come back to his sneaky misuse of transhumanism…

Given that the future of our bodies is uncertain, it makes more sense to send robots with intelligence to other planets and galaxies. Nature has built us a certain way—we are best-suited for our planet "Earth." Future space explorers will quickly realize that the human body is not the perfect machine for these environments. We will also want to explore other planets such as Venus and maybe even think about living on those planets. Rather than make those planets habitable, does it not make sense to purposefully evolve ourselves such that we are habitable in those worlds?

You know, this attitude is surprisingly common in Singularitarian and transhumanist circles, and there’s a widespread disdain for human spaceflight as simulations and beaming one’s mind in a laser beam across the universe in a hypothetical future are praised as the solutions to the issue of our biology’s limitations in space. The problem is that beaming yourself around the cosmos is not only biologically implausible, but the physics and orbital mechanics don’t work out either. So while it’s true that we actually should send cyborgs into space, something for which I argued in a few articles on Discovery News, we’re not going to send human minds to ready made bodies, or disembodied brains ala Project Kronos to wander through space. Even less desirable is trying to evolve to live on an alien world as if evolution can be directed on cue and we aren’t better off as the generalists we currently are. We want to upgrade our bodies to survive alien environments, but we don’t want to do it just so we get stuck on another planet all over again, which is what the question seems to propose. Ignoring this line of debate, Saripalli then lunges into robotics.

Several articles in popular press have argued that humans on the moon have produced far more scientific data than the robots on Mars. While this is true, the robots that have been used till now are not at all "autonomous" or "intelligent" in any sense. […] Indeed, we are very far from having autonomous robots on planetary missions, but such machines are being built in university labs every day. Robot Magellans (with scientific skills to boot) could be here long before colonists take off for Mars.

There are two problems with this train of thought. Powerful, intelligent robots are extremely hard to build when you’re going to send them to other planets because physics is the universe’s Buzz Killington when it comes to boldly going into the final frontier. It comes down primarily to weight and power placing some very harsh limitations on how smart our machines can be. I can think of ways to make them much smarter, hypothetically speaking, but all of them involve humans and a lunar or orbital base with giant clean rooms and heavily shielded supercomputers. And while I’m not a gambling man beyond playing with a few bucks in Vegas between shows or attractions, I’d be willing to bet that even the smarter machines we’ll build in the next half century will not totally eliminate the need for human guidance, strategy, and corrections. Our robots will be our trusted help and we’ll use them to do jobs we can’t, but they’ll in no way replace astronauts, just make a very tough job easier and allow us to cram even more science into a mission. But Saripalli plays dirty when it comes to astronauts, summoning politics to rid the space program of humans…

Contrary to popular belief, there never has been a groundswell of popular support from the general public for the space program. Even during the Apollo era, more people were against the space program than for it. Getting robots into space costs a lot less than humans and is safer —so we can keep the space program going without creating budgetary battles.

Yes, it’s true that despite today’s near sacred status of the Apollo missions, people just wanted the government to beat those commie bastards and go home at the time you could turn on your TV and see humans walking on another world. This is what killed the lunar program and future plans for the launch stack, and arguably, what ails NASA to this day. However, you can’t argue that space probes don’t face the scorn of politicians when budgets are being decided since they pretty much loathe all science spending as wasteful, and despite singing praises to science and technology, much of the public doesn’t understand the people who do science or engineering in any way, shape, or form, and really don’t care to. Take quick a look at all the snide dismissals of Curiosity as a colossal waste of $2.5 billion and tell me with a straight face that you’re not going to get budgetary battles by sending robots instead of humans. Of course none of this can get in the way of Saripalli’s rosy view of a galaxy buzzing with our networked robotics along with a huge flop that makes me wonder if he actually understands distributed computing.

While NASA is interested in sending big missions with large robots to accomplish tasks, I believe future robots will be smaller, “distributed,” and much cheaper. To understand this, let us look at the current computing environment: We have moved from supercomputers to using distributed computing; from large monolithic data warehouses to saving data in the cloud; from using laptops to tablets and our smartphones.

All right, let’s stop right there for a minute. We did not go from large monolithic data warehouses to saving data in the cloud. We went from large monolithic data warehouses to even larger data warehouses that are basically a modern riff on mainframes. As explained before, the cloud isn’t magic, it’s just a huge set of hard drives in enormous buildings housing the modern equivalents of what mainframes were originally developed to do at a much higher level of complexity. To say that the cloud is different from a data warehouse is like saying that we moved from penicillin to antibiotics. Maybe he means something completely different than what came out, but since this isn’t a piece from a professional blogger trying to submit five articles a day, he probably wrote it, proofread it, and reviewed it multiple times before submitting it, and had plenty of chances to fix this sort of major error. Unfortunately, the continuation of his thought uses this factually incorrect assertion as the linchpin for his vision of robotic space exploration, which just makes it worse.

The future of space exploration is going to be the same—we will transition from large, heavy robots and satellites to “nanosats” and small, networked robots. We will use hundreds or thousands of cheap, small "sensor networks" that can be deployed on planetary bodies. These will form a self-organizing network that can quickly explore areas of interest and also organize themselves into larger machines that can mine metals or develop new vehicles for future exploration.

Let’s get something straight here, people at NASA are pretty damn smart. They prefer fairly big missions because they’re easier to power, easier to coordinate than many small ones, and can do more science when they reach their destinations. Thousands of tiny bots means very limited power supplies to instruments and many expensive pings between them. Factor in the distances involved in space travel and you’ll spend most of your time waiting to hear back from other bots, while a large, integrated system already got the job done. These are not things that will improve with new technology. There are hard limits on how small logic gates can be and how fast lasers and radio signals can travel, and changing these limits would require a different universe rather than a different manufacturing process or communication technique. It only really makes sense to distribute these robot networks across a single planetary body overseen by humans who had a number of modifications to their bodies to help deal with the alien environment. And there are reasons beyond efficiency for sending humans into space on a regular basis.

Humans are natural explorers, our minds are wired to wonder from birth. If we’re going to try and explore the universe, we need to do more than send our robotic proxies and stay on Earth. And as was mentioned a few times in the comments to Saripalli’s post, there’s a huge psychological effect of going into space. Seeing the entire Earth as a blue marble floating in the void makes a lot of astronauts extremely aware of just how mindlessly, ignorantly petty some 95% of the stuff that we bicker about with no end in sight, really is. We can’t expect to end political battles about things that seem huge to us here but mean nothing in the grand scheme of things when we take into account where and who we actually are just by flying politicians to space. But if we are more and more involved in space travel, we’ll get a much broader perspective. We’re one species, on one planet, wasting lifetimes arguing about magic sky people and their wishes for us, and on all sorts of petty spats about what is and isn’t ours on a tiny blue ball spinning in space. And when we finally let that sink in, maybe, we’ll devote a little more time to something far more important, like advancing ourselves. Sending robots to take our place in space only delays that.

[ illustration by Ian Wilding ]


A while ago, I wrote about some futurists’ ideas of robot brothels and conscious, self-aware sex bots capable of entering a relationship with a human, and why marriage to an android is unlikely to become legal. Short version? I wouldn’t be surprised if there are sex bots for rent in a wealthy first world country’s red light district, but robot-human marriages are a legal dead end. Basically, it comes down to two factors. First, a robot, no matter how self-aware or seemingly intelligent, is not a living things capable of giving consent. It could easily be programmed to do what its owner wants it to do, and in fact this seems to be the primary draw for those who consider themselves technosexuals. Unlike another human, robots are not looking for companionship, they were built to be companions. Second, and perhaps most important, is that anatomically correct robots are often used as surrogates for contact with humans and are being imparted human features by an owner who is either intimidated or easily hurt by the complexities of typical human interaction.

You don’t have to take my word on the latter. Just consider this interview with an iDollator — the term sometimes used by technosexuals to identify for themselves — in which he more or less just confirms everything I said word for word. He buys and has relationships with sex dolls because a relationship with a woman just doesn’t really work out for him. He’s too shy to make a move, gets hurt when he makes what many of us consider classic dating mistakes, and rather than trying to navigate the emotional landscape of a relationship, he simply avoids trying to build one. It’s little wonder he’s so attached to his dolls. He projected all his fantasies and desires to a pair of pliant objects that can provide him with some sexual satisfaction and will never say no, or demand any kind of compromise or emotional concern from him rather than for their upkeep. Using them, he went from a perpetual third wheel in relationships, to having a bisexual wife and girlfriend, a very common fantasy that has a very mixed track record with flesh and blood humans because those pesky emotions get in the way as boundaries and rules have to be firmly established.

Now, I understand this might come across as judgmental, although it’s really not meant to be an indictment against iDollators, and it’s entirely possible that my biases are in play here. After all, who am I to potentially pathologize the decisions of iDollator as a married man who never even considered the idea of synthetic companionship as an option, much less a viable one at that? At the same time, I think we could objectively argue that the benefits of marriage wouldn’t work for relationships between humans and robots. One of the main benefits of marriage is the transfers of property between spouses. Robots would be property, virtual extensions of the will of humans who bought and programmed them. They would be useful in making the wishes of the human on his or her deathbed known but that’s about it. Inheriting the humans’ other property would be an equivalent of a house getting to keep a car, a bank account, and the insurance payout as far as laws would be concerned. More than likely, the robot would be auctioned off or be transferred to the next of kin as a belonging of the deceased, and very likely re-programmed.

And here’s another caveat. All of this is based on the idea of advancements in AI we aren’t even sure will be made, applied to sex bots. We know that their makers want to give them some basic semblance of a personality, but how successful they’ll be is a very open question. Being able to change the robot’s mood and general personality on a whim would still be a requirement for any potential buyer as we see with iDollators, and without autonomy, we can’t even think of granting any legal person-hood to even a very sophisticated synthetic intelligence. That would leave sex bots as objects of pleasure and relationship surrogates, perhaps useful in therapy or to replace human sex workers and combat human trafficking. Personally, considering the cost of upkeep of a high end sex bot and the level of expertise and infrastructure required, I’m still not seeing sex bots as solving the ethical and criminal issues involved with semi-legal or illegalized prostitution, especially in the developing world. To human traffickers, their victims’ lives are cheap and those being exploited are just useful commodities for paying clients, especially wealthy ones.

So while we could safely predict they they will emerge and become quite complex and engaging over the coming decades, they’re unlikely to anything more than a niche product. They won’t be legally viable spouses and very seldom the first choice of companion. They won’t help stem the horrors of human trafficking until they become extremely cheap and convenient. They might be a useful therapy tool where human sexual surrogates can’t do their work or a way for some tech-savvy entrepreneurs sitting on a small pile of cash to make some quick money. But they will not change human relationships in profound ways as some futurists like to predict, and there might well be a limit to how well they can interact with us. Considering our history and biology, it a safe bet that our partners will almost always be other humans and robots will almost always be things we own. Oh they could be wonderful, helpful things to which we’ll have emotional attachments in the same way we’d be emotionally attached to a favorite pet, but ultimately, just our property.

[ illustration by Michael O ]

calvin superhero

Apologies for the lengthy pauses between posts but with Project X in full swing and long days at the office, there’s only so much time to write, and the more gets written the more problems there are for the aforementioned project. But more on that in due time. For now, I decided to take the occasional detour into the realm of meta-debates and talk about news stories documenting the growing pains of the skeptical movement. Their common theme is that there are people under a banner called skepticism who want to confront pseudoscience while at the same time arguing a great deal about how to do it, and with certain influential skeptics trying impose their politics on the entire movement. Does a skeptic need only to worry about debunking Bigfoot, UFOs, quack remedies, and ghosts? Does a skeptic need to be atheist? Are skeptics allowed to shelter hope that a belief for which there’s little to no evidence might still somehow end up being true? And in the grand scheme of things, what do the skeptics really want to accomplish in the end and who gets to be invited to join them in their campaigns? In short, what exactly makes one a skeptic?

But hold on, you might object, why does arriving at a concrete definition matter? Aren’t skeptics just scientifically literate folks applying basic scientific methodology to bullshit claims made by all sorts of profit-minded shysters and by well-meaning but potentially dangerously ignorant people who pass them on or weave them into their personal brands of cargo cult science? Well, yes, in the broadest way that’s correct, and it’s what let me to start forging ties with organized skeptical organizations when their blog was in its prime skeptical phase. However just because you called yourself a skeptic for denouncing pseudoscience and were recognized for it by JREF or another skeptical group, doesn’t mean the topic you’re best equipped to address will ever get any major boost, even within the group. For example, I’m most often cited for Singularity skepticism, mostly because I’m a techie by profession and education, and have the experience and tools to put the wild claims of our impending immortality through technology under very tight scrutiny. Good for me, right? A new branch of skepticism can be added to the collective’s efforts, right?

Sorry but no dice. In fact, a certain very popular 2012 skeptic once told me that until he started reading my dissections of Kurzweil & Co., he thought that their ideas were a lot more plausible than they actually were, and the Skepchicks hosted a very sympathetic take on the claims and predictions being made by the attendees of a Singularity Summit. After talking to those involved on the subject, I was told that while my take was appreciated in the form of links, what I wrote on the subject was "sort of advanced skepticism" and they wanted to focus on something that was more common, the old school skeptics-as-common-sense-debunkers approach. Pretty much the only recognizable skeptics not only interested, but willing to give transhumanist and AI skeptics a real platform was the team at Skeptically Speaking, for which I ended up doing half an episode, and a two-hour debate with a prominent transhumanist. That’s right, we were so popular and the audience was so receptive, I had to come back twice. But to the old school skeptics, it’s really all about debunking common myths and popular quacks. It needs to be done but for those of us no longer interested in that, there doesn’t seem to be much room in organized skepticism.

And this is one of the biggest sources of friction that I’m seeing right now. Those of us who are technical experts in one subject or another interested in applying our specialized knowledge to a possibly arcane but still popular topic, are sick and tired of the umpteenth dissection of Dr. Oz and a UFO sighting now decades old, but we’re not really being included or asked to bring light to a new topic or two because that puts the old school skeptics out of their comfort zone. Now, I won’t be surprised if by now you’re tempted to dismiss this grievance by pointing out that it come from personal experience and makes for only one data point. But if you go back to the Atheism+ fight for just a bit, you’ll hear an undertone of the same exact issues from a completely different group of people with completely different goals. They wanted to turn organized skepticism into a left wing political movement rather than broaden its primary topics, but their reason for trying to create a new offshoot was due to a) feeling that the skeptical old school is not interested in new ideas for the future, and b) their avoidance of the skepticism vs. atheism question based mostly on marketing considerations, to make the religious feel more welcome at skeptic meetups.

Today’s big, organized skeptical groups don’t seem to be evolving or really expanding past the few topics that bound them together. More and more skeptical meetups seem to be preaching to the choir rather than exposing skeptics to new topics. The whole movement just seems stuck in place, retracing the same fake Bigfoot steps and analyzing the same flying saucer on a wire for the hundredth time. And as if that wasn’t enough, we get drama and gender wars on an endless loop for publicity and stats instead of guidance and fresh ideas. Wasn’t the point of well-funded, organized skepticism to spread education and combat the popularization of pseudoscience in all of its forms rather than spending a lot of time with people who agree with what you say? Where are the skeptical conferences that invite expert speakers to expose skeptics to big, cutting edge scientific ideas to peak their interest in broadening their horizons and taking on new topics? Is a skeptical equivalent of TED without the buzzwords out of the question? No wonder reporters on missions to write about organized skepticism all end up asking where would the movement go in the next few years and fail to prove an answer. They can’t. There’s no future game plan…

magazine kiosk

When an expansive article on GMOs became the lead story in Elle Magazine, it wasn’t exactly a shocker that the story got its science wrong and horribly abused quotes to create a controversy where one didn’t exist. In fact, it’s par for the course when GMOs are mentioned in publications not known for their scientific reporting. Just like conservative political outlets go out of their way to deny global warming and denigrate the scientists involved in climate modeling, generally left-leaning lifestyle magazines do whatever they can to cast some doubt on the viability of GMOs in a noxious mix of conspiracy-mongering and double standards. No matter how many tests looking for potential allergens or toxins are done over decades, the anti-GMO pundits declare that there aren’t enough studies of the modified crops’ safety and surely this means that Monsanto turned millions of people into their unwitting guinea pigs for the sake of profit.

Meanwhile, even a single experiment which claims to find some sort of a problem with GMOs, no matter how horribly done and how much the researchers conduct it threaten reporters who want a second opinion or ask questions, has to be held up as the definitive proof that we’re all being slowly poisoned by greedy tycoons. The reality is quite different, of course. GMOs are actually strictly regulated, unlike organic food, since each new protein or genetic modification is treated as a food additive and has to be cleared by an independent panel of experts and by the FDA to ever hit the market. By contrast, anything described as "natural" and used in organic food does not have to be subject to any studies thanks to the codification of the naturalistic fallacy into law and despite the fact that nature can be very, very deadly. However, it’s not all regulations, good science, and securing the food supply. GMO makers use and abuse the patent system to milk a hefty profit from every stage of their products’ lifecycles and bilk farmers.

But don’t expect a discussion about the patent system and biology in Elle because the story isn’t so much about GMOs as about the author and her quest to rid herself of allergies, transitioning into a standard storyline of a woman in search of truth. Though by truth what I really mean is an exploratory trip into the land of conspiracy theories because that’s what the readers want. It’s a story written for the magazine’s target demographic, which is why it’s first person and focuses on vague, scary-sounding concerns to keep readers hooked. And this is why the admonition given to this article after a fact check sounds a bit silly to put it mildly, as it laments the science abuse and rampant misquotes to create a controversy for the sake of eyeballs…

It represents a major setback for science journalism, and for consumers who rely on hugely popular lifestyle publications to make their way through complicated issues. Is GMO corn causing allergies or other disorders? Are GMOs a threat? Elle perpetuates a “controversy” that just doesn’t exist in the mainstream science or medical communities. Worse, it fans the flames of doubt and distrust that fuel unilateral opposition to a sophisticated technology that could improve global food security.

Here’s the thing. If people are getting their science information from the same magazines which tell them what shoes are in this season, or what celebrity is working on what new movie, we have much bigger problems than are being highlighted here. Why would anyone think that relying on the latest edition of Vanity Fair, or Esquire, or, yes, Elle, for the latest and greatest in important, everyday science is a good idea? Certainly, one doesn’t expect fashion tips and celebrity gossip in their edition of National Geographic. Likewise, why would people rely on fashion magazines to navigate important policy debates? The really scary thing is that despite most people singing all manner of praises to science and a STEM education in popular surveys, they by in large do not care about the science that actually gets done or why, and even worse, don’t want to care. And considering that, is it any wonder that publications that cater to people who only say they care to be scientifically literate focus on creating controversy, peddling conspiracies, and moving copies to charge advertisers more? The Elle story is just one symptom of a much bigger issue…

[ photo illustration of news kiosk in Zurich via Wikimedia Commons ]


While we’re talking about chemophobia, here’s another area where a selective focus on health isn’t helping in the big picture: food. The cover story for the current edition of The Atlantic is an expansive, New Yorker style, 10,500 word case against chemophobic foodism that’s currently in vogue in many metropolitan cities. David Freedman’s thesis basically boils down to calling out foodies on their caloric hypocrisy while noting that the companies they demonize are working to cut down on calories in their most popular offerings, which could have huge downstream effects for tens of millions of people. And with obesity arguably being America’s biggest health problem, combating it could shave trillions off our healthcare expenditures. That’s a big deal, so focusing on only "wholesome, natural, farm-to-table" fare while relegating food conglomerates to the role of the foodie movement’s sworn enemies is shortsighted and naive. As you can imagine, there’s no shortage of detractors to Freedman’s indictment and many of them base their opposition on the very chemophobia he sites, recycling the same arguments he tries to dispel.

Of course the article itself isn’t without flaws, but arguing with its focus on noting out how foodie idols aren’t helping to reduce caloric intake, but instead jack up the price in the name of style or ideology misses an important point. You see, the foodies aren’t actually helping people lose any heft by substituting fast, cheap, fattening food with wholesome, fresh, simple dishes that are so aesthetically pleasing they’re bordering on gastronomic pornography, yet every bit as bad as all those Big Macs and fries. Their excuse? It’s better for you because it’s all wholesome! Disregard the terrifying amount of flour, butter, bacon, and sugar going into these recipes. They’re labeled organic and they’re not — gasp! — processed with chemicals. Oh and if you want to lose weight, don’t eat this often and stay active; because all this stuff is natural and organic it will burn off all the faster. But the fact of the matter is that it won’t. Remember the craze about the high fructose corn syrup and the call to replace it with natural sugar? There’s a reason why it died down. The science says that sugar is sugar and both HFCS and cane sugar are equally dangerous.

Couple this almost religious faith in the power of "wholesome and natural food" with a big dollop of affluence and advice like "don’t eat something with more than five ingredients or containing chemicals you don’t immediately recognize," and you get a classic situation in which a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. Not only are foodies disregarding food that’s more immune to being left out unrefrigerated for a few hours and safer from germs and spoilage (that’s what the vast majority of those strange sounding chemicals in processed food do by the way), but they’re also paying premiums for what they do find acceptable. This is great for Whole Foods, or as it’s known in some places Whole Paycheck, but not so great for John and Jane Public who are now thinking that they’re priced out of eating healthy. Fresh, more local food that travels from farms to supermarkets and forks faster is actually a good thing. It’s less resource intensive and helps the food stay edible longer. But it’s also being sold at a premium instead of being the default for markets. Why? Because foodies are willing to pay extra and margins in the grocery business are slim to put it mildly. Like many "green, eco-friendly" products, food is being upmarketed.

Worst of all, a great deal of the foodie motivation behind spending more money and avoiding a gret swath of basic chemistry to keep food fresh and safe longer is useless when it comes to the big goal of fighting obesity. The chemicals are not making people fat. The tomato from a frozen warehouse and the tomato from a local farm won’t break down differently in someone’s stomach and fuel the body with different calories. Obesity is so much more complex than that. When you want to tackle the question of why people gain weight you have to also look past exercise and a sum total of calories. You also have to consider that Americans work too much, sit too much for their jobs, don’t get exercise breaks in their routine, try to cram some 20 hours of tasks into a 16 or an 18 hour day, have to drive everywhere, some have genetic predispositions for weight gain, and others have emotional problems that drive them to food, etc. If you want to tackle the country’s weight problem holistically, you don’t do it with bad science, throw money at it, or try to shame people who can’t afford to eat like a foodie to do so. You have to do a lot more.

People eat fast food because it’s convenient and yes, cooking it with higher quality ingredients while cutting out calories and improving flavor with judicious use of benign and helpful chemicals would go a long way. But we also need to encourage more mass transit, more urban lifestyles in growing cities to get more people walking, jobs that allow for more flexible schedules to get a bit of exercise into the day and break up the monotony of being chained to desks and office chairs, and teach coping strategies for an insane workload both at the office and at home. Fighting the scourge of obesity and its attendant health problems requires many years of work and we have good studies showing us how we can start doing it. Demonizing processed foods with naturalism and pseudoscience with an irrational fear of chemistry isn’t going to help. It’s just going to make some foodies feel like they’re doing good things for their health. A number of whom, I might add, flip out in terror if their food contains half a gram of aspartame, but think nothing of having botox injections. You know, injections of the deadliest toxin know to humans to paralyze their faces so they look younger by poisoning their muscles into submission until their crow’s feet are gone…

t. rex fossil

Last time we tackled the question of whether the mighty T-Rex was a predator or a scavenger, the math seemed to point to a mix at the very least. There was no way a creature that large had enough to eat just by moving from carcass to carcass and picking off the scraps left by the apex predators of its day if we take into account the average distances between the kills, decay, and the need to compete with smaller, faster scavengers. But on the other hand, there was the issue of not finding any clear signs of T-Rex predation. Sure there have been some teeth marks on a couple of fossilized bones but all of them could be equally explained by both scavenging and by hunting, with a few specimens having teeth marks in such awkward places that they were hard to explain in the first place. Now, however, there’s proof that the Tyrant Lizard King was indeed the fierce predator we always imagined. One of its fangs was found buried in the hip bone of a duck bill dinosaur, exactly where one would expect a predator to bit to take out the hind legs of a prey animal, and it shows signs of infection and two months of healing after the attack.

Well that’s pretty definitive then. The fossil record has given us a little forensic puzzle that points to a moment in time when a T-Rex tried to chase down a duck bill and the herbivore escaped to live for another two months or so with a terrifying souvenir in its body. Alternatively, we can try and imagine other scenarios during which the T-Rex didn’t have to chase it down. Maybe it was sleeping and attacked by surprise. Maybe it fell and managed to defend itself from a huge beast that came to gnaw on it. But either way, we have pretty clear signs of predation that can put the debate to rest. Now, of course T-Rex would’ve also scavenged because all predators do it as an occasional supplement to their diet. If someone else already took the risk and did the work that goes into a big kill and can be scared off, why not simply take the carcass like lions and hyenas often do from each other? But with predation now verified, little kids can keep on safely thinking of these enormous creatures as intimidating hunters stalking the plains, looking for a chance to strike quickly and violently with enough force to chew through a car…

And of course there’s another interesting fact that this debate about the nature of T-Rex’s diet and predatory habits reveals about science. Because there are always questions to answer in the process of learning more about our past, scientists really are comfortable going after even the most sacred cows. Since the first fossil of this creature was discovered and erected into the towering, fierce stance that was its trademark for almost a century afterwards, paleontologists have been figuring out how it really looked, how it really stood, and how it really moved, which raised questions about what and how it really ate. In the process they lowered its body, raised the giant, muscular tail, leveled its enormous head to its now horizontal spine, and found out it moved faster that first thought, as did its prey. Now we know it really was the terrifying beast we always thought it was, but we know this based on concrete, well, fossilized evidence, not just the popular imagination of what it might have done with its banana-sized chompers. And that’s the beauty of science. It gives us the tools not just to imagine, but to really know.