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Progress always seems to ride a slippery slope. Innovations generally bring a plethora of potential benefits and just as many dangers, the obvious and the hidden. Technologies that tamper with our biological constructs is well underway in the neuro- and biotech industries. Historically, innovations in medicine have usually been beneficial on the aggregate.

But these new breakthroughs go beyond preventing and healing pre-existing causes. Transhuman technologies hold the promise of enhancing who we are as individuals and potentially as an entire species, and the decisions surrounding these technologies are far from simple. Dr. Nayef Al-Rodhan, a philosopher, neuroscientist, and director of the Geneva Center for Security Policy, believes we should be acting now to prepare for the inevitable and the unpredictable ramifications.

Framing Human Motivation

Considering our mixed track record as a species in rolling out groundbreaking innovations, discussing and finding potential solutions to many of the hidden dangers, and obvious ones, seems more than reasonable. One of the more puzzling questions is, where do we begin to have a pragmatic conversation on the ethics of these technologies?

There are plenty of theories about what drive human decisions, not least because human morality is infinitely complex and our minds crave frames through which to make sense of chaos. Dr. Al-Rodhan has his own conception of what drives human motivations. He makes meaning using the lens of “5 P’s” – Power, Pride, Profit, Pleasure, and Permanence – which he posits drive human motivations. “This is my view, the foundation of my outlook…this perceived emotion of self interest drives our moral compass.”

Al-Rodhan’s view of human nature seems to make a lot of sense, bridging the rational with the emotional. Such a frame is particularly helpful when considering technology that undoubtedly taps into our deepest fears and hopes, and invokes rational (and irrational) debate. During a recent TechEmergence interview with Nayef, I asked for his thoughts on the concerns and considerations of this brand of technology in the coming decade.

The Near Business of Enhancement

Al-Rodhan believes that we will see cognitive enhancement primarily through neuropharmacology, or neuro- and psychostimulants. This concept of this technology is nothing new — the military and many other organization have used their stimulants of choice in the past, one of the most pervasive being alcohol. But this new wave of neuro- and psychostimulants will methodically target specific areas in the brain, giving way to the possibility for innovations like increased mood modulation and more cognitive ability within the confines of the brain’s neuronal population.

Neuromodulation has been used in the military, with some efforts to make soldiers less emotional and to require less sleep. The difficulties with side effects are often more pronounced when soldiers return from combat. “They are all messed up due to severe brutality, fear, and some of these agents they are given make them addicts to certain things,” says Nayef, acknowledging that this happens in most all militaries. “The point is that psychostimulants and neuromodulators will make us feel very good, but they are very dangerous because they require addictive behavior…and we need strict oversight mechanisms.”

Nayef says that technologies such as brain machine interface (BMI) are likely beyond the span of a decade, but that implantable microchips (whether bio or biotechnological) are as much of an immediate concern as the introduction of neurostimulants. “The FDA in the United States is entrusted with keeping us on the right path,” says Al-Rodhan.

Finding Common Regulatory Ground

Is it possible to put in place national or international structures for managing these new and emerging technologies? Al-Rodhan believes it is more than possible; however, the primary issue is that our regulation is way behind innovation. Regulatory frameworks are lacking for a number of reasons. The unpopularity in politics is a major obstacle to overcome. In elections, these types of contradictory frameworks are not politically on the front burner for most candidates, and the long-term outlook is limited.

Another area for concern is corporate pharmaceutical entities, which Nayef says are not as well regulated as some might think. Businesses are concerned about the bottom line above all else, which at times yields unfortunate outcomes for the whole of society. “This is part of their role as executive, they’re not too concerned about moral regulation,” says Nayef. As unappealing as it might sound to free market capitalists, the institution that traditionally steps into these frontiers to regulate is government.

A relevant and current example is the science and business of moderating genomes in China, which is already investing a lot of money in this industry. Some effects of this technology may not be so obvious at first, and it is possible that negative ramifications could occur without the correct bioethical oversight. Al-Rodhan asks “what happens if you get a piece of DNA that preludes the biosphere? Who knows what kind of mutation that may produce spontaneously or by merging with other DNA in an organism.” These are the types of questions that governments, academic institutions, corporations, and individual citizens need to be asking, considering the multiple perspectives that emerge from a framework like Al-Rodhan’s that applies across cultural boundaries.

Al-Rodhan describes the process of implementing such regulatory frameworks as a transnational effort, but says that such efforts start with countries like the U.S., Japan, and Europe, where accountable mechanisms already exist. Taking the lead doesn’t guarantee the same priorities will be given elsewhere, but it can provide an example — and ideally a positive one. “We have about a decade to get our act together,” says Al-Rodhan.

Interesting article in The Telegraph on biohacking and recent Grindfest, where the Immortality Bus stopped:

Immortality aside, DIY “bio-hacking” could provide solutions to everyday problems, despite the risks involved.

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In April 2015, a paper by Chinese scientists about their attempts to edit the DNA of a human embryo rocked the scientific world and set off a furious debate. Leading scientists warned that altering the human germ line without studying the consequences could have horrific consequences. Geneticists with good intentions could mistakenly engineer changes in DNA that generate dangerous mutations and cause painful deaths. Scientists — and countries — with less noble intentions could again try to build a race of superhumans.

Human DNA is, however, merely one of many commercial targets of ethical concern. The DNA of every single organism — every plant, every animal, every bacterium — is now fair game for genetic manipulation. We are entering an age of backyard synthetic biology that should worry everybody. And it is coming about because of CRISPRs: clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.

Discovered by scientists only a few years ago, CRISPRs are elements of an ancient system that protects bacteria and other single-celled organisms from viruses, acquiring immunity to them by incorporating genetic elements from the virus invaders. CRISPRs evolved over millions of years to trim pieces of genetic information from one genome and insert it into another. And this bacterial antiviral defense serves as an astonishingly cheap, simple, elegant way to quickly edit the DNA of any organism in the lab.

Until recently, editing DNA required sophisticated labs, years of experience, and many thousands of dollars. The use of CRISPRs has changed all that. CRISPRs work by using an enzyme — Cas9 — that homes in on a specific location in a strand of DNA. The process then edits the DNA to either remove unwanted sequences or insert payload sequences. CRISPRs use an RNA molecule as a guide to the DNA target. To set up a CRISPR editing capability, a lab only needs to order an RNA fragment (costing about $10) and purchase off-the-shelf chemicals and enzymes for $30 or less.

Read more is running a SENS fundraiser to aid research into Mitochondrial repair. This is a new fundraiser platform to help get important regenerative medicine research funded and underway. Let us hope this is the start of how research could be funded and that it opens up faster progress.

Engineering backup copies of mitochondrial genes to place in the nucleus of the cell, aiming to prevent age-related damage and restore lost mitochondrial function.

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Synthetic biology is radical and has huge potential to revolutionize multiple industries. The fact is biology has already worked out efficient ways of doing things, or has in place mechanisms we can adapt, so why reinvent anything if we can simply adapt what’s already here? Using billions of years of evolution makes logical sense, and that’s what synthetic biology builds on.

So here is a great video by Grist, explaining what synthetic biology is and what we might be able to do with it in the future.

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“We have a few cyborgs on staff. Ben Popper is arguably the reporter best known for peeling back his skin to insert a piece of technology, which he chronicled in his feature, Cyborg America. But others have gone under the knife. I wanted to know why. You know, because I have crippling FOMO.”

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Wyss Institute scientists believe that synthetic gene drives, if researched responsibly, might be used in the future to render mosquito populations unable to transmit malaria (credit: CDC)

An international group of 26 experts, including prominent genetic engineers and fruit fly geneticists, has unanimously recommended a series of preemptive measures to safeguard gene drive research from accidental (or intentional) release from laboratories.

RNA-guided gene drives are genetic elements — found naturally in the genomes of most of the world’s organisms — that increase the chance of the gene they carry being passed on to all offspring. So they can quickly spread through populations if not controlled.

Looking to these natural systems, researchers around the world, including some scientists, are developing synthetic gene drives that could one day be leveraged by humans to purposefully alter the traits of wild populations of organisms to prevent disease transmission and eradicate invasive species.

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The Millennium Project released today its annual “2015–16 State of the Future” report, listing global trends on 28 indicators of progress and regress, new insights into 15 Global Challenges, and impacts of artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, nanotechnology and other advanced technologies on employment over the next 35 years.

“Another 2.3 billion people are expected to be added to the planet in just 35 years,” the report notes. “By 2050, new systems for food, water, energy, education, health, economics, and global governance will be needed to prevent massive and complex human and environmental disasters.”

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Linked rat brains

Scientists have been experimenting with brain-to-brain interfaces for years. Miguel Nicolelis, a neurobiologist at Duke University Medical Center, has created a “Brainet” or a network of interconnected brains with four rats. With electrodes implanted directly in the cortex rodents exchange information to create an organic computing device. Collectively, they were able to solve computational problems including image processing, storing and recalling information and even predicting precipitation.

Read the full story by Mona Lalwani at Engadget

A team of bioengineers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH), led by Ali Khademhosseini, PhD, and Nasim Annabi, PhD, of the Biomedical Engineering Division, has developed a new protein-based gel that, when exposed to light, mimics many of the properties of elastic tissue, such as skin and blood vessels. …

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