Reasons for Technological Optimism (Bing Reel)

Peter Diamandis: People talk about technology being dehumanizing; one can flip it and say it’s extraordinarily humanizing.  The more we’re connected economically, culturally, the more that we are going to have peace on this planet.

Jeff Jarvis:  Technology is, in a sense, agnostic.  It can be used for good or bad.  It can prove things or it can make them worse.  It’s up to us as to how we use them.  I believe that the internet can be essentially humanizing.  If you look at, let’s say, Facebook, there is a lot of talk about privacy and technology and all this stuff.  I think that the real use of Facebook is very simple.  It’s sharing.  845 million people are on Facebook not because they’re drunk, not because they’re insane, but because they want to connect with other people and they can now, and they do so through sharing, which is essentially social and essentially generous.  

Jaron Lanier:  So it's a little bit like the Wizard of Oz.  We see the internet and we see some cloud service or some simulated personality or some algorithm that seems to be able to recommend music or dating partners or whatever, but it all is data that just comes from real people.  So if we don't learn to acknowledge that real people are actually creating the value online we're never going to learn how to create the information economy that can really create employment and self determination for people when the machines get really good.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: People have a fear factor of robots taking over the world.  It’s been the theme of many science fiction films including The Terminator. . . . Sky Net coming online and achieving consciousness . . . Okay.  Keep doing the movies.  They’re fun, but I live in the real world, and in the real world that’s simply not the robots we’re making and even if we did, they would just be really good computers of things and they’d give me access to information.  Actually, I already have access to information.  It’s on my smart phone a few fingertips away from all gathered knowledge of the human species on earth.  It’s called the internet.  I'm already there. 

Jonathan Harris: I think the next major evolutionary phase in humans is not going to be happening at the individual level with bodies; although there will be this sort of merging with machines soon, I think.  But I think we’re evolving into a kind of meta organism, which is the whole species on the planet connected through the Web, sharing information, sharing thoughts, sharing ideas, also sharing empathy and sharing emotions.  It’s almost like this ancient Buddhist idea of experiencing the suffering of all living beings, like we’re laying the plumbing for that to happen right now.  That's an incredibly interesting idea when you start to think about dealing with these big problems like poverty and global warming and overcrowding and all of this stuff. 

Jaron Lanier: We have to learn to acknowledge our own role.  We have to accept that the people are more important than the machines, not as a matter of hope, but as a matter of fact.

Jeff Jarvis: I'm an internet optimist.  I'm an optimist about humanity too.  Put the two together and yeah, I could probably go overboard, but I think that if we don’t imagine the best case of what can happen we’ll never build it.

Peter Diamandis: We have extraordinary companies, extraordinary philanthropists, extraordinary technologies . . . if we choose--it’s by no means a guarantee, but if we choose--we’ll be able to help every single person on this planet have their basic needs met, their energy, food, water, power, education, healthcare and to create a world of abundance--not a world of luxury, but a world of possibility. 

Directed / Produced by

Jonathan Fowler & Elizabeth Rodd

 

Jeff Jarvis, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Peter Diamandis, Jonathan Harris, and Jaron Lanier on a better technological future informed by the best of human nature.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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