What is your outlook?
Peter Rojas is the cofounder and editor-in-chief of Engadget, which is a daily weblog covering gadgets, consumer electronics and personal technology. He is also the cofounder of Joystiq, a weblog which covers video games. Rojas has worked as a contributing editor at Cargo, an editor-at-large at Sync, a technology editor of VMan, and a columnist for The Guardian, writing on emerging technology. He is a frequent contributor to a variety of publications both on- and off-line and appears on radio and television regularly as a technology commenter. Rojas was educated at Harvard University and the University of Sussex. He lives in New York City.
Question: Are you generally optimistic or pessimistic about the way the world is headed?
Peter Rojas: Actually I’m generally pretty optimistic. You know it’s when I think about stuff like global warming, and I think about how screwed up the political system in this country is . . . You know, a lot of the poor decisions we’re making about . . . about the economy. The government _________ developing policy and things like that, you know it . . . it makes me . . . you know it makes you very pessimistic. It makes me very pessimistic. You know it makes you like really frustrated. But then you look at like a lot of the great things that have happened in spite . . . I mean despite George Bush being a pretty lousy president, you know this . . . there’s been this flourishing online. It’s almost been despite everything. It’s almost you know . . . If you look at everything that has been going on with . . . with the Internet and Web 2.0 – I hate to say “Web 2.0”, but you know it’s good shorthand – it seems like there . . . there . . . there’s been this . . . There’s this . . . this flowering of . . . of new ideas, and new platforms and, you know, more people getting involved, more people creating, and it being broadening and reaching more people at a time than it ever did. And you know we still have a vast majority of humanity to get online and to reach. But like we’re getting there, and it’s moving forward. And you know I kind of . . . I guess I ultimately feel like things do work themselves out and . . . and I feel like in my own life I’ve been very, very fortunate where, you know, even when things . . . like in, you know, when things seem like they’re falling apart or not going the way I want them to, like things don’t tend to . . . to work themselves out. And so I try to be . . . I tend to . . . I guess I am fundamentally optimistic, but I think we will find solutions for our problems, and then we’ll have all sorts of new problems to deal with. Like you know that my hope is that . . . with global warming that we’ll find, you know, new technologies. And that is, you know, maybe one of the most pressing issues, you know, facing us as a . . . as a species is how do we deal with global warming? And I’m sort of optimistic that . . . and maybe overly optimistic that technologies will emerge that will help us solve those problems. That it’s not just about getting off oil, but it’s about finding new ways to . . . to remove carbon from the atmosphere and to . . . to help, you know, bring things back into balance. And that someone will create something. And there’s definitely got to be the financial incentive to do it, right? And that we’ll be able to solve those problems. So I guess I’m optimistic – fundamentally optimistic that . . . you know that we’ll figure it out if for no other reason than I see so many . . . I mean there’s so much creativity and so much intelligence, and you know the Internet has made it possible for people who are intelligent, or who have . . . who are creative to . . . to actually interact with the rest of the world now in ways that they couldn’t before; that we’re tapping into so much more, like, human talent. The human . . . human capability than we . . . than we would have been able to 10 or 15 years ago. And so I think when I look around the world . . . when I look at like the world . . . the little mini world I live in and like on my . . . Web . . . online media or whatever, that it’s so competitive, and so much innovation, and so many ideas coming out, and so many people trying to . . . to outdo each other that it’s hard to imagine, you know, a species that is constantly trying to outdo itself with innovation isn’t going to be able to solve these problems. It’s really just a matter of . . . of us always innovating and always working hard. And you know innovation’s a word that gets tossed around a lot, but you know it . . . it . . . you know you do see it . . . You know it is happening, and it’s happening a lot faster than it used to, and people are evolving, and trying to outdo each other, and trying to build better things. And I think that’s great.
Recorded on: 10/2/07
Rojas points to new technologies, and their ability to change human life for the better, as a source of great hope.
The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.
- In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- 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.
Some back story
A Dunbar Correlation
Professor Dunbar's response:
Friendship, kinship and limitations
Gray matter matters
There is an eclectic list of reasons why compassion may collapse, irrespective of sheer numbers:
In the end
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