Category Archives: Transhumanism

Why my optimism about bionics has faded

Though I still get excited when I see footage of bionic exoskeletons and limb supports — devices that promise greater ability to the disabled and superhuman strength and endurance to all — I doubt that anyone I know will benefit from them in the next 20 years. My optimism is dimming with my current experience trying to obtain a new leg brace. Currently, I’m wearing the brace on the left below. It’s a fine brace, though its technical advancements over Forrest Gump’s braces are mostly in materials, padding metal with plastic and replacing buckles with Velcro.


That brace model must have particularly long legs. I need to extend the calf section to diminish sliding, and with the thigh portion compressed as far as possible, the brace nearly stretches from my ankle to my crotch. Also, since I’m a human female and my legs have curves, the dials at the hinge float away from the sides of my knee. This is the brace I was given in the hospital post-surgery and it’s actually very helpful for stability. However, it’s difficult to walk with a natural gait while wearing it, and to venture into TMI territory, it’s damn hard to get my pants down far enough when I have to pee.

It’s been three months since my surgery and my only remaining movement restriction is no impact: no hopping, skydiving, competition Double Dutch, etc. The stretched ligaments around my knee make it wobbly and it has a tendency to hyper-extend, so my surgeon wants me to wear a brace all the time. I rarely wear it in the house because it’s a pain, but I wear it whenever I go shopping, walking the dog, picking apples in the yard, or whenever my attention could drift for a moment and allow my leg to collapse again. I’d happily wear it more if it was a few inches shorter and fit better.

To that end, my surgeon has written two prescriptions in an attempt to get me a smaller, custom-fit, hinged knee brace. That’s not as simple as you’d think. The one local orthotic provider who would do it doesn’t accept my health insurance and gave me a quote above $900. I’ve spoken with four others in my area and their responses boiled down to: they don’t have a low profile brace option for a tibial plateau fracture, they don’t care that I’m 3 months post-surgery and my doc wants me to have a smaller brace, but they’d be happy to sell me a brace similar to the one I already have. A couple of the people I talked with treated me like I was a whining, non-compliant patient who needed to be spoken to in short, carefully-pronounced words. The one I spoke with this morning insinuated that the problem was insurance. I have a diagnosis that connects to a certain code and that code goes with a certain range of braces, and flexibility is not an option.

What remains is for me to find a brace online and pay for it out of pocket. The braces that I think my surgeon has in mind are too expensive ($550 and above) but I can find some in the $200-300 range that might work. The key features I need are a hinge that prevents hyper-extension and a rigid frame to maintain alignment. I hate to spend more when we’ve paid off the high deductible on our insurance plan for the year, but I don’t see another option.

If it’s this difficult to get a medical device when the product isn’t cutting edge technology — in the US and with good health insurance — how can I be optimistic about wide usage of bionics beyond the military and industry? I read articles like this 2010 piece from Fast Company, Bionic Legs, i-Limbs, and Other Super Human Prostheses You’ll Envy, and I have such mixed feelings. The article cites a gruesome profit motive for creators of kickass prostheses: the increasing number of lower limb amputations due to skyrocketing incidence of diabetes. Awful. But then I think about how medical costs are inflated, looking at things like the prices for knee braces like the one I need,and I wonder how many of those diabetic patients will even have a chance at the sparkly new technology. Diabetes and poverty are positively associated, so many of the people expected to need amputations are also those with the most restrictive health insurance, least ability to shop around for a doctor, and often, challenges with time and transportation that make treatment compliance more difficult. My father-in-law had a prosthetic leg. It was a heavy, uncomfortable, painful piece of crap. My guess is that’s what most poor and many middle-class amputees can expect for many years to come.

I now look at the thrilling videos of bionic prosthetic developments the way I look at Top Gear supercar reviews. I can appreciate the science, technology, and design that went into them, and I can envy the few that get to have them, but I don’t expect to see any in my neighborhood.

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Posted by on September 22, 2015 in Health - Mental & Physical, Transhumanism


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Monday film: Blank Bodies

I’m wallowing in self-pity and struggling with exhaustion after my first attempt to sleep in my normal bed (instead of a bed moved from our guest room to the dining room). So, while I take a nap, enjoy this strange little film. Hat tip to io9.

Blank Bodies is NSFW for nudity and violence. It’s essentially the story of two AI creatures brought to life by a group of eccentrics and set on a path of development through learning. The io9 article points to some pretty obvious parallels to the Adam and Eve story from Genesis.

Blank Bodies from Ryan Weatrowski on Vimeo.

There are some dopey bits, some of the acting is amateurish, and there are narrative leaps, but it’s a crowdfunded indie film and at least tries to take another approach to an AI creation story. I found the eccentric group more believable than movies where ethically dubious science comes out of a sterile, well-funded lab. I couldn’t help thinking of real world parallels like Brigitte Boisselier and Clonaid.

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Posted by on August 31, 2015 in Transhumanism, Video


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Considering “The Immortalists”

I’ve been wanting to see the 2014 documentary “The Immortalists” since it was released, so when it appeared on Netflix this month, I streamed it immediately. Here’s the trailer if you haven’t seen the film:

The documentary is mostly focused on Bill Andrews and Aubrey de Grey, evangelical researchers fighting to “cure aging”.  They’re interesting fellows and the filmmakers are rather sly in how they cut together their personal and professional stories. You can watch simply to see two passionate people pursuing a cause in which they fervently believe, or go deeper into the scientific and ethical issues that are hinted at throughout the narrative.

Some spoilers for the film are below, so stop here if you want to see the story unfold on your own.

I was struck by several things as I watched. First, that neither man has done the basic act many people do to ensure that some part of themselves lives on: reproduce. De Grey married a scientist in her mid-40s when he was younger and there was no mention of children with the two girlfriends revealed near the end of the film. Andrews mentioned several failed engagements in his 20s, and when he found a partner, she was past reproductive age. Though the men talk about future generations, it’s somewhat surprising that neither will have descendants of their own among them.

The two men have different approaches to the problem of aging. Andrews points to the fact that our telomeres behave like the tick of a clock counting down: each time a cell divides, the telomeres become shorter.  Therefore he sees the key problem as one of resetting the clock by extending telomere length. De Grey, on the other hand, is concerned with waste material that builds up inside cells over time, attributing diseases of aging and perhaps aging itself to the toxic effects of waste that normal processes were unable to clean. The enzymes to break down that material exist, he insists, explaining that no accumulation of those toxins can be found in graveyard dirt.

After reading that, if I told you that one man had a hoarding mother whose home had to be emptied of tons of trash when she died, and the other runs ultramarathons of incredible duration, could you tell me which was which? Of course you could. The filmmakers don’t rub your nose in parallels like those, but they provide the material for you to find them.

As much as I admire de Grey for shamelessly wearing scrunchie ponytails in public (I wish I was so brave), he sometimes seems overly aware of his brand image and perhaps he’s read a bit too much Heinlein. Andrews seems earnest but grasping, lacking the hippie chic of his polyamorous, heavy-drinking counterpart and desperate to be taken seriously before time runs out.

The parts of the film devoted to questioning the science or ethics of either approach are small but significant. Andrews comes under attack by the scientist who discovered that there is a limit to human cell divisions. De Grey engages in a debate with someone who argues that humanity is responsible for too many problems on this planet as it is, and that overpopulation, global warming, and other problems need to be addressed before we greatly extend human life.  I thought his response to that — that other scientists are working in parallel on other problems and that we do not have good predictions about where things will be in 100 years — was quite good, but I also, like his opponent, fear a sudden breakthrough in life extension.

Personally, I think that life extension research is vital for space exploration and colonization that I feel must be part of our future. I think it poses ethical problems here on Earth, where money and access to Western medicine would decide which populations would first have radically lengthened lives. I think of de Grey’s comment about his mother, shown in the trailer above, where he says she certainly hadn’t done everything she wanted to do in her life. I’m sure that will be true for me, too, but the limiting factor is money more than time. Should a person have to prove that she could support herself for additional decades of life before being given a therapy to provide them?  If not, how will society, economic systems, and family structure have to change to accommodate a new group of super-seniors?  Will super-seniors of limited means be forced to work menial jobs and submit to strict lifestyle restrictions to earn support from society? (Not a crazy suggestion: in some parts of the US, people who receive support money from the government have limits on how it can be spent, may have to work a low-level job unless they are medically unable, may have to submit to drug tests, and may only be able to live in some areas, among other constraints.)

I’m also basically skeptical of preserving our organic selves. Our bodies and brains are wondrous things, but they’re so complicated and flawed. Though I often think Ray Kurzweil is nuttier than a fruitcake, the idea of being able to upload enough of my consciousness to be “me” is more appealing than trying to repair this bag of meat for eternity. Perhaps we’ll discover, definitively, that consciousness cannot exist without a significant amount of human flesh. If it can, however, sign me up for a simplified digital and robotic casing that can be upgraded to whatever comes next. Writing from my wheelchair, I’m not so impressed by my current organic packaging, but the metal bits seem to work just fine.


Posted by on July 24, 2015 in Health - Mental & Physical, Transhumanism


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Watching “The Incredible Bionic Man”

Yesterday I watched The Incredible Bionic Man on Netflix. It’s a strange Smithsonian Channel documentary from 2013: a group of scientists gathered state-of-the art bionic parts and assembled them into a “man”. The results aren’t completely successful, but as a mainstream introduction into what’s possible in bionics now and coming in the near future, it’s not bad. Here’s the trailer.

There were a few things I liked. The main doctor in the film — Dr. Bertolt Meyer — has a bionic hand. His reaction when he tries a new prototype is fantastic.  A scientist making bionic ankles reveals that he has two bionic legs and claims he wouldn’t want real ones if a wish could grant them. “Normal bodies are boring.” And, the film does bring in someone to be the voice of ethics, to ask questions about human life extension, whether it’s ok if only the rich can afford bionics, and what we will do when people want to remove undamaged parts to upgrade to bionics. He doesn’t answer them, but at least he raises them.

On the other hand, the show overuses the concept of Frankenstein’s monster.  The central idea of building a man from bionic parts — would it have some sort of life? — is quite silly, though effective for showing just how many parts of the human body can be replaced by machines. The short section where they had the creature talk, probably using text-to-speech, was not as funny as they seemed to think it was.

I love my prosthetic hip joint so much that I’ll confess, I daydream about having all my other problematic parts replaced.  Left elbow, left shoulder, whole right foot, maybe the other hip, and hey, can you do something about the tendon in my right hand that keeps getting tendonitis?  However, my father-in-law had a prosthetic leg and it was terribly awkward, uncomfortable, and often painful. The bleeding edge tech in this documentary is not available to most people, nor will it be soon.

Take a look if you have Netflix or you can see a few more short clips on the Smithsonian Channel page about the show.


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Wednesday Film: The Singularity is Near (full)

This is Ray Kurzweil’s expansion of ideas from his book, veering off into a virtual reality/augmented reality science fiction plot. The movie is surprisingly cheesy and the quality of this upload isn’t ideal, but it’s still interesting. Some of the film was shot in Second Life, though of course this was a few years ago and the scenes are not representative of that world today.

Update Feb 26 — Well, it lasted for a day and a half before it was pulled for a copyright claim.  Hope you got to see it!


Posted by on February 25, 2015 in Research, Transhumanism, Virtual Life in Pop Culture


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Lewis Black rants about life extension biotechnology

If you haven’t had your dose of sarcasm and hyperbole today, here’s Lewis Black talking about breakthroughs in life extension from last night’s The Daily Show:  Back in Black 14 May 2014

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Posted by on May 15, 2014 in Research, Transhumanism


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Keep your intelligence in your skull a bit longer…

…because the chances that you’ll be able to upload it by 2045 are slim to none, according to Ramez Naam in the essay The Singularity is Further Than it Appears, posted on the Institute for Emerging Ethics & Technology website.  He first touches on the hard takeoff described by Vernor Vinge in 1993, that is, the point when smarter-than-human machines can build machines smarter than themselves in an even shorter amount of time than they were created.  Then, Naam analyzes our current Kurzweilian notion of singularity through the creation of digital minds. There are three main issues he cites that impede progress:

  1. No one’s really sure how to do it.
  2. There’s a huge lack of incentive.
  3. There are ethical issues.

It’s a lazy Saturday in my part of the world, I just finished watching some silly episodes of Top Gear and I’m poorly suited for deep thoughts, but I’ll be coming back to this later, especially Vinge’s twenty-one year old The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era.

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Posted by on March 29, 2014 in Transhumanism


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