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The University of Oxford will host an important conference January 7-8, 2016 at St Anne's College called “Human Enhancement and the Law: Regulating For The Future”.

You see, we’re entering into an era that will see widespread biochemical, genetic, and technological methods of giving a boost to the human body and mind. It’s critical that our society’s regulations and laws keep up, or better yet, get ahead of the game for once. Our laws and law enforcement agencies fell far behind in the explosion of communications technology, especially the pervasiveness of the internet. The result has been a huge upheaval in the entertainment industry thanks to rampant piracy, serious threats to personal privacy from government and business, cyberbullying, identity theft, and cyber terrorism. Let’s hope we can do better when it comes to enhancement science. But it is every bit as complex.

The moral question of genetically engineering embryos to create human beings with improved abilities or even just to correct genetic errors that cause inherited health problems is a vast territory, too big for me to cover here. But even leaving out moral considerations, there are still many legal questions that crop up. How would you regulate the providers of such a service and monitor their outcomes? What lifelong responsibilities would they have to the “customer”, especially a child produced by such methods—would a company be expected to offer warranties? Who would be the customer—the parents or the child? Since the child had no say in the matter, could they sue their parents or the genetics lab? Or perversely, would the child have an obligation to the genetics company? After all, cloning and gene-splicing processes are almost certain to be patented, and might even involve some residual presence in the child’s body. What does that say about the ownership of the results—would a genetically-enhanced human have to pay a license fee to a corporation for the use of their own body? That’s not such a stretch—companies have already applied to patent living cells created in their research laboratories.

Many of these same questions arise when considering chemical or hormonal enhancements and technological augmentations like prosthetic limbs, mechanical hearts, lab-grown organs, or computer implants connected directly to the brain. Apart from the patient’s right to sue a manufacturer for unwanted side effects or the outright failure of a procedure, what about the company’s right to sue the patient for abuse of the “product” (when your heavy cocaine use produces a stroke and makes the manufacturer of your artificial heart look bad)?

Where would criminal law come in? Questions of negligence or manslaughter would be a nightmare to push through the courts. Imagine a person dying of liver failure—how would you determine if their artificial kidneys were to blame, or the stem cell treatments they took to ward off cancer, or a mistake in the lab when their genes were being edited as an embryo?

The question of obligation is a huge one, too. When enhancement technologies become widely available, will they become a right? Could a child sue his or her parents for not providing enhancements for them? Parents are obliged to provide the necessities of life, after all. Would companies be allowed to require employees to have special enhancements for certain jobs, or refuse a candidate who is “only normal” and therefore might be less productive than an “improved” worker?

What are our rights when it comes to the integrity of our bodies? What if new technologies could eliminate health problems that are very costly to society (because of medical expenses or loss of productivity)—would a citizen have the right to refuse such an alteration of their own body? Where would the rights of society outweigh the rights of the individual in such cases? The whole debate over vaccinations is just the first taste of what’s to come on this front.

In one of my novel manuscripts awaiting publication, I explored the question of brain-computer interfaces implanted in a person’s skull. With an internet-capable computer connected directly to one’s brain there could be horrendous privacy and data-protection issues. The potential for abuse by direct marketing is frightening, too, and the prospect of control of such devices by government security organizations is appalling. But we’ll only be able to prevent such things by thinking about them well in advance and ensuring that the necessary legal safeguards are in place.

If you’ve got a headache by now, I don’t blame you. These are terribly complex questions and the stakes are enormous. And we know from experience that laws are never perfect.

Scientific research offers fantastic possibilities for the improvement of the human condition, but the potential for a huge range of unpleasant consequences can’t be ignored. It’s critical that we carefully examine all of these questions and many more, and make decisions about the kind of society we want before changes are forced on us by the pressure of progress.

Hats off, and the best of luck to the conference participants in Oxford this January!



The US senate just passed some legislation that will make space mining more attractive to private companies. Or at least it will if other countries follow suit. The legislation, called the Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act of 2015 still has to pass one more round in the American congress and then approval by US president Obama in order to become law. Among its most important features, it will give companies the rights to the material they mine from asteroids, though the companies could not actually own an asteroid. That’s similar to the model that mining companies use on Earth—they may not actually own the land, but their mining rights mean they own the resources they extract from that land. Private companies like Planetary Resources are already cheering this latest news. Why not? It’s not like any government can afford to get into space mining on its own.

Mind you, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 says, among other things, “No one nation may claim ownership of outer space or any celestial body.” So it would be a bit questionable for the US to unilaterally grant companies mining rights to celestial bodies that the United States cannot, by treaty, own. That part of the new legislation will be meaningless unless other countries agree to it. Fortunately, those who drafted the bill were careful to make clear that it does not mean the US is claiming sovereignty over any celestial body by granting such rights.

Will we want space mining companies to be like the big mining companies on Earth? Doesn’t it kind of rankle to think of wealthy companies and individuals being given special rights to something that is no more theirs than it is ours? A parallel on Earth would be companies mining on government land—land ostensibly owned by all citizens, including its resources. Yet only the mining companies’ shareholders profit, not citizens (except for the minimal taxes that are collected on any surface buildings). That model came from a time when we couldn’t imagine anyone wanting the patches of distant wilderness where mining companies set up their operations, and we didn’t worry about the places we lived being affected by anything such companies did so far away. But with large scale pollution we’ve discovered that Earth isn’t such a big planet after all. The concept of companies being responsible to remediate land they’ve torn up and polluted is a pretty recent development, and I don’t expect any early space legislation will force businesses to tidy up an asteroid and put it back the way they found it once they’ve extracted all of the metals or water. Who would care? For now.

Mining operations in space will have to be largely self-policing, not only regarding their industrial practices or pollution, but also in the way they treat labourers. Just as governments can’t afford to build and operate mining facilities in space, they can’t afford a constant police or military presence either. And anyone who thinks a phone call will bring the cavalry swooping in within a day or two has never studied physics. So we may be allowing private corporations to set up their own fiefdoms without much prospect of serious oversight. I’m reminded of any number of movie westerns with powerful landowners and downtrodden ranch folk!

Unlike a parcel of land on Earth, where a company’s pollution or damming of a river might cause serious harm elsewhere, an artificially-controlled asteroid or any broken-off parts could become the ultimate planet-killing weapon. It’s not easy to see who should be entrusted with that capability. And that same potential risk means that asteroid mining might not be practical for actually providing resources for those of us on the surface of the Earth. It wouldn’t be especially costly or difficult to sling blobs of ore or metals back to the home planet, but the potential consequences of a mistake are so horrific, who could ever afford the insurance coverage? It doesn’t bear thinking about what could be done with such facilities in the hands of maltreated workers, rioting prisoners, terrorists, megalomaniacs, or any other “bad guys” you could name.

OK, but wait now…haven’t I always sounded like I was in favour of asteroid mining and other space activity by private companies? Yep.

The fact is, we’ll never be able to build colonies away from Earth, or starfaring spaceships, without mining the materials out there—it’s simply too expensive to carry it all up from down here. Governments will never be able to afford to spend the kind of money involved to mount those mining operations, and it isn’t their job. So it will have to be done by private companies.

I just think it’s important to look at all of the implications of technological progress. And I like to point out the scary stuff. That’s what writers do.


On a totally different front, I’ve often written here about space colonies (including my last post) and I deeply want to believe we’ll someday colonize worlds around other stars. Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2015 novel Aurora is a compelling account of a generation ship sent to create just such a colony, and the things that go wrong. I highly recommend it as a great read, but you should also read this excellent feature essay by Robinson on Cory Doctorow’s blog explaining why such colonization will never happen.

I really wish he hadn’t done such a good job of it.



Image from'Neill_Cylinder

Recent data sent by NASA’s MAVEN spacecraft is bad news for those who hope to someday open up Mars for human colonization.

We already knew that the Martian atmosphere is very thin (about 1% as dense as Earth’s at sea level). To make the Red Planet suitable for humans to live on we’ll have to drastically thicken the air and also heat it up. There were hopes that carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, could be freed from the soil and ice caps of Mars to produce a good atmosphere for trapping heat and feeding plants, which would then produce oxygen. It had been thought that much of Mars’ lost atmosphere had been absorbed into the soil, but the new MAVEN data (short for Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution) suggests that most of that ancient atmosphere vanished into space, stripped away by the solar wind and solar explosions after Mars’ magnetic field died about four billion years ago. It’s gone and can’t be retrieved. That might not affect plans to build domed or underground cities on Mars, but terraforming the whole planet will be a lot harder.

Terraforming Mars was never a short-term project anyway, and the biggest drawbacks to colonies there include gravity and distance. We still don’t know if regular exercise and other methods will mitigate the potential health problems of living in a low gravity environment. And trying to build up the population of Martian colonies will require a lot of very long trips—about nine months one-way as technology stands, but that’s when Earth and Mars are in the right alignment, which only happens every couple of years. That’s a slow process. If our goals are to protect a sampling of the human race from potential disasters on Earth, ease population pressures on Earth, and make use of resources and manufacturing advantages that space provides, we’ll want something quicker.

If we build manufacturing complexes on the Moon, we can make the materials and air to build free-floating colonies in space, possibly in orbit around Earth or the Moon, but more likely where the gravity of the two bodies balances out at the so-called Lagrange points. That doesn’t mean that colonists would live in zero gravity (although they could get to it when they wanted to do a little recreational flying perhaps). One of the popular concepts is a gigantic rotating space wheel like in the movie Elysium that would produce artificial gravity on its inner surface from its rotation. The best-known example is called a Stanford Torus. But my preference would be a miles-long cylinder that would produce a gravity effect by spinning along its long axis. Its inner surface would alternate bands of habitable space with long windows to let in sunlight. In the 1970’s Gerard O’Neill proposed cylinders 32 kilometers long that would provide almost 1300 square kilometers of living space for several million people. Maybe my preference has to do with my love for the Arthur C. Clarke classic Rendezvous With Rama.

These colonies would avoid the concerns about low gravity and be close—only a few days travel from Earth. Research funded by NASA in the ’70’s said that such things could be built with the technology of the time, but materials, knowledge, and tech developed since then would make the job even more feasible.

So while I’m all in favour of Mars exploration for the sake of knowledge, I think the human race would be better served by focusing our colonization plans on free-floating near-Earth colonies or the Moon for the near future. If you think I’m off-base, let me know. Maybe you just have more patience than I do.

The good news this past week? NASA will accept applications from Dec. 14, 2015 through mid-February 2016 for their next class of astronaut candidates. Applications will be accepted at: . It’s only for U.S. citizens (unfortunately) but you could end up working on the International Space Station, a couple of spacecraft being produced by commercial companies, or even NASA’s Orion deep-space exploration vehicle.

The final frontier…but you know all that.




Science fiction writers are expected to predict future trends, but I think it’s also our job to show the implications of those developments. Sometimes that might be the main focus of the story (like the dangers of artificial intelligence), but it doesn’t have to be. Any story will be richer and more authentic if it shows different facets of a particular choice by society.

Take the weather, for example. An old saying declares “everybody talks about it but nobody does anything”. Of course, in stories set in the future it’s not unusual to have the weather controlled by advanced science, either planetwide or by enclosing the spaces where we live in giant domes. But I’ve rarely seen an author go into much depth about the advantages or disadvantages of weather control.

At first blush, it would be great for beach resorts who could guarantee uninterrupted suntanning and cruise lines who wouldn’t have to worry about high waves and seasick passengers (just food poisoning and norovirus). If your picnic or outdoor wedding was ruined by rain you’d only have yourself to blame for not checking the weather schedule (“That was your only job!” “No, I had to keep the groomsmen away from the booze too.”) There would be no more killer blizzards or crippling ice storms, no tornadoes or hurricanes. Heck, some expensive urban infrastructure like storm sewers, drainage ditches, and streets wide enough to hold ploughed snow might not even be needed. The expenses caused by seasonal weather (like heating and air conditioning) could be significantly reduced, or at least regularized.

With full weather control, the amount of sun and rain could be optimized for crops, so farming would be much more predictable and economically secure. Expensive irrigation methods might be unnecessary in some places, while in others only deliberate irrigation would be used under non-stop sunshine. Solar power would get a big boost (though wind generation would probably collapse).

It wouldn’t all be good—every major change has a cost. Lots more sunny beach weather would increase the rate of skin cancer, for instance (and kill the umbrella industry).

Because of the expense, weather control will most likely be applied according to crop needs rather than personal preferences and, if so, would be optimized for the most lucrative cash crops, like corn, soy, cotton, and rice. Lovers of fresh berries, tomatoes, and leafy green vegetables might be out of luck. That’s why it will be better to apply it region by region rather than planetwide. And since you can’t please everyone, it may never be practical to control the planet’s weather as a whole anyway.

So say we’ve got regional weather. If you love sunshine but your home territory is designated as a forestry zone, your tan will look a little pale and wet. Since seasons are inconvenient for both urban business and commercial farming, say goodbye to those cool, bug-free autumn days and crisp winter frosts. I have a feeling, too, that extreme swings of temperature would be discouraged, which would mean the end of bright Fall colours on the trees and seriously challenge the production of maple syrup. More seriously, if we channel all of the atmosphere’s moisture where we want it, everywhere else will suffer drought and eventually turn to desert. Long before that happens, our weather compartmentalization will have badly reduced the populations of most birds and animals by forcibly shrinking their ranges into specialized pockets with limited numbers of species. Imagine how it will mess up the instinct to migrate.

Plants like grasses that depend on the wind to spread their seeds will become much less diverse and therefore badly vulnerable to blights. The same thing might happen to nearly all plants as our specialized zones cause less dispersion of DNA and less variety (though our increased monopolization of crop production is doing a good job of that already).

On a purely aesthetic note, homogeneous and predictable weather could mean the end of much beauty: the glory of an approaching storm and the majesty of fierce lightning. Fewer clouds mean boring sunsets. Controlled rainfall could reduce the number of rainbows. And let’s not forget the way weather fuels our creativity. There might be no more songs about looking at clouds from both sides now, answers blowing in the wind, or dancers singin’ in the rain.

Control of our planet’s atmosphere may one day become a reality, but whether it will ultimately be a good or a bad thing is as unpredictable as…well, the weather.



If you read about a super high-tech science facility smashing atomic particles together at fantastic speeds and you picture a growing black hole that devours the Earth (!)…you might be a science fiction writer. Either that or a B-movie addict. Or a protestor at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland.

In the coming weeks the LHC will do its best to produce some black holes, but they’re not mad scientists planning to destroy the world. Really. What they are hoping for is evidence of parallel universes. As in, universes that exist beyond the four dimensions we know (length, breadth, height, and time). New theories suggest that gravity may leak from our universe into other dimensions (and is the only thing that can travel between them) and the experiment at the LHC is looking for the proof. If microscopic black holes are produced/detected, they will be evidence of the existence of these parallel universes.

Don’t confuse this with the “multi-worlds theory” of quantum mechanics from Hugh Everett in the 1950’s. That theory claims that slightly different universes are being spun off every moment because of all of the possibilities that can exist when a traveling particle comes to a fork in the road and goes both ways. (That idea has inspired lots of alternate history stories and TV shows like Sliders, but it’s not provable.) No, a researcher with the new LHC experiment describes the parallel universes they’re looking for as if our universe is a sheet of paper in a stack of many more sheets of paper.

Of course, I’m always looking for the science fiction take on stories like this. The giant Earth-gobbling black hole is one possibility (and worried enough people that they filed lawsuits to try to stop the Large Hadron Collider from being built). But the idea of micro-miniature black holes intrigues me too. Imagine a series of mysterious deaths in Geneva and their corpses are found to have microscopic tunnels like wormholes tunnelled through them! Of course one of the victims would have to be the lover of one of the experiment’s lead scientists—just to add extra emotional depth, don’t you know. Or maybe gravity goes weird and the city starts looking like the famous M.C. Escher lithograph “Relativity” (with no consistent up or down). What if the combination of the LHC’s magnetic field and the black holes pulls asteroids out of space into collision with Earth? (Some conspiracy theorists are apparently already claiming this.)

Parallel universes offer even more fodder for imagination. Maybe our own universe originally came from one of those. Or perhaps life originated there instead of here. Or perhaps we somehow go there when we die.

OK, OK…most of these are still sounding like B-movie ideas, but you have to admit that the thought of protons smashing together at 99.9% of the speed of light with energies of nearly 12 Tera electron volts does fire the imagination.

The likely reality? The LHC team will detect some things never seen before and add to our knowledge of the universe. The world won’t even hiccup. And that’s good too.