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Thursday
Apr232015

LIFE IS A TREASURE WORTH FINDING

I’ve posted recently about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence and the (so far) lack of success. But why are we so focused on intelligence? Wouldn’t it be awesome enough just to discover life elsewhere in this vast universe? Jumping high-five awesome? For some reason most of the attention and all of the angst has been centered on the idea that there might be other species of beings out there that might be interested in us for the purposes of a) contacting, or b) conquering. Yet the search has come up empty. Well, maybe intelligent life is as rare as a politician with his hands in his own pockets, and there are lots of reasons it could remain hidden from us, but the discovery of any kind of life inhabiting other solar systems would be cause for celebration.

This week NASA announced a brand new coalition of scientific endeavours to be known as NExSS (Nexus for Exoplanet System Science). Each of the partner projects will focus on different aspects of the search for extraterrestrial life including refined spectrometers better able to detect Earth-like planets, how planets form and where, the potential habitability of exoplanets (from a human perspective), tidal dynamics, how organic elements reach planet surfaces, and a lot of other topics.

I love this idea, and not just because of its geek-cool acronym. The practical side is that the more we know about how habitable planets get that way and how life arises and survives elsewhere, the better we can understand the challenges of our own planet and maybe even find solutions to the damage we’ve done to its ecosphere. God knows, we need all the help we can get in that department. But beyond the practical is the pure stomach-tingling thrill of a treasure hunt. Finding carbon-based life on an exoplanet would be like finding a long-lost cousin you never knew you had (who doesn’t know about all the skeletons in family closets). No, bigger than that—it would be like living all your life in a sheltered village and suddenly finding out that there’s a whole world just beyond the trees. There was a hint of that when the first exoplanets were discovered in the mid 1990’s, but the confirmation of extraterrestrial life would ramp that excitement up to a whole new level. Think of all of the new questions, and the answers, and…more questions.

Does carbon-based life require DNA? A cellular structure? Does it always follow a birth-to-death life cycle, or could there be forms of life that are effectively immortal? What about sex—we’re always fascinated by sex.

What if we find life forms that aren’t based on carbon? There’s been speculation, but proof would really upset the bioscience applecart. And that could be a good thing. Sometimes the best way to advance is to throw everything you’ve known up in the air and see what new patterns form when it lands.

Whatever we learn about life elsewhere is bound to open our eyes to secrets our own planet has yet to offer up, because I’m certain we haven’t yet found every type of life the Earth has produced, hidden in the depths of the ocean or the planetary crust. Not to mention other bioscience implications like the discoveries of new potential medicines. Learning how extraterrestrial life copes with unique or harsh conditions might teach us how to protect ourselves from nasty surprises like cosmic ray bursts or asteroid strikes, too.

Most of all, I love this plan because the discovery of life elsewhere would give us somewhere to go and a reason to get there. The human race is at its best when we have goals that inspire us, nearly unattainable heights to climb. A treasure just beyond our reach that requires us to dig deep within ourselves and strive together in community.

We could really use something like that right now, and NExSS just might point the way.

Monday
Apr132015

SHOULD SCIENCE FICTION PREDICT THE FUTURE?

I attended the Ad Astra science fiction convention in Toronto over the weekend, and the first two panel discussions I caught both involved imagining the future and how wrong our predictions often are. Of course, the subject was implied in other sessions too, because SF is a forward-thinking literature (alternate history notwithstanding). One of the most notable things that SF writers and filmmakers got wrong was the evolution of computing. Almost no-one predicted that we’d all have personal computing devices, especially not the size of a watch. Computers in the 50’s and 60’s were monstrous and the expectation was that increasingly sophisticated models would be even bigger. That seems laughable now, as we check our email and surf for a movie to watch on our phone. But then we also figured we’d have flying cars, eat a dinner of pills, and at least have a permanent base on the Moon by now, if not hotels (The Jetsons pretty much covered the expectations of the time).

We shouldn’t be too hard on those early futurists. As Ad Astra panellists like Eric Choi and Neil Jamieson-Williams pointed out, often the technology for such things has become available, but we’ve discovered we don’t actually want them. We like real food. We know how dangerous most of our fellow drivers are on paved roads—it doesn’t bear thinking about them swooping around us through the air. In the case of Moon bases or flights to Jupiter, a whole complex of reasons have delayed those, mostly political and economic (recessions and an endless string of armed conflicts).

Some writers nail it when predicting future technology, but I don’t think accuracy is that important. No matter how far into the future they’re set, SF stories are always about us, here and now. Our reaction to the future society and the priorities of its people. The ways future tech would change our lives. The things we’re doing now that might be creating a future we don’t want. In our stories we say, “Here’s where this technology seems to be heading, here are the implications of that, and if we don’t want those results we should act now to make sure they don’t happen.”

The idea of too-powerful governments monitoring and controlling nearly every aspect of our lives is a common trope of cautionary SF. In reality, we’re voluntarily surrendering more and more of our privacy and free will all the time: to governments in return for promised (though dubious) protection from over-inflated threats to our security, and even more puzzlingly, to corporations in return for a better shopping experience! We could have learned our lesson from science fiction, but we obviously haven’t.

The possibility that artificial computer intelligence will arise and want to wipe out the “inferior” human race is another major trope (The Terminator movies being the most famous example). But while authors like Karl Schroeder and Madeline Ashby feel that’s mostly about the way we anthropomorphize machines and expect the worst from them based on our experience with other humans, such SF stories are effectively saying that now is the time to build in safeguards for AI, limit its development, or just come to a better understanding of consciousness to ease our fears. (Karl, Madeline, and Hayden Trenholm rightfully point out that we probably have more to fear from the mindless computer algorithms currently being used by our financial systems etc. than anything with a mind.)

So, while it’s entertaining to imagine future technology, science fiction is about our world and the way we’re shaping it, day by day. The actual predictions—bullseyes and duds—are mainly useful as the answers to trivia questions.

Which is too bad, because I really wouldn’t have minded a flying DeLorean powered by a Mr. Fusion.

Tuesday
Mar312015

EDITING THE GENOME

A genetic technology discovered in 2012 made news again this month when some researchers at the Salk Institute’s Gene Expression Laboratory were successful in removing the HIV virus (which causes AIDS) from cells that had been attacked. HIV subverts the cell’s own mechanisms to make copies of itself, and embeds itself in the cell’s DNA. Patients have to keep taking drugs for HIV, because it can crop up again years later. The new technique removes the active HIV within the cell but also “snips” it out of the DNA, suggesting it could provide a permanent cure (though the success rate isn’t 100% yet).

The technique has been called “DNA scissors” because it really targets specific segments of DNA and cuts them out. A lot of DNA has repeat sequences known as CRISPRs with spacer DNA between. Cas proteins are special enzymes able to cut DNA, especially the enzyme Cas9 which can target specific spots in a sequence and make a break. The cell’s repair systems then re-splice the DNA strand with the cut segment removed.

The use of CRISPR-Cas9 technology to remove HIV sounds like fantastic news, but the same method can also be used to target and “edit out” other pieces of DNA just as well. That opens up a whole new can of worms.

There are many human afflictions that have been linked to a specific gene or genetic mutation. Presumably, CRISPR-Cas9 could be used to remove many undesirable bits of DNA and cure a variety of chronic genetic conditions like Cystic Fibrosis or Haemophilia. But the question of what is “undesirable” can be very subjective. HIV is bad, but are exceptionally long limbs also bad? What about freckles? Where is the line drawn? There are serious ethical concerns that this technology will be used for “non-therapeutic” purposes. Think of all the money that’s spent on purely cosmetic medical services, trying to achieve a ridiculous standard of beauty. And, of course, the spectre of engineering “ethnically pure” babies raises its ugly head again.

For another thing, although we’ve learned a lot about genetics in recent decades, there’s a lot more to learn, especially about the interconnectedness of our body systems. Only 2% of human DNA codes for the production of proteins that make our cells. The other 98% of non-coding DNA includes instructions and triggers that direct how the coding DNA behaves. There is still much to know about that.

A “slip of the scissors” could cause errors that might have far-reaching consequences: mutations that might be viable but unwelcome or outright dangerous (X-men-type superhuman abilities notwithstanding). And even if no mistakes are made, our deliberate interventions will almost certainly have long-term repercussions. In one of my novel manuscripts I have extremists use an engineered virus to “snip out” the pieces of the human genome connected to violent behaviour, creating a pacifist race. Some might think that would be a great result, but the consequences of such a thing are unknowable. We might find real cause to regret it. The same could be said about eradicating many conditions we generally consider undesirable. We don’t know the long term consequences. There’s no way we can know them.

Think of DNA as building plans. No-one wants unsightly extra nails sticking out to catch the unwary, but removing the wrong nails in the ridge beam of a peaked roof, a lintel of a doorway, or the top of a staircase could spell disaster.

I’m not against technological progress. But I am very much in favour of being sure we have the knowledge to reverse our tampering before we go ahead and do it.

Let’s know more about where all the nails should go before we start pulling them out and the roof falls in.

Wednesday
Mar252015

READING AND OTHER VISUAL STUFF

According to surveys, print books are still not being replaced by e-books, even in this digital age. In spite of the availability of e-readers and the lower price of e-books vs. paper, most of us still prefer to have the hard copy version. Studies have shown that our memory of the things we read is better if we’ve read a hard copy. Researchers think it’s because our spatial memory comes into play—we picture where the desired information was placed on a page. For example: if we’re asked to remember what car James Bond was driving in a particular scene in a book (presuming his Aston Martin is in the shop) we may recall seeing that information in the second or third paragraph of a left-hand page. We can vaguely picture the page so we find it easier to recall the words in that spot. If we want to remember what his latest Bond girl was wearing…no, scratch that, they never wear anything for long. But the point is that e-books don’t offer the same visual cues, not to mention assorted other sensory elements like the feel of good paper, the smell of fresh ink, or the actual weight of an epic novel, that impact the pleasure of the reading experience.

It made me think about the future of data entry and retrieval. Will physical keyboards and text on a screen really vanish, as so many science fiction movies seem to suggest? I suspect that something like the hard copy reading effect will apply.

Futuristic films and TV shows often show people moving their hands through the air to interact with large 3D  screens or holographic displays. Think of the Tom Cruise movie Minority Report or Marvel Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on TV. Much of the technology is already available. Will such things really take over from clunkier input devices like keyboards? I’m not so sure. I think physical cues are important. Often when I’m typing I’ll realize that I’ve hit the wrong keys by misteak mistake by the feel, maybe even the sound, before I see the error appear on the computer screen. I also know that using a holographic display in a room of co-workers, there’s a good chance I could miss a key piece of data if it appeared in front of the office hottie walking by in a tight skirt.

When I watch Star Trek reruns, part of me says every member of the bridge crew should be manipulating holo displays instead of buttons and dials. But really, projecting technological progress two or three hundred years into the future, there would be no bridge crew at all. The captain would just tell the computer where to fly the ship and who to shoot at. Not much fun to watch on TV. I can’t see us making the choice to go that way either.

Star Trek’s holosuites take virtual reality to the limit, but don’t expect holographic presentations to offer stimulation to our senses of touch, taste, or smell anytime soon (chairs you can sit on and cars you can drive? Don’t think so.) For that the computer simulation will have to hack directly into the sensory centres of our brain to control what our brain thinks we’re touching and tasting, seeing and doing, whether we’re standing, sitting, or lying down. A full-body sensory illusion. While that could very well be possible within the next century or two, I’m willing to bet that frequent use of such tech would be a serious mental health hazard, causing us to lose our ability to distinguish between reality and simulations (a half-hour of being James Bond a day—that’s my limit).

The truth is, we’re wired to orient ourselves by sensory cues from a physical environment, and to judge our progress by the extent to which we affect that environment through our actions. Millions of years of evolution made us this way, and it will take a long time to change that. I don’t think we’ll truly want to.

For now, I’m content with my keyboard and screen. Just don’t ask me to go back to my Underwood typewriter.

Thursday
Mar122015

THE PURPOSE OF SCIENCE FICTION

When I stumbled onto an article on the website BuzzFeed called “27 Science Fictions That Became Science Facts In 2012” it got me thinking about that term “science fiction”. What the writer meant (I assume) was that these 27 things that had previously only been predicted had at last become reality (except that’s not nearly so catchy as a headline). Not everything was gadgetry or bioscience. The article mentioned the discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle—theoretical physics, yes, science fiction, not really. Still, I expect most people think of SF as a literature that’s about predicting new technology. It can, and often does, but that’s not really the point. The most interesting science fiction extrapolates how such developments will change our lives.

As an example, the article describes the newest prosthetic limbs operated directly by the patient’s brain, and electronic implants that give sight to the blind. Well, SF predicted high-tech prosthetic devices decades ago, but the stories arise from trying to foresee how the arrival of such technology will affect our world. The implications and ramifications are what’s interesting.

I mentioned in a recent post that such high tech devices can often be hacked—let your imagination run on that possibility. Will the proliferation of “bionic” limbs and eyes and ears create a new class of citizen? Before you laugh, consider that governments love to require us to have special licenses to operate complex devices. Are you sure robotic legs would be any different? And is it much of a stretch to say that such specialized licenses might imply defined categories of personhood? If prosthetics do end up providing an advantage in strength and speed (like the Six Million Dollar Man) then people with them will be in demand for certain activities and likely banned from others (in the interest of fairness). Will you need to get special insurance for your electronic eye? Will your life insurance policy pay out if your mechanical leg fails while you’re crossing a busy street? We can assume there would soon be a black market for prostheses and their parts. Would there be a thriving used market, too? What would happen to people whose body part replacements need maintenance or repairs for which they can’t afford to pay? Repossession? Perhaps indentured service until the debt is repaid?

The BuzzFeed article also touched on an experiment that extended the lifespan of mice to three times their normal age. That’s science. The science fiction writer would explore how our society would be changed if certain members of it, through wealth or privilege, could live three times as long as the rest of us. There would be no question of different classes then. The concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a few would make today’s wealthy one percent look like pikers. Inheritance laws would be thrown into chaos. The long-lived might have to escape the wrath of normal people by changing their identity several times throughout their lives. Could we expect marriages to last more than two centuries? Would they become afraid to take risks with so much more life to lose?

I don’t claim that any of my speculations above will come true, but that’s when science fiction is at its best. Not so much predicting technology or other developments, but helping us to see what the implications of such things might be so we can make choices about them in advance before hard decisions are thrust upon us.

And let’s face it, for both writers and readers, the speculating is just plain fun.