The virtual reality (VR) industry is currently in its infancy, but in just a few decades it’s possible that virtual environments will be nearly indistinguishable from reality. Along with transforming everyday life, a VR revolution could fundamentally change how we understand and define what is real. In this installment of Aeon In Sight, the renowned Australian philosopher and cognitive scientist David Chalmers considers how VR is reframing and shedding new light on some of philosophy’s most enduring questions about cognition, epistemology and the nature of reality.
New research suggests it is possible to slow or even reverse aging, at least in mice, by undoing changes in gene activity—the same kinds of changes that are caused by decades of life in humans.
By tweaking genes that turn adult cells back into embryoniclike ones, researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies reversed the aging of mouse and human cells in vitro, extended the life of a mouse with an accelerated-aging condition and successfully promoted recovery from an injury in a middle-aged mouse, according to a study published Thursday in Cell.
The study adds weight to the scientific argument that aging is largely a process of so-called epigenetic changes, alterations that make genes more active or less so. Over the course of life cell-activity regulators get added to or removed from genes. In humans those changes can be caused by smoking, pollution or other environmental factors—which dial the genes’ activities up or down. As these changes accumulate, our muscles weaken, our minds slow down and we become more vulnerable to diseases.
The new study suggests the possibility of reversing at least some of these changes, a process researchers think they may eventually get to work in living humans. “Aging is something plastic that we can manipulate,” says Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte, the study’s senior author and an expert in gene expression at Salk. In their study Belmonte and his colleagues rejuvenated cells by turning on, for a short period of time, four genes that have the capacity to convert adult cells back into an embryoniclike state.
In living mice they activated the four genes (known as “Yamanaka factors,” for researcher Shinya Yamanaka, the Nobelist who discovered their combined potential in 2006). This approach rejuvenated damaged muscles and the pancreas in a middle-aged mouse, and extended by 30 percent the life span of a mouse with a genetic mutation responsible for Hutchinson–Gilford progeria syndrome, which causes rapid aging in children.
"The actual path of a raindrop as it goes down the valley is unpredictable, but the general direction is inevitable," says digital visionary Kevin Kelly -- and technology is much the same, driven by patterns that are surprising but inevitable. Over the next 20 years, he says, our penchant for making things smarter and smarter will have a profound impact on nearly everything we do. Kelly explores three trends in AI we need to understand in order to embrace it and steer its development. "The most popular AI product 20 years from now that everyone uses has not been invented yet," Kelly says. "That means that you're not late."
Would you want to alter your future children’s genes to make them smarter, stronger, or better looking? As the state of science brings prospects like these closer to reality, an international debate has been raging over the ethics of enhancing human capacities with biotechnologies such as so-called smart pills, brain implants, and gene editing. This discussion has only intensified in the past year with the advent of the CRISPR-cas9 gene editing tool, which raises the specter of tinkering with our DNA to improve traits like intelligence, athleticism, and even moral reasoning.
So are we on the brink of a brave new world of genetically enhanced humanity? Perhaps. And there’s an interesting wrinkle: It’s reasonable to believe that any seismic shift toward genetic enhancement will not be centered in Western countries like the US or the UK, where many modern technologies are pioneered. Instead, genetic enhancement is more likely to emerge out of China. Attitudes toward enhancement
Numerous surveys among Western populations have found significant opposition to many forms of human enhancement. For example, a recent Pew study of 4,726 Americans found that most would not want to use a brain chip to improve their memory, and a plurality view such interventions as morally unacceptable.
A broader review of public opinion studies found significant opposition in countries like Germany, the US, and the UK to selecting the best embryos for implantation based on non-medical traits like appearance or intelligence. There is even less support for editing genes directly to improve traits in so-called designer babies.
Opposition to enhancement, especially genetic enhancement, has several sources. The above-mentioned Pew poll found that safety is a big concern—in line with experts who say that tinkering with the human genome carries significant risks. These risks may be accepted when treating medical conditions, but less so for enhancing non-medical traits like intelligence and appearance. At the same time, ethical objections often arise. Scientists can be seen as “playing God” and tampering with nature. There are also worries about inequality, creating a new generation of enhanced individuals who are heavily advantaged over others. Brave New World is a dystopia, after all.
When he delivered his Mars colonization presentation at the International Astronautical Conference in September, SpaceX founder Elon Musk spent a lot of time discussing the Interplanetary Transport System rocket and spacecraft, But he offered precious little information about what the firsts visitors' life on Mars would look like.
During an AMA on Reddit Sunday afternoon, he filled in a few of those details. After a user named El-Psy-Kangaroo asked about initial missions to Mars, Musk replied that the first "Red Dragon" spacecraft sent to Mars, possibly in 2018 but more likely 2020, would prove the company could land propulsively on the red planet, and then experiment with chemical reactions to find the best way to derive methane and water from the Martian atmosphere. The resulting propellant would, eventually, be used for return missions from Mars. Further Reading Musk’s Mars moment: Audacity, madness, brilliance—or maybe all three
The first large ITS spacecraft sent to Mars, nicknamed "Heart of Gold" after the ship in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, would likely be filled mostly equipment to build a propellant plant on Mars. The first crewed mission would then carry perhaps a dozen colonists and the equipment needed to build a "rudimentary" base and finish the propellant plant. The company would then try to double the number of flights every 26 months, during each Earth-Mars orbital rendezvous. "We are still far from figuring this out in detail," Musk acknowledged.
Another user, Ulysius, asked about permanent habitation on Mars. "Initially, glass panes with carbon fiber frames to build geodesic domes on the surface, plus a lot of miner/tunneling droids," Musk said. "With the latter, you can build out a huge amount of pressurized space for industrial operations and leave the glass domes for green living space."
Human-level intelligence is familiar in biological hardware – you’re using it now. Science and technology seem to be converging, from several directions, on the possibility of similar intelligence in non-biological systems. It is difficult t
One day in the future, we’ll look back in wonder at how our physical objects used to be singular, disconnected pieces of matter.
We’ll be in awe of the fact that a car used to be just a piece of metal full of gears and belts that we would drive from one place to another, that a refrigerator was a box that kept our food cold — and a phone was a piece of plastic we used to communicate to one other person at a time.
That’s because the future we’re rapidly moving towards is one where physical items become intelligent and interconnected — and as a fascinating result, their functionality changes.
There is probably no better example of this trend than the cell phone. The mobile phone used to be just that — a mobile phone. Now it’s your flashlight, your bank, your TV, and your funny, yet kind of dumb personal assistant. The cell phone — or really, more accurately, the hand-held computer — has become mostly a gateway to all the mobile services we use on it.
And those services are constantly morphing and improving, changing what our smartphones can do without requiring the physical phone itself to change all that much at all.
A conception of evil that carries over from the Abrahamic religions into secular modernity is that of the ‘disorganization of the soul’. The idea here is that evil isn’t something separate from good but something that arises from the malformation or malfunctioning of good parts. Thus, Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost is God’s best angel gone rogue, the template for the villains faced by comic book superheroes. Many if not most mental illnesses, from neurosis to autism, are defined as some sort of ‘disorder’. In a similar but grander vein, cybernetics founder Norbert Wiener regarded entropy – the ultimate expression of disorganization in physics – as the material equivalent of evil, the source of all suffering, decay and death.
Humans are probably not the greatest intelligences in the universe. Earth is a relatively young planet and the oldest civilizations could be billions of years older than us. But even on Earth, Homo sapiens may not be the most intelligent species for that much longer.
The world Go, chess, and Jeopardy champions are now all AIs. AI is projected to outmode many human professions within the next few decades. And given the rapid pace of its development, AI may soon advance to artificial general intelligence—intelligence that, like human intelligence, can combine insights from different topic areas and display flexibility and common sense. From there it is a short leap to superintelligent AI, which is smarter than humans in every respect, even those that now seem firmly in the human domain, such as scientific reasoning and social skills. Each of us alive today may be one of the last rungs on the evolutionary ladder that leads from the first living cell to synthetic intelligence.
What we are only beginning to realize is that these two forms of superhuman intelligence—alien and artificial—may not be so distinct. The technological developments we are witnessing today may have all happened before, elsewhere in the universe. The transition from biological to synthetic intelligence may be a general pattern, instantiated over and over, throughout the cosmos. The universe’s greatest intelligences may be postbiological, having grown out of civilizations that were once biological. (This is a view I share with Paul Davies, Steven Dick, Martin Rees, and Seth Shostak, among others.) To judge from the human experience—the only example we have—the transition from biological to postbiological may take only a few hundred years.
The augmented-reality game "Pokémon Go" may be the hottest thing in mobile gaming right now, but new advances in computer science could give players an even more realistic experience in the future, according to a new study. In fact, researchers say a new imaging technique could help make imaginary characters, such as Pokémon, appear to convincingly interact with real objects.
A new imaging technique called Interactive Dynamic Video can take pictures of real objects and quickly create video simulations that people, or 3D models, can virtually interact with, the researchers said. In addition to fueling game development, these advances could help simulate how real bridges and buildings might respond to potentially disastrous situations, the researchers added.
The smartphone game "Pokémon Go" superimposes images onto the real world to create a mixed reality. The popularity of this game follows a decades-long trend of computer-generated imagery weaving its way into movies and TV shows. However, while 3D models that can move amid real surroundings on video screens are now commonplace, it remains a challenge getting computer-generated images to look as if they are interacting with real objects. Building 3D models of real items is expensive, and can be nearly impossible for many objects, the researchers said. [Beyond Gaming: 10 Other Fascinating Uses for Virtual-Reality Tech]
Now, Interactive Dynamic Video could bridge that gap, the researchers said.
"When I came up with and tested the technique, I was surprised that it worked quite so well," said study lead author Abe Davis, a computer scientist at the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Technological shifts outpace our awareness of them. While we're busy with our day-to-day lives—getting a new smartphone or downloading the next updates—we often don't notice how these incremental changes shape our relationship with technology. According to Ray Kurzweil, this trend will continue as we become more closely integrated with the tech around us.
“At some point, we’ll be literally a hybrid of biological and nonbiological thinking, but it's a gradual transition,” Kurzweil says.
Instead of happening overnight, he predicts we’ll steadily enhance ourselves using technology, not by replacing the parts that make us human but by building on them over time.
One of the biggest concerns people express about this idea is the fear of losing one’s body or mind in the process—that we’ll become less and less human in the future.
“I don’t want to give that up. I’m not talking about giving things up,” Kurzweil says. “I’m talking about enhancing our experience and our bodies and our brains.”
He likens this process to what happens as we grow and change through life. At what point do we cease to be our "old selves" and become our "new selves"? There isn’t a clear line. We change and grow incrementally. And day to day, those incremental changes aren’t obvious.
“You’re not the same person you were when you were four years old—where is that four-year-old girl? Is she gone, should we mourn her? Well, no, she’s contained in you. You’ve enhanced yourself to become who you are today,” Kurzweil argues.
One thing is clear: Most of us rarely go a day without technology. What do you think will happen in the coming years? Will we become even more closely tied to our tools? Should we?
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