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Is Death Natural? Can We Extend Our Lives?

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Death is as natural as birth. So say the large majority of people today. But is death natural? This question is for now merely academic but we could very well be on the cusp of technological advances that make it far more than an academic question.

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Ray Kurzweil argues in his impressive books, The Fantastic Voyage and The Singularity Is Near, that the key now is to “live long enough to live forever.” His point is that our generation is the first that will be able to take advantage of new technologies and have a choice about living longer than the normal life span, possibly far longer. Kurzweil goes further in his follow up book Transcend and suggests that there will be three types of life extension made possible in coming decades: 1) medical techniques by the 2020s or so for slowing or even stopping aging; 2) some years later biological and medical techniques will appear that can turn back the clock to whatever age you want to be (biologically); 3) and even later we’ll see neuroscience techniques for uploading your consciousness into whatever form you want to take (robot, Internet, etc.).

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Death certainly has been natural up until now. The large majority of creatures are born and live a life of finite duration, with that duration determined by how long their bodies can withstand inevitable breakdowns, predators or accidents. There are a few interesting exceptions. Hydras, for example, are small creatures related to sea anemones that live in freshwater. Hydras don’t die unless they’re eaten and stem cells seem to be involved in this unusual ability to keep on keeping on.

tambookHarvard’s medical school produced some very intriguing evidence in 2010 with an experiment that succeeded in reversing many signs of aging in lab mice by injecting telomerase, an enzyme that keeps the mice cells’ telomeres from degenerating, into their cells. Intact telomeres stop the chromosomes unraveling and this slows or stops cell death. The mice showed remarkable improvements from this treatment alone.

It’s not that simple, of course, because there are a great many ways for our bodies to go wrong, as is clear from reading Aubrey de Gray’s book, Ending Aging. So while telomerase treatments in humans will likely be part of rejuvenation techniques in years to come they won’t be the whole story.

Is It Unnatural To Extend Our Lives Through Technology?

I’ve been asking people for years now what they think about the potential to extend their lives with technology, or even to choose immortality if it’s a real option. I get varying answers but I often hear (from my mother, for example) that it just seems unnatural to extend our lives using technology.

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I can see their point but I don’t think I agree with it. We do, of course, extend our lives with technology all the time. When we fight cancer or any illness with medical technology we are using arguably unnatural techniques. So what’s unnatural about using new medical procedures to extend life even further?

There is an entirely different argument, however, about the naturalness of life extension that relates to the nature of evolution. The conventional view of evolution is that there is no directionality, no necessary progress, in evolution. Darwin himself thought that there was but the modern view is that such views are misguided and perhaps chauvinist. The data, it seems to me, however, strongly support the view that evolution is progressive in some ways. Eric Chaisson’s book Cosmic Evolution supports this notion.

One very interesting directionality in evolution is what Teilhard de Chardin called “an ascent toward consciousness.” In fact, he defined evolution as an ascent toward consciousness in his book, The Human Phenomenon. The biological world does indeed seem to exhibit a clear trend toward expanded perceptive abilities and greater cognitive abilities. There are always exceptions that we can highlight. For example, bats and some moles have evolved away their eyes for the most part as a result of disuse. But the general trend is pretty undeniable: most types of creatures have evolved over time more ways to perceive the world and better ways to process and act on that information.

Accepting this fact we can look to broader evolutionary themes for some relevant insights about the naturalness (or not) of death. This argument may seem a stretch but bear with me here.

The success of evolutionary processes, at least in terms of producing adaptive novelty, depends on the succession of generations: birth, death, birth, death… This is the case because novelty is thought to appear only in new organisms at birth (setting aside epigenetic novelties for the moment). Natural selection is all about culling random novelties that don’t provide any advantage to the organisms at issue, through death or an inability to reproduce. Most random mutations are negatively adaptive in that they actually lead to worse performance in terms of obtaining food, or avoiding predation, or finding more mates, etc. And because the large majority of mutations are not beneficial, species need to have a lot of births and deaths in order to find those beneficial adaptations in the space of possible adaptations.

The Ascent Of Consciousness

This situation is changing, however, with the ascent of consciousness—recall that this was Teilhard de Chardin’s way of characterizing evolution more generally. Now that consciousness has reached the level of human consciousness, which is a step change in the nature of consciousness, to be sure, we are taking evolution into our own hands. Cultural evolution is now increasingly trumping biological evolution. Let me unpack this statement a bit.

Biological evolution works through the random mutations and natural selection already discussed (genetic drift and some other mechanisms also play a part but for present purposes focusing on natural selection alone is sufficient). The conventional view is that biological evolution is an entirely vertical process because acquired characteristics can’t be passed on to offspring. Lamarck is still reviled in conventional circles today because he believed that acquired characteristics could be passed on and that individual striving was in fact the primary force behind evolution. We now know, with the advent of epigenetics, that some evolutionary change is indeed Lamarckian because epigenetic changes can be acquired and passed on to offspring. For example, new research suggests that humans and chimps differ so remarkably, despite sharing 99 percent of their genes, due to epigenetic differences.

More generally, cultural evolution is uncontroversially Lamarckian. What I mean is that cultural evolution, which is all about ideas and the evolution of ideas, operates through acquisition of ideas by individuals and then the passing on of those ideas in slightly changed form to friends, co-workers and family. Language, for example, is a good example of cultural evolution. Languages are always changing, and we can look to the Oxford English Dictionary’s list of new words each year as proof positive of this phenomenon even in an era of written language.

Here’s the crux of my argument: because cultural evolution is now taking over from biological evolution in terms of the future of the human species we don’t need individuals to die anymore to ensure that evolutionary change continues. Rather, ideas can and do change in a Lamarckian manner and this happens horizontally (person to person) as well as vertically (parent to offspring). We individuals don’t need to die in order to keep evolving as a species. So if evolutionary change is the sine qua non of what is “natural,” we are now at the point where it may be more natural for individuals to stick around and be part of the play of ideas for far longer than is possible under our heretofore natural lifespans.

In other words, if humans are now characterized by our ideas as much or more than our physical forms then there’s no need anymore for our physical forms to undergo the same processes of birth and death if life is to keep ascending toward new forms of consciousness. We can individually evolve and continue that arc of evolution as individuals.

Whether we do in fact continue to evolve in such a manner is entirely our individual choice. But it would be nice, it seems to me, to at least have that choice. So I personally am looking forward to having more options in terms of extending my life beyond the 80 or so years we can normally expect. It should be a fun ride.

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Consciousness

The Study of Fundamental Consciousness Entering the Mainstream

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In Brief

  • The Facts:

    Consciousness is appearing to be a fundamental property, just like liquids, solids and gas, consciousness and its connection to the physical material world is now gaining big time credibility.

  • Reflect On:

    How much do we have yet to discover? Are we ready to abandon what we thought we knew in light of new discoveries and evidence?

The world-renowned neuroscientist Christof Koch, spent nearly two decades working alongside the co-discoverer of the DNA molecule, Francis Crick. Their mission was to find the neurobiological basis of consciousness. They discovered many insights into cognition and the functioning of perception, yet the central enigma, the nature of consciousness itself, remained mysteriously elusive.

In 2009, Koch shocked the scientific community by publishing his conviction that consciousness probably isn’t just in brains, but is a fundamental feature of reality. This is a view known to philosophers as ‘panpsychism.’ The theory Koch is now dedicating his research to is called ‘Integrated Information Theory’ or ‘IIT.’ It is the brainchild of neuroscientist Giulio Tononi of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In explaining his theory, Tononi asks us to consider a simple light sensitive photo diode like those found in a digital camera. A simple diode might respond to just two states: light or dark. We could present our diode with any number of images, yet regardless of the picture, the diode conforms to one of only two possible states. Is it light, or is it dark?

Now consider yourself looking at the same picture, lets say, of the Eiffel Tower on a beautiful spring day in Paris. For us, looking at this image results in a reduction from a near infinity of possible states. Not an image of the Andromeda galaxy, not a childhood picture of your mother, not cells dividing in a Petri dish and so on.  Because of the vast number of images we are capable of recognizing, each one is highly informative. For Tononi, the vast amount of information capable of being integrated in the brain means that we have a comparatively huge capacity for consciousness.

Tononi’s theory, that consciousness is born out of networks with high integrated information, has novel ways of being tested in the laboratory.

In studies with sleeping participants, Tononi and his colleagues used transcranial magnetic stimulation to send a ripple of activity through the cortex of sleeping participants. The researchers found that when dreaming, this ripple reverberated through the cortex longer than when participants were in stages of dreamless sleep. This demonstrated that during dreaming, when the brain is conscious, the cortex has a higher degree of integration.

In another experiment, the researchers built tiny robots known as ‘animats’ that were placed into mazes. The animats used simple integrated networks capable of evolving over sequential generations. To their surprise, the greater the degree of integration that the animats evolved, the quicker they were able to escape the mazes. For Tononi this finding suggested that consciousness may play a more central role in evolution than had previously been thought.

The mathematical value of integrated information in a network is known as phi. But Tononi’s theory, now the topic of serious mainstream discussion, has an extraordinary implication. Phi didn’t just occur in brains, -it is a property of any network with a total informational content greater than its individual parts. Every living cell, every electronic circuit, even a proton consisting of just three elementary particles have a value of phi greater than zero. According to Integrated Information Theory, all of these things possess something, albeit but a glimmer of ‘what it is like’ to be them. Tononi states:

“Consciousness is a fundamental property, like mass or charge. Wherever there is an entity with multiple states, there is some consciousness. You need a special structure to get a lot of it but consciousness is everywhere, it is a fundamental property.”

Integrated information theory is in its infancy and there are still many questions it must face. Did the information of brains operate at the level of the neuron, or the protein, or something deeper still? The electromagnetic field of the brain, as observed by psi researcher Dean Radin, is always re-establishing its quantum connection to the entire universe. Could a much richer informational interaction exist than has yet been imagined?

Physicists such as John Wheeler have laid the groundwork for a radical new understanding of reality, in which matter, the laws and constants of nature, and indeed the entire universe is best described, not in terms of physical objects, but through the play and display of a fundamental dynamic information.

Quantum mechanics suggests that at the deepest level of nature, the entire physical universe is interconnected. Might the total information of the universe be integrated in some deep sense? Is it in a mysterious way conscious of itself?

As spiritual traditions throughout the ages have long asserted, instead of isolated and separate experiencing beings, we may experience on behalf of the greater evolving system in which we find ourselves.

In Koch’s highly anticipated 2012 book, ‘Consciousness – Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist’, he states:

“I do believe that the laws of physics overwhelmingly favored the emergence of consciousness. The universe is a work in progress. Such a belief evokes jeremiads from many biologists and philosophers but the evidence from cosmology, biology and history is compelling.”

Regardless of the validity of Tononi’s theory, today increasing numbers of scientists and academics are convinced that the existence of consciousness simply cannot be sensibly denied. The study of fundamental consciousness is now entering the mainstream. This movement consists of thinkers in and outside of the mind sciences. Yet despite their different academic backgrounds, they are united by two common convictions: that consciousness is an intrinsic rather than incidental emergence in the universe, and that any complete account of reality must include an explanation of it.

 Sources:

 Koch, C. (2009, August 18). A complex theory of consciousness: Is complexity the secret to sentience, to a panpsychic view of consciousness? Scientific American.

 Tononi, G. (2008). Consciousness as integrated information: A provisional manifesto. Biological Bulletin, 215(3), 216-242.

 Edlund, J. A., Chaumont, N., Hintze, A., Koch C., Tononi G., & Adami, C. (2011). Integrated information increases with fitness in the evolution of animats. PLoS Computational Biology, 7(10).

 Radin, D. I. (2006). Entangled Minds: Extrasensory experiences in quantum reality. New York: Simon & Schuster.

 Koch, C. (2012). Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist. MIT Press Books.

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Alternative News

If You Could Power Your Entire Home With 60 Minutes Of Cycling, Would You Do It?

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In Brief

  • The Facts:

    Mechanical energy, converted into kinetic energy can provide the energy that we use on a regular basis to power our homes and electronic devices.

  • Reflect On:

    Rather than focusing on the current problems in our world it is great to change gears and have a look at all of the solutions that are popping up all over the world.

Imagine if your morning workout could power your home for the entire day, all the way until your next morning workout. Well, you may not have to imagine, as this technology exists now. Manoj Bhargava has invented a new exercise bike that can power some homes for 24 hours after use for only sixty minutes per day.

This invention was a part of a new initiative to bring electricity to places that undergo frequent power outages or may only have access to power for a few hours during the day. In our modern age, going without electricity can really separate a person from the rest of the world. Bhargava’s mission is to bridge the gap for those who suffer from poverty and make it easier for them to access the same information as the rest of the world, potentially giving them more opportunities in life.

The Free Electric

The above heading is also the name of this awesome and innovative bike serving as a solution to a pretty significant issue in the underdeveloped nations of the world.

According to Bhargava, the Free Electric is meant to lead to “better health, more leisure time, better access to education and opportunities for entrepreneurship.” He also feels that it could, “literally change the world.”

Power to change the world? Bold statement, but if this is able to be implemented worldwide, I would absolutely have to agree with him. This technology not only has the capacity to assist those in poverty, but can also be used by the rest of the world as well as more and more people around the world who are aiming to reduce their usee of fossil fuels. I have a feeling that Millennials (such as myself) and younger generations would be all over this if its made available! Not only is it a great way to get your cardio in, but it provides FREE electricity that produces no other pollution.

As mentioned in the video, it is also a great solution in the face of natural, or even man made disasters because this type of electricity would not rely on that generated and sold by power companies. Perhaps even one day a way to stock up and store this energy will be possible — then, the opportunities here will be much more plentiful and could be a huge factor in reducing the amount of pollution our current methods of energy production are creating.

The Future Is Friendly

As much as there is sometimes destruction all around us, there is also innovation and ingenuity. Human beings have tremendous potential. Even though there are many problems that we as a society are facing, solutions are popping up and fast, and in most cases they already exist. Finding solutions doesn’t seem to be the problem, so ask yourself, what is?  It’s so great to see ideas such as these being conceptualized and then created and put into use so efficiently, it shows how our species is capable of stopping and potentially reversing some of the destruction that we have caused over the years.

This is absolutely a double win! We are constantly bombarded with news stories and articles that are telling us to be more active, stop sitting so much, and now with the Free Electric, we will have to be active before we can relax and enjoy the use of our precious technology.

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Discover

Physicists ‘Grow’ A Man Made Diamond From Nuclear Waste That’s Able To Generate Electricity

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In Brief

  • The Facts:

    Scientists have developed a technology that can convert leftover radioactive materials into diamond batteries to power a wide range of electronics.

  • Reflect On:

    Could this be the solution to use op all the radioactive materials on the planet and shut down nuclear power plants worldwide?

Currently there is more than 2 billion tons of nuclear waste across the globe. This nuclear waste is a hazardous threat to the environment if not disposed of correctly. Scientists have recently begun attempting to transform nuclear waste into batteries that could last for thousands of years. If they are successful with this conversion project it would be a double win, less nuclear waste contaminating our environment, and a way to reuse energy that was generated to give power to whatever requires it.

Diamond batteries that use the energy from leftover radioactive materials have been developed and tested by researchers at the University of Bristol. They are now hoping to be able to recycle the waste leftover from decommissioned nuclear power plants in the UK. According to the University, “New technology has been developed that uses nuclear waste to generate electricity in a nuclear-powered battery….A team of physicists and chemists from the University of Bristol have grown a man-made diamond that, when placed in a radioactive field, is able to generate a small electrical current.” (source)

How Does This Work?

According to The Independent,

Carbon-14 isotopes extracted from graphite blocks produced by the plant are infused with wafer-thin diamonds to create the batteries, which researchers say are capable of providing power on a “near-infinite basis”.

Potential applications range from powering hearing aids and pacemakers, to extending the range of spacecraft to distances much further than are currently possible.

“Eventually, a highly powerful version of a diamond battery could power a mobile phone,” James Barker, from the University of Bristol’s Faculty of Engineering, told The Independent.

“Primarily though, they are best for devices requiring long lifetime, low power and where it is difficult to replace energy sources.”

In order to make these diamond batteries safe for medical and consumer use they are encased in a non-radioactive diamond layer, which will absorb any radiation given off by the C14 source.

According to the University,

Unlike the majority of electricity-generation technologies, which use energy to move a magnet through a coil of wire to generate a current, the man-made diamond is able to produce a charge simply by being placed in close proximity to a radioactive source.

Tom Scott, Professor in Materials in the University’s Interface Analysis Centre and a member of the Cabot Institute, said: “There are no moving parts involved, no emissions generated and no maintenance required, just direct electricity generation.  By encapsulating radioactive material inside diamonds, we turn a long-term problem of nuclear waste into a nuclear-powered battery and a long-term supply of clean energy.”

Could This Be The Solution We’ve Been Searching For?

“The ultimate aim is to have a factory based at one of the former power stations in the South West that takes Carbon-14 isotopes directly from the graphite blocks for use in diamond batteries. This would significantly reduce the radioactivity of the remaining material, making it easier and safer to manage,” said Professor Tom Scott, director of the South West Nuclear Hub.

“With the majority of the UK’s nuclear power plants set to go offline in the next 10-15 years this presents a huge opportunity to recycle a large amount of material to generate power for so many great uses.”

Time will tell how effective this method that scientists have come up with will be able to be implemented worldwide, but if it is, just imagine the implications of what this technology could represent.

Is It Time To Move Away From Nuclear Energy?

You’d think since the Fukushima disaster there would be a worldwide agreement for countries to stop generating power from nuclear reactors and to safely shut down these plants. Nuclear disasters have devastating effects on our planet and all of it’s inhabitants, recovery from such accidents can take tens of thousands of years to lose their hazardous radioactivity. Take the Chernobyl disaster that occurred in 1986 and is now contained under a metal shell, this site will likely remain radioactive for up to 20,000 years.

Instead of waiting for these disasters to occur, shouldn’t we be safely dismantling these sites before any more devastating disasters occur? Thankfully many countries are vowing to shut down their nuclear power plants and we can only hope that the rest of the world will follow suit.

The Future Is Here

There are so many amazing technologies that have the capacity to revolutionize the way we use energy on this planet. Of course many of those are hidden from us, especially if they cannot be in some way profited from, and unfortunately as it seems, if they don’t exploit the environment and our resources in some way.

As innovative ideas abound and technology continues to rapidly develop, we have to assume that safer and more innovative means of producing electricity will be uncovered. Hopefully these technologies will also have the capacity to undo some of the damage that we have done to our planet.

At the end of the day, using nuclear energy is not needed anymore, and in reality nuclear waste should not even exist at this point in our development as a collective.

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