Saturday, December 26. 2009
An article in the U.K. Daily Mail describes a brain implant that appears to give paralysis victims the ability to speak. Instead of using the body’s normal neural speech pathway—from the brain to the lungs, vocal chords, tongue, and mouth—the brain implant developed by a team at Boston University enables patients, through training and practice, to actuate and control an electronic speech synthesizer.
Is this a mind reading machine? The current brain implant doesn’t vocalize random thoughts. The article provides few details, but I suspect that the patient must do much more than just think of the words. We are still a long way from a mind reading machine.
But this research suggests some interesting and even troubling possibilities.
No doubt this is just the beginning of an effort that will ultimately give many paralysis victims the ability to speak. Consider the parallel with John Gibbon’s invention of the heart-lung bypass machine. Gibbon started by developing a heart-lung bypass machine that worked with cats; he chose cats because their blood oxygenation requirements are relatively modest. Then he moved up to dogs. After nearly 20 years of research, Gibbon built a machine capable of bypassing the heart and lungs of a human long enough for surgeons to operate on the heart.
As brain-computer interface (BCI) chips evolve, they will not only enable paralysis victims to speak through synthesizers, they will permit them to move robotic limbs. It stands to reason that as BCI chips evolve even further it will become possible to translate verbal thoughts into spoken thoughts. Let’s hope that this technology is never used for sinister purposes such as mind control.
There is another possibility that many will find troubling. If you think today's young people spend too much time online, consider this. What if some individuals choose to get brain implants so they can connect to cyberspace directly? Imagine being able to surf the Web in your mind. Or Web sites that let you choose tonight’s dream.
Friday, December 18. 2009
A popular argument for supporting climate change legislation is that the risk of doing nothing is too high. According to Greg Craven, a high school science teacher who produced the wildly popular "The Most Terrifying Video You’ll Ever See,” the global climate is a non-linear system “capable of sudden, unexpected lurches set off by seemingly small bumps.”
So Craven asks: What’s the worst that can happen if we don’t do something about global warming right away? Answer: A worldwide economic, political, social, environmental, and health catastrophe.
OK, I’ll bite. I agree the risk of doing nothing is greater than the risk of acting unnecessarily.
Now, in the same spirit of open mindedness, I’d like to ask climate change activists to consider an alternative solution. According to conventional climate change thinking, the proper response is to reduce industrial greenhouse gas emissions; convert to cleaner cars; and encourage citizens to rely more on mass transportation, bicycles, and walking.
I propose, instead, that we use biotechnology to reabsorb atmospheric carbon dioxide. According to Freeman Dyson, the United States alone could accumulate enough CO2 absorbing topsoil to more than compensate for the growth of CO2 emissions (which is largely due to the burning of coal by China). This approach has several major advantages over conventional proposals.
The conventional proposals bet the future of the planet on our ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions fast enough. But what if we can’t? It may be easier to scale up the biotechnology to compensate for CO2 emissions than to scale down industry.
The conventional proposals rely on compliance by all major industrial countries. There will probably be some cheating. China may not even go along. If we use biotech to compensate for CO2 emissions, then it may not matter who cheats or doesn't go along.
The conventional proposals risk a reversal in worldwide development. After all, that may be the price of reducing CO2 emissions. A decline in living standards is possible, and that could lead to food shortages, disease epidemics, and other problems.
The conventional proposals put the main burden on developed countries. Given that most of the world sees economics as a zero-sum game, the real motivation may be redistribution of wealth. Using biotech to compensate for CO2 emissions subverts demands to redistribute wealth. (In fact, if the U.S. undertakes the bulk of the effort, then we should demand reimbursement from the United Nations.)
The conventional proposals call for switching from proven fossil fuels to unproven "green" technologies. For example, we don’t even know the cost (whether in dollars or environmental impact) of converting tens of millions of automobiles from gasoline to electric batteries. Using biotech to compensate for CO2 emissions delays the need to switch to alternative energy sources.
The conventional proposals call for research in a set of favored technologies, but ignore other routes to the same destination. For example, why not pour research funds into making nuclear energy production and waste disposal safer and developing new ways to scrub automobile exhaust? If that works, then we should invest in developing more cost-effective ways of extracting oil from shale.
In contrast, the development of biotechnology to compensate for greenhouse gasses could empower us to better control our environment over the long-haul. We could dial up when we need more compensation and dial down when we need less. By keeping existing pollution controls in place, we might be able to compensate for any increase in greenhouse gasses without further damping industrial activity.
Biotechnology is already delivering benefits in other areas and promises much more. Developing biotechnology for absorbing CO2 will surely lead to other discoveries and inventions. We may even learn along the way how to use biotech to produce clean fuel.
If we really need to act on climate change, then it would be much wiser to focus on proactive solutions like growing more topsoil than reactive solutions like scaling down industrial activity and switching back to more primitive sources of energy such as wind.
UPDATE December 21, 2009:
Nathan Myhrvold, former Chief Technology Officer for Microsoft, has proposed another alternative that may not require downsizing industry and marching backwards. (Though his company presents it as a "backup plan" in case reducing emissions doesn't work fast enough.) Myhrvold's scheme is to pump sulfur particles into the stratosphere, increasing the percentage of sulfur particles by just 1%. Doing so would reduce the amount of the sun's heat that reaches the ground and lower atmosphere. Because volcanoes do the same thing naturally, we know that it's safe.
Tuesday, December 15. 2009
1. The larger government grows, the more corrupt it becomes.
2. The easier a law is to pass, the harder it is to rescind.
3. Any law that claims to protect rights that already exist will actually diminish those rights.
4. All new laws passed "for the common good" are actually for the empowerment and enrichment of politicians.
5. Laws enacted to help one group always harm everyone else.
6. All good things the government says happened thanks to regulation of commerce happened for other reasons.
7. Any development in science or industry that the government claims to have planned was going to happen anyway.
8. When politicians call industries or executives greedy, it means the politicians want a bigger piece of the action.
9. Citizens who oppose new legislation are always portrayed as villains.
10. Governments do not grant freedoms; they only take them away.
Sunday, December 13. 2009
The individual is under attack from all directions. Students are instructed to work in groups. Businesses urge employees to be good team players. Politicians lecture us to serve our country, give back to our communities, and be our brother’s keeper. The media has discovered so many victim groups it’s hard not to identify with at least one.
Despite the abject failure of communism and the welfare state, our once free society is becoming increasingly collectivist. We are told that we must consume less, have fewer children, and pay higher taxes—all for the common good. I can’t help but notice, however, that the politicians who are most adamant about citizens’ duty to give are themselves often on the receiving end, living like billionaires at taxpayers’ expense.
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against cooperation or charity. I simply reject the charge that when we do things for ourselves we are being malicious.
Collectivists just don’t get it. In the pursuit of their own ambitions, individuals often do more for society than the most devoted altruists. It’s often the renegades who make the great discoveries and produce the great inventions. When Harvey Feigenbaum began writing about the use of ultrasound to examine the heart, none of the established medical journals would publish his papers. Nor would the journals publish Willem Kolff’s articles about implantable artificial organs. Society told them they were wrong—they knew they were right.
In future posts I’ll profile some of the greatest individualists and how they bucked the trend in education, science, business, and the arts.
Thursday, December 10. 2009
We are inundated with doublespeak. "The Fairness Doctrine," "The Campaign to Put Patients First," and "Net Neutrality" are just three examples. The people interested in reviving the "The Fairness Doctrine" are trying to curb free speech--not protect it. The goal of "The Campaign to Put Patients First" (by an advocacy group that calls itself "The National Health Council"--yet another example of doublespeak) is to further empower politicians and government bureaucrats--not patients. Likewise, "Net Neutrality" is a government power grab based on false accusations and scare tactics.
Advocates of Net Neutrality say that government regulation is desperately needed in order to preserve the Internet. Never mind that the commercial Internet has been evolving without the benefit of such regulations for over 20 years. Never mind that the Internet is a classic example of a self-organizing system. If Net Neutrality advocates were truly committed to preserving the Internet, they would seek first and foremost to preserve its unregulated and self-organizing nature.
An excellent White Paper by Barbara Esbin of the Progress & Freedom Foundation was brought to our attention by Scott Cleland's Precursor Blog.
As Esbin details, the arguments for Net Neutrality depend heavily on assertions about what broadband ISPs will supposedly do in the future. There's no evidence that broadband ISPs are slowing or blocking content today in the ways alleged, and there's no viable business model for them to start doing it tomorrow.
Why would some companies support Net Neutrality? Because lobbying government officials is competition by other means. Companies tend to look at government regulations purely in terms of how the regulations affect their business model. If you look closely, you'll see that companies supporting government regulations often have reservations. To wit, they want the regulations applied to competitors, while they claim special exemptions.
Thursday, December 3. 2009
My soon-to-be-published book tells the story of how today’s amazing medical technologies were developed, how they work, and how they are likely to evolve over the next several years. There are thirteen chapters on topics including the microscope and the birth of modern medicine; x-rays and computed tomography (CT); diagnostic and therapeutic ultrasound; magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and nanomedicine; diagnostic and therapeutic nuclear medicine; heart rhythm management; replacement tissues and organs; hospital networks, telemedicine, and mobile healthcare; laser eye surgery; and dental technology.
The book fills the gap between the simplistic explanations often found in newspaper articles and the jargon-laden, highly mathematical descriptions found in textbooks. For example, the chapter on MRI begins with the experiments in the early 1900s that forced scientists to accept the theory (quantum mechanics) that for atoms (and smaller particles) energy, mass and even spatial orientation come only in discrete packages. The chapter proceeds to I.I. Rabi’s discovery of how to make the nuclei of atoms flip from one discrete orientation to another—an effect known as nuclear magnetic resonance. Gradually, physicists such as Erwin Hahn learned how to make atomic nuclei dance in unison, emitting faint but detectable signals. In the 1970s, investigators Raymond Damadian, Paul Lauterbur, and Peter Mansfield—each working independently—began using the signals to construct images of the inside of the body.
The book is primarily about the researchers who uncovered fundamental scientific effects and the inventors and entrepreneurs who exploited those discoveries. Over the next few months, I’ll post highlights from each chapter. What follows are select questions and answers concerning some of the big picture issues.
Weren’t the biggest gains in average lifespan the result of public sanitation rather than modern medicine?
At first glance, this appears to be true. It’s easier to prevent disease than to cure it, so measures such as water filtration, street sanitation, and quarantining those with contagious diseases proved extremely effective. However, public sanitation wasn’t firmly embraced until the germ theory of disease gained acceptance. It would be fairer to say that medical research explained why public sanitation is necessary and how best to go about it.
Are expensive medical tests over-prescribed?
Many people feel that physicians over-prescribe expensive tests to protect themselves against malpractice lawsuits. No doubt the third-party payer system and large malpractice awards influence physicians’ judgment. However, considering how important early detection of disease is to effective treatment, most people would benefit from periodic screening. Instead of reducing the number of medical tests performed, we should focus on reducing the costs of routine screening.
As medical technology advances, doesn’t it become harder for consumers to participate in their own health care decisions?
As technology advances, it typically becomes more accessible and user-friendly. The first computers were very expensive, room-size machines. Now, personal computers are a common household item in developed countries. In the future, there will be more diagnostic tests that can be performed at home, and more online health care services. For the first time, consumers have the ability to create and maintain their own personal health records.
Isn’t government better qualified to conduct medical research than the private sector?
People tend to believe that the private sector is only concerned with near-term profits. History suggests otherwise. For example, oil magnate John D. Rockefeller had a tremendous positive impact on medical research. He didn’t just give money away and wash his hands of it; he used the same business skills that enabled him to acquire tremendous wealth to manage his philanthropic endeavors and ensure that they met ambitious goals. In addition to founding the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research, John D. Rockefeller started an organization that eradicated hookworm disease in the southern U.S.
What amazing medical technology developments can we expect next?
There isn’t room here to talk about all of the solutions under development. I want to briefly mention one area about which I’ll have more to say later. Nanomedicine promises earlier detection of diseases and more targeted therapies. Later, nanotechnology may play a major role in repairing and replacing damaged tissues and organs. Nanomedicine also offers opportunities for enhancing human performance.
How will health care delivery evolve over the next decade?
Health care in the United States is becoming increasingly bureaucratic. Physicians are herded into large group practices. The Food and Drug Administration decides what medicines we can take. Insurance companies pre-certify hospitalization.
Expect a growing number of people--in an effort to circumvent the bureaucracy--to take a more active role in managing their own health care. Personal devices will help people stay healthy (such as daily activity monitors); manage specific medical conditions (such as glucose monitors); and access medical information while mobile (such as iPhone applications). Consumers will rely more and more on online resources. The ultimate tool for managing your own health may be the (now available) personal health record.
Next time: The hidden world
(Page 1 of 1, totaling 6 entries)
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