Monthly Archives: December 2012

The Biotech Revolution — Will It Be Televised?

HealthThere’s a new tech revolution on the horizon and just like the fun gadgets we all love to play with so much today, this one is going to change our lives dramatically. In fact, this revolution will impact our lives far more than the current silicon tech revolution.

But you don’t hear much about it really. Bits and pieces, stories, show up on the internet, on our televisions, or we hear about them on Science Friday on NPR, but then they vanish back into the information matrix of the planet and we forget about them.

I think the reason for this is twofold. The first reason is typical of our mass media and its gnat-sized attention span, and unfortunately, the equally limited ability many of its reporters to grasp the science fully and what the new R&D could mean.

The second reason is simpler: We’re terrified.

Okay, there have been a lot of positive developments in medical biotechnology starting with the discovery and development of insulin, up to the recent use of neutralized HIV viruses to infect T-cells re-engineering them to successfully attack leukemia cancer cells.

There are machines being developed now to custom-print a replacement for a broken bone, and ones that can create bespoke drugs fitted to a patient’s genetic profile. There is even a new technology to grow organs, again specific to one patient, on specially built “cell scaffolding.

But this isn’t the reason we’re all a little nervous. All those developments will help us live longer and (if we can just figure out how to bring out current planetary resource needs ratio down closer to 1:1) that doesn’t sound too bad.

But there are, of course, other sides to all of this tech development. The cost of DNA profiling has dropped dramatically over the last ten years. This, of course, means that health insurance companies, as well as the government will probably want your complete genetic profile — in order to protect you, of course — within the next 20 years.

And, if we can grow organs, why not whole humans? Although most Americans will be turning and running full speed away from that idea (except for cloning their pets which seems to be an ongoing obsession) you can bet that some North Koreans are thinking about how they could bring back their Dear Leader.

Speaking of mass mind control, what about all the new brain research coming out? We are closer and closer to finding the answers to dementia, but once we find them, why not just prescribe drugs and therapies so that people can maintain their intellectual activity level and not have to suffer any slowdown? (And these reinvigorated seniors will of course want to keep working past age 65, way past.)

We’ve even been able to build machines controlled solely by our minds. This development is creating a huge opportunity for patients with paralysis, and those with “locked-in” syndrome may soon be far freer than we could ever have hoped. (In the Only in Japan category, this technology was immediately put to good use by creating a “cat ears” headset that reflects the wearer’s mood. Not cat-earssurprisingly, they are very popular.) One researcher has even asked to begin recording Stephen Hawking’s brainwaves for research purposes (kind of like a 21st century version of analyzing Einstein’s brain.)

But if we can read brainwaves and translate them into machine actions, couldn’t we also alter people’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors?

I’ve been a science fiction as well as science fact reader for most of my life. One of the most challenging things for a science fiction writer to do is to project from current trends into the future. Many SF writers have commented over the last 20 years that it is hard for them to keep up with the speed at which technology of all kinds is developing. But those who do venture into the uncharted territories of our biotech future come back with some amazing discoveries.

One short story that has stuck with me for many years (and my apologies — I cannot seem to track down the author) involved a mother at home late in the evening with her two daughters. The younger daughter was complaining loudly that she did not want to go to bed, that couldn’t she stay up a little longer? The mother insisted that no, she couldn’t, she needed her sleep. So the little girl went to bed and the mother continued on some work she had brought home from the office. And her older daughter continued her studies. All night until morning. The human need for sleep had been eliminated for adults and older children. As well as the need for dreams.

I think that’s why we are not talking about the coming biotech revolution as much as we should be, and why we are terrified. But we really need to start talking. Soon.

Thanks for stopping by,

Heather McC

PS. For a fun romp around the future including some of the ideas above — at least according to Popular Mechanics — check out their recent article, 110 Predictions for the Next 110 Years.

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Water Tech Wizardry

Clean WaterIn many fantasy stories, certain chosen individuals get special powers over various elements, usually fire, air, earth, and water. We are paying plenty of attention these days to the powers of fire (including nuclear power both weaponized and not, blowing things up with all sorts of explosives, and other sorts of combustion), air (all that carbon floating around), earth (farming, land-use, preservation, fracking), but water always seems to be the last element on the list.

But those old stories (as well as some new ones) are  hitting new nerves and some part of us is recognizing that taking care of our water sources is essential to our continued survival. And new kinds of magic are happening in our ultra-modern world.

One of the continuing frustrations of working in developing countries is that a charity will often go in, dig a well, install a pump, and then leave. A few years later the pump is broken and the people are no better off than before the charity arrived. Now, another solution is now on the horizon: smart pumps. Taking the communication even further, another group is developing a way for residents to call in the broken pumps via mobile phone.

Water_CanaryBut as the best myths and stories always tell us, the magical solution is really in the people. I’ve been hoping this next organization will get off the ground soon but it’s not quite there yet. Still, if Water Canary succeeds (or even if it hands over the reins to another organization who can take the idea forward), it will mean a huge step in the global care-taking of one of our most important resources. By crowdsourcing the testing of local water sources (giving individuals cheap, effective testing materials) relief organizations, governments, and people can work together to identify clean water sources and, at the same time, warn residents away from contaminated sources.

With the help of some technological wizardry, people across the planet are gaining access to clean water, and also learning to take care of this magical resource.

Thanks for stopping by,

Heather McC

Getting Smart about Food

When I first started putting together this blog I referred to my second indicator as simply “Food.” But after writing the initial post, I had to change it to “Good Food” as I realized that unless you are in an emergency famine situation and there is no other alternative, sending massive quantities of rice, wheat, and corn to developing countries is about as good an idea as stuffing Americans full of donuts, potato chips, pizza, and drinks laden with corn syrup. (If we’re looking for clues to the global obesity and related diabetes epidemics, there might be a few there.)

Recent news stories have been (in typical panicky media style) focusing on projected food deficits and the need for a second “Green Revolution” to increase the quantity of global food production. More food needs to be grown, the experts seem to be saying, and more land needs to be more productive.

We don’t need More Food. What we need is Better Food and Better Education (We also need Better Distribution. Much of the world’s food simply gets wasted through either inefficient systems or outright corruption both in the developed world and in the developing world. But that is a subject for another blog!)

At a recent Hunger Project gathering in New York, John Coonrod summed up our misunderstandings bluntly, pointing out that one thing both the developed and the developing world have in common is that, “We are all stupid about nutrition, rich and poor!”

The predominant theory across the planet still seems to be that there’s not enough quantity but fortunately there are more and more people out there advocating for quality.

You can watch this short series of discussions sponsored by the BBC on how to eliminate poverty to see one particular person, Vandana Shiva, a scientist and grassroots activist from India, explain how empowering small farmers (and not empowering large corporations) is a big part of increasing quality while eliminating poverty and hunger.

Trees_for_LifeIn Africa, the Moringa tree, found to be unusually rich in vitamins, is being cultivated in several countries providing a reliable nutrition source to stave off famine.

In the U.S., people are also questioning the large food companies and their methods, given the evidence of obesity rates climbing.

And there is a growing movement to simply grow your own which tends to be higher in nutrition. I am not the world’s best gardener but I have managed to grow a few tomatoes and some herbs this past summer on my small porch. (Maybe if we all grew one thing, there would be no “food deficit”?) This TED talk also sums up how small groups of people might be able to grown some of their own food, learn something about nutrition, and make their community a better place to live!

Like John said, we’re all stupid about nutrition, but it’s time to get smart!

Thanks for stopping by,

Heather McC