Elysium and the Transhumanist Movement

I finally got around to seeing Elysium, and while I was slightly disappointed with the highly transparent story arc, I still greatly appreciated the story; enough to overlook its evident flaws. District 9 helmer Neill Blomkamp does a wonderful job yet again using film to provoke vigorous debate and the asking of important philosophical questions. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the audience who would not be able to draw parallels to current political positions related to health care, and access to services deemed in many parts of the world to be a human right.  But is Blomkamp’s world even a possibility? I contend that it is, simply by way of understanding current trends in the fields of life-extension science and biotechnology.

The Transhumanist movement is a group of scientific thinkers and philosophers whose goal is to merge our biological limitations with the aid of technology in order to increase life-span. Silicon Valley billionaires have flocked to fund the Transhumanist movement out of curiosity and fascination, but also to reap the potential profits from the fruit of its scientific discoveries. According to a wonderful piece in the  Daily Beast entitled The Immortality Financiers: The Billionaires Who Want to Live Forever roughly $80 Billion is spent annually on anti-aging science despite limited breakthroughs.

Larry Ellison, the billionaire behind the Oracle corporation says “death makes me very angry.” This is a common belief held in Silicon Valley these days, as Ellison alone contributes roughly $40 million annually to the scientific mission of “understanding lifespan development processes and age-related diseases and disabilities.” He is not alone, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, Russian oligarch Dmitry Iskov, and Silicon Valley big-whig Peter Thiel all contribute billions collectively to Transhumanist science projects.

Take Iskov in particular, who launched the 2045 Summit. The year 2045 is borrowed from famed futurist Ray Kurzweil’s prediction of the “Technological Singularity,” or the moment in time when our bodies will be fully merged with super-intelligent technology, likely granting us biological immortality. This is a seriously held belief by many in the tech community, including Google’s Sergey Brin, who last year hired Kurzweil to begin advanced research on artificial intelligence on behalf of the search giant. While advanced AI, or artificial general intelligence (AI matching and exceeding human-like intelligence) is super profitable insofar as a search engine business goes, it is also useful for life-extension biotechnology. And so Iskov, and his ilk are determined to fund advanced artificial intelligence research through the 2045 Summit, most notably with their Avatar Project. They also plan to research the implementation of mind uploading, brain scanning and advanced biotechnology procedures aimed at finding biological immortality.

Back to Elysium for a moment. Much of the research I just discussed was actually present throughout the film. Advanced artificial intelligence-powered machines scanned the wealthy Elysium citizens for any signs of disease, curing the ailment on the spot. All citizens of Elysium had computer implants, which identified their citizenship status, as well as all of their collective thoughts and memories. Bio-hacking was a common crime, and anti-theft software was written into implants in Elysium citizens bodies. By all means, the wealthy space-colonizing citizens of Elysium had witnessed Ray Kurzweil’s “Technological Singularity,” and were presented in the film as biologically immortal, provided they were not killed by non-natural causes.

But surely this isn’t a realistic goal on the part of Silicon Valley billionaires, you may say. Surely the thousands of computer scientists and medical professionals researching life-extension science and Transhumanist technologies are only pursuing an unlikely scenario. Many do believe this, and so they look at Elysium more as an allegory for modern American health care than a warning for the future of Transhumanism. However, anyone who keeps up on current peer-reviewed literature in biotechnology and Transhumanism can tell you otherwise. There are actual instances where computer devices have delivered medication, scanned internal organs and have aided in sensory perception. Only recently, a lab-subject with a brain implant was able to control a remote helicopter, using only their mind! We are slowly beginning to merge our biology with technology with great scientific understanding. And while 2045 may not be the point where it all comes together, we cannot say for sure that it won’t any more than it will.

Many folks who support Transhumanist science, such as myself, take issue with the exclusivity of the Transhumanist movement. While TED Talks and websites like Singularity Hub offer those of average means an insight into the movement’s scientific and philosophical discussions, it is in practice much more exclusive. Take for instance the opportunity to study and understand the science behind Transhumanism — at Kurzweil and Google’s Singularity University. How wonderful a chance to study and learn about the science of tomorrow, but it will cost you; five-figure tuition rates to attend ONLY ONE WEEK of discussions and lectures at the university. That amount of tuition for one week at Singularity University is the same as the cost for the entire semester of full time study at the nation’s most expensive university, NYU. So the most profound discussions and science of the movement are learned by only those wealthy enough to afford to acquire such knowledge.

But still, you may say that the science being learned by these attendees, mostly executives and wealthy individuals who seek to invest in such technologies, could still benefit humanity. That is what I hope, and maintain to a degree. But this assumption still requires further consideration. If individuals of modest means cannot fully participate in the discussion or science of Transhumanism, they should at least stand to benefit from it. The way we can do this is by making the discoveries unearthed available in an open-source, communal, collective-patent environment. Current medical patent law helps to provide investors with the exclusive rights to scientific discovery. As a result, companies that develop life-saving technologies and medical treatments often keep the cost incredibly high to profit from their investment. As a result, life-saving technology is often too expensive for many to afford. However, it doesn’t need to be this way.

In a famous TED talk, patent expert Ellen ‘t Hoen noted that patents should be reformed, and can be reformed while maintaining profit, and conforming to ethics. Using the example of AIDs researchers in India, she noted that doctors were able to pool collective patents to reduce the cost of AIDs cocktails in that country. The cost fell from $10,000 per patient to $60 per patient! In 2010, the World Trade Organization along with UN Aid, proposed such an international organization on collective patent pooling from her and others research. The way it works is inventors and companies register a patent in their respective nation, but then also register the patent in the international Medical Patent Pool. From the patents available in the MPP, the World Trade Organization then licenses out to whomever needs access to those patents and pays royalties back to the owners. The result is to allow for greater peer-reviewed research on a for-profit and non-profit level, along with access to generic alternatives that significantly drive down cost, all while promoting further scientific discovery and research.

The problem of course is that this patent pool is still a voluntary program. And so despite its existence, there is nothing to suggest the billions currently being invested in, say, Transhumanist science, would ever see the fruits of its scientific discovery entered into the Patent Pool. The result would be incredible life-expanding technology, but only at a very high price.

A great example of life-saving technology is the BRCA-1 gene-test for pre-disposal to breast cancer. Prior to a recent Supreme Court decision, a single company held a patent on genetic testing for the disease. As a result of their medical monopoly, they priced their service very high, at around $5,000. Most insurance companies ruled the procedure a “preventative measure” and thus often failed to cover the expensive test. And even if you do shell out the $5,000 on your own and find you are at a %60 chance of breast cancer, your insurance company will also be unlikely to pay for the $50,000 preventative surgery. At the end of the day, insurance companies will be likely to rule future life-saving technologies as optional “preventative care.” So we must operate under that economic assumption going forward. We must make the idea of affordability the center of the debate for any future medical technologies.

Thankfully in the interim the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that a company cannot patent genetics, since this is something naturally occurring. This resulted in the patent for BRCA-1 testing being removed, likely to result in lower cost for screening. However, modified, or coded DNA, cDNA is still available for patent. And it is cDNA which will likely prove most valuable to the bio-technologies of the future. It is cDNA that Transhumanists hope will unlock the keys to the human brain, allowing for the types of mind-uploading, brain implants, and Elysium-style scanning to occur in order to prolong life and even prevent death. It will likely be necessary for a further judicial battle to determine what is “natural” in this sense in order to understand whether cDNA should also be patent-free.

Thankfully, most Transhumanists are of the progressive mindset. They pursue these technologies because they believe they owe it to humanity to do so, as they truly and adamantly believe death is something we can and should overcome. But their belief does not preclude them from being liable to those who invest in their beliefs. Unless medical patents for Transhumanist science and research is made available for communal research, the outcome of a world like Elysium is entirely possible. Investors likely would want to maximize profits, and restrict access to care. They could make much more by not entering the Patent Pool. And so if progressive-minded Transhumanists truly want to have the greatest effect on humanity, they must begin to take Blomkamp’s Elysium very seriously. If people are to afford to have such technologies available to them, and not only the wealthy, we must encourage Transhumanist research to be entered into the Medical Patent Pool.

Thankfully, many findings are widely shared and published in an academically friendly manner. If we as transhumanists, or even people interested in the future, are to consider the most equitable outcome, we must continue to do so. Furthermore, as the medical portion of this research becomes a reality, we should continue to have ethical discussions on Patent Law and collective patent pools. The only way we can prevent the Singularity being like Elysium versus the utopia its proponents hope it will be is by having these philosophical debates now. And that is what Elysium by and large is, a philosophical debate  about a future we can prevent. And the only way we can prevent such a future is by encouraging debate and reform in the present, long before 2045.


A Message to the Millennial Generation

A Message to the Millennial Generation

In the 1930s, the United States of America and the world was thrust into a Great Depression. For up to a decade after, millions would struggle to find jobs, honest wages and move on with their lives in comfort.

In 2008, over a decade of living beyond our means, much like in the 1920s, resulted in another financial crisis. The result has been much the same. While there may not be any dust bowls, there are certainly millions going through the same struggles.

No where is this struggle more apparent than for the Millennial generation, or those of us born 1980-1995. We came of age during great American prosperity and technological innovation. We witnessed the age of the Internet and taught our parents how to use a keyboard. We saw record stock market growth and soaring home purchases. And then it would all come crashing to the ground.

As a result, Millennials more than any other generation in the past (apart from Depression era) are struggling to begin their careers. Most of us live with our parents, work part-time if we are lucky and usually sans benefits like health insurance. Economists have come to call this generation of kids graduating during the Great Recession “the lost generation.” Defined by delayed careers, over-education, perpetual low wages, debt and increasing cost of living and credit.

And of course to say this is only applied to Millennials is silly, because there are many older folks struggling too, but not like this. A whole entire generation of young, smart kids with dreams that fade as the days go by. Just getting by is a struggle, let alone getting into a career you want.

And so I write this in dedication to the “lost generation,” because I am not the only kid who is lost right now. Many of us are, and it’s OK. I have never struggled and been so unhappy in my life, but I know that I am not alone.

The one thing that made the Great Depression a bit more bearable was that American’s came together. Complete strangers helping one another, spreading kindness and support in whatever way they could. There was still this belief in American exceptionalism, that they would get by. And so that generation spread love and kindness and support to their fellow man in a bid to overcome.

And so I write this as a message to my generation, our generation, as a way of lending support to all who struggle like myself. We will get through this. We will overcome, but only if we work through this together. So spread kindness, support and help each other. Go out and love somebody and tell them how much they mean to you. Send a message of encouragement and be the bearer of good deeds. We do not need to be defined as the lost generation, and it all starts by helping one another to see the light in order to be found.

Why I Prefer Mad Men to Breaking Bad – How We Choose What we Watch

As Breaking Bad enters its final season tonight, I found myself almost relieved given this relentless, often silly rivalry. I’ve had this argument with close friends who swear to me that Breaking Bad is better than Mad Men. But I am not interested in who is better — for me, I find Mad Men to be the better of the two shows, but that is entirely subjective of course. And where all else is somewhat equal between the two (the writing, character development, sub-plot construction and over-all plot development) I find Mad Men overall more appealing for one reason: It’s a world I actually like going to every Sunday night.

When we choose to watch a show or a film, we are externalizing the internal. A well-written, well constructed show or film leaves us with a certain impression from its collective efforts. When we sit down during prime time, we are sitting down ready to go on a journey. We travel through these elaborately constructed worlds through the lens of various characters. The more elaborate the characters and the world, the more we are able to externalize the internal. Both shows do this extraordinarily well. And it is because both of these shows do this so well that I come to prefer Mad Men.

Mad Men is set on Glamorous 1960’s Madison Avenue and pristine mid-century suburban New York (and LA too). Despite all the flaws of Don Draper, men want to be him and women want to sleep with him (I know I do). The advertisement agency provides a brilliant tool to be able to excavate social controversies of the time as well as it provides for intimate character dynamics and social hierarchies. As a woman, I also find myself rooting for Peggy Olsen because she represents this determination that was so rare for women at the time, she is an inspirational character in that sense. And so every Sunday, I find myself fascinated by this simple, yet extraordinarily complex world. I find myself excited to return to that 1960s NY glamor, in spite of all its inner ugliness and exclusionary atmosphere. In a sense, it is like being admitted every week to a highly exclusive club, and to be apart of this hierarchy if for only an hour a week. And so, I find myself enjoying the journey through this world, because it is relate-able and also a lesson in recent history that makes us who we are today.

Contrast the world of glitz and glamor of 1960s New York with contemporary and rather boring New Mexico. The world is so average, it is practically un-inspiring. And that is the brilliance of Breaking Bad, it is almost too real in a sense.  And it is the fact that it is too real, despite its near ridiculous premise, that leaves a bad taste in my mouth every time I watch it. Every week we are treated to the sinewy world of drug addicts, their destructive path and the criminal enterprise that caters to them. We feel for Walt, because of the decisions he has been led to make, but despite being an anti-hero he’s also a really horrible person. I personally don’t like journeying to this world of unforgiving violence and abject failure. I don’t feel comfortable watching the way good people are led to kill out of desperation.

I feel so much more with Breaking Bad than I do Mad Men, and on some levels that’s what makes it a better show to some, but not for me. It is not externalizing the internal the way I want it to. I don’t like traveling to this world every Sunday the way I do Mad Men, because it leaves me with an uncomfortable feeling. I don’t like the characters, nor would I ever want anything to do with them. And if you’ve ever seen Requiem for a Dream you will know exactly how I feel when I watch Breaking Bad. Sometimes things are just too real, and for me I watch film/TV to escape reality, especially when its a subject like that covered in Breaking Bad.

On many levels Breaking Bad is a better show to some because of just how much it externalizes the internal. It is no doubt an amazing show, one of the best in recent history. But for me, I prefer Mad Men, and that is because of the world covered versus that of the world in Breaking Bad. I don’t enjoy watching a show where people are killed in horrifically violent manners for a subject (drug addiction) I prefer to avoid. I have seen drugs devastating effects on former friends, family and often enough in the news that I don’t need to watch a whole show dedicated to that seedy underworld. And so when I sit down to choose a TV show or film, its not just because of how well done a show is but whether it is a journey I want to take — Breaking Bad is a journey I would rather avoid. And so that is my preference, and you may take it with a grain of salt.

How to Effectively Protest the NSA

More and more revelations have come to light in the wake of the initial June NSA revelations on Verizon’s metadata monitoring. These revelations in many instances have been much more serious, including Project X-Keyscore, which allows the NSA to monitor and store specific language used in private online communications. Yet, following Congresses failed attempt to reform loopholes that have allowed the NSA to exceed its Constitutional authority, most Americans have stopped paying attention to the program.

The media has more recently focused on vague al-Qaeda threats than Project X-Keyscore. More often, the media seems to use subtle language to suggest support for the Obama administration’s use of surveillance as a tool for counter-terrorism. When the debate is framed according to counter-terrorism, there is more support for the NSA. The problem is the media fails to adequately cover NSA stories where the vast majority of instances include monitoring that has no specific counter-terrorism purpose. When the debate is framed without the terrorism moniker, the public’s support has been shown to dwindle substantially.

Largely a result of media negligence, the public is poorly informed on the NSA issue. Controversial products like Microsoft’s Xbox One, which has grave privacy concerns, sold out of its pre-sale quantities. The American public largely has no clue just how serious the NSA issue is. And so most Congresspersons who failed to vote in favor of reforming the Patriot Act will likely be re-elected as Americans forget the NSA as a serious election issue come 2014.

Further compounding the ignorance issue is the Grass-Tops versus the Grass-Roots of political lobbying. In the words of my cousin, a top political consultant, and owner of a major advocacy company on the Hill which specializes in “Grass-Tops” lobbying: “my 20 guys will out-do your 20,000 on any issue.” What does he mean? He means that getting 20 people a particular Congressperson will no doubt listen to will trump 20,000 people shouting for that Congressperson to act. Companies pay my cousin up to $15,000 just to get a single person of influence (think a former campaign manager) to talk to a Congressperson into voting NO on reform. My cousin’s paid persons of interest $15,000 just for breakfast, at the Whitehouse none-the-less. HOW CAN YOU COMPETE WITH THAT?!

You can’t. So how do we effectively protest the NSA, when most people are ignorant of its operations; the media isn’t keeping a watch over its harmful actions; our Congresspersons are bought; and grass roots is political bull shit…

We have to make a grass-tops organization that will fight the NSA. What do I mean? I mean getting people of influence and money to be on our side. Who? Think Silicon Valley types who do not want to turn over this data (Steve Jobs refused back door to NSA). Think people in creative industries, like Hollywood, that can invest in films on the topic and drive a major creative campaign against this behemoth of an organization. If Hollywood could change public opinion on homosexuality and Aids, think what it could do with the NSA. On the campaign side, make and fund creative fear-based ads that scare the populous against voting for anyone who would support ‘1984’ by voting against reform of the NSA. Fear-based and negative ads work, that’s why there’s so many. On the lobbying side, donate to organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is a highly respectable niche-lobbying effort that has challenged the NSA in Federal Court.

We need to outspend our adversaries on this issue. We who seriously fear the NSA do not have the mainstream media on our side, we have a simple majority that voted NO to reform. We need to understand the way politics works, and stop believing that encouraging debate from the grass roots alone is going to change a thing – its not.

We need to continue to work from the grass roots, but not exclusively. Its time for Google and similar companies to support their ethics and protest. Stop turning over data, continue to obstruct in the name of civil disobedience. Companies and wealthy tech-titans and individuals need to start using their cash to support lobbying efforts that support Patriot Act reform. Hollywood needs to start making films about this issue (I have 5 projects with fully developed themes on the issue, I’m sure other writers do too).

Just like the Civil Rights Movement, we need to get mad as f***ing hell about this state of affiars — our RIGHTS are being abused. Right now we’re not nearly mad enough.

So how do we effectively protest the NSA? By creating a Grass-Tops advocacy campaign, and convincing those 20 influential people to speak for US not the NSA. It’s the only way. We need to start seriously putting  money and influence into this issue, grass roots isn’t going to get it done alone. And while my cousin’s firm won’t lobby for NSA on principle, others will. So start supporting firms that will lobby against the NSA, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation. They’re out there and ready for business, desperate for financial resources. It’s time to start fighting back. And I know there’s folks out there who are big enough to turn the grass-roots into the grass-tops. Keep talking about the NSA, and why its bad, but its time for institutions and individuals to put their money where their mouth is.

The Endangerment of Informative Programs on TV

The 26th Shark Week just kicked off this week with a “documentary” on a gigantic prehistoric shark, Megalodon. Following a record 4.8 million viewers, the documentary was criticized by fans of the channel’s special for being a fraud. Of course Megalodon has been extinct for 1.5 million years, but that didn’t stop Discovery Channel from airing the documentary as a fact-based account of the species continued existence. To educated viewers like myself, it was clearly a fake, I turned it off after 15 minutes in disgust. But to many, it was real. And this is a serious problem. Because today ‘The Learning Channel,’ ‘The History Channel,’ and ‘Discovery’ networks are no longer about teaching anything. They have pursued easy money with profitable programming at the expense of saying something new.

When I grew up, I was always a big fan of the Discovery networks. I had a mock-science lab in my basement and frequently found myself watching shows on TLC about violent storms or the Universe. I was drawn at a very young age to programs that informed me in an entertaining and fascinating manner. Even the History Channel at the time was heavily geared toward documentaries; fascinating ones on the untold stories of the American Revolution or Robert Ballard’s historic mission to the Titanic. Today as an adult I still retain much of what I learned from these programs.

Now, today’s youth are treated only very rarely to informative documentaries. Instead, History earns most of its money from reality TV, as do TLC, Discovery and even Animal Planet. There is no incentive to spend millions of dollars on a documentary when these networks can invest minimal amounts of money into a reality program which often has nothing to do with the networks vision or purpose. TLC has ‘Honey Boo Boo,’ not awesome weather documentaries. Discovery has one of four or so ‘Hoarders’ shows, not exotic documentaries of forgotten worlds. History has the original Pawn reality series ‘Pawn Stars,’ not anything on our nation’s past. Just like Hollywood, TV has also just copied other networks high-concept ideas, similar to the clone films I mentioned in a previous post.

Unless the powers that be change things, we will have no outlet for educational programming on traditional TV. I do believe Hollywood will start to become more creatively diverse, and I have long maintained faith in that industry to reform itself out of economic necessity (and given 2013 performances, I’m hoping sooner than later). But TV is entirely different. There is no financial need for it to creatively reform itself, there is no bubble growing in that industry. Unlike Hollywood, it doesn’t cost $50-$150 million to put out a single product. As mentioned, reality TV is super cheap. And as long as people keep tuning in, TV networks will keep spitting them out.

So what is the more sophisticated TV viewer to do? Buy a Netflix Streaming subscription. Their informative program libraries have increasingly made up for what TV refuses to put out. Additionally, their original programming is fantastic, and is geared toward sophisticated audiences; something modern TV (outside premium channels) fails to do. The internet has made up for where traditional TV has lacked.  Creativity and informative programming is alive and well, you just have to know where to look for it — and TLC, History and Discovery isn’t where you are going to find it.

The Apple Can do Everything Crowd Needs to Pipe Down

In this week’s Variety, there appeared an article proclaiming yet again that console gaming is dying. Without any numbers to prove this assumption correct, they then proceed to proclaim that Apple will be it’s replacement. Of course they must know consoles are nearly sold out in pre-sales nationwide. They probably just wrote the article to generate controversy and get clicks. But the issue here is not so much the “gaming consoles are dying” argument, but the “apple can do everything” argument.

When people start talking about all the things Apple should get into, they fail to consider whether Apple would even be good at doing any of these things. Apple is a brilliant and innovative company, no doubt. And I’ve even played some games with incredible graphics, like Real Racing 3 on my iPhone. The problem is most of these games get boring after a while because they lack substance.

Mobile gaming cannot compete with console gaming because mobile gaming  doesn’t have the hard drive capacity to compete. In these epic games like Skyrim, the generation of highly detailed scenery even features crawling ants on grass blades! And for that amount of detail, graphics, and most importantly, a rich story line within that world, you need MAJOR storage capability. The engines that run these games are massive. Also, these games are running on Blu-Ray (Sony) or standard discs (Xbox), so the HD space is really not being used much; it’s the disc that operates in conjunction with the console. Mobile devices are storing many things at once, not just basic apps and game data. A PS3 has a stock 120GB hard drive in addition to operating a Blu-Ray disc (which holds more data than a standard disc). Your standard BATTERY POWERED iPhone has 16G (4G devoted to the OS) — that’s barely enough to run a glitch free game of Tetris!

For mobile games to even compete with console games, they first need to address storage and also battery issues. Instead of focusing on how Apple could compete with consoles, the genius that wrote the Variety article instead goes off on some tangent on how an Apple TV could take advantage of new WiFi technology to offer a comparable experience via gaming over TV through iPhone. WiFi has nothing to do with it! It’s all about storage, and overall quality of the experience. And writing that Apple is working with controller developers when it doesn’t even offer removable storage options strikes me as complete BS. It would require a bulkier iPhone, and they would never do that.

In concluding my rant, when I was around 5, my mother told me not to talk about things which I know nothing about because that’s ignorant. She told me to be open minded, and then I would learn new things. The problem with the “Apple can do everything” crowd is that they are technologically unsavvy fanboys who fail to realize that even Apple can’t do it all. Folks who advocate for everything in one ecosystem fail to realize what that ecosystem would even be like (here’s a hint, it would suck). These folks are the same folks who unknowingly advocate the same logic as those who advocated for communism. They are basically saying, why have Sony make games when Apple could just do it all. This is logically the same as saying: why have this clothier make your shirts when Stalin could just do it all. I don’t want Stalin making me shitty cheap shirts any more than I want Apple making me watered down shitty games.

The future holds many great new technologies. Battery power and hard drive capacity on small devices will continue to increase. But even when they do, futurists and technophiles alike need to still remember that no matter the technological possibility, some are better at one thing than another. That’s why we have capitalism and not communism. Technological progress works best cooperatively. We should not advocate for any one-man show that favors our brand preferences. That would be tantamount to technological communism. And I for one don’t want that crap, especially when I know I can get better.