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Jan 29, 2008

Cheap (tens of dollars) genetic lab on a chip systems could help with pandemic control

Posted by in categories: biological, defense, existential risks, futurism, lifeboat

Cross posted from Next big future

Since a journal article was submitted to the Royal Society of Chemistry, the U of Alberta researchers have already made the processor and unit smaller and have brought the cost of building a portable unit for genetic testing down to about $100 Cdn. In addition, these systems are also portable and even faster (they take only minutes). Backhouse, Elliott and McMullin are now demonstrating prototypes of a USB key-like system that may ultimately be as inexpensive as standard USB memory keys that are in common use – only tens of dollars. It can help with pandemic control and detecting and control tainted water supplies.

This development fits in with my belief that there should be widespread inexpensive blood, biomarker and genetic tests to help catch disease early and to develop an understanding of biomarker changes to track disease and aging development. We can also create adaptive clinical trials to shorten the development and approval process for new medical procedures

The device is now much smaller than size of a shoe-box (USB stick size) with the optics and supporting electronics filling the space around the microchip

Continue reading “Cheap (tens of dollars) genetic lab on a chip systems could help with pandemic control” »

Jan 28, 2008

Some Progress on Universal Influenza Vaccine

Posted by in categories: biological, biotech/medical

According to ScienceDaily:

The British-American biotech company Acambis reports the successful conclusion of Phase I trials of the universal flu vaccine in humans. The universal influenza vaccine has been pioneered by researchers from VIB and Ghent University. This vaccine is intended to provide protection against all ‘A’ strains of the virus that causes human influenza, including pandemic strains. Therefore, this vaccine will not need to be renewed annually.

InfluenzaWhat would make this new vaccine different from the ones already available is that it would target M2e, a conserved region of influenza “A” strains. Since that part doesn’t constantly mutate and about 2/3 of seasonal epidemics and all pandemics are due to type “A” strains, it could be a very efficient weapon against repeats of the “Spanish Flu” (1918−1919) that killed at least 50 million people worldwide. Only the future will tell if phase II and III trials are successful.

You can learn more about the Lifeboat Foundation BioShield program here.

Jan 25, 2008

On the brink of Synthetic Life: DNA synthesis has increased twenty times to full bacteria size

Posted by in categories: biological, biotech/medical, defense, existential risks, futurism, lifeboat, military, nanotechnology

Reposted from Next Big Future which was advancednano.

A 582,970 base pair sequence of DNA has been synthesized.

It’s the first time a genome the size of a bacterium has chemically been synthesized that’s about 20 times longer than [any DNA molecule] synthesized before.

This is a huge increase in capability. It has broad implications for DNA nanotechnology and synthetic biology.

Continue reading “On the brink of Synthetic Life: DNA synthesis has increased twenty times to full bacteria size” »

Jan 24, 2008

Is 2007 TU24 A Wake Up Call?

Posted by in categories: asteroid/comet impacts, existential risks, space

On January 29th, 2008 Near Earth Object 2007 TU24 will intersect Earth’s orbit at the startlingly close proximity of only 0.0038AU — or 1.4 lunar distances from our own planet. According to the resources I reviewed this NEO represents the closest known approach to earth until 2027 — that is of course assuming no more surprises like 2007 TU24 which itself wasn’t discovered until October 11th of 2007.

It seems to me that this is an assumption we can’t afford to make. It appears that 2007 TU24 is not going to strike the planet however it is possible that it will pass through a portion of earth’s magnetosphere. The repercussions of this transit can’t at this time be predicted with any certainty though they apparently range from no effect whatsoever to potentially catastrophic changes to weather, tectonic plate movement, the oceans and more.

Some might say that we’ve no need to be concerned — that this kind of near miss (and lets be frank here — in the vastness of even our solar system 1.4 lunar distances from earth is a near miss) is a freak occurrence. Don’t be so sure. Just one day later — that’s right, on January 30th it was thought possible — one might even say reasonably likely — that another asteroid will strike our second nearest celestial neighbor, Mars.

Recent updates based upon more detailed information about the path of asteroid 2007 WD5 have concluded that the odds of an impact occurring have now dropped to one in ten thousand making an impact exceptionally unlikely. However, it should be evident that our ability to identify objects less than 100 meters across is insufficient to provide us with enough time to do anything aside from evacuating the regions likely to be impacted by a collision with an incoming NEO.

More than one expert has come out and stated that NEO’s represent one of the most pressing potential mega-disasters threatening human — or even all — life on earth, yet this is a problem that could be solved within the capabilities of our technology. Between better early detection and development of a meaningful defensive strategy it is possible to protect humanity from this threat. All we need is the funding and the mandate from the people that would secure the resources required.

Jan 22, 2008

Cell phone sensors detect radiation to thwart nuclear terrorism

Posted by in categories: defense, existential risks, nuclear weapons is reporting that researchers at Purdue University are working to develop a system that would use a network of cell phones to track radiation in an effort to prevent terrorist attacks with dirty bombs or nuclear weapons. Tiny solid-state radiation sensors are already commercially available and the additional circuitry would not add significant bulk to portable electronic products.

The researchers tested the system and demonstrated that it is capable of detecting a weak radiation source 15 feet from the sensors. A fully developed system could cover a nation with millions of cell phones equipped with radiation sensors able to detect even light residues of radioactive material. Because cell phones already contain global positioning locators, the network of phones would serve as a large scale tracking system that would require no intervention from individual users.

Jan 13, 2008

Lifeboat Foundation SAB member asks “Is saving humanity is worth the cost?”

Posted by in categories: defense, futurism, geopolitics, lifeboat

In his most recent paper “Reducing the Risk of Human Extinction,” SAB member Jason G. Matheny approached the topic of human extinction from what is unfortunately a somewhat unusual angle. Jason examined the cost effectiveness of preventing humanity’s extinction due to a catastrophic asteroid impact.

Even with some rather pessimistic assumptions, his calculations showed a pretty convincing return on investment. For only about US$ 2.50 per life year saved, Matheny predicts that we could mitigate the risk of humanity being killed off by a large asteroid. Maybe it’s just me, but it sounds pretty compelling.

Matheny also made a very good point that we all should ponder when we consider how our charitable giving and taxes gets spent. “We take extraordinary measures to protect some endangered species from extinction. It might be reasonable to take extraordinary measures to protect humanity from the same.”

For more coverage on this important paper please see the October 2007 issue of Risk Analysis and a recent edition of Nature News.

Jan 13, 2008

Carnegie Mellon study achieves significant results in decoding human thought

Posted by in categories: neuroscience, robotics/AI

Newsweek is reporting the results of a scientific study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon who used MRI technology to scan the brains of human subjects. The subjects were shown a series of images of various tools (hammer, drill, pliers, etc). The subjects were then asked to think about the properties of the tools and the computer was tasked with determining which item the subject was thinking about. To make the computer task even more challenging, the researchers excluded information from the brain’s visual cortex which would have made the problem a simpler pattern recognition exercise in which decoding techniques are already known. Instead, they focused the scanning on higher level cognitive areas.

The computer was able to determine with 78 percent accuracy when a subject was thinking about a hammer, say, instead of a pair of pliers. With one particular subject, the accuracy reached 94 percent.

Jan 10, 2008

Poll: Top 10 Existential Risks

Posted by in category: existential risks

How would you allocate a hypothetical $100 million budget for a Lifeboat Foundation study of the top 10 existential risks… risks that are both global and terminal?

$?? Biological viruses…
$?? Environmental global warming…
$?? Extraterrestrial invasion…
$?? Governments abusive power…
$?? Nanotechnology gray goo…
$?? Nuclear holocaust…
$?? Simulation Shut Down if we live in one…
$?? Space Threats asteroids…
$?? Superintelligent AI un-friendly…
$?? Other
$100 million total

To vote, please reply below.

Results after 80 votes updated: Jan 13, 2008 11 AM EST

$23.9 Biological viruses…
$17.9 Space Threats asteroids…
$13.9 Governments abusive power…
$10.2 Nuclear holocaust…
$8.8 Nanotechnology gray goo…
$8.6 Other
$8.5 Superintelligent AI un-friendly…
$7.2 Environmental global warming…
$0.7 Extraterrestrial invasion…
$0.4 Simulation Shut Down if we live in one…
$100 million total

Jan 10, 2008

Sir Edmund Hillary, First to Summit Everest Has Died at 88

Posted by in category: habitats

The BBC reports that Sir Edmund Hillary, the New Zealand native who, along with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay of Nepal was the first man to successfully summit Mount Everest, had died at 88 years of age. Hillary was apparently injured this past April when he fell while visiting Nepal and the reports state that this injury contributed to a decline in his health that ultimately culminated in his passing.

While his fame was first and foremost as a result of his triumphant effort on Everest in 1953, he was revered in Nepal for his efforts to help the Nepalese Sherpas improve their access to medicine, education and other modern conveniences and his legacy will continue in the form of those edifices in Nepal that exist as a result of his work.

Sir Ed, as he preferred to be called, was also something of an environmentalist. Upon a recent visit to the base of Everest he was so dismayed by the condition of the mountain (as a result of the decades of equipment including things such as spent oxygen bottles and massive amounts of inorganic and thus non-biodegradable gear) that he called for a fifty year moratorium on permits being issued to attempt ascents on the peak. He called upon the climbing community to make an effort to repair the damage to the fabled crag by packing out the detritus that was scarring his beloved mountain.

While the passing of this great man has relatively little to do with the mission of the Lifeboat Foundation, it seemed appropriate to report on his passing simply because he demonstrated that with sufficient will even things that are seemingly impossible are well within the grasp of those for whom failure is not an option.

Continue reading “Sir Edmund Hillary, First to Summit Everest Has Died at 88” »

Jan 8, 2008

First Impressions

Posted by in category: futurism

I was engaged in a conversation the other day with someone about my new association with the Lifeboat Foundation and the opportunity that was presented to me to sit on one of the scientific advisory boards. Let me first point out that the person I was talking with is extremely intelligent, but has a lay person’s knowledge of scientific topics, and is generally unfamiliar with Singularity related concepts in particular.

I immediately realized the opportunity in associating with the organization, but still did some reasonable due diligence research before joining it. During the course of the conversation, I explained the goals of the Lifeboat Foundation. I also showed some of the current work that it is doing, and some of the people associated with it by randomly showing some of their biographies. However, when I presented leading biomedical gerontologist Dr. Aubrey de Grey’s biography, I was confronted with what was essentially an ad hominem argument regarding his trademark beard. I refer to this as an ad hominem argument because this person believed, without having previously seen or met Dr. de Grey, that his long beard was the sign of a large ego and that he was doing his cause a disservice by conveying a negative image to the public.

I do not personally know Dr. de Grey, nor do I know the reasons why he chooses to have a long beard. To me, the issue of his beard length has no bearing on the value of his work, and although I do not choose to wear a beard at the present time, I thrive on living in a world of diversity where one can do so. What I have gathered about Dr. de Grey is that he is a highly respected member of this community who has many important things to say. The situation was ironic because Dr. de Grey does research that relates to a medical condition affecting a member of this person’s family.

I know the point that the person I was speaking with was honestly felt, and that she believed Dr. de Grey could better serve his cause by changing his appearance. But unconscious bias is something that affects all of us to some degree, and it is a subtle, but insidious error in reasoning. Fifty years ago, in the United States, with a different person, this discussion might have been about the color of someone’s skin. Twenty-five years ago, it could have been about someone’s sexual orientation. It’s easy to see the errors in rational thinking of others looking in retrospect, but it’s much harder to find our own biases. I long to know what errors in thinking style and biases that I myself harbor now, and which will only be evident with a clearer perspective in the future. As such, I will continue to follow the Overcoming Bias web site to help me in my journey.

Continue reading “First Impressions” »