Tag Archives: science

New developments in stem cell research

In our post Breakthrough artificial egg cells we discussed the possibility to create egg cells from skin tissue. In that article we asserted that one of the main advantage of this development is the possibility to avoid surgery to collect egg cells from a woman. However, this procedure still require a biopsy.

But science, especially in the field of stem cell research, is making fast progress. According to the science daily scientists have succeed in harvesting stem cells from urine. The importance of this development is clear, taking urine samples is one of the most convenient medical procedures (from the prospect of the patient/donor).

If scientists can succeed in creating egg cells from urine stem cells, then egg cell donation will become as easy as sperm donation. Since urine samples can be collected everywhere, this also allows to circumvent strict laws against (commercial) egg cell donation which are enacted by some countries.

In my post Alternative for Abortion I discussed Robin Baker’s proposal for a new system of contraception. In this system people are sterilized at young age, while their gametes are stored ex vivo. However, this would involve two invasive medical procedures in case of women. The possibility of creating egg cells from stem cells extracted from urine, will make this system of contraception much more attractive

Embryo space colonization

Republic of Lagrangia endorses the colonization of our own Solar System, and of the Lagrange points of the Sun-Earth system in particular, before any attempt is to be made at colonizing other stellar system. Despite decades of scientific research, currently no feasible methods for interstellar travel do  exist. Besides the lack of means for interstellar space travel, our Solar System contains huge quantities of natural resources, which can be used by humanity.

Because there is no technology available for achieving fast interstellar space travel, proponents of interstellar space colonization have proposed several alternatives. The three most important ones are: generation ships, sleeper ships and embryo space colonization. In this post we will discuss the latter option.

The rationale behind embryo space colonization is simple: interstellar travel takes much more time than the average life span of a human being, but (human) embryos can be stored frozen for an infinite amount of time. This concept faces several technical difficulties, but we want to limit ourselves here to the sense of embryo space colonization.

An ESC program  would be an expensive enterprise, and especially if tax money is involved, such a project is in need of a good justification. What are possible arguments in favour of Embryo Space Colonization?

Arguments for the colonization of our own Solar System include, among others: the mining and exporting of extraterrestrial resources for terrestrial consumption, to create enough room for a growing world population, or the establishment of better societies for political dissatisfied terrestrials. None of these arguments applies to embryo space colonization.

Provided that an ESC mission can be completed successfully, the export of resources to Earth is almost out of question, for the same reasons that have led to the very idea of ESC: long travel times. (Paul Krugman has written an essay in defense of extraterrestrial trade, however we are still sceptical about it.) And how embryo space colonization can solve overpopulation on Earth, is everyone’s guess.

As far as we can see, the primary, if not only, reason for ESC is to ensure the continued existence of the human species. However, as we have argued in an earlier post the fact that at some point in the (distant) future our species might become extinct, is not something we should worry about. In contrast, we should care about the well-being of the currently existing population, which includes the possible evacuation of humans to space colonies in case of a global catastrophe.

However, the supporters of Scott Adams’s theory that the continued existence of the human species is required for the reconstruction of God, could argue in favour of embryo space colonization. In this view there’s reason for the survival of our species, which is independent of our particular interests. Though we might wonder whether we have any duty to help with the reconstruction of God.

Another argument which could be raised by proponents of embryo space colonization, is that this project would stimulate scientific research in several fields. The subsequent spin-offs could be used for the benefit of the current population. Well, the second part of this reasoning, is on itself enough justification of investing in scientific research, even without the prospect of embryo space colonization.

A few words on honorary degrees

We are working on a few posts dedicated to educational reforms for space settlements, but in this post we want to discuss the topic of honorary degrees. These are academic degrees awarded by institutions such as universities, which differ from ordinary degrees in that the usual requirements for such a degree (usually a doctorate) are waived by the awarding institute.

Ordinary academic degrees are awarded to students who have earned those by virtue of their studies and scientific research. But honorary degrees are awarded to people to recognize their contributions to society, and (too) often these supposed contributions are dubious, for instance in case of awarding honorary degrees to royalty. This is an issue, because honorary and normal degrees have exactly the same status. A person who has received an honorary doctorate, is fully entitle to call himself “Dr. X”, even if he have no other academic degrees.

The awarding of honorary degrees undermines the meritocratic nature of scientific academia. PhD students put years of hard work to research in order to earn their degrees, whilst an honorary doctors have done nothing of this. Though many universities award honorary degrees, there a few which do not as matter of policy. This includes, among others, MIT and Stanford University.

Therefore we propose that awarding honorary degrees and the use of such degrees should be prohibited by federal law. Instead of awarding honorary degrees, universities of space settlements should follow the example of the University of California by awarding medals to honor notable persons. Such medal could be called “University of X Medal”, but the recipients of these medals do not receive any academic titles.

Practical issues of space colonization: funerals in space

Today is the funeral of the younger brother of the Dutch king. It’s therefore a good moment to discuss the topic of funerals in space colonies. Since space colonization will not make man immortal, space settlers will die and hence proper funeral protocols has to be developed.The bodily remains of deceased humans are a health risk for the living. By burying or cremating human corpses, people are protecting themselves against the dead.

In space we have several option for the disposal of bodily remains. First, we can simply dump the bodies in space, thereby removing it from a space habitat. The benefits of this method are obvious, however by doing so we will lose valuable material. It would be better to recycle the bodies somehow. This will exclude but burial and immurement in space habitats as methods of disposal. Besides this methods also occupy a lot of space within a habitat.

A suitable method of disposal is alkaline hydrolysis also known as resomation. In this process the bodily remains are dissolved in an alkaline liquid, and gives:

The end result is a quantity of green-brown tinted liquid (containing amino acids, peptides, sugars and salts) and soft, porous white bone remains (calcium phosphate) easily crushed in the hand (although a cremulator is more commonly used) to form a white-colored dust. The “ash” can then be returned to the next of kin of the deceased. The liquid is disposed of either through the sanitary sewer system, or through some other method including use in a garden or green space. (Wikipedia).

Well, what would be better than to have a memorial park surrounding the funeral home? This would give the family and friends of the deceased a place to go to remember their lost ones. This video shows how resomation will work.

Another option is of course donation to science. Medical students need to dissect corpses as part of their training. After the students are finished with the corpses, these can either be resomated or preserved by plastination for future educational purposes.

Since the proper disposal of human bodily remains is a public health concern, it will be logical if the government of a space settlement will pay for the resomation of its deceased citizens. However, people will have to pay for their own funeral service.

See also:

Euthanasia and capital punishment

Dutch rabbi declares in-vitro meat to be kosher

According to Dutch rabbi Lody van de Kamp, in vitro meat is in line with the kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws. Earlier this week the first hamburger made of cultured meat was presented by the public, at this occasion is was announced that Google founder Sergey Brin was the chief sponsor of the project.

Mr. Van de Kamp also states that in-vitro meat might be a solution for the ongoing discussion about ritual slaughter in the Netherlands. Last year a bill aimed at the prohibition of ritual slaughter without stunning was the defeated in the Dutch senate, after having passed by the house of representatives. Surprisingly the rabbi also suggested that in the future, if stem cell can be made from DNA without harvesting of an animal, Jews can be allowed to eat pork.

Google co-founders funds in vitro meat

Today it was made public that Google co-founder Sergey Bergin has been the mystery backer of Dutch scientist Mark Post’s project to create the world first lab grown hamburger. On this blog we have discussed to importance of lab-grown or in vitro meat before. As we have discussed in another post:

The main reason why Musk might want a vegetarian-only colony, is that meat is a very inefficient method of producing food. For producing 1kg of beef you need 10kg of vegetable food for cattle. Especially in the first Space settlements this will be an important factor. After all, the early space habitats will be small and agricultural land will limited. Since humans can perfectly live on a vegetarian diet, it will be an easy choice for Space governments to ban the raising of livestock for food.

It will be an easy choice, because for every cow ten people can be fed. So by banning livestock Space settlements can sustain a population up to ten times larger. Since these extra people will have a greater economic value than livestock, Space communities can grow faster to full economic independence from Earth.

As we can see in the article on BBC News: in vitro meat will require only 55% percent of the energy used by, emits only 4% of the greenhouse gas emission of, and only 1% of the land occupied by traditional animal farming. Especially the last reduction, is important for early space settlers. By switching to in vitro meat, space settlers can save 99% of their land, which can be used for more important applications.

Although at this moment only meatloaf can be produced by this method, we have to consider that most meat consumption consists of processed meat, such as hot-dogs, hamburgers, pizzas and chicken-nuggets. And in vitro meat is especially useful for producing such meat products.

Since the method developed by Prof Post, allow 10,000 kilogram of meat to be produced from one single stem cell, it is no longer necessary to kill animals. The needed stem cells can extracted from living animals through a biopsy, a standard medical procedure. Because stem cells can easily be frozen, there is no need for importing livestock to space settlements from Earth. However, in the more distant future it would be advisable to have a small herd of donor animals, for reasons of food security.

Why racism is bullshit

The following YouTube video is about a white girl with blue eyes and blond hair born to… two black Nigerian parents without any known white ancestry. According to the scientist at the end of the video, there are about twelve in genes involved with “racial” characteristics, a rare mutation might radically change someone’s “racial” appearance. In other words, racism is utterly nonsense.

Artificial wombs and gender equality

Recently we did a post about the 21-hour work week, one of the arguments raised in favour of this proposal, is enhancing gender equality. By reducing working hours, parents of both genders would be enabled to a more equal share in the care of their children. There is no doubt that this idea would improve gender equality, however it is not enough. A fundamental obstacle to full gender-equality is pregnancy.

It’s a biological fact that only women can become pregnant, and unfortunately it is also a full-time job. Pregnancy has a huge impact on female physiology, especially at the later stages. Because of these inconveniences, working women who are pregnant has to decrease working hours or to stop working at all. For this reason, female employees are too often fired, not hired at all, or their temporary employment contract is not prolonged.

And this is only in case of one child, what if a couple wants to have more children? Young women often leave the labour force for a few years, when they are starting a new family. It’s obvious that this is detrimental for the careers of women. Too many women are giving up their ambitions. There should be a way for women to pursue both a career and a family.

As some regular readers might know, I am a great fan of artificial uteri. I have written about it before, albeit in the discussion of non-human animals. The technology would enable, if fully developed, the gestation of a human person outside the female body. At this moment it is not possible to carry out the entire pregnancy in an artificial uterus, only the final stages. But since the later stages are also the most problematic ones, many women would be helped.

No woman should be forced to use an artificial uterus. Some women will choose to be pregnant herself, other women will be glad to make use of this bright new technology. Also this can also solve another problem: sometimes a pregnant woman’s life by her pregnancy, in which case the pregnancy has to be terminated at the expense of the child’s life. For many parents this is a great nightmare. See this post for another possible application of artificial uteri.

In order to achieve full gender equality, any humanist government should encourage research to artificial uteri.

3D Printed organs: future or fantasy?

The Guardian has published an interesting article about using 3D printers for creating human organs. The idea is quite simple: if you have the required tissue types, the 3D printer is able to print the organ you want. Organs are three-dimensional structures, and because they are standardized, their structure could be stored in a computer file.

Combined with the ongoing developments in stem cell research, this technology might make organ donation obsolete by 2050. This is great news for space colonists, at least if they would need an organ transplant in outer space. If an organ needs to be sent from Earth, it would take months before it arrives at a space settlement in the Earth-Sun’s Lagrange points or in the Asteroid belt. Even if the organ would survive the transport, it might arrive too late for the patient.

See also

3D-Printing, a key technology for humanizing space

Manifesto part 3

3D-printing and space colonization

A review of “The Lights in the Tunnel” by Martin Ford

This post is a book review, the ideas discussed in the book reviewed here, do not represent the point of view of Republic of Lagrangia.

Science fiction is full of stories in which people design and build robots with the purpose of serving their creators, but in the end the robots revolt against humanity. Most of those take over stories picture a violent and often rapid overthrow of mankind. Actually these traditional take over stories are often nothing more than retellings of (real) slave revolts, with robots substituting for slaves. Not much people do think about a gradual and non-violent robot take over in our time.

However such a gradual and non-violent take over, is the subject Martin Ford’s The Lights in the Tunnel. Well, to be fair Ford is not writing about robots who feel being oppressed by their human masters and therefore decide to wage war on humanity, nor is his book about man being governed by machines. No, The Lights in the Tunnel addresses a rather serious subject: the economic consequences of automation.

Ford begins his narrative with a powerful analogy of how the mass market works. He ask us to imagine a tunnel, in this tunnel there are lights, each of them represent a person or a company. The intensity of these lights is measure of how much money they earn, when people or companies spend their money their lights will dim proportionally to the amount of money spent. Conversely when someone receives money, his light will become brighter. In a typical economy, consumers will buy stuff they desire, their money is transferred to the suppliers of these goods. In their turn the suppliers will pay their employees salaries, the latter become then consumers and so goes the economic cycle on. These streams of money transfers are represented in Ford’s analogy with the continuous fluctuations in brightness of the lights.

It does not matter for understanding Ford’s message, who gives money to whom. We have only to understand that employees are consumers, producers are employers. Consumers transfer money to producers, employers transfer money to their employees. This cycle, however, is not perfect. Some of the money earned by the producers, is “extracted” from the cycle as profits (some will, righteously, remark that producers has to pay their suppliers too, but this just another consumer-producer relation for the purpose of this model). Basically producers wants to maximize their profits, because this the primary reason to be in business in the first place.

One way to increase profits, is to reduce wages. But this also implies a decrease of purchasing power of the consumer. When the employee/consumer receives less income, he has also less to spend on goods and services. If employees as a class suffer from reduced wages, the producers of goods and services will suffer of a decreased sales. It is evident to everyone this becomes a vicious cycle.

But one may ask what this analysis has to do with automation and its supposed harmful effects to society. There are several ways to reduce the total amount of wages to be paid by a producer: first, one could simply decrease the salaries of the employees. This approach, however, suffer from several legal (minimum wage) and practical (trade unions) problems. Therefore a second alternative is more common, moving production to countries/areas where lower wages has to be paid. And the third manner is substitution of labor by capital (a technical term for machines).

Method 2 is known as outsourcing, method 3 as automation. It is not without reason that Ford made a clear connection between outsourcing and automation. Suppose you are an employee working and living in the USA, then it doesn’t matter whether you lose your job because your job is moved to India or that your job has become obsolete as result of automation. In both cases you are fired and left with no income to spend.

Basically this is the problem as presented by Martin Ford in chapter 1 of The Lights in the Tunnel.

In the next chapter Ford investigates the question whether automation can lead to permanent destruction of jobs. More precisely he asks whether in the year 2089 a significant portion of jobs currently performed by humans will be done by computers and machines. In order to answer this question he gives us an overview of the historical development of technology.

In particular Ford focuses himself on what is known as Moore’s Law: the fact that each 18 months the capacity of computers doubles. From this law, he argues that at some point in the future computers will be able to everything humans can do. The basic problem here, is of course that no one know for how long Moore’s law will be true. At some point computers cannot be made smaller, that’s a physical fact. This impose a theoretical limit to Moore’s law, but there might be an engineering limit to this law which might come sooner than the physical limit.

But the point Ford addresses is still an important one, computers are able to perform more and more tasks, which where until recently exclusive for humans. And when technology will continue to develop, computers will be able to do even more jobs. In general if a job can be performed by a computer or robot, it will be cheaper to buy such computer or robot than to hire a human employee. And as Ford has discussed in chapter 1, employers seek to maximize profits and hence they have an incentive to replace employees by machines.

So we can summarize Fords argument as follows: machines are increasingly capable of doing the same jobs of humans; corporations seek to reduce employment costs, therefore they replace human workers by machines; consequently more and more people will become unemployed. But if an increasing number of people lose their jobs, they will also lose purchasing power. So automation, according to Ford, will lead to less consumption, and decreasing consumption will cause an economic downturn. And if the loss of employment is permanent, a permanent economic crisis will be the result.

Then Ford pays attention to what economists call the “Luddite fallacy“. Economists generally rejects that technological progress will lead to systematic unemployment, instead, they argue that technological progress will create jobs. However, Ford argues that this faith of economists in the Luddite fallacy, is itself a fallacy. He argues that the conventional economists make two fundamental assumptions: 1. machines are just tools and 2. all human workers can become machine operators. According to Ford these assumption will fail if machines became workers. In that case (human) workers will be replaced by (robotic) workers, and human employment will decrease.

In chapter 3 Ford asks whether the transition as described in the previous two chapters will occur gradually. He beliefs the answer is no, instead he argues there will be a “tipping point”. During the first years unemployment will only grow slowly, but after a certain moment, the tipping point, unemployment will rapidly increase. According to Ford the danger is that during the period before the tipping point policy maker, economists and politicians will deny that anything bad is going on. But after the tipping point there will be a catastrophe. As an example Ford mention pay-roll taxes, if more and more people become unemployed they will be a huge reduction in revenue from pay-roll taxes.

For so far the doom thinking. What solutions does Ford offer?

In chapter 4 Martin Ford proposes a remarkably simple solution for solving the economic problems as sketched in the previous three chapters: a basic income guarantee. The idea is that, when people lose their jobs and therefore their income, whilst they cannot take just another job, they will receive a regular cash payment from the government instead. By instituting a basic income guarantee (BIG) the government will ensure that a minimal purchasing power is maintained and therefore that the economy does not collapses.

Of course Ford realizes that such BIG scheme has to be funded. In order to do so, he proposes that the government should recapture the wages which are lost due to automation. After discussing several potential ways to arrange this, he concludes to impose a consumption tax which would equal the amount which previously paid as wages. If for example wages are reduced by ten percent, the consumption tax should be raised by such percentage that the increase in tax revenue should be equal to the lost wages.

The reason why Ford opts for a consumption tax instead of other taxes, is simple: even if people do not work, they still need to consume. Further he argues that wages are currently part of the price of goods and services. Since automation will allow producers to lower the prices of their products, and still being able to increase their profits, raising the consumption tax will keep prices at the pre-automation level.

Ford states that the wage-compensating consumption taxes should be earmarked, i.e. they should be reserved for only the payment of the basic income-scheme and not general government funding.

An interesting feature of Ford’s alternative income scheme, is the concept of virtual jobs. Although every one should receive a basic income, Ford believes that strict equality is a bad thing. He argues that inequality motivates people to self-improvement, but how do we establish such incentives in a world without jobs? For Ford a job a set of incentives, a virtual job is creating an alternative set of incentives.

One of the incentives he wants to create is education. The better the citizens are educated, the better society as a whole will be. So Fords wants to stimulate people the pursue an education and to continue to learn by offering them a supplement to their basic income. Another area Ford suggest are community and civic activities, further he considers journalism as a candidate for virtual jobs (this one would be great news for bloggers). And finally he suggest to use virtual jobs for improving the environment.

The lights in the tunnel is a cleverly written book, full with interesting ideas and I would recommend this book to everyone; but there are a few critical remarks I want to make. First, though his “wage recapture” by increasing consumption taxes makes sense, it might not be the best way to fund the basic income and his virtual job program. In fact the government does not need to raise money to fund its activities, as we have argued in a previous post. As long as government created money can be used to pay taxes, people will accept this money. It would be better to replace all current taxes with, for example, a single energy tax: for every kilowatt-hour you has to pay, say, 10 cents in taxes or you will be cut off from the grid.

References

http://www.thelightsinthetunnel.com