Solving the transporter’s problem

Image of a transporter from Star Trek™ (Copyright by Ex Astris Scientia 2013)

Image of a transporter from Star Trek™ (Copyright by Ex Astris Scientia 2013)

One of the biggest problem with creating an actual transporter is data, too much of it. I have heard a lot of stories about how much data it would take to send a human flying from one end of the world to another is miliseconds. Anything from hard drives stacked from here to the moon up to hard drives stacked from here to the centre of the galaxy (I’m guessing the latter was quite a while back). In order to send the data anywhere fast you’d need a data stream of over a metre wide. Not much in our world, gigantic in data streaming terms.

Luckily we can decrease this stream in a number of ways. First you could use smaller wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum (e.g. use X-rays instead of ultraviolet light). trouble is that small wavelengths do not travel through optic fibres, you’d need dedicated satellites to send the data to another transporter. Also small wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum damage living tissue so you wouldn’t want planes flying trough it for instance.

Instead of going to smaller wavelengths you could also increase the carrying capacity of optic fibres. A new technology promising to do this is a technology that twist the beam of light into a vortex this enables you to send more signals at once through the cable. This allows for a speed currently clocked at 2,5 terabits per second  (your internet connection is measured in megabits per second, which is a million times less then terabits). It’s so fast you could stream an entire blue-ray film in a fraction of a second. Actually you could stream about 7 in that second.

There is, however, another way to decrease the data you need to send. Just send less. When physicists talk about a transporter they want to send information about every atom in your body to the other side of the world so you get an exact copy of yourself where you want to go. It would however be smarter to only send the most important information and let the computer extrapolate the rest. We’d want our brains to be scanned very precisely because the connections brain cells make are vital to make you who you are. other parts are less important (e.g. the exact place of a certain blood cell in the body which changes constantly.)

When we start looking at the biochemistry in cells we see that we all share a lot of molecules among all humans. From the relative position of molecules we can even deduce their current state (active or not). So instead of transmitting that you have a protein containing iron 4 nitrogen atoms carbon atoms etc. and their relative place you just transmit haemoglobin whether it is carrying oxygen and it’s orientation in the cell. The computer on the other end will just make a haemoglobin molecule, a huge saving in data. Especially if you consider that we are full of standard proteins. Even if they aren’t it isn’t a problem. A more basic building block of the protein is the amino acid. So you can just send the amino acid sequence and orientation, still a time saver. Same goes for DNA which basically can be described by four letters A T G C a string of these letters is basically enough for a computer to know how to sequence the entire DNA in your body. orientation and nearby proteins give an indication if the DNA is being copied, at rest or curled up ready for cell division.

If we would send data in this manner we could save a lot of bandwidth making it possible to actually transfer the data to another transporter in a second and without a metre wide beam. Downside would be that on a cellular level you wouldn’t be exactly the same. Some proteins might be in a slightly different place then in your original body but you wouldn’t know the difference or be able to tell the difference without an immediate scan on a molecular level.

It might sound crazy to do this. It is however a trick we have learned from our own brain. A brain, when compared to a computer, is extremely energy efficient (it burns about 25W/h) and yet has functions no computer can replicate (conscience for instance). It does this by hard-wiring basic assumptions into our brain. We are, for instance very adept at recognizing faces. So adept even that we recognize two symbols, :), as a smiling face. We are even so good at recognizing faces that we can’t even see what side of a mask is the front and what side the back. By using this and many more short cuts the brain can use it’s relatively limited resources more effectively, devote more resources to more pressing matters.

It could even be a breakthrough in medicine. Missing an arm? just deduce how it should look from the DNA and the bodies proportions and you’re ready to go. Rare genetic disease? Filter out faulty genes and proteins and replace them with good ones. Got HIV? Just filter out the Virus’s  RNA. It could even be used to prevent ageing! Every ER might be equipped with a transporter to fix any medical emergency you sustain. There might not even be anything beyond the ER.

The holodeck: Neural interface

In the last few weeks I have examined a few technologies that could function like a holodeck. Today I’ll examine the potential of the neural interface a hypothetical matrix-style technology.

A neural interface is a device that links directly to and interacts with your brain. Werther via a direct connection like in The Matrix or via a non-invasive method, the neural interface promises to be the ultimate holodeck experience even if it seems a little scary as well.

for a realistic holodeck experience you’d need three things. The first is that the computer understands what the hell you are trying to do. That your brains signal for turning left is actually translated into a left turning movement. with a tried and tested method like EEG this can be done today even if it is a little rudimentary and not quite exact. Luckily the brain can adapt and learn and increase efficiency of EEG based controllers (the brain waves the machine reads become more distinct when using it regularly.

Though EEG has been able to give us basic control of computers they are limited. The EEG only reads general brainwaves but does not have the resolution required for the fine motor control you’d need to play a first person shooter for instance. A better bet might be a fMRI. The fMRI measures the blood flow to the brain. The more blood flows to a certain part the more active it is. The fMRI has the advantage that it can measure the entire brain not just the outer layer. The fMRI also has the potential of being way more accurate then an EEG. Downsides to the fMRI are that it works with magnets and thus needs to be shielded from the rest of the world (unless you want to pry the cutlery from the wall each day.) Also the fMRI is the size of a small room and gets bigger if higher resolutions are required though advances in nanotechnology might decrease the size eventually.

A third method would be by inserting a network of small sensors into the brain capable of reading brain activity on a smaller scale then EEG. Downside to this obviously is that you’d need brain surgery with all the risks of complications. We’d even be able to let brain cells directly interact with the chips if we want to.Don’t worry about needing to plug cables into your spine though. These chips would probably be accessed via a wireless technology.

Second thing you’d need is that the computer output is translated into sensory input again. The easiest way to do this is just using current technology. TV’s, headphones, speakers, vibration in game controllers are all designed to translate computer output into sensory input. Trouble is that even the best of these are not realistic. Even advanced simulators are clearly not real.

Luckily we don’t need our senses to create sensory input because all sensory input is processed in the brain. And in the brain alone can we make sense of what our senses detect. By directly stimulating the brain you can create false sensory input. In effect you create the holodeck within your head. experiences gained this way would be indistinguishable from real experiences (except maybe for the fact you are able to fly of course.) Again there are basically two ways of doing this. Invasive or non-invasive.

The non-invasive methods work by stimulating your brain either via electricity tDCS or magnetism TMS. They work by activating your neurons so that they start firing signals to other neurons. In this way you can trick the senses into seeing, hearing and feeling things that are not actually happening. One thing to worry about though is whether this would create a double image so that you’d not only see the ‘holodeck’ image but also what your eyes actually see. (I imagine that you could get quite sick from a double input quite quickly not unlike seasickness.) The viability of either system as a sensory input device is quite questionable as well. Can we actually fire individual neurons in the right pattern? Can we penetrate the brain deeply enough to create realistic input? Because they are non invasive you need to penetrate the brain from the outside which is quite tricky as you can imagine and currently TMS and tDCS can only stimulate large parts of the brain (in terms of brain tissue even a cubic millimetre is a large part).

The invasive method is quite easy (in theory at least): you just hook a chip to the sensory nerves leading to the brain. When you activate your holodeck you just shut off the real input and replace it with the computer images. In practice it is a little trickier of course. It would require cutting the nerve and attaching the chip to each individual cell. Something which is impossible with current technology.

The third thing you’d need is temporary paralysis. Though this may sound scary it is actually already build into our brains. It’s function is to prevent us from acting out our dreams and thus putting ourselves into dangerous situations. Cases are known in which people attack or have sex with their spouses in their sleep because of a lack of sleep paralysis. The sleep paralysis could easily be activated be tDCS, TMS or by implanting a chip and may even be the easiest to accomplish in our neural interface holodeck.

In conclusion I can say that if a holodeck based on the neural interface will become a reality it is still a long way off. Even if the technology was invented tomorrow to do it practically we’d still lack the knowledge of how the brain actually works to manipulate it so precisely. It sounds scary but would basically be an on demand dream machine. In the case of implants based on wireless technology hacking would be a real concern however.

The holodeck: Exoskeleton

An impression of a personal simulator based on the exoskeleton technology

An impression of a personal simulator based on the exoskeleton technology.

In the coming weeks I will examine a few technologies that could function like a holodeck. Today I’ll examine the potential of the exoskeleton as a holodeck replacement.

The exoskeleton is essentially a robot which you strap to your body. It applications are vast, most noticeably helping you lift heavy loads with ease and people currently in a wheelchair will be able to walk again. It is even predicted that we will all be wearing exoskeletons within the next fifty years. Next to those great promises we can see entertainment applications as well.

If you program the exoskeleton to provide resistance, mount it on a base which can turn on two axis, an arm to simulate list, an awesome sound system and put on 3D/ holographic goggles et voilà you have a personal simulator which fits in a room (see my ‘awesome’ Photoshop impression). For the first time in gaming you will actually feel the weight of the sword in your hand as you slay your enemies, be in the cockpit of your F1 car or at the bridge of the USS Enterprise. The sensors in the exoskeleton would eliminate the need for any other input device. Just grab the sword and you are ready to slash your enemy or take a hold of the steering wheel of your favourite car etc. You can do anything you want as if it was real.

As the systems of the exoskeleton itself get smaller you could add more functionalities to increase the experience. You could for instance add a sense of hot and cold, a sense of touch or a sense of smell. The easiest to incorporate would be hot and cold so it is likely to be added first. Smell is a little harder, because it would require some plumbing to get the smell near your nose. Touch over a large portion of the body is hard to do. It would require a lot of sophisticated output devices, not in the last place because our sense of touch is pretty sophisticated.

This system though being an awesome gaming system would first see military and commercial applications. The military would use it for training soldiers and preparing missions. Commercially it could replace the simulators now used to train pilots and captains. The biggest advantage for this system is that you can change the layout of the flight deck/bridge by loading a different program instead of having to build a new simulator which costs millions. It’s small size is a big advantage as well. Although if you have a larger space you could opt to simulate G-forces making for a more realistic experience. This in turn giving the crew an even better chance of surviving in the event of an emergency.

The biggest problem at the moment is that an exoskeleton is very expensive (although you can hire one for $590 or €460 a month). The technology required is still pretty much in it’s infancy and they are not yet mass produced. Also I do not know of anyone developing a system like this for entertainment purposes at the moment. However, if we really will walk in exoskeletons all day is only a matter of time before somebody will.

Most exclusive burger

First lab grown burger. (copyright Reuters 5-8-2013)

First lab grown burger. (copyright Reuters 5-8-2013)

About a month ago I wrote an article about the drawbacks of traditional farming methods and the drawbacks of organic farming. One of the solutions to the problems of meat production would be to grow the meat in the lab. Instead of needing an entire cow you would only need muscle and fatty tissue. (and blood vessels if you want to grow anything else than minced meat).

As you don’t need any organs, skin bone structure etc. you’ll save a lot on the resources. It is projected that it would save up to 40% from the traditional methods and when you need 15.000 litres to grow a kilo of beef you can imagine the savings you’d get. Greenhouse gasses are even reduced up to 90%.

Growing meat in a lab is quite a challenge as you might imagine and has eluded us in spite of decades of research. Today, however we had a worlds first: The first lab grown burger. It cost about €250.000 and could do with a little bit more fat for juiciness and flavour but overall it tasted all right. As you can imagine it might still take a decade more before it will be commercially viable. Growing an entire steak is even further out.

Lab grown meats biggest problem is it’s image. A lot of people might have a problem with Frankenmeat at first. I however project that eventually people will come round to this as they have done to so many artificially created products (The introduction of car and rail road weren’t smooth sailing either yet we wouldn’t think twice about using them today). I think that over time people will start to prefer artificial meat to natural one because of animal cruelty and health risks (mad cow disease for instance).

Vegetarian mc2 Burger. (copyright De Vegetarische Slager)

Vegetarian mc2 Burger. (copyright De Vegetarische Slager)

Lab grown meat isn’t the only contender to replace meat in the super market however. Vegetarian products are getting better and cheaper by the day. One producer of vegetarian products even claims to have made a product that is indistinguishable from beef which he also presented today. It looks the real deal if nothing else and with a price of €2,89 per two is a lot cheaper. However if the selection of vegetarian products in my local supermarket is an indication it will not get close to real meat by a long shot.

Anyway if you want to get your own lab grown burger you can buy one today for just €200.000 because of better production methods.

Love sex marriage

Marcelino Rapayla Jr. 2009 (CC BY)

Marcelino Rapayla Jr. 2009 (CC BY)

There is a danger for human kind. Robots! This might be the plot line to a bad 50’s science fiction film with killer robots. I, however, am talking about the dangers of love. When robots get more and more human-like we will find it easier and easier to fall in love with them.

You might find it impossible to believe we can fall in love with robots but even today we have a small group of people in love with objects. Some bought a sex doll (a life size doll which looks and feels ‘real’ and is anatomically correct) while others are in love with even stranger objects like cars and the Berlin Wall. They are only the (sometimes slightly crazy) forefront of what we’ll eventually all succumb to.

We humans are naturally talented at what psychologists call personification. We attribute animals and inanimate objects with human emotions and behaviour. We feel our pet understands us better then our partner, we scream at our laptop when it isn’t working and we try bribing our car into starting on a cold winters day. And if we can scream at a computer we can easily fall in love with a robot which has actual human traits.

The problem is that robots will be better then potential human partners at seducing someone. They will be a superstimulus for us. A superstimulus is an exaggerated stimulus. An artificial stimulus (for instance by a parasitic species) that is not natural to the species. When humans fall in love we feel it is our perfect match. More realistically it is a close match but not perfect. When the initial love wears off we start to see things that bother us about the other. A robot however will not have these faults and be a perfect love compliment to your own.

A perfect love compliment is different from a ‘perfect lover’ Disney style romantic comedy type of guy/girl. We are not all waiting for the romantic, sweet prince(ss) on a white horse. If you are a bit of a rebel you’ll want a rebel lover, if your a bit dominant you’ll want a lover that is a bit submissive. If you love to travel, you want a traveller. The robot will exactly compliment what you want in your dream man or woman.

You don’t need to program it either. It will learn everything about you via advanced data mining algorithms and find a personality to compliment you. This works better because there usually is a (big) difference between what we think we want and what we actually want. Data mining is a process in which large quantities of data are analysed. It is used for instance on social media to personalize your ads so you are more likely to buy the advertised products or on Amazon to show you products you are more likely to buy.

In science fiction they argue people will eventually prefer the real love of a human above the artificial love of a robot. Their argument is that because you know it is not real it will feel inadequate and cannot be a true substitute for ‘real’ love. Good sentiment but totally false of course. We see it for instance in massive multi online games in which people feel the loss of a digital sword they worked hard for as real as if they actually had that real sword and lost it. We are in the end just animals reacting to stimuli, real or not. Our brain might distinguish between the two on a cognitive level but on an emotional level it cannot.

And so, when everybody has a robot lover we will stop reproducing and eventually die out. Extremely happy, but still. Only thing that could save us is via artificial insemination one way or another. The thing we luckily have going for us is that humans, as any other species, has a natural instinct to reproduce offspring.

organic and traditional farming, a choice between two evils.

Image by Photoeverywhere.co.uk (CC BY)

In this post I’ll ask you to choose between two evils. Do you want organic grown food or do you want your food from the traditional industrialized farm? Although some make organic food out to be the only way forward there are some significant downsides to it as well.

First the problems with the more traditional farms. They use a lot of pesticides, artificial manure and other chemicals to increase the yield of their crop and promote growth. Large area’s of land become a monoculture with only one race of plants. Hurting biodiversity and putting our food sources at risk of diseases.

On the other hand we have the organic farms. They are free of pesticides use natural manure and rotate crops to keep the soil healthy. The downside is that the yield per acre is lower. You simply need more space to feed the same amount of people. And there are some indications that this gets worse as more farmers turn to organic farming because pesticides from other fields can’t contaminate the organic fields and indirectly protect the fields of organic farms. We already cut down a lot of tropical rainforests in favour of the food production. If we were to turn to organic food as a solution for the masses we might as well say goodbye to the rainforests now.

The problems are worse in both industries when we take into account the animal farming. In the traditional farms animals don’t have a lot of room and the number of animals kept in one place promotes disease. To maximize production growth hormones are added to an already high calorie diet. To make sure animals aren’t getting sick they use loads of antibiotics. This decreases effectiveness of antibiotics in general and brings with it the very real danger of antibiotics becoming useless. Resistant bacteria are already creating major problems in hospitals around the world.

In the organic farm animals get more room, get a more natural feed and take a longer time to grow. Though this is great for the animals it also means that you need a larger farm for fewer animals. And since the feed is organic as well you get a compound effect of space required needed to get a same amount of meat. Also the impact on the climate per animal is higher due to their more natural diet. Though there is a decrease in the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) this is made up by an increase in the amount of methane (CH4) and laughing gas (N2O) they produce which are more powerful greenhouse gasses and therefore have a greater net impact on the environment.

The biggest trouble with meat industry is the enormous amount of resources it requires. To produce a kilo of beef you need 9 kilograms of food and 15.000 litres of water (20 pounds and 4000 gallons respectively). The difference between these is negligible between both industries. They just require huge spaces of land to be sacrificed to produce the meat we eat. Though pork and chicken have better returns it still is a huge demand on the fresh water supply and the food chain.

The best thing would be if we would eat less meat. And some initiatives like the meat-free Thursday could have a major impact if widely adopted. The trouble is that we don’t want to eat less meat, on the contrary as more people can afford it the consumption will only increase. This is because we are programmed to eat meat and like it because meat used to be scarce. Also eating meat is a status symbol, it signifies you are wealthy enough to eat a more expensive type of food. If that is not bad enough there is a psychological phenomenon at work. The not in my backyard phenomenon. Most people think we should eat less meat as a whole at least if it doesn’t affect us personally. When it threatens to affect us personally we will resist the change.

So if the standard farm isn’t good and the organic industry isn’t a good alternative what should we do then? We’ll combine the best of both worlds. You see this in greenhouses. They reduced the number of pesticides needed to grow tomato’s and paprikas to almost zero in the Netherlands by using insects to fight pests that can destroy the crop while they can still use artificial manure to increase the yield of the harvest. This can be implemented relatively easily around the world. In the meat industry test are ongoing to see if antibiotic use can be lowered by adding garlic to the diet because it has antibiotic properties. Results so far are optimistic.

A solution for our meat problem could be insects. They require relatively little water and food to grow when compared to chickens for instance, let alone pigs or cows. Insects have also been eaten traditionally around the world as a source of protein. The trouble is that as people get wealthier they start to favour meat too insects. In the Western World it is even worse as the eating of insects is considered unacceptable. A solution could be grounding it up into burgers and rebranding it.  The eating of imitation crab became acceptable when we started calling it surimi. By grounding it we don’t need to be reminded of the origin which is a plus for most consumers who rather don’t like to be reminded that their beef came from a cow either.

Another solution could be the use of algae as a basis for the animal feed. In contrast to soy and corn it can be grown anywhere provided you can get water there and it is highly nutritious. Algae can be fed using the manure from the animals in effect recycling the waste. At the moment algae farms cannot compete with soy just yet though, being a factor ten more expensive. This will be overcome when it is produced on a larger scale or when crops start to fail more often due to more extreme weather patterns as a consequence of global warming.

A last solution, still far off is just growing the meat we need. When we eat beef we mostly eat muscle tissue with a bit of fat. The rest, organs, bones and less desired meat cuts, are pretty much waste products. Wouldn’t it be great if we could only grow the bits we need? This is exactly what researchers are trying to do. Only grow muscle tissue in large vats and eliminate a lot of unnecessary waste products. It will be years before we actually get to this stage however. Currently it costs an enormous amount of money to grow a small piece of meat which isn’t even tasty either. When we do however, we will see new types of meat hitting the shelves. Fancy a roast of lion perhaps?