‘Artificial Biology’ at Singularity Summit 2010

August 12, 2010 by David Despain

Humans will one day defeat aging with AI, make death and disease relics of the past, regrow lost tissues and body parts as needed, control robot arms on another continent, unravel the complexities of cells, and in their spare time, save the world. At least that’s the hope of six speakers at Singularity Summit 2010 in San Francisco on Aug. 14 to 15: Ben Goertzel, Mandayam Srinivasan, Lance Becker, Ramez Naam, Ellen Heber-Katz, and Dennis Bray.

Building a “cell computer”

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On Saturday evening, computational biologist Dennis Bray of the University of Cambridge will guide a tour of the cutting-edge discoveries in microbiology and explain why our most sophisticated silicon devices can’t yet imitate life.

Bray argues that living cells are similar to complicated tiny computers, with a plethora of biochemical pathways and feedback loops. At the Summit, Bray will present a long list of design features for the creation of a “cell computer,” a model of the cell that could one day be instantiated in silicon. He expects it will “get some people in the audience thinking.”

Later the same evening, Bray will debate computational neurobiologist Terry Sejnowski of the Salk Institute on whether we will soon be able to reverse-engineer the brain and build devices with the human brain’s reasoning and learning capabilities. Sejnowski argues that “it’s already happening now,” but Bray told me he will challenge Sejnowski to prove “we really do know enough to achieve such a grand task.”

Speaker Info:
Dennis Bray, Ph.D.,Emeritus Professor, University of Cambridge
Talk Titles:
“Real Biology is Much More Complex than our Models”; “Sejnowski/Bray debate: Will we soon realistically emulate biological systems?”
Saturday 5:50pm-6:15pm; 6:15pm-7pm
Links of Interest:

AI-based antiaging

Ben Goertzel

On Saturday at noon, artificial general intelligence guru Ben Goertzel will reveal how his company, Biomind, and another company, Genescient, are collaborating to apply AI to understanding the differences between the genetics of an ordinary fruit fly and the genetics of the Methuselah fly, a proprietary strain selectively bred to live four to five times longer than normal fruit flies.

Goertzel will present data suggesting that only “a few dozen key aging-associated genes underlie longevity” in the superflies and will explain why this knowledge could pave the way for therapies that allow humans to also live longer.

(Let’s hope it doesn’t involve genes that transform humans into anything reminiscent of the movie The Fly.)

At the Summit, Goertzel will also make the case that humans are too limited to understand the full complexity of biology and will explain why the narrow focus of contemporary AI “just scratches the surface.” If we expect to finally be able to crack biology’s code, then we will need a humanlike AI with unlimited computational resources for solving problems in ways humans can’t—as Goertzel calls it, a “full-fledged, generally intelligent artificial biologist.”

Goodbye, all you narrow, not-generally-intelligent human biologists!

Speaker Info: Ben Goertzel, PhD, CEO/CSO, Biomind
Talk Title:
AI Against Aging
Saturday, 12:05-12:40 p.m.
Links of interest:

Reach out and touch something

“Have you ever felt like controlling something—on the other side of the world? Or have you ever wanted to fly an airplane using only your brain? Or walk on the moon—real walking, feeling, and touching—from the comfort of your own living room?”

On Saturday afternoon, mechanical engineer Mandayam Srinivasan will explain why those are more than fantasies. We will soon be able to extend our reach literally to any place on orout of this world: with machine haptics — user interfaces that enable your brain to perceive the shape, the weight, and the texture of virtual and distant objects through the sense of touch, he says.

Srinivasan also told me that he will discuss the future of creating virtual reality environments with different physical laws, like changes in gravity—do the movies Avatar or The Matrix come to mind?

Srinivasan, director of the Touch Lab at MIT, has led initial research toward development of a new brain-machine neural chip that can be implanted in a paralyzed patient to control artificial limbs through electrodes attached to neurons. Recently, in 2009, Srinivasan’s lab also developed the BlindAid interface for the visually impaired, to navigate buildings in virtual reality.

In 2000, the Touch lab took part in the first experiment to allow monkeys to control robotic arms 600 miles away over the Internet. In 2002, Srinivasan’s lab proved for the first time that touch signals could be sent across the Atlantic. “It’s similar to having a 3,000-mile long arm. Similarly, I can control a robot across the world or in space.”

Speaker Info: Mandayam A. Srinivasan, Ph.D., Department of Mechanical Engineering, Research Laboratory of Electronics at MIT
Talk Title: “Enhancing our bodies and evolving our brains”
Time: Saturday at 2:50pm-3:20pm
Links of Interest:

Bringing back the dead

On Sunday morning, Lance Becker, M.D., will explain how a growing number of would-be-dead people are now walking around like Lazarus, thanks to a new treatment he developed: therapeutic hypothermia, an intravenous treatment that use microscopic ice particles for speedy cooling after cardiac arrest.

Dr. Becker, a professor in emergency medicine at University of Pennsylvania, has led the charge for hospitals to adopt this technique. He explains that the “ice slurry” helps to delays damage to the brain and heart, giving doctors enough time to resuscitate a patient.

According to Dr. Becker, as medical scientists continue to understand more about death and how life-saving therapies like protective hypothermia that help people avoid it, we will eventually realize immortality.

Speaker Info: Lance B. Becker, M.D. Director, Penn Center for Resuscitation Science, University of Pennsylvania
Talk Title: ”Modifying the Boundary between Life and Death”
Time: Sunday, 10:40 a.m.-11:10 a.m.
Links of Interest:

How to grow a new arm

Could our ability to regrow body parts like salamanders be conserved in our DNA over evolution–only waiting for us to find out how to turn it on?

Immunologist Ellen Heber-Katz thinks so, and on Sunday morning will explain why regenerating tissue is a real possibility. Heber-Katz, who heads a research laboratory at the Wistar Institute, published a report last March on a breakthrough made while studying Murphy Roth Large (MRL) mice, a strain of mouse that exhibits remarkable regenerating abilities, like newts and salamanders.

“We have discovered a molecule that is directly related to this regeneration,” Heber-Katz told me, referring to a regeneration-inhibiting gene called p21. Heber-Katz’s research in the MRL mice found that when this gene is switched off, regeneration switches on.

Heber-Katz said she will be discussing p21 in mammalian generation in her talk, and other molecules involved in regenerating tissues. She will also discuss how developing drugs that pinpoint these molecules is the future of regenerative medicine.

Speaker Info: Ellen Heber-Katz, Ph.D.,Professor, Molecular and Cellular Oncogensis, The Winstar Institute
Talk Title: “The MRL mouse – how it regenerates and how we might do the same”
Time: Sunday 11:15-11:45 a.m.
Link of Interest: One Gene Lost = One Limb Regained

Redesigning the Planet

On Sunday morning, Microsoft’s Live Search Group Program Manager Ramez Naam will present a grand plan for dealing with some of the world’s greatest problems: biosphere engineering. Engineering our ecosystems could solve the energy crisis, global warming, deforestation, crop diseases, overfishing, and ocean acidification in only a couple of decades, he suggests.

Naam reasons that as little as $30 million dollars—a “drop in the bucket” compared to the $3 billion it took to sequence the human genome—is all we need to develop the library of genomes of every species within 20 years.

By then, he says, we can start “reprogramming” species to behave in ways—such as sucking carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or producing energy—that alter the Earth’s ecosystem radically.

To some, that would make genetically modified crops sound about as scary as Chia Pets.

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Speaker Info: Ramez Naam, Ph.D., Group Program Manager, Live Search Relevance Platform
Talk Title:
The Digital Biome
Sunday, 9:40-10:15 a.m.
Links of Interest: