[ExI] Article: Biotech movement hopes to spur rise of citizen scientists (2010-08-02)

Bryan Bishop kanzure at gmail.com
Mon Aug 2 17:41:47 UTC 2010

Biotech movement hopes to spur rise of citizen scientists

If we are to believe transhumanists, people who bill themselves as
champions of superlongevity and artificial human enhancement, 2045
should be a very good year.

According to one of the movement’s leading figures, inventor and
futurist Ray Kurzweil, that’s when humans will achieve immortality
through a blend of genetics, nanotechnology, robotics, and artificial

Transhumanists point to exciting technological trends — such as those
showing how computer chips are growing smaller, cheaper, and faster —
as evidence that Kurzweil’s breakthrough moment, called the
singularity, is near. All that most of us need to do, transhumanists
say, is wait.

But the message is not sitting well with at least one transhumanist,
Joseph Jackson, who warns the singularity will not get closer to
reality if it depends on a biotechnology industry that runs away from
risk and is more interested in increasing revenues.

“Technologists extrapolate these trends from certain domains and
completely overestimate the progress we’ll make,’’ said Jackson, a
Harvard University graduate who is developing a low-cost device to
help scientists study DNA outside major laboratories. “Twenty years
will tick by, and we’ll still be waiting.’’

At Humanity+, a transhumanist conference held at Harvard in June,
Jackson slammed the biotech industry for having “burned through more
than $40 billion since its inception, before finally turning a profit
in 2009.’’

Rather, Jackson is calling on his fellow transhumanists to take a
bootstrap approach to conquering disease and death. His alternative to
proprietary research and patent-protected drugs — and an industry that
focuses on drugs to treat hair loss and impotence, while the world’s
poor die of malaria and other illnesses — is an “open science’’ model.

Under his vision, scientists freely share their discoveries, and build
upon those made by others. (He did credit GlaxoSmithKline for saying
earlier this year that it will share its chemical database with those
seeking to develop malaria drugs.)

Jackson says open science will speed innovation in the same way the
open source code movement revolutionized Internet applications. He
also wants transhumanists to support the thousands of backyard
tinkerers, known as citizen scientists, who are already studying
microbes, mapping genomes, and seeking cures for diseases. He calls
himself a citizen scientist. At Humanity+, he described the LavaAmp —
a pocket-size device for amateur DNA researchers — he is helping to

Jackson recently hosted the Open Science Summit in Berkeley, Calif.,
which again highlighted the importance of sharing data. One of the
speakers was Alexander Wait Zaranek, a research fellow in genetics at
Harvard Medical School who is working to build bridges between
open-science organizations, citizen scientists, and industry.

Inevitably, Zaranek said, such major public-private efforts “will
springboard many new companies and provide ripe investment
opportunities for [venture capitalists] and others.’’

So far, transhumanists seem to be listening to Jackson’s pitch for
open science and citizen science. The theme of the June conference was
“The Rise of the Citizen Scientist.’’ But citizen scientists are only
beginning to sort out how they will make sense of the vast amounts of
data coming out of their backyard labs.

Perhaps the best thing citizen scientists can do for the benefit of
humanity is to turn all of their data over to a massively intelligent,
fully autonomous thinking computer, according to artificial
intelligence specialist Ben Goertzel. The Humanity+ cochair is working
with a company studying the genomes of long-lived flies.

“What is really needed to cure diseases and extend life,’’ Goertzel
said, “is to link together all available bio data in a vast public
database, and then turn a community of brilliant AGIs [artificial
general intelligences] to work on this unified database.’’

AGIs, when they are developed, should also be given access to their
own lab equipment and run their own experiments, Goertzel added.

If the transhumanists are embracing citizens scientists, not all
citizen scientists — with their attention aimed at narrow research
questions — are fully embracing transhumanists’ broader optimistic
vision for the singularity.

“I do endorse the transhumanists’ ideas of using technology to improve
the human condition,’’ said Timothy Marzullo of Backyard Brains, which
sells a $100 kit that students and amateur scientists can use to hear
and record the electrical activity of insect neurons. “I also like how
they seriously consider big, far-out ideas like cryonics.’’

But Marzullo finds it hard to imagine how any research, however
funded, will yield the results transhumanists seem to believe are not
far off.

“It is hard for me to believe in the idea of the singularity,’’ said
Marzullo, “when I am surrounded by our tragic inability to treat most
neuroscience afflictions.’’

- Bryan
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