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Weekly Summary: Genomes, Singularity, and Biomedia

Everything has a master code, which contains many smaller codes that exhibit various functions.  In past weeks, we have seen how coding plays a very important part with new media technologies from the computers to mobile devices.  The debate surrounding open source code and its implications for what Yochai Benkler has coined “commons-based peer production” was a useful stepping stone for what was ahead of us.

This week, we explore the potential and exciting possibilities from uncovering the genome sequence.  Several individuals outline how this shift in unlocking the code/map of life has been a remarkable impetus for the quest for immortality.  One such speaker, Juan Enriquez, believes that in order for human beings to thrive, we must master this specific code of life.

Decoding the Future with Genomics by Juan Enriquez (2003)

His video is broken up into four sections called: 1) The Implications of Scientific Discovery 2) Shifting Codes: What’s Next? 3) Genomics in Computing War, Power 4) Mind the Gap

-The Implications of Scientific Discovery

  • This is the single greatest mapping project ever. It’s importance is imperative and most exciting and intellectual adventure ever.  It tells us a lot about evolution > a history of where we have been and how things have changed.  We can start changing medicine and archeology with our knowledge of this code.
  • Example: White Europeans suffered plague which begot CCR5 mutation.
  • James Watson and Craig Venter found structure of DNA in 1953
  • There are different life forms living in different places e.g. bacteria

-Shifting Codes: what’s next?

  • Experimentation: cow gives birth to a different animal.  Another example, we can re-program species, we can close the gene gaps, and in turn put a full string of DNA together to possibly give birth to extinct animals.
  • Prediction: In near future, around 2011, we will all have our genome coded on compact discs.
  • Execute code which produces a function.  We have ability to change and reprogram source code e.g. vaccine, Dupont polyester, chickens with more wings.  >> The possibilities of regeneration.  Possibilities include expressing different body functions and/or stopping undifferentiated cells (cancer) with continued development of stem cell research.
  • Minuscule differences in genes > Example: “A woman without her man is nothing/ A woman, without her man, is nothing/ A woman: without her, man is nothing”.  Small changes in genes can have very big outcomes.

-Genomics in computing, war, and power

  • Depository knowledge from Library of Congress has printed less volume of data compared to what a genome company produces in a month.  >> Moore’s law (exponential growth).
  • Genomically literate world >  US has the power.  You can watch the rise and fall of empires of intelligence.

-Minding the Gap

  • It really matters that one is literate.  Especially, with regards to who speaks life (genomics).
  • Production
  • Argentina is crashing not because of inflation.  1/3 of India’s population produces.
  • Countries are splitting and seceeding and becoming more fragmented.  People are taking control of their own states for better or worse.
  • We are being empowered to build empires.

Futurist Ray Kurzweil Pulls Out All the Stops (and Pills) to Live to Witness the Singularity by Gary Wolf (2008)

In this article, Wolf explores the life of Ray Kurzweil and his obsessive notion of singularity.  Wolf sums up the definition of this word by exclaiming that,He [Kurzweil] is attempting to travel across a frontier in time, to pass through the border between our era and a future so different as to be unrecognizable… He calls the border singularity.“  It’s easy to dilute the intricate details surrounding Kurzweil’s idea of singularity into the catchphrase of “cheating death” or looking for ways to live much longer.  However, Wolf explains at great length the incredible drive that Kurzweil has for trying to live much longer than the short lifespans of his father and grandfather.  Additionally, Another famous mathemetician and computer scientist, Vernor Vinge, took it one step further and applied Kurzweil’s notion of singularity to the technological evolution of improvements in computer hardware.

  • Kurzweil transformed idea of singularity into a social movement based off of his ideas from his best-selling books The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity Is Near.
  • “He argues that while artificial intelligence will render biological humans obsolete, it will not make human consciousness irrelevant.”Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be used as extensions of our selves to extend the boundaries of human capacity i.e. hearing, seeing, touching, thinking, etc.  AI will also help us to fight disease and build better memories.  Singularity will not end up destroying humans but immortalizing them affirms Kurzweil.
  • Singularity is catching on.  There are conferences, journals, research, and possibly even a university on the topic.
  • Kurzweil takes his vitamins – is an understatement.  This man takes A LOT (180 to 210) of vitamins each day.  He also spends A LOT of money on health advice and intravenous treatments to prolong his health.  In 1988, he cured his diabetes and high cholesterol by strict dieting.
  • One of his biggest achievements was inventing a device called The Kurzweil Reading Machine that, “…teaches computers to decipher words on a page and then read them back aloud”.
  • Moore’s law is the inspiration behind much of what Kurzweil and other ‘futurists’ believe about exponential growth of technological computing power.
  • Wolf writes, “Computers will soon be smarter than humans. Nobody has to die.”  Immediately, I thought of the AI based science-fiction movies like Terminator, iRobot, and The Matrix.
  • Taken directly from Wolf’s artical>> According to Terry Grossman, Kurzweil’s longevity physician, and other singularitarians, immortality will arrive in 3 stages:

1) lifestyle and aggressive antiaging therapies will allow more people to approach the 125-year limit of the natural human lifespan. This is bridge one. Meanwhile, 2) advanced medical technology will begin to fix some of the underlying biological causes of aging, allowing this natural limit to be surpassed. This is bridge two. Finally, 3) computers become so powerful that they can model human consciousness. This will permit us to download our personalities into nonbiological substrates. When we cross this third bridge, we become information. And then, as long as we maintain multiple copies of ourselves to protect against a system crash, we won’t die.

  • Kurzweil predicts that by the early 2030s, most of our internal organs will have been replaced by robotic organs and that knowledge doubles every year.  Will it be like having an Artificial heart and everything else inside of us like that?
  • He has an alter ego called Ramona.  He would like her to have rights much like our version of human rights.  One day he hopes that he could experience what it would be like to be her.  Happiness isn’t what concerns him.  His purpose of life is to, “Extend our knowledge and cast a wider net of consciousness.”  According to Kurzweil, we may see computing rocks in about 200 years.

Biomedia (2004) by Eugene Thacker

  • We have uncovered the code of life (DNA and it’s analogs, etc.) and can now begin to manipulate that code.  Humanity was a literary endeavor, but has now shifted into a technical endeavor.
  • “We” are the true ‘new media’.  We are the new screen (screen of cave > printed text > electronic screen > and now us as new screen).  We are climbing the mountain of re-contextualizing human beings in a biological sense by the manipulation of genetic code i.e. “anthropomorphosis”.
  • There is a synthesis between code of life and code of technology mediated by code of capital.  The ones with the most capital will benefit from it in a advantageous/exploitative way by splicing, dicing, and patenting codes.
  • “In our hands, biomedia is the encoding process of information contained in our genomes over time.
  • Encoded text of genomes > recoded text according to specific agenda of editor > decoded into biomedia in order to remediate our bodies and answer the question, “What can a body do?”.
  • The soul seems a little lost in this process of becoming bodies.  In other words, the soul becomes subjugated to the flesh.  Yet, we cannot find the soul, so biomedia suggests that we have lost nothing.
  • ‘Bioinformatics’ signals collapsing of two newest codes: genetic and digital code > The Code.  It gives an impetus for a ‘hybridization’ by diminishing the boundaries between silicon and DNA bodies.  I loved this quote, “Everything is media awaiting mediation, and is hence malleable ad infinitum.”
  • We are effacing and playing God with biomedia
  • Paradoxically, the code was/is closed, however, since we have uncovered it, the code is now open sourced for anyone to take it and play with it according to their agenda.  Biomedia becomes a question of WHAT will we do with our bodies???  This question ultimately begets the proceeding question of bioethics.  


  1. Enriquez tries to tie in his argument about how crucial this coding will be for the rise and fall of countries.  Do you think Juan Enriquez’s points at the end of his presentation about countries’ levels of  production and their economic problems are valid?
  2. What are your thoughts on Kurzweil’s notion of singularity and the exponential synthesis of technology and biology?  Do you think that we will continue to see more medical and technical developments that push the limits of biomedical technology?  Do you feel that we will eventually be able to manipulate the code so that we will be able to live forever?
  3. Do you think we are hindered in our exploratory process of biomedical and biomedia development by ethical laws and boundaries that make the experimentation much longer?
  4. How do you feel about biomedia and trying to live forever?  Do you think we can AI will be able to experience human emotions or just be extremely rationale and productive?

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  1. ElzbthMllr 16:24, Apr 10th, 10

    I found the Enriquez video so fascinating. It’s hard because I feel so conflicted about so much of these genome research. On the one hand I see so many possibilities, and the scenarios that he mentions with respect to drug therapy, and understanding how things like cancer works, and how eventually we’ll be bale to do things like grow body parts for people, it’s just crazy to me! I remember when the first sheep was cloned and I just couldn’t get over it. But something about it is unsettling to me. And I’m not a religious person so I don’t think it has to do with that. I don’t know if it’s just like a visceral reaction that I have, and I can’t even pinpoint it, it’s not that I don’t think we should be messing with life, I just think that it is a really slippery slope. What’s to stop parents from engineering what they want their kids to look like, or even what gender they should be? And while I see from a scientific standpoint that it’s great to be able to bring back an extinct specie, what’s really in it for society. At what point does it become too much. And my main issue with all of this is, where does it stop? Who has control over this? He mentions that the research is done both privately and publicly, but I’d like to learn more about that. What’s the role of private enterprise? What about the role of government? He briefly mentions privacy with respect to the genetic testing disorder, but again, I think that’s a huge issue we have to think about. About halfway through the video I found myself wondering how exactly this related to the topic of digital media, and well, it’s exactly that which he talks about towards the end. I really would have never thought of this as a data or code issue, but he convinced me that it is. It’s also interesting to understand how different countries understand and use this data, vs. the ones that don’t. It’s been 6+ years since his talk, so I can only imagine that the science behind so much of what he is talking about has grown significantly, yet I wonder why we don’t hear about it as much. Is it kept under wraps? Done in secret government labs? How is this going to affect society?

    Yeah so if I thought I was uncomfortable watching the Enriquez video, I just about flipped out when reading the Wolf piece. Little machines are body parts? Living 125 years? I seriously had to refrain from just thinking people like Kurzweil are absolutely insane, because I know that they must be very smart people. But I totally disagree with the notion that “When we cross this third bridge, we become information. And then, as long as we maintain multiple copies of ourselves to protect against a system crash, we won’t die” I’d simply argue that we are more than information, and there is no bridge we can “cross” that will be able to assume our entire identity. Of course, he acknowledges that people (like me) are going to have a negative reaction to a lot of these ideas about living forever, defeating death, etc. But computers having full legal rights as people? I think it’s a simple assumption to just say that it’s about intelligence, and that if we can create computers that are smarter than people, that they deserve legal status. Is it just me, or did you feel like shouting at the page, it’s a computer! Although it’s mentioned at the end I don’t think these people are taking into account the realities of human emotion and complexity of relationships and how people interact. For me that will always be the fundamental difference between real intelligence and A.I. I am sure some people will challenge me on it, but that’s my initial reaction to this piece.

    In the BioMedia piece, the thing that really struck me seemed to follow with the end of the Enriquez video, the concept that “We are the true “new media.” I understand how this changes our “cognitive landscape” (as he calls it), but what does this mean for society moving forward exactly? And for the record, this is something I never ever would have expected that we’d be discussing in a digital media class, but I’m totally fascinated by it. But overall I think that I feel there is something inherently dangerous in messing around with the biology of this “data.” It will be interesting to see what other people think – looking forward to the class discussion!

    Also, I tagged an interesting story on delicious called “Who Owns Your Genes? You Do” that is somewhat related to this week’s readings.Thought some people might enjoy it.

  2. Ryan 18:07, Apr 10th, 10

    Oh yeah, I almost forgot about that – the case where some people are trying to own patents on genes or something like that. Thanks for posting it. I’ll try to incorporate that into our class discussion on Tuesday.

  3. HoniehLayla 13:36, Apr 11th, 10

    I thought Wolf’s article as well as the TED video to be very interesting. It brought up many of my own thoughts of what the future may be like and how far we could push the envelope on our own bodies. It was also very insightful that Kurweil’s video is from 2005 and a few of the predictions he made actually occurred. At this time, technology has reached a point where augmented reality is being used through specific browsers on our phone to read directions, or even see simulations of ourselves popping out of our business cards.

    As far as singularity is concerned, I believe his theory of living into the many hundreds is quite possible, by maintaining his vitamin intake and replacing his organs in the next few years. He mentions Moore’s theory quite often in his presentation and it worries me that once we have reach the so called “max limit” to where technology can go – what would be next? Would society look like a clip from the movie iRobot?

    Many might think Kurzweil is insane – but I must give him some credit – he has been able to do accomplish a lot of his ideas…… I am curious to see in the next few years if these small molecular size cells could actual exist to help aid us further in the world of medicine.

    I am interested to see if he can push past the first level of life (125) and head into the second. For some reason – I don’t think any of us will see such an event in our life time.

    I look forwarding to speaking about these articles in class.

  4. nadine 15:15, Apr 11th, 10

    While watching Juan Enriquez’ presentation, I had to think immediately back to the Trap. Especially when Enriquez shows a slide with an encoded DNA and says: that’s you! A simple string of code. Can we indeed be reduced to numbers?
    Yes, that’s the baseline of our mechanics, but there so more. Even Kurzweil admits that “[h]uman emotion is really the cutting edge of human intelligence [...} Being funny, expressing a loving sentiment — these are very complex behaviors."
    The desire to overcome death and explain what we are and where we are coming from is as old as humanity itself. The concepts of singularity or biomedia don't shock. Each generation tries to push the boundaries of science, experimentation, and ultimately death. What surprises me is this concept of exponential (or even linear) growth. Is is because it is contradictory to the essence of nature itself? Maybe. Though I rather read in this lines a profound and unshakable belief in progress and/or the capitalistic system. Humanity is impoverishing trying to measure everything in economic and statistical terms.

    Growth and productivity seems to be the non plus ultra. It is the mantra of Western culture: just grow, we'll ask questions later. What we should ask: what is the impact of this growth on our environment, our culture, our bodies and minds? Is quantity (of life years) more important than quality? And what happens with the part of the world and humanity that isn't part of it ? Simple Darwinian exclusion? Based on wealth and nationality?

    I like the articles, they pick up my other travelogue idea about the fusion of humans and machines. Enriquez' and Kurzweil scenario's aren't that far stretched. Cool bionic's article: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2010/01/bionics/fischman-text
    Skinput technology: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g3XPUdW9Ryg&feature=player_embedded

    Therefore, the idea of mastering code in order to stay at the top of the biological food chain and economy ranking is interesting.
    @ Ryan and @Elisabeth: here is another article on gene patents: two weeks ago, a federal judge has invalidated a gene patent http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/30/business/30gene.html?hpw
    Who should own the gene codes? Private companies? The judge ruled that in the case "patents were 'improperly granted' because they involved a 'law of nature.' The NYTimes states that "[t]he decision, if upheld, could throw into doubt the patents covering thousands of human genes and reshape the law of intellectual property”. Let’s hope so!!!

  5. Alexandra 13:50, Apr 12th, 10

    Juan Enriquez was definitely engaging to watch, and I thought his presentation was kind of terrifying. Kurzweil is just plain off his rocker, in my opinion.

    I think the examples about cows giving birth to extinct animals were definitely the scariest. Although I don’t personally believe in god, the only phrase I can think of to best describe this is “playing god.” The whole thing is very Jurassic Park – and we know how that turned out. Whatever the reason, extinct animals no longer found this planet hospitable. If we start bringing back dodo birds, I shudder to think what will happen.

    I also thought his “IC” point was interesting, although it doesn’t quite sync with what I thought was sort of generally accepted about the shifting balance of power between America, India and China. He said that the Indian and Chinese governments treat their people like serfs instead of empire builders, which I suppose can be true in some ways. But China … I mean, China has had one of, if not the longest sort of continuous civilization on this earth. Maybe they have a lot of peasants but they must be doing something right, to have retained their culture this long. I’m not really well informed enough on this topic to say much more, but I just thought it was worth questioning him on that point because it seems like a very American point of view.

    As far as Kurzweil goes, I’m sorry, but I just think he’s nuts. Maybe I’m too literal, or I’m not scientifically oriented or I’m not a big thinker, but his whole “singularity” sounds like wishful thinking and pretty improbably to me. Does he seriously think in 20 years we are all going to have our organs replaced with some sort of machine? Who is funding this? And how many humans live to 125? And how many people do you think actually want to live forever? It sounds very boring to me.

  6. Leslie 22:28, Apr 12th, 10

    Both the reading and the video were so interesting- amazing, yet scary, at the same time. I agree with Enriquez that we really should be putting more thought and research into genes & how humans work- there’s a lot for us to learn and grow from with such research. But, as Elizabeth mentioned- when does it get to be too much? And, will we realize when we’ve gone too far? The presentation kept reminding me of the movie Gattaca & how in the movie if you’re born “naturally”…ie, your parents decide not to change anything in your genes to make you “better”…you’re put at a huge disadvantage in society & are basically deemed “useless.”

    Wolf’s piece about Kurzweil was a little more scary than Enriquez’s presentation. His talk about hitting the 3rd “bridge” & surpassing it, thus becoming, “information” is I think what scared me the most. Yes, we might be able to be this “information”- but I don’t think this is “living.” Are you conscious as this information? It doesn’t seem like we would be. It just seems like this information would be our personality, as perceived by others, or by yourself, that would be able to be placed into a machine of some sort, which would then mimic the actions of the original person. But, this isn’t truly being “alive.”

    In a way, it almost seems like this is happening now to a degree- it reminded me of Nadine’s travelogue about death & social networking sites. Those of the deceased still have facets of their personality kept alive as information on these social networking sites.

    I think that if we do reach this point of “immortality,” and people continue to live longer and longer through vitamins and science, it will reach a point that it will ultimately create a problem with the natural cycle of human life. This could create problems of overpopulation. I also feel like this could be problematic for the very notion of Moore’s Law, which he holds so dearly- if the human population isn’t consistently replenishing itself with new minds, will this mean that innovation will stop moving so quickly at some point?

  7. Jimena 15:12, Apr 13th, 10

    I found this week’s readings fascinatingly scary, or scarily fascinating. Although there are tons of key issues in our world right now, somehow this gave me a greater sense of urgency—decisions are being taken that will forever change our existence and that we don’t really have a clue (or say) about.

    I think we’re playing with fire, here. Of course, the medical possibilities are amazing and should be developed. But I agree with you guys—where (or how) do we stop? No governmental force is strong (or wise) enough to really play a substantial role—I guess that’s because nobody can see the whole picture, and there are too many angles to it and too many interests involved. As with intellectual property, privacy, ecology, (you name it), law is always playing catch-up, trying to regulate reality based on what has already happened. And we can’t even predict what needs to be legislated because of the complexity and newness of the topic.

    I don’t really see who is the force that could regulate genetic research and intervention. The new frontier opens up with endless possibilities, and let’s faces it– we have not been good in regulating ourselves in the past; the way we’ve managed our environment is enough proof.

    It is interesting the role that academia is playing here. I think it’s a good field where to play this game because they can host both the scientific development and its ethical and legal debate. Still, the topic is unlike any other: it has a “metaphysical” realm to it (if you excuse the term) that makes it hard to include in the secular academic debate. For example, the Center for Genome, Ethics, Law and Policy in Duke University states in its mission that they seek “arriving at a thoughtful consensus on how to make use of the innovations to enhance the well-being of individuals and society, while protecting values such as individual rights and distributive justice”– but they don’t really address the fact that we are messing with a human dimension that goes beyond biology and chemistry, and that can’t be seen under the microscope.

    And well, the whole idea of singularity is quite disturbing. A.I. bothers me because I feel it doesn’t consider human intelligence in all its complexity, but as a capacity that can be fully deciphered and replicated by problem solving, logic, etc. But under the idea of multiple intelligences (some of which, to me, are related to the emotional and spiritual dimensions): can machines really duplicate us so accurately as to create a comprehension divide between real humans and transhumans?

    I was also freaked out by the creepiness of Kurzweil’s goal of immortality, (not to mention its arrogance!) but somehow his idea of hitting the 3rd bridge into becoming “information” didn’t seem so far from the reality. I don’t mean that we’re actually dissolving into 0s and 1s, but really: aren’t societies and individuals treated as information in many cases? I mean, war strategies are decided based on stats—dead civilians become ‘casualties’, decisions are taken based on the lesser evil. Even the essential logic behind marketing is consumers=information.

  8. mushon 21:23, Apr 30th, 10

    One thing I still awe you guys:
    Jaron Lanier’s One Half A Manifesto: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/lanier/lanier_index.html
    It is as provocative as his more recent writing but this one is way more rigorous IMO.