Monday, August 07, 2006

Ah, what an excellent post on bioethics and its conservative champion Leon Kass! This beautiful rant about Kass's opposition to stem cell research and life-extension technology can be summed up in the last several paragraphs:

And another thing. Stem cell research, of whatever variety, is not congruent with the field of anti-aging research. The latter is not wholly dependent on the former. Let's say we dropkick the whole cloned stembryo mess right over the fence. Poof. It's gone. We will still end up with radical life extension by other means. Of course, it will certainly take longer and probably cost more. But it will eventually arrive.

Thought experiment time. Through the miracle of Quantum Flux Modulation, powered by ten megawatts worth of Prigoginic Entropy Shunts, your tired, saggy carcass blooms like a blushin' rose. We could use cell repair nanobots if you prefer, but the end result will be the same. You feel like...a million bucks. Pity it's the freaking twenty fifth century, but at least no specks of nascent human goop were harmed in the production of your perky new corpus. All it took was silicon, electricity, and five hundred years worth of progress in Doubletalk Engineering.

So, how does the average citizen feel about this? Pretty darn satisfied, I imagine. No moral quandaries regarding exploitive biological techniques. No religious objections, because after all, we aren't trying to cheat God. It's like antibiotics and vaccination, only better. It's well known that nothing physical can last forever, and presumably God doesn't mind waiting. We just have a slightly longer cosmic eyeblink to move around in. Wouldn't that be nice?

Here's the thing. Leon Kass would still hate it. It's the thing itself, the lengthened lifespan, that chafes him so. The cellular indignity angle is just a sideshow, a preliminary skirmish. To him, extended life is a tragic societal mistake, no matter how it's achieved. That's why I think he's a moral monster.

Well said, Justin.

On another note, slightly related in that it relates to human enhancement technology, virtual reality just got a lot better with the University of Buffalo's computer-finger interface, or as they put it, the Fingertip Digitizer: Applying Haptics and Biomechanics to Tactile Input Technology.

And as much as our egos liked to pretend it would never happen, especially those of us working at Lawrence Livermore Nat'l Labs, it looks like Japan's MDGrape-3 (a play on "Apple") is about to take the title for #1 Fastest Supercomputer in the world. Reaching speeds of a petaflop, this baby is three times faster than IBM's BlueGene. The only chance BlueGene can hang onto its title is if Grape's highly specialized hardware makes it ineligible for the Top 500 list. Only time will tell.

In the meantime, let governments spend billions of dollars on their testosterone-fueled supercomputing contests; it is now easier than ever for the little person to achieve unthinkable computing speeds on very little cash. If you are familiar with parallel computing and Beowulf clusters, then you already know that for a fraction of the cost, people are building formidable speed machines in their basements. This excellent online book by Robert Brown of Duke University gives the layman a good idea of exactly how and why to build a Beowulf. Thousands upon thousands of computers are disposed of every year, posing an environmental hazard and a lot of wasted cash. Stripping these outdated machines and pirating their parts into a sort of supercomputing-cluster-jalopy has become an accepted practice among universities and industries. Besides costing next to nothing, assuming you get the old computers donated (or for very cheap), the appeal behind do-it-yourself supercomputers lies in the skill, patience, and economic sensibility required for the task. Expertise in networking is not as essential as expertise in parallel programming. This is sheer, you-versus-the-machine, pizza-and-Jolt-cola, late-night-early-morning adventure, with the result being not only an extremely fast cluster, but an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. Besides, you get to tell people at parties that you build supercomputers in your spare time ;-)

So what are you waiting for? Get building, or you just might find yourself falling behind, sort of like the recently devolved mice at the University of Utah...


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