2012 August 26 Sunday
Easy To Cheat At Athletic Drug Doping

Brian Alexander says use of many small doses and other techniques makes it easy for athletes to cheat and use performance-enhancing drugs.

However, declaring somebody a doper based on the test requires a judgment call, so labs tend to err on the side of caution. Some estimate that for every EPO user discovered, 10 others get away. On the other hand, there have also been cases of false positives.

So many false negatives combined with the false positives underscore the weaknesses of current doping detection methods. Alexander reports that anti-doping agencies are

How many world records are held by athletes who used drugs to reach their performance peaks. Some claim steroid usage is widespread. Another article on this topic reports that the athletes have been able to adjust their doping techniques in response to new doping detection methods. Sure, some athletes get caught when new testing methods first get introduced. But the advantages of doping outweigh the risks of getting caught.

In the longer run I expect a greater understanding of DNA sequences to enable more reliable detection of doping. The reason is fundamental: If a person's athletic performance exceeds the performance limits imposed on them by their genes then they must be cheating in order to reach top ranks. Doping detection will turn into a game where the anti-dopers sequence an athlete's DNA and create a profile that project's the athlete's natural limits. If the athlete performs in excess of those limits then the athlete must be cheating.

Of course, once genetic testing results and other biological testing results can be fed into a computer that can accurately predict each athlete's peak performance then what becomes of games as a way to measure relative performance? How to retain athletic competitions as settings where humans compete? The answer is obvious: make athletic games into contests between rival scientific teams. The winning athlete should be like a winning car racer who competes with the help of engineers who design better race cars. Rival bioengineering teams should compete to develop humans who can win in each sport. If bioengineering crews for athletes were legitimized then the rate of advance of bioengineering would accelerate.

By Randall Parker 2012 August 26 09:36 PM  Biotech Athletics
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2012 August 21 Tuesday
Human Max Speeds Compared To Fast Animals

The recent Olympics reminds us of the outer limits of human physical performance. But how do we compare to other animals? An assortment of animals can move faster than humans.

Humans can run at a maximum speed of 23.4 miles per hour (37.6 kilometres/hour) or 10.4 metres per second, which gives them the edge over the Dromedary camel.

But only just, as these animals can run at a top speed of 22 mph (35.3 kph) or 9.8 metres/second.

While reading these numbers a thought occurred to me: genetic engineering will enable such huge increases in human performance that natural athletes will become uninteresting. What is interesting about 23.5 miles per hour once genetically engineered humans can do 30 mph? Anti-doping regimes maintain their support mainly because doping is seen more as an easier way to reach the top than as a way to break records. But if cheating with doping is really as widespread among elite athletes as some think then we already are getting excited and cheering on the pharmaceutically enhanced. If current anti-doping testing regimes can only catch the most egregious violators we are getting our expectations raised to expect levels of performance that natural humans can't achieve. We will want records to be broken. Once enhanced humans break those records in very dramatic fashion I think natural human athletes are going to come to be seen as boring and very much a fashion of a quaint past.

Will genetically reengineered humans some day reach cheetah speed?

A cheetah is around twice as fast as the world's top sprinters at 64 mph (104 kph) or 29 metres/second. But the pronghorn antelope also puts in a very respectable 55 mph (89 kph) or 24.6 metres/second.

And let's not forget the North African ostrich, which at 40 mph (64kph) or 18 metres/second, is the world's fastest running bird. Or sailfish, which reach a swimming speed of 67 mph (108 kph) or 30 metres/second.

What I wonder about fast race horses: How do they compare to other types of horses for long distance speed? If you want to travel more miles per day what kind of horse can sustain the highest speed for hours?

Then, of course, there are thoroughbred racehorses, the fastest of which has managed 55mph (88kph), and greyhounds at 43 mph (69kph).

Birds are probably the fastest animals for distance travel. What bird can travel the most miles in a day? Geese? Ducks? Other?

And birds would win a few gold medals too. Peregrine falcons can reach speeds of 161 mph (259 kph), while ducks and geese rival cheetahs, with speeds of 64 mph (103 kph) in level flight.

Do not be surprised some day if human distance runners use pure oxygen canisters feeding oxygen directly into their blood streams so they can sustain fast speeds longer. If the Olympics forbids them from competing then I expect sports contests for bioengineered will be organized and those contests will become more popular and interesting than natural wild type competitions between natural humans.

By Randall Parker 2012 August 21 11:19 PM  Biotech Athletics
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2012 August 19 Sunday
JPL Curiosity Workers Living On Mars Time

Jet Propulsion Lab workers who are controlling the Curiosity vehicle on Mars take turns living 3 month periods on the (longer) Mars daily period. The result: a feeling of jet lag.

To stay in lockstep, nearly 800 people on the $2.5 billion project have surrendered to the Martian cycle of light and dark. In the simplest sense, each day slides forward 40 minutes. That results in wacky work, sleep and eating schedules. Many say it feels like perpetual jet lag.

Among the many technological advances we need to be able to colonize Mars: genetic engineering of our sleep cycles to enable us to function well on a daily cycle that is about 40 minutes longer than Earth's 24 hour planetary rotation.

We need a wide assortment of biotechnological advances for Mars living. Some of the biotechnologies we'll need:

  • Plants bioengineered to make a wide variety of drugs.
  • Our bodies genetically altered to function well in lower gravity and with a longer day.
  • Plants bioengineered to make a variety of textiles. Think cotton plants that make something more like cloth. Also, we'll need wood for structures and plastics as well. Silk-making plants would be very useful on Mars.
  • Vats and genetically engineered mammalian cells to create leather and fur.
  • Plants bioengineered to recycle sewage and other wastes.

The underlying thread for most these biotechnologies: they reduce the number of fields of expertise that the members of a Mars colony would need to master. No need to know how to carry out steps of many drug syntheses if those steps can be genetically engineered into plants or perhaps a yeast strain. Since the initial Mars colony will be very small it will not have a large staff of engineers and equipment needed to make many kinds of material. So organisms genetically engineered to create an assortment of drugs, textiles, and construction materials would be great due to their eliminating the need for many fields of specialty in the initial colony.

By Randall Parker 2012 August 19 10:38 PM  Space Colonization
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2012 August 15 Wednesday
4C Warming Coming In Megapolitan Urban Areas

Baking in the heat this summer? Population growth in urban areas promises to cause substantial warming in those "megapolitan" urban areas due to changes caused by replacing nature with buildings and roads.

TEMPE, Ariz. – According to the United Nations' 2011 Revision of World Urbanization Prospects, global urban population is expected to gain more than 2.5 billion new inhabitants through 2050. Such sharp increases in the number of urban dwellers will require considerable conversion of natural to urban landscapes, resulting in newly developing and expanding megapolitan areas. Could climate impacts arising from built environment growth pose additional concerns for urban residents also expected to deal with impacts resulting from global climate change?

In the first study to attempt to quantify the impact of rapidly expanding megapolitan areas on regional climate, a team of researchers from Arizona State University (ASU) and the National Center for Atmospheric Research has established that local maximum summertime warming resulting from projected expansion of the urban Sun Corridor could approach 4 degrees Celsius. This finding establishes that this factor can be as important as warming due to increased levels of greenhouse gases. Their results are reported in the early online edition (Aug. 12) of the journal Nature Climate Change.

I think population growth is a net negative given the number of people already here. The external costs outweigh any benefits as natural resources deplete and more land gets shifted to human uses.

White roofs would cut the warming in half. But the warming would still be large.

"The worst case expansion scenario we utilized led to local maximum summer warming of nearly 4 degrees Celsius. In the best case scenario, where Sun Corridor expansion is both more constrained and urban land use density is lower, our results still indicate considerable local warming, up to about 2 degrees Celsius," Georgescu said.

An additional experiment was conducted to examine an adaptation where all of the buildings were topped by highly reflective white or "cool" roofs.

"Incorporating cool roofs alleviated summertime warming substantially, reducing the maximum local warming by about half," Georgescu said. "But, another consequence of such large-scale urbanization and this adaptation approach include effects on the region's hydroclimate."

The cool roofs, like the maximum-growth scenario without this adaptation approach, further reduce evapotranspiration – water that evaporates from the soil and transpires from plants. Ultimately, comparison of summertime warming resulting from Sun Corridor expansion to greenhouse-gas-induced summertime climate change shows that through mid-century the maximum urbanization scenario leads to greater warming than climate change.

By Randall Parker 2012 August 15 10:48 PM  Climate Pollution
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2012 August 14 Tuesday
Robots That Do Common Service Tasks

A New York Times reporter asks whether robots will become near future sources of disruptions in how we live.

The dinner was at Willow Garage, a robotics company in Menlo Park, and was intended to introduce some reporters to the robots the company is building.

The main attraction was the PR2, which can pick things up, fold laundry, open doors and bring cups, plates and other small objects to people. The PR2 is pretty stunning to see in action. Its price, $400,000 for the fully functional version, is pretty stunning, too. And although it is impressive to watch, it is still easily baffled by the mundane.

While fairly simple-minded robots from iRobot can do moderate carpet cleaning that review highlights some of their limitations. Since they are battery powered and small they don't clean as well as a regular vacuum and they cost more besides. When will the power problem be solved for non-stationary home robots? Will we have tracks along the ceiling for power cords dangling down to move with a robotic floor cleaner or a robotic bedroom organizer? When will we get robots in the home doing more physically tricky tasks such as preparing and cooking meals or removing and folding laundry or cleaning kitchen and bathroom counter surfaces?

Before we get really good home robots I expect robots to make much bigger inroads in institutional settings. The cost of the computer power can be amortized over serving many customers when it works in a robotic cafeteria or fast food burger kitchen. Though really fast fiber optic computer networks into residential neighborhoods will some day allow home robots to be more cost effectively controlled by massively parallel cloud servers. So the home robots won't have to have all of their computer capacity sitting idle. This will improve the economics of home robotics.

Currently Willow Garage is trying to attract large numbers of software developers to use their robot platform as a foundation to create useful software. Check out their PR2 Beta Program.

Their PR2 can do some useful tasks, albeit slowly. PR2 Robot Fetches Beer from the Refrigerator

As robots become powerful enough and cheap enough to do a substantial fraction of the jobs currently held by lower paying blue collar workers we are going to have a big problem with zero marginal product workers. How close are we to that day?

By Randall Parker 2012 August 14 11:09 PM  Robotics Trends
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2012 August 12 Sunday
Brain Anatomy Predicts Altruistic Behavior

Altruistic? You probably have more grey matter at the junction between the parietal and temporal lobe.

The volume of a small brain region influences one's predisposition for altruistic behavior. Researchers from the University of Zurich show that people who behave more altruistically than others have more gray matter at the junction between the parietal and temporal lobe, thus showing for the first time that there is a connection between brain anatomy, brain activity and altruistic behavior.

Why are some people very selfish and others very altruistic? Previous studies indicated that social categories like gender, income or education can hardly explain differences in altruistic behavior. Recent neuroscience studies have demonstrated that differences in brain structure might be linked to differences in personality traits and abilities. Now, for the first time, a team of researchers from the University of Zurich headed by Ernst Fehr, Director of the Department of Economics, show that there is a connection between brain anatomy and altruistic behavior.

Every time I read a report about connections between neuroanatomy and human behavior I see it in terms of my great puzzles about the future: what choices will humans make when they gain the ability to choose the genes of their offspring? Unless robots take over those choices will determine the future of the human species (or the multiple species our descendants will become).

Think of every cognitive attribute a human can have. Patience, short term memory, excitability, neuroticism, calmness, focused, easily bored, fast at math, able to picture and rotate complex 3-D models, altruism, easily angered. To the extent that each of these can be altered by genetic variants (and I'm quite sure they all can) once it becomes possible to choose genetic variants for offspring will humans in the future make their kids more or less altruistic? More or less calm? More introverted or more extroverted? Dopamine genetic variants for harder working or slacking? How will post-humans differ from humans? Will they still like humans? Be bored by humans? Will they have enough empathy to even get along with each other? Will they diverge into mutually hostile species?

By Randall Parker 2012 August 12 08:59 AM  Brain Altruism
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2012 August 07 Tuesday
Worries On Genetic Doping For Athletic Enhancement

What's wrong with gene therapy to boost athletic performance? Yet another worry article about what could be a very positive development.

Officially, UK Anti-Doping, the body which oversees the control of performance enhancing drugs in Britain, says genetic manipulation as a form of performance enhancement "is currently a theoretical rather than a proven issue".

But Andy Parkinson, UKAD's chief executive said: "I wouldn't be surprised if someone out there is trying to do it, and I think that's very worrying."

My worry is that gene therapy is such a hard problem (e.g. cancer risks, difficulties in delivering genes to enough cells, difficulties in delivering genes to only the desired types of cells, etc) that gene therapy won't make much difference to athletic performance any time soon. But as I've recently argued a gene therapy arms race to enable genetically less well endowed athletes to compete with the genetically fittest athletes would generate many medically useful spin-offs. If organizers of athletic events allowed biotechnological enhancements for athletic performance the rest of us would benefit from a faster rate of progress in the development of medical treatments for many diseases of old age.

So why the opposition to all manner of athletic doping, including gene therapy? I think some of the opposition stems from a desire to believe that athletes win by a more determined and sustained exercise of willpower. We want to see people succeed by doing large amounts of hard work aimed at a lofty goal. But I think this desire is based on wishful thinking. The outcome of Olympic sporting competitions hinge greatly on relative athlete genetic fitness. Those lucky few who have a low burden of harmful mutations have big advantages. Those who have still other genetic variants that make them fast distance runners (or other genetic variants that make them fast sprinters) will win the races.

None of this is meant to say that individual effort does not matter. Of course the drive and effort of the athlete plays a role. But individual effort in elite sporting events only matters among those genetically most well endowed. If athletes could use gene therapies to boost their athletic performance then the effect might be to close the gap between the genetically most and least well endowed. Then with genetic differences lessened we'd get mores sporting contests whose outcome would be decided individual efforts and judgments of peers.

By Randall Parker 2012 August 07 10:21 PM  Biotech Athletics
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2012 August 04 Saturday
How We Make Sense Of Sentences

Got some questions to answer.

After a plane crash, where should the survivors be buried?

If you are considering where the most appropriate burial place should be, you are not alone. Scientists have found that around half the people asked this question, answer it as if they were being asked about the victims not the survivors.

Similarly, when asked "Can a man marry his widow's sister?" most people answer "yes" - effectively answering that it would indeed be possible for a dead man to marry his bereaved wife’s sister.

It is too much work to scan carefully for errors in all the sentences we read and hear all day. Our sentence interpretation circuitry probably does some sort of compare of the sentence against competing meanings and uses some words to influence the meaning assigned to other words. Our minds arrive at interpretations that make definitions assigned to individual words fit into the context of the words around them. So the widow's sister becomes interpreted into something like the dead wife's sister since widow and widower involve someone dying and the man is assumed to be still alive since a question about his intentions is being asked.

EEG scans provide evidence that suggests our brains aren't even slightly noticing errors in sentences.

What makes researchers particularly interested in people’s failure to notice words that actually don’t make sense, so called semantic illusions, is that these illusions challenge traditional models of language processing which assume that we build understanding of a sentence by deeply analysing the meaning of each word in turn.

Instead semantic illusions provide a strong line of evidence that the way we process language is often shallow and incomplete.

Professor Leuthold at University of Glasgow led a study using electroencephalography (EEG) to explore what is happening in our brains when we process sentences containing semantic illusions.

By analysing the patterns of brain activity when volunteers read or listened to sentences containing hard-to-detect semantic anomalies - words that fit the general context even though they do not actually make sense - the researchers found that when a volunteer was tricked by the semantic illusion, their brain had not even noticed the anomalous word.

Semantic illusion experiments I'd like to see: first test a large number of people for IQ and then test their ability to detect semantic illusions. Do smarter people detect semantic illusions at a higher rate? Do some people have very intensive sentence interpretation machinery that enables them to detect semantic illusions at a rate disproportionate for their IQ? Do any subcategories of autistics have enhance ability to detect semantic illusions?

Even if you could reallocate neurons in your brain to give yourself enhanced ability to detect semantic illusions it is not clear to me that's the best way to spend your neurons. If semantic illusions aren't causing you much misunderstanding then assigning more neurons to spatial reasoning, mathematical calculation ability, or larger working memory might make more sense. Personally, I'd ope for larger working memory if I could enhance something in my brain. I want a bigger copy and paste buffer and stacks for putting thoughts onto when I get interrupted.

By Randall Parker 2012 August 04 10:49 AM  Brain Cognitive Flaws
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2012 August 02 Thursday
Plan To Live To Be 100 Years Old?

A retirement article on MarketWatch argues we should plan to live to be 100.

Consider: According to the mortality tables, there’s a two-thirds chance that a male who’s age 55 today will live to age 80. Imagine if you play the odds as if you were at a Blackjack table — and plan on being among those who die before age 80, but don’t.

If you do not smoke, are not obese, don't have high blood sugar or high blood pressures, or other major risk factors then your odds of reaching 80 are much higher.

My take on the mortality tables: they are excessively pessimistic. The mortality tables assume a fairly static biomedical treatment environment in which only small incremental improvements to medical care are possible. No discontinuities are part of the forecast. This seems a very big mistake. On the horizon we can see the approach of effective gene therapies, cell therapies, and other treatments that attack the underlying mechanisms of aging. The scientists doing research on these treatments will succeed. Once they do we will have biotechnology that enables us to repair aged tissue.

For a long time mortality has declined fairly slowly. That's because we've had no tools for attacking the underlying mechanisms of aging. Our bodies gradually wear out just like bodies 50 or 100 years ago. We've got medical treatments that reduce the consequences of failing tissue (e.g. blood pressure medicine) and treatments that slow the rate of development of some types of problems (e.g. cholesterol lowering drugs). But we can't do much about the rate at which we accumulate mutations or the rate at which a href="http://www.futurepundit.com/archives/008684.html">we accumulate toxic intracellular junk.

We aren't going to stay helpless against aging tissues. The legions of scientists experimenting with pluripotent stem cells, tissue engineering, gene therapies, and other promising therapies will succeed and they will succeed in the first half of the 21st century. Once we can fix and replace failing parts the mortality tables go out the window as we gain the ability to do what we can now do to old cars: replace parts and keep on going. At some point in the 21st century we will reach actuarial escape velocity where the rate at which we can repair the body exceeds the rate at which pieces of the body wear out and fail. Our rejuvenated bodies will then go on for many more decades and eventually centuries.

In a nutshell: If you are in your 30s or below I think your odds of dying of old age are remote. Whether folks in their 40s, 50s, and beyond will live to benefit from rejuvenation therapies probably depends on how long they will live naturally. Someone who is 50 years old and has 40 years to go even without biomedical advances will certainly live long enough to enjoy the benefits of biotechnologies that will enable them to live well beyond 90 years.

By Randall Parker 2012 August 02 10:15 PM  Aging Reversal
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