Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Historian Yuval Noah Harari‘s best seller book, Sapiens is a hard-to-put-down analysis of the reasons Homo sapiens became not only the dominant species of planet Earth, but also the only one that can control its destiny.

It is difficult to summarize a book that covers the whole of human history, and also a bit of the future. However, Harari’s main point is that the most unique characteristic of our species is not the intelligence of individual human beings, nor some unique quality (a soul, maybe) that only humans possess, much less the ability to stand erect and to create tools. Instead, it is our unique ability to believe and act on collective fictions, created and passed on, over time and space, by language, culture and behavior.

One hundred thousand years ago, humans were already as smart as they are today, were able to make tools, and lived in small groups that could be a threat to the survival of large animals. However, they did not have the ability to change the planet, an ability that only appeared recently, in evolutionary terms.

According to Harari, what makes the human species so different from other species is the ability of humans to create collective fictions that are used to coordinate the actions of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or even millions of human beings. These fictions, the result of what could be called “collective hallucinations”, have created first the agricultural revolution and then the technological revolutions that led to today’s world. It is the ability to create these collective fictions that made Homo sapiens unique, in its ability to transform and also to destroy the world.

Almost anything that is important in today’s society fits into this wide category of a collective fictions or, as he also calls them, religions. Money is, of course, a collective fiction, not valuable by itself, but only because everyone believes in it. But the concept also encompasses religions, political systems, philosophical beliefs, and even several concepts in ethics. Harari’s convincing arguments put at the same level (and calls them nothing else than collective fictions, or religions) systems as diverse as Christianism, Islamism, Capitalism, Marxism, Socialism, Nazism, Humanism, Liberalism, and Democracy. Harari argues that even ideas so commonly accepted as nations, corporations, afterlife, human rights or the sanctity of human life are nothing more than a shared belief, held by almost everyone today, but relatively recent in historical terms.

The argument is powerful, and the book very engaging, a real page turner. As a side benefit, Sapiens is also a grandiose lesson in history, from the prehistoric times to the rise and fall of modern empires, full of surprising facts and wonderful tales.

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The Digital Mind: How Science is Redefining Humanity

Following the release in the US,  The Digital Mind, published by MIT Press,  is now available in Europe, at an Amazon store near you (and possibly in other bookstores). The book covers the evolution of technology, leading towards the expected emergence of digital minds.

Here is a short rundown of the book, kindly provided by yours truly, the author.

New technologies have been introduced in human lives at an ever increasing rate, since the first significant advances took place with the cognitive revolution, some 70.000 years ago. Although electronic computers are recent and have been around for only a few decades, they represent just the latest way to process information and create order out of chaos. Before computers, the job of processing information was done by living organisms, which are nothing more than complex information processing devices, created by billions of years of evolution.

Computers execute algorithms, sequences of small steps that, in the end, perform some desired computation, be it simple or complex. Algorithms are everywhere, and they became an integral part of our lives. Evolution is, in itself, a complex and long- running algorithm that created all species on Earth. The most advanced of these species, Homo sapiens, was endowed with a brain that is the most complex information processing device ever devised. Brains enable humans to process information in a way unparalleled by any other species, living or extinct, or by any machine. They provide humans with intelligence, consciousness and, some believe, even with a soul, a characteristic that makes humans different from all other animals and from any machine in existence.

But brains also enabled humans to develop science and technology to a point where it is possible to design computers with a power comparable to that of the human brain. Artificial intelligence will one day make it possible to create intelligent machines and computational biology will one day enable us to model, simulate and understand biological systems and even complete brains with unprecedented levels of detail. From these efforts, new minds will eventually emerge, minds that will emanate from the execution of programs running in powerful computers. These digital minds may one day rival our own, become our partners and replace humans in many tasks. They may usher in a technological singularity, a revolution in human society unlike any other that happened before. They may make humans obsolete and even a threatened species or they make us super-humans or demi-gods.

How will we create these digital minds? How will they change our daily lives? Will we recognize them as equals or will they forever be our slaves? Will we ever be able to simulate truly human-like minds in computers? Will humans transcend the frontiers of biology and become immortal? Will humans remain, forever, the only known intelligence in the universe?

 

Arrival of the Fittest: why are biological systems so robust?

In his 2014 book, Arrival of the Fittest, Andreas Wagner addresses important open questions in evolution: how are useful innovations created in biological systems, enabling natural selection to perform its magic of creating ever more complex organisms? Why is it that changes in these complex systems do not lead only to non-working systems? What is the origin of variation upon which natural selection acts?

Wagner’s main point is that “Natural selection can preserve innovations, but it cannot create them. Nature’s many innovations—some uncannily perfect—call for natural principles that accelerate life’s ability to innovate, its innovability.”51bwxg5grcl-_sx324_bo1204203200_

In fact, natural selection can apply selective pressure, selecting organisms that have useful phenotypic variations, caused by the underlying genetic variations. However, for this to happen, genetic mutations and variations have to occur and, with high enough frequency, they have to lead to viable and more fit organisms.

In most man-made systems, almost all changes in the original design lead to systems that do not work, or that perform much worse than the original. Performing almost any random change in a plane, in a computer or in a program leads to a system that either performs worst than the original, or else, that fails catastrophically. Biological systems seem much more resilient, though. In this book, Wagner explores several types of (conceptual) biological networks: metabolic networks, protein interaction networks and gene regulatory networks.

Each node in these networks corresponds to one specific biological function: in the first case, a metabolic network, where chemical entities interact; in the second case, a protein interaction network, where proteins interact to create complex functions; and in the third case, a gene regulatory network, where genes regulate the expression of other genes. Two nodes in such networks are neighbors if they differ in only one DNA position, in the genotype that encodes the network.

He concludes that these networks are robust to mutations and, therefore, to innovations. In particular, he shows that you can traverse these networks, from node to neighboring node, while keeping the biological function unchanged, only slightly degraded, or even improved. Unlike man-made systems, biological systems are robust to change, and nature can experiment tweaking them, in the process creating innovation and increasingly complex systems. This how the amazingly complex richness of life has been created in a mere four billion years.

 

Writing a Human Genome from scratch: the Genome Project-write

The Genome Project-write has released a white paper, with a clear proposal of the steps and timeline that will be required to design and assemble a human genome from scratch.

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The project is a large scale project, involving a significant number of institutions, and many well-known researchers, including George Church and Jef Boeke. According to the project web page:

“Writing DNA is the future of science and medicine, and holds the promise of pulling us forward into a better future. While reading DNA code has continued to advance, our capability to write DNA code remains limited, which in turn restricts our ability to understand and manipulate biological systems. GP-write will enable scientists to move beyond observation to action, and facilitate the use of biological engineering to address many of the global problems facing humanity.”

The idea is to use existing technologies for DNA synthesis to accelerate research in a wide spectrum of life-sciences. The synthesis of human genomes may make it possible to understand the phenotypic results of specific genome sequences and will contribute to improve the quality of synthetic biology tools.

Special attention will be paid to the complex ethical, legal and social issues that are a consequence of the project.

The project has received wide coverage, in a number of news sources, including popular science sites such as Statnews and the journal Science.

Reaching “longevity escape velocity”…

The concept that we may one day reach “longevity escape velocity“, a point in time when life expectancy increases by more than one year, every year, is not new. Many people believe that advances in medical and biological sciences will one day create the possibility that humans will live, if not forever, at least for millennia.

An interesting and very informative article in The Economist surveys some of the many ongoing efforts towards extending human longevity.

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The “low tech” approach is based on the idea that calorie restriction (CR), the consistent ingestion of significantly less calories that what is normal, will significantly prolong life. Although the evidence is scant that CR is effective in normal humans, there exists some evidence that, under this regimen, other animals (and unicellular organisms) tend to live longer. The idea is that even a life extension of a few years may take you past the threshold where medical science may extend your life for centuries. So, a Pascal’s Wager makes sense: a few decades of sacrifice, in exchange for centuries of happy life.

More high-tech approaches include genetic manipulation and the development of special drugs that may delay ageing, such as metformim, resveratrol, or rapamycin. Clinical trials are at present very limited, because ageing is not considered a disease  and, as such, anti-ageing drugs cannot get regulatory approval. Self-experimentation seems to be very common in the field, though.

Interest in this type of research is likely to increase, as the population of developed countries ages, and the prospect of significant increase of life expectancy becomes more real. Believers in the singularity have one more incentive. After all, you only need to live enough to get to the singularity.

Next challenge: a synthetic human?

A group of researchers is calling for the next challenge in genetics: create an entirely synthetic human genome. The Human Genome Project Write (HGP-write) aims at creating a human genome from scratch, using the information available from thousands of sequenced human genomes.

Creating a DNA sequence that corresponds to a viable human being is quite an achievable challenge with existing technology. The large number of sequenced human genomes provide an excellent blueprint for that such a genome could be. Poorly understood or hard to sequence regions provide considerable challenges, but they should not be impossible to tackle. More difficult would be to create viable cell lines out of the synthesised DNA, or even viable embryos.

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As IEEE Sprectrum reports, the subject has received considerable attention in the media, namely in the NY Times. The authors of the proposal have already said that they do not intend to create synthetic humans, but only advance the state of the art in genetics research. Their objective is to understand better the human genome, by building a human (and other) genome from scratch. However, one never knows where a road leads, only where it starts from.