Tag Archives: biotechnology

The First CRISPR Patients Are Living Better: Why That Matters After 2020

It’s been a while since I’ve talked about CRISPR, biotechnology, and the prospect of ordinary people enhancing their biology in ways straight out of a comic book. In my defense, this past year has created plenty of distractions. Some have been so bad that my usual optimism of the future has been seriously damaged.

While my spirit is wounded, I still have hope that science and technology will continue to progress. If anything, it’ll progress with more urgency after this year. A great many fields are bound to get more attention and investment after the damage done by a global pandemic.

We can’t agree on much, but we can at least agree on this. Pandemics are bad for business, bad for people, bad for politics, and just objectively awful for everyone all around, no matter what their station is in life.

There’s a lot of incentive to ensure something like this never happens again is what I’m saying. While we’re still a long way from ending pandemics entirely, we already have tools that can help in that effort. One is CRISPR, a promising tool I’ve talked about in the past. While it wasn’t in a position to help us during this pandemic, research into refining it hasn’t stopped.

Despite all the awful health news of this past year, some new research has brought us some promising results on the CRISPR front. In terms of actually treading real people who have real conditions, those results are in and they give us reason to hope.

One such effort involved using CRISPR to help treat people with Sickle Cell Disease, a genetic condition that hinders the ability of red blood cells to carry oxygen. It affects over 4 million people worldwide and often leads to significant complications that can be fatal.

Since CRISPR is all about tweaking genetics, it’s a perfect mechanism with which to develop new therapies. Multiple patients have undergone experimental treatments that utilize this technology. In a report form NPR, the results are exceeding expectations for all the right reasons.

NPR: First Patients To Get CRISPR Gene-Editing Treatment Continue To Thrive

At a recent meeting of the American Society for Hematology, researchers reported the latest results from the first 10 patients treated via the technique in a research study, including Gray, two other sickle cell patients and seven patients with a related blood disorder, beta thalassemia. The patients now have been followed for between three and 18 months.

All the patients appear to have responded well. The only side effects have been from the intense chemotherapy they’ve had to undergo before getting the billions of edited cells infused into their bodies.

The New England Journal of Medicine published online this month the first peer-reviewed research paper from the study, focusing on Gray and the first beta thalassemia patient who was treated.

“I’m very excited to see these results,” says Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, who shared the Nobel Prize this year for her role in the development of CRISPR. “Patients appear to be cured of their disease, which is simply remarkable.”

Make no mistake. This is objectively good news and not just for people suffering from sickle cell disease.

Whenever new medical advances emerge, there’s often a wide gap between developing new treatments and actually implementing them in a way that makes them as commonplace as getting a prescription. The human body is complex. Every individual’s health is different. Taking a treatment from the lab to a patient is among the biggest challenge in medical research.

This news makes it official. CRISPR has made that leap. The possible treatments aren’t just possibilities anymore. There are real people walking this planet who have received this treatment and are benefiting because of it. Victoria Gray, as referenced in the article, is just one of them.

That’s another critical threshold in the development of new technology. When it goes beyond just managing a condition to helping people thrive, then it becomes more than just a breakthrough. It becomes an opportunity.

It sends a message to doctors, researchers, and biotech companies that this technology works. Some of those amazing possibilities that people like to envision aren’t just dreams anymore. They’re manifesting before our eyes. This is just one part of it. If it works for people with Sickle Cell Disease, what other conditions could it treat?

I doubt I’m the first to ask that question. As I write this, there are people far smarter and more qualified than me using CRISPR to develop a whole host of new treatments. After a year like 2020, everyone is more aware of their health. They’re also more aware of why science and medicine matter. It can do more than just save our lives. It can help us thrive.

We learned many hard lessons in 2020, especially when it comes to our health. Let’s not forget those lessons as we look to the future. This technology is just one of many that could help us prosper in ways not possible in previous years. We cheered those who developed the COVID-19 vaccine. Let’s start cheering those working on new treatments with CRISPR.

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The First People Have Received The COVID-19 Vaccine (And We Should Celebrate)

It’s almost over. I’m sure I’m not the only one thinking that with each passing day.

This historically horrible year is almost over. We’re in the home stretch with the holidays approaching. A new year is almost upon us and the bar for improvement for 2021 is laughably low compared to previous years.

We can also say with a straight face that the COVID-19 pandemic is almost over. I say that knowing full-well that cases are still rising and people are still dying at a horrific pace. That’s still objectively terrible.

The reason there’s hope now is we actually have a working vaccine. Thanks to the heroic efforts of scientists, doctors, and those who volunteered to test this unproven treatment, the key to ending this pandemic is upon us.

It also is just the first. There are multiple vaccines in late stages of development. It’s very likely that we’ll have a second effective before New Years. That’s a powerful one-two punch to this pandemic that has killed so many and disrupted so many lives.

These aren’t folk remedies or something some shady health guru is trying to pawn for a quick buck. Contrary to what anti-vaxxers may claim, these vaccines will actually protect people. As of this writing, it’s being distributed to front line care workers and vulnerable populations.

Just this past week, the first individuals received the vaccine. It started with a British woman in Coventry. It continued with an ICU nurse in New York City. CNN even captured it in a live video feed.

CNN: ICU nurse in New York among the first people in the US to get authorized coronavirus vaccine

A critical care nurse was the first person in New York and among the first people in the United States to get a shot of the coronavirus vaccine authorized by the US Food and Drug Administration.

Sandra Lindsay, an ICU nurse at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens, New York City, was administered the vaccine during a live video event at about 9:20 a.m. ET on Monday.

Dr. Michelle Chester, the corporate director of employee health services at Northwell Health, delivered the shot.

“She has a good touch, and it didn’t feel any different than taking any other vaccine,” Lindsay said immediately afterward.

This isn’t just a turning point in the fight against a deadly disease. This is something we should celebrate. Moreover, I believe this is the kind of celebrating we should learn from.

I admit I’ve celebrated some less-than-important things in my life. Hell, I celebrated the day when comics started coming out digitally the same day they came out in shops. I treated that like I won the Super Bowl.

People celebrate all sorts of events that they believe to be the most important thing in the world. Whether it’s their team winning a championship or a movie grossing $2 billion at the box office, we all have a different bar for what warrants celebrating.

For just once, let’s all re-think where we raise that bar. Let’s also let this be a prime example of something that’s truly worth celebrating and praising.

Make no mistake. Creating this vaccine this quickly is a remarkable achievement. We’ve endured pandemics in the past. Some of those pandemics have killed far more people. This disease could’ve definitely killed more. If we didn’t have this vaccine, or even if we had to wait a year to get it, thousands more would’ve died.

Now, going into 2021, countless lives will be saved because of this. It’s a testament to the power of science, hard work, and human ingenuity. It’s as heroic as we can be without the aid of superpowers or magic wands. As someone who loves superhero media, I say that’s a beautiful thing indeed. So, let’s all take a moment to appreciate and celebrate this achievement. I also fully intend to get this vaccine, once it’s available. When that day comes, I’ll gladly share that moment and encourage others to do the same.

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Vaccine Update: The Impact Of The Moderna Vaccine (Beyond COVID-19)

Sometimes, it takes a terrible global crisis to spurn huge leaps in technology. World War II was arguably the greatest crisis of the modern era, but it helps advance some of the greatest technological leaps in history. We can argue whether those advances were worth all the death and destruction, but there’s no denying that our world wouldn’t be the same without them.

The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t on the same level as World War II, but it is, by most measures, the greatest crisis the world has faced in the past 50 years. It hasn’t just caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and immeasurable amounts of suffering. It has completely disrupted this big, interconnected world that we’ve come to depend on.

We’ve all lost something in this pandemic. Beyond the loved ones who have perished, our entire sense of security and hope has been shattered. We now realize just how vulnerable we were and how inevitable this was. As bad as it is, there is some good coming out of it.

Usually, a crisis like this helps break down the barriers that divided us and hindered progress, technological or otherwise. Never before has the world been more united or engaged in a singular effort. Before 2020, we probably didn’t know much about vaccines or vaccine research. We just knew that Jenny McCarthy tried to be relevant again by protesting them.

That’s changing now. The global effort to create a vaccine for this terrible disease has been watched and agonized over for months. Most recently, we got a much-needed glimmer of hope from Pfizer, who reported that their vaccine is 90 percent effective. I celebrated this news like everyone else.

Then, we got an even greater glimmer of hope from the other vaccine front-runner by Moderna. Not only is their vaccine in the final phase of testing, like Pfizer. It’s even more effective and promises to be easier to store and distribute.

CNN: Moderna’s coronavirus vaccine is 94.5% effective, according to company data

The Moderna vaccine is 94.5% effective against coronavirus, according to early data released Monday by the company, making it the second vaccine in the United States to have a stunningly high success rate.

“These are obviously very exciting results,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor. “It’s just as good as it gets — 94.5% is truly outstanding.”

Moderna heard its results on a call Sunday afternoon with members of the Data Safety and Monitoring Board, an independent panel analyzing Moderna’s clinical trial data.

This is objectively great news in a year when we’ve had precious little of it. These two vaccines may very well be the one-two punch we need to end the COVID-19 pandemic and return to some semblance of normalcy. I would still like to go to a movie theater or baseball game at some point in 2021. These vaccines may make that possible.

However, I’d like to take a moment to speculate beyond this terrible pandemic that has uprooted so many lives. I know that’s not easy to do when the crisis is still very relevant and inflicting plenty of suffering. I still think it’s worth attempting, if only to imagine the better world that emerges from this mess.

That’s because both these vaccines aren’t like your typical flu shots. For one, flu shots aren’t nearly as effective as what Pfizer and Moderna reported. According to the CDC, you’re average flu shot is between 40 and 60 percent effective. That’s still important because the flu can be deadly. Anything you do to reduce it can only further public health, in general.

The problem is the flu shot, and most vaccines like it, are based on old technology. At their most basic, they take a non-infectious or weakened strain of a pathogen and use it to amp up your body’s immunity. It’s crude, but it works. Literally nothing has saved more lives than vaccines.

The problem is that vaccines are notoriously hard to develop. They take a long time to test and an even longer time to approve. Until this pandemic, there just wasn’t much incentive to improve on that process. Now, after these past 8 months, the incentive couldn’t have been greater.

That’s what sped up the development of mRNA vaccines, the technology behind both Pfizer and Moderna. It was reported on as far back as 2018. While this technology isn’t completely new, it has never been developed beyond a certain point. There just wasn’t any incentive to do so. A global crisis changed that.

Very simply, an mRNA vaccine does one better on traditional vaccines by using RNA to develop immunity. It’s not as easy as it sounds. To develop that immunity, it has encode itself with just the right antigen. That way, the antibodies it creates can attack the desired pathogen.

In the case of COVID-19, the mRNA vaccine attacks the distinct spike protein the virus uses to attach to host cells. It’s like a missile targeting a specific individual in a large crowd by locking onto the distinct hat they wear.

This approach has the potential to be much more effective at generating immunity to a particular disease. Instead of trying to mimic a virus, it just gives the immune system the necessary software it needs to do the work. It could potentially revolutionize the way we treat and prevent diseases.

For years, certain viruses like the flu and HIV have confounded efforts to develop a vaccine. Beyond the problems I listed earlier with regards to testing, the difficulty of creating a particular immune response to a particular antigen is very difficult. These viruses mutate and change all the time. With COVID, vaccines do have an advantage because they have a distinct feature.

The challenge for future vaccines against future pandemics is quickly uncovering a particular antigen that the mRNA can be coded for. In theory, all you would have to do is find the one key antigen that’s common to every strain of the virus. While viruses like the flu are notoriously diverse, they can only change so much.

It’s akin to trying to identify an army of spies in a large crowd. They may all look different on the outside, but if they all have the same socks, then that’s what you code for. With some refinements, an mRNA vaccine can stop a pandemic in its tracks before it ever gets beyond a certain point.

That assumes we’ll continue to refine this technology after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed. I certainly hope that’s the case. This year has traumatized entire generations with how much pain and suffering it has inflicted. I sincerely hope that gives plenty of motivation to develop technology like this. That way, we never have to endure a disruption like this again.

To all those who helped develop this technology and these two vaccines, I hope you appreciate the impact you’ll make with this technology. The number of lives they could save is incalculable. Future generations may not remember your names, but they will be forever grateful for this wondrous gift you’ve given them.

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Filed under Current Events, futurism, health, technology, Uplifting Stories

Jack’s World: Why Neuralink Might Be The Most Important Venture Of All Time

The following is a video for my YouTube channel, Jack’s World. You may recognize the title from an article I wrote years ago in the before times when pandemics were still the subject of bad sci-fi movies. I miss those times too.

The news surrounding Neuralink is still of great interest to me. I still think it’s one of the most important technological advancements of the century. This video simply offers another general overview of why this technology is so important. Enjoy!

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Filed under biotechnology, futurism, health, human nature, Jack's World, Neuralink, technology, YouTube

Apologies For A Post That Did NOT Age Well

We all say, do, or write things that don’t age well and it’s not just because of cancel culture. Sometimes, you just do things that turn out to be dead wrong. It happens. It’s distressing, uncomfortable, and frustrating. It’s also unavoidable. We’re all fallible humans. We’re going to be wrong every now and then. It’s just a matter of degree.

To that end, I’d like to admit my own major error. I probably could’ve just casually ignored this, but I think it’s better that I confront this now rather than later. Back in late February, I wrote something about the coronavirus. Without getting into every detail on that piece, I’ll just say this. I was wrong. I was very, very wrong and I apologize.

For the full story and context, here’s a link and an excerpt.

A (Hopeful) Perspective On The Coronavirus

There’s another perspective worth considering when following the news of the coronavirus. Unlike the devastating plagues of the past, humanity has developed a decent infrastructure for medicine, technology, and research. Granted, it took us centuries of trial, error, and mass death and there’s still plenty of room for improvement, but that system is there. It’s better than nothing. Just ask Medieval Europe.

That system is already doing its job in combating the virus. Already, researchers at the University of Texas in Austin have mapped out critical portions of the virus. That sort of thing couldn’t have been done this quickly or at all just 30 years ago. This data is critical for the development of treatments and, ultimately, a vaccine.

The fact that this happened so quickly after the outbreak is something the news hasn’t reported on. Even if treatments develop and the virus is contained, as we’ve seen with other recent outbreaks, it probably won’t be a huge story within the ever-changing news cycle.

It almost seems quaint. I come off as so hopeful that this isn’t going to be a major issue. This isn’t going to utterly break the world and turn 2020 into a devolving mess of frustration, misery, and outrage. Usually, my optimism helps me navigate tough times, but optimism doesn’t do squat against a global pandemic.

This isn’t a renegade hashtag.

This isn’t some juicy celebrity scandal.

This isn’t even some horrific terrorist attack that brings out the best and worst and people.

Global pandemics are different. They don’t give a damn about politics, economic trends, social trends, or when baseball season is supposed to start. It’s a mindless disease and it’s killing us. Even at my most cynical, I never imagined it could cause this much suffering and death. Now, as a fresh spike in cases is starting to take hold, what I wrote in February only seems more foolish.

As such, I sincerely apologize. I was wrong. I had no idea it was going to get this bad. If you read that article and took comfort in it at the time, I’m very sorry.

I’m still trying to cling to some semblance of optimism. I do believe that this crisis, like many others before it, will pass. It’s just going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

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Filed under Current Events, Jack Fisher's Insights, media issues, technology

Customizing Your Junk In “Cyberpunk 2077” And The (Potentially Real) Possibilities It’ll Inspires

Technology has and will continue to affect our sex life, our love life, our social life, and everything in between. It’s unavoidable. Whatever new technology we create will eventually affect or be applied to our sex life. Whether intentional or unintentional, it’ll find a way. Human beings are just too creative, passionate, and horny.

I’ve explored some emerging technologies that could have a significant impact on our sex lives. Many people alive today are likely to feel those impacts at some point. For the most part, it’s difficult to imagine. We can only speculate. However, we may gain unique insights from unexpected places.

Decades ago, shows like “Star Trek” and movies like “Demolition Man” imagined technology like smartphones and tablets. At the time, they didn’t seem like huge leaps, but they still seemed futuristic. They also offered some insight into how technology might find its way into our lives. It may have been innocuous to the story, but it was downright prophetic in envisioning the real-world implications.

This brings me to an upcoming game called “Cyberpunk 2077.” In a year where so many things that we love are getting delayed or cancelled, this had video game fans of all types giddy with excitement. It’s already one of the most anticipated games of the year and I count myself among those who have already made plans to play it for hours on end.

This is no standard Mario game. “Cyberpunk 2077” is “Grand Theft Auto” meets “Skyrim,” with a dash of Keanu Reeves for added awesome. It’s a mature journey into a futuristic world full of cyborgs, outlaws, and bloody brawls. If you can’t find something to enjoy in that, then you’re just being difficult.

However, the appeal of game isn’t the primary issue I want to highlight. Recently, some new details emerged that could offer the kind of futuristic insight that even “Star Trek” was too afraid to address. Specifically, the game revealed an option to customize the genitals of your character. An article in Kotaku went into detail.

Kotaku: Cyberpunk 2077 Has First-Person Sex Scenes, Will Let You Customize Your Genitals

Players can select a gender and customize their character; customization can include depictions of breasts, buttocks, and genitalia, as well as various sizes and combinations of genitals. Players can encounter events where they have the option to engage in sexual activities with other main characters or prostitutes — these brief sex scenes (from a first-person perspective) depict partially nude characters moaning suggestively while moving through various positions.

Now, this feature isn’t exactly new. Other games have played with similar options, such as “Saints Row.” However, “Cyberpunk 2077” promises to take this option even further.

That makes sense in the context of the game. It’s a futuristic world in which the line between technology and our bodies is essentially gone. You can augment limps, organs, and various other features. It makes sense that this extends to our genitals. Conceivably, it means men can have vaginas, women can have penises, and those who prefer a more ambiguous kind of sexuality can mix and match.

The possibilities are vast, as well as sexy. To some, it’ll be disturbing. I’m sure the Rick Santorums and Jack Thompsons of the world won’t sleep well. At the same time, it provides some insight into the future of our bodies, our sex lives, and our love lives.

While the technology in “Cyberpunk 2077” is a long way off, some parts of it are already starting to emerge. From Neuralink to lab grown organs, the principle of creating new body parts and augmenting the ones we have isn’t new. It’s not some magical concept that requires that we break the laws of physics. In theory, this sort of thing is possible. It’s just a matter of time, investment, and development.

What games like “Cyberpunk 2077” promise is the ability to explore how society reacts to having the ability to change, enhance, or adjust their bodies at will. If you can have one set of genitals one day and another by the end of the week, what does that do for people? How does it affect the way they conduct themselves? How does it impact our notions of gender?

It would definitely change. That’s for certain. While it may be a novelty in the game, it could offer some insights for the real world. A while back, a study of players who played “Mass Effect” revealed that the vast majority of them preferred the path of a paragon hero over that of a renegade. Both options were available, but one appealed more.

I find that kind of insight powerful because, unlike TV shows or movies, video games are more engaging. People play an active role in both the plot of the story and how the characters conduct themselves. In games like “Cyberpunk 2077” when there are so many options for customization, the possibilities are even greater.

One day, people in the real world will be able to reconfigure and customize their genitals just like players can in “Cyberpunk 2077.” It’s hard to know what kind of impact that’ll have on the world, but “Cyberpunk 2077” should give us a tantalizing glimpse.

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, biotechnology, futurism, gender issues, Second Sexual Revolution, sex in society, sex robots, Sexy Future, video games

Lab Grown Vaginas Are A Real Thing (And The Sexy Possibilities They Entail)

Good news tends to slip through the cracks, especially in today’s world of misguided hashtags and contrived outrage. It’s unfortunate, but that’s just how people are wired. Bad news gets our attention. That’s just how we’re wired. During times of crisis, such as a global pandemic, good news might as well be an alien concept.

For that reason, and many others, highlighting good news is incredibly important. That’s especially true when it comes to breakthroughs in medical science. As of now, everyone is rooting for doctors, biologists, and researchers to find new breakthroughs in treating diseases like COVID-19. While that effort will likely to dominate headlines for months to come, there is another headline that I feel is worth citing.

It doesn’t involve COVID-19. Instead, it involves vaginas.

I’m assuming I have your attention now.

I promise this isn’t entirely an excuse to write about vaginas. This is a real, legitimate breakthrough with some major implications. Regardless of whether or not you have a vagina, it has the potential to effect you, your loved ones, and future generations. Seeing as how we’re all alive, in part, because of vaginas, those breakthroughs are worth taking note of.

Specifically, this development has to do with lab-grown body parts. It has been an emerging industry in recent years. It’s one of those industries that used to exist on paper, but has since become very real and very promising. Thanks to disease, accidents, and human stupidity, people have a tendency to damage their organs. With this technology, we we’ll be able to swap them out for perfectly functional replacements.

While some organs are much harder to grow than others, a vagina is one of the few we’ve successfully grown in labs and transplanted into actual patients. Like the bionic penis I wrote about a few years ago, this is real. There are currently women in this world who have a lab-grown vagina in them and it works as well as any other. This 2014 article from the BBC nicely documents the science behind this breakthrough.

BBC Health: Doctors implant lab-grown vagina

Doctors at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Centre in North Carolina used pioneering technology to build vaginas for the four women who were all in their teenage years at the time.

Scans of the pelvic region were used to design a tube-like 3D-scaffold for each patient.

A small tissue biopsy was taken from the poorly developed vulva and grown to create a large batch of cells in the laboratory.

Muscle cells were attached to the outside of the scaffold and vaginal-lining cells to the inside.

The vaginas were carefully grown in a bioreactor until they were suitable to be surgically implanted into the patients.

One of the women with an implanted vagina, who wished to keep her name anonymous, said: “I believe in the beginning when you find out you feel different.

“I mean while you are living the process, you are seeing the possibilities you have and all the changes you’ll go through.

“Truly I feel very fortunate because I have a normal life, completely normal.”

All the women reported normal sexual function.

I highlighted that bold part because it emphasizes the current goal of this technology. It’s intended to give women who have developmental issues, such as vaginal aplasia, a chance at normal sexual function. That’s usually how all medical breakthroughs start. It heals patience back to a level of normal functioning.

However, this technology has been working since 2014. It’s still in its infancy, but the reason I bring it up is because we’re currently in a situation where everyone is rooting for medical science to progress faster. This crisis, even though it doesn’t directly involve vaginas, could benefit from our current desire to see medical science progress.

As with the bionic penis, the science of lab grown body parts starts at restoring patients to normal function, but it doesn’t stop there. If anything, that just provides a baseline. As humans, with our wide capacity for kink, we’re rarely satisfied with just normal functionality in our bodies. That’s why breast implants are a multi-billion dollar industry.

Now, I’m not saying lab-grown vaginas will follow a similar path, but there’s definitely a market for them. As I’ve noted before, there’s still a wide orgasm gap between women and men. Some of that is psychological, but there’s also some biology behind it. Most women don’t achieve orgasm through vaginal sex alone and most sex ed classes never teach them that.

Education and insight can help, but that too has limits. As this technology matures, it’ll eventually graduate from simply restoring normal sexual function to enhancing it. That may sound somewhat radical, but it’s not that different from what people do now. People already take drugs, both illicit and prescription, to enhance sexual function. A lab grown vagina could just be a more ambitious effort.

How ambitious could it get? It’s hard to say. I’m not a woman and I can’t speak for women who might contemplate enhancing certain parts of their anatomy. I just know that the desire for a satisfying sex life transcends gender, taboos, and body image. As medical science advances, we have more and more tools with which to achieve that. Lab grown vaginas and bionic penises are just the latest and boldest.

Whatever form they take, they’ll ensure our future is a sexy one.

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Six Technologies The Coronavirus/COVID-19 Pandemic Could Accelerate

Humanity is capable of amazing feats when given the right incentive and circumstances. The problem is that humanity is also rather stubborn when it comes to incentives and exceedingly evasive when it comes to changing circumstances. We’ll go the extra distance and beat the odds eventually. We just need to be dragged kicking and screaming for a while.

When it comes to the ultimate incentives and circumstances, few check more boxes than a global pandemic. I don’t think I need to belabor how bad the ongoing Coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic has been. Even without media distortions and political agendas, there’s no getting around the damage it has and continues to inflict.

People are dying.

People suffering.

Societies and economies are teetering on the brink of collapse.

This is not a tenable situation and one nobody wants to see again. As bad as it is, there might be one silver lining to this global tragedy. It could help accelerate the development of technology that was already in the works, but lacked the necessary motivation to develop faster.

What follows are a few technologies that I believe this horrible pandemic might help in the sense that it’ll add some urgency. Nobody wants to see a mess like this again. Whether you’re rich, poor, powerful, or powerless, we have every reason to find new ways of preventing these plagues before they happen and these technologies are instrumental in doing just that.


Artificial Intelligence (Not Necessarily The Advanced Kind)

It’s impossible to overstate the potential benefits of artificial intelligence. I’ve certainly made a concerted effort when writing about it in the past. However, in the context of battling plagues, we don’t necessarily need the kind of super-advanced, super-intelligent AI to provide some of those benefits. When it comes to combating plagues, we don’t need an AI to be as intelligent as a human. We just need it to help us combat deadly disease.

This can be done without the kind of AI that finds its way into Skynet or Hal 9000. An AI that can better-analyze genetic data, run simulations on possible treatments, and track the spread of a disease can do plenty to prevent or mitigate future plagues. If it can just help us identify and isolate new cases in a short span of time, then that alone could save millions.

At a certain point, AI could get powerful enough to calculate entire treatment programs once it has the genetic data of a pathogen or condition. After this global, well-publicized crisis, it’ll have plenty of data to work with.


Space-Based Broadband Internet

When it comes to dealing with pandemics, the incentives don’t stop at treating the disease. Given all the closures and cancellations caused by COVID-19, we now know how challenging it is to endure an extended quarantine, especially for kids with no school and sports fans with no sports.

Enduring this crisis has revealed just how critical it is to have a strong, robust internet connection. It may not treat the disease, but it makes the measures recommended by the authorities more bearable. The problem is our current infrastructure for the internet is badly in need of upgrades and its role in helping us function has been made abundantly clear during this crisis.

For work, play, and just avoiding crippling boredom, we need a better internet. That’s where space-based internet, like the ones being developed by companies like FaceBook and Google come in. The idea is as simple as it is awesome. Use satellites and other high-flying crafts to deliver data more efficiently and reliably.

There are a few space-based internet service providers now, but they’re incredibly limited. This crisis, which needs reliable internet for so many reasons, might help pick up the pace in refining this technology. At the very least, it will allow people to binge-watch Netflix from the summit of Mount Everest.


Nanoparticle Vaccines

On the medical side of things, this crisis should go a long way towards teaching people the importance of vaccines. While I don’t doubt the anti-vax crowd will find an excuse to protest, even those skeptical of modern medicine can’t deny the need for better preventative measures for these treatments. Unfortunately, vaccine technology has been stagnant for decades.

This pandemic will hopefully change that and not a minute too soon. The current process for producing a vaccine is long and cumbersome, taking upwards of two years. It’s a process that has a lot of room for improvement. That’s where technology like nanoparticles come in.

The key to any medical treatment is the effectiveness of the delivery system. Vaccines have always had to take a messy path, but nanoparticles could change that. Instead of relying on the biological equivalent of a blunt instrument, nanoparticles could become biological smart-bombs, targeting pathogens with the precision we need to keep them from ever becoming pandemics.

Anti-vaxxers who refuse these just have a death with.


Gene Editing/Synthetic Biology

Not unlike vaccines, gene editing and synthetic biology stand to get a major boost from this crisis. I’ve written about gene editing tool like CRISPR in the past. I’ve touted it as a tool that could potentially treat all infectious disease, especially when combined with synthetic biology. That might have been hyperbole, but I stand by my claims on it’s potential.

Gene editing can do more than make pet fish glow. In theory, it can tweak and rewrite the DNA of organism, including the viruses that infect us. The challenge is refining the procedure so that we know how to modify diseases or create entirely new organisms that combat them through synthetic biology.

It’s not a small challenge. I’m grossly oversimplifying the obstacles in refining this technology into something usable. However, those obstacles are not insurmountable. It just requires time, resources, and motivation. After being economically and socially ravaged by a global pandemic, these efforts will have a lot more urgency.


Immersive Virtual Reality

While the scientists and doctors take up the challenge of fighting future pandemics, the rest of us are tasked with enduring the boredom they incur. I’ve noted before how boredom could become the plague of the future. I hope those stuck at home for weeks on end are done doubting me.

The entertainment industry may never be as vital as the medical industry, but it’ll play an important role in helping people stay sane, calm, and kind. Binge-watching TV and playing video games is helpful, but there’s room for improvement. At the end of the day, you’re still just sitting on a couch, looking at a screen.

To keep things both interesting and active, the development of virtual reality should get a major boost. It has existed for years and grown considerably from the days of the Virtual Boy, but it has room for improvement. Thanks to improving computer technology and more advanced interfaces like Neuralink, the experience could become even more immersive.

Beyond simply treating boredom, it could allow a greater sense of active engagement, which is critical when everyone is practicing social distancing. Being isolated and cut off from human contact may help temper a plague, but it’s not healthy. A way to immerse yourself in a realistic environment could help make future quarantines more bearable while also opening a new market, which gaming companies are sure to exploit.


Sex Robots (Obviously)

Does this one really need an explanation? When you’re stuck inside, horny, and run out of things to binge-watch, things are going to happen. Even if your partner or significant other is with you, they might get sick and you might feel lonely. Given how pandemics tend to temper the market for sex workers, a sex robot might be the best and only option.

If at least one company or horny entrepreneur hasn’t realized that by now, I’ll be shocked. The market for sex robots has been growing in recent years. After enduring a pandemic and weeks of social isolation, that market has likely grown. People rarely forget big global events like this. They’ll remember how lonely they were and that memory will fuel the development of sex robots more than any libido.

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A (Hopeful) Perspective On The Coronavirus

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As a general rule, I always watch the news with a skeptical eye. That’s not just because we live in an era of fake news, misguided outrage, and conspiracy theories about shape-shifting lizard people. I’ve learned from time, experience, and observation that the news can only ever tell part of a story as it’s happening. The full story never comes out until much later. Sometimes, it’s years later.

That’s not easy when following stories like the coronavirus. Unlike other major news stories that make headlines for all the wrong reasons, this is a serious issue. This is something the public needs to know about. The coronavirus is not just a nasty cold. It’s killing people all over the world. That’s an indisputable fact and one that warrants serious concern.

At the same time, there’s a context worth noting. As bad as the coronavirus is, it’s not the second coming of the Black Death or the Spanish Flu. This is not the kind of disease that will turn the planet into a post-apocalyptic wasteland in the mold of a Stephen King novel. It’s still serious, but it’s not a global cataclysm. Even if it ends up killing millions, there are over 7.6 billion people on this planet.

Human beings adapt.

Human beings survive.

It’s one of the few things we’re good at.

There’s another perspective worth considering when following the news of the coronavirus. Unlike the devastating plagues of the past, humanity has developed a decent infrastructure for medicine, technology, and research. Granted, it took us centuries of trial, error, and mass death and there’s still plenty of room for improvement, but that system is there. It’s better than nothing. Just ask Medieval Europe.

That system is already doing its job in combating the virus. Already, researchers at the University of Texas in Austin have mapped out critical portions of the virus. That sort of thing couldn’t have been done this quickly or at all just 30 years ago. This data is critical for the development of treatments and, ultimately, a vaccine.

The fact that this happened so quickly after the outbreak is something the news hasn’t reported on. Even if treatments develop and the virus is contained, as we’ve seen with other recent outbreaks, it probably won’t be a huge story within the ever-changing news cycle.

We know this because in late 2019, the first vaccine for Ebola was approved for use by the FDA and it barely showed up in the headlines. Considering how much panic the Ebola outbreak caused several years ago, this is quite a triumph. It shows just how quickly our current system can respond to these diseases.

Again, there’s still room for improvement and accessibility to medicine is a major issue, but the coronavirus is not some new form of disease. It’s a virus. We know what viruses are. We have the technology to study, treat, and combat them, more so than we have at any point in human history. Considering how much better we’ve gotten since the heyday of the AIDS pandemic, I say that’s reason to be hopeful.

That doesn’t mean we should let our guard down. When the CDC issues a warning about the coronavirus, we should take it seriously. At the same time, we should take comfort in the knowledge that we live in an era where human ingenuity has limited the suffering caused by these devastating plagues.

As with Ebola, we will eventually develop a treatment for the coronavirus. It won’t be perfect, but it will limit the death and suffering it causes. It also won’t make the news because it’s just not scary or dire enough. At this point, finding effective treatments for diseases is so mundane it barely qualifies as news. That’s an objectively good thing.

I hope that helps provide a bit of context and hope to the news surrounding the coronavirus. It’s still worth taking seriously, but we shouldn’t let grim headlines distract us from the great things that humanity achieves when faced with a challenge.

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Filed under biotechnology, Current Events, technology, Uplifting Stories

Selling (And Exploiting) Human Enhancement: An Ominous Lesson From “Superior Iron Man”

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How much would you be willing to pay for perfect health, perfect beauty, and a greater capacity to enjoy life as you see fit? This is not a rhetorical question. I would even argue that it’s an increasingly relevant question. In the coming years, answering it might even become more urgent.

I’ve talked about the prospects of human enhancement through emerging technology before. From its impact on our concept of beauty to how our society will function, there are many impacts to consider. Some of those impacts are already manifesting before our eyes. Just last year, the first genetically modified babies were born in China. Like it or not, this is happening.

It’s impossible to overstate the benefits, risks, and upheavals that human enhancement will have on our species and our world. Nobody knows for sure what’s going to happen as this technology matures or how societies, economies, and governments will react to it. Even so, it’s worth contemplating. It’s even worth imagining elaborate scenarios in fictional worlds.

While plenty of noteworthy stories have imagined such scenarios, some more dystopian than others, there’s one in particular I’d like to single out. It’s not entirely dystopian, but it does offer some distressing lessons about the larger economics of human enhancement. It also helps that those lessons come through a forgotten, but criminally underrated Iron Man comic.

Given the rapid rise of Iron Man’s star power over the past decade, his character is uniquely qualified to explore these difficult questions surrounding technology and how we use it. He is, at his core, a visionary who uses technology to solve problems, save lives, and occasionally fight invading aliens. In the series, “Superior Iron Man,” he takes that vision several steps further and cross many lines along the way.

While there are some convoluted circumstances surrounding this series, the ideas it explores are profound, even by the standards of superhero comics. You don’t need to know the specifics of those circumstances. They involve forces like magic and inversion spells, which are far too complicated to explain to those who haven’t followed Marvel comics for more than two decades.

The only detail anyone needs to know about “Superior Iron Man” is that the Tony Stark in this story is not the same lovable character that helped make Robert Downy Jr. one of the most lovable stars in Hollywood. This version of Tony is less bound by concepts of heroism, selflessness, and sobriety. That’s not to say he’s evil, but he’s definitely no hero.

Within this ethically bankrupt state, Tony embarks on a new initiative that’s as selfish as it is lucrative. It revolves around Extremis, an exotic cocktail of nanotechnology and biotechnology that effectively rewrites the blueprint of the entire human body into something better, stronger, and more robust. In essence, it is the ultimate tool for human enhancement.

While the initial version of Extremis was lethal to most people who used it, Tony creates a more commercialized version in “Superior Iron Man” that gives everyone a chance to enjoy its benefits. He calls it Extremis 3.0 and people can access it through a simple smartphone app. With it, people can achieve what Tony describes as physical perfection.

Everyone can be perfectly healthy.

Everyone can be young and beautiful.

Everyone can be functionally immortal.

It sounds like a miracle drug and by every measure, it is. This isn’t some Dr. Oz wannabe pitching vitamins that do nothing other than give you false hope. This technology actually works. With it, Tony gives the entire city of San Francisco a chance to experience the fruits of human enhancement.

Understandably, once people get a taste of what Extremis 3.0 has to offer, they love it. They also take full advantage of it. At one point in the story, Pepper Potts says it’s turning the streets of San Francisco into a non-stop parade of debauchery and self-indulgence. Tony does not see this as a bad thing. If anything, it perfectly complements his plans and his renewed appetite for self-indulgence.

This is where “Superior Iron Man” attempts to answer that question about putting a price on physical perfection. Writer Tom Taylor, alongside artist Yildiray Çinar, doesn’t hide from the disturbing parts of that answer. By the end of the first issue, Tony puts a literal price on that perfection. Needless to say, it causes plenty of conflict and it escalates quickly.

When he initially released Extremis 3.0 onto San Francisco, he gives ordinary people a taste of what it’s like to be as fit as Captain America, as beautiful as Emma Frost, and as physically endowed as Thor. It’s not a drug that just attempts to match that feeling. It physically changes their bodies and their capacity for using them. That taste, however, was just a free sample. To keep enjoying it, they must pay $99 a day.

It’s crude trick right out of the playbook of subscription apps. People get a free trial period that’s just long enough to get them hooked. Then, before they even realize they have to pay anything, they get hit with a paywall. It’s a cruel bait-and-switch, but this isn’t just another streaming video service. This is physical perfection and unlimited self-indulgence. Is $99 a day really that unreasonable?

It certainly rubs plenty of people the wrong way, including many of Tony’s long-time friends and allies. Both Daredevil and Pepper Potts turn against him for such devious tactic. It also has some noticeable effects on the people who use it. By the end of the first issue, a stark class divide emerges between those who can afford Extremis 3.0 and those who can’t.

Naturally, it causes crime and conflict among the residents of San Francisco. Tony, now both feared and beloved by these people, takes it upon himself to manage it. He gains power, wealth, status, and an endless supply of eager party guests for whenever he seeks to indulge. It’s a perfect cocktail of recklessness and irresponsibility.

Without spoiling the rest of the story, which ended too soon, I think it’s worth taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture that “Superior Iron Man” presented. If you take away the iconic characters and the superhero themes, you get a story about a selfish business tycoon who has sole possession of the ultimate biotech product.

The goal isn’t to heal the sick, ease suffering, or evolve the human species. The goal is simply to make a lot of money, feed an inflated ego, and indulge in every conceivable vice without consequences. It’s a worst-case scenario for liberals and conservatives, alike. At the same time, it makes a compelling case that our current system can’t handle the impacts of large-scale human enhancement.

That doesn’t mean it can’t succeed in our current system. The size of the current biotech industry is already measured in the hundreds of billions. Overpriced drugs are nothing new, either. Just this past year, the FDA approved a drug called Zolgensma, which costs $425,000 a year for five years to treat a rare genetic disorder called spinal muscular atrophy.

By comparison, Extremis 3.0 is a bargain with far greater value. Even at $99 a day, the yearly cost of enjoying that physical perfection amounts to around $36,500 a year. That still takes up a good chunk of the average income for most Americans, but considering all the benefits of having a perfect body, is it still a bargain?

For anyone who has overpaid for inflated medical expenses, I suspect they would gladly pay that high price for Extremis 3.0. Tony Stark banked on that in “Superior Iron Man” and he was right. People did pay and it was very lucrative for him. The population of the San Francisco Bay Area in which he unleashed Extremis 3.0 is around 4.6 million. At $99 a day, that’s a potential annual revenue of $167 billion.

In terms of business ranking, that would put Tony’s venture in the top 20 in terms of largest companies by revenue. If he were to unleash Extremis on the entire United States, the potential annual revenue would be near $11.8 trillion. That’s a little more than half of the entire US economy.

Imagine one company, let alone one person, having that much money and influence over a population. Tony was already a billionaire before “Superior Iron Man,” but Extremis 3.0 rewarded him with more than just money. Tony, being the sole provider, held a great deal of power and influence over San Francisco. As is often the case in superhero stories, that power goes to his head.

That story plays out in the real world just as often. In some cases, it brings out the worst in people. For a product like Extremis 3.0, which provides human enhancement into a simple commercial package that anyone can access through an app, the potential for abuse is much worse.

Beyond the greed it would inspire and the recklessness it fosters, it would also widen and solidify a gap in society that might be impossible to close. The wealth gap is in the non-superhero world is already egregious. Adding something like Extremis 3.0 to the mix would only make it immeasurably worse.

More than a few people has expressed concern about the prospects of such an enormous societal divide. “Superior Iron Man” showed just how bad it could get and how quickly it could escalate. While the series only managed to explore this conflict to a point before it got canceled, Tom Taylor did enough to get a powerful point across.

In a world where human enhancement is real and commercially available, how do we go about distributing it among a population? Should we put a price on it? How high should that price be? Who should be in control of it?

Worst case scenario.

Superior Iron Man” never got a chance to explore the answers, but these are questions that will become increasingly relevant as advances in biotechnology accelerate. We may not be close to having a product like Extremis 3.0 and it’s uncertain whether we’ll even develop something like it in the next few decades.

Even if we do, “Superior Iron Man” made one thing clear. We, as a species and a society, are not ready for it.

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Filed under biotechnology, futurism, health, human nature, Neuralink, Sexy Future, superhero comics