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Open science is, to some, humanity’s best hope

By Mark Baard
Globe Correspondent / August 2, 2010

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If we are to believe transhumanists, people who bill themselves as champions of superlongevity and artificial human enhancement, 2045 should be a very good year.

According to one of the movement’s leading figures, inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, that’s when humans will achieve immortality through a blend of genetics, nanotechnology, robotics, and artificial intelligence.

Transhumanists point to exciting technological trends — such as those showing how computer chips are growing smaller, cheaper, and faster — as evidence that Kurzweil’s breakthrough moment, called the singularity, is near. All that most of us need to do, transhumanists say, is wait.

But the message is not sitting well with at least one transhumanist, Joseph Jackson, who warns the singularity will not get closer to reality if it depends on a biotechnology industry that runs away from risk and is more interested in increasing revenues.

“Technologists extrapolate these trends from certain domains and completely overestimate the progress we’ll make,’’ said Jackson, a Harvard University graduate who is developing a low-cost device to help scientists study DNA outside major laboratories. “Twenty years will tick by, and we’ll still be waiting.’’

At Humanity+, a transhumanist conference held at Harvard in June, Jackson slammed the biotech industry for having “burned through more than $40 billion since its inception, before finally turning a profit in 2009.’’

Rather, Jackson is calling on his fellow transhumanists to take a bootstrap approach to conquering disease and death. His alternative to proprietary research and patent-protected drugs — and an industry that focuses on drugs to treat hair loss and impotence, while the world’s poor die of malaria and other illnesses — is an “open science’’ model.

Under his vision, scientists freely share their discoveries, and build upon those made by others. (He did credit GlaxoSmithKline for saying earlier this year that it will share its chemical database with those seeking to develop malaria drugs.)

Jackson says open science will speed innovation in the same way the open source code movement revolutionized Internet applications. He also wants transhumanists to support the thousands of backyard tinkerers, known as citizen scientists, who are already studying microbes, mapping genomes, and seeking cures for diseases. He calls himself a citizen scientist. At Humanity+, he described the LavaAmp — a pocket-size device for amateur DNA researchers — he is helping to develop.

Jackson recently hosted the Open Science Summit in Berkeley, Calif., which again highlighted the importance of sharing data. One of the speakers was Alexander Wait Zaranek, a research fellow in genetics at Harvard Medical School who is working to build bridges between open-science organizations, citizen scientists, and industry.

Inevitably, Zaranek said, such major public-private efforts “will springboard many new companies and provide ripe investment opportunities for [venture capitalists] and others.’’

So far, transhumanists seem to be listening to Jackson’s pitch for open science and citizen science. The theme of the June conference was “The Rise of the Citizen Scientist.’’ But citizen scientists are only beginning to sort out how they will make sense of the vast amounts of data coming out of their backyard labs.

Perhaps the best thing citizen scientists can do for the benefit of humanity is to turn all of their data over to a massively intelligent, fully autonomous thinking computer, according to artificial intelligence specialist Ben Goertzel. The Humanity+ cochair is working with a company studying the genomes of long-lived flies.

“What is really needed to cure diseases and extend life,’’ Goertzel said, “is to link together all available bio data in a vast public database, and then turn a community of brilliant AGIs [artificial general intelligences] to work on this unified database.’’

AGIs, when they are developed, should also be given access to their own lab equipment and run their own experiments, Goertzel added.

If the transhumanists are embracing citizens scientists, not all citizen scientists — with their attention aimed at narrow research questions — are fully embracing transhumanists’ broader optimistic vision for the singularity.

“I do endorse the transhumanists’ ideas of using technology to improve the human condition,’’ said Timothy Marzullo of Backyard Brains, which sells a $100 kit that students and amateur scientists can use to hear and record the electrical activity of insect neurons. “I also like how they seriously consider big, far-out ideas like cryonics.’’

But Marzullo finds it hard to imagine how any research, however funded, will yield the results transhumanists seem to believe are not far off.

“It is hard for me to believe in the idea of the singularity,’’ said Marzullo, “when I am surrounded by our tragic inability to treat most neuroscience afflictions.’’