Biopunks, Grinders and Synthetic Biology

The Future is all Light & Living Wires

light painting by Dennis Calvert - All Rights Reserved - example used to demonstrate synthetic biology and aesthetic synthology

Humans will push synthology into extensions of their Self – Image Dennis Calvert

BRISTOL, UK – I was re-reading an article I had stashed in my notepad. From 2012 about a disabled woman from Pittsburgh who had a neural interface device plugged into her brain, giving her direct and real-time control of a robotic arm and hand through thought.  It meant that she could feed herself.  It made me realise how much of this technology I am taking for granted.

I really should be much more excited because there is an incredible leap forward in science fiction fact, taking place today, with new materials, pharmaceuticals, biotech and space tech boiling over with innovation.

The proliferation of knowledge and base-kit technology has expanded the gene-pool of DIY hackers passionate about tinkering with (stuff!). Coupled with evolving methods of financing projects and a young breed of entrepreneurs so-equipped to push new ideas, the innovation curve is likely to continue to ascend rapidly.  Rafts of new products spilling into the general consumer market through the back doors of industrial design and iterative product improvement, rather than wham-bang-here’s a walking talking robot.

Small is Beautiful and Big

synthetic biology also known as synthology and a foundation of bioware

Synthology is the foundation of bioware

Across the world, but with Pittsburgh USA as point of interest and emerging hub of activity, individuals and start-up tech companies are getting creative with Nature’s source code.  From Grinders (DIY cybernetisicists) through to Biopunks (bio-hackers ) are pushing the boundaries of the human experience.  Thanks to sharing of data through the Internet, new materials, advances in our understanding of bio-chemical mechanisms and  the building blocks of Life, and through new business models led by venture capital, crowd-sourcing and independently financed start-ups reality is rapidly catching up with the not-so-far-flung Future.  What was once just science fiction spilling into the basements and sheds of a few enthusiasts, is now emerging into very real cybernetic implants and effective biowarez that have a viable commercial appeal.  It starts small and almost faddish, of course.  From having magnets wired into the palms of your hands so you can sense electromagnetic fields (why? Why not!) through to broadcasting medical data to a visible display device, or just other users able to receive and read such data.  Tattoo and piercing parlours might add such things onto their range of offerings.   Small private clinics would follow suit with more up-market tech, branding and post-operative care.  Then comes wider awareness and abruptly, there is a tipping point.  Like tattoos and piercings, cybernetic implants and bioware becomes a mainstream option for Joe and Jane Public.

The Pittsburgh hospital (and others) have given patients the ability to manipulate objects in real-time through a prosthetic appendage: the trick is the interface between mind and machine.  And that is where a lot of investment has already taken place making such tech readily available, for others to build upon.  Hearing aids have evolved from boosting existing but defected hearing to cochlear implants giving deaf people the sense of hearing for the first time.  In vitro meat grown in labs or rattled out through 3D printers is another startling reality, likely to be coming to a table near you soon.

Ultimately it will come down to desire, choice and price. Anything you want will be possible – depending on the exotic or general nature of the concept dictating the impact on your bank balance.

The writers of Cyberpunk fiction can lean forward with a taut smile curving their lips, and peer at the approaching horizon with mixture of pleasure and horror.  Very soon the definition of what it is to be a human will be changed. It is inevitable, it will be irrevocable, and will ultimately lead to a complex span of off-shoot branches from the genus Homo.

I’ve been incorporating cyberware and bioware into my books since I started writing, from the chrome-plated limbs of the mysterious assassin in God Seed, through to the WAM and Synaptic Bridge used by Carlos Revira in Dog Eat Dog.

Running parallel to this tech, both in fiction and reality, and overlapping in many places, is the evolution of synthetic biology – what I call Synthology:

Synthology is the science of taking existing genetic code and modifying it to create customised organisms. Bioware is a specialisation of Synthology, focussing on developing systems for the human body; the wider field of Synthology develops a range of organisms from bacteria engineered to clear up toxic spills to complex “creatures” capable of undertaking certain tasks. Synthology has issues with the general public disliking and not trusting such organisms; the general “mutated” and “monstrous” nature of these things can be a real barrier to consumer taste; to the point where there is a new specialisation in the science called Aesthetic Synthology: developing creatures that are pleasing to the eye. The creation of Carbons comes under Synthology. There are also the moral and ethical issues with how much intelligence and free-will do such artificial yet living creatures be given? Corporations, always keen on profit and the bottom line, are less discerning about such issues, so a lot of dark, lonely corporate facilities will have “things” grown to perform tasks: from cleaning and repairs through to sentry duty.

Light painting Scorched_Soul_by_Dennis_Calvert - All Rights Reserved - example used to demonstrate biopunk evolving human future in lab

Humans are brewing monsters in beakers: what happens when the glass breaks? Image Dennis Calvert

In my novels, there is also a new technology bucking the trend of convergence in organic and non-organic mechanisms into a hegemonic entity. It is called Nanomech:

Nanomech refers specifically to dense clusters of nanobots working together in a highly flexible and adaptive relationship, to create larger structures, including computer devices, sentry systems, drones and reactive armour (such as Bronson Arms Flash Armour) and adaptable living quarters in a few orbital residences and many deep space habitats (typically only the wealthy).

The nanobots are composites of chemical polymer molecules and advanced metal alloys.  It is predominantly a non-organic technology.

Nanomech can be bought pre-configured; “ready-made” to fulfil a particular function. Or it can be bought or made in a raw un-configured state; developers then write or download templates to get the Nanomech to behave in specific ways – essentially allowing you to create flexible technology that can evolve from one shape and function to another.

Nanomech technology is relatively recent development on Earth. Part of the backwash of advanced technology coming from deep, deep Space and the Borgendrill Enigma.

– Read Kalinka (short story) for further info and first reference to proto-humans called Simicrants.

Nanomech first featured in the post-apocalyptic novel The Black Lake, where a bunch of scientific survivors have sailed from Malta to a remote island in the sub-arctic waters above Scotland to investigate meteorological phenomenon that occurred after the apocalyptic event known as Yellow Dawn.  Funded by wealthy backers, they have access to advanced technology including a block of Nanomech that can be configured to act as a remote drone – curating sensory data and later, acting as a form of companion as the horror unfolds.

    The weapon by his side looked like a sword, the kind of twin-edged blade with a tapered point that would not have looked
    out of place in Roman times. But this was the 21st century and the world had long since stopped looking like anything
    a historical figure would recognise: Yellow Dawn had made sure of that. The whole sword, from the ridged hilt to engraved
    blade was formed of a slightly glossy black material, glistening in the early dawn light and glittering with flecks of
    gold and green. It was pure nanomech. With a mental command from his synaptic bridge, he could have squirted a radio
    signal that would have made the whole thing devolve back into an inert and unthreatening state: an object that looked
    like a stubby bone handle. He wasn’t about to do that right now. Out here, in the Wilderness, having a visible weapon
    was one more small reason for somebody not to try and mess with you.
    The design of both states was his own, something that hinted at his impressive coding skills.  It wasn’t just a sword,
    it was a computer, raw processing power dispersed through the device; he’d loaded it with AI-Emulation software and the
    thing actually had something of a personality. More importantly it carried a whole bunch of skill-soft within its memory,
    things like how to hot-wire a scavenged vehicle from the side of a road in the middle of nowhere and convert the hybrid
    powerplant to old-school biofuel. Or what plants to avoid eating when the hunger got so bad even the idea of sucking
    the leather armour wrapped around his forearms seemed like a good idea. Skills like that made a difference out in the
    Wilderness.

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David J Rodger – DATA

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