Reading and finishing _Soonish_, part 4: from bioprinting to the grave

Today we finish up our reading of Soonish, a look at some future technologies, written and illustrated by Kelly and Zack Weinersmith.  In this post we’ll explore and discuss chapters 10 (bioprinting), 11 (brain-computer interfaces), and 12 (conclusion).

SoonishFirst, let’s look back at the past week.  The post about part 3 yielded a bunch of comments about augmented versus other realities.  At around the same time MIT’s Technology Review just published their list of “10 breakthrough technologies 2018“, which is fascinating to read in light of Soonish.  CBInsights published their positive assessment of the business of getting into space.  And TechCrunch interviewed someone building a space catapult.

Please add your thoughts, questions, answers, and more in comments, or wherever else you like.

Remember that all blog posts on Soonish, including this one, are available under the single tag /soonish/.  That way you can check out previous posts and discussion for reference, and also if you come late to the schedule.


Chapter 10: bioprinting

This chapter continues last week‘s focus on technologies for… you, human beings.  It also connects with an earlier topic of 3d printing, exploring how printers could output biological materials, such as human tissues and organs.

The Weinersmiths dive into great detail about the ways bioprinting could work, and the many problems it must overcome along the way, including making thicker objects, generating and agreeing upon standards (watch for the Duran Duran joke), and sugar sintering (270).  There is also the intriguing possibility of printing not just replacement organs, but new forms of tissue better suited to human health (272).  Other potential advantages include lowering costs, savings lives, and reducing tissue rejection problems.

Here’s an example from a Canadian firm:

We read about possible harms, including new diseases, the impact of economic inequality, and ethical debates.  My favorite line concerns moral hazard, and draws a fun analogy with the 2008 financial crisis:

If bankers had to get their body cavities opened up to receive a bailout, they might think twice about making another risky loan.  Your move, Congress. (274)

The chapter concludes with an introduction to organ-matching markets, which are fascinating.

Chapter 11: brain-computer interfaces

How can we productively connect digital technology to the brain?  This chapter explores a series of current and unfolding technologies, in order “from least to most invasive.”  The examples include EEG, MEG, fMRI, ECoG, intracortical neural recording (“really superinvasive brain reading”), neurotrophic electrodesneural dust, neuroprostheses, a hippocampal prosthesis, and deep brain stimulation.   There’s the interesting idea that brain reading technologies could progress along the arc of cosmetic surgery: first, to fix problems; second, to improve people (303).


Intracranial_electrode_grid_for_electrocorticographyPotential problems and advantages really take off in this chapter.  The authors consider social differences by brain augmentation, privacy violations, and controlling other people’s brains, not to mention the question of radically defining what it means to be human, in addition to improving limb replacements, communication, and a kind of group mind.

Chapter 12: conclusion.

This section actually resembles a DVD’s deleted scenes, as it walks through other technologies initially considered for the book.  They include space-based solar power, advanced prosthetics, room-temperature superconductors, quantum computing, and mirror humans (!).  Some the Weinersmiths deemed too unlikely to develop, while they folded chunks of others into the published chapters.

Thoughts and questions

  1. Are you seeing anyone working on any of these technologies at or near your institution, or in your networks?
  2. As you read, do these human-biological technologies impact you differently than the previous ones, which addressed the universe and non-biological matter?
  3. Are you more optimistic about some of the conclusion’s technologies?
  4. Looking at the entire book, which technology seems to offer the greatest promise? and which the most danger?

Thank you for reading with us!  Many thanks to co-author Kelly Weinersmith for generously interacting with we readers.

Coming up soon, we’ll pick our next reading.  Nonfiction or fiction?  Titles to volunteer?

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3 Responses to Reading and finishing _Soonish_, part 4: from bioprinting to the grave

  1. Joe Murphy says:

    The brain-computer interface stuff really fascinates me, as a sports fan. It’s easy to compartmentalize talk about performance-enhancing drugs, or the way that equipment technologies change the game. But honestly, if I could get a device to help me focus, or remember the details of a meeting better, or gain some other cognitive or sensory benefit, well, I’d think pretty hard about it. Then the example of steroids or blood doping becomes really apt, as we consider the job prospects for non-augmented people.

    (Meta-book-club comment: shades of Robert Gu and Alice Gong Gu in _Rainbow’s End._ What if the consequences of improved cognitive skill included personality change? What if it were “safe,” but only in small doses?)

    In terms of educational relevance, well, I do think there’s a certain revulsion to the idea of poking around in your brain. That’s aesthetic and subject to change, but I still think it covers the idea of mass market use of the surgical technologies for a while. But still, when you look at the rising numbers of students with disabilities in higher ed, and the rising prescription (and misuse) of psychoactive drugs, I think we have to say that we are already on this train. And by and large, it’s making better education more available to more people, which is great, but not without unintended consequences.

    Big kudos to the Weinersmiths for the conclusion chapter, which I really enjoyed.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Great link to _Rainbow’s End_!

      Have you heard of any local students using brain stimulation – I mean the new kinds.

      • Joe Murphy says:

        Not the new kinds. I have heard a person tell a story about playing with transcranial magnetic stimulators in grad school, though as I recall the story it was more about temporarily knocking parts of the brain offline than getting them to work better.

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