Monday, 27 February 2017

iGod: Chapter 3

In passing by, Lex tickled the leaves of some of his plants; he switched on the bright lamps in the corner of his apartment and put on his plastic working gloves. He had had his daily dose of adventure in MultiLayer and, on top of these challenges even an extraordinary face-to-face encounter with Diana. Now he allowed himself to turn to his favorite pastime hobby he had discovered the last year: home genome editing.

As a Postdoc at Amsterdam Tech he had built some experience with the theory and practice of disrupting genes in the university lab. At that time, he was merely watching his colleagues in the biology department engaging in this task. His research on plant communication was still a relatively unexplored topic and his thesis requested a lot of rather basic experiments with tubes, insects and plants; there were less experiments on the genome level required. His colleagues laughed at him and he had sometimes wondered whether it was out of contempt or out of jealousy: Yes, he, Lex, conducted old school science, with his hands literally in the dirt! In the beginning of his academic career he made the effort to scrub his hands and fingers after a long working day in the lab, but in the end he did not even bother anymore to remove the black lines under his nails. All of his colleagues, without exception, spent their working hours behind digital displays. The only aspect of plant life they saw was on the level of genomes.

After his dismissal at the university, Lex took some of his favorite plants home with him. He did not exactly know why; he just liked them. The plants were really too beautiful to abandon them. His fellow scientists, if they would notice the plants at all, would only look at them in an instrumental way – or as something that was ‘standing in the way’.

In his first long days of unemployment, Lex took care of the plants and enjoyed their sheer beauty. It took months before he had the idea to resume some small and simple experiments. The research did no longer serve to earn him a life. Now it was more what others would call a hobby whatever that may be. Just for fun he installed some tubes and grew insects. Yes, for the larger part of the equipment one would not find a receipt. He borrowed the inventory of his former employer. When Lex started to do his experiments he went back to the university lab to talk to his boss. Lex made a case. It made sense that Lex would take parts of the lab inventory to his home: Lex was the only scientist conducting these experiments in plant communication and now that he was sacked, the university would, most probably, throw the equipment away. His former boss had even helped him to transport a heavy apparatus to Lex’ home the way his boss tried to get absolution for his utterly failure as a manager, Lex guessed.

It was in fact madness to build such a laboratory, even minuscule as it was, in his small apartment. A year ago, when he reached the point to study the genomes of the plants, he was angry with himself. Why had he not taken more of the inventory of the university laboratory? Without the right gear for genome editing, he was stuck in his research. He did not want to beg his former boss again. But soon Lex discovered that genome analysis and even genome editing was available for use at home for a small investment now. The second hand market in the Dark Web was abundant. With the money earned from Mr. Van Buren and other clients, he had ordered a toolkit for genome editing in plants and mammals. The toolkit was called Crib, and in his mind Lex called his recent hobby ‘Cribbing’. The Crib toolkit enabled next-generation genome editing, reaching a new level of targeting, efficiency, and ease of use. The system allowed for site-specific genomic targeting in virtually any organism.

Lex walked to a plant: ‘Sorry guy, I will need some more material from you,’ and he teared off a young leaf. With a surgeon knife, he then cut off an almost invisible part of the leaf, prepared the sample, and looked at it through a microscope  again a present from his former employer. ‘It is already amortized’, his previous boss had said when he gave it to Lex both knowing that this was a lie. Lex still accepted the present. Although it was certainly no longer the best and the newest microscope, for Lex’ purposes it still sufficed. Lex had set himself the task to fine-tune the communication skills of the plants by inserting genes that would help the process and deleting genes that hampered communication. In this plant he had deleted some of the jammer-genomes and he had inserted genomes that could help in speeding up the production of pheromones. Since the repertoire of pheromone genes in humans is larger than in plants, he had used his body material to combine with the plant. He looked at the plant. For moments he studied the sample in a state of utmost concentration. Then he got up abruptly and he kicked the wall with his bare foot. ‘Damn!’ His big toe hurt. He had expected a success after he had erased previous errors in the experiment. For some reason, the insertion of his genomes in the plant did not work. A fiasco, again. He rubbed his toe and studied the sample once more. He got online to investigate his failure and he sent his results to a few former international colleagues to discuss them later. He looked through the most recent publications and basic descriptions on genome editing. That was it.

After two hours in his mini-lab he gave up, still irritated that he could not understand why his experiments had failed. It was only during the clean up of his laboratory when Lex noticed he was hungry. He got online and he was about to order a healthy, high fiber, vegetarian, and spicy meal at the restaurant he frequented quite often. He liked the service of this restaurant: all meals were drone-delivered within 15 minutes. He was about to verify his payment details when he noticed the price. This could not be true! The restaurant charged 78 eCoins for this meal! All other times, it had been around 20 or 30 eCoins. Lex cancelled the order and tried other restaurants. Bad luck! Either the meals he wanted were not available, or they were priced in a similar bandwidth. Lex was puzzled. Was it a sudden inflation that Lex was unaware of? Instead of a cooked meal, Lex ordered some basic ingredients from the super market. In his research of the prices of meals, he could not find indications for inflation or any other plausible theory for this sudden price rise.

It took some time to assemble his meal, but he was still dissatisfied that he was unable to crack today’s puzzles. While he ate his meal, Lex watched a documentary that was part of an educational module on the world population. He regularly followed courses and programs online, and this module compiled by an esteemed Chinese researcher on life expectancy and world population, just seemed right to him. In these interactive documentaries, he often changed the parameter settings for fun – and he got to see different presentations of the program when he pretended to be a teenager or an elderly woman, for example. But this time he kept his default login. He watched the video as a heterosexual, highly educated, white, single, twenty-something-year-old European. The attractive female robot-presenter, Silvia, showed some graphs about world population growth, and developments in life expectancy. Since he had identified himself as a biologist by training, the video skipped all the basics and showed the more interesting facts. At present, the current life expectancy for a new-born was 125 years – as everyone knew. Some bold scientists claimed to be on the verge of inventions that could help to reach an average age of 250 years and beyond. The consensus in genetic biology though was that an average of 145 years was achievable within 10 years. These facts about life expectancy were then presented in one frame with the world population figures. The graphs showed the current situation with a life expectancy of 125 years and 11 billion people, other graphs projected what would happen if the average would grow to 145 or 165 years. Subtly, the label changed from ‘world population’ to ‘overpopulation’.

Silvia explained that, given the new scientific insights, new demographic policies had been put in place. One offspring was still allowed, but only when certain conditions were met. These conditions were: genetic value and fitting; geographic location of birth; willingness to emigrate to other regions and of course – but this goes without saying – a  high SocialCitizenScore. From now on, there were serious repercussions if a baby was born without the governmental approval beforehand.

Big Data about the personal behavior of the mother and the potential father would identify consumption habits and also changes in blood consistency and that of other body fluids that were constantly monitored. A report would automatically be sent to the authorities, which would initiate an abortion, if the baby belonged to DownGraders. The same would happen if the genetic material would be identified not good enough for the smart society of the future. 

At this point, Alex stopped watching the module.  He thought he had launched an educational module but it turned out that government used this series of lectures to push its policies. He was irritated and logged in to leave his comment in the ‘Open Science Engagement Platform.’ Whatever he commented, disappeared. He re-opened the site, gave new oral commands, re-set his default settings. Nothing happened. It must be a flaw in the platform, he thought.

For the remainder of his meal, he watched the news. The annual summit of the Geo10 took place in Amsterdam this week. Lex saw a short impression of the gala dinner yesterday evening at the Rijksmuseum. Lex could relate to this location, since the museum was literally around the corner. In the central hall of the museum, a long table with white damask was set right under Rembrandt van Rijn’s painting the Night Watch. Ten world politicians and ten powerful industrial leaders were dressed up for the occasion. The main issue on this Summit was how to regulate the access to and ownership of harvesting raw materials from other planets. One of the participants of the Geo10 delegation, a Chinese lady, attracted Lex’ attention. She was tall, especially for a Chinese woman. Her shoulders were downright muscular, even more accentuated in the bright turquoise silk dress with bare shoulders. The voice-over informed that she was the CEO of China’s most successful company these days, importing and exporting rare minerals. To Lex she looked more like a triathlon athlete than a CEO. The last shot showed some spontaneity. While the group photo was taken, an American politician stumbled on his way to the stairs and the Chinese triathlete offered her arm to support him.  She laughed friendly to him, but the man did not return the friendly gaze. ‘Probably his male pride is hurt’, Lex thought.

Lex switched off the news and searched for a jerry can in his cupboard. Damn, he swore he placed it here after the last time he used it, but he could not find it. Then he remembered he stored it under his bed, with other hardly used stuff. He swept off the dust and called Splinter. Without a preconceived plan, Lex walked to the same spot in the park as the day before. Lex took a bench and watched Splinter sniffing and searching and running up and down. Suddenly, Lex noticed a cat right next to the bench. The cat was too absorbed to notice that Lex had taken his seat. Lex took a closer look and saw that the cat had caught a mouse. However, rather than eating it, the cat was playing with the mouse. Whenever it put its paw on the ground, the mouse would jump in the air. The cat seemed to find this funny. To Lex’ surprise, the mouse did not run away. ‘It must have been hypnotized’, he concluded. Finally, Splinter noticed and hunted the cat, while the mouse escaped.

Lex threw a few sticks for his dog. He was already on his way home when he spotted Seldon. The old man smiled friendly. ‘Good to see you, tree hugger! I have been thinking about you. Do you have some time?’ Lex had not noticed before but now he saw that Seldon’s appearance was a bit shabby. All his clothes were wrinkled in various degrees; no single article was perfectly clean. Was it a lack of vanity of an old guy having lived for ages without a woman, or was it just a matter of money?

Seldon asked Lex to tell him more about his research on plant communication.

‘Plant communication is more sophisticated than most people think’, Lex started his lecture.

‘So you told me last time’, Seldon nodded to encourage Lex.

‘Plants make use of a 200-character “alphabet” somewhat comparable with Chinese characters. Each character is a different combination of pheromones. The only difference between the 200 “characters” is the dose of different chemical substances.’

Seldon asked what the communication entailed, what kind of messages were passed.

Plants can communicate amongst plants, and also between plants and insects, or between plants and other forms of life. For example, plants can ask the help of wasps to attack the caterpillar on their leaves; or they can warn fellow plants of caterpillars in the neighbourhood. To make it even more complex: plants may inform wasps not to attack the caterpillars this time since fellow-wasps have already laid eggs within the caterpillars, so they would soon die. Plants can warn fellow plants to speed up the growth process since the caterpillars are about to approach the top of the flower… there are numerous possibilities.’

‘This is amazing!’ At that moment, Seldon’s and Lex’ dogs were sniffing each other, Splinter got visibly interested in his female friend. ‘Now even humans are no longer free in their choice to produce offspring – sorry Splinter’, Lex talked to his dog. Seldon sighed. ‘So I heard. But tell me more. On which aspect of the plant communication did your research focus?’

Lex had forgotten how it felt to talk to someone who is really interested in your research. Sure he had his daily interactions, mainly online, but now he could feel his own enthusiasm again. And it felt good!

‘I wanted to prove the possibility of the communication between plants and mammals. For me the question was how humans could, potentially, pass messages through a network of plants to another human being. There are of course problems with this type of communication. One is the delay. You can call it genuinely slow communication’, Lex laughed. ‘The message has to go from one plant to another plant in a network. The receiving plants needs to be within the vicinity of the sending plants. And of course you can easily make a mistake in the composition of the “character”, resulting in a misunderstanding.’

‘Did you manage in the end to establish this communication?’ Seldon asked.
‘No, I did not, unfortunately. What I did prove, however, was the theoretical possibility.’
Seldon looked at Lex with the most open and friendly face Lex had ever encountered. ‘And if I am right, you are not the kind of guy who is stopped by the incidental fact that he is no longer employed by a certain institution. My guess would be that you are still engaged in your plant research. Am I right?’
Lex laughed. Seldon seemed to know him. Lex gave an update on his experiments, including his recent failures in genome editing. Seldon nodded and asked the right questions, basic as they were.

‘Plant communication is not my field. But I know that scientists are sometimes caught in a tunnel vision. It can be helpful to talk to someone else. If you want, I could go over some parts of the research with you and see whether I see something that you have not noticed before. Moreover, I could try to help you with my contacts at Amsterdam Tech to find researchers and equipment that can solve some of the problems you are encountering.’
Seldon paused and Lex felt he had to respond, but he did not know what to say. Seldon continued: ‘Anyhow: if you want, I would like to be your sparring partner.’ He elbowed him in a friendly way. ‘What do you think?’  Seldon laughed and held up his hand for a high five, a youthful gesture that did not entirely fit the grey guy. ‘Let’s do it!’, Lex did not think too long and returned the high five.

Lex was thinking in terms of the new possibilities just offered by Seldon: activities that could be done in an up-to-date university lab; things to be done today and tomorrow; how he could set up his experiments and how and what he could discuss with Seldon a layman when it comes to Biology, but generally a smart guy as far as Lex could judge. Then it came to his mind he should also show interest in his conversation partner.

‘I realize that I have not asked you anything about yourself. What is your field of research at Amsterdam Tech? I know you are in the Mechanical Engineering Department, and an expert in deep learning of humanoid robots, right?’
‘I did not ask you about your research to make you return the courtesy, my friend. I asked you because I am curious
full stop. ’ Seldon paused for a small moment and then teased a little bit. ‘But ok…’ He told briefly about his research he had performed the last decades the mechanical behavior of robots and how they learn to interact with their environment. ‘Today, my research is all pretty mainstream. However, in the beginning my focus in mechanical engineering was as mysterious as your plant stuff. Nobody believed it would lead anywhere.’

‘The combination of mysterious and mechanical engineering intrigues me’, Lex laughed. He imagined the students and academic staff of Amsterdam Tech. Yes, if you searched well, you could find a few obscure types on campus, no doubt about that. They could be found in the department for communications with extraterrestrial life for example; or in the school of organisms and energy. But if there was one species on campus looking most like 20
th century workers in a bicycle repair workshop it would have to be students and academic staff from the department of mechanical engineering. Plain, solid, collected. That is a mechanical engineer.

‘Spot on. My research was very atypical for mechanical engineering at that time. To be honest, it was a hobby that got out of hand. I studied the possibilities in computer programming to influence decision making by individuals in such a way that the system level outcome was more beneficial for society. It was for a huge public health project. The aim was…’ Seldon looked at his wrist display. ‘Ah, damn. I have to go. Home logistics. You are saved by the bell, young man, from a very lengthy lecture. What shall we say…tomorrow, same time, same place?’ After two steps, Seldon turned around suddenly and said clearly: ‘And I forgot: leave your devices at home when we meet in future, will you?’ He did not wait for Lex’ answer and walked away swiftly the fat boxer had some difficulty to keep up with his boss.

Lex called for Splinter, but his dog was not in the mood. He was following trails back and forth; licking stones and grass and peeing on every slightly higher located object the usual stuff dogs were doing. Normally, Lex was amused by this behavior but today Lex was in a hurry and he touched the collar-icon on his wrist display. Maximum intensity. Splinter cringed, and then howled. It returned without delay to his boss. Lex did not pay attention. He was making plans for tomorrow’s experiments in his apartment, but first he had to make a stop at the pond. He filled his jerry can with water. This amount should do for a week for his plants.

When he was nearly home, Lex decided to take a different route from the way up to the park. This decision was a remnant piece of advice that a headmaster gave to him when he completed elementary school: ‘If you can avoid it, never take the same route twice.’ Lex was 11 years old at that time and although Lex forgot most of the other stuff he was supposed to learn at school, these words somehow stuck with him.

Lex took a left and followed the lane that led him past the Rijksmuseum. Some of the areas were not accessible, probably due to yesterday’s dinner of the Geo10 inside the museum. When Lex passed the main entrance, a group came outside. They were all smartly dressed, men in tuxedos and women in ball gown-like dresses. There were a few photographers and other journalists. All of a sudden, Lex recognized some of the faces of the world politicians. He also saw the female Chinese CEO he had seen earlier today on the news. She was tall indeed. This evening, however, she did not wear a turquoise dress, but a purple one. Her shoulders were bare, just like the gown she wore during the gala dinner yesterday. Next to her, a man stumbled. The Chinese woman offered her arm and smiled friendly to him and the man did not return her friendly gaze just like yesterday!

Lex was confused. Had he really seen the news, or did he imagine he saw an identical sequence of events on the news? At home, Lex found the news item he was looking for and indeed, the Chinese CEO, in a turquoise dress, helped her American colleague. There was no image on the Internet of the Chinese lady in a purple gown. Lex tried to get more information on the Geo10 and whether this bevy visited the Rijksmuseum indeed two nights in a row despite the journalists in front of the Rijksmuseum, there was no coverage of a second  event. There was no mention whatsoever on the athlete “rescuing” a male colleague twice. Lex was fond of puzzles, but he could not make any sense of this one. This was really, really strange!

Novel by Willemijn Dick, inspired and introduced by Dirk Helbing
License: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs (CC BY-NC-ND)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.