Yummy Thoughts: Cyberware and Cultured Meat

OPINION

By Terry Calhoun

In the past week, two of my favorite technology trends have shown up in the news: cyberware and cultured meat. In the case of cyberware, research is heating up around the science-fiction-like possibility of someday connecting human neural tissue directly to computing hardware. That’s something I very much look forward to.

Cultured meat is meat that is grown in vitro, which I read about a long, long time ago in the novel, The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth. In that story, “Chicken Little” was a slab of chicken meat, which was grown in vitro. The characters in the novel just sliced off bits of meat when they wanted some, and didn’t have to actually raise or kill living animals to eat meat.

Q: What do these two concepts have in common? A: Technology meets meat.

This is science fiction, right? Yes, it is and was. But, in case you hadn’t noticed, we’re living science fiction these days. These are not trends to be disregarded, no matter how disgusting some people may find them.

Both concepts were originally brought to my mind via science fiction, though. In fact, in researching this article I found a great set of links at http://www.technovelgy.com/ct/AuthorSpecAlphaList.asp?BkNum=55, which has me determined to re-read The Space Merchants soon.

As the website points out, The Space Merchants is an “exceptional novel.” Especially living in a world “packed tight with advertising.” Pohl (with whom I was privileged enough to once have lunch) and Kornbluth write about flying commercially and having to suffer what we now recognize as pop-up ads. Though in the case of this novel, the ads pop up on airliner windows as you’re trying to gaze at the clouds. (Hmm, aren’t there clouds on the default background of the windows we now spend all day gazing through?)

Back to meat: Here is the cultured meat concept from The Space Merchants as described at Technovelgy.com: “Chicken Little, a huge mass of cultured chicken breast, was kept alive by algae skimmed by nearly-slave labor from multistory towers of ponds surrounded by mirrors to focus the sunlight onto the ponds.” I’ve been fascinated ever since the late ‘50s with the concept of being able to eat meat without killing animals. And as my consciousness of the environmental impacts of humans on our biosphere has grown, so has my interest in cultured meat.

When I first read the novel, I thought the authors had conceived the idea of cultured meat; I guess because they had thought it through so well. I’m now better informed, thanks to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_vitro_meat. It turns out that in 1941, Robert Heinlein wrote of “Mrs. Awkins,” a 200-year-old experimental piece of chicken tissue, in Methuselah’s Children.

Even Winston Churchill spoke once with near-certainty about probable mass-production of cultured meat replacing animal cultivation before the end of the 20 th Century. And, as early as 1912-1932, a piece of chicken embryo heart had been grown for 20 years in vitro, regularly doubling in size. This is fact, not science fiction.

The other meaty trend I try to follow is the work of researchers who want to find ways to physically connect wetware (our bodies: meat, blood, neural tissue, etc.) with hardware. A visit to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cyberware is helpful here, also. The latest news I know of in this area can be found at http://www.livescience.com/humanbiology/060327_neuro_chips.html.

This has been written about so frequently in science fiction that I can’t begin to remember which novel or story I read in my childhood that brought this concept into my head. And it is becoming the stuff of reality. Researchers in Europe recently reported success in binding brain cells to a silicon chip using special proteins that acted like glue to keep the other two substances attached.

The truly exciting part, however, is that, according to http://www.livescience.com/humanbiology/060327_neuro_chips.html, the proteins acted as a communications channel between the chip and the neurons: “ The proteins allowed the neuro-chip's electronic components and its living cells to communicate with each other. Electrical signals from neurons were recorded using the chip's transistors, while the chip's capacitors were used to stimulate the neurons.”

A lot of people are also disgusted, or frightened, by the thought of interfacing with computer data directly through neural tissue, instead of mediation through a keyboard, or speakers, or a monitor. I am personally delighted by the possibilities. I also think that in the next few years, our daily lives will so closely connect our bodies with our information technology (Such as RFID chips in our fingertips.) that when such direct connections become available, there will be a marketplace that demands the product. I hope that I am still around when that happens.

Ditto for cultured meat. Though when I read some of the very earliest recent research projects, only a few years ago, everyone I excitedly shared the news with was pretty much disgusted at the thought.

However, things have changed. Except for the natural disgust that we humans seem to have whenever we think about our bodies as being animal bodies, there’s little barrier left. Many of us (myself excluded) have already accepted intensely processed foods made from glutens, mushrooms, and a host of vegetable products that pretend to be meat. Imagine a meaty spaghetti sauce with actual meat tissue, not disguised tofu, where the meat did not come at the expense of a living animal and also has been genetically altered to have the same healthy aspects (fat, etc.) as a piece of salmon. Yummy.

So, whether you find the idea appealing or not, there could come a future morning where you sit down to a breakfast of delicious, healthy RealBacon™ and end up spilling your vitaminized RealOrangeJuice™ . . . when an unexpected ad pops up inside your brain.
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