Friday, December 28, 2012

Operation Frankenweenie

Let's say that tomorrow, a heartbroken billionaire comes to me with a desperate problem. His beloved elephant, Jumbo, died just ten minutes ago. The massive team of the world's best biotechnology experts tell him that death is permanent, and he should accept this, but he'd given anything to get his elephant back. Sane science has denied him, so now he's turned to me to try something psychotic. And of course, I agree.

The process would be upsetting to watch, being a surgery and all, so we tell him to do his job, while I and his team do ours. I tell the biomedical team to separate Jumbo's various organ systems, and put them into vats of saline to halt the decay. I then review the situation.

All death is brain death primarily. Your body fails to provide the glucose and oxygen that your neurons need, which makes them fail, the way that a hammer strike to the motherboard takes out a computer. If my heart were to abruptly fail while I was in a hospital, the doctors could save my life by immediately hooking me to a cardiopulmonary bypass machine, and find some sort of replacement heart, such as one donated by a person who is too dead to need it anymore, or perhaps a mechanical replacement. Same for my lungs. My digestive system could be replaced by a nutrient IV drip, and my kidneys and bladder by dialysis. However, without a working brain, that's pretty much the end of me. So to fix the whole death situation, I'm going to repair Jumbo's brain. First, a review of the medical team's technology.

I order a cardiopulmonary bypass system and a saline-and-glucose IV for each of the organ systems, and a virtual reality system to keep the brain sane as I repair it. I then use the medical team's deep scanners to record the neuron patterns of which cell are connected to which cell, which is written to the massive RAID array. This takes countless exabytes of data, but I'm not footing the bill on this.

Next, a sample of Jumbo's DNA is taken from his muscle cells, and used to make a huge vat of stem cells. I write a program to check the brain records in the array, and one by one replace the dead neuron with a stem cell. The cell is influenced into becoming a neuron cell, and the program then tries to force it to make the connections that it's predecessor had. This automated process is replacing a hundred thousand cells per second, but will still take several months to complete. I have the VR system keep this growing brain in a delta-wave state -- deep sleep. The IV system is feeding it the nutrition that it needs to survive, the cardiopulmonary bypass system is keeping blood circulating, and the dialysis machine is purifying the waste. When the process is done, a disembodied Jumbo brain will be floating in the tank.

However, since our billionaire donor expects to be able to interact with his pet outside of VR, we will now have to repair the rest of the body as well. This is somewhat simpler. We dissolve the cells from each of Jumbo's organs, then leave the extracellular matrix in a vat of stem cells. These quickly repair into organs, which we keep alive in vats with a cardiopulmonary bypass and a dialysis machine keeping them individually alive and functional. It is here that I learn Jumbo's cause of death -- his heart developed a clot, starving the rest of his body of food and oxygen. Jumbo had died of a heart attack.

I have to periodically monitor the brain's progress. Three months in, the brain is 75% repaired. I adjust the VR system to move from delta, up to gamma, to nearly beta, then back down again, just as in real sleep. Jumbo's brain will now "dream," keeping it healthy.

We then work to recombine Jumbo's organs and muscle systems, minus the skull. This allows us to simplify the life support system, and sell off about half of the equipment. It will also give Jumbo a head start on healing, and at this point he's stitched together like Dr. Frankeinstein's monster. I can now report to our sponsor that Jumbo is alive, mostly. Cold hand of death, release him! However, he will need another six months before he can play with his master again. Our billionaire is tearfully grateful. A month later, I allow the VR system to bring the brain periodically to full beta, allowing Jumbo to "wake." I have programmed a virtual environment of a grassy field with fruit trees, and monitor how Jumbo navigates this environment. Mostly, I want to see that this experience has not rendered him insane or traumatized. So far so good.

Three months later, we need to reattach the brain. We slip the brain into the skull while still in the tank, then I have the surgeons reattach the skull to the rest of the elephant. The blood vessels and nerves are very carefully moved from the cardiopulmonary bypass and other life support machines to the elephant body.

Jumbo is now quite obviously alive, but paralyzed and sore. We keep up a medical treatment of intervenous feeding, and nerve repairing blue dye. It is now for the first time in seven months that our sponsor has seen his pet. At this time, I've done all I can do.

Five months later, I get a postcard from our sponsor. He's playing with Jumbo, who is now biologically a young adult. Jumbo has a renewed vigor, and a zest for life that our sponsor finds deeply inspiring. The biology team has him on a treatment for his blood condition, and Jumbo will easily outlive his master this time around. And I? My research paper on reversing death itself has led to a nomination for the Nobel prize in medicine. I must share credit for this with the biomedical team, but honestly, I'd rather that they take all the credit. Fame is not for me when mad science is on the line.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Bird Bot

Once upon a time, there was a bird-owning engineer with a problem: his African Grey Parrot would, like most of their species, become very upset when away from what they considered the center of action in an area, and would start hooting and screeching for attention. His first solution was a noise-detecting squirt gun. At first this worked, and the spray of water would interrupt the screaming. Then the bird figured out how it worked and started intentionally triggering it for a quick bathtime, which parrots love. (African Greys have the intellectual capacity of a 3 year old on average, but have some skills that human children don't figure out until they're 12.)

It's not safe to let a parrot walk around unattended, one because they are immensely small and light and they will die if you step on them. (A medium sized parrot such as an African Grey weighs about one pound. The heaviest known parrot weighs 8 pounds.) Another reason is that they can chew on things on the floor, or even the floor itself, causing immense property damage. So his next idea was one that allowed the bird to travel around safely: a small motorized bird-controlled cart. The bird stands on a small perch, and pushes around a metal bar to control the cart. This way the bird could follow the humans of the house around without ever being underfoot or in the path of tempting electrical chords, rugs, or floor tiles.

The joystick component appeared to be one of the surprisingly larger engineering challenges. A parrot's beak evolved to crush nuts, is about a strong as a human with a pair of pliers, and they immensely enjoy ripping things to shreds with it. The top part can punch through wood like an awl, and the larger parrots can even destroy a steel cage. The joystick had to be designed in such a way to resist puncture, pressure, and had to endure being pulled on, all of which the bird almost assuredly tried to do.

The most challenging thing though, is that our enterprising engineer did not want to have to put this cart away every day when it's time for the bird to go to bed. The cart is designed with a computerized system that can find its way back to the charger, and slowly scoot the cart into position where it gets plugged in and charged back up for another day of bird-moving. This does so with computer-vision, which is remarkably difficult to do successfully. Also, it begins to do this the moment the parrot leaves the cart.

If I were this engineer, I would look into having this cart mass-produced.

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