02/01/2011 05:03 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Leonardo Was A Transhumanist

Last week, Park City was flooded with filmgoers for the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, and on PBS, Paul Sapin's 2003 film Leonardo's Dream Machines aired four consecutive times.

One documentary at Sundance I didn't want to miss was Connected, produced by Tiffany Shlain, who also founded the Webby awards in 1996.

In her documentary, Shlain explores the Internet's affect on our brains and our social lives. Her primary inspiration was her father, Dr. Leonard Shlain, a brain surgeon and author. He passed away in 2009 from a brain tumor, but not before finishing a draft for Leonardo's Brain.

I met Dr. Shlain at a gallery opening in San Francisco when he was writing Art and Physics. His research for the book was piled half way up the wall. Clearly, I had met a visionary, who was futuristic enough to realize our past contained a lot of important secrets.

After 400 years, Da Vinci's making a comeback. In 2007, a retrospective of his inventions previewed at the Metreon in San Francisco. Fritjof Capra published The Science of Leonardo the same year. Dr. Francis Wells, a heart surgeon, credits his invention of a heart valve to Da Vinci, after studying his drawings of the blood's vortex flow through the heart. Wells publishes in 2011.

As I watched Connected, tiny lights in the audience disappeared when the film pointed out "tweeting and texting drops IQ ten points". Apparently our "smart" devices are dumbing us down. Texting is apparently causing attention deficit disorder, and affecting our ability to communicate.

As an antidote for declining intelligence, Shlain urges us to "unplug". During the filming of "Connected", her crew took "tweet vacations", but their oxytocin levels dropped. To get the "feel good" back, Shlain urges us to hug a human, which reminds me of comedic moments in other films where texting at the wrong moment can cost you your relationship.

Matt Richtel, author of Your Brain on Computers, followed neuroscientists into a stunning part of the Utah desert, without their data devices. First they relaxed, then got agitated, followed by boredom. "One way of looking at this research", Matt comments, "is to think of technology the way we think about food. We know that some food is Twinkies and some food is Brussels sprouts".

Hugging our data devices is affecting our response to the environment. At UCSF they're studying how to train older drivers to "pick up more information in their surroundings" that would let them "react more quickly".

Body language is critical to our social adjustment. In a courtroom, jurors are rather good detecting truthfulness or deviousness in a witness, something that's missing in online dating. We don't look into each other's eyes and comprehend body language, which is also a symptom of autism to educators and psychologists.

Dr. Temple Grandin was born autistic, but refused to give up on social interaction. She studied the simple and elegant communication of animals and earned a B.A., M.A., Ph.D., and honorary Doctorate. In her view, Silicon Valley has a high concentration of attention deficit disorder.

If Da Vinci were here now, scientists would be fighting over his brain for a scan. His combination of genius hasn't been seen since the fifteenth century, but few of his inventions were built until the 21st Century.

The team of British scientists in "Dream Machines learned the hard way they couldn't improve on the intuitive right-brain genius of Leonardo. They built Da Vinci's flying machine with a few of their own improvements and located the perfect pilot, World Hang-gliding Champion Judy Leden.

They rolled it out. Leden took one look and refused to hang, her right brain "knowing" it wouldn't fly. The team argued until they considered an overlooked drawing that "didn't make sense". They built another one. Leden agreed to fly, and outperformed the Wright Brothers.
One left-brain team member commented "We were too complicated. Too much thinking. Forget the science... "

Da Vinci's machines aren't fantasy, they actually work. His right-brain "exploded view" drawings didn't miss a detail. Dan Pink, author of "A Whole New Mind" took Betty Edward's class "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain", and turned his first stick figure portrait into a stunning likeness of himself.

As an architectural student, drawing by hand in exploded view was how I learned. With the invention of computer-aided drawing, left-brains were required to virtually produce flat non-spatial images. Systems integration defaulted to constructors in the field who had to do, and redo.

Da Vinci invented the word "biomemetics", or that which mimics nature. I was lucky to have Buckminster Fuller as a mentor, and like Da Vinci, he was an obsessive observer of nature. Some of his ideas for geodesics were from the observation of human tissue that expands and contracts in response to the environment.

"Sleep is death", Da Vinci wrote. He was also obsessed with death, and pursued hundreds of ways to cheat it. His final testament was numerous paintings of "The Deluge", predictive of current global natural catastrophes. His creation of a bio-machine may have been one way to "live on".

When Da Vinci died in 1519, his works were left with his son. Fifteen were given to a monk, who cut out and destroyed selective drawings considered "anti-ecclesiastic". If they were suggestive of transhumanist design, was the Church suspect of what others might accomplish? This recent fascination with Da Vinci could be a quest to extend and re-invent life, and if so, we're close.

Nanotubes of synthetic fibers can grow by themselves, outperforming steel. Organ tissue attached to a "scaffold" will generate a new organ. In the film "Connected" we're informed our cranium is too small to accommodate the convolutions of gray matter we're producing with our hyper-expanding awareness. Not to worry, in seven more years the Blue Brain Project will upload our entire brain's neuron capability into a software program.

Avatars are almost finished and ready to roll, just in time for Da Vinci's Deluge. We can engineer any human machine or body double we choose that will run itself in potentially less than a decade.

Is there hope for the body and brain we already have? Neurology and genetics could be the answer. The inherited Foxo3A gene can allow you to live well over 100. Athletics and going barefoot will grow new neuron connections. Functional MRI's will slice your brain into images, like computer diagnostics for your car, so you can go another fifty thousand miles.

Implants can bring your sight and voice back. Robin Williams guessed this one decades ago, demonstrating on a TV talk show as he lifted his palm to his face to get a call, and then his backside off the chair to get a fax.

We're hearing more about "hive mind", and we're getting intuitive hits more frequently, like, "Hey, I was just thinking of you before you called". In Kevin Kelly's "Out of Control", an entire Hacker's Conference in 1991 was directed to land a plane on a giant overhead simulation screen. Given placards, red for wing flaps and green for pedals, they were flashed wildly until "the plane" stabilized. Having fun, they performed a nice loop and then dropped it down for a perfect landing.

How much longer will it take to realize we're also creating "new brains" out of the one we already have, capable of instantaneous communication?

It's obvious why the term "transhumanist" is scary. From the development of robotic protheses driven by human thought and self-replication of limbs and organs, we're making human machines and realizing yet another Da Vinci fantasy. Scarier still, less than one percent of the global population is aware of it.

Now that Da Vinci has graduated from the receivership of art historians to scientists, technologists, and physicians, it's a runaway train with no wreck in sight. Too late to ignore Murphy's Law, which may be slowing to a nano-second standstill, only to jump-start itself again, thriving on life extension and artificial intelligence.
Maybe its time to eat more Brussels sprouts.