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Augmented … Chickens

Red junglefowls, they look like the chickens we are used to but are much smaller. Image credit: Cackler Hatchery

Humans have changed their ecosystem in many ways, we see signs everywhere and yet we are so used to the here and now that we don’t even notice the profound changes we made.

Take chickens, as a point in case.

I remember some 30 years ago I went to Cuba to give a talk and one thing that impressed me was at breakfast seeing sunny-side up eggs that were not sunny at all! The yolk was whitish, not that nice deep yellow we are used to. The reason is in the chicken diet. The eggs we eat today have a pleasing -healthy!- yellow reddish color that i basically standardised since chickens are fed with the appropriate mashes containing the right amount of xanthophylls a pigment that ends up in the yolk. Also the eggshell is a pleasing white (or soft brown) with no black stain. Say thanks to the mashes used to feed the chickens.

There are some 21.4 billions of chickens in the world at any moment, making them the most successful bird (if you use number as the metric for success, which I would not!). We eat over 60 billion chickens each year and the mystery of 21.4 vs 60+ is solved when you consider that a chicken life lasts around 7 weeks (and I would not call that a success, from a chick point of view!).

Through selection and breeding chickens today are 4 to 5 times bigger than the average chicken in 1957. In just 60 years we have augmented chicken in an incredible way (think about a human becoming a 300kg and 3.5m of stature!). Their bones have changed, are longer and more porous, to the point that one of this chicken would have problems if it were allowed to grow older.

More than that. A DNA mutation has occurred (and has been fostered through selective breeding) so that now chickens are fertile all year round (before they were fertile and mated seasonally).

Interestingly this is the result of an initiative started by supermarket competition in 1948 calling for the “Chicken of Tomorrow”, today is yesterday’s tomorrow and indeed we have got the chicken of tomorrow.

Diet has a strong influence on body size, and this applies to humans as well (see graphic).

Graphic showing the increase in stature of men in the Netherlands, Germany and France. Even bigger increase are seen in other Countries like Japan. Image credit: Our World in Data

The reason for this post, as we continue addressing several facets of Human Augmentation in the Symbiotic Autonomous Systems Initiative, is to point out that we have been “augmenting” our ecosystem and indirectly we have been augmenting ourselves (augmenting chickens as led to a diet richer in proteins that has augmented our stature and it has impacted our intelligence as well!),

The augmentation has taken place for hundreds of thousands of years (our ancestors were way smaller than us, less than one meter in stature) and has been affecting size and cognitive capabilities (although these latter have been quite stable in the last 40,000 years, the growth having been fuelled by cultural and epigenetic factors).

What we are seeing today is the availability of much better tools and the possibility of increasing the symbioses among people (by overcoming the barrier of distances and distilling the world knowledge making it accessible to every person at any time, anywhere) plus the potential of symbioses with artificial intelligence (and machines). This is accelerating evolution and it is up to us to understand what might be possible (the wind of tech evolution) and set the sail to steer in a suitable direction (societal and cultural beacons).

The second White Paper published by the Symbiotic Autonomous Systems Initiative addresses part of these opportunities and challenges.


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