Because we can.

 

It has happened to me more than once. I come up with what I think is a brilliant and seemingly original idea, do some preliminary research to make sure there aren’t already a hundred other ideas (at least published ones) just like it, and then I set to work sketching it out. Then, (and it could be a matter of days to weeks) BAM, there is my idea fully fleshed out, rendered and published—by someone else. I usually end up kicking myself for not having thought of it sooner or at least bringing it to fruition somehow instantaneously. The reality is, however, that for that fully rendered version to get published the creator(s) would have had to come up with the idea before me. Perhaps this amplifies the notion that there are no original ideas left in the world. Or, as an old friend used to argue, these concepts are floating around in a kind of ever-changing, cosmic psychosphere from which creative minds serendipitously siphon their ideas. So, of course, we’re going to have the same thoughts, we drink the same water. I think, perhaps the former.

Using this as a backdrop, however, I examine the idea of the so-called white hat hacker. There are hackers out there (good guys reportedly) that are always looking for new possible threats and vulnerabilities to the world of code, systems, software, and platforms. Sometimes their pursuits are purely imaginary, taking on the form of “What if?” scenarios, and then rolling up their sleeves to see if they can infect or penetrate the system or software in question. Then, in their benevolence, they share it with the world to make code and systems safer for all of us. Hmm. Okay, I’ll play along.

Recently, a team like this encoded some malware into physical strands of DNA. Huh? The story was reported by WIRED’s (man I wish they’d stick to technology reporting) Andy Greenberg last week. In theory, because DNA can maintain its structure for hundreds of years or more, you could theoretically store data within its indelible strands. (Remember the mosquitos frozen in amber from Jurassic Park?) And even though DNA is electron-microscope-small it is still a physical thing, full of code all its own. So, it would seem that a University of Washington computer science professor decided to slip some malware code into a strand of physical DNA and then when the code is deciphered or uploaded so to speak, the malware is in the system.

“‘We know that if an adversary has control over the data a computer is processing, it can potentially take over that computer,” says Tadayoshi Kohno, the University of Washington computer science professor who led the project, comparing the technique to traditional hacker attacks that package malicious code in web pages or an email attachment…’”

In this case, it is,

“‘…the information stored in the DNA they’re sequencing.’”

I don’t know. I’m not sure hackers should be messing with this stuff. PHOTO: wallpaperup

 

So hacking into some DNA sequencing software gets you what? There is apparently the opportunity (if you make rival DNA sequencing software) to steal some intellectual property or a malcontent could screw with somebody’s DNA analysis, you could plant some malware into your GMO tomatoes to keep prying eyes from your secret formula, but these sound like remote scenarios at best.

“Regardless of any practical reason for the research, however, the notion of building a computer attack—known as an “exploit”—with nothing but the information stored in a strand of DNA represented an epic hacker challenge for the University of Washington team.” [emphasis mine]

Here’s an ethical conundrum for me: no practical reason for the research. Do these guys have too much time on their hands (and too much funding)? Are they genuinely hoping to do some good? Or are they doing stuff like this because they can and if it happens to open a can of worms in the process, well, at least we can publish a paper on it? Or maybe it’s just an epic hacker challenge.

So, as radically out there as all this tinkering is, it is safe to say (back to my original point) someone else is or has thought of it too. Could someone Crispr a slice of DNA malware into the human genome to screw with someone’s pacemaker? Or perhaps could it just linger and wreak havoc at some later date? Maybe I’m not smart enough to think of all the horrific or diabolical downsides, but after all it is DNA. I can only imagine that, in light of this new research, someone will come up with a diabolical downside. Therein lies the dilemma.

For me, if you’re tinkering with DNA and you haven’t thought about the diabolical downsides you’re as reckless as a couple of kids skateboarding through speeding traffic. Someone’s going to get hurt. And there’s that word again. Reckless. Why is research money going toward things that have no practical reason? Maybe so that someone, not so kind will come up with one.

Reckless.

Harmless? What do you think?

https://www.wired.com/story/malware-dna-hack/
Bookmark and Share

How should we talk about the future?

 

Imagine that there are two camps. One camp holds high confidence that the future will be manifestly bright and promising in all aspects of human endeavor. Our health will dramatically improve as we eradicate disease and possibly even death. Artificial Intelligence will be at our beck and call to make our tough decisions, order our lives, fight our wars, watch over us, and keep us safe. Hence, it is full speed ahead. The positives outweigh the negatives. Any missteps will be but a minor hiccup, and we’ll cross those bridges when we come to them.

The second camp believes that many of these promises are achievable. But they also believe that we are beginning to see strong evidence that technology is indeed moving exponentially and that we are at a trajectory point in the curve that where will see what many experts have categorized as impossible or a “long way off” now is knocking at our door.

Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns, is proving remarkably accurate. Sure we adapted from the horse and buggy to the automobile, and from there to air travel, to an irritatingly resilient nuclear threat, to computers, and smartphones and DNA sequencing. But these changes are arriving more rapidly than their predecessors.

“‘As exponential growth continues to accelerate into the first half of the twenty-first century,’ [Kurzweil] writes. ‘It will appear to explode into infinity, at least from the limited and linear perspective of contemporary humans.’”1

The second camp sees this rapid-fire proliferation as alarming. Not because we will get to utopia faster, but because we will be standing in the midst of a host of disruptive technologies all coming to fruition at the same time without the benefit of meaningful oversight or the engagement of our societies.

I am in the second camp.

Last week, I talked about genetic engineering. The designer-baby question was always pushed aside as a long way off. Not anymore. That’s just one change. Our privacy, in the form of “big data,” from seemingly innocent pastimes such as Facebook, is being severely compromised. According to security technologist Bruce Schneier,

“Facebook can predict race, personality, sexual orientation, political ideology, relationship status, and drug use on the basis of Like clicks alone. The company knows you’re engaged before you announce it, and gay before you come out—and its postings may reveal that to other people without your knowledge or permission. Depending on the country you live in, that could merely be a major personal embarrassment—or it could get you killed.”

Facebook is just one of the seemingly benign things we do every day. By now, most of us consider that using our smartphones 75 percent of our day is also harmless, though we would also have to agree that it has changed us personally, behaviorally, and societally. And while the societal outcry against designer babies has been noticeable since last weeks stories about CrisprCas9 gene splicing with human embryos, how long will it be before we accept it as the norm, and feel pressure in our own families to participate to stay competitive, or maybe even just to be insured.

The fact is that we like to think that we can adapt to anything. To some extent, we pride ourselves on this resilience. Unfortunately, that seems to suggest that we are also powerless to affect these technologies and that we have no say in when, if, or whether we should make them in the first place. Should we be proud of the fact that we are adapting to a complete lack of privacy, to the likelihood of terrorism or being replaced by an AI? These are my questions.

So I am encouraged when others also raise these questions. Recently, the tech media which seems to be perpetually enamored of folks like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk, called Zuckerberg a “bad futurist” because of his over optimistic view of the future.

The article came from the Huffington post’s Rebecca Searles.
According to Searles,

“Elon Musk’s doomsday AI predictions aren’t “irresponsible,” but Mark Zuckerberg’s techno-optimism is.”3

According to a Zuckerberg podcast,

“…people who are arguing for slowing down the process of
building AI, I just find that really questionable… If you’re arguing against AI, then you’re arguing against safer cars that aren’t going to have accidents and you’re arguing against being able to better diagnose people when they’re sick.”3

Technology hawks are always promising safer, and healthier as their rationale for unimpeded acceleration. I’m sure that’s the rah-rah rationale for designer babies, too. Think of all the illnesses we will be able to breed out of the human race. Searles and I agree that negative outcomes deserve equally serious consideration as well, and not after they happen. As she aptly puts it,

“Tackling tech challenges with a build-it-and-see-what-happens approach (a la Zuckerberg’s former “move fast and break things” development mantra) just isn’t suitable for AI.”

The problem is, that Zuckerberg is not alone, nor is last weeks
Shoukhrat Mitalipov. Ultimately, this reality of two camps is the rationale behind my approach to design fiction. As you know, the objective of design fiction is to provoke. Promising utopia is rarely the tinder to fuel a provocation.

Let’s remember Charles Dickens’ story of Ebenezer Scrooge. The ghost of Christmas past takes him back in time where, for the first time, he sees the truth about his past. But this revelation does not change him. Then the ghost of Christmas present opens his eyes to everything around him that he is blind to in the present. Still, Scrooge is unaffected. And finally, the ghost of Christmas future takes him into the future, and it is here that Scrooge sees the days to come as “the way it will be” unless he changes something now.

Somehow, I think the outcome would have been different if that last ghost said, ”Don’t worry. You’ll adapt.”

Let’s not talk about the future in purely utopian terms nor total doom-and-gloom. The future will not be like one or the other any more than is the present day. But let us not be blind to our infinite capacity to foul things up, to the potential of bad actors or the inevitability of unanticipated consequences. If we have any hope of meeting our future with the altruistic image of a utopian society, let us go forward with eyes open.

 

1. http://www.businessinsider.com/ray-kurzweil-law-of-accelerating-returns-2015-5

2. “Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World”

3. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/mark-zuckerberg-is-a-bad-futurist_us_5979295ae4b09982b73761f0

Bookmark and Share

What now?

 

If you follow this blog, you know that I like to say that the rationale behind design fiction—provocations that get us to think about the future—is to ask, “What if?” now so that we don’t have to ask “What now?”, then. This is especially important as our technologies begin to meddle with the primal forces of nature, where we naively anoint ourselves as gods and blithely march forward—because we can.

The CRISPR-Cas9 technology caught my eye almost exactly two years ago from today through a WIRED article by Amy Maxmen. Then I wrote about it, as an awesomely powerful tool for astounding progress for the good of humanity while at the same time taking us down a slippery slope. A Maxmen stated,

“It could, at last, allow genetics researchers to conjure everything anyone has ever worried they would—designer babies, invasive mutants, species-specific bioweapons, and a dozen other apocalyptic sci-fi tropes.”

The article chronicles how, back in 1975, scientists and researchers got together at Asilomar because they saw the handwriting on the wall. They drew up a set of resolutions to make sure that one day the promise of Bioengineering (still a glimmer in their eyes) would not get out of hand.

43 years later, what was only a glimmer was now a reality. So, in 2015, some of these researchers came together again to discuss the implications of a new technique called CRISPR-Cas9. It was just a few years after Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier figured out the elegant tool for genome editing. Again from Maxmen,

“On June 28, 2012, Doudna’s team published its results in Science. In the paper and an earlier corresponding patent application, they suggest their technology could be a tool for genome engineering. It was elegant and cheap. A grad student could do it.”

In 2015 it was Doudna herself that called the meeting, this time in Napa, to discuss the ethical ramifications of Crispr. Their biggest concern was what they call germline modifications—the stuff that gets passed on from generation to generation, substantially changing the human forever. In September of 2015, Doudna gave a TED Talk asking the asks the scientific community to pause and discuss the ethics of this new tool before rushing in. On the heels of that, the US National Academy of Sciences said it would work on a set of ”recommendations“ for researchers and scientists to follow. No laws, just recommendations.

Fast forward to July 26, 2017. MIT Technology Review reported:

“The first known attempt at creating genetically modified human embryos in the United States has been carried out by a team of researchers in Portland, Oregon… Although none of the embryos were allowed to develop for more than a few days—and there was never any intention of implanting them into a womb—the experiments are a milestone on what may prove to be an inevitable journey toward the birth of the first genetically modified humans.”

MIT’s article was thin on details because the actual paper that delineated the experiment was not yet published. Then, this week, it was. This time it was, indeed, a germline objective.

“…because any genetically modified child would then pass the changes on to subsequent generations via their own germ cells—the egg and sperm.”(ibid).

All this was led by fringe researcher Shoukhrat Mitalipov of Oregon Health and Science University, and WIRED was quick to provide more info, but in two different articles.

The first of these stories appeared last Friday and gave more specifics on Mitalipov than the actual experiment.

“the same guy who first cloned embryonic stem cells in humans. And came up with three-parent in-vitro fertilization. And moved his research on replacing defective mitochondria in human eggs to China when the NIH declined to fund his work. Throughout his career, Mitalipov has gleefully played the role of mad scientist, courting controversy all along the way (sic).”

In the second article, we discover what the mad scientist was trying to do. In essence, Mitalipov demonstrated a highly efficient replacement of mutated genes like MYBPC3, which is responsible for a heart condition called “hypertrophic cardiomyopathy that affects one in 500 people—the most common cause of sudden death among young athletes.” Highly efficient means that in 42 out of 58 attempts, the problem gene was removed and replaced with a normal one. Mitalipov believes that he can get this to 100%. This means that fixing genetic mutations can be done successfully and maybe even become routine in the near future. But WIRED points out that

“would require lengthy clinical trials—something a rider in the current Congressional Appropriations Act has explicitly forbidden the Food and Drug Administration from even considering.”

Ah, but this is not a problem for our fringe mad scientist.

“Mitalipov said he’d have no problem going elsewhere to run the tests, as he did previously with his three-person IVF work.”

Do w see a pattern here? One surprising thing that the study revealed was that,

“Of the 42 successfully corrected embryos, only one of them used the supplied template to make a normal strand of DNA. When Crispr cut out the paternal copy—the mutant one—it left behind a gap, ready to be rebuilt by the cell’s repair machinery. But instead of grabbing the normal template DNA that had been injected with the sperm and Crispr protein, 41 embryos borrowed the normal maternal copy of MYBPC3 to rebuild its gene.”

In other words, the cell said, thanks for your stinking code but we’ll handle this. It appears as though cellular repair may have a mission plan of its own. That’s the mysterious part that reminds us that there is still something miraculous going on here behind the scenes. Mitalipov thinks he and his team can force these arrogant cells to follow instructions.

So what now? With this we have more evidence that guidelines and recommendations, clear heads and cautionary voices are not enough to stop scientists and researchers on the fringe, governments with dubious ethics, or whoever else might want to give things a whirl.

That puts noble efforts like Asilomar in 1975, a similar conference some years ago on nanotechnology, and one earlier this year on Artificial Intelligence as simply that, noble efforts. Why do these conference occur in the first place? Because scientists are genuinely worried that we’re going to extinct ourselves if we aren’t careful. But technology is racing down the autobahn, folks and we can’t expect the people who stand to become billionaires from their discoveries to be the same people policing their actions.

And this is only one of the many transformative technologies that are looming on the horizon. While everyone is squawking about the Paris Accords, why don’t we marshall some of our righteous indignation and pull the world together to agree on some meaningful oversight of these technologies?

We’ve gone from “What if?” to  “What now?” Are we going to avoid, “Oh, shit!”

  1. https://www.wired.com/2015/07/crispr-dna-editing-2/?mbid=nl_72815

2. http://wp.me/p7yvqL-mt

3. https://www.technologyreview.com/s/608350/first-human-embryos-edited-in-us/?set=608342

4. https://www.wired.com/story/scientists-crispr-the-first-human-embryos-in-the-us-maybe/?mbid=social_twitter_onsiteshare

5. https://www.wired.com/story/first-us-crispr-edited-embryos-suggest-superbabies-wont-come-easy/?mbid=nl_8217_p9&CNDID=49614846

Bookmark and Share