Tag Archives: MIT

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

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Breathing? There’s an app for that.

As the Internet of Things (IoT) and Ubiquitous Computing (UbiComp) continue to advance there really is no more room left for surprise. These things are cascading out of Silicon Valley, crowd-funding sites, labs, and start-ups with continually accelerating speed. And like Kurzweil, I think it’s happening faster than 95 percent of the world is expecting. A fair number of these are duds and frankly superfluous attempts at “computing” what otherwise, with a little mental effort, we could do on our own. Ian Bogost’s article, this week in the Atlantic Monthly,The Internet of Things You Don’t Really Need points out how many of these “innovations” are replacing just the slightest amount of extra brain power, ever-so-minimal physical activity, or prescient concentration. Not to mention that these apps just supply another entry into your personal, digital footprint. More in the week’s news (this stuff is happening everywhere) this time in FastCompany, an MIT alumn who is concerned about how little “face time” her kids are getting with real humans because they are constantly in front of screens or tablets. (Human to human interaction is important for development of emotional intelligence.) The solution? If you think it is less time on the tablet and more “go out and play”, you are behind the times. The researcher, Rana el Kaliouby, has decided that she has the answer:

“Instead, she believes we should be working to make computers more emotionally intelligent. In 2009, she cofounded a company called Affectiva, just outside Boston, where scientists create tools that allow computers to read faces, precisely connecting each brow furrow or smile line to a specific emotion.”

Of course it is. Now, what we don’t know, don’t want to learn (by doing), or just don’t want to think about, our computer, or app, will do for us. The FastCo author Elizabeth Segran, interviewed el Kaliouby:

“The technology is able to deduce emotions that we might not even be able to articulate, because we are not fully aware of them,” El Kaliouby tells me. “When a viewer sees a funny video, for instance, the Affdex might register a split second of confusion or disgust before the viewer smiles or laughs, indicating that there was actually something disturbing to them in the video.”

Oh my.

“At some point in the future, El Kaliouby suggests fridges might be equipped to sense when we are depressed in order to prevent us from binging on chocolate ice cream. Or perhaps computers could recognize when we are having a bad day, and offer a word of empathy—or a heartwarming panda video.”

Please no.

By the way, this is exactly the type of technology that is at the heart of the mesh, the ubiquitous surveillance system in The Lightstream Chronicles. In addition to having learned every possible variation of human emotion, this software has also learned physical behavior such that it can tell when, or if someone is about to shoplift, attack, or threaten another person. It can even tell if you have any business being where you are or not.

So,  before we get swept up in all of the heartwarming possibilities for relating to our computers, (shades of Her), and just in case anyone is left who is alarmed at becoming a complete emotional, intellectual and physical muffin, there is significant new research that suggests that the mind is a muscle. You use it or lose it, that you can strengthen learning and intelligence by exercising and challenging your mind and cognitive skills. If my app is going remind me not to be rude, when to brush my teeth, drink water, stop eating, and go to the toilet, what’s left? The definition of post-human comes to mind.

As a designer, I see warning flags. It is precisely a designer’s ability for abstract reasoning that makes problem solving both gratifying and effective. Remember McGyver? You don’t have to, your life hacks app will tell you what you need to do. You might also want to revisit a previous blog on computers that are taking our jobs away.

macgyver
McGyver. If you don’t know, you’re going to have to look it up.

Yet, it would seem that many people think that the only really important human trait is happiness, that ill-defined, elusive, and completely arbitrary emotion. As long as we retain that, all those other human traits we should evolve out of anyway.

What do you think?

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What does it mean to be human?

Earlier this week, just a couple of days after last weeks blog on robophobia, the MIT Technology Review (online) published an interview with AI futurist Martine Rothblatt. In a nutshell Ms. Rothblatt believes that conscious machines are inevitable, that evolution is no longer a theory but reality, that treating virtual beings differently than humans is tantamount to black slavery in the 19th century, and that the FDA should monitor and approve whatever hardware or software “effectively creates human consciousness.” Her core premise is something that I have covered in the blog before, and while I could spend the next few paragraphs debating some of these questionable assertions, it seems to me more interesting to ponder the fact that this discussion is going on at all.

I can find one point, that artificial consciousness is more or less inevitable, on which I agree with Rothblatt. What the article underscores is the inevitability that, “technology moves faster than politics, moves faster than policy, and often faster than ethics”1. Scarier yet is the idea that the FDA, (the people who approved bovine growth hormone) would be in charge of determining the effective states of consciousness.

All of this points to the fact that technology and science are on the cusp of a few hundred potentially life changing breakthroughs and there are days when, aside from Martine Rothblatt, no one seems to be paying attention. We need more minds and more disciplines in the discussion now so that as Rothblatt says, we don’t “…spend hundreds of years trying to dig ourselves out.” It’s that, or this will be just another example of the folly of our shortsightedness.

1.Wood, David. “The Naked Future — A World That Anticipates Your Every Move.” YouTube. YouTube, 15 Dec. 2013. Web. 13 Mar. 2014.

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