Tag Archives: pathogens

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

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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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The ultimate wild card.

 

One of the things that futurists do when they imagine what might happen down the road is to factor in the wild card. Short of the sports or movie references a wild card is defined by dictionary.com as: “… of, being, or including an unpredictable or unproven element, person, item, etc.” One might use this term to say, “Barring a wild card event like a meteor strike, global thermonuclear war, or a massive earthquake, we can expect Earth’s population to grow by (x) percent.”

The thing about wild card events is that they do happen. 9/11 could be considered a wild card. Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Katrina would also fall into this category. At the core, they are unpredictable, and their effects are widespread. There are think tanks that work on the probabilities of these occurrences and then play with scenarios for addressing them.

I’m not sure what to call something that would be entirely predictable but that we still choose to ignore. Here I will go with a quote:

“The depravity of man is at once the most empirically verifiable reality but at the same time the most intellectually resisted fact.”

― Malcolm Muggeridge

Some will discount this automatically because the depravity of man refers to the Christian theology that without God, our nature is hopeless. Or as Jeremiah would say, our heart is “deceitful and desperately wicked” (Jeremiah 17:9).

If you don’t believe in that, then maybe you are willing to accept a more secular notion that man can be desperately stupid. To me, humanity’s uncanny ability to foul things up is the recurring (not-so) wild card. It makes all new science as much a potential disaster as it might be a panacea. We don’t consider it often enough. If we look back through my previous blogs from Transhumanism to genetic design, this threat looms large. You can call me a pessimist if you want, but the video link below stands as a perfect example of my point. It is a compilation of all the nuclear tests, atmospheric, underground, and underwater, since 1945. Some of you might think that after a few tests and the big bombs during WWII we decided to keep a lid on the insanity. Nope.

If you can watch the whole thing without sinking into total depression and reaching for the Clorox, you’re stronger than I am. And, sadly it continues. We might ask how we have survived this long.

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Meddling with the primal forces of nature.

 

 

One of the more ominous articles of recent weeks came from WIRED magazine in an article about the proliferation of DNA editing. The story is rich with technical talk and it gets bogged down in places but essentially it is about a group of scientists who are concerned about the Pandora’s Box they may have created with something called Crispr-Cas9, or Crispr for short. Foreseeing this as far back as 1975, the group thought that establishing “guidelines” for what biologists could and could not do; things like creating pathogens and mutations that could be passed on from generation to generation — maybe even in humans — were on the list of concerns. It all seemed very far off back in the 70’s, but not anymore. According to WIRED writer Amy Maxmen,

“Crispr-Cas9 makes it easy, cheap, and fast to move genes around—any genes, in any living thing, from bacteria to people.”

Maxmen states that startups are launching with Crispr as their focus. Two quotes that I have used excessively come to mind. First, Tobias Revell: “Someone, somewhere in a lab is playing with your future.”1. Next, from a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis: “We don’t write laws to protect against impossible things, so when the impossible becomes possible, we shouldn’t be surprised that the law doesn’t protect against it…” 2.

And so, we play catch-up. From the WIRED article:

“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. It brings with it all-new rules for the practice of research in the life sciences. But no one knows what the rules are—or who will be the first to break them.”

The most disconcerting part of all this, to me, is that now, before the rules exist that even the smallest breach in protocol could unleash repercussions of Biblical proportions. Everything from killer mosquitoes and flying spiders, horrific mutations and pandemics are up for grabs.

We’re not even close to ready for this. Don’t tell me that it could eradicate AIDS or Huntington’s disease. That is the coat that is paraded out whenever a new technology peers its head over the horizon.

“Now, with less than $100, an ordinary arachnologist can snip the wing gene out of a spider embryo and see what happens when that spider matures.”

Splice-movie-baby-Dren
From the movie “Splice”. Sometimes bad movies can be the most prophetic.

It is time to get the public involved in these issues whether through grass-roots efforts or persistence with their elected officials to spearhead some legislation.

“…straight-out editing of a human embryo sets off all sorts of alarms, both in terms of ethics and legality. It contravenes the policies of the US National Institutes of Health, and in spirit at least runs counter to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights. (Of course, when the US government said it wouldn’t fund research on human embryonic stem cells, private entities raised millions of dollars to do it themselves.) Engineered humans are a ways off—but nobody thinks they’re science fiction anymore.”

Maxmen interviewed Harvard geneticist George Church. In a closer to the article,

“When I ask Church for his most nightmarish Crispr scenario, he mutters something about weapons and then stops short. He says he hopes to take the specifics of the idea, whatever it is, to his grave. But thousands of other scientists are working on Crispr. Not all of them will be as cautious. “You can’t stop science from progressing,” Jinek says. “Science is what it is.” He’s right. Science gives people power. And power is unpredictable.”

Who do you trust?

 

 

1. Critical Exploits. Performed by Tobias Revell. YouTube. January 28, 2014. Accessed February 14, 2014. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jlpq9M1VELU#t=364.
2. Farivar, Cyrus. “DOJ Calls for Drone Privacy Policy 7 Years after FBI’s First Drone Launched.” Ars Technica. September 27, 2013. Accessed March 13, 2014. http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2013/09/doj-calls-for-drone-privacy-policy-7-years-after-fbis-first-drone-launched/.
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