ebecca Saxe’s first son, Arthur, was just a month old when he first entered the bore of an MRI machine to have his brain scanned. Saxe, a cognitive scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, went headfirst with him: lying uncomfortably on her stomach, her face near his diaper, she stroked and soothed him as the three-tesla magnet whirred around them. Arthur, unfazed, promptly fell asleep.
All parents wonder what’s going on inside their baby’s mind; few have the means to find out. When Saxe got pregnant, she’d already been working with colleagues for years to devise a setup to image brain activity in babies. But her due date in September 2013 put an impetus on getting everything ready.
Over the past couple of decades, researchers like Saxe have used functional MRI to study brain activity in adults and children. But fMRI, like a 19th-century daguerreotype, requires subjects to lie perfectly still lest the image become hopelessly blurred. Babies are jittering bundles of motion when not asleep, and they can’t be cajoled or bribed into stillness. The few fMRI studies done on babies to date mostly focused on playing sounds to them while they slept.
But Saxe wanted to understand how babies see the world when they’re awake; she wanted to image Arthur’s brain as he looked at video clips, the kind of thing that adult research subjects do easily. It was a way of approaching an even bigger question: Do babies’ brains work like miniature versions of adult brains, or are they completely different? “I had this fundamental question about how brains develop, and I had a baby with a developing brain,” she said. “Two of the things that were most important to me in life temporarily had this very intense convergence inside an MRI machine.”
The morning of the US presidential election, I was leading a graduate seminar on Friedrich Nietzsche’s critique of truth. It turned out to be all too apt.
Nietzsche, German counter-Enlightenment thinker of the late 19th century, seemed to suggest that objective truth – the concept of truth that most philosophers relied on at the time – doesn’t really exist. That idea, he wrote, is a relic of an age when God was the guarantor of what counted as the objective view of the world, but God is dead, meaning that objective, absolute truth is an impossibility. God’s point of view is no longer available to determine what is true.
Nietzsche fancied himself a prophet of things to come – and not long after Donald Trump won the presidency, the Oxford Dictionaries declared the international word of the year 2016 to be “post-truth”.
Indeed, one of the characteristics of Trump’s campaign was its scorn for facts and the truth. Trump himself unabashedly made any claim that seemed fit for his purpose of being elected: that crime levels are sky-high, that climate change is a Chinese hoax, that he’d never called it a Chinese hoax, and so on. But the exposure of his constant contradictions and untruths didn’t stop him. He won.
Nietzsche offers us a way of understanding how this happened. As he saw it, once we realise that the idea of an absolute, objective truth is a philosophical hoax, the only alternative is a position called “perspectivism” – the idea there is no one objective way the world is, only perspectives on what the world is like.
This might seem outlandish. After all, surely we all agree certain things are objectively true: Trump’s predecessor as president is Barack Obama, the capital of France is Paris, and so on. But according to perspectivism, we agree on those things not because these propositions are “objectively true”, but by virtue of sharing the same perspective.
When it comes to basic matters, sharing a perspective on the truth is easy – but when it comes to issues such as morality, religion and politics, agreement is much harder to achieve. People occupy different perspectives, seeing the world and themselves in radically different ways. These perspectives are each shaped by the biases, the desires and the interests of those who hold them; they can vary wildly, and therefore so can the way people see the world. Your truth, my truth
A core tenet of Enlightenment thought was that our shared humanity, or a shared faculty called reason, could serve as an antidote to differences of opinion a common ground that can function as the arbiter of different perspectives. Of course people disagree, but, the idea goes, through reason and argument they can come to see the truth. Nietzsche’s philosophy, however, claims such ideals are philosophical illusions, wishful thinking, or at worst covert way of imposing one’s own view on everyone else under the pretence of rationality and truth.
That’s become the slogan of an increasing number of the global white-collar workforce. People are unleashing themselves from corporations and companies to plug wirelessly into the wider world. The tribe of this digital diaspora is described and named in various ways—among them, location independent—but I prefer digital nomad.
Full disclosure: I number myself among this constituency, breaking the tether to corporate ties last year. I’m writing to you from a somewhat disclosed corner of southwestern Turkey where sugar-cubed-shaped homes tumble down rugged hills toward the Aegean Sea. I can literally see Greece—at least a few of her islands—from my window.
I’m certainly not alone, and the community seems to be growing exponentially, reaching what appears to be a tipping point that is ready to push the 9-to-5 workweek into the dustbin of history, along with pet rocks and pensions.
“[Digital nomads] don’t subscribe to the standards of previous generations for what defines happiness, what defines productivity, what defines success. I think they’re freeing themselves from the shackles of previous generations,” says Brian Solis, a self-described digital anthropologist and principal analyst at technology research firm Altimeter Group, which is part of the marketing firm Prophet Company. He is also the author of X: The Experience When Business Meets Design.
No one has done a complete anthropologic makeup of digital nomadism, but I like the brief history that fellow nomad and now documentary filmmaker Christine Gilbert developed a few years ago, as one way to tell the story. It all started, according to Gilbert, around 1983, with a freelance writer named Steven Roberts.
Machine-to-machine communication forms a vast plexus of precise data on land, at sea, in the air, and in space. Homes and offices and cars: connected. Products and environments and people: smarter, safer, greener. Some of this is easy to imagine. Some of it still boggles the mind. A radical new type of interconnectivity has recently…
Say hello to the decentralized economy -- the blockchain is about to change everything. In this lucid explainer of the complex (and confusing) technology, Bettina Warburg describes how the blockchain will eliminate the need for centralized institutions like banks or governments to facilitate trade, evolving age-old models of commerce and finance into something far more interesting: a distributed, transparent, autonomous system for exchanging value.
A university without any teachers has opened in California this month.
It's called 42 - the name taken from the answer to the meaning of life, from the science fiction series The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
The US college, a branch of an institution in France with the same name, will train about a thousand students a year in coding and software development by getting them to help each other with projects, then mark one another's work.
This might seem like the blind leading the blind - and it's hard to imagine parents at an open day being impressed by a university offering zero contact hours.
But since 42 started in Paris in 2013, applications have been hugely oversubscribed. No tuition fees
Recent graduates are now working at companies including IBM, Amazon, and Tesla, as well as starting their own firms.
42 was founded by French technology billionaire Xavier Niel, whose backing means there are no tuition fees and accommodation is free.
Mr Niel and his co-founders come from the world of technology and start-ups, and they are trying to do to education what Facebook did to communication and Airbnb to accommodation.
Imagine having a chip in your brain to boost your concentration, or pumping artificial blood into your veins to improve stamina. With gene editing, this may be possible.
Scientists are pioneering the ability to tweak our DNA to wipe out disease and maybe even allow us to choose desirable traits in our unborn children, like height or intelligence. None of these technologies have moved out of the lab, but Americans are already uncomfortable with them. In a survey from Pew Research Center, almost half said they wouldn’t want to edit their baby’s genes—whether it were to combat disease or shop for traits.
Nearly 70 percent of survey participants also said they were more worried than enthusiastic about the possibility of synthetic-blood and brain-chip implants. They saw these options as “meddling with nature,” even though we’ve been using technology to enhance our lives for thousands of years.
But to me, the more important point raised was the concern that technological enhancements could lead to greater inequality—that the rich could pay to live longer, healthier lives, and the poor couldn’t. This consideration is important because technologies like gene editing are becoming a reality faster than many of us realize.
Already Chinese scientists have twice reported that they used CRISPR, a powerful gene-editing tool, to tinker with human embryos—most recently in April. They were trying to make nonviable embryos (which couldn’t have led to a live birth) impervious to HIV and then destroyed them, in keeping with policies that limit this type of research.
Another team in China is using CRISPR in the first human trial of its kind, to combat deadly lung cancer. Brain implants are still mostly speculative (though scientists have made strides in using implants that help paralyzed patients control prosthetics with their minds). But science is moving fast, so we need to vigorously debate the implications of these technologies sooner rather than later, or we’ll risk programming inequality deep into our DNA.
Most of us have wondered what we might do if we didn’t need to work – if we woke up one morning to discover we had won the lottery, say. We entertain ourselves with visions of multiple homes, trips around the world or the players we would sign after buying Arsenal. For many of us, the most tantalising aspect of such visions is the freedom it would bring: to do what one wants, when one wants and how one wants.
But imagine how that vision might change if such freedom were extended to everyone. Some day, probably not in our lifetimes but perhaps not long after, machines will be able to do most of the tasks that people can. At that point, a truly workless world should be possible. If everyone, not just the rich, had robots at their beck and call, then such powerful technology would free them from the need to submit to the realities of the market to put food on the table.
Of course, we then have to figure out what to do not only with ourselves but with one another. Just as a lottery cheque does not free the winner from the shackles of the human condition, all-purpose machine intelligence will not magically allow us all to get along. And what is especially tricky about a world without work is that we must begin building the social institutions to survive it long before the technological obsolescence of human workers actually arrives.
A new study increases and strengthens the links that have led scientists to propose the “transposon theory of aging.”
Transposons are rogue elements of DNA that break free in aging cells and rewrite themselves elsewhere in the genome, potentially creating lifespan-shortening chaos in the genetic makeups of tissues.
As cells get older, prior studies have shown, tightly wound heterochromatin wrapping that typically imprisons transposons becomes looser, allowing them to slip out of their positions in chromosomes and move to new ones, disrupting normal cell function. Meanwhile, scientists have shown that potentially related interventions, such as restricting calories or manipulating certain genes, can demonstrably lengthen lifespans in laboratory animals.
In the next five years, nearly every important decision, whether it's business or personal, will be made with the assistance of IBM Watson, said IBM president and CEO Ginni Rometty, in a keynote speech at IBM's World of Watson conference.
For the first time, scientists have edited DNA in healthy and viable human embryos using genetic tool CRIPR/Cas9.
The researchers, led by developmental biologist Fredrik Lanner from the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, hope the research will lead to new ways to treat infertility and prevent miscarriage.
"Having children is one of the major drives for a lot of people," Lanner told Rob Stein at NPR. "For people who do struggle with this, it can tend to become an extremely important part of your life."
Although Chinese scientists made headlines back in April for genetically modifying human embryos, those embryos were unusable for IVF, and would never have been able to develop into healthy infants.
But two-day-old embryos Lanner is using are still viable, and were all donated by couples at an IVF clinic in Sweden.
The researchers are attempting to edit genes in these embryos to regulate certain aspects of their development. If the genes are removed and the embryo no longer functions, it signals that a particular gene is essential for embryotic growth.
However, Lanner says these embryos are only being studied for the first seven days of growth, and will be destroyed after 14 days.
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