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.
An international team of scientists from the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) is investigating mysterious signal spikes emitting from a 6.3-billion-year-old star in the constellation Hercules—95 light years away from Earth. The implications are extraordinary and point to the possibility of a civilization far more advanced than our own.
The unusual signal was originally detected on May 15, 2015, by the Russian Academy of Science-operated RATAN-600 radio telescope in Zelenchukskaya, Russia, but was kept secret from the international community. Interstellar space reporter Paul Gilster broke the story after the researchers quietly circulated a paper announcing the detection of “a strong signal in the direction of HD164595.”
The mysterious star’s designation is HD164595, and it’s considered to be sun-like in nature with a nearly identical metallic composition to our own star. So far, a single Neptune-like (but warmer) planet has been discovered in its orbit—HD 164595 b. But as Gilster explained, “There could, of course, be other planets still undetected in this system.”
Decorated Italian SETI researcher and mathematician Claudio Maccone along with Russia’s Nikolai Bursov of the Special Astrophysical Observatory are the principal scientists working on the apparent discovery. They claim that “permanent monitoring of this target is needed.”
“The signal conceivably fits the profile for an intentional transmission from an extraterrestrial source,” said Alan Boyle, author of The Case for Pluto who reported the story for Geekwire. “In any case, the blip is interesting enough to merit discussion by those who specialize in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.”
The signal’s strength indicates that if it in fact came from a isotropic beacon, the power source would have to be built by a Kardashev Type II civilization. (The Kardashev scale is used to determine the progress of a civilization’s technological development by measuring how much energy was used to transmit an interstellar message.) An ‘Isotropic’ beacon means a communication source emitting a signal with equal power in all directions while promoting signal strength throughout travel.
In his acclaimed work “Transmission of Information by Extraterrestrial Civilizations,” Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev explained that a Type II civilization would be able to harness the energy of their entire host star. The most common hypothetical example of this would be a Dyson Sphere—which is a massive artificial structure that could completely encapsulate a star and transfer the energy to a nearby planet.
One of the advantages that CEOs and celebrities have over most people is that they don’t need to spend much time handling the uninteresting, time-consuming aspects of daily life: scheduling appointments, making travel plans, searching for the information they want. They have personal assistants, or PAs, who handle such things. But soon—maybe even this year—most of us will be able to afford this luxury for the price of few lattes a month, thanks to the emergence of an open AI ecosystem.
AI here refers, of course, to artificial intelligence. Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, Google’s OK Google and Amazon’s Echo services are nifty in the way that they extract questions from speech using natural-language processing and then do a limited set of useful things, such as look for a restaurant, get driving directions, find an open slot for a meeting, or run a simple web search. But too often their response to a request for help is “Sorry, I don’t know about that” or “here’s what I found on the web.” You would never confuse these digital assistants for a human PA. Moreover, these systems are proprietary and hard for entrepreneurs to extend with new features.
But over the past several years, several pieces of emerging technology have linked together in ways that make it easier to build far more powerful, human-like digital assistants—that is, into an open AI ecosystem. This ecosystem connects not only to our mobile devices and computers—and through them to our messages, contacts, finances, calendars and work files—but also to the thermostat in the bedroom, the scale in the bathroom, the bracelet on the wrist, even the car in the driveway. The interconnection of the Internet with the Internet of Things and your own personal data, all instantly available almost anywhere via spoken conversations with an AI, could unlock higher productivity and better health and happiness for millions of people within the next few years.
Sharing isn’t new. Giving someone a ride, having a guest in your spare room, running errands for someone, participating in a supper club — these are not revolutionary concepts. What is new, in the “sharing economy,” is that you are not helping a friend for free; you are providing these services to a stranger for money.
In this book, Arun Sundararajan, an expert on the sharing economy, explains the transition to what he describes as “crowd-based capitalism” — a new way of organizing economic activity that may supplant the traditional corporate-centered model. As peer-to-peer commercial exchange blurs the lines between the personal and the professional, how will the economy, government regulation, what it means to have a job, and our social fabric be affected?
Northwestern University scientists created a prosthetic ovary using a 3D printer – an implant that allowed mice that had their ovaries surgically removed to bear live young. The results will be presented Saturday, April 2, at the Endocrine Society’s annual meeting, ENDO 2016, in Boston. Researchers hope to use the technology to develop an ovary bioprosthesis that could be implanted in women to restore fertility. One group that could benefit is survivors of childhood cancers, who have an increased risk of infertility as adults. An estimated 1 in 250 adults has survived childhood cancer.
“One of the biggest concerns for patients diagnosed with cancer is how the treatment may affect their fertility and hormone health,” said lead study author Monica M. Laronda, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “We are developing new ways to restore their quality of life by engineering ovary bioprosthesis implants.”
The researchers used a 3D printer to create a scaffold to support hormone-producing cells and immature egg cells, called oocytes. The structure was made out of gelatin – a biological material derived from the animal protein collagen. The scientists applied biological principles to manufacture the scaffold, which needed to be rigid enough to be handled during surgery and to provide enough space for oocyte growth, blood vessel formation and ovulation.
Using human cell cultures, the researchers determined the optimal scaffold design should have crisscrossing struts that allowed the cells to anchor at multiple points. The scaffolds were seeded with ovarian follicles – the spherical unit that contains a centralized oocyte with surrounding supportive, hormone-producing cells – to create the bioprosthesis.
To test the implant, researchers removed the ovaries of mice and replaced them with the ovary bioprosthesis. Following the procedure, the mice ovulated, gave birth to healthy pups and were able to nurse.
Implanting the prosthetic ovary in mice also restored the estrous, or female hormone cycle. Researchers theorize a similar implant could help maintain hormone cycling in women who were born with or have undergone disease treatments that have reduced ovarian function. These women often experience decreased production of reproductive hormones that can cause issues with the onset of puberty as well as bone and vascular health problems later in life.
“We developed this implant with downstream human applications in mind, as it is made through a scalable 3D printing method, using a material already used in humans,” Laronda said. “We hope to one day restore fertility and hormone function in women who suffer from the side effects of cancer treatments or who were born with reduced ovarian function.”
A recent report has found that over the past two decades, we’ve lost a tenth of the world’s wilderness, thanks in no small part to mining, illegal logging, agriculture, and oil and gas exploration.
That means since 1993, an area twice the size of Alaska has been stripped from the plant and animal species that depend on it, and wilderness now amounts to just 23 percent of Earth’s total land mass.
"The continued loss of wilderness areas is a globally significant problem with largely irreversible outcomes for both humans and nature," says the international team of researchers behind the study.
"If these trends continue, there could be no globally significant wilderness areas left in less than a century."
The researchers found that the Amazon and Central Africa have been hardest hit when it comes to declining wilderness - defined as biologically and ecologically intact landscapes that are mostly free of human disturbance.
"These areas do not exclude people, as many are in fact critical to certain communities, including indigenous people," the researchers stipulate.
"Rather, they have lower levels of impacts from the kinds of human uses that result in significant biophysical disturbance to natural habitats, such as large-scale land conversion, industrial activity, or infrastructure development."
Of the 3.3 million square kilometres of wilderness lost since 1993, the Amazon accounted for nearly a third, while a further 14 percent was lost from Central Africa. The researchers concluded that 30.1 million square kilometres of wilderness was left, which equates to less than a quarter of the planet's total land mass.
On Wednesday, Facebook made an announcement that you’d think would only matter to Facebook users and publishers: It will modify its News Feed algorithm to favor content posted by a user’s friends and family over content posted by media outlets. The company said the move was not about privileging certain sources over others, but about better “connecting people and ideas.”
But Richard Edelman, the head of the communications marketing firm Edelman, sees something more significant in the change: proof of a new “world of self-reference” that, once you notice it, helps explain everything from Donald Trump’s appeal to Britain’s vote to exit the European Union. Elites used to possess outsized influence and authority, Edelman notes, but now they only have a monopoly on authority. Influence largely rests with the broader population. People trust their peers much more than they trust their political leaders or news organizations. For 16 years, Edelman’s company has been surveying people around the world on their trust in various institutions. And one of the firm’s findings is that people are especially likely these days to describe “a person like me”—a friend or, say, a Facebook friend—as a credible source of information. A “person like me” is now viewed as twice as credible as a government leader, Edelman said at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic. “We have a reversal of traditional influence. It is going not top-down, but sideways.”
This is part of a larger divide that has been opening up between “mass populations” and “informed publics” (Edelman defined the latter group as those who have a college degree, regularly consume news media, and are in the top 25 percent of household income for their age group in a given country). The 2008 financial crisis, he argued, produced widespread suspicion that elites only act in their own interests, not those of the people, and that elites don’t necessarily have access to better information than the rest of the population does. The sluggish, unequal recovery from that crisis—the wealthy bouncing back while many others struggle with stagnant incomes—has only increased the skepticism.
The result of all this is deepening distrust of institutions, especially the government and the media, among “mass populations” in many countries. (Among “informed publics,” by contrast, trust in institutions has grown in the years since the economic crash.)
CRISPR gene drives allow scientists to change sequences of DNA and guarantee that the resulting edited genetic trait is inherited by future generations, opening up the possibility of altering entire species forever. More than anything, the technology has led to questions: How will this new power affect humanity? What are we going to use it to change? Are we gods now? Join journalist Jennifer Kahn as she ponders these questions and shares a potentially powerful application of gene drives: the development of disease-resistant mosquitoes that could knock out malaria and Zika.
A group of 21 youth climate activists scored a major victory in the courts on Friday: The plaintiffs, aged 8 to 19, allege unconstitutional discrimination by a federal government more interested in burning fossil fuels than protecting the rights to life, liberty, and property of young people. The Oregon federal judge hearing the case, Thomas Coffin, said they have a point.
Denying the federal government’s motion to dismiss the “relatively unprecedented lawsuit,” Judge Coffin wrote:
The court must accept the allegations as true and those allegations plausibly allege harm, though widespread, that is concrete. … the intractability of the debates before Congress and state legislatures and the alleged valuing of short term economic interest despite the cost to human life, necessitates a need for the courts to evaluate the constitutional parameters of the action or inaction taken by the government.
In other words, given the ultra-polarized political stalemate on climate change, a bunch of kids suing the government over decades of unnecessarily slow action may be the best shot humanity has left at addressing the problem before dangerous changes are locked in. The suit is a radical challenge to the status quo in an era of radical environmental change.
“The future of our generation is at stake,” said 16-year-old plaintiff Victoria Barrett in a statement. “People label our generation as dreamers, but hope is not the only tool we have.”
We often think of consciousness as binary: you’re either fully aware of something, or you’re not. Yet according to a team of cognitive neuroscientists at the University of California, Santa... read more
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