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First CRISPR gene-edited babies? Ethics and the science story

Scientists, He Jiankui and Michael Deem, may have created the first human babies born after being subjected to CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) gene editing.  At this point, no one is entirely certain that these babies  as described actually exist since the information was made public in a rather unusual (for scientists) fashion.

The news broke on Sunday, November 25, 2018 through a number of media outlets none of which included journals associated with gene editing or high impact journals such as Cell, Nature, or Science.The news broke in MIT Technology Review and in Associated Press. Plus, this all happened just before the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing (Nov. 27 – 29, 2018) in Hong Kong. He Jiankui was scheduled to speak today, Nov. 27, 2018.

Predictably, this news has caused quite a tizzy.

Breaking news

Antonio Regalado broke the news in a November 25, 2018  article for MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Technology Review (Note: Links have been removed),

According to Chinese medical documents posted online this month (here and here), a team at the Southern University of Science and Technology, in Shenzhen, has been recruiting couples in an effort to create the first gene-edited babies. They planned to eliminate a gene called CCR5 in hopes of rendering the offspring resistant to HIV, smallpox, and cholera.

The clinical trial documents describe a study in which CRISPR is employed to modify human embryos before they are transferred into women’s uteruses.

The scientist behind the effort, He Jiankui, did not reply to a list of questions about whether the undertaking had produced a live birth. Reached by telephone, he declined to comment.

However, data submitted as part of the trial listing shows that genetic tests have been carried out on fetuses as late as 24 weeks, or six months. It’s not known if those pregnancies were terminated, carried to term, or are ongoing.

Apparently He changed his mind because Marilynn Marchione in a November 26, 2018 article for the Associated Press confirms the news,

A Chinese researcher claims that he helped make the world’s first genetically edited babies — twin girls born this month whose DNA he said he altered with a powerful new tool capable of rewriting the very blueprint of life.

If true, it would be a profound leap of science and ethics.

A U.S. scientist [Dr. Michael Deem] said he took part in the work in China, but this kind of gene editing is banned in the United States because the DNA changes can pass to future generations and it risks harming other genes.

Many mainstream scientists think it’s too unsafe to try, and some denounced the Chinese report as human experimentation.

There is no independent confirmation of He’s claim, and it has not been published in a journal, where it would be vetted by other experts. He revealed it Monday [November 26, 2018] in Hong Kong to one of the organizers of an international conference on gene editing that is set to begin Tuesday [November 27, 2018], and earlier in exclusive interviews with The Associated Press.

“I feel a strong responsibility that it’s not just to make a first, but also make it an example,” He told the AP. “Society will decide what to do next” in terms of allowing or forbidding such science.

Some scientists were astounded to hear of the claim and strongly condemned it.

It’s “unconscionable … an experiment on human beings that is not morally or ethically defensible,” said Dr. Kiran Musunuru, a University of Pennsylvania gene editing expert and editor of a genetics journal.

“This is far too premature,” said Dr. Eric Topol, who heads the Scripps Research Translational Institute in California. “We’re dealing with the operating instructions of a human being. It’s a big deal.”

However, one famed geneticist, Harvard University’s George Church, defended attempting gene editing for HIV, which he called “a major and growing public health threat.”

“I think this is justifiable,” Church said of that goal.

h/t Cale Guthrie Weissman’s Nov. 26, 2018 article for Fast Company.

Diving into more detail

Ed Yong in a November 26, 2018 article for The Atlantic provides more details about the claims (Note: Links have been removed),

… “Two beautiful little Chinese girls, Lulu and Nana, came crying into the world as healthy as any other babies a few weeks ago,” He said in the first of five videos, posted yesterday {Nov. 25, 2018] to YouTube [link provided at the end of this section of the post]. “The girls are home now with their mom, Grace, and dad, Mark.” The claim has yet to be formally verified, but if true, it represents a landmark in the continuing ethical and scientific debate around gene editing.

Late last year, He reportedly enrolled seven couples in a clinical trial, and used their eggs and sperm to create embryos through in vitro fertilization. His team then used CRISPR to deactivate a single gene called CCR5 in the embryos, six of which they then implanted into mothers. CCR5 is a protein that the HIV virus uses to gain entry into human cells; by deactivating it, the team could theoretically reduce the risk of infection. Indeed, the fathers in all eight couples were HIV-positive.

Whether the experiment was successful or not, it’s intensely controversial. Scientists have already begun using CRISPR and other gene-editing technologies to alter human cells, in attempts to treat cancers, genetic disorders, and more. But in these cases, the affected cells stay within a person’s body. Editing an embryo [it’s often called, germline editing] is very different: It changes every cell in the body of the resulting person, including the sperm or eggs that would pass those changes to future generations. Such work is banned in many European countries, and prohibited in the United States. “I understand my work will be controversial, but I believe families need this technology and I’m willing to take the criticism for them,” He said.

“Was this a reasonable thing to do? I would say emphatically no,” says Paula Cannon of the University of Southern California. She and others have worked on gene editing, and particularly on trials that knock out CCR5 as a way to treat HIV. But those were attempts to treat people who were definitively sick and had run out of other options. That wasn’t the case with Nana and Lulu.

“The idea that being born HIV-susceptible, which is what the vast majority of humans are, is somehow a disease state that requires the extraordinary intervention of gene editing blows my mind,” says Cannon. “I feel like he’s appropriating this potentially valuable therapy as a shortcut to doing something in the sphere of gene editing. He’s either very naive or very cynical.”

“I want someone to make sure that it has happened,” says Hank Greely, an ethicist at Stanford University. If it hasn’t, that “would be a pretty bald-faced fraud,” but such deceptions have happened in the past. “If it is true, I’m disappointed. It’s reckless on safety grounds, and imprudent and stupid on social grounds.” He notes that a landmark summit in 2015 (which included Chinese researchers) and a subsequent major report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine both argued that “public participation should precede any heritable germ-line editing.” That is: Society needs to work out how it feels about making gene-edited babies before any babies are edited. Absent that consensus, He’s work is “waving a red flag in front of a bull,” says Greely. “It provokes not just the regular bio-Luddites, but also reasonable people who just wanted to talk it out.”

Societally, the creation of CRISPR-edited babies is a binary moment—a Rubicon that has been crossed. But scientifically, the devil is in the details, and most of those are still unknown.

CRISPR is still inefficient. [emphasis mine] The Chinese teams who first used it to edit human embryos only did so successfully in a small proportion of cases, and even then, they found worrying levels of “off-target mutations,” where they had erroneously cut parts of the genome outside their targeted gene. He, in his video, claimed that his team had thoroughly sequenced Nana and Lulu’s genomes and found no changes in genes other than CCR5.

That claim is impossible to verify in the absence of a peer-reviewed paper, or even published data of any kind. “The paper is where we see whether the CCR5 gene was properly edited, what effect it had at the cellular level, and whether [there were] any off-target effects,” said Eric Topol of the Scripps Research Institute. “It’s not just ‘it worked’ as a binary declaration.”

In the video, He said that using CRISPR for human enhancement, such as enhancing IQ or selecting eye color, “should be banned.” Speaking about Nana and Lulu’s parents, he said that they “don’t want a designer baby, just a child who won’t suffer from a disease that medicine can now prevent.”

But his rationale is questionable. Huang [Junjiu Huang of Sun Yat-sen University ], the first Chinese researcher to use CRISPR on human embryos, targeted the faulty gene behind an inherited disease called beta thalassemia. Mitalipov, likewise, tried to edit a gene called MYBPC3, whose faulty versions cause another inherited disease called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). Such uses are still controversial, but they rank among the more acceptable applications for embryonic gene editing as ways of treating inherited disorders for which treatments are either difficult or nonexistent.

In contrast, He’s team disableda normal gene in an attempt to reduce the risk of a disease that neither child had—and one that can be controlled. There are already ways of preventing fathers from passing HIV to their children. There are antiviral drugs that prevent infections. There’s safe-sex education. “This is not a plague for which we have no tools,” says Cannon.

As Marilynn Marchione of the AP reports, early tests suggest that He’s editing was incomplete [emphasis mine], and at least one of the twins is a mosaic, where some cells have silenced copies of CCR5 and others do not. If that’s true, it’s unlikely that they would be significantly protected from HIV. And in any case, deactivating CCR5 doesn’t confer complete immunity, because some HIV strains can still enter cells via a different protein called CXCR4.

Nana and Lulu might have other vulnerabilities. …

It is also unclear if the participants in He’s trial were fully aware of what they were signing up for. [emphasis mine] The team’s informed-consent document describes their work as an “AIDS vaccine development project,” and while it describes CRISPR gene editing, it does so in heavily technical language. It doesn’t mention any of the risks of disabling CCR5, and while it does note the possibility of off-target effects, it also says that the “project team is not responsible for the risk.”

He owns two genetics companies, and his collaborator, Michael Deem of Rice University,  [emphasis mine] holds a small stake in, and sits on the advisory board of, both of them. The AP’s Marchione reports, “Both men are physics experts with no experience running human clinical trials.” [emphasis mine]

Yong’s article is well worth reading in its entirety. As for YouTube, here’s The He Lab’s webpage with relevant videos.

Reactions

Gina Kolata, Sui-Lee Wee, and Pam Belluck writing in a Nov. 26, 2018 article for the New York Times chronicle some of the response to He’s announcement,

It is highly unusual for a scientist to announce a groundbreaking development without at least providing data that academic peers can review. Dr. He said he had gotten permission to do the work from the ethics board of the hospital Shenzhen Harmonicare, but the hospital, in interviews with Chinese media, denied being involved. Cheng Zhen, the general manager of Shenzhen Harmonicare, has asked the police to investigate what they suspect are “fraudulent ethical review materials,” according to the Beijing News.

The university that Dr. He is attached to, the Southern University of Science and Technology, said Dr. He has been on no-pay leave since February and that the school of biology believed that his project “is a serious violation of academic ethics and academic norms,” according to the state-run Beijing News.

In a statement late on Monday, China’s national health commission said it has asked the health commission in southern Guangdong province to investigate Mr. He’s claims.

“I think that’s completely insane,” said Shoukhrat Mitalipov, director of the Center for Embryonic Cell and Gene Therapy at Oregon Health and Science University. Dr. Mitalipov broke new ground last year by using gene editing to successfully remove a dangerous mutation from human embryos in a laboratory dish. [I wrote a three-part series about CRISPR, which included what was then the latest US news, Mitalipov’s announcement, along with a roundup of previous work in China. Links are at the end of this section.’

Dr. Mitalipov said that unlike his own work, which focuses on editing out mutations that cause serious diseases that cannot be prevented any other way, Dr. He did not do anything medically necessary. There are other ways to prevent H.I.V. infection in newborns.

Just three months ago, at a conference in late August on genome engineering at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, Dr. He presented work on editing the CCR₅ gene in the embryos of nine couples.

At the conference, whose organizers included Jennifer Doudna, one of the inventors of Crispr technology, Dr. He gave a careful talk about something that fellow attendees considered squarely within the realm of ethically approved research. But he did not mention that some of those embryos had been implanted in a woman and could result in genetically engineered babies.

“What we now know is that as he was talking, there was a woman in China carrying twins,” said Fyodor Urnov, deputy director of the Altius Institute for Biomedical Sciences and a visiting researcher at the Innovative Genomics Institute at the University of California. “He had the opportunity to say ‘Oh and by the way, I’m just going to come out and say it, people, there’s a woman carrying twins.’”

“I would never play poker against Dr. He,” Dr. Urnov quipped.

Richard Hynes, a cancer researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who co-led an advisory group on human gene editing for the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine, said that group and a similar organization in Britain had determined that if human genes were to be edited, the procedure should only be done to address “serious unmet needs in medical treatment, it had to be well monitored, it had to be well followed up, full consent has to be in place.”

It is not clear why altering genes to make people resistant to H.I.V. is “a serious unmet need.” Men with H.I.V. do not infect embryos. …

Dr. He got his Ph.D., from Rice University, in physics and his postdoctoral training, at Stanford, was with Stephen Quake, a professor of bioengineering and applied physics who works on sequencing DNA, not editing it.

Experts said that using Crispr would actually be quite easy for someone like Dr. He.

After coming to Shenzhen in 2012, Dr. He, at age 28, established a DNA sequencing company, Direct Genomics, and listed Dr. Quake on its advisory board. But, in a telephone interview on Monday, Dr. Quake said he was never associated with the company.

Deem, the US scientist who worked in China with He is currently being investigated (from a Nov. 26, 2018 article by Andrew Joseph in STAT),

Rice University said Monday that it had opened a “full investigation” into the involvement of one of its faculty members in a study that purportedly resulted in the creation of the world’s first babies born with edited DNA.

Michael Deem, a bioengineering professor at Rice, told the Associated Press in a story published Sunday that he helped work on the research in China.

Deem told the AP that he was in China when participants in the study consented to join the research. Deem also said that he had “a small stake” in and is on the scientific advisory boards of He’s two companies.

Megan Molteni in a Nov. 27, 2018 article for Wired admits she and her colleagues at the magazine may have dismissed CRISPR concerns about designer babies prematurely while shedding more light on this  latest development (Note: Links have been removed),

We said “don’t freak out,” when scientists first used Crispr to edit DNA in non-viable human embryos. When they tried it in embryos that could theoretically produce babies, we said “don’t panic.” Many years and years of boring bench science remain before anyone could even think about putting it near a woman’s uterus. Well, we might have been wrong. Permission to push the panic button granted.

Late Sunday night, a Chinese researcher stunned the world by claiming to have created the first human babies, a set of twins, with Crispr-edited DNA….

What’s perhaps most strange is not that He ignored global recommendations on conducting responsible Crispr research in humans. He also ignored his own advice to the world—guidelines that were published within hours of his transgression becoming public.

On Monday, He and his colleagues at Southern University of Science and Technology, in Shenzhen, published a set of draft ethical principles “to frame, guide, and restrict clinical applications that communities around the world can share and localize based on religious beliefs, culture, and public-health challenges.” Those principles included transparency and only performing the procedure when the risks are outweighed by serious medical need.

The piece appeared in the The Crispr Journal, a young publication dedicated to Crispr research, commentary, and debate. Rodolphe Barrangou, the journal’s editor in chief, where the peer-reviewed perspective appeared, says that the article was one of two that it had published recently addressing the ethical concerns of human germline editing, the other by a bioethicist at the University of North Carolina. Both papers’ authors had requested that their writing come out ahead of a major gene editing summit taking place this week in Hong Kong. When half-rumors of He’s covert work reached Barrangou over the weekend, his team discussed pulling the paper, but ultimately decided that there was nothing too solid to discredit it, based on the information available at the time.

Now Barrangou and his team are rethinking that decision. For one thing, He did not disclose any conflicts of interest, which is standard practice among respectable journals. It’s since become clear that not only is He at the helm of several genetics companies in China, He was actively pursuing controversial human research long before writing up a scientific and moral code to guide it.“We’re currently assessing whether the omission was a matter of ill-management or ill-intent,” says Barrangou, who added that the journal is now conducting an audit to see if a retraction might be warranted. …

“There are all sorts of questions these issues raise, but the most fundamental is the risk-benefit ratio for the babies who are going to be born,” says Hank Greely, an ethicist at Stanford University. “And the risk-benefit ratio on this stinks. Any institutional review board that approved it should be disbanded if not jailed.”

Reporting by Stat indicates that He may have just gotten in over his head and tried to cram a self-guided ethics education into a few short months. The young scientist—records indicate He is just 34—has a background in biophysics, with stints studying in the US at Rice University and in bioengineer Stephen Quake’s lab at Stanford. His resume doesn’t read like someone steeped deeply in the nuances and ethics of human research. Barrangou says that came across in the many rounds of edits He’s framework went through.

… China’s central government in Beijing has yet to come down one way or another. Condemnation would make He a rogue and a scientific outcast. Anything else opens the door for a Crispr IVF cottage industry to emerge in China and potentially elsewhere. “It’s hard to imagine this was the only group in the world doing this,” says Paul Knoepfler, a stem cell researcher at UC Davis who wrote a book on the future of designer babies called GMO Sapiens. “Some might say this broke the ice. Will others forge ahead and go public with their results or stop what they’re doing and see how this plays out?”

Here’s some of the very latest information with the researcher attempting to explain himself.

What does He have to say?

After He’s appearance at the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing today, Nov. 27, 2018, David Cyranoski produced this article for Nature,

He Jiankui, the Chinese scientist who claims to have helped produce the first people born with edited genomes — twin girls — appeared today at a gene-editing summit in Hong Kong to explain his experiment. He gave his talk amid threats of legal action and mounting questions, from the scientific community and beyond, about the ethics of his work and the way in which he released the results.

He had never before presented his work publicly outside of a handful of videos he posted on YouTube. Scientists welcomed the fact that he appeared at all — but his talk left many hungry for more answers, and still not completely certain that He has achieved what he claims.

“There’s no reason not to believe him,” says Robin Lovell-Badge, a developmental biologist at the Francis Crick Institute in London. “I’m just not completely convinced.”

Lovell-Badge, like others at the conference, says that an independent body should confirm the test results by performing an in-depth comparison of the parents’ and childrens’ genes.

Many scientists faulted He for a lack of transparency and the seemingly cavalier nature in which he embarked on such a landmark, and potentially risky, project.

“I’m happy he came but I was really horrified and stunned when he described the process he used,” says Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley and a pioneer of the CRISPR/Cas-9 gene-editing technique that He used. “It was so inappropriate on so many levels.”

He seemed shaky approaching the stage and nervous during the talk. “I think he was scared,” says Matthew Porteus, who researches genome-editing at Stanford University in California and co-hosted a question-and-answer session with He after his presentation. Porteus attributes this either to the legal pressures that He faces or the mounting criticism from the scientists and media he was about to address.

He’s talk leaves a host of other questions unanswered, including whether the prospective parents were properly informed of the risks; why He selected CCR5 when there are other, proven ways to prevent HIV; why he chose to do the experiment with couples in which the fathers have HIV, rather than mothers who have a higher chance of passing the virus on to their children; and whether the risks of knocking out CCR5 — a gene normally present in people, which could have necessary but still unknown functions — outweighed the benefits in this case.

In the discussion following He’s talk, one scientist asked why He proceeded with the experiments despite the clear consensus among scientists worldwide that such research shouldn’t be done. He didn’t answer the question.

He’s attempts to justify his actions mainly fell flat. In response to questions about why the science community had not been informed of the experiments before the first women were impregnated, he cited presentations that he gave last year at meetings at the University of California, Berkeley, and at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. But Doudna, who organized the Berkeley meeting, says He did not present anything that showed he was ready to experiment in people. She called his defence “disingenuous at best”.

He also said he discussed the human experiment with unnamed scientists in the United States. But Porteus says that’s not enough for such an extraordinary experiment: “You need feedback not from your two closest friends but from the whole community.” …

Pressure was mounting on He ahead of the presentation. On 27 November, the Chinese national health commission ordered the Guangdong health commission, in the province where He’s university is located, to investigate.

On the same day, the Chinese Academy of Sciences issued a statement condemning his work, and the Genetics Society of China and the Chinese Society for Stem Cell Research jointly issued a statement saying the experiment “violates internationally accepted ethical principles regulating human experimentation and human rights law”.

The hospital cited in China’s clinical-trial registry as the that gave ethical approval for He’s work posted a press release on 27 November saying it did not give any approval. It questioned the signatures on the approval form and said that the hospital’s medical-ethics committee never held a meeting related to He’s research. The hospital, which itself is under investigation by the Shenzhen health authorities following He’s revelations, wrote: “The Company does not condone the means of the Claimed Project, and has reservations as to the accuracy, reliability and truthfulness of its contents and results.”

He has not yet responded to requests for comment on these statements and investigations, nor on why the hospital was listed in the registry and the claim of apparent forged signatures.

Alice Park’s Nov. 26, 2018 article for Time magazine includes an embedded video of He’s Nov. 27, 2018 presentation at the summit meeting.

What about the politics?

Mara Hvistendahl’s Nov. 27, 2018 article about this research for Slate.com poses some geopolitical questions (Note: Links have been removed),

The informed consent agreement for He Jiankui’s experiment describes it as an “AIDS vaccine development project” and used highly technical language to describe the procedure that patients would undergo. If the reality for some Chinese patients is that such agreements are glossed over, densely written, or never read, the reality for some researchers working in the country is that the appeal of cutting-edge trials is too great to resist. It is not just Chinese scientists who can be blinded by the lure of quick breakthroughs. Several of the most notable breaches of informed consent on the mainland have involved Western researchers or co-authors. … When people say that the usual rules don’t apply in China, they are really referring to authoritarian science, not some alternative communitarian ethics.

For the many scientists in China who adhere to recognized international standards, the incident comes as a disgrace. He Jiankui now faces an ethics investigation from provincial health authorities, and his institution, Southern University of Science and Technology, was quick to issue a statement noting that He was on unpaid leave. …

It would seem that US scientists wanting to avoid pesky ethics requirements in the US have found that going to China could be the answer to their problems. I gather it’s not just big business that prefers deregulated environments.

Guillaume Levrier’s  (he’ studying for a PhD at the Universté Sorbonne Paris Cité) November 16, 2018 essay for The Conversation sheds some light on political will and its impact on science (Note: Links have been removed),

… China has entered a “genome editing” race among great scientific nations and its progress didn’t come out of nowhere. China has invested heavily in the natural-sciences sector over the past 20 years. The Ninth Five-Year Plan (1996-2001) mentioned the crucial importance of biotechnologies. The current Thirteenth Five-Year Plan is even more explicit. It contains a section dedicated to “developing efficient and advanced biotechnologies” and lists key sectors such as “genome-editing technologies” intended to “put China at the bleeding edge of biotechnology innovation and become the leader in the international competition in this sector”.

Chinese embryo research is regulated by a legal framework, the “technical norms on human-assisted reproductive technologies”, published by the Science and Health Ministries. The guidelines theoretically forbid using sperm or eggs whose genome have been manipulated for procreative purposes. However, it’s hard to know how much value is actually placed on this rule in practice, especially in China’s intricate institutional and political context.

In theory, three major actors have authority on biomedical research in China: the Science and Technology Ministry, the Health Ministry, and the Chinese Food and Drug Administration. In reality, other agents also play a significant role. Local governments interpret and enforce the ministries’ “recommendations”, and their own interpretations can lead to significant variations in what researchers can and cannot do on the ground. The Chinese National Academy of Medicine is also a powerful institution that has its own network of hospitals, universities and laboratories.

Another prime actor is involved: the health section of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which has its own biomedical faculties, hospitals and research labs. The PLA makes its own interpretations of the recommendations and has proven its ability to work with the private sector on gene editing projects. …

One other thing from Levrier’s essay,

… And the media timing is just a bit too perfect, …

Do read the essay; there’s a twist at the end.

Final thoughts and some links

If I read this material rightly, there are suspicions there may be more of this work being done in China and elsewhere. In short, we likely don’t have the whole story.

As for the ethical issues, this is a discussion among experts only, so far. The great unwashed (thee and me) are being left at the wayside. Sure, we’ll be invited to public consultations, one day,  after the big decisions have been made.

Anyone who’s read up on the history of science will tell you this kind of breach is very common at the beginning. Richard Holmes’  2008 book, ‘The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science’ recounts stories of early scientists (European science) who did crazy things. Some died, some shortened their life spans; and, some irreversibly damaged their health.  They also experimented on other people. Informed consent had not yet been dreamed up.

In fact, I remember reading somewhere that the largest human clinical trial in history was held in Canada. The small pox vaccine was highly contested in the US but the Canadian government thought it was a good idea so they offered US scientists the option of coming here to vaccinate Canadian babies. This was in the 1950s and the vaccine seems to have been administered almost universally. That was a lot of Canadian babies. Thankfully, it seems to have worked out but it does seem mind-boggling today.

For all the indignation and shock we’re seeing, this is not the first time nor will it be the last time someone steps over a line in order to conduct scientific research. And, that is the eternal problem.

Meanwhile I think some of the real action regarding CRISPR and germline editing is taking place in the field (pun!) of agriculture:

My Nov. 27, 2018 posting titled: ‘Designer groundcherries by CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)‘ and a more disturbing Nov. 27, 2018 post titled: ‘Agriculture and gene editing … shades of the AquAdvantage salmon‘. That second posting features a company which is trying to sell its gene-editing services to farmers who would like cows that  never grow horns and pigs that never reach puberty.

Then there’s this ,

The Genetic Revolution‘, a documentary that offers relatively up-to-date information about gene editing, which was broadcast on Nov. 11, 2018 as part of The Nature of Things series on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation).

My July 17, 2018 posting about research suggesting that scientists hadn’t done enough research on possible effects of CRISPR editing titled: ‘The CRISPR ((clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)-CAS9 gene-editing technique may cause new genetic damage kerfuffle’.

My 2017 three-part series on CRISPR and germline editing:

CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 1 of 3): In the beginning

CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 2 of 3): ‘designer babies’?

CRISPR and editing the germline in the US (part 3 of 3): public discussions and pop culture

There you have it.

Added on November 30, 2018: David Cyanowski has written one final article (Nov. 30, 2018 for Nature) about He and the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing. He did not make his second scheduled appearance at the summit, returning to China before the summit concluded. He was rebuked in a statement produced by the Summit’s organizing committee at the end of the three-day meeting. The situation with regard to his professional status in China is ambiguous. Cyanowski ends his piece with the information that the third summit will take place in London (likely in the UK) in 2021. I encourage you to read Cyanowski’s Nov. 30, 2018 article in its entirety; it’s not long.

Added on Dec. 3, 2018: The story continues. Ed Yong has written a summary of the issues to date in a Dec. 3, 2018 article for The Atlantic (even if you know the story ift’s eyeopening to see all the parts put together.

J. Benjamin Hurlbut, Associate Professor of Life Sciences at Arizona State University (ASU) and Jason Scott Robert, Director of the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics at Arizona State University have written a provocative (and true) Dec. 3, 2018 essay titled, CRISPR babies raise an uncomfortable reality – abiding by scientific standards doesn’t guarantee ethical research, for The Conversation. h/t phys.org

I found it at the movies: a commentary on/review of “Films from the Future”

Kudos to anyone who recognized the reference to Pauline Kael (she changed film criticism forever) and her book “I Lost it at the Movies.” Of course, her book title was a bit of sexual innuendo, quite risqué for an important film critic in 1965 but appropriate for a period (the 1960s) associated with a sexual revolution. (There’s more about the 1960’s sexual revolution in the US along with mention of a prior sexual revolution in the 1920s in this Wikipedia entry.)

The title for this commentary is based on an anecdote from Dr. Andrew Maynard’s (director of the Arizona State University [ASU] Risk Innovation Lab) popular science and technology book, “Films from the Future: The Technology and Morality of Sci-Fi Movies.”

The ‘title-inspiring’ anecdote concerns Maynard’s first viewing of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey, when as a rather “bratty” 16-year-old who preferred to read science fiction, he discovered new ways of seeing and imaging the world. Maynard isn’t explicit about when he became a ‘techno nerd’ or how movies gave him an experience books couldn’t but presumably at 16 he was already gearing up for a career in the sciences. That ‘movie’ revelation received in front of a black and white television on January 1,1982 eventually led him to write, “Films from the Future.” (He has a PhD in physics which he is now applying to the field of risk innovation. For a more detailed description of Dr. Maynard and his work, there’s his ASU profile webpage and, of course, the introduction to his book.)

The book is quite timely. I don’t know how many people have noticed but science and scientific innovation is being covered more frequently in the media than it has been in many years. Science fairs and festivals are being founded on what seems to be a daily basis and you can now find science in art galleries. (Not to mention the movies and television where science topics are covered in comic book adaptations, in comedy, and in standard science fiction style.) Much of this activity is centered on what’s called ’emerging technologies’. These technologies are why people argue for what’s known as ‘blue sky’ or ‘basic’ or ‘fundamental’ science for without that science there would be no emerging technology.

Films from the Future

Isn’t reading the Table of Contents (ToC) the best way to approach a book? (From Films from the Future; Note: The formatting has been altered),

Table of Contents
Chapter One
In the Beginning 14
Beginnings 14
Welcome to the Future 16
The Power of Convergence 18
Socially Responsible Innovation 21
A Common Point of Focus 25
Spoiler Alert 26
Chapter Two
Jurassic Park: The Rise of Resurrection Biology 27
When Dinosaurs Ruled the World 27
De-Extinction 31
Could We, Should We? 36
The Butterfly Effect 39
Visions of Power 43
Chapter Three
Never Let Me Go: A Cautionary Tale of Human Cloning 46
Sins of Futures Past 46
Cloning 51
Genuinely Human? 56
Too Valuable to Fail? 62
Chapter Four
Minority Report: Predicting Criminal Intent 64
Criminal Intent 64
The “Science” of Predicting Bad Behavior 69
Criminal Brain Scans 74
Machine Learning-Based Precognition 77
Big Brother, Meet Big Data 79
Chapter Five
Limitless: Pharmaceutically-enhanced Intelligence 86
A Pill for Everything 86
The Seduction of Self-Enhancement 89
Nootropics 91
If You Could, Would You? 97
Privileged Technology 101
Our Obsession with Intelligence 105
Chapter Six
Elysium: Social Inequity in an Age of Technological
Extremes 110
The Poor Shall Inherit the Earth 110
Bioprinting Our Future Bodies 115
The Disposable Workforce 119
Living in an Automated Future 124
Chapter Seven
Ghost in the Shell: Being Human in an
Augmented Future 129
Through a Glass Darkly 129
Body Hacking 135
More than “Human”? 137
Plugged In, Hacked Out 142
Your Corporate Body 147
Chapter Eight
Ex Machina: AI and the Art of Manipulation 154
Plato’s Cave 154
The Lure of Permissionless Innovation 160
Technologies of Hubris 164
Superintelligence 169
Defining Artificial Intelligence 172
Artificial Manipulation 175
Chapter Nine
Transcendence: Welcome to the Singularity 180
Visions of the Future 180
Technological Convergence 184
Enter the Neo-Luddites 190
Techno-Terrorism 194
Exponential Extrapolation 200
Make-Believe in the Age of the Singularity 203
Chapter Ten
The Man in the White Suit: Living in a Material World 208
There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom 208
Mastering the Material World 213
Myopically Benevolent Science 220
Never Underestimate the Status Quo 224
It’s Good to Talk 227
Chapter Eleven
Inferno: Immoral Logic in an Age of
Genetic Manipulation 231
Decoding Make-Believe 231
Weaponizing the Genome 234
Immoral Logic? 238
The Honest Broker 242
Dictating the Future 248
Chapter Twelve
The Day After Tomorrow: Riding the Wave of
Climate Change 251
Our Changing Climate 251
Fragile States 255
A Planetary “Microbiome” 258
The Rise of the Anthropocene 260
Building Resiliency 262
Geoengineering the Future 266
Chapter Thirteen
Contact: Living by More than Science Alone 272
An Awful Waste of Space 272
More than Science Alone 277
Occam’s Razor 280
What If We’re Not Alone? 283
Chapter Fourteen
Looking to the Future 288
Acknowledgments 293

The ToC gives the reader a pretty clue as to where the author is going with their book and Maynard explains how he chose his movies in his introductory chapter (from Films from the Future),

“There are some quite wonderful science fiction movies that didn’t make the cut because they didn’t fit the overarching narrative (Blade Runner and its sequel Blade Runner 2049, for instance, and the first of the Matrix trilogy). There are also movies that bombed with the critics, but were included because they ably fill a gap in the bigger story around emerging and converging technologies. Ultimately, the movies that made the cut were chosen because, together, they create an overarching narrative around emerging trends in biotechnologies, cybertechnologies, and materials-based technologies, and they illuminate a broader landscape around our evolving relationship with science and technology. And, to be honest, they are all movies that I get a kick out of watching.” (p. 17)

Jurassic Park (Chapter Two)

Dinosaurs do not interest me—they never have. Despite my profound indifference I did see the movie, Jurassic Park, when it was first released (someone talked me into going). And, I am still profoundly indifferent. Thankfully, Dr. Maynard finds meaning and a connection to current trends in biotechnology,

Jurassic Park is unabashedly a movie about dinosaurs. But it’s also a movie about greed, ambition, genetic engineering, and human folly—all rich pickings for thinking about the future, and what could possibly go wrong. (p. 28)

What really stands out with Jurassic Park, over twenty-five years later, is how it reveals a very human side of science and technology. This comes out in questions around when we should tinker with technology and when we should leave well enough alone. But there is also a narrative here that appears time and time again with the movies in this book, and that is how we get our heads around the sometimes oversized roles mega-entrepreneurs play in dictating how new tech is used, and possibly abused. These are all issues that are just as relevant now as they were in 1993, and are front and center of ensuring that the technologyenabled future we’re building is one where we want to live, and not one where we’re constantly fighting for our lives.  (pp. 30-1)

He also describes a connection to current trends in biotechnology,

De-Extinction

In a far corner of Siberia, two Russians—Sergey Zimov and his son Nikita—are attempting to recreate the Ice Age. More precisely, their vision is to reconstruct the landscape and ecosystem of northern Siberia in the Pleistocene, a period in Earth’s history that stretches from around two and a half million years ago to eleven thousand years ago. This was a time when the environment was much colder than now, with huge glaciers and ice sheets flowing over much of the Earth’s northern hemisphere. It was also a time when humans
coexisted with animals that are long extinct, including saber-tooth cats, giant ground sloths, and woolly mammoths.

The Zimovs’ ambitions are an extreme example of “Pleistocene rewilding,” a movement to reintroduce relatively recently extinct large animals, or their close modern-day equivalents, to regions where they were once common. In the case of the Zimovs, the
father-and-son team believe that, by reconstructing the Pleistocene ecosystem in the Siberian steppes and elsewhere, they can slow down the impacts of climate change on these regions. These areas are dominated by permafrost, ground that never thaws through
the year. Permafrost ecosystems have developed and survived over millennia, but a warming global climate (a theme we’ll come back to in chapter twelve and the movie The Day After Tomorrow) threatens to catastrophically disrupt them, and as this happens, the impacts
on biodiversity could be devastating. But what gets climate scientists even more worried is potentially massive releases of trapped methane as the permafrost disappears.

Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas—some eighty times more effective at exacerbating global warming than carbon dioxide— and large-scale releases from warming permafrost could trigger catastrophic changes in climate. As a result, finding ways to keep it in the ground is important. And here the Zimovs came up with a rather unusual idea: maintaining the stability of the environment by reintroducing long-extinct species that could help prevent its destruction, even in a warmer world. It’s a wild idea, but one that has some merit.8 As a proof of concept, though, the Zimovs needed somewhere to start. And so they set out to create a park for deextinct Siberian animals: Pleistocene Park.9

Pleistocene Park is by no stretch of the imagination a modern-day Jurassic Park. The dinosaurs in Hammond’s park date back to the Mesozoic period, from around 250 million years ago to sixty-five million years ago. By comparison, the Pleistocene is relatively modern history, ending a mere eleven and a half thousand years ago. And the vision behind Pleistocene Park is not thrills, spills, and profit, but the serious use of science and technology to stabilize an increasingly unstable environment. Yet there is one thread that ties them together, and that’s using genetic engineering to reintroduce extinct species. In this case, the species in question is warm-blooded and furry: the woolly mammoth.

The idea of de-extinction, or bringing back species from extinction (it’s even called “resurrection biology” in some circles), has been around for a while. It’s a controversial idea, and it raises a lot of tough ethical questions. But proponents of de-extinction argue
that we’re losing species and ecosystems at such a rate that we can’t afford not to explore technological interventions to help stem the flow.

Early approaches to bringing species back from the dead have involved selective breeding. The idea was simple—if you have modern ancestors of a recently extinct species, selectively breeding specimens that have a higher genetic similarity to their forebears can potentially help reconstruct their genome in living animals. This approach is being used in attempts to bring back the aurochs, an ancestor of modern cattle.10 But it’s slow, and it depends on
the fragmented genome of the extinct species still surviving in its modern-day equivalents.

An alternative to selective breeding is cloning. This involves finding a viable cell, or cell nucleus, in an extinct but well-preserved animal and growing a new living clone from it. It’s definitely a more appealing route for impatient resurrection biologists, but it does mean getting your hands on intact cells from long-dead animals and devising ways to “resurrect” these, which is no mean feat. Cloning has potential when it comes to recently extinct species whose cells have been well preserved—for instance, where the whole animal has become frozen in ice. But it’s still a slow and extremely limited option.

Which is where advances in genetic engineering come in.

The technological premise of Jurassic Park is that scientists can reconstruct the genome of long-dead animals from preserved DNA fragments. It’s a compelling idea, if you think of DNA as a massively long and complex instruction set that tells a group of biological molecules how to build an animal. In principle, if we could reconstruct the genome of an extinct species, we would have the basic instruction set—the biological software—to reconstruct
individual members of it.

The bad news is that DNA-reconstruction-based de-extinction is far more complex than this. First you need intact fragments of DNA, which is not easy, as DNA degrades easily (and is pretty much impossible to obtain, as far as we know, for dinosaurs). Then you
need to be able to stitch all of your fragments together, which is akin to completing a billion-piece jigsaw puzzle without knowing what the final picture looks like. This is a Herculean task, although with breakthroughs in data manipulation and machine learning,
scientists are getting better at it. But even when you have your reconstructed genome, you need the biological “wetware”—all the stuff that’s needed to create, incubate, and nurture a new living thing, like eggs, nutrients, a safe space to grow and mature, and so on. Within all this complexity, it turns out that getting your DNA sequence right is just the beginning of translating that genetic code into a living, breathing entity. But in some cases, it might be possible.

In 2013, Sergey Zimov was introduced to the geneticist George Church at a conference on de-extinction. Church is an accomplished scientist in the field of DNA analysis and reconstruction, and a thought leader in the field of synthetic biology (which we’ll come
back to in chapter nine). It was a match made in resurrection biology heaven. Zimov wanted to populate his Pleistocene Park with mammoths, and Church thought he could see a way of
achieving this.

What resulted was an ambitious project to de-extinct the woolly mammoth. Church and others who are working on this have faced plenty of hurdles. But the technology has been advancing so fast that, as of 2017, scientists were predicting they would be able to reproduce the woolly mammoth within the next two years.

One of those hurdles was the lack of solid DNA sequences to work from. Frustratingly, although there are many instances of well preserved woolly mammoths, their DNA rarely survives being frozen for tens of thousands of years. To overcome this, Church and others
have taken a different tack: Take a modern, living relative of the mammoth, and engineer into it traits that would allow it to live on the Siberian tundra, just like its woolly ancestors.

Church’s team’s starting point has been the Asian elephant. This is their source of base DNA for their “woolly mammoth 2.0”—their starting source code, if you like. So far, they’ve identified fifty plus gene sequences they think they can play with to give their modern-day woolly mammoth the traits it would need to thrive in Pleistocene Park, including a coat of hair, smaller ears, and a constitution adapted to cold.

The next hurdle they face is how to translate the code embedded in their new woolly mammoth genome into a living, breathing animal. The most obvious route would be to impregnate a female Asian elephant with a fertilized egg containing the new code. But Asian elephants are endangered, and no one’s likely to allow such cutting edge experimentation on the precious few that are still around, so scientists are working on an artificial womb for their reinvented woolly mammoth. They’re making progress with mice and hope to crack the motherless mammoth challenge relatively soon.

It’s perhaps a stretch to call this creative approach to recreating a species (or “reanimation” as Church refers to it) “de-extinction,” as what is being formed is a new species. … (pp. 31-4)

This selection illustrates what Maynard does so very well throughout the book where he uses each film as a launching pad for a clear, readable description of relevant bits of science so you understand why the premise was likely, unlikely, or pure fantasy while linking it to contemporary practices, efforts, and issues. In the context of Jurassic Park, Maynard goes on to raise some fascinating questions such as: Should we revive animals rendered extinct (due to obsolescence or inability to adapt to new conditions) when we could develop new animals?

General thoughts

‘Films for the Future’ offers readable (to non-scientific types) science, lively writing, and the occasional ‘memorish’ anecdote. As well, Dr. Maynard raises the curtain on aspects of the scientific enterprise that most of us do not get to see.  For example, the meeting  between Sergey Zimov and George Church and how it led to new ‘de-extinction’ work’. He also describes the problems that the scientists encountered and are encountering. This is in direct contrast to how scientific work is usually presented in the news media as one glorious breakthrough after the next.

Maynard does discuss the issues of social inequality and power and ownership. For example, who owns your transplant or data? Puzzlingly, he doesn’t touch on the current environment where scientists in the US and elsewhere are encouraged/pressured to start up companies commercializing their work.

Nor is there any mention of how universities are participating in this grand business experiment often called ‘innovation’. (My March 15, 2017 posting describes an outcome for the CRISPR [gene editing system] patent fight taking place between Harvard University’s & MIT’s [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Broad Institute vs the University of California at Berkeley and my Sept. 11, 2018 posting about an art/science exhibit in Vancouver [Canada] provides an update for round 2 of the Broad Institute vs. UC Berkeley patent fight [scroll down about 65% of the way.) *To read about how my ‘cultural blindness’ shows up here scroll down to the single asterisk at the end.*

There’s a foray through machine-learning and big data as applied to predictive policing in Maynard’s ‘Minority Report’ chapter (my November 23, 2017 posting describes Vancouver’s predictive policing initiative [no psychics involved], the first such in Canada). There’s no mention of surveillance technology, which if I recall properly was part of the future environment, both by the state and by corporations. (Mia Armstrong’s November 15, 2018 article for Slate on Chinese surveillance being exported to Venezuela provides interesting insight.)

The gaps are interesting and various. This of course points to a problem all science writers have when attempting an overview of science. (Carl Zimmer’s latest, ‘She Has Her Mother’s Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity’] a doorstopping 574 pages, also has some gaps despite his focus on heredity,)

Maynard has worked hard to give an comprehensive overview in a remarkably compact 279 pages while developing his theme about science and the human element. In other words, science is not monolithic; it’s created by human beings and subject to all the flaws and benefits that humanity’s efforts are always subject to—scientists are people too.

The readership for ‘Films from the Future’ spans from the mildly interested science reader to someone like me who’s been writing/blogging about these topics (more or less) for about 10 years. I learned a lot reading this book.

Next time, I’m hopeful there’ll be a next time, Maynard might want to describe the parameters he’s set for his book in more detail that is possible in his chapter headings. He could have mentioned that he’s not a cinéaste so his descriptions of the movies are very much focused on the story as conveyed through words. He doesn’t mention colour palates, camera angles, or, even, cultural lenses.

Take for example, his chapter on ‘Ghost in the Shell’. Focused on the Japanese animation film and not the live action Hollywood version he talks about human enhancement and cyborgs. The Japanese have a different take on robots, inanimate objects, and, I assume, cyborgs than is found in Canada or the US or Great Britain, for that matter (according to a colleague of mine, an Englishwoman who lived in Japan for ten or more years). There’s also the chapter on the Ealing comedy, The Man in The White Suit, an English film from the 1950’s. That too has a cultural (as well as, historical) flavour but since Maynard is from England, he may take that cultural flavour for granted. ‘Never let me go’ in Chapter Two was also a UK production, albeit far more recent than the Ealing comedy and it’s interesting to consider how a UK production about cloning might differ from a US or Chinese or … production on the topic. I am hearkening back to Maynard’s anecdote about movies giving him new ways of seeing and imagining the world.

There’s a corrective. A couple of sentences in Maynard’s introductory chapter cautioning that in depth exploration of ‘cultural lenses’ was not possible without expanding the book to an unreadable size followed by a sentence in each of the two chapters that there are cultural differences.

One area where I had a significant problem was with regard to being “programmed” and having  “instinctual” behaviour,

As a species, we are embarrassingly programmed to see “different” as “threatening,” and to take instinctive action against it. It’s a trait that’s exploited in many science fiction novels and movies, including those in this book. If we want to see the rise of increasingly augmented individuals, we need to be prepared for some social strife. (p. 136)

These concepts are much debated in the social sciences and there are arguments for and against ‘instincts regarding strangers and their possible differences’. I gather Dr. Maynard hies to the ‘instinct to defend/attack’ school of thought.

One final quandary, there was no sex and I was expecting it in the Ex Machina chapter, especially now that sexbots are about to take over the world (I exaggerate). Certainly, if you’re talking about “social strife,” then sexbots would seem to be fruitful line of inquiry, especially when there’s talk of how they could benefit families (my August 29, 2018 posting). Again, there could have been a sentence explaining why Maynard focused almost exclusively in this chapter on the discussions about artificial intelligence and superintelligence.

Taken in the context of the book, these are trifling issues and shouldn’t stop you from reading Films from the Future. What Maynard has accomplished here is impressive and I hope it’s just the beginning.

Final note

Bravo Andrew! (Note: We’ve been ‘internet acquaintances/friends since the first year I started blogging. When I’m referring to him in his professional capacity, he’s Dr. Maynard and when it’s not strictly in his professional capacity, it’s Andrew. For this commentary/review I wanted to emphasize his professional status.)

If you need to see a few more samples of Andrew’s writing, there’s a Nov. 15, 2018 essay on The Conversation, Sci-fi movies are the secret weapon that could help Silicon Valley grow up and a Nov. 21, 2018 article on slate.com, The True Cost of Stain-Resistant Pants; The 1951 British comedy The Man in the White Suit anticipated our fears about nanotechnology. Enjoy.

****Added at 1700 hours on Nov. 22, 2018: You can purchase Films from the Future here.

*Nov. 23, 2018: I should have been more specific and said ‘academic scientists’. In Canada, the great percentage of scientists are academic. It’s to the point where the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) has noted that amongst industrialized countries, Canada has very few industrial scientists in comparison to the others.

New path to viable memristor/neuristor?

I first stumbled onto memristors and the possibility of brain-like computing sometime in 2008 (around the time that R. Stanley Williams and his team at HP Labs first published the results of their research linking Dr. Leon Chua’s memristor theory to their attempts to shrink computer chips). In the almost 10 years since, scientists have worked hard to utilize memristors in the field of neuromorphic (brain-like) engineering/computing.

A January 22, 2018 news item on phys.org describes the latest work,

When it comes to processing power, the human brain just can’t be beat.

Packed within the squishy, football-sized organ are somewhere around 100 billion neurons. At any given moment, a single neuron can relay instructions to thousands of other neurons via synapses—the spaces between neurons, across which neurotransmitters are exchanged. There are more than 100 trillion synapses that mediate neuron signaling in the brain, strengthening some connections while pruning others, in a process that enables the brain to recognize patterns, remember facts, and carry out other learning tasks, at lightning speeds.

Researchers in the emerging field of “neuromorphic computing” have attempted to design computer chips that work like the human brain. Instead of carrying out computations based on binary, on/off signaling, like digital chips do today, the elements of a “brain on a chip” would work in an analog fashion, exchanging a gradient of signals, or “weights,” much like neurons that activate in various ways depending on the type and number of ions that flow across a synapse.

In this way, small neuromorphic chips could, like the brain, efficiently process millions of streams of parallel computations that are currently only possible with large banks of supercomputers. But one significant hangup on the way to such portable artificial intelligence has been the neural synapse, which has been particularly tricky to reproduce in hardware.

Now engineers at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] have designed an artificial synapse in such a way that they can precisely control the strength of an electric current flowing across it, similar to the way ions flow between neurons. The team has built a small chip with artificial synapses, made from silicon germanium. In simulations, the researchers found that the chip and its synapses could be used to recognize samples of handwriting, with 95 percent accuracy.

A January 22, 2018 MIT news release by Jennifer Chua (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail about the research,

The design, published today [January 22, 2018] in the journal Nature Materials, is a major step toward building portable, low-power neuromorphic chips for use in pattern recognition and other learning tasks.

The research was led by Jeehwan Kim, the Class of 1947 Career Development Assistant Professor in the departments of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering, and a principal investigator in MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics and Microsystems Technology Laboratories. His co-authors are Shinhyun Choi (first author), Scott Tan (co-first author), Zefan Li, Yunjo Kim, Chanyeol Choi, and Hanwool Yeon of MIT, along with Pai-Yu Chen and Shimeng Yu of Arizona State University.

Too many paths

Most neuromorphic chip designs attempt to emulate the synaptic connection between neurons using two conductive layers separated by a “switching medium,” or synapse-like space. When a voltage is applied, ions should move in the switching medium to create conductive filaments, similarly to how the “weight” of a synapse changes.

But it’s been difficult to control the flow of ions in existing designs. Kim says that’s because most switching mediums, made of amorphous materials, have unlimited possible paths through which ions can travel — a bit like Pachinko, a mechanical arcade game that funnels small steel balls down through a series of pins and levers, which act to either divert or direct the balls out of the machine.

Like Pachinko, existing switching mediums contain multiple paths that make it difficult to predict where ions will make it through. Kim says that can create unwanted nonuniformity in a synapse’s performance.

“Once you apply some voltage to represent some data with your artificial neuron, you have to erase and be able to write it again in the exact same way,” Kim says. “But in an amorphous solid, when you write again, the ions go in different directions because there are lots of defects. This stream is changing, and it’s hard to control. That’s the biggest problem — nonuniformity of the artificial synapse.”

A perfect mismatch

Instead of using amorphous materials as an artificial synapse, Kim and his colleagues looked to single-crystalline silicon, a defect-free conducting material made from atoms arranged in a continuously ordered alignment. The team sought to create a precise, one-dimensional line defect, or dislocation, through the silicon, through which ions could predictably flow.

To do so, the researchers started with a wafer of silicon, resembling, at microscopic resolution, a chicken-wire pattern. They then grew a similar pattern of silicon germanium — a material also used commonly in transistors — on top of the silicon wafer. Silicon germanium’s lattice is slightly larger than that of silicon, and Kim found that together, the two perfectly mismatched materials can form a funnel-like dislocation, creating a single path through which ions can flow.

The researchers fabricated a neuromorphic chip consisting of artificial synapses made from silicon germanium, each synapse measuring about 25 nanometers across. They applied voltage to each synapse and found that all synapses exhibited more or less the same current, or flow of ions, with about a 4 percent variation between synapses — a much more uniform performance compared with synapses made from amorphous material.

They also tested a single synapse over multiple trials, applying the same voltage over 700 cycles, and found the synapse exhibited the same current, with just 1 percent variation from cycle to cycle.

“This is the most uniform device we could achieve, which is the key to demonstrating artificial neural networks,” Kim says.

Writing, recognized

As a final test, Kim’s team explored how its device would perform if it were to carry out actual learning tasks — specifically, recognizing samples of handwriting, which researchers consider to be a first practical test for neuromorphic chips. Such chips would consist of “input/hidden/output neurons,” each connected to other “neurons” via filament-based artificial synapses.

Scientists believe such stacks of neural nets can be made to “learn.” For instance, when fed an input that is a handwritten ‘1,’ with an output that labels it as ‘1,’ certain output neurons will be activated by input neurons and weights from an artificial synapse. When more examples of handwritten ‘1s’ are fed into the same chip, the same output neurons may be activated when they sense similar features between different samples of the same letter, thus “learning” in a fashion similar to what the brain does.

Kim and his colleagues ran a computer simulation of an artificial neural network consisting of three sheets of neural layers connected via two layers of artificial synapses, the properties of which they based on measurements from their actual neuromorphic chip. They fed into their simulation tens of thousands of samples from a handwritten recognition dataset commonly used by neuromorphic designers, and found that their neural network hardware recognized handwritten samples 95 percent of the time, compared to the 97 percent accuracy of existing software algorithms.

The team is in the process of fabricating a working neuromorphic chip that can carry out handwriting-recognition tasks, not in simulation but in reality. Looking beyond handwriting, Kim says the team’s artificial synapse design will enable much smaller, portable neural network devices that can perform complex computations that currently are only possible with large supercomputers.

“Ultimately we want a chip as big as a fingernail to replace one big supercomputer,” Kim says. “This opens a stepping stone to produce real artificial hardware.”

This research was supported in part by the National Science Foundation.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

SiGe epitaxial memory for neuromorphic computing with reproducible high performance based on engineered dislocations by Shinhyun Choi, Scott H. Tan, Zefan Li, Yunjo Kim, Chanyeol Choi, Pai-Yu Chen, Hanwool Yeon, Shimeng Yu, & Jeehwan Kim. Nature Materials (2018) doi:10.1038/s41563-017-0001-5 Published online: 22 January 2018

This paper is behind a paywall.

For the curious I have included a number of links to recent ‘memristor’ postings here,

January 22, 2018: Memristors at Masdar

January 3, 2018: Mott memristor

August 24, 2017: Neuristors and brainlike computing

June 28, 2017: Dr. Wei Lu and bio-inspired ‘memristor’ chips

May 2, 2017: Predicting how a memristor functions

December 30, 2016: Changing synaptic connectivity with a memristor

December 5, 2016: The memristor as computing device

November 1, 2016: The memristor as the ‘missing link’ in bioelectronic medicine?

You can find more by using ‘memristor’ as the search term in the blog search function or on the search engine of your choice.

2017 S.NET annual meeting early bird registration open until July 14, 2017

The Society for the Study of New and Emerging Technologies (S.NET), which at one time was known as the Society for the Study of Nano and other Emerging Technologies, is holding its 2017 annual meeting in Arizona, US. Here’s more from a July 4, 2017 S.NET notice (received via email),

We have an exciting schedule planned for our 2017 meeting in Phoenix,
Arizona. Our confirmed plenary speakers –Professors Langdon Winner,
Alfred Nordmann and Ulrike Felt– and a diverse host of researchers from
across the planet promise to make this conference intellectually
engaging, as well as exciting.

If you haven’t already, make sure to register for the conference and the
dinner. THE DEADLINE HAS BEEN MOVED BACK TO JULY 14. 2017.

I tried to find more information about the meeting and discovered the meeting theme here in the February 2017 S.NET Newsletter,

October 9-11, 2017, Arizona State University, Tempe (USA)

Conference Theme: Engaging the Flux

Even the most seemingly stable entities fluctuate over time. Facts and artifacts, cultures and constitutions, people and planets. As the new and the old act, interact and intra-act within broader systems of time, space and meaning, we observe—and necessarily engage with—the constantly changing forms of socio-technological orders. As scholars and practitioners of new and emerging sciences and technologies, we are constantly tracking these moving targets, and often from within them. As technologists and researchers, we are also acutely aware that our research activities can influence the developmental trajectories of our objects of concern and study, as well as ourselves, our colleagues and the governance structures in which we live and work.

“Engaging the Flux” captures this sense that ubiquitous change is all about us, operative at all observable scales. “Flux” points to the perishability of apparently natural orders, as well as apparently stable technosocial orders. In embracing flux as its theme, the 2017 conference encourages participants to examine what the widely acknowledged acceleration of change reverberating across the planet means for the production of the technosciences, the social studies of knowledge production, art practices that engage technosciences and public deliberations about the societal significance of these practices in the contemporary moment.

This year’s conference theme aims to encourage us to examine the ways we—as scholars, scientists, artists, experts, citizens—have and have not taken into account the myriad modulations flowing and failing to flow from our engagements with our objects of study. The theme also invites us to anticipate how the conditions that partially structure these engagements may themselves be changing.

Our goal is to draw a rich range of examinations of flux and its implications for technoscientific and technocultural practices, broadly construed. Questions of specific interest include: Given the pervasiveness of political, ecological and technological fluctuations, what are the most socially responsible roles for experts, particularly in the context of policymaking? What would it mean to not merely accept perishability, but to lean into it, to positively embrace the going under of technological systems? What value can imaginaries offer in developing navigational capacities in periods of accelerated change? How can young and junior researchers —in social sciences, natural sciences, humanities or engineering— position themselves for meaningful, rewarding careers given the complementary uncertainties? How can the growing body of research straddling art and science communities help us make sense of flux and chart a course through it? What types of recalibrations are called for in order to speak effectively to diverse, and increasingly divergent, publics about the value of knowledge production and scientific rigor?

There are a few more details about the conference here on the  S.NET 2017 meeting registration page,

The ​2017 ​S. ​NET ​conference ​is ​held ​in ​Phoenix, ​Arizona ​(USA) ​and ​hosted ​by ​Arizona ​State ​University. ​ ​This ​year’s ​meeting ​will ​provide ​a ​forum ​for ​scholarly ​engagement ​and ​reflection ​on ​the ​meaning ​of ​coupled ​socio-technical ​change ​as ​a ​contemporary ​political ​phenomenon, ​a ​recurrent ​historical ​theme, ​and ​an ​object ​of ​future ​anticipation. ​ ​

HOTEL ​BLOCK ​- ​the ​new ​Marriott ​in ​downtown ​Phoenix ​has ​reserved ​rooms ​at ​$139 ​(single) ​or ​$159 ​(double ​bed). ​ ​ ​Please ​use ​the ​link ​on ​the ​S.Net ​home ​page ​to ​book ​your ​room. ​ ​

REGISTRATION ​for ​non-students: ​ ​
Early ​bird ​pricing ​is ​available ​until ​Saturday, ​July ​14, ​2017. ​ ​
Registration ​increases ​to ​$220 ​starting ​Sunday, ​July ​15, ​2017. ​
Start Your Registration
Select registrant type *
Select registrant type *
Faculty/Postdoc/private industry/gov employee ($175) Details
Student – submitting abstract or poster ($50)
Student – not submitting abstract or poster ($100)

There you have it.

Patent Politics: a June 23, 2017 book launch at the Wilson Center (Washington, DC)

I received a June 12, 2017 notice (via email) from the Wilson Center (also know as the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars) about a book examining patents and policies in the United States and in Europe and its upcoming launch,

Patent Politics: Life Forms, Markets, and the Public Interest in the United States and Europe

Over the past thirty years, the world’s patent systems have experienced pressure from civil society like never before. From farmers to patient advocates, new voices are arguing that patents impact public health, economic inequality, morality—and democracy. These challenges, to domains that we usually consider technical and legal, may seem surprising. But in Patent Politics, Shobita Parthasarathy argues that patent systems have always been deeply political and social.

To demonstrate this, Parthasarathy takes readers through a particularly fierce and prolonged set of controversies over patents on life forms linked to important advances in biology and agriculture and potentially life-saving medicines. Comparing battles over patents on animals, human embryonic stem cells, human genes, and plants in the United States and Europe, she shows how political culture, ideology, and history shape patent system politics. Clashes over whose voices and which values matter in the patent system, as well as what counts as knowledge and whose expertise is important, look quite different in these two places. And through these debates, the United States and Europe are developing very different approaches to patent and innovation governance. Not just the first comprehensive look at the controversies swirling around biotechnology patents, Patent Politics is also the first in-depth analysis of the political underpinnings and implications of modern patent systems, and provides a timely analysis of how we can reform these systems around the world to maximize the public interest.

Join us on June 23 [2017] from 4-6 pm [elsewhere the time is listed at 4-7 pm] for a discussion on the role of the patent system in governing emerging technologies, on the launch of Shobita Parthasarathy’s Patent Politics: Life Forms, Markets, and the Public Interest in the United States and Europe (University of Chicago Press, 2017).

You can find more information such as this on the Patent Politics event page,

Speakers

Keynote


  • Shobita Parthasarathy

    Fellow
    Associate Professor of Public Policy and Women’s Studies, and Director of the Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program, at University of Michigan

Moderator


  • Eleonore Pauwels

    Senior Program Associate and Director of Biology Collectives, Science and Technology Innovation Program
    Formerly European Commission, Directorate-General for Research and Technological Development, Directorate on Science, Economy and Society

Panelists


  • Daniel Sarewitz

    Co-Director, Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes Professor of Science and Society, School for the Future of Innovation in Society

  • Richard Harris

    Award-Winning Journalist National Public Radio Author of “Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions”

For those who cannot attend in person, there will be a live webcast. If you can be there in person, you can RSVP here (Note: The time frame for the event is listed in some places as 4-7 pm.) I cannot find any reason for the time frame disparity. My best guess is that the discussion is scheduled for two hours with a one hour reception afterwards for those who can attend in person.

Emerging technology and the law

I have three news bits about legal issues that are arising as a consequence of emerging technologies.

Deep neural networks, art, and copyright

Caption: The rise of automated art opens new creative avenues, coupled with new problems for copyright protection. Credit: Provided by: Alexander Mordvintsev, Christopher Olah and Mike Tyka

Presumably this artwork is a demonstration of automated art although they never really do explain how in the news item/news release. An April 26, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily announces research into copyright and the latest in using neural networks to create art,

In 1968, sociologist Jean Baudrillard wrote on automatism that “contained within it is the dream of a dominated world […] that serves an inert and dreamy humanity.”

With the growing popularity of Deep Neural Networks (DNN’s), this dream is fast becoming a reality.

Dr. Jean-Marc Deltorn, researcher at the Centre d’études internationales de la propriété intellectuelle in Strasbourg, argues that we must remain a responsive and responsible force in this process of automation — not inert dominators. As he demonstrates in a recent Frontiers in Digital Humanities paper, the dream of automation demands a careful study of the legal problems linked to copyright.

An April 26, 2017 Frontiers (publishing) news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the research in more detail,

For more than half a century, artists have looked to computational processes as a way of expanding their vision. DNN’s are the culmination of this cross-pollination: by learning to identify a complex number of patterns, they can generate new creations.

These systems are made up of complex algorithms modeled on the transmission of signals between neurons in the brain.

DNN creations rely in equal measure on human inputs and the non-human algorithmic networks that process them.

Inputs are fed into the system, which is layered. Each layer provides an opportunity for a more refined knowledge of the inputs (shape, color, lines). Neural networks compare actual outputs to expected ones, and correct the predictive error through repetition and optimization. They train their own pattern recognition, thereby optimizing their learning curve and producing increasingly accurate outputs.

The deeper the layers are, the higher the level of abstraction. The highest layers are able to identify the contents of a given input with reasonable accuracy, after extended periods of training.

Creation thus becomes increasingly automated through what Deltorn calls “the arcane traceries of deep architecture”. The results are sufficiently abstracted from their sources to produce original creations that have been exhibited in galleries, sold at auction and performed at concerts.

The originality of DNN’s is a combined product of technological automation on one hand, human inputs and decisions on the other.

DNN’s are gaining popularity. Various platforms (such as DeepDream) now allow internet users to generate their very own new creations . This popularization of the automation process calls for a comprehensive legal framework that ensures a creator’s economic and moral rights with regards to his work – copyright protection.

Form, originality and attribution are the three requirements for copyright. And while DNN creations satisfy the first of these three, the claim to originality and attribution will depend largely on a given country legislation and on the traceability of the human creator.

Legislation usually sets a low threshold to originality. As DNN creations could in theory be able to create an endless number of riffs on source materials, the uncurbed creation of original works could inflate the existing number of copyright protections.

Additionally, a small number of national copyright laws confers attribution to what UK legislation defines loosely as “the person by whom the arrangements necessary for the creation of the work are undertaken.” In the case of DNN’s, this could mean anybody from the programmer to the user of a DNN interface.

Combined with an overly supple take on originality, this view on attribution would further increase the number of copyrightable works.

The risk, in both cases, is that artists will be less willing to publish their own works, for fear of infringement of DNN copyright protections.

In order to promote creativity – one seminal aim of copyright protection – the issue must be limited to creations that manifest a personal voice “and not just the electric glint of a computational engine,” to quote Deltorn. A delicate act of discernment.

DNN’s promise new avenues of creative expression for artists – with potential caveats. Copyright protection – a “catalyst to creativity” – must be contained. Many of us gently bask in the glow of an increasingly automated form of technology. But if we want to safeguard the ineffable quality that defines much art, it might be a good idea to hone in more closely on the differences between the electric and the creative spark.

This research is and be will part of a broader Frontiers Research Topic collection of articles on Deep Learning and Digital Humanities.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Deep Creations: Intellectual Property and the Automata by Jean-Marc Deltorn. Front. Digit. Humanit., 01 February 2017 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fdigh.2017.00003

This paper is open access.

Conference on governance of emerging technologies

I received an April 17, 2017 notice via email about this upcoming conference. Here’s more from the Fifth Annual Conference on Governance of Emerging Technologies: Law, Policy and Ethics webpage,

The Fifth Annual Conference on Governance of Emerging Technologies:

Law, Policy and Ethics held at the new

Beus Center for Law & Society in Phoenix, AZ

May 17-19, 2017!

Call for Abstracts – Now Closed

The conference will consist of plenary and session presentations and discussions on regulatory, governance, legal, policy, social and ethical aspects of emerging technologies, including (but not limited to) nanotechnology, synthetic biology, gene editing, biotechnology, genomics, personalized medicine, human enhancement technologies, telecommunications, information technologies, surveillance technologies, geoengineering, neuroscience, artificial intelligence, and robotics. The conference is premised on the belief that there is much to be learned and shared from and across the governance experience and proposals for these various emerging technologies.

Keynote Speakers:

Gillian HadfieldRichard L. and Antoinette Schamoi Kirtland Professor of Law and Professor of Economics USC [University of Southern California] Gould School of Law

Shobita Parthasarathy, Associate Professor of Public Policy and Women’s Studies, Director, Science, Technology, and Public Policy Program University of Michigan

Stuart Russell, Professor at [University of California] Berkeley, is a computer scientist known for his contributions to artificial intelligence

Craig Shank, Vice President for Corporate Standards Group in Microsoft’s Corporate, External and Legal Affairs (CELA)

Plenary Panels:

Innovation – Responsible and/or Permissionless

Ellen-Marie Forsberg, Senior Researcher/Research Manager at Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences

Adam Thierer, Senior Research Fellow with the Technology Policy Program at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University

Wendell Wallach, Consultant, ethicist, and scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics

 Gene Drives, Trade and International Regulations

Greg Kaebnick, Director, Editorial Department; Editor, Hastings Center Report; Research Scholar, Hastings Center

Jennifer Kuzma, Goodnight-North Carolina GlaxoSmithKline Foundation Distinguished Professor in Social Sciences in the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA) and co-director of the Genetic Engineering and Society (GES) Center at North Carolina State University

Andrew Maynard, Senior Sustainability Scholar, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability Director, Risk Innovation Lab, School for the Future of Innovation in Society Professor, School for the Future of Innovation in Society, Arizona State University

Gary Marchant, Regents’ Professor of Law, Professor of Law Faculty Director and Faculty Fellow, Center for Law, Science & Innovation, Arizona State University

Marc Saner, Inaugural Director of the Institute for Science, Society and Policy, and Associate Professor, University of Ottawa Department of Geography

Big Data

Anupam Chander, Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of Law and Director, California International Law Center, UC Davis School of Law

Pilar Ossorio, Professor of Law and Bioethics, University of Wisconsin, School of Law and School of Medicine and Public Health; Morgridge Institute for Research, Ethics Scholar-in-Residence

George Poste, Chief Scientist, Complex Adaptive Systems Initiative (CASI) (http://www.casi.asu.edu/), Regents’ Professor and Del E. Webb Chair in Health Innovation, Arizona State University

Emily Shuckburgh, climate scientist and deputy head of the Polar Oceans Team at the British Antarctic Survey, University of Cambridge

 Responsible Development of AI

Spring Berman, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, Arizona State University

John Havens, The IEEE [Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers] Global Initiative for Ethical Considerations in Artificial Intelligence and Autonomous Systems

Subbarao Kambhampati, Senior Sustainability Scientist, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, Professor, School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, Arizona State University

Wendell Wallach, Consultant, Ethicist, and Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics

Existential and Catastrophic Ricks [sic]

Tony Barrett, Co-Founder and Director of Research of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute

Haydn Belfield,  Academic Project Administrator, Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge

Margaret E. Kosal Associate Director, Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology

Catherine Rhodes,  Academic Project Manager, Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at CSER, University of Cambridge

These were the panels that are of interest to me; there are others on the homepage.

Here’s some information from the Conference registration webpage,

Early Bird Registration – $50 off until May 1! Enter discount code: earlybirdGETs50

New: Group Discount – Register 2+ attendees together and receive an additional 20% off for all group members!

Click Here to Register!

Conference registration fees are as follows:

  • General (non-CLE) Registration: $150.00
  • CLE Registration: $350.00
  • *Current Student / ASU Law Alumni Registration: $50.00
  • ^Cybsersecurity sessions only (May 19): $100 CLE / $50 General / Free for students (registration info coming soon)

There you have it.

Neuro-techno future laws

I’m pretty sure this isn’t the first exploration of potential legal issues arising from research into neuroscience although it’s the first one I’ve stumbled across. From an April 25, 2017 news item on phys.org,

New human rights laws to prepare for advances in neurotechnology that put the ‘freedom of the mind’ at risk have been proposed today in the open access journal Life Sciences, Society and Policy.

The authors of the study suggest four new human rights laws could emerge in the near future to protect against exploitation and loss of privacy. The four laws are: the right to cognitive liberty, the right to mental privacy, the right to mental integrity and the right to psychological continuity.

An April 25, 2017 Biomed Central news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes the work in more detail,

Marcello Ienca, lead author and PhD student at the Institute for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Basel, said: “The mind is considered to be the last refuge of personal freedom and self-determination, but advances in neural engineering, brain imaging and neurotechnology put the freedom of the mind at risk. Our proposed laws would give people the right to refuse coercive and invasive neurotechnology, protect the privacy of data collected by neurotechnology, and protect the physical and psychological aspects of the mind from damage by the misuse of neurotechnology.”

Advances in neurotechnology, such as sophisticated brain imaging and the development of brain-computer interfaces, have led to these technologies moving away from a clinical setting and into the consumer domain. While these advances may be beneficial for individuals and society, there is a risk that the technology could be misused and create unprecedented threats to personal freedom.

Professor Roberto Andorno, co-author of the research, explained: “Brain imaging technology has already reached a point where there is discussion over its legitimacy in criminal court, for example as a tool for assessing criminal responsibility or even the risk of reoffending. Consumer companies are using brain imaging for ‘neuromarketing’, to understand consumer behaviour and elicit desired responses from customers. There are also tools such as ‘brain decoders’ which can turn brain imaging data into images, text or sound. All of these could pose a threat to personal freedom which we sought to address with the development of four new human rights laws.”

The authors explain that as neurotechnology improves and becomes commonplace, there is a risk that the technology could be hacked, allowing a third-party to ‘eavesdrop’ on someone’s mind. In the future, a brain-computer interface used to control consumer technology could put the user at risk of physical and psychological damage caused by a third-party attack on the technology. There are also ethical and legal concerns over the protection of data generated by these devices that need to be considered.

International human rights laws make no specific mention to neuroscience, although advances in biomedicine have become intertwined with laws, such as those concerning human genetic data. Similar to the historical trajectory of the genetic revolution, the authors state that the on-going neurorevolution will force a reconceptualization of human rights laws and even the creation of new ones.

Marcello Ienca added: “Science-fiction can teach us a lot about the potential threat of technology. Neurotechnology featured in famous stories has in some cases already become a reality, while others are inching ever closer, or exist as military and commercial prototypes. We need to be prepared to deal with the impact these technologies will have on our personal freedom.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Towards new human rights in the age of neuroscience and neurotechnology by Marcello Ienca and Roberto Andorno. Life Sciences, Society and Policy201713:5 DOI: 10.1186/s40504-017-0050-1 Published: 26 April 2017

©  The Author(s). 2017

This paper is open access.

A DNA switch for new electronic applications

I little dreamed when reading “The Double Helix : A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA” by James Watson that DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) would one day become just another material for scientists to manipulate. A Feb. 20, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily describes the use of DNA as a material in electronics applications,

DNA, the stuff of life, may very well also pack quite the jolt for engineers trying to advance the development of tiny, low-cost electronic devices.

Much like flipping your light switch at home — only on a scale 1,000 times smaller than a human hair — an ASU [Arizona State University]-led team has now developed the first controllable DNA switch to regulate the flow of electricity within a single, atomic-sized molecule. The new study, led by ASU Biodesign Institute researcher Nongjian Tao, was published in the advanced online journal Nature Communications.

DNA, the stuff of life, may very well also pack quite the jolt for engineers trying to advance the development of tiny, low-cost electronic devices. Courtesy: ASU

A Feb. 20, 2017 ASU news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

“It has been established that charge transport is possible in DNA, but for a useful device, one wants to be able to turn the charge transport on and off. We achieved this goal by chemically modifying DNA,” said Tao, who directs the Biodesign Center for Bioelectronics and Biosensors and is a professor in the Fulton Schools of Engineering. “Not only that, but we can also adapt the modified DNA as a probe to measure reactions at the single-molecule level. This provides a unique way for studying important reactions implicated in disease, or photosynthesis reactions for novel renewable energy applications.”

Engineers often think of electricity like water, and the research team’s new DNA switch acts to control the flow of electrons on and off, just like water coming out of a faucet.

Previously, Tao’s research group had made several discoveries to understand and manipulate DNA to more finely tune the flow of electricity through it. They found they could make DNA behave in different ways — and could cajole electrons to flow like waves according to quantum mechanics, or “hop” like rabbits in the way electricity in a copper wire works —creating an exciting new avenue for DNA-based, nano-electronic applications.

Tao assembled a multidisciplinary team for the project, including ASU postdoctoral student Limin Xiang and Li Yueqi performing bench experiments, Julio Palma working on the theoretical framework, with further help and oversight from collaborators Vladimiro Mujica (ASU) and Mark Ratner (Northwestern University).

To accomplish their engineering feat, Tao’s group, modified just one of DNA’s iconic double helix chemical letters, abbreviated as A, C, T or G, with another chemical group, called anthraquinone (Aq). Anthraquinone is a three-ringed carbon structure that can be inserted in between DNA base pairs but contains what chemists call a redox group (short for reduction, or gaining electrons or oxidation, losing electrons).

These chemical groups are also the foundation for how our bodies’ convert chemical energy through switches that send all of the electrical pulses in our brains, our hearts and communicate signals within every cell that may be implicated in the most prevalent diseases.

The modified Aq-DNA helix could now help it perform the switch, slipping comfortably in between the rungs that make up the ladder of the DNA helix, and bestowing it with a new found ability to reversibly gain or lose electrons.

Through their studies, when they sandwiched the DNA between a pair of electrodes, they careful [sic] controlled their electrical field and measured the ability of the modified DNA to conduct electricity. This was performed using a staple of nano-electronics, a scanning tunneling microscope, which acts like the tip of an electrode to complete a connection, being repeatedly pulled in and out of contact with the DNA molecules in the solution like a finger touching a water droplet.

“We found the electron transport mechanism in the present anthraquinone-DNA system favors electron “hopping” via anthraquinone and stacked DNA bases,” said Tao. In addition, they found they could reversibly control the conductance states to make the DNA switch on (high-conductance) or switch-off (low conductance). When anthraquinone has gained the most electrons (its most-reduced state), it is far more conductive, and the team finely mapped out a 3-D picture to account for how anthraquinone controlled the electrical state of the DNA.

For their next project, they hope to extend their studies to get one step closer toward making DNA nano-devices a reality.

“We are particularly excited that the engineered DNA provides a nice tool to examine redox reaction kinetics, and thermodynamics the single molecule level,” said Tao.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

I last featured Tao’s work with DNA in an April 20, 2015 posting.

Gate-controlled conductance switching in DNA by Limin Xiang, Julio L. Palma, Yueqi Li, Vladimiro Mujica, Mark A. Ratner, & Nongjian Tao.  Nature Communications 8, Article number: 14471 (2017)  doi:10.1038/ncomms14471 Published online: 20 February 2017

This paper is open access.

Essays on Frankenstein

Slate.com is dedicating a month (January 2017) to Frankenstein. This means there were will be one or more essays each week on one aspect or another of Frankenstein and science. These essays are one of a series of initiatives jointly supported by Slate, Arizona State University, and an organization known as New America. It gets confusing since these essays are listed as part of two initiatives:  Futurography and Future Tense.

The really odd part, as far as I’m concerned, is that there is no mention of Arizona State University’s (ASU) The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project (mentioned in my Oct. 26, 2016 posting). Perhaps they’re concerned that people will think ASU is advertising the project?

Introductions

Getting back to the essays, a Jan. 3, 2017 article by Jacob Brogan explains, by means of a ‘Question and Answer’ format article, why the book and the monster maintain popular interest after two centuries (Note: We never do find out who or how many people are supplying the answers),

OK, fine. I get that this book is important, but why are we talking about it in a series about emerging technology?

Though people still tend to weaponize it as a simple anti-scientific screed, Frankenstein, which was first published in 1818, is much richer when we read it as a complex dialogue about our relationship to innovation—both our desire for it and our fear of the changes it brings. Mary Shelley was just a teenager when she began to compose Frankenstein, but she was already grappling with our complex relationship to new forces. Almost two centuries on, the book is just as propulsive and compelling as it was when it was first published. That’s partly because it’s so thick with ambiguity—and so resistant to easy interpretation.

Is it really ambiguous? I mean, when someone calls something frankenfood, they aren’t calling it “ethically ambiguous food.”

It’s a fair point. For decades, Frankenstein has been central to discussions in and about bioethics. Perhaps most notably, it frequently crops up as a reference point in discussions of genetically modified organisms, where the prefix Franken- functions as a sort of convenient shorthand for human attempts to meddle with the natural order. Today, the most prominent flashpoint for those anxieties is probably the clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, or CRISPR, gene-editing technique [emphasis mine]. But it’s really oversimplifying to suggest Frankenstein is a cautionary tale about monkeying with life.

As we’ll see throughout this month on Futurography, it’s become a lens for looking at the unintended consequences of things like synthetic biology, animal experimentation, artificial intelligence, and maybe even social networking. Facebook, for example, has arguably taken on a life of its own, as its algorithms seem to influence the course of elections. Mark Zuckerberg, who’s sometimes been known to disavow the power of his own platform, might well be understood as a Frankensteinian figure, amplifying his creation’s monstrosity by neglecting its practical needs.

But this book is almost 200 years old! Surely the actual science in it is bad.

Shelley herself would probably be the first to admit that the science in the novel isn’t all that accurate. Early in the novel, Victor Frankenstein meets with a professor who castigates him for having read the wrong works of “natural philosophy.” Shelley’s protagonist has mostly been studying alchemical tomes and otherwise fantastical works, the sort of things that were recognized as pseudoscience, even by the standards of the day. Near the start of the novel, Frankenstein attends a lecture in which the professor declaims on the promise of modern science. He observes that where the old masters “promised impossibilities and performed nothing,” the new scientists achieve far more in part because they “promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted and that the elixir of life is a chimera.”

Is it actually about bad science, though?

Not exactly, but it has been read as a story about bad scientists.

Ultimately, Frankenstein outstrips his own teachers, of course, and pulls off the very feats they derided as mere fantasy. But Shelley never seems to confuse fact and fiction, and, in fact, she largely elides any explanation of how Frankenstein pulls off the miraculous feat of animating dead tissue. We never actually get a scene of the doctor awakening his creature. The novel spends far more dwelling on the broader reverberations of that act, showing how his attempt to create one life destroys countless others. Read in this light, Frankenstein isn’t telling us that we shouldn’t try to accomplish new things, just that we should take care when we do.

This speaks to why the novel has stuck around for so long. It’s not about particular scientific accomplishments but the vagaries of scientific progress in general.

Does that make it into a warning against playing God?

It’s probably a mistake to suggest that the novel is just a critique of those who would usurp the divine mantle. Instead, you can read it as a warning about the ways that technologists fall short of their ambitions, even in their greatest moments of triumph.

Look at what happens in the novel: After bringing his creature to life, Frankenstein effectively abandons it. Later, when it entreats him to grant it the rights it thinks it deserves, he refuses. Only then—after he reneges on his responsibilities—does his creation really go bad. We all know that Frankenstein is the doctor and his creation is the monster, but to some extent it’s the doctor himself who’s made monstrous by his inability to take responsibility for what he’s wrought.

I encourage you to read Brogan’s piece in its entirety and perhaps supplement the reading. Mary Shelley has a pretty interesting history. She ran off with Percy Bysshe Shelley who was married to another woman, in 1814  at the age of seventeen years. Her parents were both well known and respected intellectuals and philosophers, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft. By the time Mary Shelley wrote her book, her first baby had died and she had given birth to a second child, a boy.  Percy Shelley was to die a few years later as was her son and a third child she’d given birth to. (Her fourth child born in 1819 did survive.) I mention the births because one analysis I read suggests the novel is also a commentary on childbirth. In fact, the Frankenstein narrative has been examined from many perspectives (other than science) including feminism and LGBTQ studies.

Getting back to the science fiction end of things, the next part of the Futurography series is titled “A Cheat-Sheet Guide to Frankenstein” and that too is written by Jacob Brogan with a publication date of Jan. 3, 2017,

Key Players

Marilyn Butler: Butler, a literary critic and English professor at the University of Cambridge, authored the seminal essay “Frankenstein and Radical Science.”

Jennifer Doudna: A professor of chemistry and biology at the University of California, Berkeley, Doudna helped develop the CRISPR gene-editing technique [emphasis mine].

Stephen Jay Gould: Gould is an evolutionary biologist and has written in defense of Frankenstein’s scientific ambitions, arguing that hubris wasn’t the doctor’s true fault.

Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh: As executive director of the Center for Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge, hÉigeartaigh leads research into technologies that threaten the existience of our species.

Jim Hightower: This columnist and activist helped popularize the term frankenfood to describe genetically modified crops.

Mary Shelley: Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, helped create science fiction as we now know it.

J. Craig Venter: A leading genomic researcher, Venter has pursued a variety of human biotechnology projects.

Lingo

….

Debates

Popular Culture

Further Reading

….

‘Franken’ and CRISPR

The first essay is in a Jan. 6, 2016 article by Kay Waldman focusing on the ‘franken’ prefix (Note: links have been removed),

In a letter to the New York Times on June 2, 1992, an English professor named Paul Lewis lopped off the top of Victor Frankenstein’s surname and sewed it onto a tomato. Railing against genetically modified crops, Lewis put a new generation of natural philosophers on notice: “If they want to sell us Frankenfood, perhaps it’s time to gather the villagers, light some torches and head to the castle,” he wrote.

William Safire, in a 2000 New York Times column, tracked the creation of the franken- prefix to this moment: an academic channeling popular distrust of science by invoking the man who tried to improve upon creation and ended up disfiguring it. “There’s no telling where or how it will end,” he wrote wryly, referring to the spread of the construction. “It has enhanced the sales of the metaphysical novel that Ms. Shelley’s husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, encouraged her to write, and has not harmed sales at ‘Frank’n’Stein,’ the fast-food chain whose hot dogs and beer I find delectably inorganic.” Safire went on to quote the American Dialect Society’s Laurence Horn, who lamented that despite the ’90s flowering of frankenfruits and frankenpigs, people hadn’t used Frankensense to describe “the opposite of common sense,” as in “politicians’ motivations for a creatively stupid piece of legislation.”

A year later, however, Safire returned to franken- in dead earnest. In an op-ed for the Times avowing the ethical value of embryonic stem cell research, the columnist suggested that a White House conference on bioethics would salve the fears of Americans concerned about “the real dangers of the slippery slope to Frankenscience.”

All of this is to say that franken-, the prefix we use to talk about human efforts to interfere with nature, flips between “funny” and “scary” with ease. Like Shelley’s monster himself, an ungainly patchwork of salvaged parts, it can seem goofy until it doesn’t—until it taps into an abiding anxiety that technology raises in us, a fear of overstepping.

Waldman’s piece hints at how language can shape discussions while retaining a rather playful quality.

This series looks to be a good introduction while being a bit problematic in spots, which roughly sums up my conclusion about their ‘nano’ series in my Oct. 7, 2016 posting titled: Futurography’s nanotechnology series: a digest.

By the way, I noted the mention of CRISPR as it brought up an issue that they don’t appear to be addressing in this series (perhaps they will do this elsewhere?): intellectual property.

There’s a patent dispute over CRISPR as noted in this American Chemical Society’s Chemistry and Engineering News Jan. 9, 2017 video,

Playing God

This series on Frankenstein is taking on other contentious issues. A perennial favourite is ‘playing God’ as noted in Bina Venkataraman’s Jan. 11, 2017 essay on the topic,

Since its publication nearly 200 years ago, Shelley’s gothic novel has been read as a cautionary tale of the dangers of creation and experimentation. James Whale’s 1931 film took the message further, assigning explicitly the hubris of playing God to the mad scientist. As his monster comes to life, Dr. Frankenstein, played by Colin Clive, triumphantly exclaims: “Now I know what it feels like to be God!”

The admonition against playing God has since been ceaselessly invoked as a rhetorical bogeyman. Secular and religious, critic and journalist alike have summoned the term to deride and outright dismiss entire areas of research and technology, including stem cells, genetically modified crops, recombinant DNA, geoengineering, and gene editing. As we near the two-century commemoration of Shelley’s captivating story, we would be wise to shed this shorthand lesson—and to put this part of the Frankenstein legacy to rest in its proverbial grave.

The trouble with the term arises first from its murkiness. What exactly does it mean to play God, and why should we find it objectionable on its face? All but zealots would likely agree that it’s fine to create new forms of life through selective breeding and grafting of fruit trees, or to use in-vitro fertilization to conceive life outside the womb to aid infertile couples. No one objects when people intervene in what some deem “acts of God,” such as earthquakes, to rescue victims and provide relief. People get fully behind treating patients dying of cancer with “unnatural” solutions like chemotherapy. Most people even find it morally justified for humans to mete out decisions as to who lives or dies in the form of organ transplant lists that prize certain people’s survival over others.

So what is it—if not the imitation of a deity or the creation of life—that inspires people to invoke the idea of “playing God” to warn against, or even stop, particular technologies? A presidential commission charged in the early 1980s with studying the ethics of genetic engineering of humans, in the wake of the recombinant DNA revolution, sheds some light on underlying motivations. The commission sought to understand the concerns expressed by leaders of three major religious groups in the United States—representing Protestants, Jews, and Catholics—who had used the phrase “playing God” in a 1980 letter to President Jimmy Carter urging government oversight. Scholars from the three faiths, the commission concluded, did not see a theological reason to flat-out prohibit genetic engineering. Their concerns, it turned out, weren’t exactly moral objections to scientists acting as God. Instead, they echoed those of the secular public; namely, they feared possible negative effects from creating new human traits or new species. In other words, the religious leaders who called recombinant DNA tools “playing God” wanted precautions taken against bad consequences but did not inherently oppose the use of the technology as an act of human hubris.

She presents an interesting argument and offers this as a solution,

The lesson for contemporary science, then, is not that we should cease creating and discovering at the boundaries of current human knowledge. It’s that scientists and technologists ought to steward their inventions into society, and to more rigorously participate in public debate about their work’s social and ethical consequences. Frankenstein’s proper legacy today would be to encourage researchers to address the unsavory implications of their technologies, whether it’s the cognitive and social effects of ubiquitous smartphone use or the long-term consequences of genetically engineered organisms on ecosystems and biodiversity.

Some will undoubtedly argue that this places an undue burden on innovators. Here, again, Shelley’s novel offers a lesson. Scientists who cloister themselves as Dr. Frankenstein did—those who do not fully contemplate the consequences of their work—risk later encounters with the horror of their own inventions.

At a guess, Venkataraman seems to be assuming that if scientists communicate and make their case that the public will cease to panic with reference moralistic and other concerns. My understanding is that social scientists have found this is not the case. Someone may understand the technology quite well and still oppose it.

Frankenstein and anti-vaxxers

The Jan. 16, 2017 essay by Charles Kenny is the weakest of the lot, so far (Note: Links have been removed),

In 1780, University of Bologna physician Luigi Galvani found something peculiar: When he applied an electric current to the legs of a dead frog, they twitched. Thirty-seven years later, Mary Shelley had Galvani’s experiments in mind as she wrote her fable of Faustian overreach, wherein Dr. Victor Frankenstein plays God by reanimating flesh.

And a little less than halfway between those two dates, English physician Edward Jenner demonstrated the efficacy of a vaccine against smallpox—one of the greatest killers of the age. Given the suspicion with which Romantic thinkers like Shelley regarded scientific progress, it is no surprise that many at the time damned the procedure as against the natural order. But what is surprising is how that suspicion continues to endure, even after two centuries of spectacular successes for vaccination. This anti-vaccination stance—which now infects even the White House—demonstrates the immense harm that can be done by excessive distrust of technological advance.

Kenny employs history as a framing device. Crudely, Galvani’s experiments led to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which is a fable about ‘playing God’. (Kenny seems unaware there are many other readings of and perspectives on the book.) As for his statement ” … the suspicion with which Romantic thinkers like Shelley regarded scientific progress … ,” I’m not sure how he arrived at his conclusion about Romantic thinkers. According to Richard Holmes (in his book, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science), their relationship to science was more complex. Percy Bysshe Shelley ran ballooning experiments and wrote poetry about science, which included footnotes for the literature and concepts he was referencing; John Keats was a medical student prior to his establishment as a poet; and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, etc.) maintained a healthy correspondence with scientists of the day sometimes influencing their research. In fact, when you analyze the matter, you realize even scientists are, on occasion, suspicious of science.

As for the anti-vaccination wars, I wish this essay had been more thoughtful. Yes, Andrew Wakefield’s research showing a link between MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccinations and autism is a sham. However, having concerns and suspicions about technology does not render you a fool who hasn’t progressed from 18th/19th Century concerns and suspicions about science and technology. For example, vaccines are being touted for all kinds of things, the latest being a possible antidote to opiate addiction (see Susan Gados’ June 28, 2016 article for ScienceNews). Are we going to be vaccinated for everything? What happens when you keep piling vaccination on top of vaccination? Instead of a debate, the discussion has devolved to: “I’m right and you’re wrong.”

For the record, I’m grateful for the vaccinations I’ve had and the diminishment of diseases that were devastating and seem to be making a comeback with this current anti-vaccination fever. That said, I think there are some important questions about vaccines.

Kenny’s essay could have been a nuanced discussion of vaccines that have clearly raised the bar for public health and some of the concerns regarding the current pursuit of yet more vaccines. Instead, he’s been quite dismissive of anyone who questions vaccination orthodoxy.

The end of this piece

There will be more essays in Slate’s Frankenstein series but I don’t have time to digest and write commentary for all of them.

Please use this piece as a critical counterpoint to some of the series and, if I’ve done my job, you’ll critique this critique. Please do let me know if you find any errors or want to add an opinion or add your own critique in the Comments of this blog.

ETA Jan. 25, 2017: Here’s the Frankenstein webspace on Slate’s Futurography which lists all the essays in this series. It’s well worth looking at the list. There are several that were not covered here.

News from Arizona State University’s The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project

I received a September 2016 newsletter (issued occasionally) from The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project at Arizona State University (ASU) which contained these two tidbits:

I, Artist

Bobby Zokaites converted a Roomba, a robotic vacuum, from a room cleaning device to an art-maker by removing the dust collector and vacuuming system and replacing it with a paint reservoir. Artists have been playing with robots to make art since the 1950s. This work is an extension of a genre, repurposing a readily available commercial robot.

With this project, Bobby set out to create a self-portrait of a generation, one that grew up with access to a vast amount of information and constantly bombarded by advertisements. The Roomba paintings prove that a robot can paint a reasonably complex painting, and do it differently every time; thus this version of the Turing test was successful.

As in the story of Frankenstein, this work also interrogates questions of creativity and responsibility. Is this a truly creative work of art, and if so, who is the artist; man or machine?

Both the text description and the video are from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0m5ihmwPWgY

Frankenstein at 200 Exhibit

From the September 2016 newsletter (Note: Links have been removed),

Just as the creature in Frankenstein [the monster is never named in the book; its creator, however, is Victor Frankenstein] was assembled from an assortment of materials, so too is the cultural understanding of the Frankenstein myth. Now a new, interdisciplinary exhibit at ASU Libraries examines how Mary Shelley’s 200-year-old science fiction story continues to inspire, educate, and frighten 21st century audiences.

Frankenstein at 200 is open now through December 10 on the first floor of ASU’s Hayden Library in Tempe, AZ.

Here’s more from the exhibit’s webpage on the ASU website,

No work of literature has done more to shape the way people imagine science and its moral consequences than “Frankenstein;” or “The Modern Prometheus,” Mary Shelley’s enduring tale of creation and responsibility. The novel’s themes and tropes continue to resonate with contemporary audiences, influencing the way we confront emerging technologies, conceptualize the process of scientific research, and consider the ethical relationships between creators and their creations

Two hundred years after Mary Shelley imagined the story that would become “Frankenstein,” ASU Libraries is exhibiting an interdisciplinary installation that contextualizes the conditions of the original tale while exploring it’s continued importance in our technological age. Featuring work by ASU faculty and students, this exhibition includes a variety of physical and digital artifacts, original art projects and interactive elements that examine “Frankenstein’s” colossal scientific, technological, cultural and social impacts.

About the Frankenstein Bicentennial Project: Launched by Drs. David Guston and Ed Finn in 2013, the Frankenstein Bicentennial Project, is a global celebration of the bicentennial of the writing and publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, from 2016-2018. The project uses Frankenstein as a lens to examine the complex relationships between science, technology, ethics, and society. To learn more visit frankenstein.asu.edu and follow @FrankensteinASU on Twitter

There are more informational tidbits at The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project website.