Tag Archives: Frankenstein

CRISPR patent decision: Harvard’s and MIT’s Broad Institute victorious—for now

I have written about the CRISPR patent tussle (Harvard & MIT’s [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] Broad Institute vs the University of California at Berkeley) previously in a Jan. 6, 2015 posting and in a more detailed May 14, 2015 posting. I also mentioned (in a Jan. 17, 2017 posting) CRISPR and its patent issues in the context of a posting about a Slate.com series on Frankenstein and the novel’s applicability to our own time. This patent fight is being bitterly fought as fortunes are at stake.

It seems a decision has been made regarding the CRISPR patent claims. From a Feb. 17, 2017 article by Charmaine Distor for The Science Times,

After an intense court battle, the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) released its ruling on February 15 [2017]. The rights for the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology was handed over to the Broad Institute of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

According to an article in Nature, the said court battle was between the Broad Institute and the University of California. The two institutions are fighting over the intellectual property right for the CRISPR patent. The case between the two started when the patent was first awarded to the Broad Institute despite having the University of California apply first for the CRISPR patent.

Heidi Ledford’s Feb. 17, 2017 article for Nature provides more insight into the situation (Note: Links have been removed),

It [USPTO] ruled that the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT in Cambridge could keep its patents on using CRISPR–Cas9 in eukaryotic cells. That was a blow to the University of California in Berkeley, which had filed its own patents and had hoped to have the Broad’s thrown out.

The fight goes back to 2012, when Jennifer Doudna at Berkeley, Emmanuelle Charpentier, then at the University of Vienna, and their colleagues outlined how CRISPR–Cas9 could be used to precisely cut isolated DNA1. In 2013, Feng Zhang at the Broad and his colleagues — and other teams — showed2 how it could be adapted to edit DNA in eukaryotic cells such as plants, livestock and humans.

Berkeley filed for a patent earlier, but the USPTO granted the Broad’s patents first — and this week upheld them. There are high stakes involved in the ruling. The holder of key patents could make millions of dollars from CRISPR–Cas9’s applications in industry: already, the technique has sped up genetic research, and scientists are using it to develop disease-resistant livestock and treatments for human diseases.

But the fight for patent rights to CRISPR technology is by no means over. Here are four reasons why.

1. Berkeley can appeal the ruling

2. European patents are still up for grabs

3. Other parties are also claiming patent rights on CRISPR–Cas9

4. CRISPR technology is moving beyond what the patents cover

As for Ledford’s 3rd point, there are an estimated 763 patent families (groups of related patents) claiming CAS9 leading to the distinct possibility that the Broad Institute will be fighting many patent claims in the future.

Once you’ve read Distor’s and Ledford’s articles, you may want to check out Adam Rogers’ and Eric Niiler’s Feb. 16, 2017 CRISPR patent article for Wired,

The fight over who owns the most promising technique for editing genes—cutting and pasting the stuff of life to cure disease and advance scientific knowledge—has been a rough one. A team on the West Coast, at UC Berkeley, filed patents on the method, Crispr-Cas9; a team on the East Coast, based at MIT and the Broad Institute, filed their own patents in 2014 after Berkeley’s, but got them granted first. The Berkeley group contended that this constituted “interference,” and that Berkeley deserved the patent.

At stake: millions, maybe billions of dollars in biotech money and licensing fees, the future of medicine, the future of bioscience. Not nothing. Who will benefit depends on who owns the patents.

On Wednesday [Feb. 15, 2017], the US Patent Trial and Appeal Board kind of, sort of, almost began to answer that question. Berkeley will get the patent for using the system called Crispr-Cas9 in any living cell, from bacteria to blue whales. Broad/MIT gets the patent in eukaryotic cells, which is to say, plants and animals.

It’s … confusing. “The patent that the Broad received is for the use of Crispr gene-editing technology in eukaryotic cells. The patent for the University of California is for all cells,” says Jennifer Doudna, the UC geneticist and co-founder of Caribou Biosciences who co-invented Crispr, on a conference call. Her metaphor: “They have a patent on green tennis balls; we have a patent for all tennis balls.”

Observers didn’t quite buy that topspin. If Caribou is playing tennis, it’s looking like Broad/MIT is Serena Williams.

“UC does not necessarily lose everything, but they’re no doubt spinning the story,” says Robert Cook-Deegan, an expert in genetic policy at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society. “UC’s claims to eukaryotic uses of Crispr-Cas9 will not be granted in the form they sought. That’s a big deal, and UC was the big loser.”

UC officials said Wednesday [Feb. 15, 2017] that they are studying the 51-page decision and considering whether to appeal. That leaves members of the biotechnology sector wondering who they will have to pay to use Crispr as part of a business—and scientists hoping the outcome won’t somehow keep them from continuing their research.

….

Happy reading!

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.

Monster science (a book announcement and interview)

Helaine Becker has launched a new children’s science book incorporating monsters with science. The title, unsurprisingly, is: ‘Monster Science’. Here’s more about the book from Helaine’s Oct. 14, 2016 post on Sci/Why where she shares two reviews,

“From Frankenstein’s creation to Nessie, Becker uses the creatures of our scariest stories as a springboard for an introduction to the scientific understandings that might make such creatures possible—or impossible. In addition to man-made monsters and legendary sea creatures, she covers vampires, zombies, werewolves, and wild, humanlike creatures like Bigfoot. Chapter by chapter, she provides references from literature, film, and popular culture, including a bit of science, a bit of history, and a plentiful helping of humor. She includes numerous monster facts, suggests weapons of defense, and concludes each section with a test-yourself quiz. Science topics covered range widely: electricity, genetic engineering, “demonic diseases,” the nature of our blood and the circulatory system, the possibility of immortality, animal classification, evolution, cannibalism, optical illusions, heredity, hoaxes, and the very real profession of cryptozoology, or the search for hitherto unidentified creatures. … Kirkus

Then, there’s this one,

A highlight of this work is its exploration of the often symbiotic relationship between culture and science; figures such as Shelley, John Polidori (The Vampyre), and filmmaker George Romero (Night of the Living Dead) merged cultural fascination with scientific development to create truly inspiring works and further public interest in science… School Library Journal

Interview with Helaine Becker

Not to be confused with ‘Interview with a vampire’, this one is not novel-length and includes a scoop about an upcoming book in 2017,

Were you surprised by anything when you were researching and/or witting the book?

I learned so much while writing Monster Science – it’s one of the reasons I enjoy writing nonfiction, especially for kids. I always turn up fascinating stuff. I was surprised to learn that werewolves were rounded up and burned at the stake, just like witches, during the period of the Inquisition. Werewolves, it turns out, were thought to be witches – usually male ones – who could shape shift.

My fave fact of all is that vampires would still have to eat their vegetables.

Did you have to leave any monsters/pop culture references/science out of the book? And, why?

Children’s books have very tight space constraints, but my research is comprehensive and complete. That means we have to pick and choose what stays in. It’s gotta be the very best! I work closely with my editors on this, and sometimes we have, shall we say, “heated” discussions.” For Monster Science, I was particularly sorry to see the fascinating back story of the mad scientist trope end up with a stake in its heart.

Did you have a favourite monster before you started? If so, has your favourite changed? Or if you didn’t have one before writing the book, have you since developed a favourite monster?

I’ve had an uneasy relationship with vampires from the age of about 7, after watching an episode of Gilligan’s Island. It featured a “humorous” dream sequence with Gilligan as the vampire. I failed to see the humor at that tender age, and was terrified out of my socks. And anyone remember the original Dark Shadows? Barnabus Collins? Yeah. That show should have never been on in the afternoon. I slept with the blankies up to my ears until my mid-thirties. (Who am I kidding? I still do!)

Are you hoping to tie this book into the Frankenstein bicentennial celebrations?

Illustrated children’s books have very long time lines from concept to finished book. I wrote Monster Science several years ago, before I had any notion of Frankenstein bicentennials. But now that we’ve arrived at this auspicious date, I’m excited! I’d love to participate in some way. I will put on my zzz zzzz zzzt thinking cap.

Where can your fans come to a reading or some other event?

I do dozens of school visits and festival events every year. Some of them might be focused on a specific book, like Monster Science, but most usually feature discussions around several of my titles. This holiday season, for example, I will be doing events around my latest picture book, a very Canadian Christmas-themed title called Deck the Halls. It’s the third in a very popular series. Anyone can drop in to the Sherway Gardens branch of Indigo Book Store [in Toronto] at noon on Sunday, Dec. 4 [2016], to take part in that.

I’ll be doing many events in association with the Forest of Reading, one of North America’s largest children’s choice award programs this spring. More than 250,000 children participate! I am honored to have two science-related books nominated this year, Worms for Breakfast: How to Feed a Zoo (Owlkids) and Everything: Space (National Geographic Kids). I will also be the keynote at the Killaloe Literary Festival in beautiful northern Ontario at the end of May. Best place to look for my latest book and schedule info is my blog, http://helainebecker.blogspot.ca/.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

For insiders only: Coming soon! Look for my upcoming picture book biography of William Playfair, the Victorian era scoundrel who single-handedly invented the field of infographics. It’s called Lines, Bars and Circles and will be published by Kids Can Press early in 2017.

Thank you, Helaine! (I usually don’t get funny interviews. It makes for a good change of pace.)

Getting back to ‘Monster Science’, you can purchase the book here.

Dr. Frankenstein and competitive exclusion

A promotional photo of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein's monster, using Jack Pierce's makeup design. Credit:: Universal Studios

A promotional photo of Boris Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster, using Jack Pierce’s makeup design. Credit:: Universal Studios

An Oct. 28, 2016 news item on phys.org provides some new insight into the ‘Frankenstein story’ and its perspective on science,

Frankenstein as we know him, the grotesque monster that was created through a weird science experiment, is actually a nameless Creature created by scientist Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, “Frankenstein.” Widely considered the first work of science fiction for exploring the destructive consequences of scientific and moral transgressions, a new study published in BioScience argues that the horror of Mary Shelley’s gothic novel is rooted in a fundamental principle of biology.

The co-authors point to a pivotal scene when the Creature encounters Victor Frankenstein and requests a female companion to mitigate his loneliness. The Creature distinguishes his dietary needs from those of humans and expresses a willingness to inhabit the “wilds of South America,” suggesting distinct ecological requirements. Frankenstein concedes to this reasoning given that humans would have few competitive interactions with a pair of isolated creatures, but he then reverses his decision after considering the creatures’ reproductive potential and the probability of human extinction, a concept termed competitive exclusion. In essence, Frankenstein was saving humankind.

An Oct. 28, 2016 Dartmouth College news release (also on EurekAlert) by Amy Olson, which originated the news item, describes the co-authors and the research in more detail (Note: Links have been removed),

A study co-authored by Dartmouth’s Nathaniel Dominy casts a new light on the story of Frankenstein’s monster, who lives on in the public imagination in stories, in movies, and of course, on Halloween.

Mary Shelley’s gothic novel is rooted in a fundamental principle of biology, and its horror lies in the specter of the extinction of the human race, say Dominy, a professor of anthropology, and his coauthor, Justin Yeakel.

“The principle of competitive exclusion was not formally defined until the 1930s,” says Dominy. “Given Shelley’s early command of this foundational concept, we used computational tools developed by ecologists to explore if, and how quickly, an expanding population of creatures would drive humans to extinction.”

The authors developed a mathematical model based on human population densities in 1816, finding that the competitive advantages of creatures varied under different circumstances. The worst-case scenario for humans was a growing population of creatures in South America, as it was a region with fewer humans and therefore less competition for resources.

“We calculated that a founding population of two creatures could drive us to extinction in as little as 4,000 years,” says Dominy. Although the study is merely a thought experiment, it casts new light on the underlying horror of the novel: the extinction of the human race. It also has real-word implications for how we understand the biology of invasive species.

“To date, most scholars have focused on Mary Shelley’s knowledge of then-prevailing views on alchemy, physiology, and resurrection; however, the genius of Mary Shelley lies in how she combined and repackaged existing scientific debates to invent the genre of science fiction,” says Justin D. Yeakel, an Omidyar fellow at the Santa Fe Institute and an assistant professor in the School of Natural Sciences at the University of California, Merced.

“Our study adds to Mary Shelley’s legacy, by showing that her science fiction accurately anticipated fundamental concepts in ecology and evolution by many decades,” he says.

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

Frankenstein and the Horrors of Competitive Exclusion by Nathaniel J. Dominy and Justin D. Yeakel.  BioScience (2016) doi: 10.1093/biosci/biw133 First published online: October 28, 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

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.

A couple of Frankenstein dares from The Frankenstein Bicentennial project

Drat! I’ve gotten the information about the first Frankenstein dare (a short story challenge) a little late in the game since the deadline is 11:59 pm PDT on July 31, 2016. In any event, here’s more about the two dares,

And for those who like their information in written form, here are the details from the Arizona State University’s (ASU) Frankenstein Bicentennial Dare (on The Franklin Bicentennial Project website),

Two centuries ago, on a dare to tell the best scary story, 19-year-old Mary Shelley imagined an idea that became the basis for Frankenstein. Mary’s original concept became the novel that arguably kick-started the genres of science fiction and Gothic horror, but also provided an enduring myth that shapes how we grapple with creativity, science, technology, and their consequences.
Two hundred years later, inspired by that classic dare, we’re challenging you to create new myths for the 21st century along with our partners National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), Chabot Space and Science Center, and Creative Nonfiction magazine.

FRANKENSTEIN 200

Presented by NaNoWriMo and the Chabot Space and Science Center

Frankenstein is a classic of Gothic literature – a gripping, tragic story about Victor Frankenstein’s failure to accept responsibility for the consequences of bringing new life into the world. In this dare, we’re challenging you to write a scary story that explores the relationship between creators and the “monsters” they create.

Almost anything that we create can become monstrous: a misinterpreted piece of architecture; a song whose meaning has been misappropriated; a big, but misunderstood idea; or, of course, an actual creature. And in Frankenstein, Shelley teaches us that monstrous does not always mean evil – in fact, creators can prove to be more destructive and inhuman than the things they bring into being

Tell us your story in 1,000 – 1,800 words on Medium.com and use the hashtag #Frankenstein200. Read other #Frankenstein200 stories, and use the recommend button at the bottom of each post for the stories you like. Winners in the short fiction contest will receive personal feedback from Hugo and Sturgeon Award-winning science fiction and fantasy author Elizabeth Bear, as well as a curated selection of classic and contemporary science fiction books and  Frankenstein goodies, courtesy of the NaNoWriMo team.

Rules and Mechanics

  • There are no restrictions on content. Entry is limited to one submission per author. Submissions must be in English and between 1,000 to 1,800 words. You must follow all Medium Terms of Service, including the Rules.
  • All entries submitted and tagged as #Frankenstein200 and in compliance with the rules outlined here will be considered.
  • The deadline for submissions is 11:59 PM on July 31, 2016.
  • Three winners will be selected at random on August 1, 2016.
  • Each winner receives the following prize package including:
  • Additionally, one of the three winners, chosen at random, will receive written coaching/feedback from Elizabeth Bear on his or her entry.
  • Select stories will be featured on Frankenscape, a public geo-storytelling project hosted by ASU’s Frankenstein Bicentennial Project. Stories may also be featured in National Novel Writing Month communications and social media platforms.
  • U.S. residents only [emphasis mine]; void where prohibited by law. No purchase is necessary to enter or win.

Dangerous Creations: Real-life Frankenstein Stories

Presented by Creative Nonfiction magazine

Creative Nonfiction magazine is daring writers to write original and true stories that explore humans’ efforts to control and redirect nature, the evolving relationships between humanity and science/technology, and contemporary interpretations of monstrosity.

Essays must be vivid and dramatic; they should combine a strong and compelling narrative with an informative or reflective element and reach beyond a strictly personal experience for some universal or deeper meaning. We’re open to a broad range of interpretations of the “Frankenstein” theme, with the understanding that all works submitted must tell true stories and be factually accurate. Above all, we’re looking for well-written prose, rich with detail and a distinctive voice.

Creative Nonfiction editors and a judge (to be announced) will award $10,000 and publication for Best Essay and two $2,500 prizes and publication for runners-up. All essays submitted will be considered for publication in the winter 2018 issue of the magazine.

Deadline for submissions: March 20, 2017.
For complete guidelines: www.creativenonfiction.org/submissions

[Note: There is a submission fee for the nonfiction dare and no indication as to whether or not there are residency requirements.]

A July 27, 2016 email received from The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project (which is how I learned about the dares somewhat belatedly) has this about the first dare,

Planetary Design, Transhumanism, and Pork Products
Our #Frankenstein200 Contest Took Us in Some Unexpected Directions

Last month [June 2016], we partnered with National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and The Chabot Space and Science Center to dare the world to create stories in the spirit of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the novel’s conception.

We received a bevy of intriguing and sometimes frightening submissions that explore the complex relationships between creators and their “monsters.” Here are a few tales that caught our eye:

The Man Who Harnessed the Sun
By Sandra Knisely
Eliza has to choose between protecting the scientist who once gave her the world and punishing him for letting it all slip away. Read the story…

The Mortality Complex
By Brandon Miller
When the boogeyman of medical students reflects on life. Read the story…

Bacon Man
By Corey Pressman
A Frankenstein story in celebration of ASU’s Frankenstein Bicentennial Project. And bacon. Read the story… 

You can find the stories that have been submitted to date for the creative short story dare at Medium.com.

Good luck! And, don’t forget to tag your short story with #Frankenstein200 and submit it by July 31, 2016 (if you are a US resident). There’s still lots of time to enter a submission for a creative nonfiction piece.

Frankenturtles released

This really is a ‘Frankenstein’ story complete with turtle cadavers. From a June 14, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

It was a dark and stormy night in the laboratory, and jagged bolts of lightning lit the sky as Dr. Kaplan and his assistant Bianca stitched the pieces of the lifeless creature back together.

Actually, it was a sunny day on the shores of Chesapeake Bay, but recent sea turtle research by Assistant Professor David Kaplan of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science and graduate student Bianca Santos easily brings to mind the classic tale of Dr. Frankenstein and his makeshift monster.

Santos, a master’s student in William & Mary’s School of Marine Science at VIMS, is working with Kaplan to reduce sea turtle mortality by trying to pinpoint where the hundreds of dead loggerhead sea turtles that wash up on Chesapeake Bay beaches each summer may have succumbed. With that knowledge, researchers could hone in on likely causes of sea-turtle death, while wildlife authorities could map out safe zones for these imperiled marine reptiles. One of Kaplan’s research specialties is the spatial management of marine ecosystems.

 

David Kaplan examines the Frankenturtles before their deployment. Also visible are the bucket drifters that more closely follow Bay currents. Courtesy: VIMS

David Kaplan examines the Frankenturtles before their deployment. Also visible are the bucket drifters that more closely follow Bay currents. Courtesy: VIMS

A June 14, 2016 Virginia Institute of Marine Science news release by David Malmquist, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

The pair’s approach to the problem is ingenious if somewhat morbid: obtain dead sea turtles (from the Virginia Aquarium’s Stranding Response Program), replace the turtles’ inner organs with buoyant Styrofoam, “sew” their shells back together with zip ties, and then attach GPS units to track the path of the “Frankenturtles” as winds and currents disperse them from a mid-Bay release site.

“It might seem sort of gross, but it’s a good way to reuse a dead turtle that would otherwise be buried,” says Kaplan. “And hopefully, the deployment of our two Frankenturtles will ultimately help lower the number of turtle deaths in the future.”

Santos explains that the team is actually releasing three different types of drifters: the two Frankenturtles, two wooden-Styrofoam turtle models, and a pair of bucket drifters. By observing how the wind differentially affects the highly buoyant, sail-like wooden models; the partly emergent Frankenturtles; and the mostly submerged buckets, the researchers hope to better understand how a wind-driven carcass might deviate from the more predictable current patterns traced by the Bay’s surface waters. Sea turtles initially sink after dying, but quickly float back to the surface buoyed by gases from decomposing tissues.

“Our plan is to deploy the drifters on several different occasions—under a variety of wind and wave conditions—and in locations where mortality events could occur during the spring peak in strandings,” says Santos. “We’ll then use the separation rate between our bucket drifters, which closely track water movement, and our turtle carcasses to determine the amount of wind forcing to apply to simulated carcasses in our computer model.”

They initiated their field trials on June 13th [2016], deploying the drifters in open Bay waters about halfway between the mouth of the York River and Cape Charles on Virginia’s bayside Eastern Shore. One Frankenturtle comprises the remains of a 15-20 year old loggerhead killed by a boat strike. The other is a younger turtle whose mode of death remains a mystery despite a necropsy. Deploying these creatures wasn’t an easy job: in addition to the unforgettable and growing aroma of thawing turtle, the creatures are both heavy and unwieldy. The larger Frankenturtle weighs in at 150 pounds, the smaller at 70 pounds.

Modeling turtle movement

Once data from the Frankenturtle trials have allowed the researchers to properly configure their “turtle carcass drift model,” they’ll feed the model with historical records of stranding locations provided by the Virginia Aquarium’s Stranding Response Team. The team is the Commonwealth’s official entity for responding to reports of dead and injured sea turtles and other marine life in Bay and nearby coastal waters.

“If our model can accurately simulate how winds and currents act on a dead sea turtle, we should be able to backtrack from a stranding site to the place where the turtle likely died,” says Santos. “By knowing the ‘where,’” she adds, “we can better look at the ‘why.’”

The researchers plan to track the Frankenturtles and other drifters released on June 13th for 3-4 days before retrieving the GPS units for future use. Earlier experiments by Santos show that’s about how long dead turtles remain intact before they are dismembered and consumed by waves, birds, crabs, and fish. The public can view the motion of the drifters in real-time via the VIMS website at www.vims.edu/frankenturtle.

Sea turtle mortality

Mortality of loggerhead turtles in Chesapeake Bay is of continuing concern. “Strandings peaked in the early 2000s at around 200-400 per year,” says Kaplan. “Modifications to the pound-net fishery likely reduced the number to the current 100-300 per year, and it is these we’re trying to understand.” He adds that scientists don’t really don’t have a good idea what percentage of dead turtles these strandings represent. “The actual number could be much higher,” Kaplan says.

Evidence that strandings may represent only a small percentage of actual deaths comes from Santos’ decay experiments as well as the low odds of finding every dead turtle. “Bianca’s decay study shows that turtles remain intact for only 3-5 days after death, decreasing the likelihood that they might last long enough to wash up on a beach,” says Kaplan. “And of those that do wash ashore, many probably strand in remote or marshy areas where they are unlikely to be observed and reported by a beachgoer.”

Potential sources of mortality in the Bay include accidental capture in fishing gear, strikes by boat propellers, entanglement in plastic trash, and sudden drops in temperature.

Although loggerheads are the most common sea turtles in the Chesapeake, with 5,000-10,000 entering Bay waters each summer to feed, they are listed as “threatened” in U.S. waters under the Endangered Species Act due to the perils they face across their range, including loss of nesting habitat, disorientation of hatchlings by beachfront lighting, nest predation, and incidental capture in dredges and coastal fisheries. Measures to protect against these threats are enforced by NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Frankenstein and Switzerland in 2016

The Frankenstein Bicentennial celebration is in process as various events and projects are now being launched. In a Nov. 12, 2015 posting I made mention of the Frankenstein Bicentennial Project 1818-2018 at Arizona State University (ASU; scroll down about 15% of the way),

… the Transmedia Museum (Frankenstein Bicentennial Project 1818-2018).  This project is being hosted by Arizona State University. From the project homepage,

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—such as the complex dynamic between creator and creation—continue to resonate with contemporary audiences. Frankenstein continues to influence the way we confront emerging technologies, conceptualize the process of scientific research, imagine the motivations and ethical struggles of scientists, and weigh the benefits of innovation with its unforeseen pitfalls.

The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project will infuse science and engineering endeavors with considerations of ethics. It will use the power of storytelling and art to shape processes of innovation and empower public appraisal of techno-scientific research and creation. It will offer humanists and artists a new set of concerns around research, public policy, and the ramifications of exploration and invention. And it will inspire new scientific and technological advances inspired by Shelley’s exploration of our inspiring and terrifying ability to bring new life into the world. Frankenstein represents a landmark fusion of science, ethics, and literary expression.

The bicentennial provides an opportunity for vivid reflection on how science is culturally framed and understood by the public, as well as our ethical limitations and responsibility for nurturing the products of our creativity. It is also a moment to unveil new scientific and technological marvels, especially in the areas of synthetic biology and artificial intelligence. Engaging with Frankenstein allows scholars and educators, artists and writers, and the public at large to consider the history of scientific invention, reflect on contemporary research, and question the future of our technological society. Acting as a network hub for the bicentennial celebration, ASU will encourage and coordinate collaboration across institutions and among diverse groups worldwide.

2016 Frankenstein events

Now, there’s an exhibition in Switzerland where Frankenstein was ‘born’ according to a May 12, 2016 news item on phys.org,

Frankenstein, the story of a scientist who brings to life a cadaver and causes his own downfall, has for two centuries given voice to anxiety surrounding the unrelenting advance of science.

To mark the 200 years since England’s Mary Shelley first imagined the ultimate horror story during a visit to a frigid, rain-drenched Switzerland, an exhibit opens in Geneva Friday called “Frankenstein, Creation of Darkness”.

In the dimly-lit, expansive basement at the Martin Bodmer Foundation, a long row of glass cases holds 15 hand-written, yellowed pages from a notebook where Shelley in 1816 wrote the first version of what is considered a masterpiece of romantic literature.

The idea for her “miserable monster” came when at just 18 she and her future husband, English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, went to a summer home—the Villa Diodati—rented by literary great Lord Byron on the outskirts of Geneva.

The current private owners of the picturesque manor overlooking Lake Geneva will also open their lush gardens to guided tours during the nearby exhibit which runs to October 9 [May 13 – Oct. 9, 2016].

While the spot today is lovely, with pink and purple lilacs spilling from the terraces and gravel walkways winding through rose-covered arches, in the summer of 1816 the atmosphere was more somber.

A massive eruption from the Tambora volcano in Indonesia wreaked havoc with the global climate that year, and a weather report for Geneva in June on display at the exhibit mentions “not a single leaf” had yet appeared on the oak trees.

To pass the time, poet Lord Byron challenged the band of literary bohemians gathered at the villa to each invent a ghost story, resulting in several famous pieces of writing.

English doctor and author John Polidori came up with the idea for “The Vampyre”, which was published three years later and is considered to have pioneered the romantic vampyre genre, including works like Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”.

That book figures among a multitude of first editions at the Geneva exhibit, including three of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus”—the most famous story to emerge from the competition.

Here’s a description of the exhibit, from the Martin Bodmer Foundation’s Frankenstein webpage,

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the writing of this historically influential work of literature, the Martin Bodmer Foundation presents a major exhibition on the origins of Frankenstein, the perspectives it opens and the questions it raises.

A best seller since its first publication in 1818, Mary Shelley’s novel continues to demand attention. The questions it raises remain at the heart of literary and philosophical concerns: the ethics of science, climate change, the technologisation of the human body, the unconscious, human otherness, the plight of the homeless and the dispossessed.

The exposition Frankenstein: Creation of Darkness recreates the beginnings of the novel in its first manuscript and printed forms, along with paintings and engravings that evoke the world of 1816. A variety of literary and scientific works are presented as sources of the novel’s ideas. While exploring the novel’s origins, the exhibition also evokes the social and scientific themes of the novel that remain important in our own day.

For what it’s worth, I have come across analyses which suggest science and technology may not have been the primary concern at the time. There are interpretations which suggest issues around childbirth (very dangerous until modern times) and fear of disfigurement and disfigured individuals. What makes Frankenstein and the book so fascinating is how flexible interpretations can be. (For more about Frankenstein and flexibility, read Susan Tyler Hitchcock’s 2009 book, Frankenstein: a cultural history.)

There’s one more upcoming Frankenstein event, from The Frankenstein Bicentennial announcement webpage,

On June 14 and 15, 2016, the Brocher Foundation, Arizona State University, Duke University, and the University of Lausanne will host “Frankenstein’s Shadow,” a symposium in Geneva, Switzerland to commemorate the origin of Frankenstein and assess its influence in different times and cultures, particularly its resonance in debates about public policy governing biotechnology and medicine. These dates place the symposium almost exactly 200 years after Mary Shelley initially conceived the idea for Frankenstein on June 16, 1816, and in almost exactly the same geographical location on the shores of Lake Geneva.

If you’re interested in details such as the programme schedule, there’s this PDF,

Frankenstein¹s_ShadowConference

Enjoy!

Intelligence, computers, and robots

Starting tonight, Feb. 14, 2011, you’ll be able to watch a computer compete against two former champions on the US television quiz programme, Jeopardy.  The match between the IBM computer, named Watson, and the most accomplished champions that have ever played on Jeopardy, Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, has been four years in the making. From the article by Julie Beswald on physorg.com,

“Let’s finish, ‘Chicks Dig Me’,” intones the somewhat monotone, but not unpleasant, voice of Watson, IBM’s new supercomputer built to compete on the game show Jeopardy!

The audience chuckles in response to the machine-like voice and its all-too-human assertion. But fellow contestant Ken Jennings gets the last laugh as he buzzes in and garners $1,000.

This exchange is part of a January 13 practice round for the world’s first man vs. machine game show. Scheduled to air February 14-16, the match pits Watson against the two best Jeopardy! players of all time. Jennings holds the record for the most consecutive games won, at 74. The other contestant, Brad Rutter, has winnings totaling over $3.2 million.

On Feb. 9, 2011, PBS’s NOVA science program broadcast a documentary about Watson whose name is derived from the company founder, Paul Watson, and not Sherlock Holmes’s companion and biographer, Dr. Watson. Titled the Smartest Machine on Earth, the show highlighted Watson’s learning process and some of the principles behind artificial intelligence. PBS’s website is featuring a live blogging event of tonight’s and the Feb. 15 and 16 matches. From the website,

On Monday [Feb. 14, 2011], our bloggers will be Nico Schlaefer and Hideki Shima, two Ph.D. students at Carnegie Mellon University’s Language Technologies Institute who worked on the Watson project.

At the same time that the ‘Watson’ event was being publicized last week, another news item on artificial intelligence and learning was making the rounds. From a Feb. 9, 2011 article by Mark Ward on BBC News ,

Robots could soon have an equivalent of the internet and Wikipedia.

European scientists have embarked on a project to let robots share and store what they discover about the world.

Called RoboEarth it will be a place that robots can upload data to when they master a task, and ask for help in carrying out new ones.

Researchers behind it hope it will allow robots to come into service more quickly, armed with a growing library of knowledge about their human masters. [emphasis mine]

You can read a first person account of the RoboEarth project on the IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineering) Spectrum’s Automaton Robotics blog in a posting by Markus Waibel,

As part of the European project RoboEarth, I am currently one of about 30 people working towards building an Internet for robots: a worldwide, open-source platform that allows any robot with a network connection to generate, share, and reuse data. The project is set up to deliver a proof of concept to show two things:

* RoboEarth greatly speeds up robot learning and adaptation in complex tasks.

* Robots using RoboEarth can execute tasks that were not explicitly planned for at design time.

The vision behind RoboEarth is much larger: Allow robots to encode, exchange, and reuse knowledge to help each other accomplish complex tasks. This goes beyond merely allowing robots to communicate via the Internet, outsourcing computation to the cloud, or linked data.

But before you yell “Skynet!,” think again. While the most similar things science fiction writers have imagined may well be the artificial intelligences in Terminator, the Space Odyssey series, or the Ender saga, I think those analogies are flawed. [emphasis mine] RoboEarth is about building a knowledge base, and while it may include intelligent web services or a robot app store, it will probably be about as self-aware as Wikipedia.

That said, my colleagues and I believe that if robots are to move out of the factories and work alongside humans, they will need to systematically share data and build on each other’s experience.

Unfortunately, Markus Waibel doesn’t explain why he thinks the analogies are flawed but he does lay out the reasoning for why robots should share information. For a more approachable and much briefer account, you can check out Ariel Schwartz’s Feb. 10, 2011 article on the Fast Company website,

The EU-funded [European Union] RoboEarth project is bringing together European scientists to build a network and database repository for robots to share information about the world. They will, if all goes as planned, use the network to store and retrieve information about objects, locations (including maps), and instructions about completing activities. Robots will be both the contributors and the editors of the repository.

With RoboEarth, one robot’s learning experiences are never lost–the data is passed on for other robots to mine. As RedOrbit explains, that means one robot’s experiences with, say, setting a dining room table could be passed on to others, so the butler robot of the future might know how to prepare for dinner guests without any prior programming.

There is a RoboEarth website, so we humans can get more information and hopefully keep up with the robots.

Happily and as there is with increasing frequency, there’s a Youtube video. This one features a robot downloading information from RoboEarth and using that information in a quasi hospital setting,

I find this use of popular entertainment, particularly obvious with Watson, to communicate about scientific advances quite interesting. On this same theme of popular culture as a means of science communication, I featured a Lady Gaga parody by a lab working on Alzheimer’s in my Jan. 28, 2011 posting.  I also find the reference to “human masters” in the BBC article along with Waibel’s flat assertion that some science fiction analogies about artificial intelligence are flawed indicative of some very old anxieties as expressed in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

ETA Feb. 14, 2011: The latest posting on the Pasco Phronesis blog, I, For One, Welcome Our Robot Game Show Overlords, features another opinion about the Watson appearances on Jeopardy. From the posting,

What will this mean? Given that a cursory search suggests opinion is divided on whether Watson will win this week, I have no idea. While it will likely be entertaining, and does represent a significant step forward in computing capabilities, I can’t help but think about the supercomputing race that makes waves only when a new computational record is made. It’s nice, and might prompt government action should they lose the number one standing. But what does it mean? What new outcomes do we have because of this? The conversation is rarely about what, to me, seems more important.