Tag Archives: cyborgs

Human-machine interfaces and ultra-small nanoprobes

We’re back on the cyborg trail or what I sometimes refer to as machine/flesh. A July 3, 2019 news item on ScienceDaily describes the latest attempts to join machine with flesh,

Machine enhanced humans — or cyborgs as they are known in science fiction — could be one step closer to becoming a reality, thanks to new research Lieber Group at Harvard University, as well as scientists from University of Surrey and Yonsei University.

Researchers have conquered the monumental task of manufacturing scalable nanoprobe arrays small enough to record the inner workings of human cardiac cells and primary neurons.

The ability to read electrical activities from cells is the foundation of many biomedical procedures, such as brain activity mapping and neural prosthetics. Developing new tools for intracellular electrophysiology (the electric current running within cells) that push the limits of what is physically possible (spatiotemporal resolution) while reducing invasiveness could provide a deeper understanding of electrogenic cells and their networks in tissues, as well as new directions for human-machine interfaces.

The Lieber Group at Harvard University provided this image illustrating the work,

U-shaped nanowires can record electrical chatter inside a brain or heart cell without causing any damage. The devices are 100 times smaller than their biggest competitors, which kill a cell after recording. Courtesy: University of Surrey

A July 3, 2019 University of Surrey press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more details about this UK/US/China collaboration,

In a paper published by Nature Nanotechnology, scientists from Surrey’s Advanced Technology Institute (ATI) and Harvard University detail how they produced an array of the ultra-small U-shaped nanowire field-effect transistor probes for intracellular recording. This incredibly small structure was used to record, with great clarity, the inner activity of primary neurons and other electrogenic cells, and the device has the capacity for multi-channel recordings.

Dr Yunlong Zhao from the ATI at the University of Surrey said: “If our medical professionals are to continue to understand our physical condition better and help us live longer, it is important that we continue to push the boundaries of modern science in order to give them the best possible tools to do their jobs. For this to be possible, an intersection between humans and machines is inevitable.

“Our ultra-small, flexible, nanowire probes could be a very powerful tool as they can measure intracellular signals with amplitudes comparable with those measured with patch clamp techniques; with the advantage of the device being scalable, it causes less discomfort and no fatal damage to the cell (cytosol dilation). Through this work, we found clear evidence for how both size and curvature affect device internalisation and intracellular recording signal.”

Professor Charles Lieber from the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University said: “This work represents a major step towards tackling the general problem of integrating ‘synthesised’ nanoscale building blocks into chip and wafer scale arrays, and thereby allowing us to address the long-standing challenge of scalable intracellular recording.

“The beauty of science to many, ourselves included, is having such challenges to drive hypotheses and future work. In the longer term, we see these probe developments adding to our capabilities that ultimately drive advanced high-resolution brain-machine interfaces and perhaps eventually bringing cyborgs to reality.”

Professor Ravi Silva, Director of the ATI at the University of Surrey, said: “This incredibly exciting and ambitious piece of work illustrates the value of academic collaboration. Along with the possibility of upgrading the tools we use to monitor cells, this work has laid the foundations for machine and human interfaces that could improve lives across the world.”

Dr Yunlong Zhao and his team are currently working on novel energy storage devices, electrochemical probing, bioelectronic devices, sensors and 3D soft electronic systems. Undergraduate, graduate and postdoc students with backgrounds in energy storage, electrochemistry, nanofabrication, bioelectronics, tissue engineering are very welcome to contact Dr Zhao to explore the opportunities further.

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

Scalable ultrasmall three-dimensional nanowire transistor probes for intracellular recording by Yunlong Zhao, Siheng Sean You, Anqi Zhang, Jae-Hyun Lee, Jinlin Huang & Charles M. Lieber. Nature Nanotechnology (2019) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41565-019-0478-y Published 01 July 2019

The link I’ve provided leads to a paywall. However, I found a freely accessible version of the paper (this may not be the final published version) here.

October 2019 science and art/science events in Vancouver and other parts of Canada

This is a scattering of events, which I’m sure will be augmented as we properly start the month of October 2019.

October 2, 2019 in Waterloo, Canada (Perimeter Institute)

If you want to be close enough to press the sacred flesh (Sir Martin Rees), you’re out of luck. However, there are still options ranging from watching a live webcast from the comfort of your home to watching the lecture via closed circuit television with other devoted fans at a licensed bistro located on site at the Perimeter Institute (PI) to catching the lecture at a later date via YouTube.

That said, here’s why you might be interested,

Here’s more from a September 11, 2019 Perimeter Institute (PI) announcement received via email,

Surviving the Century
MOVING TOWARD A POST-HUMAN FUTURE
Martin Rees, UK Astronomer Royal
Wednesday, Oct. 2 at 7:00 PM ET

Advances in technology and space exploration could, if applied wisely, allow a bright future for the 10 billion people living on earth by the end of the century.

But there are dystopian risks we ignore at our peril: our collective “footprint” on our home planet, as well as the creation and use of technologies so powerful that even small groups could cause a global catastrophe.

Martin Rees, the UK Astronomer Royal, will explore this unprecedented moment in human history during his lecture on October 2, 2019. A former president of the Royal Society and master of Trinity College, Cambridge, Rees is a cosmologist whose work also explores the interfaces between science, ethics, and politics. Read More.

Mark your calendar! Tickets will be available on Monday, Sept. 16 at 9 AM ET

Didn’t get tickets for the lecture? We’ve got more ways to watch.
Join us at Perimeter on lecture night to watch live in the Black Hole Bistro.
Catch the live stream on Inside the Perimeter or watch it on Youtube the next day
Become a member of our donor thank you program! Learn more.

It took me a while to locate an address for PI venue since I expect that information to be part of the announcement. (insert cranky emoticon here) Here’s the address: Perimeter Institute, Mike Lazaridis Theatre of Ideas, 31 Caroline St. N., Waterloo, ON

Before moving onto the next event, I’m including a paragraph from the event description that was not included in the announcement (from the PI Outreach Surviving the Century webpage),

In his October 2 [2019] talk – which kicks off the 2019/20 season of the Perimeter Institute Public Lecture Series – Rees will discuss the outlook for humans (or their robotic envoys) venturing to other planets. Humans, Rees argues, will be ill-adapted to new habitats beyond Earth, and will use genetic and cyborg technology to transform into a “post-human” species.

I first covered Sir Martin Rees and his concerns about technology (robots and cyborgs run amok) in this November 26, 2012 posting about existential risk. He and his colleagues at Cambridge University, UK, proposed a Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, which opened in 2015.

Straddling Sept. and Oct. at the movies in Vancouver

The Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) opened today, September 26, 2019. During its run to October 11, 2019 there’ll be a number of documentaries that touch on science. Here are three of the documentaries most closely adhere to the topics I’m most likely to address on this blog. There is a fourth documentary included here as it touches on ecology in a more hopeful fashion than is the current trend.

Human Nature

From the VIFF 2019 film description and ticket page,

One of the most significant scientific breakthroughs in history, the discovery of CRISPR has made it possible to manipulate human DNA, paving the path to a future of great possibilities.

The implications of this could mean the eradication of disease or, more controversially, the possibility of genetically pre-programmed children.

Breaking away from scientific jargon, Human Nature pieces together a complex account of bio-research for the layperson as compelling as a work of science-fiction. But whether the gene-editing powers of CRISPR (described as “a word processor for DNA”) are used for good or evil, they’re reshaping the world as we know it. As we push past the boundaries of what it means to be human, Adam Bolt’s stunning work of science journalism reaches out to scientists, engineers, and people whose lives could benefit from CRISPR technology, and offers a wide-ranging look at the pros and cons of designing our futures.

Tickets
Friday, September 27, 2019 at 11:45 AM
Vancity Theatre

Saturday, September 28, 2019 at 11:15 AM
International Village 10

Thursday, October 10, 2019 at 6:45 PM
SFU Goldcorp

According to VIFF, the tickets for the Sept. 27, 2019 show are going fast.

Resistance Fighters

From the VIFF 2019 film description and ticket page,

Since mass-production in the 1940s, antibiotics have been nothing less than miraculous, saving countless lives and revolutionizing modern medicine. It’s virtually impossible to imagine hospitals or healthcare without them. But after years of abuse and mismanagement by the medical and agricultural communities, superbugs resistant to antibiotics are reaching apocalyptic proportions. The ongoing rise in multi-resistant bacteria – unvanquishable microbes, currently responsible for 700,000 deaths per year and projected to kill 10 million yearly by 2050 if nothing changes – and the people who fight them are the subjects of Michael Wech’s stunning “science-thriller.”

Peeling back the carefully constructed veneer of the medical corporate establishment’s greed and complacency to reveal the world on the cusp of a potential crisis, Resistance Fighters sounds a clarion call of urgency. It’s an all-out war, one which most of us never knew we were fighting, to avoid “Pharmageddon.” Doctors, researchers, patients, and diplomats testify about shortsighted medical and economic practices, while Wech offers refreshingly original perspectives on environment, ecology, and (animal) life in general. As alarming as it is informative, this is a wake-up call the world needs to hear.

Sunday, October 6, 2019 at 5:45 PM
International Village 8

Thursday, October 10, 2019 at 2:15 PM
SFU Goldcorp

According to VIFF, the tickets for the Oct. 6, 2019 show are going fast.

Trust Machine: The Story of Blockchain

Strictly speaking this is more of a technology story than science story but I have written about blockchain and cryptocurrencies before so I’m including this. From the VIFF 2019 film description and ticket page,

For anyone who has questions about cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin (and who doesn’t?), Alex Winter’s thorough documentary is an excellent introduction to the blockchain phenomenon. Trust Machine offers a wide range of expert testimony and a variety of perspectives that explicate the promises and the risks inherent in this new manifestation of high-tech wizardry. And it’s not just money that blockchains threaten to disrupt: innovators as diverse as UNICEF and Imogen Heap make spirited arguments that the industries of energy, music, humanitarianism, and more are headed for revolutionary change.

A propulsive and subversive overview of this little-understood phenomenon, Trust Machine crafts a powerful and accessible case that a technologically decentralized economy is more than just a fad. As the aforementioned experts – tech wizards, underground activists, and even some establishment figures – argue persuasively for an embrace of the possibilities offered by blockchains, others criticize its bubble-like markets and inefficiencies. Either way, Winter’s film suggests a whole new epoch may be just around the corner, whether the powers that be like it or not.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019 at 11:00 AM
Vancity Theatre

Thursday, October 3, 2019 at 9:00 PM
Vancity Theatre

Monday, October 7, 2019 at 1:15 PM
International Village 8

According to VIFF, tickets for all three shows are going fast

The Great Green Wall

For a little bit of hope, From the VIFF 2019 film description and ticket page,

“We must dare to invent the future.” In 2007, the African Union officially began a massively ambitious environmental project planned since the 1970s. Stretching through 11 countries and 8,000 km across the desertified Sahel region, on the southern edges of the Sahara, The Great Green Wall – once completed, a mosaic of restored, fertile land – would be the largest living structure on Earth.

Malian musician-activist Inna Modja embarks on an expedition through Senegal, Mali, Nigeria, Niger, and Ethiopia, gathering an ensemble of musicians and artists to celebrate the pan-African dream of realizing The Great Green Wall. Her journey is accompanied by a dazzling array of musical diversity, celebrating local cultures and traditions as they come together into a community to stand against the challenges of desertification, drought, migration, and violent conflict.

An unforgettable, beautiful exploration of a modern marvel of ecological restoration, and so much more than a passive source of information, The Great Green Wall is a powerful call to take action and help reshape the world.

Sunday, September 29, 2019 at 11:15 AM
International Village 10

Wednesday, October 2, 2019 at 6:00 PM
International Village 8
Standby – advance tickets are sold out but a limited number are likely to be released at the door

Wednesday, October 9, 2019 at 11:00 AM
International Village 9

As you can see, one show is already offering standby tickets only and the other two are selling quickly.

For venue locations, information about what ‘standby’ means and much more go here and click on the Festival tab. As for more information the individual films, you’ll links to trailers, running times, and more on the pages for which I’ve supplied links.

Brain Talks on October 16, 2019 in Vancouver

From time to time I get notices about a series titled Brain Talks from the Dept. of Psychiatry at the University of British Columbia. A September 11, 2019 announcement (received via email) focuses attention on the ‘guts of the matter’,

YOU ARE INVITED TO ATTEND:

BRAINTALKS: THE BRAIN AND THE GUT

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 16TH, 2019 FROM 6:00 PM – 8:00 PM

Join us on Wednesday October 16th [2019] for a series of talks exploring the
relationship between the brain, microbes, mental health, diet and the
gut. We are honored to host three phenomenal presenters for the evening:
Dr. Brett Finlay, Dr. Leslie Wicholas, and Thara Vayali, ND.

DR. BRETT FINLAY [2] is a Professor in the Michael Smith Laboratories at
the University of British Columbia. Dr. Finlay’s  research interests are
focused on host-microbe interactions at the molecular level,
specializing in Cellular Microbiology. He has published over 500 papers
and has been inducted into the Canadian  Medical Hall of Fame. He is the
co-author of the  books: Let Them Eat Dirt and The Whole Body
Microbiome.

DR. LESLIE WICHOLAS [3]  is a psychiatrist with an expertise in the
clinical understanding of the gut-brain axis. She has become
increasingly involved in the emerging field of Nutritional Psychiatry,
exploring connections between diet, nutrition, and mental health.
Currently, Dr. Wicholas is the director of the Food as Medicine program
at the Mood Disorder Association of BC.

THARA VAYALI, ND [4] holds a BSc in Nutritional Sciences and a MA in
Education and Communications. She has trained in naturopathic medicine
and advocates for awareness about women’s physiology and body literacy.
Ms. Vayali is a frequent speaker and columnist that prioritizes
engagement, understanding, and community as pivotal pillars for change.

Our event on Wednesday, October 16th [2019] will start with presentations from
each of the three speakers, and end with a panel discussion inspired by
audience questions. After the talks, at 7:30 pm, we host a social
gathering with a rich spread of catered healthy food and non-alcoholic
drinks. We look forward to seeing you there!

Paetzhold Theater

Vancouver General Hospital; Jim Pattison Pavilion, Vancouver, BC

Attend Event

That’s it for now.

Biohybrid cyborgs

Cyborgs are usually thought of as people who’ve been enhanced with some sort of technology, In contemporary real life that technology might be a pacemaker or hip replacement but in science fiction it’s technology such as artificial retinas (for example) that expands the range of visible light for an enhanced human.

Rarely does the topic of a microscopic life form come up in discussion about cyborgs and yet, that’s exactly what an April 3, 2019 Nanowerk spotlight article by Michael Berger describes in relationship to its use in water remediation efforts (Note: links have been removed),

Researchers often use living systems as inspiration for the design and engineering of micro- and nanoscale propulsion systems, actuators, sensors, and robots. …

“Although microrobots have recently proved successful for remediating decontaminated water at the laboratory scale, the major challenge in the field is to scale up these applications to actual environmental settings,” Professor Joseph Wang, Chair of Nanoengineering and Director, Center of Wearable Sensors at the University California San Diego, tells Nanowerk. “In order to do this, we need to overcome the toxicity of their chemical fuels, the short time span of biocompatible magnesium-based micromotors and the small domain operation of externally actuated microrobots.”

In their recent work on self-propelled biohybrid microrobots, Wang and his team were inspired by recent developments of biohybrid cyborgs that integrate self-propelling bacteria with functionalized synthetic nanostructures to transport materials.

“These tiny cyborgs are incredibly efficient for transport materials, but the limitation that we observed is that they do not provide large-scale fluid mixing,” notes Wang. ” We wanted to combine the best properties of both worlds. So, we searched for the best candidate to create a more robust biohybrid for mixing and we decided on using rotifers (Brachionus) as the engine of the cyborg.”

These marine microorganisms, which measure between 100 and 300 micrometers, are amazing creatures as they already possess sensing ability, energetic autonomy, and provide large-scale fluid mixing capability. They are also are very resilient and can survive in very harsh environments and even are one of the few organisms that have survived via asexual reproduction.

“Taking inspiration from the science fiction concept of a cybernetic organism, or cyborg – where an organism has enhanced abilities due to the integration of some artificial component – we developed a self-propelled biohybrid microrobot, that we named rotibot, employing rotifers as their engine,” says Fernando Soto, first author of a paper on this work (Advanced Functional Materials, “Rotibot: Use of Rotifers as Self-Propelling Biohybrid Microcleaners”).

This is the first demonstration of a biohybrid cyborg used for the removal and degradation of pollutants from solution. The technical breakthrough that allowed the team to achieve this task is based on a novel fabrication mechanism based on the selective accumulation of functionalized microbeads in the microorganism’s mouth: The rotifer serves not only as a transport vessel for active material or cargo but also acting as a powerful biological pump, as it creates fluid flows directed towards its mouth

Nanowerk has made this video demonstrating a rotifer available along with a description,

“The rotibot is a rotifer (a marine microorganism) that has plastic microbeads attached to the mouth, which are functionalized with pollutant-degrading enzymes. This video illustrates a free swimming rotibot mixing tracer particles in solution. “

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

Rotibot: Use of Rotifers as Self‐Propelling Biohybrid Microcleaners by Fernando Soto, Miguel Angel Lopez‐Ramirez, Itthipon Jeerapan, Berta Esteban‐Fernandez de Avila, Rupesh, Kumar Mishra, Xiaolong Lu, Ingrid Chai, Chuanrui Chen, Daniel Kupor. Advanced Functional Materials DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/adfm.201900658 First published: 28 March 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

Berger’s April 3, 2019 Nanowerk spotlight article includes some useful images if you are interested in figuring out how these rotibots function.

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.

Xenotransplantation—organs for transplantation in human patients—it’s a business and a science

The last time (June 18, 2018 post) I mentioned xenotransplantation (transplanting organs from one species into another species; see more here), it was in the context of an art/sci (or sciart) event coming to Vancouver (Canada).,

Patricia Piccinini’s Curious Imaginings Courtesy: Vancouver Biennale [downloaded from http://dailyhive.com/vancouver/vancouver-biennale-unsual-public-art-2018/]

The latest edition of the Vancouver Biennale was featured in a June 6, 2018 news item on the Daily Hive (Vancouver),

Melbourne artist Patricia Piccinini’s Curious Imaginings is expected to be one of the most talked about installations of the exhibit. Her style of “oddly captivating, somewhat grotesque, human-animal hybrid creature” is meant to be shocking and thought-provoking.

Piccinini’s interactive [emphasis mine] experience will “challenge us to explore the social impacts of emerging biotechnology and our ethical limits in an age where genetic engineering and digital technologies are already pushing the boundaries of humanity.”

Piccinini’s work will be displayed in the 105-year-old Patricia Hotel in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood. The 90-day ticketed exhibition [emphasis mine] is scheduled to open this September [2018].

(The show opens on Sept. 14, 2018.)

At the time, I had yet to stumble across Ingfei Chen’s thoughtful dive into the topic in her May 9, 2018 article for Slate.com,

In the United States, the clock is ticking for more than 114,700 adults and children waiting for a donated kidney or other lifesaving organ, and each day, nearly 20 of them die. Researchers are devising a new way to grow human organs inside other animals, but the method raises potentially thorny ethical issues. Other conceivable futuristic techniques sound like dystopian science fiction. As we envision an era of regenerative medicine decades from now, how far is society willing to go to solve the organ shortage crisis?

I found myself pondering this question after a discussion about the promises of stem cell technologies veered from the intriguing into the bizarre. I was interviewing bioengineer Zev Gartner, co-director and research coordinator of the Center for Cellular Construction at the University of California, San Francisco, about so-called organoids, tiny clumps of organlike tissue that can self-assemble from human stem cells in a Petri dish. These tissue bits are lending new insights into how our organs form and diseases take root. Some researchers even hope they can nurture organoids into full-size human kidneys, pancreases, and other organs for transplantation.

Certain organoid experiments have recently set off alarm bells, but when I asked Gartner about it, his radar for moral concerns was focused elsewhere. For him, the “really, really thought-provoking” scenarios involve other emerging stem cell–based techniques for engineering replacement organs for people, he told me. “Like blastocyst complementation,” he said.

Never heard of it? Neither had I. Turns out it’s a powerful new genetic engineering trick that researchers hope to use for growing human organs inside pigs or sheep—organs that could be genetically personalized for transplant patients, in theory avoiding immune-system rejection problems. The science still has many years to go, but if it pans out, it could be one solution to the organ shortage crisis. However, the prospect of creating hybrid animals with human parts and killing them to harvest organs has already raised a slew of ethical questions. In 2015, the National Institutes of Health placed a moratorium on federal funding of this nascent research area while it evaluated and discussed the issues.

As Gartner sees it, the debate over blastocyst complementation research—work that he finds promising—is just one of many conversations that society needs to have about the ethical and social costs and benefits of future technologies for making lifesaving transplant organs. “There’s all these weird ways that we could go about doing this,” he said, with a spectrum of imaginable approaches that includes organoids, interspecies organ farming, and building organs from scratch using 3D bioprinters. But even if it turns out we can produce human organs in these novel ways, the bigger issue, in each technological instance, may be whether we should.

Gartner crystallized things with a downright creepy example: “We know that the best bioreactor for tissues and organs for humans are human beings,” he said. Hypothetically, “the best way to get you a new heart would be to clone you, grow up a copy of yourself, and take the heart out.” [emphasis mine] Scientists could probably produce a cloned person with the technologies we already have, if money and ethics were of no concern. “But we don’t want to go there, right?” he added in the next breath. “The ethics involved in doing it are not compatible with who we want to be as a society.”

This sounds like Gartner may have been reading some science fiction, specifically, Lois McMaster Bujold and her Barrayar series where she often explored the ethics and possibilities of bioengineering. At this point, some of her work seems eerily prescient.

As for Chen’s article, I strongly encourage you to read it in its entirety if you have the time.

Medicine, healing, and big money

At about the same time, there was a May 31, 2018 news item on phys.org offering a perspective from some of the leaders in the science and the business (Note: Links have been removed),

Over the past few years, researchers led by George Church have made important strides toward engineering the genomes of pigs to make their cells compatible with the human body. So many think that it’s possible that, with the help of CRISPR technology, a healthy heart for a patient in desperate need might one day come from a pig.

“It’s relatively feasible to change one gene in a pig, but to change many dozens—which is quite clear is the minimum here—benefits from CRISPR,” an acronym for clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats, said Church, the Robert Winthrop Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School (HMS) and a core faculty member of Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. Xenotransplantation is “one of few” big challenges (along with gene drives and de-extinction, he said) “that really requires the ‘oomph’ of CRISPR.”

To facilitate the development of safe and effective cells, tissues, and organs for future medical transplantation into human patients, Harvard’s Office of Technology Development has granted a technology license to the Cambridge biotech startup eGenesis.

Co-founded by Church and former HMS doctoral student Luhan Yang in 2015, eGenesis announced last year that it had raised $38 million to advance its research and development work. At least eight former members of the Church lab—interns, doctoral students, postdocs, and visiting researchers—have continued their scientific careers as employees there.

“The Church Lab is well known for its relentless pursuit of scientific achievements so ambitious they seem improbable—and, indeed, [for] its track record of success,” said Isaac Kohlberg, Harvard’s chief technology development officer and senior associate provost. “George deserves recognition too for his ability to inspire passion and cultivate a strong entrepreneurial drive among his talented research team.”

The license from Harvard OTD covers a powerful set of genome-engineering technologies developed at HMS and the Wyss Institute, including access to foundational intellectual property relating to the Church Lab’s 2012 breakthrough use of CRISPR, led by Yang and Prashant Mali, to edit the genome of human cells. Subsequent innovations that enabled efficient and accurate editing of numerous genes simultaneously are also included. The license is exclusive to eGenesis but limited to the field of xenotransplantation.

A May 30, 2018 Harvard University news release by Caroline Petty, which originated the news item, explores some of the issues associated with incubating humans organs in other species,

The prospect of using living, nonhuman organs, and concerns over the infectiousness of pathogens either present in the tissues or possibly formed in combination with human genetic material, have prompted the Food and Drug Administration to issue detailed guidance on xenotransplantation research and development since the mid-1990s. In pigs, a primary concern has been that porcine endogenous retroviruses (PERVs), strands of potentially pathogenic DNA in the animals’ genomes, might infect human patients and eventually cause disease. [emphases mine]

That’s where the Church lab’s CRISPR expertise has enabled significant advances. In 2015, the lab published important results in the journal Science, successfully demonstrating the use of genome engineering to eliminate all 62 PERVs in porcine cells. Science later called it “the most widespread CRISPR editing feat to date.”

In 2017, with collaborators at Harvard, other universities, and eGenesis, Church and Yang went further. Publishing again in Science, they first confirmed earlier researchers’ fears: Porcine cells can, in fact, transmit PERVs into human cells, and those human cells can pass them on to other, unexposed human cells. (It is still unknown under what circumstances those PERVs might cause disease.) In the same paper, they corrected the problem, announcing the embryogenesis and birth of 37 PERV-free pigs. [Note: My July 17, 2018 post features research which suggests CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing may cause greater genetic damage than had been thought.]

“Taken together, those innovations were stunning,” said Vivian Berlin, director of business development in OTD, who manages the commercialization strategy for much of Harvard’s intellectual property in the life sciences. “That was the foundation they needed, to convince both the scientific community and the investment community that xenotransplantation might become a reality.”

“After hundreds of tests, this was a critical milestone for eGenesis — and the entire field — and represented a key step toward safe organ transplantation from pigs,” said Julie Sunderland, interim CEO of eGenesis. “Building on this study, we hope to continue to advance the science and potential of making xenotransplantation a safe and routine medical procedure.”

Genetic engineering may undercut human diseases, but also could help restore extinct species, researcher says. [Shades of the Jurassic Park movies!]

It’s not, however, the end of the story: An immunological challenge remains, which eGenesis will need to address. The potential for a patient’s body to outright reject transplanted tissue has stymied many previous attempts at xenotransplantation. Church said numerous genetic changes must be achieved to make porcine organs fully compatible with human patients. Among these are edits to several immune functions, coagulation functions, complements, and sugars, as well as the PERVs.

“Trying the straight transplant failed almost immediately, within hours, because there’s a huge mismatch in the carbohydrates on the surface of the cells, in particular alpha-1-3-galactose, and so that was a showstopper,” Church explained. “When you delete that gene, which you can do with conventional methods, you still get pretty fast rejection, because there are a lot of other aspects that are incompatible. You have to take care of each of them, and not all of them are just about removing things — some of them you have to humanize. There’s a great deal of subtlety involved so that you get normal pig embryogenesis but not rejection.

“Putting it all together into one package is challenging,” he concluded.

In short, it’s the next big challenge for CRISPR.

Not unexpectedly, there is no mention of the CRISPR patent fight between Harvard/MIT’s (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Broad Institute and the University of California at Berkeley (UC Berkeley). My March 15, 2017 posting featured an outcome where the Broad Institute won the first round of the fight. As I recall, it was a decision based on the principles associated with King Solomon, i.e., the US Patent Office, divided the baby and UCBerkeley got the less important part of the baby. As you might expect the decision has been appealed. In an April 30, 2018 piece, Scientific American reprinted an article about the latest round in the fight written by Sharon Begley for STAT (Note: Links have been removed),

All You Need to Know for Round 2 of the CRISPR Patent Fight

It’s baaaaack, that reputation-shredding, stock-moving fight to the death over key CRISPR patents. On Monday morning in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit will hear oral arguments in University of California v. Broad Institute. Questions?

How did we get here? The patent office ruled in February 2017 that the Broad’s 2014 CRISPR patent on using CRISPR-Cas9 to edit genomes, based on discoveries by Feng Zhang, did not “interfere” with a patent application by UC based on the work of UC Berkeley’s Jennifer Doudna. In plain English, that meant the Broad’s patent, on using CRISPR-Cas9 to edit genomes in eukaryotic cells (all animals and plants, but not bacteria), was different from UC’s, which described Doudna’s experiments using CRISPR-Cas9 to edit DNA in a test tube—and it was therefore valid. The Patent Trial and Appeal Board concluded that when Zhang got CRISPR-Cas9 to work in human and mouse cells in 2012, it was not an obvious extension of Doudna’s earlier research, and that he had no “reasonable expectation of success.” UC appealed, and here we are.

For anyone who may not realize what the stakes are for these institutions, Linda Williams in a March 16, 1999 article for the LA Times had this to say about universities, patents, and money,

The University of Florida made about $2 million last year in royalties on a patent for Gatorade Thirst Quencher, a sports drink that generates some $500 million to $600 million a year in revenue for Quaker Oats Co.

The payments place the university among the top five in the nation in income from patent royalties.

Oh, but if some people on the Gainesville, Fla., campus could just turn back the clock. “If we had done Gatorade right, we would be getting $5 or $6 million (a year),” laments Donald Price, director of the university’s office of corporate programs. “It is a classic example of how not to handle a patent idea,” he added.

Gatorade was developed in 1965 when many universities were ill equipped to judge the commercial potential of ideas emerging from their research labs. Officials blew the university’s chance to control the Gatorade royalties when they declined to develop a professor’s idea.

The Gatorade story does not stop there and, even though it’s almost 20 years old, this article stands the test of time. I strongly encourage you to read it if the business end of patents and academia interest you or if you would like to develop more insight into the Broad Institute/UC Berkeley situation.

Getting back to the science, there is that pesky matter of diseases crossing over from one species to another. While, Harvard and eGenesis claim a victory in this area, it seems more work needs to be done.

Infections from pigs

An August 29, 2018 University of Alabama at Birmingham news release (also on EurekAlert) by Jeff Hansen, describes the latest chapter in the quest to provide more organs for transplantion,

A shortage of organs for transplantation — including kidneys and hearts — means that many patients die while still on waiting lists. So, research at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and other sites has turned to pig organs as an alternative. [emphasis mine]

Using gene-editing, researchers have modified such organs to prevent rejection, and research with primates shows the modified pig organs are well-tolerated.

An added step is needed to ensure the safety of these inter-species transplants — sensitive, quantitative assays for viruses and other infectious microorganisms in donor pigs that potentially could gain access to humans during transplantation.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires such testing, prior to implantation, of tissues used for xenotransplantation from animals to humans. It is possible — though very unlikely — that an infectious agent in transplanted tissues could become an emerging infectious disease in humans.

In a paper published in Xenotransplantation, Mark Prichard, Ph.D., and colleagues at UAB have described the development and testing of 30 quantitative assays for pig infectious agents. These assays had sensitivities similar to clinical lab assays for viral loads in human patients. After validation, the UAB team also used the assays on nine sows and 22 piglets delivered from the sows through caesarian section.

“Going forward, ensuring the safety of these organs is of paramount importance,” Prichard said. “The use of highly sensitive techniques to detect potential pathogens will help to minimize adverse events in xenotransplantation.”

“The assays hold promise as part of the screening program to identify suitable donor animals, validate and release transplantable organs for research purposes, and monitor transplant recipients,” said Prichard, a professor in the UAB Department of Pediatrics and director of the Department of Pediatrics Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory.

The UAB researchers developed quantitative polymerase chain reaction, or qPCR, assays for 28 viruses sometimes found in pigs and two groups of mycoplasmas. They established reproducibility, sensitivity, specificity and lower limit of detection for each assay. All but three showed features of good quantitative assays, and the lower limit of detection values ranged between one and 16 copies of the viral or bacterial genetic material.

Also, the pig virus assays did not give false positives for some closely related human viruses.

As a start to understanding the infectious disease load in normal healthy animals and ensuring the safety of pig tissues used in xenotransplantation research, the researchers then screened blood, nasal swab and stool specimens from nine adult sows and 22 of their piglets delivered by caesarian section.

Mycoplasma species and two distinct herpesviruses were the most commonly detected microorganisms. Yet 14 piglets that were delivered from three sows infected with either or both herpesviruses were not infected with the herpesviruses, showing that transmission of these viruses from sow to the caesarian-delivery piglet was inefficient.

Prichard says the assays promise to enhance the safety of pig tissues for xenotransplantation, and they will also aid evaluation of human specimens after xenotransplantation.

The UAB researchers say they subsequently have evaluated more than 300 additional specimens, and that resulted in the detection of most of the targets. “The detection of these targets in pig specimens provides reassurance that the analytical methods are functioning as designed,” said Prichard, “and there is no a priori reason some targets might be more difficult to detect than others with the methods described here.”

As is my custom, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Xenotransplantation panel for the detection of infectious agents in pigs by Caroll B. Hartline, Ra’Shun L. Conner, Scott H. James, Jennifer Potter, Edward Gray, Jose Estrada, Mathew Tector, A. Joseph Tector, Mark N. Prichard. Xenotransplantaion Volume 25, Issue 4 July/August 2018 e12427 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1111/xen.12427 First published: 18 August 2018

This paper is open access.

All this leads to questions about chimeras. If a pig is incubating organs with human cells it’s a chimera but then means the human receiving the organ becomes a chimera too. (For an example, see my Dec. 22, 2013 posting where there’s mention of a woman who received a trachea from a pig. Scroll down about 30% of the way.)

What is it to be human?

A question much beloved of philosophers and others, the question seems particularly timely with xenotransplantion and other developments such neuroprosthetics (cyborgs) and neuromorphic computing (brainlike computing).

As I’ve noted before, although not recently, popular culture offers a discourse on these issues. Take a look at the superhero movies and the way in which enhanced humans and aliens are presented. For example, X-Men comics and movies present mutants (humans with enhanced abilities) as despised and rejected. Video games (not really my thing but there is the Deus Ex series which has as its hero, a cyborg also offer insight into these issues.

Other than popular culture and in the ‘bleeding edge’ arts community, I can’t recall any public discussion on these matters arising from the extraordinary set of technologies which are being deployed or prepared for deployment in the foreseeable future.

(If you’re in Vancouver (Canada) from September 14 – December 15, 2018, you may want to check out Piccinini’s work. Also, there’s ” NCSU [North Carolina State University] Libraries, NC State’s Genetic Engineering and Society (GES) Center, and the Gregg Museum of Art & Design have issued a public call for art for the upcoming exhibition Art’s Work in the Age of Biotechnology: Shaping our Genetic Futures.” from my Sept. 6, 2018 posting. Deadline: Oct. 1, 2018.)

At a guess, there will be pushback from people who have no interest in debating what it is to be human as they already know, and will find these developments, when they learn about them, to be horrifying and unnatural.

Robots in Vancouver and in Canada (two of two)

This is the second of a two-part posting about robots in Vancouver and Canada. The first part included a definition, a brief mention a robot ethics quandary, and sexbots. This part is all about the future. (Part one is here.)

Canadian Robotics Strategy

Meetings were held Sept. 28 – 29, 2017 in, surprisingly, Vancouver. (For those who don’t know, this is surprising because most of the robotics and AI research seems to be concentrated in eastern Canada. if you don’t believe me take a look at the speaker list for Day 2 or the ‘Canadian Stakeholder’ meeting day.) From the NSERC (Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council) events page of the Canadian Robotics Network,

Join us as we gather robotics stakeholders from across the country to initiate the development of a national robotics strategy for Canada. Sponsored by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), this two-day event coincides with the 2017 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS 2017) in order to leverage the experience of international experts as we explore Canada’s need for a national robotics strategy.

Where
Vancouver, BC, Canada

When
Thursday September 28 & Friday September 29, 2017 — Save the date!

Download the full agenda and speakers’ list here.

Objectives

The purpose of this two-day event is to gather members of the robotics ecosystem from across Canada to initiate the development of a national robotics strategy that builds on our strengths and capacities in robotics, and is uniquely tailored to address Canada’s economic needs and social values.

This event has been sponsored by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and is supported in kind by the 2017 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS 2017) as an official Workshop of the conference.  The first of two days coincides with IROS 2017 – one of the premiere robotics conferences globally – in order to leverage the experience of international robotics experts as we explore Canada’s need for a national robotics strategy here at home.

Who should attend

Representatives from industry, research, government, startups, investment, education, policy, law, and ethics who are passionate about building a robust and world-class ecosystem for robotics in Canada.

Program Overview

Download the full agenda and speakers’ list here.

DAY ONE: IROS Workshop 

“Best practices in designing effective roadmaps for robotics innovation”

Thursday September 28, 2017 | 8:30am – 5:00pm | Vancouver Convention Centre

Morning Program:“Developing robotics innovation policy and establishing key performance indicators that are relevant to your region” Leading international experts share their experience designing robotics strategies and policy frameworks in their regions and explore international best practices. Opening Remarks by Prof. Hong Zhang, IROS 2017 Conference Chair.

Afternoon Program: “Understanding the Canadian robotics ecosystem” Canadian stakeholders from research, industry, investment, ethics and law provide a collective overview of the Canadian robotics ecosystem. Opening Remarks by Ryan Gariepy, CTO of Clearpath Robotics.

Thursday Evening Program: Sponsored by Clearpath Robotics  Workshop participants gather at a nearby restaurant to network and socialize.

Learn more about the IROS Workshop.

DAY TWO: NSERC-Sponsored Canadian Robotics Stakeholder Meeting
“Towards a national robotics strategy for Canada”

Friday September 29, 2017 | 8:30am – 5:00pm | University of British Columbia (UBC)

On the second day of the program, robotics stakeholders from across the country gather at UBC for a full day brainstorming session to identify Canada’s unique strengths and opportunities relative to the global competition, and to align on a strategic vision for robotics in Canada.

Friday Evening Program: Sponsored by NSERC Meeting participants gather at a nearby restaurant for the event’s closing dinner reception.

Learn more about the Canadian Robotics Stakeholder Meeting.

I was glad to see in the agenda that some of the international speakers represented research efforts from outside the usual Europe/US axis.

I have been in touch with one of the organizers (also mentioned in part one with regard to robot ethics), Ajung Moon (her website is here), who says that there will be a white paper available on the Canadian Robotics Network website at some point in the future. I’ll keep looking for it and, in the meantime, I wonder what the 2018 Canadian federal budget will offer robotics.

Robots and popular culture

For anyone living in Canada or the US, Westworld (television series) is probably the most recent and well known ‘robot’ drama to premiere in the last year.As for movies, I think Ex Machina from 2014 probably qualifies in that category. Interestingly, both Westworld and Ex Machina seem quite concerned with sex with Westworld adding significant doses of violence as another  concern.

I am going to focus on another robot story, the 2012 movie, Robot & Frank, which features a care robot and an older man,

Frank (played by Frank Langella), a former jewel thief, teaches a robot the skills necessary to rob some neighbours of their valuables. The ethical issue broached in the film isn’t whether or not the robot should learn the skills and assist Frank in his thieving ways although that’s touched on when Frank keeps pointing out that planning his heist requires he live more healthily. No, the problem arises afterward when the neighbour accuses Frank of the robbery and Frank removes what he believes is all the evidence. He believes he’s going successfully evade arrest until the robot notes that Frank will have to erase its memory in order to remove all of the evidence. The film ends without the robot’s fate being made explicit.

In a way, I find the ethics query (was the robot Frank’s friend or just a machine?) posed in the film more interesting than the one in Vikander’s story, an issue which does have a history. For example, care aides, nurses, and/or servants would have dealt with requests to give an alcoholic patient a drink. Wouldn’t there  already be established guidelines and practices which could be adapted for robots? Or, is this question made anew by something intrinsically different about robots?

To be clear, Vikander’s story is a good introduction and starting point for these kinds of discussions as is Moon’s ethical question. But they are starting points and I hope one day there’ll be a more extended discussion of the questions raised by Moon and noted in Vikander’s article (a two- or three-part series of articles? public discussions?).

How will humans react to robots?

Earlier there was the contention that intimate interactions with robots and sexbots would decrease empathy and the ability of human beings to interact with each other in caring ways. This sounds a bit like the argument about smartphones/cell phones and teenagers who don’t relate well to others in real life because most of their interactions are mediated through a screen, which many seem to prefer. It may be partially true but, arguably,, books too are an antisocial technology as noted in Walter J. Ong’s  influential 1982 book, ‘Orality and Literacy’,  (from the Walter J. Ong Wikipedia entry),

A major concern of Ong’s works is the impact that the shift from orality to literacy has had on culture and education. Writing is a technology like other technologies (fire, the steam engine, etc.) that, when introduced to a “primary oral culture” (which has never known writing) has extremely wide-ranging impacts in all areas of life. These include culture, economics, politics, art, and more. Furthermore, even a small amount of education in writing transforms people’s mentality from the holistic immersion of orality to interiorization and individuation. [emphases mine]

So, robotics and artificial intelligence would not be the first technologies to affect our brains and our social interactions.

There’s another area where human-robot interaction may have unintended personal consequences according to April Glaser’s Sept. 14, 2017 article on Slate.com (Note: Links have been removed),

The customer service industry is teeming with robots. From automated phone trees to touchscreens, software and machines answer customer questions, complete orders, send friendly reminders, and even handle money. For an industry that is, at its core, about human interaction, it’s increasingly being driven to a large extent by nonhuman automation.

But despite the dreams of science-fiction writers, few people enter a customer-service encounter hoping to talk to a robot. And when the robot malfunctions, as they so often do, it’s a human who is left to calm angry customers. It’s understandable that after navigating a string of automated phone menus and being put on hold for 20 minutes, a customer might take her frustration out on a customer service representative. Even if you know it’s not the customer service agent’s fault, there’s really no one else to get mad at. It’s not like a robot cares if you’re angry.

When human beings need help with something, says Madeleine Elish, an anthropologist and researcher at the Data and Society Institute who studies how humans interact with machines, they’re not only looking for the most efficient solution to a problem. They’re often looking for a kind of validation that a robot can’t give. “Usually you don’t just want the answer,” Elish explained. “You want sympathy, understanding, and to be heard”—none of which are things robots are particularly good at delivering. In a 2015 survey of over 1,300 people conducted by researchers at Boston University, over 90 percent of respondents said they start their customer service interaction hoping to speak to a real person, and 83 percent admitted that in their last customer service call they trotted through phone menus only to make their way to a human on the line at the end.

“People can get so angry that they have to go through all those automated messages,” said Brian Gnerer, a call center representative with AT&T in Bloomington, Minnesota. “They’ve been misrouted or been on hold forever or they pressed one, then two, then zero to speak to somebody, and they are not getting where they want.” And when people do finally get a human on the phone, “they just sigh and are like, ‘Thank God, finally there’s somebody I can speak to.’ ”

Even if robots don’t always make customers happy, more and more companies are making the leap to bring in machines to take over jobs that used to specifically necessitate human interaction. McDonald’s and Wendy’s both reportedly plan to add touchscreen self-ordering machines to restaurants this year. Facebook is saturated with thousands of customer service chatbots that can do anything from hail an Uber, retrieve movie times, to order flowers for loved ones. And of course, corporations prefer automated labor. As Andy Puzder, CEO of the fast-food chains Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s and former Trump pick for labor secretary, bluntly put it in an interview with Business Insider last year, robots are “always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.”

But those robots are backstopped by human beings. How does interacting with more automated technology affect the way we treat each other? …

“We know that people treat artificial entities like they’re alive, even when they’re aware of their inanimacy,” writes Kate Darling, a researcher at MIT who studies ethical relationships between humans and robots, in a recent paper on anthropomorphism in human-robot interaction. Sure, robots don’t have feelings and don’t feel pain (not yet, anyway). But as more robots rely on interaction that resembles human interaction, like voice assistants, the way we treat those machines will increasingly bleed into the way we treat each other.

It took me a while to realize that what Glaser is talking about are AI systems and not robots as such. (sigh) It’s so easy to conflate the concepts.

AI ethics (Toby Walsh and Suzanne Gildert)

Jack Stilgoe of the Guardian published a brief Oct. 9, 2017 introduction to his more substantive (30 mins.?) podcast interview with Dr. Toby Walsh where they discuss stupid AI amongst other topics (Note: A link has been removed),

Professor Toby Walsh has recently published a book – Android Dreams – giving a researcher’s perspective on the uncertainties and opportunities of artificial intelligence. Here, he explains to Jack Stilgoe that we should worry more about the short-term risks of stupid AI in self-driving cars and smartphones than the speculative risks of super-intelligence.

Professor Walsh discusses the effects that AI could have on our jobs, the shapes of our cities and our understandings of ourselves. As someone developing AI, he questions the hype surrounding the technology. He is scared by some drivers’ real-world experimentation with their not-quite-self-driving Teslas. And he thinks that Siri needs to start owning up to being a computer.

I found this discussion to cast a decidedly different light on the future of robotics and AI. Walsh is much more interested in discussing immediate issues like the problems posed by ‘self-driving’ cars. (Aside: Should we be calling them robot cars?)

One ethical issue Walsh raises is with data regarding accidents. He compares what’s happening with accident data from self-driving (robot) cars to how the aviation industry handles accidents. Hint: accident data involving air planes is shared. Would you like to guess who does not share their data?

Sharing and analyzing data and developing new safety techniques based on that data has made flying a remarkably safe transportation technology.. Walsh argues the same could be done for self-driving cars if companies like Tesla took the attitude that safety is in everyone’s best interests and shared their accident data in a scheme similar to the aviation industry’s.

In an Oct. 12, 2017 article by Matthew Braga for Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) news online another ethical issue is raised by Suzanne Gildert (a participant in the Canadian Robotics Roadmap/Strategy meetings mentioned earlier here), Note: Links have been removed,

… Suzanne Gildert, the co-founder and chief science officer of Vancouver-based robotics company Kindred. Since 2014, her company has been developing intelligent robots [emphasis mine] that can be taught by humans to perform automated tasks — for example, handling and sorting products in a warehouse.

The idea is that when one of Kindred’s robots encounters a scenario it can’t handle, a human pilot can take control. The human can see, feel and hear the same things the robot does, and the robot can learn from how the human pilot handles the problematic task.

This process, called teleoperation, is one way to fast-track learning by manually showing the robot examples of what its trainers want it to do. But it also poses a potential moral and ethical quandary that will only grow more serious as robots become more intelligent.

“That AI is also learning my values,” Gildert explained during a talk on robot ethics at the Singularity University Canada Summit in Toronto on Wednesday [Oct. 11, 2017]. “Everything — my mannerisms, my behaviours — is all going into the AI.”

At its worst, everything from algorithms used in the U.S. to sentence criminals to image-recognition software has been found to inherit the racist and sexist biases of the data on which it was trained.

But just as bad habits can be learned, good habits can be learned too. The question is, if you’re building a warehouse robot like Kindred is, is it more effective to train those robots’ algorithms to reflect the personalities and behaviours of the humans who will be working alongside it? Or do you try to blend all the data from all the humans who might eventually train Kindred robots around the world into something that reflects the best strengths of all?

I notice Gildert distinguishes her robots as “intelligent robots” and then focuses on AI and issues with bias which have already arisen with regard to algorithms (see my May 24, 2017 posting about bias in machine learning, AI, and .Note: if you’re in Vancouver on Oct. 26, 2017 and interested in algorithms and bias), there’s a talk being given by Dr. Cathy O’Neil, author the Weapons of Math Destruction, on the topic of Gender and Bias in Algorithms. It’s not free but  tickets are here.)

Final comments

There is one more aspect I want to mention. Even as someone who usually deals with nanobots, it’s easy to start discussing robots as if the humanoid ones are the only ones that exist. To recapitulate, there are humanoid robots, utilitarian robots, intelligent robots, AI, nanobots, ‘microscopic bots, and more all of which raise questions about ethics and social impacts.

However, there is one more category I want to add to this list: cyborgs. They live amongst us now. Anyone who’s had a hip or knee replacement or a pacemaker or a deep brain stimulator or other such implanted device qualifies as a cyborg. Increasingly too, prosthetics are being introduced and made part of the body. My April 24, 2017 posting features this story,

This Case Western Reserve University (CRWU) video accompanies a March 28, 2017 CRWU news release, (h/t ScienceDaily March 28, 2017 news item)

Bill Kochevar grabbed a mug of water, drew it to his lips and drank through the straw.

His motions were slow and deliberate, but then Kochevar hadn’t moved his right arm or hand for eight years.

And it took some practice to reach and grasp just by thinking about it.

Kochevar, who was paralyzed below his shoulders in a bicycling accident, is believed to be the first person with quadriplegia in the world to have arm and hand movements restored with the help of two temporarily implanted technologies. [emphasis mine]

A brain-computer interface with recording electrodes under his skull, and a functional electrical stimulation (FES) system* activating his arm and hand, reconnect his brain to paralyzed muscles.

Does a brain-computer interface have an effect on human brain and, if so, what might that be?

In any discussion (assuming there is funding for it) about ethics and social impact, we might want to invite the broadest range of people possible at an ‘earlyish’ stage (although we’re already pretty far down the ‘automation road’) stage or as Jack Stilgoe and Toby Walsh note, technological determinism holds sway.

Once again here are links for the articles and information mentioned in this double posting,

That’s it!

ETA Oct. 16, 2017: Well, I guess that wasn’t quite ‘it’. BBC’s (British Broadcasting Corporation) Magazine published a thoughtful Oct. 15, 2017 piece titled: Can we teach robots ethics?

Westworld: a US television programme investigating AI (artificial intelligence) and consciousness

The US television network, Home Box Office (HBO) is getting ready to première Westworld, a new series based on a movie first released in 1973. Here’s more about the movie from its Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Westworld is a 1973 science fiction Western thriller film written and directed by novelist Michael Crichton and produced by Paul Lazarus III about amusement park robots that malfunction and begin killing visitors. It stars Yul Brynner as an android in a futuristic Western-themed amusement park, and Richard Benjamin and James Brolin as guests of the park.

Westworld was the first theatrical feature directed by Michael Crichton.[3] It was also the first feature film to use digital image processing, to pixellate photography to simulate an android point of view.[4] The film was nominated for Hugo, Nebula and Saturn awards, and was followed by a sequel film, Futureworld, and a short-lived television series, Beyond Westworld. In August 2013, HBO announced plans for a television series based on the original film.

The latest version is due to start broadcasting in the US on Sunday, Oct. 2, 2016 and as part of the publicity effort the producers are profiled by Sean Captain for Fast Company in a Sept. 30, 2016 article,

As Game of Thrones marches into its final seasons, HBO is debuting this Sunday what it hopes—and is betting millions of dollars on—will be its new blockbuster series: Westworld, a thorough reimagining of Michael Crichton’s 1973 cult classic film about a Western theme park populated by lifelike robot hosts. A philosophical prelude to Jurassic Park, Crichton’s Westworld is a cautionary tale about technology gone very wrong: the classic tale of robots that rise up and kill the humans. HBO’s new series, starring Evan Rachel Wood, Anthony Hopkins, and Ed Harris, is subtler and also darker: The humans are the scary ones.

“We subverted the entire premise of Westworld in that our sympathies are meant to be with the robots, the hosts,” says series co-creator Lisa Joy. She’s sitting on a couch in her Burbank office next to her partner in life and on the show—writer, director, producer, and husband Jonathan Nolan—who goes by Jonah. …

Their Westworld, which runs in the revered Sunday-night 9 p.m. time slot, combines present-day production values and futuristic technological visions—thoroughly revamping Crichton’s story with hybrid mechanical-biological robots [emphasis mine] fumbling along the blurry line between simulated and actual consciousness.

Captain never does explain the “hybrid mechanical-biological robots.” For example, do they have human skin or other organs grown for use in a robot? In other words, how are they hybrid?

That nitpick aside, the article provides some interesting nuggets of information and insight into the themes and ideas 2016 Westworld’s creators are exploring (Note: A link has been removed),

… Based on the four episodes I previewed (which get progressively more interesting), Westworld does a good job with the trope—which focused especially on the awakening of Dolores, an old soul of a robot played by Evan Rachel Wood. Dolores is also the catchall Spanish word for suffering, pain, grief, and other displeasures. “There are no coincidences in Westworld,” says Joy, noting that the name is also a play on Dolly, the first cloned mammal.

The show operates on a deeper, though hard-to-define level, that runs beneath the shoot-em and screw-em frontier adventure and robotic enlightenment narratives. It’s an allegory of how even today’s artificial intelligence is already taking over, by cataloging and monetizing our lives and identities. “Google and Facebook, their business is reading your mind in order to advertise shit to you,” says Jonah Nolan. …

“Exist free of rules, laws or judgment. No impulse is taboo,” reads a spoof home page for the resort that HBO launched a few weeks ago. That’s lived to the fullest by the park’s utterly sadistic loyal guest, played by Ed Harris and known only as the Man in Black.

The article also features some quotes from scientists on the topic of artificial intelligence (Note: Links have been removed),

“In some sense, being human, but less than human, it’s a good thing,” says Jon Gratch, professor of computer science and psychology at the University of Southern California [USC]. Gratch directs research at the university’s Institute for Creative Technologies on “virtual humans,” AI-driven onscreen avatars used in military-funded training programs. One of the projects, SimSensei, features an avatar of a sympathetic female therapist, Ellie. It uses AI and sensors to interpret facial expressions, posture, tension in the voice, and word choices by users in order to direct a conversation with them.

“One of the things that we’ve found is that people don’t feel like they’re being judged by this character,” says Gratch. In work with a National Guard unit, Ellie elicited more honest responses about their psychological stresses than a web form did, he says. Other data show that people are more honest when they know the avatar is controlled by an AI versus being told that it was controlled remotely by a human mental health clinician.

“If you build it like a human, and it can interact like a human. That solves a lot of the human-computer or human-robot interaction issues,” says professor Paul Rosenbloom, also with USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies. He works on artificial general intelligence, or AGI—the effort to create a human-like or human level of intellect.

Rosenbloom is building an AGI platform called Sigma that models human cognition, including emotions. These could make a more effective robotic tutor, for instance, “There are times you want the person to know you are unhappy with them, times you want them to know that you think they’re doing great,” he says, where “you” is the AI programmer. “And there’s an emotional component as well as the content.”

Achieving full AGI could take a long time, says Rosenbloom, perhaps a century. Bernie Meyerson, IBM’s chief innovation officer, is also circumspect in predicting if or when Watson could evolve into something like HAL or Her. “Boy, we are so far from that reality, or even that possibility, that it becomes ludicrous trying to get hung up there, when we’re trying to get something to reasonably deal with fact-based data,” he says.

Gratch, Rosenbloom, and Meyerson are talking about screen-based entities and concepts of consciousness and emotions. Then, there’s a scientist who’s talking about the difficulties with robots,

… Ken Goldberg, an artist and professor of engineering at UC [University of California] Berkeley, calls the notion of cyborg robots in Westworld “a pretty common trope in science fiction.” (Joy will take up the theme again, as the screenwriter for a new Battlestar Galactica movie.) Goldberg’s lab is struggling just to build and program a robotic hand that can reliably pick things up. But a sympathetic, somewhat believable Dolores in a virtual setting is not so farfetched.

Captain delves further into a thorny issue,

“Can simulations, at some point, become the real thing?” asks Patrick Lin, director of the Ethics + Emerging Sciences Group at California Polytechnic State University. “If we perfectly simulate a rainstorm on a computer, it’s still not a rainstorm. We won’t get wet. But is the mind or consciousness different? The jury is still out.”

While artificial consciousness is still in the dreamy phase, today’s level of AI is serious business. “What was sort of a highfalutin philosophical question a few years ago has become an urgent industrial need,” says Jonah Nolan. It’s not clear yet how the Delos management intends, beyond entrance fees, to monetize Westworld, although you get a hint when Ford tells Theresa Cullen “We know everything about our guests, don’t we? As we know everything about our employees.”

AI has a clear moneymaking model in this world, according to Nolan. “Facebook is monetizing your social graph, and Google is advertising to you.” Both companies (and others) are investing in AI to better understand users and find ways to make money off this knowledge. …

As my colleague David Bruggeman has often noted on his Pasco Phronesis blog, there’s a lot of science on television.

For anyone who’s interested in artificial intelligence and the effects it may have on urban life, see my Sept. 27, 2016 posting featuring the ‘One Hundred Year Study on Artificial Intelligence (AI100)’, hosted by Stanford University.

Points to anyone who recognized Jonah (Jonathan) Nolan as the producer for the US television series, Person of Interest, a programme based on the concept of a supercomputer with intelligence and personality and the ability to continuously monitor the population 24/7.

Long-term brain mapping with injectable electronics

Charles Lieber and his team at Harvard University announced a success with their work on injectable electronics last year (see my June 11, 2015 posting for more) and now they are reporting on their work with more extensive animal studies according to an Aug. 29, 2016 news item on psypost.org,

Scientists in recent years have made great strides in the quest to understand the brain by using implanted probes to explore how specific neural circuits work.

Though effective, those probes also come with their share of problems as a result of rigidity. The inflammation they produce induces chronic recording instability and means probes must be relocated every few days, leaving some of the central questions of neuroscience – like how the neural circuits are reorganized during development, learning and aging- beyond scientists’ reach.

But now, it seems, things are about to change.

Led by Charles Lieber, The Mark Hyman Jr. Professor of Chemistry and chair of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology, a team of researchers that included graduate student Tian-Ming Fu, postdoctoral fellow Guosong Hong, graduate student Tao Zhou and others, has demonstrated that syringe-injectable mesh electronics can stably record neural activity in mice for eight months or more, with none of the inflammation

An Aug. 29, 2016 Harvard University press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

“With the ability to follow the same individual neurons in a circuit chronically…there’s a whole suite of things this opens up,” Lieber said. “The eight months we demonstrate in this paper is not a limit, but what this does show is that mesh electronics could be used…to investigate neuro-degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, or processes that occur over long time, like aging or learning.”

Lieber and colleagues also demonstrated that the syringe-injectable mesh electronics could be used to deliver electrical stimulation to the brain over three months or more.

“Ultimately, our aim is to create these with the goal of finding clinical applications,” Lieber said. “What we found is that, because of the lack of immune response (to the mesh electronics), which basically insulates neurons, we can deliver stimulation in a much more subtle way, using lower voltages that don’t damage tissue.”

The possibilities, however, don’t end there.

The seamless integration of the electronics and biology, Lieber said, could open the door to an entirely new class of brain-machine interfaces and vast improvements in prosthetics, among other fields.

“Today, brain-machine interfaces are based on traditional implanted probes, and there has been some impressive work that’s been done in that field,” Lieber said. “But all the interfaces rely on the same technique to decode neural signals.”

Because traditional rigid implanted probes are invariably unstable, he explained, researchers and clinicians rely on decoding what they call the “population average” – essentially taking a host of neural signals and applying complex computational tools to determine what they mean.

Using tissue-like mesh electronics, by comparison, researchers may be able to read signals from specific neurons over time, potentially allowing for the development of improved brain-machine interfaces for prosthetics.

“We think this is going to be very powerful, because we can identify circuits and both record and stimulate in a way that just hasn’t been possible before,” Lieber said. “So what I like to say is: I think therefore it happens.”

Lieber even held out the possibility that the syringe-injectable mesh electronics could one day be used to treat catastrophic injuries to the brain and spinal cord.

“I don’t think that’s science-fiction,” he said. “Other people may say that will be possible through, for example, regenerative medicine, but we are pursuing this from a different angle.

“My feeling is that this is about a seamless integration between the biological and the electronic systems, so they’re not distinct entities,” he continued. “If we can make the electronics look like the neural network, they will work together…and that’s where you want to be if you want to exploit the strengths of both.”

In the 2015 posting, Lieber was discussing cyborgs, here he broaches the concept without using the word, “… seamless integration between the biological and the electronic systems, so they’re not distinct entities.”

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

Stable long-term chronic brain mapping at the single-neuron level by Tian-Ming Fu, Guosong Hong, Tao Zhou, Thomas G Schuhmann, Robert D Viveros, & Charles M Lieber. Nature Methods (2016) doi:10.1038/nmeth.3969 Published online 29 August 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

Singapore’s* new chip could make low-powered wireless neural implants a possibility and Australians develop their own neural implant

Singapore

This research from Singapore could make neuroprosthetics and exoskeletons a little easier to manage as long as you don’t mind having a neural implant. From a Feb. 11, 2016 news item on ScienceDaily,

A versatile chip offers multiple applications in various electronic devices, report researchers, suggested that there is now hope that a low-powered, wireless neural implant may soon be a reality. Neural implants when embedded in the brain can alleviate the debilitating symptoms of Parkinson’s disease or give paraplegic people the ability to move their prosthetic limbs.

Caption: NTU Asst Prof Arindam Basu is holding his low-powered smart chip. Credit: NTU Singapore

Caption: NTU Asst Prof Arindam Basu is holding his low-powered smart chip. Credit: NTU Singapore

A Feb. 11, 2016 Nanyang Technological University (NTU) press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Scientists at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) have developed a small smart chip that can be paired with neural implants for efficient wireless transmission of brain signals.

Neural implants when embedded in the brain can alleviate the debilitating symptoms of Parkinson’s disease or give paraplegic people the ability to move their prosthetic limbs.

However, they need to be connected by wires to an external device outside the body. For a prosthetic patient, the neural implant is connected to a computer that decodes the brain signals so the artificial limb can move.

These external wires are not only cumbersome but the permanent openings which allow the wires into the brain increases the risk of infections.

The new chip by NTU scientists can allow the transmission of brain data wirelessly and with high accuracy.

Assistant Professor Arindam Basu from NTU’s School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering said the research team have tested the chip on data recorded from animal models, which showed that it could decode the brain’s signal to the hand and fingers with 95 per cent accuracy.

“What we have developed is a very versatile smart chip that can process data, analyse patterns and spot the difference,” explained Prof Basu.

“It is about a hundred times more efficient than current processing chips on the market. It will lead to more compact medical wearable devices, such as portable ECG monitoring devices and neural implants, since we no longer need large batteries to power them.”

Different from other wireless implants

To achieve high accuracy in decoding brain signals, implants require thousands of channels of raw data. To wirelessly transmit this large amount of data, more power is also needed which means either bigger batteries or more frequent recharging.

This is not feasible as there is limited space in the brain for implants while frequent recharging means the implants cannot be used for long-term recording of signals.

Current wireless implant prototypes thus suffer from a lack of accuracy as they lack the bandwidth to send out thousands of channels of raw data.

Instead of enlarging the power source to support the transmission of raw data, Asst Prof Basu tried to reduce the amount of data that needs to be transmitted.

Designed to be extremely power-efficient, NTU’s patented smart chip will analyse and decode the thousands of signals from the neural implants in the brain, before compressing the results and sending it wirelessly to a small external receiver.

This invention and its findings were published last month [December 2015] in the prestigious journal, IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Circuits & Systems, by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the world’s largest professional association for the advancement of technology.

Its underlying science was also featured in three international engineering conferences (two in Atlanta, USA and one in China) over the last three months.

Versatile smart chip with multiple uses

This new smart chip is designed to analyse data patterns and spot any abnormal or unusual patterns.

For example, in a remote video camera, the chip can be programmed to send a video back to the servers only when a specific type of car or something out of the ordinary is detected, such as an intruder.

This would be extremely beneficial for the Internet of Things (IOT), where every electrical and electronic device is connected to the Internet through a smart chip.

With a report by marketing research firm Gartner Inc predicting that 6.4 billion smart devices and appliances will be connected to the Internet by 2016, and will rise to 20.8 billion devices by 2020, reducing network traffic will be a priority for most companies.

Using NTU’s new chip, the devices can process and analyse the data on site, before sending back important details in a compressed package, instead of sending the whole data stream. This will reduce data usage by over a thousand times.

Asst Prof Basu is now in talks with Singapore Technologies Electronics Limited to adapt his smart chip that can significantly reduce power consumption and the amount of data transmitted by battery-operated remote sensors, such as video cameras.

The team is also looking to expand the applications of the chip into commercial products, such as to customise it for smart home sensor networks, in collaboration with a local electronics company.

The chip, measuring 5mm by 5mm can now be licensed by companies from NTU’s commercialisation arm, NTUitive.

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

A 128-Channel Extreme Learning Machine-Based Neural Decoder for Brain Machine Interfaces by Yi Chen, Enyi Yao, Arindam Basu. IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Circuits and Systems, 2015; 1 DOI: 10.1109/TBCAS.2015.2483618

This paper is behind a paywall.

Australia

Earlier this month there was a Feb. 9, 2016 announcement about a planned human clinical trial in Australia for a new brain-machine interface (neural implant). Before proceeding with the news, here’s what this implant looks like,

Caption: This tiny device, the size of a small paperclip, is implanted in to a blood vessel next to the brain and can read electrical signals from the motor cortex, the brain's control centre. These signals can then be transmitted to an exoskeleton or wheelchair to give paraplegic patients greater mobility. Users will need to learn how to communicate with their machinery, but over time, it is thought it will become second nature, like driving or playing the piano. The first human trials are slated for 2017 in Melbourne, Australia. Credit: The University of Melbourne.

Caption: This tiny device, the size of a small paperclip, is implanted in to a blood vessel next to the brain and can read electrical signals from the motor cortex, the brain’s control centre. These signals can then be transmitted to an exoskeleton or wheelchair to give paraplegic patients greater mobility. Users will need to learn how to communicate with their machinery, but over time, it is thought it will become second nature, like driving or playing the piano. The first human trials are slated for 2017 in Melbourne, Australia. Credit: The University of Melbourne.

A Feb. 9, 2016 University of Melbourne press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Melbourne medical researchers have created a new minimally invasive brain-machine interface, giving people with spinal cord injuries new hope to walk again with the power of thought.

The brain machine interface consists of a stent-based electrode (stentrode), which is implanted within a blood vessel next to the brain, and records the type of neural activity that has been shown in pre-clinical trials to move limbs through an exoskeleton or to control bionic limbs.

The new device is the size of a small paperclip and will be implanted in the first in-human trial at The Royal Melbourne Hospital in 2017.

The results published today in Nature Biotechnology show the device is capable of recording high-quality signals emitted from the brain’s motor cortex, without the need for open brain surgery.

Principal author and Neurologist at The Royal Melbourne Hospital and Research Fellow at The Florey Institute of Neurosciences and the University of Melbourne, Dr Thomas Oxley, said the stentrode was revolutionary.

“The development of the stentrode has brought together leaders in medical research from The Royal Melbourne Hospital, The University of Melbourne and the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health. In total 39 academic scientists from 16 departments were involved in its development,” Dr Oxley said.

“We have been able to create the world’s only minimally invasive device that is implanted into a blood vessel in the brain via a simple day procedure, avoiding the need for high risk open brain surgery.

“Our vision, through this device, is to return function and mobility to patients with complete paralysis by recording brain activity and converting the acquired signals into electrical commands, which in turn would lead to movement of the limbs through a mobility assist device like an exoskeleton. In essence this a bionic spinal cord.”

Stroke and spinal cord injuries are leading causes of disability, affecting 1 in 50 people. There are 20,000 Australians with spinal cord injuries, with the typical patient a 19-year old male, and about 150,000 Australians left severely disabled after stroke.

Co-principal investigator and biomedical engineer at the University of Melbourne, Dr Nicholas Opie, said the concept was similar to an implantable cardiac pacemaker – electrical interaction with tissue using sensors inserted into a vein, but inside the brain.

“Utilising stent technology, our electrode array self-expands to stick to the inside wall of a vein, enabling us to record local brain activity. By extracting the recorded neural signals, we can use these as commands to control wheelchairs, exoskeletons, prosthetic limbs or computers,” Dr Opie said.

“In our first-in-human trial, that we anticipate will begin within two years, we are hoping to achieve direct brain control of an exoskeleton for three people with paralysis.”

“Currently, exoskeletons are controlled by manual manipulation of a joystick to switch between the various elements of walking – stand, start, stop, turn. The stentrode will be the first device that enables direct thought control of these devices”

Neurophysiologist at The Florey, Professor Clive May, said the data from the pre-clinical study highlighted that the implantation of the device was safe for long-term use.

“Through our pre-clinical study we were able to successfully record brain activity over many months. The quality of recording improved as the device was incorporated into tissue,” Professor May said.

“Our study also showed that it was safe and effective to implant the device via angiography, which is minimally invasive compared with the high risks associated with open brain surgery.

“The brain-computer interface is a revolutionary device that holds the potential to overcome paralysis, by returning mobility and independence to patients affected by various conditions.”

Professor Terry O’Brien, Head of Medicine at Departments of Medicine and Neurology, The Royal Melbourne Hospital and University of Melbourne said the development of the stentrode has been the “holy grail” for research in bionics.

“To be able to create a device that can record brainwave activity over long periods of time, without damaging the brain is an amazing development in modern medicine,” Professor O’Brien said.

“It can also be potentially used in people with a range of diseases aside from spinal cord injury, including epilepsy, Parkinsons and other neurological disorders.”

The development of the minimally invasive stentrode and the subsequent pre-clinical trials to prove its effectiveness could not have been possible without the support from the major funding partners – US Defense Department DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] and Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council.

So, DARPA is helping fund this, eh? Interesting but not a surprise given the agency’s previous investments in brain research and neuroprosthetics.

For those who like to get their news via video,

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

Minimally invasive endovascular stent-electrode array for high-fidelity, chronic recordings of cortical neural activity by Thomas J Oxley, Nicholas L Opie, Sam E John, Gil S Rind, Stephen M Ronayne, Tracey L Wheeler, Jack W Judy, Alan J McDonald, Anthony Dornom, Timothy J H Lovell, Christopher Steward, David J Garrett, Bradford A Moffat, Elaine H Lui, Nawaf Yassi, Bruce C V Campbell, Yan T Wong, Kate E Fox, Ewan S Nurse, Iwan E Bennett, Sébastien H Bauquier, Kishan A Liyanage, Nicole R van der Nagel, Piero Perucca, Arman Ahnood et al. Nature Biotechnology (2016)  doi:10.1038/nbt.3428 Published online 08 February 2016

This paper is behind a paywall.

I wish the researchers in Singapore, Australia, and elsewhere, good luck!

*’Sinagpore’ in head changed to ‘Singapore’ on May 14, 2019.

Injectable electronics

Having taught a course on bioelectronics for Simon Fraser University’s (Vancouver, Canada) Continuing Studies Program, this  latest work from Harvard University (US) caught my attention. A Harvard research team has developed a technique which could allow doctors to inject us with electronics, should we need them. From a June 8, 2015 news item on phys.org,

It’s a notion that might be pulled from the pages of science-fiction novel – electronic devices that can be injected directly into the brain, or other body parts, and treat everything from neurodegenerative disorders to paralysis.

It sounds unlikely, until you visit Charles Lieber’s lab.

A team of international researchers, led by Lieber, the Mark Hyman, Jr. Professor of Chemistry, an international team of researchers developed a method for fabricating nano-scale electronic scaffolds that can be injected via syringe. Once connected to electronic devices, the scaffolds can be used to monitor neural activity, stimulate tissues and even promote regenerations of neurons. …

Here’s an image provided by the researchers,

Bright-field image showing the mesh electronics being injected through sub-100 micrometer inner diameter glass needle into aqueous solution. mage courtesy of Lieber Research Group, Harvard University

Bright-field image showing the mesh electronics being injected through sub-100 micrometer inner diameter glass needle into aqueous solution. mage courtesy of Lieber Research Group, Harvard University

A June 8, 2015 Harvard University new release by Peter Reuell (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the work in more detail,

“I do feel that this has the potential to be revolutionary,” Lieber said. “This opens up a completely new frontier where we can explore the interface between electronic structures and biology. For the past thirty years, people have made incremental improvements in micro-fabrication techniques that have allowed us to make rigid probes smaller and smaller, but no one has addressed this issue – the electronics/cellular interface – at the level at which biology works.”

The idea of merging the biological with the electronic is not a new one for Lieber.

In an earlier study, scientists in Lieber’s lab demonstrated that the scaffolds could be used to create “cyborg” tissue – when cardiac or nerve cells were grown with embedded scaffolds. [emphasis mine] Researchers were then able to use the devices to record electrical signals generated by the tissues, and to measure changes in those signals as they administered cardio- or neuro-stimulating drugs.

“We were able to demonstrate that we could make this scaffold and culture cells within it, but we didn’t really have an idea how to insert that into pre-existing tissue,” Lieber said. “But if you want to study the brain or develop the tools to explore the brain-machine interface, you need to stick something into the body. When releasing the electronics scaffold completely from the fabrication substrate, we noticed that it was almost invisible and very flexible like a polymer and could literally be sucked into a glass needle or pipette. From there, we simply asked, would it be possible to deliver the mesh electronics by syringe needle injection, a process common to delivery of many species in biology and medicine – you could go to the doctor and you inject this and you’re wired up.'”

Though not the first attempts at implanting electronics into the brain – deep brain stimulation has been used to treat a variety of disorders for decades – the nano-fabricated scaffolds operate on a completely different scale.

“Existing techniques are crude relative to the way the brain is wired,” Lieber explained. “Whether it’s a silicon probe or flexible polymers…they cause inflammation in the tissue that requires periodically changing the position or the stimulation. But with our injectable electronics, it’s as if it’s not there at all. They are one million times more flexible than any state-of-the-art flexible electronics and have subcellular feature sizes. They’re what I call “neuro-philic” – they actually like to interact with neurons..”

Despite their enormous potential, the fabrication of the injectable scaffolds is surprisingly easy.

“That’s the beauty of this – it’s compatible with conventional manufacturing techniques,” Lieber said.

The process is similar to that used to etch microchips, and begins with a dissolvable layer deposited on a substrate. To create the scaffold, researchers lay out a mesh of nanowires sandwiched in layers of organic polymer. The first layer is then dissolved, leaving the flexible mesh, which can be drawn into a syringe needle and administered like any other injection.

After injection, the input/output of the mesh can be connected to standard measurement electronics so that the integrated devices can be addressed and used to stimulate or record neural activity.

“These type of things have never been done before, from both a fundamental neuroscience and medical perspective,” Lieber said. “It’s really exciting – there are a lot of potential applications.”

Going forward, Lieber said, researchers hope to better understand how the brain and other tissues react to the injectable electronics over longer periods.

Lieber’s earlier work on “cyborg tissue” was briefly mentioned here in a Feb. 20, 2014 posting.

Getting back to the most recent work, here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Syringe-injectable electronics by Jia Liu, Tian-Ming Fu, Zengguang Cheng, Guosong Hong, Tao Zhou, Lihua Jin, Madhavi Duvvuri, Zhe Jiang, Peter Kruskal, Chong Xie, Zhigang Suo, Ying Fang, & Charles M. Lieber. Nature Nanotechnology (2015) doi:10.1038/nnano.2015.115 Published online 08 June 2015

This paper is behind a paywall but there is a free preview via ReadCube Access.

One final note, the researchers have tested the injectable electronics (or mesh electronics) in vivo (live animals).