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2018 was bonkers for science.
From a woman who gave birth using a transplanted uterus, to the infamous CRISPR baby scandal, to forensics adopting consumer-based genealogy test kits to track down criminals, last year was a factory churning out scientific “whoa” stories with consequences for years to come.
With CRISPR still in the headlines, Britain ready to bid Europe au revoir, and multiple scientific endeavors taking off, 2019 is shaping up to be just as tumultuous.
Here are the science and health stories that may blow up in the new year. But first, a note of caveat: predicting the future is tough. Forecasting is the lovechild between statistics and (a good deal of) intuition, and entire disciplines have been dedicated to the endeavor. But January is the perfect time to gaze into the crystal ball for wisps of insight into the year to come. Last year we predicted the widespread approval of gene therapy products—on the most part, we nailed it. This year we’re hedging our bets with multiple predictions.
Gene Drives Used in the Wild
The concept of gene drives scares many, for good reason. Gene drives are a step up in severity (and consequences) from CRISPR and other gene-editing tools. Even with germline editing, in which the sperm, egg, or embryos are altered, gene editing affects just one genetic line—one family—at least at the beginning, before they reproduce with the general population.
Gene drives, on the other hand, have the power to wipe out entire species.
In a nutshell, they’re little bits of DNA code that help a gene transfer from parent to child with almost 100 percent perfect probability. The “half of your DNA comes from dad, the other comes from mom” dogma? Gene drives smash that to bits.
In other words, the only time one would consider using a gene drive is to change the genetic makeup of an entire population. It sounds like the plot of a supervillain movie, but scientists have been toying around with the idea of deploying the technology—first in mosquitoes, then (potentially) in rodents.
By releasing just a handful of mutant mosquitoes that carry gene drives for infertility, for example, scientists could potentially wipe out entire populations that carry infectious scourges like malaria, dengue, or Zika. The technology is so potent—and dangerous—the US Defense Advances Research Projects Agency is shelling out $65 million to suss out how to deploy, control, counter, or even reverse the effects of tampering with ecology.
Last year, the U.N. gave a cautious go-ahead for the technology to be deployed in the wild in limited terms. Now, the first release of a genetically modified mosquito is set for testing in Burkina Faso in Africa—the first-ever field experiment involving gene drives.
The experiment will only release mosquitoes in the Anopheles genus, which are the main culprits transferring disease. As a first step, over 10,000 male mosquitoes are set for release into the wild. These dudes are genetically sterile but do not cause infertility, and will help scientists examine how they survive and disperse as a preparation for deploying gene-drive-carrying mosquitoes.
Hot on the project’s heels, the nonprofit consortium Target Malaria, backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, is engineering a gene drive called Mosq that will spread infertility across the population or kill out all female insects. Their attempt to hack the rules of inheritance—and save millions in the process—is slated for 2024.
A Universal Flu Vaccine
People often brush off flu as a mere annoyance, but the infection kills hundreds of thousands each year based on the CDC’s statistical estimates.
The flu virus is actually as difficult of a nemesis as HIV—it mutates at an extremely rapid rate, making effective vaccines almost impossible to engineer on time. Scientists currently use data to forecast the strains that will likely explode into an epidemic and urge the public to vaccinate against those predictions. That’s partly why, on average, flu vaccines only have a success rate of roughly 50 percent—not much better than a coin toss.
Tired of relying on educated guesses, scientists have been chipping away at a universal flu vaccine that targets all strains—perhaps even those we haven’t yet identified. Often referred to as the “holy grail” in epidemiology, these vaccines try to alert our immune systems to parts of a flu virus that are least variable from strain to strain.
Last November, a first universal flu vaccine developed by BiondVax entered Phase 3 clinical trials, which means it’s already been proven safe and effective in a small numbers and is now being tested in a broader population. The vaccine doesn’t rely on dead viruses, which is a common technique. Rather, it uses a small chain of amino acids—the chemical components that make up proteins—to stimulate the immune system into high alert.
With the government pouring $160 million into the research and several other universal candidates entering clinical trials, universal flu vaccines may finally experience a breakthrough this year.
In-Body Gene Editing Shows Further Promise
CRISPR and other gene editing tools headed the news last year, including both downers suggesting we already have immunity to the technology and hopeful news of it getting ready for treating inherited muscle-wasting diseases.
But what wasn’t widely broadcasted was the in-body gene editing experiments that have been rolling out with gusto. Last September, Sangamo Therapeutics in Richmond, California revealed that they had injected gene-editing enzymes into a patient in an effort to correct a genetic deficit that prevents him from breaking down complex sugars.
The effort is markedly different than the better-known CAR-T therapy, which extracts cells from the body for genetic engineering before returning them to the hosts. Rather, Sangamo’s treatment directly injects viruses carrying the edited genes into the body. So far, the procedure looks to be safe, though at the time of reporting it was too early to determine effectiveness.
This year the company hopes to finally answer whether it really worked.
If successful, it means that devastating genetic disorders could potentially be treated with just a few injections. With a gamut of new and more precise CRISPR and other gene-editing tools in the works, the list of treatable inherited diseases is likely to grow. And with the CRISPR baby scandal potentially dampening efforts at germline editing via regulations, in-body gene editing will likely receive more attention if Sangamo’s results return positive.
Neuralink and Other Brain-Machine Interfaces
Neuralink is the stuff of sci fi: tiny implanted particles into the brain could link up your biological wetware with silicon hardware and the internet.
But that’s exactly what Elon Musk’s company, founded in 2016, seeks to develop: brain-machine interfaces that could tinker with your neural circuits in an effort to treat diseases or even enhance your abilities.
Last November, Musk broke his silence on the secretive company, suggesting that he may announce something “interesting” in a few months, that’s “better than anyone thinks is possible.”
Musk’s aspiration for achieving symbiosis with artificial intelligence isn’t the driving force for all brain-machine interfaces (BMIs). In the clinics, the main push is to rehabilitate patients—those who suffer from paralysis, memory loss, or other nerve damage.
2019 may be the year that BMIs and neuromodulators cut the cord in the clinics. These devices may finally work autonomously within a malfunctioning brain, applying electrical stimulation only when necessary to reduce side effects without requiring external monitoring. Or they could allow scientists to control brains with light without needing bulky optical fibers.
Cutting the cord is just the first step to fine-tuning neurological treatments—or enhancements—to the tune of your own brain, and 2019 will keep on bringing the music.
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Every year, for just a few days in a major city, a small team of roboticists get to live the dream: ordering around their own personal robot butlers. In carefully-constructed replicas of a restaurant scene or a domestic setting, these robots perform any number of simple algorithmic tasks. “Get the can of beans from the shelf. Greet the visitors to the museum. Help the humans with their shopping. Serve the customers at the restaurant.”
This is Robocup @ Home, the annual tournament where teams of roboticists put their autonomous service robots to the test for practical domestic applications. The tasks seem simple and mundane, but considering the technology required reveals that they’re really not.
The Robot Butler Contest
Say you want a robot to fetch items in the supermarket. In a crowded, noisy environment, the robot must understand your commands, ask for clarification, and map out and navigate an unfamiliar environment, avoiding obstacles and people as it does so. Then it must recognize the product you requested, perhaps in a cluttered environment, perhaps in an unfamiliar orientation. It has to grasp that product appropriately—recall that there are entire multi-million-dollar competitions just dedicated to developing robots that can grasp a range of objects—and then return it to you.
It’s a job so simple that a child could do it—and so complex that teams of smart roboticists can spend weeks programming and engineering, and still end up struggling to complete simplified versions of this task. Of course, the child has the advantage of millions of years of evolutionary research and development, while the first robots that could even begin these tasks were only developed in the 1970s.
Even bearing this in mind, Robocup @ Home can feel like a place where futurist expectations come crashing into technologist reality. You dream of a smooth-voiced, sardonic JARVIS who’s already made your favorite dinner when you come home late from work; you end up shouting “remember the biscuits” at a baffled, ungainly droid in aisle five.
Caring for the Elderly
Famously, Japan is one of the most robo-enthusiastic nations in the world; they are the nation that stunned us all with ASIMO in 2000, and several studies have been conducted into the phenomenon. It’s no surprise, then, that humanoid robotics should be seriously considered as a solution to the crisis of the aging population. The Japanese government, as part of its robots strategy, has already invested $44 million in their development.
Toyota’s Human Support Robot (HSR-2) is a simple but programmable robot with a single arm; it can be remote-controlled to pick up objects and can monitor patients. HSR-2 has become the default robot for use in Robocup @ Home tournaments, at least in tasks that involve manipulating objects.
Alongside this, Toyota is working on exoskeletons to assist people in walking after strokes. It may surprise you to learn that nurses suffer back injuries more than any other occupation, at roughly three times the rate of construction workers, due to the day-to-day work of lifting patients. Toyota has a Care Assist robot/exoskeleton designed to fix precisely this problem by helping care workers with the heavy lifting.
The Home of the Future
The enthusiasm for domestic robotics is easy to understand and, in fact, many startups already sell robots marketed as domestic helpers in some form or another. In general, though, they skirt the immensely complicated task of building a fully capable humanoid robot—a task that even Google’s skunk-works department gave up on, at least until recently.
It’s plain to see why: far more research and development is needed before these domestic robots could be used reliably and at a reasonable price. Consumers with expectations inflated by years of science fiction saturation might find themselves frustrated as the robots fail to perform basic tasks.
Instead, domestic robotics efforts fall into one of two categories. There are robots specialized to perform a domestic task, like iRobot’s Roomba, which stuck to vacuuming and became the most successful domestic robot of all time by far.
The tasks need not necessarily be simple, either: the impressive but expensive automated kitchen uses the world’s most dexterous hands to cook meals, providing it can recognize the ingredients. Other robots focus on human-robot interaction, like Jibo: they essentially package the abilities of a voice assistant like Siri, Cortana, or Alexa to respond to simple questions and perform online tasks in a friendly, dynamic robot exterior.
In this way, the future of domestic automation starts to look a lot more like smart homes than a robot or domestic servant. General robotics is difficult in the same way that general artificial intelligence is difficult; competing with humans, the great all-rounders, is a challenge. Getting superhuman performance at a more specific task, however, is feasible and won’t cost the earth.
Individual startups without the financial might of a Google or an Amazon can develop specialized robots, like Seven Dreamers’ laundry robot, and hope that one day it will form part of a network of autonomous robots that each have a role to play in the household.
The Smart Home has been a staple of futurist expectations for a long time, to the extent that movies featuring smart homes out of control are already a cliché. But critics of the smart home idea—and of the internet of things more generally—tend to focus on the idea that, more often than not, software just adds an additional layer of things that can break (NSFW), in exchange for minimal added convenience. A toaster that can short-circuit is bad enough, but a toaster that can refuse to serve you toast because its firmware is updating is something else entirely.
That’s before you even get into the security vulnerabilities, which are all the more important when devices are installed in your home and capable of interacting with them. The idea of a smart watch that lets you keep an eye on your children might sound like something a security-conscious parent would like: a smart watch that can be hacked to track children, listen in on their surroundings, and even fool them into thinking a call is coming from their parents is the stuff of nightmares.
Key to many of these problems is the lack of standardization for security protocols, and even the products themselves. The idea of dozens of startups each developing a highly-specialized piece of robotics to perform a single domestic task sounds great in theory, until you realize the potential hazards and pitfalls of getting dozens of incompatible devices to work together on the same system.
It seems inevitable that there are yet more layers of domestic drudgery that can be automated away, decades after the first generation of time-saving domestic devices like the dishwasher and vacuum cleaner became mainstream. With projected market values into the billions and trillions of dollars, there is no shortage of industry interest in ironing out these kinks. But, for now at least, the answer to the question: “Where’s my robot butler?” is that it is gradually, painstakingly learning how to sort through groceries.
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