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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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Making sure artificial intelligence does what we want and behaves in predictable ways will be crucial as the technology becomes increasingly ubiquitous. It’s an area frequently neglected in the race to develop products, but DeepMind has now outlined its research agenda to tackle the problem.
AI safety, as the field is known, has been gaining prominence in recent years. That’s probably at least partly down to the overzealous warnings of a coming AI apocalypse from well-meaning, but underqualified pundits like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking. But it’s also recognition of the fact that AI technology is quickly pervading all aspects of our lives, making decisions on everything from what movies we watch to whether we get a mortgage.
That’s why DeepMind hired a bevy of researchers who specialize in foreseeing the unforeseen consequences of the way we built AI back in 2016. And now the team has spelled out the three key domains they think require research if we’re going to build autonomous machines that do what we want.
In a new blog designed to provide updates on the team’s work, they introduce the ideas of specification, robustness, and assurance, which they say will act as the cornerstones of their future research. Specification involves making sure AI systems do what their operator intends; robustness means a system can cope with changes to its environment and attempts to throw it off course; and assurance involves our ability to understand what systems are doing and how to control them.
A classic thought experiment designed to illustrate how we could lose control of an AI system can help illustrate the problem of specification. Philosopher Nick Bostrom’s posited a hypothetical machine charged with making as many paperclips as possible. Because the creators fail to add what they might assume are obvious additional goals like not harming people, the AI wipes out humanity so we can’t switch it off before turning all matter in the universe into paperclips.
Obviously the example is extreme, but it shows how a poorly-specified goal can lead to unexpected and disastrous outcomes. Properly codifying the desires of the designer is no easy feat, though; often there are not neat ways to encompass both the explicit and implicit goals in ways that are understandable to the machine and don’t leave room for ambiguities, meaning we often rely on incomplete approximations.
The researchers note recent research by OpenAI in which an AI was trained to play a boat-racing game called CoastRunners. The game rewards players for hitting targets laid out along the race route. The AI worked out that it could get a higher score by repeatedly knocking over regenerating targets rather than actually completing the course. The blog post includes a link to a spreadsheet detailing scores of such examples.
Another key concern for AI designers is making their creation robust to the unpredictability of the real world. Despite their superhuman abilities on certain tasks, most cutting-edge AI systems are remarkably brittle. They tend to be trained on highly-curated datasets and so can fail when faced with unfamiliar input. This can happen by accident or by design—researchers have come up with numerous ways to trick image recognition algorithms into misclassifying things, including thinking a 3D printed tortoise was actually a gun.
Building systems that can deal with every possible encounter may not be feasible, so a big part of making AIs more robust may be getting them to avoid risks and ensuring they can recover from errors, or that they have failsafes to ensure errors don’t lead to catastrophic failure.
And finally, we need to have ways to make sure we can tell whether an AI is performing the way we expect it to. A key part of assurance is being able to effectively monitor systems and interpret what they’re doing—if we’re basing medical treatments or sentencing decisions on the output of an AI, we’d like to see the reasoning. That’s a major outstanding problem for popular deep learning approaches, which are largely indecipherable black boxes.
The other half of assurance is the ability to intervene if a machine isn’t behaving the way we’d like. But designing a reliable off switch is tough, because most learning systems have a strong incentive to prevent anyone from interfering with their goals.
The authors don’t pretend to have all the answers, but they hope the framework they’ve come up with can help guide others working on AI safety. While it may be some time before AI is truly in a position to do us harm, hopefully early efforts like these will mean it’s built on a solid foundation that ensures it is aligned with our goals.
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Now that the era of artificial intelligence is unquestionably upon us, it behooves us to think and work harder to ensure that the AIs we create embody positive human values.
Science fiction is full of AIs that manifest the dark side of humanity, or are indifferent to humans altogether. Such possibilities cannot be ruled out, but nor is there any logical or empirical reason to consider them highly likely. I am among a large group of AI experts who see a strong potential for profoundly positive outcomes in the AI revolution currently underway.
We are facing a future with great uncertainty and tremendous promise, and the best we can do is to confront it with a combination of heart and mind, of common sense and rigorous science. In the realm of AI, what this means is, we need to do our best to guide the AI minds we are creating to embody the values we cherish: love, compassion, creativity, and respect.
The quest for beneficial AI has many dimensions, including its potential to reduce material scarcity and to help unlock the human capacity for love and compassion.
A large percentage of difficult issues in human society, many of which spill over into the AI domain, would be palliated significantly if material scarcity became less of a problem. Fortunately, AI has great potential to help here. AI is already increasing efficiency in nearly every industry.
In the next few decades, as nanotech and 3D printing continue to advance, AI-driven design will become a larger factor in the economy. Radical new tools like artificial enzymes built using Christian Schafmeister’s spiroligomer molecules, and designed using quantum physics-savvy AIs, will enable the creation of new materials and medicines.
For amazing advances like the intersection of AI and nanotech to lead toward broadly positive outcomes, however, the economic and political aspects of the AI industry may have to shift from the current status quo.
Currently, most AI development occurs under the aegis of military organizations or large corporations oriented heavily toward advertising and marketing. Put crudely, an awful lot of AI today is about “spying, brainwashing, or killing.” This is not really the ideal situation if we want our first true artificial general intelligences to be open-minded, warm-hearted, and beneficial.
Also, as the bulk of AI development now occurs in large for-profit organizations bound by law to pursue the maximization of shareholder value, we face a situation where AI tends to exacerbate global wealth inequality and class divisions. This has the potential to lead to various civilization-scale failure modes involving the intersection of geopolitics, AI, cyberterrorism, and so forth. Part of my motivation for founding the decentralized AI project SingularityNET was to create an alternative mode of dissemination and utilization of both narrow AI and AGI—one that operates in a self-organizing way, outside of the direct grip of conventional corporate and governmental structures.
In the end, though, I worry that radical material abundance and novel political and economic structures may fail to create a positive future, unless they are coupled with advances in consciousness and compassion. AGIs have the potential to be massively more ethical and compassionate than humans. But still, the odds of getting deeply beneficial AGIs seem higher if the humans creating them are fuller of compassion and positive consciousness—and can effectively pass these values on.
Transmitting Human Values
Brain-computer interfacing is another critical aspect of the quest for creating more positive AIs and more positive humans. As Elon Musk has put it, “If you can’t beat ’em, join’ em.” Joining is more fun than beating anyway. What better way to infuse AIs with human values than to connect them directly to human brains, and let them learn directly from the source (while providing humans with valuable enhancements)?
Millions of people recently heard Elon Musk discuss AI and BCI on the Joe Rogan podcast. Musk’s embrace of brain-computer interfacing is laudable, but he tends to dodge some of the tough issues—for instance, he does not emphasize the trade-off cyborgs will face between retaining human-ness and maximizing intelligence, joy, and creativity. To make this trade-off effectively, the AI portion of the cyborg will need to have a deep sense of human values.
Musk calls humanity the “biological boot loader” for AGI, but to me this colorful metaphor misses a key point—that we can seed the AGI we create with our values as an initial condition. This is one reason why it’s important that the first really powerful AGIs are created by decentralized networks, and not conventional corporate or military organizations. The decentralized software/hardware ecosystem, for all its quirks and flaws, has more potential to lead to human-computer cybernetic collective minds that are reasonable and benevolent.
BCI is still in its infancy, but a more immediate way of connecting people with AIs to infuse both with greater love and compassion is to leverage humanoid robotics technology. Toward this end, I conceived a project called Loving AI, focused on using highly expressive humanoid robots like the Hanson robot Sophia to lead people through meditations and other exercises oriented toward unlocking the human potential for love and compassion. My goals here were to explore the potential of AI and robots to have a positive impact on human consciousness, and to use this application to study and improve the OpenCog and SingularityNET tools used to control Sophia in these interactions.
The Loving AI project has now run two small sets of human trials, both with exciting and positive results. These have been small—dozens rather than hundreds of people—but have definitively proven the point. Put a person in a quiet room with a humanoid robot that can look them in the eye, mirror their facial expressions, recognize some of their emotions, and lead them through simple meditation, listening, and consciousness-oriented exercises…and quite a lot of the time, the result is a more relaxed person who has entered into a shifted state of consciousness, at least for a period of time.
In a certain percentage of cases, the interaction with the robot consciousness guide triggered a dramatic change of consciousness in the human subject—a deep meditative trance state, for instance. In most cases, the result was not so extreme, but statistically the positive effect was quite significant across all cases. Furthermore, a similar effect was found using an avatar simulation of the robot’s face on a tablet screen (together with a webcam for facial expression mirroring and recognition), but not with a purely auditory interaction.
The Loving AI experiments are not only about AI; they are about human-robot and human-avatar interaction, with AI as one significant aspect. The facial interaction with the robot or avatar is pushing “biological buttons” that trigger emotional reactions and prime the mind for changes of consciousness. However, this sort of body-mind interaction is arguably critical to human values and what it means to be human; it’s an important thing for robots and AIs to “get.”
Halting or pausing the advance of AI is not a viable possibility at this stage. Despite the risks, the potential economic and political benefits involved are clear and massive. The convergence of narrow AI toward AGI is also a near inevitability, because there are so many important applications where greater generality of intelligence will lead to greater practical functionality. The challenge is to make the outcome of this great civilization-level adventure as positive as possible.
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