Bill Gates talks about why artificial intelligence is nearly here and how to solve two big problems it creates

July 10, 2016

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Bill Gates is excited about the rise of artificial intelligence but acknowledged the arrival of machines with greater-than-human capabilities will create some unique challenges.

After years of working on the building blocks of speech recognition and computer vision, Gates said enough progress has been made to ensure that in the next 10 years there will be robots to do tasks like driving and warehouse work as well as machines that can outpace humans in certain areas of knowledge.

“The dream is finally arriving,” Gates said, speaking with wife Melinda Gates on Wednesday at the Code Conference. “This is what it was all leading up to.”

However, as he said in an interview with Recode last year, such machine capabilities will pose two big problems.

The first is, it will eliminate a lot of existing types of jobs. Gates said that creates a need for a lot of retraining but notes that until schools have class sizes under 10 and people can retire at a reasonable age and take ample vacation, he isn’t worried about a lack of need for human labor.

The second issue is, of course, making sure humans remain in control of the machines. Gates has talked about that in the past, saying that he plans to spend time with people who have ideas on how to address that issue, noting work being done at Stanford, among other places.

And, in Gatesian fashion, he suggested a pair of books that people should read, including Nick Bostrom’s book on superintelligence and Pedro Domingos’ “The Master Algorithm.”

Melinda Gates noted that you can tell a lot about where her husband’s interest is by the books he has been reading. “There have been a lot of AI books,” she said.

http://www.recode.net/2016/6/1/11833340/bill-gates-ai-artificial-intelligence

Scientists Talk Privately About Creating a Synthetic Human Genome

July 10, 2016

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George Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and an organizer of the proposed project, said there had been a misunderstanding. The project was not aimed at creating people, just cells, and would not be restricted to human genomes, he said. Rather it would aim to improve the ability to synthesize DNA in general, which could be applied to various animals, plants and microbes.

“They’re painting a picture which I don’t think represents the project,” Dr. Church said in an interview.

He said the meeting was closed to the news media, and people were asked not to tweet because the project organizers, in an attempt to be transparent, had submitted a paper to a scientific journal. They were therefore not supposed to discuss the idea publicly before publication. He and other organizers said ethical aspects have been amply discussed since the beginning.

The project was initially called HGP2: The Human Genome Synthesis Project, with HGP referring to the Human Genome Project. An invitation to the meeting at Harvard said that the primary goal “would be to synthesize a complete human genome in a cell line within a period of 10 years.”

George Church, one of the organizers of the proposed project, at his lab at Harvard Medical School in 2013. Credit Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters

But by the time the meeting was held, the name had been changed to “HGP-Write: Testing Large Synthetic Genomes in Cells.”

The project does not yet have funding, Dr. Church said, though various companies and foundations would be invited to contribute, and some have indicated interest. The federal government will also be asked. A spokeswoman for the National Institutes of Health declined to comment, saying the project was in too early a stage.

Besides Dr. Church, the organizers include Jef Boeke, director of the institute for systems genetics at NYU Langone Medical Center, and Andrew Hessel, a self-described futurist who works at the Bay Area software company Autodesk and who first proposed such a project in 2012.

Scientists and companies can now change the DNA in cells, for example, by adding foreign genes or changing the letters in the existing genes. This technique is routinely used to make drugs, such as insulin for diabetes, inside genetically modified cells, as well as to make genetically modified crops. And scientists are now debating the ethics of new technology that might allow genetic changes to be made in embryos.

But synthesizing a gene, or an entire genome, would provide the opportunity to make even more extensive changes in DNA.

For instance, companies are now using organisms like yeast to make complex chemicals, like flavorings and fragrances. That requires adding not just one gene to the yeast, like to make insulin, but numerous genes in order to create an entire chemical production process within the cell. With that much tinkering needed, it can be easier to synthesize the DNA from scratch.

Right now, synthesizing DNA is difficult and error-prone. Existing techniques can reliably make strands that are only about 200 base pairs long, with the base pairs being the chemical units in DNA. A single gene can be hundreds or thousands of base pairs long. To synthesize one of those, multiple 200-unit segments have to be spliced together.

But the cost and capabilities are rapidly improving. Dr. Endy of Stanford, who is a co-founder of a DNA synthesis company called Gen9, said the cost of synthesizing genes has plummeted from $4 per base pair in 2003 to 3 cents now. But even at that rate, the cost for three billion letters would be $90 million. He said if costs continued to decline at the same pace, that figure could reach $100,000 in 20 years.

J. Craig Venter, the genetic scientist, synthesized a bacterial genome consisting of about a million base pairs. The synthetic genome was inserted into a cell and took control of that cell. While his first synthetic genome was mainly a copy of an existing genome, Dr. Venter and colleagues this year synthesized a more original bacterial genome, about 500,000 base pairs long.

Dr. Boeke is leading an international consortium that is synthesizing the genome of yeast, which consists of about 12 million base pairs. The scientists are making changes, such as deleting stretches of DNA that do not have any function, in an attempt to make a more streamlined and stable genome.

But the human genome is more than 200 times as large as that of yeast and it is not clear if such a synthesis would be feasible.

Jeremy Minshull, chief executive of DNA2.0, a DNA synthesis company, questioned if the effort would be worth it.

“Our ability to understand what to build is so far behind what we can build,” said Dr. Minshull, who was invited to the meeting at Harvard but did not attend. “I just don’t think that being able to make more and more and more and cheaper and cheaper and cheaper is going to get us the understanding we need.”

Japanese scientists have used skin cells to restore a patient’s vision for the first time

July 10, 2016

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Japanese scientists have reported the first successful skin-to-eye stem cell transplant in humans, where stem cells derived from a patient’s skin were transplanted into her eye to partially restore lost vision.

The patient, a 70-year-old woman diagnosed with age-related macular degeneration (AMD) – the leading cause of vision impairment in older people – received the experimental treatment back in 2014 as part of a pilot study. Now, closing in on two years after the transplant took place, the scientists are sharing the results.

The researchers took a small piece of skin from her arm (4 mm in diameter) and modified its cells, effectively reprogramming them into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC).

Pluripotent stem cells have the ability to differentiate into almost any type of tissue within the body, which is why skin cells taken from an arm can be repurposed into retinal tissue.

Once the cells were coaxed to develop into retinal pigment epithelium (RPE), they were cultured in the lab to grow into an ultra-thin sheet, which was then transplanted behind the retina of the patient.

“I am very pleased that there were no complications with the transplant surgery,” said project leader Masayo Takahashi from the Riken Centre for Developmental Biology in 2014. “However, this is only the first step for use of iPSC in regenerative medicine. I have renewed my resolve to continue forging ahead until this treatment becomes available to many patients.”

While it’s definitely still early days for this experimental procedure, the signs so far are promising.

The team held off on reporting their results until now to monitor the patient’s progress and gauge how successfully the modified cells lasted, but they’ve just reported that the transplanted cells survived without any adverse events for over a year, resulting in slightly improved vision for the patient.

“The transplanted RPE sheet survived well without any findings [or] indication of immune rejections nor adverse unexpected proliferation for one and a half years, achieving our primary purpose of this pilot study,” the team said in a statement this week.

“I am glad I received the treatment,” the patient told The Japan Times last year. “I feel my eyesight has brightened and widened.”

While it’s not a complete restoration of the patient’s vision, the study shows a significant step forward in the use of induced pluripotent stem cells – which scientists think might be used to treat a range of illnesses, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, not just vision problems.

A number of other studies are also showing positive results in restoring sight with stem cell treatments. Earlier in the year, researchers in China and the US were able to improve the vision of babies with cataracts by manipulating protein levels in stem cells.

Even more remarkably, a woman in Baltimore who was blind for more than five years had some of her vision restored after stem cells were extracted from her bone marrow and injected into her eyes. While many questions remain about that particular treatment, there’s no denying that stem cell research is a hugely exciting field of study.

The findings were presented at the 2016 annual meeting of the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (ARVO) in Seattle.

http://www.sciencealert.com/japanese-scientists-have-used-skin-cells-to-restore-a-patient-s-vision-for-the-first-time

We’re Closer Than Ever to Bringing the Dead Back to Life

July 10, 2016

The 2,500 year-old mummified body an Egyptian female known as 'Tahemaa' is scanned at the Saad Centre of Radiography at City Univeristy in central London, on July 30, 2009. Tahemaa is believed to have been 28 years-old when she died and is thought to have lived in Luxor in Egypt. Specialists at City University hope to learn more about how she died. The mummy was donated to the Bournemouth Natural Sciences Society in 1922. Nothing is known of how she arrived in England. AFP PHOTO/LEON NEAL (Photo credit should read Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)

The 2,500 year-old mummified body an Egyptian female known as ‘Tahemaa’ is scanned at the Saad Centre of Radiography at City Univeristy in central London, on July 30, 2009. AFP PHOTO/LEON NEAL (Photo credit should read Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images)

 

Across religions and cultures, humans have attempted to bridge the gap between life and death. The human death rate is 100%. Everybody dies. Yet, that hasn’t stopped us from trying to postpone death or to find ways to reverse it.

In countless works spanning every genre of literature and film, death and exploration of the afterlife has been a recurring theme. Orpheus, a Greek mythological figure, ventures to the underworld to retrieve his recently departed wife, Eurydice. One of the hallmark works of the Renaissance is Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy, a poem detailing the journey through hell, purgatory and heaven. While the humanities have served to muse on the magnitude of our ignorance when it comes to death, science has steadily progressed in finding ways to beat it.

The biotech firm BioQuark was recently granted permission by the National Institutes of Health to begin clinical trials on 20 brain-dead patients on life support. In an attempt to bring them back from the dead, scientists will test a variety of therapies over the course of a month—from injecting stem cells to deploying nerve-stimulating techniques often used on coma patients.

“Even if you could get cells to grow—even if you could replicate some semblance of the architecture which existed previously—replicating all of those neurons and all of those connections in a way that makes it possible even for basic brain function to continue, that is a huge challenge,” cautioned Dr. David Casarett, Professor of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine, in an interview with the Observer. In 2014, Dr. Casarett wrote Shocked: Adventures in Bringing Back The Recently Dead. The clinical trials, he noted, also raise ethical concerns.

“You don’t really know what is going to happen when they start trying to regrow neurons,” he explained. “One possibility is absolutely nothing happens. Another possibility is function increases to varying degrees in varying people, leaving people in a strange in-between state.” These are decisions to be made by consenting family members, as one potential outcome could leave participants in a state somewhere in between brain-dead and comatose. “You wouldn’t necessarily be doing the patient or their family any favors by creating that condition.”

Less ambitious—but just as controversial—are other research projects testing death as a means to buy valuable time to mend life-threatening injuries.

clinical trial is currently underway at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, in which emergency room patients have their blood drawn and replaced with a cold saline solution to induce hypothermia, thereby slowing metabolism—ideally for transport and resuscitation efforts to be more effective. Similar procedures have found have high success rates on dogs and pigs without functional complications. Hydrogen sulfide has also been used to induce the same effect in mice, which doesn’t demand the equipment and cooling process needed to induce hypothermia. The jury is still out as to whether this method could be applied to humans.

The use of cryogenics, for now, borders on science fiction—but that hasn’t stopped scientists and wealthy enthusiasts from trying to make it a reality.

Humai, an L.A.-based robotics company, hopes to freeze human brains after death with the expectation that technology will soon catch up—allowing the brain to be resurrected in an artificial body. Neuroscientists have excessively cautioned about lending cryogenics credence, but scientific research has blurred the definition of death and the consensus on when it occurs.

For centuries, death was called at the moment the heart stopped beating. However, medicine has evolved to the point that cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is now a common life-saving technique incorporated in basic first aid training, along with more advanced forms of resuscitation—like defibrillators—that can restart the heart. Several cases have been cited where a person under cardiac arrest has been brought back to life hours after they’ve technically died, when cooling processes and correct resuscitation procedures are implemented. According to a 2012 study published in Nature, skeletal muscle stem cells can retain their ability to regenerate for up to 17 days after death, redefining death as occurring in steps rather than at one single moment.

Despite groundbreaking progress in the medical field to extend life expectancy and cure illnesses and ailments which were once considered to be fatal, the human imagination will always far outpace the realms of what is logically applicable. Efforts to bring back the dead and prolong life are embedded in our biology, as exhibited by humanity’s obsession with mortality. There will always be limitations to how far science can push back against death, but the ways we figure out how to do so—in theory, fantasy and practical application—are certainly thought provoking.

We’re Closer Than Ever to Bringing the Dead Back to Life