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Artificial Embryos: How Life can be Created
Three years ago, Shao, a mechanical engineer with a flair for biology, was working with embryonic stem cells, the kind derived from human embryos able to form any cell type. As he experimented with ways of getting cells to form more organized three-dimensional structures by growing them in scaffolds of soft gel, he was looking for signs of primitive neural tissue.
What drew his attention was that the cells seemed to change much faster than expected—they arranged themselves rapidly over a few days into a lopsided circle.
Scientists at Michigan now have plans to manufacture embryoids by the hundreds. These could be used to screen drugs to see which cause birth defects, find others to increase the chance of pregnancy, or to create starting material for lab-generated organs. But ethical and political quarrels may not be far behind. “This is a hot new frontier in both science and bioethics. And it seems likely to remain contested for the coming years,” says Jonathan Kimmelman, a member of the bioethics unit at McGill University, in Montreal, and a leader of an international organization of stem-cell scientists.
Artificial embryos, however, pose ethical questions. What if they turn out to be indistinguishable from real embryos? How long can they be grown in the lab before they feel pain? We need to address those questions before the science races ahead much further, bioethicists say.
Synthetic human embryos would be a boon to scientists, letting them tease apart events early in development. And since such embryos start with easily manipulated stem cells, labs will be able to employ a full range of tools, such as gene editing, to investigate them as they grow.
A new project in Toronto, called Quayside, (Project announced in October 2017; construction could begin in 2019) is hoping to change that pattern of failures by rethinking an urban neighborhood from the ground up and rebuilding it around the latest digital technologies. Smart cities could make urban areas more affordable, livable, and environmentally friendly.
One of the project’s goals is to base decisions about design, policy, and technology on information from an extensive network of sensors that gather data on everything from air quality to noise levels to people’s activities.
The plan calls for all vehicles to be autonomous and shared. Robots will roam underground doing menial chores like delivering the mail. Sidewalk Labs says it will open access to the software and systems it’s creating so other companies can build services on top of them, much as people build apps for mobile phones. Other North American cities are already clamoring to be next on Sidewalk Labs’ list, according to Waterfront Toronto, the public agency overseeing Quayside’s development.
AI for Everybody
Artificial intelligence has so far been mainly the plaything of big tech companies like Amazon, Baidu, Google, and Microsoft, as well as some startups. For many other companies and parts of the economy, AI systems are too expensive and too difficult to implement fully.
Cloud-based AI is making the technology cheaper and easier to use. Right now the use of AI is dominated by a relatively few companies, but as a cloud-based service, it could be widely available to many more, giving the economy a boost. Microsoft, which has its own AI-powered cloud platform, Azure, is teaming up with Amazon to offer Gluon, an open-source deep-learning library. Gluon is supposed to make building neural nets—a key technology in AI that crudely mimics how the human brain learns—as easy as building a smartphone app. It is uncertain which of these companies will become the leader in offering AI cloud services. But it is a huge business opportunity for the winners.
These products will be essential if the AI revolution is going to spread more broadly through different parts of the economy. It is uncertain which of these companies will become the leader in offering AI cloud services. But it is a huge business opportunity for the winners. These products will be essential if the AI revolution is going to spread more broadly through different parts of the economy.
Currently, AI is used mostly in the tech industry, where it has created efficiencies and produced new products and services. But many other businesses and industries have struggled to take advantage of the advances in artificial intelligence. Sectors such as medicine, manufacturing, and energy could also be transformed if they were able to implement the technology more fully, with a huge boost to economic productivity.
Most companies, though, still don’t have enough people who know how to use cloud AI. So Amazon and Google are also setting up consultancy services. Once the cloud puts the technology within the reach of almost everyone, the real AI revolution can begin.
There’s a sort of radio wave that bangs its way around Earth, knocking around electrons in the plasma fields of loose ions surrounding our planet and sending strange tones to radio detectors. It’s called a “whistler.” And now, scientists have observed bursts like this in more detail than ever before.
When scientists studied whistlers in the past, they typically relied on data from a handful of widely spaced radio receivers distributed all over the planet. That sort of data is useful but is also incomplete. It tells researchers only so much about how the waves form, how they’re shaped and how different kinds of ambient magnetic fields in the atmosphere influence them.
In this smaller-scale study, the researchers were able to control both the magnetic field lines of the plasma and the whistlers themselves, which they created with a magnetic device. Back in 2014, a team of Italian researchers proposed that whistler waves could be used as the driving force of a plasma thruster to drive a craft through space, thanks to their ability to push on the matter. A plasma thruster of this sort would, in theory, require very little fuel mass to push a spacecraft along at high speeds.
Zero-Carbon Natural Gas
Energy companies now have the decision to adapt to the new standard and transform themselves as the low-carbon energy companies of the future or not adapt and continue as they are. These companies are faced with the challenge of how to secure the long-term prosperity of their businesses while doing their part to provide climate-safe methods of energy production.
Natural gas makes a case for a highly scalable energy generation fuel base. Its only shortcoming is that it releases carbon dioxide, one of the principal causes of the greenhouse effect and, by extension, global warming. Take CO2 emissions away, and natural gas becomes a sustainable means of generating energy. But with new technologies — zero carbon natural gas being chief among them — this might just be feasible in the coming years.
The plant puts the carbon dioxide released from burning natural gas under high pressure and heat, using the resulting supercritical CO2 as the “working fluid” that drives a specially built turbine. Much of the carbon dioxide can be continuously recycled; the rest can be captured cheaply.
A key part of pushing down the costs depends on selling that carbon dioxide. Today the main use is in helping to extract oil from petroleum wells. That’s a limited market and not a particularly green one. Eventually, however, Net Power hopes to see growing demand for carbon dioxide in cement manufacturing and in making plastics and other carbon-based materials.
Net Power’s technology won’t solve all the problems with natural gas, particularly on the extraction side. But as long as we’re using natural gas, we might as well use it as cleanly as possible. Of all the clean-energy technologies in development, Net Power’s is one of the furthest along to promise more than a marginal advance in cutting carbon emissions.
There’s never been data available on as many people’s genes as there is today. And that wealth of information is allowing researchers to guess at any person’s chance of getting common diseases like diabetes, arthritis, clogged arteries, and depression.
The science making these report cards possible has suddenly arrived, thanks to huge genetic studies—some involving more than a million people.
Such comprehensive report cards aren’t being given out yet, but the science to create them is here. Delving into giant databases like the UK Biobank, which collects the DNA and holds the medical records of some 500,000 Britons, geneticists are peering into the lives of more people and extracting correlations between their genomes and their diseases, personalities, even habits. The latest gene hunt, for the causes of insomnia, involved a record 1,310,010 people.
Though the new DNA tests offer probabilities, not diagnoses, they could greatly benefit medicine. For example, if women at high risk for breast cancer got more mammograms and those at low risk got fewer, those exams might catch more real cancers and set off fewer false alarms.
Such predictions, at first hit-or-miss, are becoming more accurate. One test described last year can guess a person’s height to within four centimeters, on the basis of 20,000 distinct DNA letters in a genome. As the prediction technology improves, a flood of tests is expected to reach the market. Doctors in California are testing an iPhone app that, if you upload your genetic data, foretells your risk of coronary artery disease. A commercial test launched in September, by Myriad Genetics, estimates the breast cancer chances of any woman of European background, not only the few who have inherited broken versions of the BRCA gene. Sharon Briggs, a senior scientist at Helix, which operates an online store for DNA tests, says most of these products will use risk scores within three years.
The scoring technology, scientists say, will soon shed an uncomfortable light on such questions. In January, two leading psychologists argued that direct-to-consumer DNA IQ tests will soon become “routinely available” and will predict children’s ability “to learn, reason, and solve problems.” They believe parents will test toddlers and use the results to make school plans.
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