De-exctintion - H+ Weekly - Issue #403
This week - de-exctinction; humans score victories agains AI; robots to take over 40% of house chores in 10 years; Eliezer Yudkowsky says we are screwed; and more!
In 1993, Jurrasic Park hit the theatres and showed a future in which genetic engineering advances to the point where we can bring back dinosaurs exactly as they were 65 million years ago. That was 30 years ago, so how close are we to resurrecting dinosaurs?
The method shown in the movie - extracting dinosaurs' DNA from a mosquito enclosed in amber - would not work. The half-life of DNA is 521 years. After 6.8 million years all dinosaurs' DNA would be gone.
But the dream of bringing long-dead animals back to life is still alive.
Jack Horner is one of the scientists who works on resurrecting dinosaurs. In a TED Talk from 2011, he laid out the plan to turn chickens into dinosaurs. During embryonic development, birds (which are descendent of dinosaurs) have dinosaur-like features, like bony tails and wing bones that look like the bones of their dinosaur ancestors. At some point in the bird's development, certain genes activate and remove these features. Sometimes, birds are born with their ancestral features, like teeth. Horner's idea is to turn off or on those genes and then, with the help of selective breeding and genetic engineering, get closer and closer to a dinosaur-like creature - a creature he calls Chickenosaurus.
Recently, a new company has entered the de-extinction scene. Co-founded by "The Founding Father of Genomics" George Church, Colossal Biosciences got massive press coverage with their ambitions to bring back the woolly mammoth, the thylacine and the dodo bird. What makes resurrecting these animals much easier than resurrecting dinosaurs is that we have sequenced their genomes. We also know which species are the closest living relatives of those animals and we sequenced their genomes, too. With that, we can compare both genomes and we know what changes we have to do to turn an Asian elephant into a woolly mammoth or the Nicobar pigeon into Dodo.
These are the teams that believe we can resurrect extinct species. And then there are people who stop to think if we should. Colossal argues their research can help stall the ongoing sixth mass extinction and could increase biodiversity on the planet. Critics of de-extinction will point out that these animals would come back to a completely different world and ask what would be the impact of the return of these animals into the ecosystem (assuming this would be a feasible possibility). And then there is the question if this whole idea of de-extinction is actually possible.
Colossal promises to have its first woolly mammoth by 2031. Jack Horner promised in 2014 to have the first Chickenosaurus within 10 years. Time will tell if we will see mammoths roaming freely in the Arctic while we play with our pet dinosaurs. Or if the idea of de-extinction will be added to the list of overambitious human projects.
More than a human
Cutting Calories to Add Years
Scientists have early evidence that links eating less to longer lifespans. Researchers tracked 220 healthy men and women aged 21-50 - a control group that ate normally and a study group of people who were asked to cut calories by 25% for two years. Although participants averaged only a 12% caloric reduction, people on restricted diets still lowered their pace of ageing by 2-3%. Based on current mortality predictions, that reduction in the pace of ageing cuts mortality risk by 10-15%, “similar to the effect of a smoking cessation intervention,” says Calen Ryan, one of the lead authors of the study.
▶️ I lost my finger.. so I made a new one (21:54)
Martina from a popular YouTube channel Nerdforge has lost her left pinky finger in an accident involving a table saw. And because she is a maker, she decided to build herself a new finger, which she documents in this video.
First baby receives life-saving gene therapy on NHS
A 19-month-old baby girl called Teddi has become the first child in the UK to receive a life-saving gene therapy treatment for metachromatic leukodystrophy, a fatal disorder resulting in a life expectancy of between five and eight years. NHS reports the treatment was a success and Teddi shows no signs of the disease she was born with.
Man beats machine at Go in human victory over AI
When AlphaGo beat Lee Sedol, one of the strongest players in the history of Go, in 2016, everyone proclaimed the game is over and the machines are now better at playing Go than any human. But Kellin Pelrine has proven that humans can fight back. Pelrine has taken an advantage of a previously unknown flaw in AlphaGo suggested by a computer program. He then learned the tactic and won 14 of 15 games against AI.
Infants beat AI at detecting human motivations
Researchers have found out that 11-month-old infants are better at detecting what motivates other people’s actions than AI. “Adults and even infants can easily make reliable inferences about what drives other people’s actions,” explains Moira Dillon, an assistant professor in New York University’s psychology department and the senior author of the paper. “Current AI finds these inferences challenging to make.”
▶️ We’re All Gonna Die with Eliezer Yudkowsky (1:49:21)
Here is an interesting interview with Eliezer Yudkowsky, a leading thinker in the AI space, on topics such as the AI alignment problem and why you should worry about the future with artificial general intelligence (AGI). The interview starts with ChatGPT and then goes into what an AGI or superintelligence would like, why aligning it with human values is so difficult and we most likely ran out of time to solve this problem. Plus a lot of interesting ideas all over the place. The actual conversation starts 10 minutes into the video.
▶️ DeepMind’s New AI: Insanely Good At Games! (10:02)
AI agents are able to learn how to walk or play football on their own inside the computer simulation. However, it takes them years of simulated time. Recently, researchers from DeepMind presented an AI agent that can learn how to solve puzzles on its own in a matter of seconds. In this video, Károly Zsolnai-Fehér shows what this AI can do. If you are interested in how exactly this AI agent works, the paper describing the project is available on arXiv.
▶️ Presidents Playing Video Games With Deepfake AI (8:09)
In the last week's issue, I wrote about deepfakes and how they are being used for good and evil. Here is a third application of deepfakes - to make memes. Someone deepfaked voices of recent US presidents and made them sound like typical gamers shouting at each other while playing Call of Duty, Minecraft or Fortnite.
Almost 40% of domestic tasks could be done by robots ‘within decade’
The vision of robots doing tedious and time-consuming chores may finally become a reality. According to a survey, which asked 65 robotic experts from the UK and Japan, 40% of 17 domestic tasks listed in the survey could be automated within the next 10 years, with tasks such as shopping, cleaning or laundry being on the top of the list, while childcare being least likely to be automated. Here is the table with the results. The study is available here. If these predictions become reality, it would free a lot of time, especially for women who still bear the burden of the majority of unpaid work. The researchers warn about a "wholesale onslaught on privacy" such automation would cause and the possibility of the “rise of inequality in free time” - with only richer households able to afford the technology.
Google Research, 2022 & beyond: Robotics
In this post, researchers from Google focusing on robotics look back on 2022 and what they've been focusing on. They list the research in applying large language models to allow humans to say in a natural way what the robot should do and the application of new machine learning techniques to make robots learn low-level skills faster.
Polymers protect mice from peanut allergy reaction
Here is some good news for everyone who suffers from peanut allergy. Researchers have created a special type of polymer that can prevent antigens from entering the bloodstream, which then causes an allergic reaction. The results in experiments with mice are encouraging. Researchers are seeking now an approval to begin clinical trials and hope to start them within the next 18 months.
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