2013 in Review: CRISPR Gene Editing, Deep Learning AI, and Massive Government Surveillance

Edward Snowden’s revelations call to mind George Orwell’s 1984.

When I was planning do a futurist review of 2013, I initially thought that I would just talk about some of the cool developments in technology and imagine how great things would be if they all panned out.  But this techno-optimism only tells part of the story.  Ramez Naam gave a great talk at Humanity+ 2012 criticizing bad futurism for ignoring economics and glossing over the downsides.  Benjamin Bratton recently gave a TED talk criticizing TED, in which he pointed out that culture dictates how technology plays out in the real world.  So as I review the year, I am going to try to address both the positives and negatives of some key economic, cultural, and technological developments of 2013.

One positive cultural narrative that caught my attention recently was presented by Stephen Pinker in his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature.  Pinker makes a convincing case that humans have become less and less violent over the years.  Even the bloody 20th century had fewer war deaths per capita than previous eras.  However, one big idea in Pinker’s theory (which he borrowed from Hobbes) is that as states rise, violence decreases, because the state assumes a monopoly on the use of force.  This discourages individuals from hurting others for their own gain.  The problem is that the power of the state can grow too much.  As Edward Snowden has revealed, the US government has almost omniscient powers of surveillance.  We effectively live in a panopticon of constant surveillance.  We may be on a path toward a world with absolutely no crime, but where your every move is monitored by Big Brother and the PreCrime Police come and take you away before you are able to commit a crime.

 The negative story of the economic decline of the US has also figured prominently in 2013.  Wages are stagnant, unemployment is high, and wealth inequality is reaching medieval proportions.  Yet, worldwide poverty seems to be at an all time low (if the World Bank numbers are to be believed).  So I wonder if we rich Americans are biased in our view of economic decline.  Maybe it’s a good thing for Americans to get marginally poorer if the rest of the world gets richer.  But an even brighter vision is of economic growth where everyone can benefit as more human potential is tapped.  As millions of people in places like China and Africa rise from abject poverty and are freed from disease, they will be able to learn, reach their full potential, and participate in the world economy.

Since I do love science and technology, let me indulge in some bright and dark notes from this year.  On a downbeat, we are seeing more and more problems come to light with the current state of science.  The bottom line is that many scientific papers are rubbish and cannot be reproduced.  This may be due to bad incentives; scientists are rewarded more for flashy positive results than mundane or negative results.  But a study that reveals a hypothesis to be flawed increases human knowledge more than a paper which falsely overstates a significant breakthrough,

Nonetheless, there were some technological developments worthy of note.  Consider the CRISPR gene editing technique, which can very precisely modify genes using an immune strategy from bacteria.  Conventional virus based therapies can add good genes, but cannot repair problem genes the way CRISPR can.  George Church discussed this at the 2013 Foresight conference, and further studies have shown its potential to modify genes in mammals.  Unlike many science stories that cause a big stir initially, but are never heard of again, this one seems like the real deal. This breakthrough may give the GMO industry an incredible new tool to customize organisms, possibly even humans.  If it works in humans, many congenital diseases could be conquered.  People may even be able to get modifications that make them more resistant to diabetes or Alzheimer’s.  The dark pessimist in me worries that we may see humans modified without their knowledge or consent by overreaching governments.  Or we may see the rise of a new elite that can outcompete the have-nots.


A deep learning AIs concept of faces and cats.

In the artificial intelligence world, we are seeing big breakthroughs in “deep learning.”  This is a machine learning algorithm that somewhat mimics the neural networks found in brains.  Google has used it to analyze videos and identify human faces and, of course, cats.  This past year, AI researcher Andrew Ng built a much cheaper deep learning system using graphics processors (GPUs), so Google’s $1 million deep learning computer cluster could be matched by a $20,000 system.  The fact that Facebook is jumping on board by snapping up their own deep learning guru makes me suspect that this is not a flash in the pan.  Also, my favorite Bay Area AI researcher, Monica Anderson, seems to approve of this general approach to machine learning.   This could be an incredibly powerful AI.  The big downside of AI getting too powerful has been well explored from Frankenstein to The Terminator, so I won’t belabor this point; there are folks who are thinking deeply about how to prevent those scenarios.  But one big upside of AI could be to help us sort through this overwhelming firehose of information that is growing all the time, so that we can make sense of this world and find solutions to problems.

In conclusion, 2013 had both positive and negative developments.  Technologically, there were some amazing advancements, including the CRISPR gene editing technique and deep learning AI.  Economically, there emerged a complex story of economic stagnation in developed nations, paired with a reduction in poverty in the developing world.  Politically, we saw some chilling examples of government overreach in surveillance.  My hope is that futurists will expand their horizons beyond the technological, to think about the best role for our government going forward, and the best paths toward greater economic inclusion.  The optimists among us should take heed of the pessimists’ warnings.  For their part, the pessimists should take a moment to pause in their dire predictions and ask themselves, “Yes, this could all go terribly awry, but what do I think should happen?”  At the end of the day, if we take into account all the competing forces that define what is possible, I do believe we can chart a course toward progress.

[UPDATE 2/10/2014]

I actually wrote up a presentation for the first Transhuman Visions conference on this topic and those notes are here: http://bit.ly/tv-oak.

I attended Foresight this year and some scientists were asserting that the reproducibility problem is based on not recognizing the “control parameters” of the experiments in question.  There are some crucial parts of the experiment that the grad students or lab techs are taking for granted or not noticing and then not recording properly.

Also, I am taking Pinker’s modern murder decline numbers with a grain of salt after Annissimov pointed out that modern medicine might be masking the violence of modern times by saving victims that would have otherwise died.  Of course, modern guns make it easier to attack others, so that should be taken into account, not to mention that attempted murders have probably gone down, but nonetheless, these are valid questions around Pinker’s trends.

11 thoughts on “2013 in Review: CRISPR Gene Editing, Deep Learning AI, and Massive Government Surveillance

  1. I was JUST having a discussion the other day with a co-worker about the evolution of humans and how brutality, murder, and genocide (you know, natural selection) have been instrumental for the evolution of the big-brained hominid that is homo sapiens. Of course, I was on the side of: Yeah, we need greater selective pressure if we ever want to evolve an intellect that is capable of crazy wonderful things like time travel or practical interstellar travel. My co-worker was like: Naw, more peace will allow more people to focus on doing truly great stuff instead of worrying about putting food on the table or getting a machete upside the noggin. I totally disagreed with him, as the only way he could be correct is if the power of the modern human mind, plus the power of the technology we create, could somehow win the arm wrestling match against our currently stalled evolutionary trajectory (we ain’t getting any smarter, and our brains ain’t getting any bigger relative to our bodies…at least on a population level). Artificial intelligence might be able to help us evolve into the ubermenschen; however, I think the Terminator scenario is more likely.

    Think about it. Humans, like every other life form, evolved to its current state because of natural selection. Certain phenotypes became more advantageous, giving the “owner” of that phenotype a higher likelihood of surviving and passing on his or her genes. Back in the evolutionary muck, when we dragged our knuckles and wooden clubs were as ubiquitous as white Apple earbuds, the biggest dude with the strongest arm for skull crackin’ was winning all the chicks. At some point, elevated levels of intelligence would prevail, and the dudes who could wield clubs AND do a little simple problem solving (starting fires easily, tripping up the mammoths, etc.) started having more kids. And if you believe Terrence McKenna, modern consciousness and intellect evolved directly from our ancestor’s access to, and affinity for, psilocybin mushrooms…but I digress. So what’s driving the evolution of our species these days? What’s providing the selective pressure for our continued intellectual evolution? I would argue that there is no selective pressure, and we’re no longer evolving inexorably toward supra-intelligence. Society, agriculture, and technology, in general, have all but removed the impetus for our continued intellectual evolution. Maybe this is why McKenna was so anti-culture…but again, I digress. Modern society favors the dumb, the powerless, the meek – at least from a reproductive standpoint. Who reproduces the most? It ain’t the geniuses. It’s the poor and the uneducated, buoyed by welfare systems and safety nets, who are having 8, 10, 12 children. And each of those individuals will go on to have 8, 10, 12 children, and so on and so forth. I know it all sounds so Darwinian…but unfortunately, I think it’s true. It won’t be a very popular viewpoint, but might a little more brutality be a good thing, at least in some strange evolutionary way?

    BUUUUT, it might not be totally over for ole homo sapiens. My alternative thesis is that speciation could occur; in fact, I think it is occurring. In other words, clever people will breed with clever people, and their clever children will go on to breed with other clever children. Dumb people will breed with dumb people, and dumb-people genes will be propagated within that population of epsilon-minuses. This is pretty much the way it works. It’s rare to find people who breed outside their IQ-status, socioeconomic status, or otherwise. We like others like us, and connection on an intellectual level is particularly important – at least for most people I know. If you believe that intelligence is linked with other traits, which is almost certainly the case (afterall, linkage is like…a thing), then you must acknowledge that generation after generation of sexual selection could lead to speciation. You know, the other day in the grocery store (yes, Satan’s pantry also known as Whole Foods) I heard something out of a very young child’s mouth that I found disturbing and thought provoking. This child asked her mother: Why is it that poor people are so ugly? At first I was horrified beyond belief. Then I though to myself: maybe poor people really are ugly.

  2. I put this rant (it wasn’t supposed to be a rant) here based on your allusion to Steven Pinker’s work and the lessening of violence, the role of society on individual violent behavior, etc. Also, your comments on A.I. are somewhat related to this whole debate I was having with my co-worker (Will human intellect plus A.I. allow us to reach the proverbial stars?). The debate was, obviously, for the sake of debate. I would never advocate for a more violent society, and I would certainly never agree with applying Darwinian theory to human society.

    I’ll have to look up neutral speciation in order to respond to your comment about it. However, the bit about weak humans cooperating and how cooperation screws up my model does not fly in the face of what I was trying to express – it actually falls perfectly in line with it. Human society and culture have thrown a monkey wrench into the engine of evolution, and the “weak” over-powering the “strong” is completely anathema to the way evolution works out in nature.

    I think you probably know by now that I like stirring the pot a little, and I especially like this forum as a potential pot-to-be-stirred. Futurists tend to be optimists – they have a lot of faith in technology and how it will better our world. And in general, people trust technology blindly, which I think can be dangerous. I, too, am optimistic about technology; but I like to cast aside my pre-conceived notions about things, and this often leads me down dark paths. Additionally, when debating over technology and the future, the soapbox of the pessimist is a more difficult hand to play. It’s easy to believe in magnanimous technology and a bright future where we all read poetry and practice archery. I certainly hope we get there; but I also like to consider the dystopian alternatives.

    • Wait, are you asserting that strength and violence SHOULD be adaptive, ideally? That doesn’t make sense. Humans are not the only creatures to cooperate. Swarms and flocks are common. I tend to disagree that civilization can break evolution. There are just different selective pressures. Normative values don’t apply to evolution.

      • Of course strength and violence are adaptive. This is a fact of the natural world limited not only to beetles, tigers, etc., but rather extendable to primates as well. Even though humans could/did/do cooperate, intelligence provided a selective advantage because it allowed intelligent mutants/variants of our primate ancestors to better killer their enemies, evade predators, and pass on their genes. Part and parcel of this was killing each other over mating rights – it was even built into the behavioral codes of various human societies. And it happens today – all the time in fact. The co-evolution of high degree of intelligence and high propensity for slaughter is supported even by Stephen Hawking (the malevolent alien theory).

        I would challenge you to describe whatever selective pressures you might be referring to that might apply to modern human society. The only one I can think of is mate selection.

        • Well even society requires a level of compliance to survive within so there are probably other selective pressures aside from mate selection. Mate selection alone should be enough. But my broader point is that selection seems to be weak for ALL larger organisms, so we shouldn’t be surprised if the selective pressures on humans are hard to see. Civilization represents only a tiny fraction of homosapien time on earth so far, so it’s hard to see how it could have much of an impact. Though I have not read this book that claims big genetic changes in the past 10k years: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_10,000_Year_Explosion

          Regardless, many believe that large primate brains enabled us to track relationships better, not track enemies better. (i.e. Dunbar number) Is there evidence to strongly dispute those claims?

          You seem to be picking some arbitrary favorite attributes and asserting that these are most adaptive. In my view, attributes that disappear in populations were probably maladaptive, but not vice-versa. (i.e. not all attributes we see should be adaptive since that would lead to over-fitting, neutral traits for the current environment should hang around. They might come in handy some day.)

  3. I would not agree that evolution is slower/weaker/less for larger organisms; however, it think it’s probably very difficult for either of us to prove our point on this one, although you provided evidence in the book you cited that runs contrary to your argument. I would bring up another well-known example – the cheetah. They keep getting faster, and their body shape, bone weight, and skull shape change accordingly. In their unfortunate case, this evolutionary need for speed seems to be counter-productive for the ultimate survival of the species. Anyhoo, the passage of time really means nothing for evolution anyway – a year or a million years it matters not.

    I would argue that I’m not picking arbitrary adaptive traits. I’m merely describing probable adaptive traits that would have allowed early human ancestors to survive, mate, and pass on their genes. Early on, there was a selective advantage, in the formal sense, for intelligence. That doesn’t exist anymore – that’s all I’m saying. And if the evolutionary impetus is gone, how can we ever expect to evolve beyond our current sorry state?

    • Again, it’s not clear that evolutionary impetus is gone. But if we build intelligent machines, then they might become the next stage of evolution.

    • Just to clarify my position:
      1) Fernandez at Rice and Lynch at Indiana are the ones suggesting that selection is relatively inefficient in humans: http://bit.ly/1k6gqm0
      If they are correct, then I would expect it to be more difficult to determine which traits would be adaptive. But this might be a moot point.
      2) Dunbar is the one with the Social Brain hypothesis. You aren’t really offering any evidence that dismantles his theory. If he is right, then facebook will actually make us smarter: http://theweek.com/article/index/249705/does-social-media-make-us-smarter

      • Wow. Facebook making us smarter? You really want to goad me.

        As far as the “benefits” listed in the article, I will cry out “Bullshit!” from the highest treetop. Spending more time consuming new information is really a benefit? New information on what, I would ask. The crap found on TMZ? The newest info on Bieb’s latest DUI? How much weight Kim Kartrashian has lost? We can’t speak directly to the authors of the article you hyperlinked, but I would love to ask them to provide specifics on the sources of all this new, wonderful information they refer to. The author then goes on to talk about this Stanford professor – Lunsford – who found that the quality of writing hasn’t changed from 1917 to the present. Really? Is that so? What she actually found is that the number of “errors” in the compositions hadn’t changed. This really means nothing about the quality of the writing. Did she index the breadth of vocabulary? The style? Actually, the fact that the number of errors hasn’t gone down precipitously is kind of pathetic given that the computer fixes the damn errors for you. It’s just sad, really. She also says papers now are better researched. Well whooptie fickin doo. We only have the entirety of humanity’s knowledge at our fingertips. It’s just simply easy as pie to find references these days. The author’s arguments in this regard sway me none whatsoever.

        Oh. And then the author goes on to say that “young people spend far more time writing outside the classroom than ever before. They spend hours on extracurricular composition in the form of tweets, texts, emails, comments, photo captions, and discussion boards.” Like OMG, dude! WTF! Tweets as a form of writing that’s supposed to somehow improve critical or creative writing skills? You must be joking. This is tantamount to saying that belching contests help improve people’s oratory skills. And staying succinct with tweets is supposed to improve one’s ability to craft “economical” prose. Hahahahaha! Hahahaha! Man, this author shamelessly polishes turds like no other. I could argue that eating Frito’s corn chips allows me to be economical with my mastication, getting me the most number of calories with the least amount of jaw movement. I mean, come on.

        And I have no doubt that one of the major benefits of our brain evolution is the propensity for socialization. That’s the great paradox. We have indeed become more social and more intelligent; but we have also become more blood-thristy and brutal. Brutality and the desire to conquer and destroy are as woven into us as cooperation and empathy are. It’s literally hardwired on a population level.

        • Yeah, I thought that Facebook comment would rattle your cage. I don’t know who you friended on Facebook, but I rarely see Bieber posts in my feed. 😉 But again, we are back to Pinker. You assert that we are more blood thirsty, but his evidence suggests otherwise. Anissimov dug this up which might be a good argument that recent murders are under-reported: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1124155/
          But Pinker’s longer term trend in the reduction of violence probably still stands.

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