Artificial Kidneys Are a Step Closer With This New Tech

10 percent of the global population suffers from some form of kidney disease. That includes 37 million people in the US, 100,000 of whom pass away each year awaiting a kidney transplant.

Our kidneys are crucial for keeping us alive and healthy. A sort of chemical computer that keeps our blood chemistry stable—whether we’re eating a sugary birthday cake or a vitamin-filled salad—they prevent waste buildup, stabilize our electrolyte levels, and produce hormones to regulate our blood pressure and make red blood cells.

Kidneys clean our blood using nephrons, which are essentially filters that let fluid and waste products through while blocking blood cells, proteins, and minerals. The latter get reintegrated into the blood, and the former leave the body in urine.

Scientists have struggled to come up with viable treatments for kidney disease and renal failure, and their complexity means kidneys are incredibly hard to synthetically recreate; each kidney contains around one million intricately-structured nephrons.

But new progress from chemical engineering researchers at the University of Arkansas has brought functioning artificial kidneys one step closer. The researchers created a device that was able to filter blood in a way similar to biological nephrons. They described the device in a recent paper published in Nature Communications Materials.

There are two basic processes that take place when blood passes through the kidneys. First, clusters of blood vessels called glomeruli let small molecules, waste, and water through, while proteins and blood cells stay behind. The material that gets through this first filter then flows into the nephron network, where it’s further filtered in a process called ion transport.

The researchers’ work focused on the second step, ion transport. They placed a porous mesh made of platinum between two ion-exchange wafers to create a wafer that pushes ions through membranes using an electric field. The platinum meshes serve as electrodes when voltage is applied, enabling the team to select different ions and adjust their transport rates independently. They tested the technology with various ions and were successfully able to mimic the ion transport done by the kidneys.

In their paper, the team points out that other research groups have tried creating artificial nephrons using living, cell-based systems, including stem cells; but outside a native, living environment and absent the physical and hormonal signaling that control their function, biologically-based systems have struggled to replicate the nephrons’ function, especially ion transport.

Christa Hestekin, Arkansas associate professor of chemical engineering and the lead author of the paper, said, “The system could work as a stand-alone device or in conjunction with peritoneal dialysis to control the chemistry of solutions used in treatment. And, minor modifications to the device could enable it to function as a wearable and potentially implantable artificial kidney.”

In the US alone, over 93,000 people are currently on the waiting list for a kidney transplant. Though a fully-functioning artificial kidney is likely still years away at best, scientists are making incremental progress in recreating this vital organ; an artificial nephron like the one described here is just one piece of a complex puzzle.

Another crucial piece is a functioning network of blood vessels. In 2015, scientists at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory created bioprinted kidney tissue that replicated some of the functions of biological nephrons. In 2016 a group at Harvard’s Lewis Lab used 3D printing to re-create the nephrons’ tubules, complete with a vascular network for blood flow—but they only stayed alive for a little over two months.

The fully synthetic nature of the Arkansas team’s technology could thus have a leg up on biologically-based approaches. According to Hestekin, the nephron could be combined with ultrafiltration, nanofiltration, or reverse osmosis systems and integrated into an artificial kidney.

Given the vast number of people in need of them, artificial kidneys can’t come soon enough, and will be a miracle of modern science when they do arrive. Though it’ll be some time yet, incremental progress like this gives us the confidence to say “when” instead of “if.”

Image Credit: crystal light / Shutterstock.com




This Is Our Chance to Redesign Work. Let’s Make It Better

Long before coronavirus appeared and shattered our pre-existing “normal,” the future of work was a widely discussed and debated topic. We’ve watched automation slowly but surely expand its capabilities and take over more jobs, and we’ve wondered what artificial intelligence will eventually be capable of.

The pandemic swiftly turned the working world on its head, putting millions of people out of a job and forcing millions more to work remotely. But essential questions remain largely unchanged: we still want to make sure we’re not replaced, we want to add value, and we want an equitable society where different types of work are valued fairly.

To address these issues—as well as how the pandemic has impacted them—this week Singularity University held a digital summit on the future of work. Forty-three speakers from multiple backgrounds, countries, and sectors of the economy shared their expertise on everything from work in developing markets to why we shouldn’t want to go back to the old normal.

Gary Bolles, SU’s chair for the Future of Work, kicked off the discussion with his thoughts on a future of work that’s human-centric, including why it matters and how to build it.

What Is Work?

“Work” seems like a straightforward concept to define, but since it’s constantly shifting shape over time, let’s make sure we’re on the same page. Bolles defined work, very basically, as human skills applied to problems.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a dirty floor or a complex market entry strategy or a major challenge in the world,” he said. “We as humans create value by applying our skills to solve problems in the world.” You can think of the problems that need solving as the demand and human skills as the supply, and the two are in constant oscillation, including, every few decades or centuries, a massive shift.

We’re in the midst of one of those shifts right now (and we already were, long before the pandemic). Skills that have long been in demand are declining. The World Economic Forum’s 2018 Future of Jobs report listed things like manual dexterity, management of financial and material resources, and quality control and safety awareness as declining skills. Meanwhile, skills the next generation will need include analytical thinking and innovation, emotional intelligence, creativity, and systems analysis.

Along Came a Pandemic

With the outbreak of coronavirus and its spread around the world, the demand side of work shrunk; all the problems that needed solving gave way to the much bigger, more immediate problem of keeping people alive. But as a result, tens of millions of people around the world are out of work—and those are just the ones that are being counted, and they’re a fraction of the true total. There are additional millions of people in seasonal or gig jobs or who work in informal economies now without work, too.

“This is our opportunity to focus,” Bolles said. “How do we help people re-engage with work? And make it better work, a better economy, and a better set of design heuristics for a world that we all want?”

Bolles posed five key questions—some spurred by impact of the pandemic—on which future of work conversations should focus to make sure it’s a human-centric future.

1. What does an inclusive world of work look like? Rather than seeing our current systems of work as immutable, we need to actually understand those systems and how we want to change them.

2. How can we increase the value of human work? We know that robots and software are going to be fine in the future—but for humans to be fine, we need to design for that very intentionally.

3. How can entrepreneurship help create a better world of work? In many economies the new value that’s created often comes from younger companies; how do we nurture entrepreneurship?

4. What will the intersection of workplace and geography look like? A large percentage of the global workforce is now working from home; what could some of the outcomes of that be? How does gig work fit in?

5. How can we ensure a healthy evolution of work and life? The health and the protection of those at risk is why we shut down our economies, but we need to find a balance that allows people to work while keeping them safe.

Problem-Solving Doesn’t End

The end result these questions are driving towards, and our overarching goal, is maximizing human potential. “If we come up with ways we can continue to do that, we’ll have a much more beneficial future of work,” Bolles said. “We should all be talking about where we can have an impact.”

One small silver lining? We had plenty of problems to solve in the world before ever hearing about coronavirus, and now we have even more. Is the pace of automation accelerating due to the virus? Yes. Companies finding more ways to automate their processes to keep people from getting sick. But we have a slew of new problems on our hands, and we’re not going to stop needing human skills to solve them (not to mention the new problems that will surely emerge as second- and third-order effects of the shutdowns). If Bolles’ definition of work holds up, we’ve got ours cut out for us.

In an article from April titled The Great Reset, Bolles outlined three phases of the unemployment slump (we’re currently still in the first phase) and what we should be doing to minimize the damage. “The evolution of work is not about what will happen 10 to 20 years from now,” he said. “It’s about what we could be doing differently today.”

Watch Bolles’ talk and those of dozens of other experts for more insights into building a human-centric future of work here.

Image Credit: www_slon_pics from Pixabay




4 Non-Obvious Trends That Matter During This Pandemic

Last year at South By Southwest, author and entrepreneur Rohit Bhargava spoke to a packed auditorium about trends that, though they may not be obvious, are playing a serious role in shaping the future. Each year Bhargava spends untold hours figuring out which trends are going to be the most relevant and impactful, then puts out a book on them as part of his “Non-Obvious” series.

He was planning to speak about 2020 trends at this year’s SXSW festival—but like every other large in-person event, it was canceled. And like every other thing in our lives, the pandemic has turned most of Bhargava’s 2020 trends on their heads.

But not all of them. In fact, a select few trends that were already on the rise have been amplified by Covid-19, and now they’re even more significant. In a virtual SXSW session streamed from his home last week, Bhargava talked about these trends, how we can make the most of them, and how to find meaning amid chaos and confusion.

We’re in a time of extreme disruption—that much is obvious. The places we’re used to going, which are normally full of people, are empty. We’re all at home trying to figure out how to pass the time productively. And we all have big questions about how the new normal—even once our states and cities start to reopen—is going to change the way we do everything. Will students go back to school in the fall? Will we be working from home indefinitely? Will we always have to wear a face mask to go to the grocery store? What’s safe and what isn’t?

Bhargava emphasized that he’s not here to predict the future. Rather than being focused on where the world will be 5 to 10 years from now, he said, “I focus on trying to observe today to figure out what to do today.” Also, tech on its own doesn’t intrigue him as much as the human response to tech and how it’s impacting our lives. “I’m more interested in how human behavior is evolving,” he said.

But how do you figure that out when there’s so, so much information coming at us from all sides? “The big problem right now is that we just don’t know what to believe, and so we don’t believe anything,” Bhargava said. “The world seems untrustworthy and we don’t know what to pay attention to.”

Parody videos and articles have popped up poking fun at the confusion around coronavirus, but it’s disconcerting to realize how much misinformation has been flying around, and how little we know about this virus even after two and a half months of lockdowns.

Misinformation is, of course, not a new problem. And it’s impossible to consume all the information out there to try to figure out what’s real. Instead of attempting to digest and make sense of all the news, tweets, memes, podcasts, articles, shares, retweets, and videos out there, Bhargava said, we should devote more time to trying to understand people. “How do we become people who understand people?” he asked. “What motivates them to believe something, what gets them to act, what engages them?”

Bhargava’s own people-understanding process involves what he calls the haystack method. Rather than searching for a needle in a haystack, he gathers ‘hay’ (ideas and stories) then uses it to locate and define a ‘needle’ (a trend). “It’s really easy to read the same media that reinforces what you already think over and over,” he said. But a key part of gathering valuable information is looking for it in places you wouldn’t normally think to look. That means taking in media that’s targeted to different demographics than those you fall into.

Once you look across a wide variety of channels, common themes emerge. Bhargava groups those themes together and tries to elevate them into a bigger idea; that’s where his trends come from.

He defines a non-obvious trend as a “unique curated observation of the accelerating present.” “We’re in a moment now where the present is accelerating even faster,” he said. Here are the four trends he’s pinpointed that have been amplified by the current situation—and how we can make the best of them.

Revivalism

Overwhelmed by technology and a sense that life is too complex, people seek out simpler experiences that offer nostalgia and remind them of a more trustworthy time; we revive habits, media, or connections we find comforting or reassuring. This trend was already in place before the pandemic; Bhargava included a variation of it in his 2019 SXSW talk. The breakneck speed of technology made many of us want to slow down and reconsider the role we want our phones and computers to play in our day to day lives.

But now, Bhargava said, revivalism is gaining even more momentum; if the world seemed complex and overwhelming before, that sense has multiplied by an order of magnitude now that we’re in a global health crisis. Rather than drowning in too much conflicting information, people are consciously cutting back on the amount of news and social media they consume each day (not least because it’s just. so. depressing.) and seeking out forms of entertainment that were cast aside long ago: books, puzzles, classic video games, board games. We’re reconnecting virtually with friends or relatives we haven’t spoken to in a while. We’re trying out old family recipes in the kitchen since we can’t go to restaurants.

It’s time, Bhargava said, to rediscover the analog; “We can do these things outside of technology.” Now that we’ve been forced to find substitutes for many components of our daily routines, maybe we’ll learn that we don’t need to be as dependent on our devices as we thought.

Human Mode

The second trend is essentially a more nuanced variation of the first. Tired of technology that isolates us from one another, people are seeking out and placing greater value on physical, authentic, and imperfect experiences delivered by humans. In a time when we can’t hug our friends and families or even speak to store clerks without masks and plastic dividers, we’re craving empathetic, human experiences big-time.

The aforementioned dependence on digital devices as a way to interact with other people seems reprehensible now that we don’t even have the in-person option. Before the pandemic we relied on social media to connect us, texting to communicate with each other, “like” buttons to share our opinions and preferences, and algorithms to streamline and improve our shopping, transit, and other experiences.

While all of that isn’t going to go away—and may double down in a world where physical contact is now perceived as dangerous—we’re realizing how crucial and irreplaceable our human connections are. “We need to focus on empathy first,” Bhargava said. “An empathetic approach (whether in business or simply with our families and friends) is most likely to provide value to people in the current situation.” And probably always.

Instant Knowledge

Have you picked up some new skills during lockdown? Tried your hand at some fancy recipes? Learned hard pieces on the guitar or piano? How likely is it that the skills or habits you’ve picked up will persist after this is all over?

As we consume bite-sized knowledge on demand, Bhargava said, we benefit from learning everything more quickly but risk forgetting the value of mastery and wisdom. It’s become really easy to watch a YouTube video to learn just about anything; during the pandemic, views of cooking tutorial videos have skyrocketed, and it’s likely the same has happened for instructional videos of all types (including how to cut your own or your partner’s hair!). Since we now have access to information more readily than ever before, we expect to be able to learn things faster. But it still takes a lot of time and dedication to get really good at a skill or become an expert in a given field.

While it’s great to learn new skills quickly, let’s not forget to zoom out and look at the bigger picture. Bhargava recommends finding ways to connect people with knowledge to inspire beliefs, expanding our worldviews and building towards a greater vision—whether for ourselves, our families, or the collective future.

Flux Commerce

The lines between industries are eroding, leading to a continual disruption of business models, distribution channels, and consumer expectations. This was happening before Covid-19 broke out; Apple was getting into financial services, banks were opening coffee shops, Crayola started making makeup, and Taco Bell opened a hotel (I know right- WHAT?! It’s true though).

Now that everything is closed and we’re confined to our homes, businesses are having to adapt in ways they never imagined—and those that can’t adapt are, unfortunately, in trouble. “Everything about how we do business is shifting,” Bhargava said. And that disruption is happening at an unprecedented pace. Even once the economy opens again—which for many states in the US is happening this week—we won’t go back to how things were in 2019. The only way forward is to adapt.

“We don’t know what’s coming next,” Bhargava said. “But we know that people who can adapt best are non-obvious thinkers who pay attention to what’s happening and try to continue to change.”

Image Credit: Rohit Bhargava by Brian Smale




Forget Exercise—These Mice Got Ripped With Gene Therapy

Trying to hack fitness is a multi-million-dollar industry; we’ve all seen at least one ad featuring a purported miracle product that claims it can make people lose weight and look great—without even trying. From low-effort exercise machines to strange-ingredient diets to fat-burning belts and bands, there’s no shortage of attempts to make it easy to be fit.

A gene therapy trial performed on mice may foreshadow yet another way to hack fitness. In a study done by a team at Washington University in St. Louis’ medical school, mice quickly built muscle mass and reduced obesity after receiving the therapy, even while eating a diet high in fat and not exercising. The results were published last week in a paper in Science Advances.

Sound appealing? Here’s how it worked.

The gene targeted was FST, which is responsible for making a protein called follistatin. In humans and most other mammals, follistatin helps grow muscle and control metabolism by blocking a protein called myostatin, which acts to restrain muscle growth and ensure muscles don’t get too big.

The researchers injected eight-week-old mice with a virus carrying a healthy FST gene (gene therapy involves adding healthy copies of a gene to cells, usually using a virus as a deliveryman).

Over a period of 18 weeks, or about 4 months, the team observed that the muscle mass of the treated mice more than doubled, as did their strength level. They also experienced reduced damage related to osteoarthritis, less inflammation in their joints, and had healthier hearts and blood vessels than mice that didn’t receive the gene therapy—even though all the mice ate the same high-fat diet and did the same amount of exercise.

Going into the study, the researchers worried the muscle growth catalyzed by the gene therapy could harm the heart, mainly through thickening of the heart’s walls. Surprisingly, though, heart function and cardiovascular health of the treated mice actually improved. In subsequent studies, the team will continue to monitor the treatment’s effect on the heart, as complications could emerge over time.

Talk about a fitness hack; imagine being able to build muscle and maintain a healthy metabolism while lounging on the couch eating burgers and fries. There have been similar studies to replicate the effects of exercise by commandeering the genetic instructions that control the way cells interact with proteins; though various “exercise pills” have successfully mimicked the effects of regular cardiovascular activity in mice, scientists still don’t fully understand how, at a molecular level, exercise has the effects it does on the human body.

This may change in the next couple years, though; a National Institutes of Health consortium called the Molecular Transducers of Physical Activity is in the midst of an in-depth study on the molecular effects of exercise on tissues and organs in 3,000 people.

If the muscle-building gene therapy eventually reaches a point where it can be used in humans, though, the research team isn’t viewing it as a quick-fix health hack. Rather, it would be used to help get people with conditions like muscular dystrophy or severe obesity to a baseline from which they could adopt tried-and-true muscle-building practices like weight lifting or physical therapy.

“In cases of severe obesity or muscle loss, it is extremely difficult—if not impossible—to lose weight or improve muscle strength through normal exercise and diet,” said Farshid Guilak, orthopedic surgery professor and director of research at Shriners Hospitals for Children in St. Louis. “The goal of this study was to show the importance of muscle strength in overriding many of the harmful effects of obesity on the joint.”

If every condition, process, and trait in our bodies is tightly linked to our genes, it’s conceivable that almost any aspect of our health could be manipulated using gene therapy and related tools. Maybe one day there will indeed be a pill we can take or a shot we can get to give us svelte, muscular bodies without any of the effort.

The fact that this would ruin the pleasure and satisfaction of a good workout is another conversation—and one not everybody would be interested in having. But even if genetic or chemical exercise-replacement tools become safe to use in humans in the foreseeable future, they’ll likely be limited, at least at first, to those who need them due to debilitating health conditions.

That said—for the time being, keep hitting the treadmill, the weight room, or your other off-the-couch, effort-intensive workout of choice.

Image Credit: Aberro Creative from Pixabay




The World Food Program’s Coronavirus Fight—and How You Can Help

The coronavirus outbreak has thrown the world into turmoil. On top of the infections and deaths it’s caused, there have been significant knock-on effects on financial markets, supply chains, businesses, and livelihoods.

One of the most crucial systems we must safeguard as the crisis continues to play out is the food system. Food supply is already threatened from various angles, and allowing these threats to play out would be disastrous.

The UN’s World Food Program (WFP) offers food assistance to 87 million people in more than 80 countries. To make sure these programs are disrupted as little as possible, the WFP is looking to implement creative, tech-driven solutions to food supply chain, production, and delivery systems—and innovative startups and individuals can help.

Last week Darlene Damm, Singularity University’s Chair of Global Grand Challenges, spoke with Bernhard Kowatsch, head of the WFP’s Innovation Accelerator, and Carmen Burbano, director of the WFP’s School Feeding Division, about the actions and innovations needed to make sure the pandemic doesn’t cause a breakdown in food supply, particularly for the most vulnerable.

“Because of Covid-19, the number of people at risk of dying from famine has almost doubled,” Kowatsch said. “We expect that 465 million people are at risk in 2020. This is really an acute crisis that we have to deal with properly.” And, he added, we haven’t even seen the most severe impacts of Covid-19 in developing countries yet.

What’s Working

Tech used to solve a lot of problems that aren’t really problems (CES 2020, though very cool, was replete with examples). But it’s also chipping away at global challenges that truly need solving—like hunger and food supply.

“There are a lot of solutions that are only possible right now because of the spread of technology,” Kowatsch said. “And compared to just a few years ago, the cost of many technologies has come down dramatically.” These are some of the innovations that have helped the WFP feed people before and during Covid-19.

Hunger Map LIVE is a data and analysis tool that tracks food security, healthcare access, and markets in vulnerable countries in real time. An early warning system is in place for areas that slide into high risk, and the WFP is also using data from this tool to keep tabs on how the pandemic is impacting security in vulnerable places.

Building Blocks is a blockchain solution that transfers cash directly to refugees. In its first week of use it served over 10,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, and has now been expanded to over 100,000 refugees. “People can go to a shop and buy food on blockchain, and the system is being adapted to Covid-19; instead of using a fingerprint to pay, they can use a contactless QR card,” Kowatsch said.

Instead of getting money from an ATM then using that money to go buy food, a tool called Food ATM is cutting out the middle man. Piloted in 2019, it’s currently being deployed in Sudan and elsewhere. “It does just what it sounds like it does,” Kowatsch said. That is, locally-procured food commodities are monitored and dispensed on demand by machines. The machines are filled and maintained by locals the WFP trains.

School closures because of the coronavirus pandemic mean kids are missing out on education—but in developing nations and even in the US, they’re also missing out on meals. Millions of children, Burbano explained, rely on schools to provide them with a healthy meal, and in many cases it’s the only one they get in a day. In the 30 countries most at risk of hunger, WFP partnered with UNICEF to launch a program that repackages food into take-home rations; these are either delivered to students’ homes by teachers, picked up at schools by parents, or turned into cash vouchers that are given to families.

Finally, apps like Share the Meal (in which anyone can provide a meal to someone in need by donating 50 cents through the app) and Free Rice (a word game where for every answer players get right, the WFP gets a donation of 20 grains of rice) have been a huge success, with over 2 million people donating more than 63 million meals and 202 billion rice grains donated.

What’s Needed

These tools are making a difference. But to really build a high-performing system that can end hunger, Burbano said, advances in automation and data collection are going to be crucial.

For starters, WFP administrators need to be able to monitor their programs remotely in a way that’s transparent and accountable, with data being the key component. “We need to be able to merge different data sets so that we can understand, at the same time, things like how much these programs are costing, who is eating what, and where there problems we need to focus on,” Burbano said. In Burundi, for example, schools are testing a web-based system called School Connect. It digitizes data entry related to school food stock inventory, student attendance, and meal consumption, which helps administrators improve supply chain planning and kids’ nutrition.

Trading a one-size-fits-all approach for more custom solutions will be crucial too. Some families truly need free meals, while others can afford to pay a portion, and still others don’t need assistance at all—but currently, there’s not enough visibility at a household level to be able to adjust the programs accordingly.

When asked about additional issues they most need help with right now, here’s what Burbano and Kowatsch listed.

  • Facilitating the purchase of food from local farmers in at-risk locations: for example, how do you send cash to smallholder farmers that are selling very small quantities of food to schools?

  • Managing a cash ecosystem without too much bureaucracy and making it intuitive and frictionless

  • Ensuring that food being transferred between people locally is safe to eat

  • Digitally monitoring children’s attendance at school and supply chain stock

For all the innovators, philanthropists, global-challenge-focused startups, and caring humans out there: we’ve got our work cut out for us. “We’re all in this together” is tired but true; let’s act like it and put our money and our minds where they’re needed most.

Image Credit: WFP / Brook duBois




Forget Fillings: New Study Shows How to Regrow Teeth

Few of us are graced with a perfect mouthful of teeth. If it’s not braces or cavities, it’s wisdom teeth or root canals. Adding injury to insult, while medicine has made a lot of progress in multiple fields over the years, dentistry has remained stubbornly stuck to the same painful, outdated techniques.

I was lucky enough not to need braces as a kid, but a persistent sugar addiction meant every time I visited the dentist I had at least one cavity. To this day, I can’t hear the sound of a drill—or even think about going to the dentist—without cringing.

A study published in Scientific Reports last week may be good news for fellow dentist-fearers. The study details the success of trials in which a stem cell treatment was used to repair tooth decay in mice.

Tooth repair after four weeks (left) and six weeks (right). Image Credit: Kings College/Scientific Reports

Normally, when our teeth get cavities the dentist clears out the decayed material then fills in the empty space with one of various materials, including porcelain, silver amalgam, or composite resin. These fillings work well enough, but after a few years they typically need to be replaced, and can end up weakening teeth to the point that they need to be extracted.

What if teeth could instead repair themselves, independently regenerating decayed material?

To some extent, teeth already do this. When the inner pulp of a tooth is exposed, mesenchymal stem cells—which can differentiate to become cartilage, bone or fat cells—mobilize to form tooth-specific cells called odontoblasts. These secrete dentine, a reparative substance that seals off the tooth pulp from the external environment.

This natural process is enough to repair minor fissures below the tooth’s surface enamel, but doesn’t cut it when it comes to cavities. The new treatment involves accelerating the tooth’s natural dentine production to repair larger defects.

Scientists found that tideglusib, a drug typically used to treat neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s and autism, can be used to stimulate stem cell differentiation in the tooth’s pulp. These create more odontoblasts, which create more dentine.

In the study, scientists inserted a biodegradable collagen sponge soaked in tideglusib into mice’s teeth, then sealed the teeth with a dental adhesive. Over the course of a few weeks, the sponges degraded and were replaced by newly-produced dentine.

So the good news is, signs point to teeth being able to repair themselves, no need for artificial fillings.

The bad news is, a dentist would still need to use a drill to get rid of the decayed part of a tooth. Dentist-fearers could take some comfort, though, in knowing the process would be a one-time thing, with no need for filling replacement or tooth extraction down the road.

Scientists are currently moving to testing the procedure in rats, whose teeth are bigger than those of mice. If successful, human trials could start later this year.

It’s possible our teeth are too big for the treatment to work. Mouse teeth are much smaller than ours, so the spaces filled by the stem cell treatment were significantly smaller too.

If the treatment does work in humans, I’ll be one of many people grateful to know that my visits to the dentist’s chair could soon be fewer and farther between.

Banner Image Credit: Shutterstock

By Vanessa Bates Ramirez

This article originally appeared on Singularity Hub, a publication of Singularity University.




Designer Babies, and Their Babies: How AI and Genomics Will Impact Reproduction

As if stand-alone technologies weren’t advancing fast enough, we’re in age where we must study the intersection points of these technologies. How is what’s happening in robotics influenced by what’s happening in 3D printing? What could be made possible by applying the latest advances in quantum computing to nanotechnology?

Along these lines, one crucial tech intersection is that of artificial intelligence and genomics. Each field is seeing constant progress, but Jamie Metzl believes it’s their convergence that will really push us into uncharted territory, beyond even what we’ve imagined in science fiction. “There’s going to be this push and pull, this competition between the reality of our biology with its built-in limitations and the scope of our aspirations,” he said.

Metzl is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of the upcoming book Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity. At Singularity University’s Exponential Medicine conference last week, he shared his insights on genomics and AI, and where their convergence could take us.

Life As We Know It

Metzl explained how genomics as a field evolved slowly—and then quickly. In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick identified the double helix structure of DNA, and realized that the order of the base pairs held a treasure trove of genetic information. There was such a thing as a book of life, and we’d found it.

In 2003, when the Human Genome Project was completed (after 13 years and $2.7 billion), we learned the order of the genome’s 3 billion base pairs, and the location of specific genes on our chromosomes. Not only did a book of life exist, we figured out how to read it.

Jamie Metzl at Exponential Medicine

Fifteen years after that, it’s 2018 and precision gene editing in plants, animals, and humans is changing everything, and quickly pushing us into an entirely new frontier. Forget reading the book of life—we’re now learning how to write it.

“Readable, writable, and hackable, what’s clear is that human beings are recognizing that we are another form of information technology, and just like our IT has entered this exponential curve of discovery, we will have that with ourselves,” Metzl said. “And it’s intersecting with the AI revolution.”

Learning About Life Meets Machine Learning

In 2016, DeepMind’s AlphaGo program outsmarted the world’s top Go player. In 2017 AlphaGo Zero was created: unlike AlphaGo, AlphaGo Zero wasn’t trained using previous human games of Go, but was simply given the rules of Go—and in four days it defeated the AlphaGo program.

Our own biology is, of course, vastly more complex than the game of Go, and that, Metzl said, is our starting point. “The system of our own biology that we are trying to understand is massively, but very importantly not infinitely, complex,” he added.

Getting a standardized set of rules for our biology—and, eventually, maybe even outsmarting our biology—will require genomic data. Lots of it.

Multiple countries already starting to produce this data. The UK’s National Health Service recently announced a plan to sequence the genomes of five million Britons over the next five years. In the US the All of Us Research Program will sequence a million Americans. China is the most aggressive in sequencing its population, with a goal of sequencing half of all newborns by 2020.

“We’re going to get these massive pools of sequenced genomic data,” Metzl said. “The real gold will come from comparing people’s sequenced genomes to their electronic health records, and ultimately their life records.” Getting people comfortable with allowing open access to their data will be another matter; Metzl mentioned that Luna DNA and others have strategies to help people get comfortable with giving consent to their private information. But this is where China’s lack of privacy protection could end up being a significant advantage.

To compare genotypes and phenotypes at scale—first millions, then hundreds of millions, then eventually billions, Metzl said—we’re going to need AI and big data analytic tools, and algorithms far beyond what we have now. These tools will let us move from precision medicine to predictive medicine, knowing precisely when and where different diseases are going to occur and shutting them down before they start.

But, Metzl said, “As we unlock the genetics of ourselves, it’s not going to be about just healthcare. It’s ultimately going to be about who and what we are as humans. It’s going to be about identity.”

Designer Babies, and Their Babies

In Metzl’s mind, the most serious application of our genomic knowledge will be in embryo selection.

Currently, in-vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures can extract around 15 eggs, fertilize them, then do pre-implantation genetic testing; right now what’s knowable is single-gene mutation diseases and simple traits like hair color and eye color. As we get to the millions and then billions of people with sequences, we’ll have information about how these genetics work, and we’re going to be able to make much more informed choices,” Metzl said.

Imagine going to a fertility clinic in 2023. You give a skin graft or a blood sample, and using in-vitro gametogenesis (IVG)—infertility be damned—your skin or blood cells are induced to become eggs or sperm, which are then combined to create embryos. The dozens or hundreds of embryos created from artificial gametes each have a few cells extracted from them, and these cells are sequenced. The sequences will tell you the likelihood of specific traits and disease states were that embryo to be implanted and taken to full term. “With really anything that has a genetic foundation, we’ll be able to predict with increasing levels of accuracy how that potential child will be realized as a human being,” Metzl said.

This, he added, could lead to some wild and frightening possibilities: if you have 1,000 eggs and you pick one based on its optimal genetic sequence, you could then mate your embryo with somebody else who has done the same thing in a different genetic line. “Your five-day-old embryo and their five-day-old embryo could have a child using the same IVG process,” Metzl said. “Then that child could have a child with another five-day-old embryo from another genetic line, and you could go on and on down the line.”

Sounds insane, right? But wait, there’s more: as Jason Pontin reported earlier this year in Wired, “Gene-editing technologies such as Crispr-Cas9 would make it relatively easy to repair, add, or remove genes during the IVG process, eliminating diseases or conferring advantages that would ripple through a child’s genome. This all may sound like science fiction, but to those following the research, the combination of IVG and gene editing appears highly likely, if not inevitable.”

From Crazy to Commonplace?

It’s a slippery slope from gene editing and embryo-mating to a dystopian race to build the most perfect humans possible. If somebody’s investing so much time and energy in selecting their embryo, Metzl asked, how will they think about the mating choices of their children? IVG could quickly leave the realm of healthcare and enter that of evolution.

“We all need to be part of an inclusive, integrated, global dialogue on the future of our species,” Metzl said. “Healthcare professionals are essential nodes in this.” Not least among this dialogue should be the question of access to tech like IVG; are there steps we can take to keep it from becoming a tool for a wealthy minority, and thereby perpetuating inequality and further polarizing societies?

As Pontin points out, at its inception 40 years ago IVF also sparked fear, confusion, and resistance—and now it’s as normal and common as could be, with millions of healthy babies conceived using the technology.

The disruption that genomics, AI, and IVG will bring to reproduction could follow a similar story cycle—if we’re smart about it. As Metzl put it, “This must be regulated, because it is life.”

Image Credit: hywards / Shutterstock.com

By Vanessa Bates Ramirez

This article originally appeared on Singularity Hub, a publication of Singularity University.




This Startup Is Selling Thermal Imaging Glasses for Virus Detection

When will lockdowns end, and what will life be like when they do?

These are the questions on most of our minds today; we’ve accepted that even once restrictions ease, society won’t go back to looking like it did in 2019. Whether that means sitting six feet apart from other diners in restaurants (and said restaurants therefore continuing to hemorrhage money), kids alternating going to school week by week, or having to flash an “immunity passport” to get on a plane—it’s gonna be tough, and we’re going to have no choice but to adapt and make the best of some dire circumstances.

How will we open up the economy and get people back to work while simultaneously preventing new Covid-19 outbreaks? Where will we draw the line between the greater good and personal privacy and freedoms? Innovative companies are working to put together solutions that would walk this line, hopefully without crossing it.

One such company is a Chinese startup called Rokid. Based in Hangzhou with an office in San Francisco, Rokid has been focused on augmented reality glasses since its founding in 2014. But shortly after the novel coronavirus took center stage in China in January, the company started developing thermal imaging glasses, and churned out the new product in less than two months. As reported by TechCrunch, the T1 glasses are already in use in China, and Rokid is now marketing them to businesses, hospitals, and law enforcement agencies in the US.

Equipped with an infrared sensor and a camera, the glasses allow their wearer to “see” peoples’ temperatures from up to almost 10 feet away, and they can take pictures and videos on demand. The current model of T1 glasses can measure temperature for up to 200 people in 2 minutes, and could thus be used effectively even in crowded spaces like malls or train stations.

Rokid glasses coronavirus detection
Image courtesy of Rokid

To privacy-cherishing Westerners (and, in particular, HIPAA-complying Americans), the idea of giving authority figures unfettered access to our health information—even something as rudimentary as our temperatures—may produce a knee-jerk negative reaction, feeling like a portent of greater privacy invasions to come.

But realistically speaking, new technological tools like this could be enormously helpful for keeping people safe once society kicks back into gear.

Here’s an example of what it could look like if US businesses adopt Rokid’s T1 glasses. Let’s say you work in a high-rise office building, and when you go back to work, the receptionist behind the entry desk has been joined by a security guard wearing the glasses. As you rush to make the elevator one morning, the guard stops you, telling you that your temperature is above average and you can’t proceed up to your office; you need to go home immediately and self-quarantine for 14 days, or get tested for the virus and come back with a negative result. Furthermore, there’s now a photo of your face being stored with a copy of the record showing you had a fever, and if you break quarantine, you could be ticketed and fined.

Reimagine this scenario at the entrance to a hospital or restaurant, or before boarding a plane. Then flip it: you’re on that plane, flying for the first time in months, and a little nervous about it. How much safer would you feel knowing that everyone else on board has had their temperature checked and been determined safe to proceed? It would be nice not to panic every time you hear a cough or a sneeze.

Customers who buy the glasses can decide how to use and store the data they gather; Rokid says it will not collect or store information from the glasses in its own databases. But as geopolitical tensions climb, some American organizations may have reservations about taking their word for it.

Use of the glasses could also come with some thorny questions around enforcement; what if someone who’s told not to board a plane tries to get on anyway, or someone told to go home refuses to do so, insisting they’re not sick? How far would the authority of someone wearing infrared glasses extend, and at what point would law enforcement get involved?

It’s also relevant to note that temperature as a sole indicator of Covid-19 infection isn’t reliable. For starters, it’s possible to have a fever and not have Covid-19 at all. Also, as we’ve learned, the virus is insidious in that you can be infected for several days without showing any symptoms; by the time you have a fever you may already have spread the virus without knowing it.

And that possibility brings up a final important point: like contact tracing, tools meant to stem the spread of the virus will be rendered largely useless if we don’t have widely-available diagnostic tests.

This is the tension we’re facing. The economic cost of lockdowns grows every day, and yet the cost of ending those lockdowns without a viable strategy and losing the ground we’ve gained could be even greater. To move back toward a semblance of normalcy, we’ll need tools to track and isolate infections. Technology is offering those tools, but they feed on information; the price, then, is our privacy.

We need to weigh the risks and benefits and ensure that the use of technology like Rokid’s glasses accomplishes near-term goals without sliding down a slippery ethical slope long-term.

A lot of details about the near future are up in the air right now. What’s certain is that our reality post-coronavirus will look very different than before—whether you’re seeing it through thermal glasses or not.

Image Credit: Rokid




If Energy Becomes Free in the Future, How Will That Affect Our Lives?

Technology is making the cost of many things trend towards zero. Things we used to have to pay a lot for are now cheap or even free—think about how much it costs to buy a computer, make long-distance calls, take pictures, watch movies, listen to music, or even travel to another state or country. Down the road even more of our day-to-day needs will join this list—including, possibly, electricity.

That’s great, right? Because, free stuff! Who doesn’t love free stuff?

The energy case, though, is more complex.

The cost of burning coal can only go so low, but the cost of harvesting energy from the sun just keeps dropping. October 2017 saw bids for a Saudi Arabian solar plant as low as 1.79 cents per kilowatt hour, breaking the previous record in Abu Dhabi of 2.42 cents/kWh. Granted, it’s no coincidence that these uniquely low prices are coming from some of the sunniest parts of the world. For comparison’s sake, the average residential price for electricity in the US in 2017 was 12.5 cents/kWh.

Just when we think prices can’t go any lower, they do—and perhaps the most amazing part about the continual price decline is that it’s in spite of, not thanks to, batteries. Cheap, efficient batteries are still the biggest bottleneck for renewables, but once we figure them out, the sky—or, in this case, the floor?—is truly the limit. It’s also only a matter of time until transparent solar cells become a reality and turn every outdoor glass surface into a small-scale power plant.

So what would a world of free energy for all look like? Electricity would become ubiquitous in the many parts of the world where that’s not yet the case. In other places, electric bills would disappear—but that would be the least of it. Manufacturing costs would plummet, as would transportation costs, as would, well, pretty much all costs.

The money we’d save on energy could be put to use on social programs, maybe even spawning a universal basic income that would help bring about more just and equitable societies. If everything cost less, we wouldn’t need to work as much to earn as much money, freeing up our time to pursue creative endeavors or other personal passions.

There’s a flip side to every coin, though, and the old adage about the best things in life being free unfortunately doesn’t necessarily hold true in this case. Let’s look at what’s happened when we’ve made other resources free or cheap.

In the US we made food cheap and abundant by learning how to process it and manufacture it at scale—and now we’re fatter and sicker than we’ve ever been. We figured out how to produce plastic bottles and bags for pennies, and now the oceans are choked with our abundantly cheap, non-biodegradable garbage.

The Jevons Paradox holds that as technological progress increases the efficiency of a product or resource, the rate of consumption of that resource rises because of increasing demand, effectively canceling out any savings in efficiency. That’s right—humanity appears to be, at our core, a species that takes, and free electricity would be no exception.

Middle Eastern countries, where electricity prices are the cheapest in the world, present a telling example. Excessive use of energy is commonplace, and there’s no incentive to rein in use. Ideally, energy use per capita should be reflected in GDP per capita, but countries like Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia all have an imbalance in this metric, using much more energy than is needed to achieve their GDPs.

As energy becomes cheaper in other parts of the world, people will use more of it, and the first victim will be the planet. Even though the energy will be renewable, that doesn’t mean there won’t be environmental costs; there could be repercussions we haven’t even imagined yet, just as whoever invented plastic probably never envisioned it poisoning marine life.

So as energy gets cheaper and ultimately moves toward being free, how do we handle its abundance wisely? Government regulation will play a role, as will market forces, despite the absence of economic impetus. As with any new technological development, we may have a phase of adjustment where we go too far, catch ourselves, and swing back the other way.

Free, clean energy will undeniably bring many benefits with it. But we can’t afford to forget that there’s usually a price to pay, too—it’s just not always obvious from the outset.

Image Credit: Len Green / Shutterstock.com

By Vanessa Bates Ramirez

This article originally appeared on Singularity Hub, a publication of Singularity University.