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Post by kmaherali »

Can Synthetic Biology Save Us? This Scientist Thinks So.

Drew Endy is squarely focused on the potential of redesigning organisms for useful purposes. He also acknowledges significant challenges.

When the family house in Devon, Pa., caught fire, Drew Endy, then 12, carried out his most cherished possession — his personal computer.

Years later, as a graduate student, Mr. Endy was accepted to Ph.D. programs in biotechnology and political science.

The episodes seem to sum up Mr. Endy, a most unusual scientist: part engineer, part philosopher, whose conversation is laced with references to Descartes and Dylan, as well as DNA.

He’s also an evangelist of sorts. Mr. Endy, a 51-year-old professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, is a star in the emerging field of synthetic biology. He is its most articulate enthusiast, inspiring others to see it as a path to a better world, a transformational technology to feed the planet, conquer disease and combat pollution.

The optimism behind synthetic biology assumes that biology can now largely follow the trajectory of computing, where progress was made possible by the continuous improvement in microchips, with performance doubling and price dropping in half every year or two for decades. The underlying technologies for synthetic biology — gene sequencing and DNA synthesis — are on similar trends.

As in computing, biological information is coded in DNA, so it can be programmed — with the goal of redesigning organisms for useful purposes. The aim is to make such programming and production faster, cheaper and more reliable, more an engineering discipline with reusable parts and automation and less an artisanal craft, as biology has been.

Synthetic biology, proponents say, holds the promise of reprogramming biology to be more powerful and then mass-producing the turbocharged cells to increase food production, fight disease, generate energy, purify water and devour carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

“Biology and engineering are coming together in profound ways,” Mr. Endy said. “The potential is for civilization-scale flourishing, a world of abundance not scarcity, supporting a growing global population without destroying the planet.”

That idyllic future is decades off, if it is possible at all. But in the search for the proverbial next big thing over the next 20 years, synthetic biology is a prime candidate. And no one makes the case more persuasively than Mr. Endy.

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Post by kmaherali »

What You’re Doing Right Now Is Proof of Quantum Theory

Running a computer underscores how quantum physics is remaking our world.


Nobody understands quantum mechanics,” Richard Feynman famously said. Long after Max Planck’s discovery in 1900 that energy comes in separate packets or quanta, quantum physics remains enigmatic. It is vastly different from how things work at bigger scales, where objects from baseballs to automobiles follow Newton’s laws of mechanics and gravitation, consistent with our own bodily experiences. But at the quantum level, an electron is a particle and a wave, and light is a wave and a particle (wave-particle duality); an electron in an atom takes on only certain energies (energy quantization); electrons or photons can instantaneously affect each other over arbitrary distances (entanglement and teleportation); a quantum object exists in different states until it is measured (superposition, or popularly, Schrödinger’s cat); and a real physical force emerges from the apparent nothingness of vacuum (the Casimir effect).

For a theory that nobody understands, quantum physics has changed human society in remarkable ways.1 It lies behind the digital technology of integrated circuit chips, and the new technology of light-emitting diodes moving us toward a greener world. Scientists are now excited by one of the more elusive notions in quantum physics, the idea of ephemeral “virtual” photons, which could make possible non-invasive medical methods to diagnose the heart and brain. These connections illustrate the flow of ideas from scientific abstraction to useful application. But there is also a counter flow, where pragmatic requirements generate deep insight. The universal laws of thermodynamics have roots in efforts by 19th-century French engineer Sadi Carnot to make the leading technology of the time, the steam engine, more efficient. Similarly, the growth of quantum technology leads to deeper knowledge of the quantum. The interplay between pure theory, and its outcomes in the everyday world, is a continuing feature of science as it develops. In quantum physics, this interaction traces back to one of its founders, Danish physicist Niels Bohr.

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Post by kmaherali »

A Cure for Type 1 Diabetes? For One Man, It Seems to Have Worked.

A new treatment using stem cells that produce insulin has surprised experts and given them hope for the 1.5 million Americans living with the disease.


Brian Shelton may be the first person cured of Type 1 diabetes. “It’s a whole new life,” Mr. Shelton said. “It’s like a miracle.”Credit...

Brian Shelton’s life was ruled by Type 1 diabetes.

When his blood sugar plummeted, he would lose consciousness without warning. He crashed his motorcycle into a wall. He passed out in a customer’s yard while delivering mail. Following that episode, his supervisor told him to retire, after a quarter century in the Postal Service. He was 57.

His ex-wife, Cindy Shelton, took him into her home in Elyria, Ohio. “I was afraid to leave him alone all day,” she said.

Early this year, she spotted a call for people with Type 1 diabetes to participate in a clinical trial by Vertex Pharmaceuticals. The company was testing a treatment developed over decades by a scientist who vowed to find a cure after his baby son and then his teenage daughter got the devastating disease.

Mr. Shelton was the first patient. On June 29, he got an infusion of cells, grown from stem cells but just like the insulin-producing pancreas cells his body lacked.

Now his body automatically controls its insulin and blood sugar levels.

Mr. Shelton, now 64, may be the first person cured of the disease with a new treatment that has experts daring to hope that help may be coming for many of the 1.5 million Americans suffering from Type 1 diabetes.

“It’s a whole new life,” Mr. Shelton said. “It’s like a miracle.”

Diabetes experts were astonished but urged caution. The study is continuing and will take five years, involving 17 people with severe cases of Type 1 diabetes. It is not intended as a treatment for the more common Type 2 diabetes.

“We’ve been looking for something like this to happen literally for decades,” said Dr. Irl Hirsch, a diabetes expert at the University of Washington who was not involved in the research. He wants to see the result, not yet published in a peer-reviewed journal, replicated in many more people. He also wants to know if there will be unanticipated adverse effects and if the cells will last for a lifetime or if the treatment would have to be repeated.

But, he said, “bottom line, it is an amazing result.”

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Post by kmaherali »

The Gene-Synthesis Revolution

Researchers can now design and mass-produce genetic material — a technique that helped build the mRNA vaccines. What could it give us next?


Ten years ago, when Emily Leproust was a director of research at the life-sciences giant Agilent, a pair of scientist-engineers in their 50s — Bill Banyai and Bill Peck — came to her with an idea for a company. The Bills, as they were later dubbed, were biotech veterans. Peck was a mechanical engineer by training with a specialty in fluid mechanics; Banyai was a semiconductor expert who had worked in genomics since the mid-2000s, facilitating the transition from old-school Sanger sequencing, which processes a single DNA fragment at a time, to next-generation sequencing, which works through millions of fragments simultaneously. When the chemistry was miniaturized and put on a silicon chip, reading DNA became fast, cheap and widespread. The Bills, who met when Banyai hired Peck to work on a genomics project, realized that there was an opportunity to do something analogous for writing DNA — to make the process of making synthetic genes more scalable and cost-effective.

At the time, DNA synthesis was a slow and difficult process. The reagents — those famous bases (A’s, T’s, C’s and G’s) that make up DNA — were pipetted onto a plastic plate with 96 pits, or wells, each of which held roughly 50 microliters, equivalent to one eyedropper drop of liquid. “In a 96-well plate, conceptually what you have to do is you put liquid in, you mix, you wait, maybe you apply some heat and then take the liquid out,” Leproust says. The Bills proposed to put this same process on a silicon chip that, with the same footprint as a 96-well plate, would be able to hold a million tiny wells, each with a volume of 10 picoliters, or less than one-millionth the size of a 50-microliter well.

Because the wells were so small, they couldn’t simply pipette liquids into them. Instead, they used what was essentially an inkjet printer to fill them, distributing A’s, T’s, C’s and G’s rather than pigmented inks. A catalyst called tetrazole was added to bind bases into a single-strand sequence of DNA; advanced optics made perfect alignment possible. The upshot was that instead of producing 96 pieces of DNA at the same time, they could now print millions.

The concept was simple, but, Leproust says, “the engineering was hard.” When you synthesize DNA, she explains, the yield, or success rate, goes down with every base added. A’s and T’s bond together more weakly than G’s and C’s, so DNA sequences with large numbers of consecutive A’s and T’s are often unstable. In general, the longer your strand of DNA, the greater the likelihood of errors. Twist Bioscience, the company that Leproust and the Bills founded, currently synthesizes the longest DNA snippets in the industry, up to 300 base pairs. Called oligos, they can then be joined together to form genes.

Today Twist charges nine cents a base pair for DNA, a nearly tenfold decrease from the industry standard a decade ago. As a customer, you can visit the Twist website, upload a spreadsheet with the DNA sequence that you want, select a quantity and pay for it with a credit card. After a few days, the DNA is delivered to your laboratory door. At that point, you can insert the synthetic DNA into cells and get them to begin making — hopefully — the target molecules that the DNA is coded to produce. These molecules eventually become the basis for new drugs, food flavorings, fake meat, next-gen fertilizers, industrial products for the petroleum industry. Twist is one of a number of companies selling synthetic genes, betting on a future filled with bioengineered products with DNA as their building blocks.

In a way, that future has arrived. Gene synthesis is behind two of the biggest “products” of the past year: the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. Almost as soon as the Chinese C.D.C. first released the genomic sequence of SARS-CoV-2 to public databases in January 2020, the two pharmaceutical companies were able to synthesize the DNA that corresponds to a particular antigen on the virus, called the spike protein. This meant that their vaccines — unlike traditional analogues, which teach the immune system to recognize a virus by introducing a weakened version of it — could deliver genetic instructions prompting the body to create just the spike protein, so it will be recognized and attacked during an actual viral infection.

As recently as 10 years ago, this would have been barely feasible. It would have been challenging for researchers to synthesize a DNA sequence long enough to encode the full spike protein. But technical advances in the last few years allowed the vaccine developers to synthesize much longer pieces of DNA and RNA at much lower cost, more rapidly. We had vaccine prototypes within weeks and shots in arms within the year.

Now companies and scientists look toward a post-Covid future when gene synthesis will be deployed to tackle a variety of other problems. If the first phase of the genomics revolution focused on reading genes through gene sequencing, the second phase is about writing genes. Crispr, the gene-editing technology whose inventors won a Nobel Prize last year, has received far more attention, but the rise of gene synthesis promises to be an equally powerful development. Crispr is like editing an article, allowing us to make precise changes to the text at specific spots; gene synthesis is like writing the article from scratch.

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Post by kmaherali »

Biden’s Democracy Conference Is About Much More Than Democracy

While Americans angry about the results of the 2020 election were busy storming their own Capitol and conducting the umpteenth recount in Arizona, threats from outside the country didn’t take a lunch break. To the contrary, they are evolving rapidly.

Imagine a hostile country shutting down New York City’s electrical grid for months at a time using code-breaking quantum computers. Imagine pirates in cyberspace disabling American missile defense systems without warning. Imagine China obtaining the private health data or private phone communications of millions of Americans, including members of Congress.

These aren’t nutty hypotheticals in some distant dystopian future. They are scenarios that keep American national security officials up at night right now.

“We have already reached the point where the behaviors of a limited group of talented actors in cyberspace could completely obliterate systems that we rely on for our day-to-day survival,” Candace Rondeaux, a specialist on the future of warfare at New America, a Washington-based think tank, told me.

The Biden administration’s response has been to counter those threats by gathering a coalition of democracies that will work together to safeguard our economies, our militaries and our technological networks from bad actors in China, Russia and elsewhere. That’s the reason President Biden and European counterparts formed the U.S.-E.U. Trade and Technology Council, which established working groups to develop new technology and prevent it from falling into the wrong hands.

It’s the reason Mr. Biden met with the heads of state of Australia, India and Japan — world powers on China’s doorstep — to ensure that “the way in which technology is designed, developed, governed and used is shaped by our shared values and respect for universal human rights.” And it’s the reason Mr. Biden has called together more than 100 leaders from democratic countries around the world for a virtual Summit for Democracy this Thursday and Friday.

At this week’s summit, there will be plenty of familiar-sounding pledges to root out corruption and defend human rights. There is likely to be hand-wringing about coups that reversed fragile progress in Sudan and Myanmar, and condemnations of leaders who used the pandemic as an excuse to crack down on opposition and dissent, including those in El Salvador, Hungary and Uganda.

But at its core, this conference is not just about protecting democracy at home and abroad. It’s also about how open societies will defend themselves in the future against existential technological threats. As countries like China and Russia invest heavily in artificial intelligence and quantum computing, and exercise intensive state control over data, the United States and its allies need a game plan. What rules should be adopted to govern the use of artificial intelligence, quantum computing and space travel? How do we make sure those technologies aren’t weaponized against us?

The Biden administration is attempting to forge a common front with allies in Europe and Asia across technological, economic and military spheres to prepare for an age of technological competition that will look far different from any geopolitical rivalry that the world has ever seen. Democracy is the common thread stringing the Biden administration’s efforts together. It’s the code word for who’s on our team.

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Post by kmaherali »

Can We Have a Meaningful Life in a Virtual World?

The imminent arrival of the long-awaited fourth “Matrix” movie will surely spur another round of thinking about a question that philosophers have been kicking around at least since Plato’s time: How do we know that our world is real? Nowadays, of course, we’re far more likely to consider that a simulated reality would be rendered in bytes rather than shadows on a cave wall. Furthermore, given both the technical progress being made and the business push behind it, far more likely than our predecessors to actually embrace the prospect of life in a virtual world. The philosophical implications of such worlds — as well as the possibility we might already be existing within one — are the subject of the philosopher David J. Chalmers’s new book “Reality+,” which will be published in January. In it, Chalmers, who is a professor of philosophy and neural science at New York University, as well as co-director of the school’s Center for Mind, Brain and Consciousness, argues, among other things, that our thinking about our future virtual lives needn’t be rooted in visions of dystopia. “The possibilities for virtual reality,” says Chalmers, who is 55, “are as broad as the possibilities for physical reality. We know physical reality can be amazing and it can be terrible, and I fully expect the same range for virtual reality.”

For the entire discussion go to: ... iversified
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Post by kmaherali »

The teenager who made medical history to save her mother

When she was just 19, Aliana Deveza organised and underwent an historic operation to save her mum's life.

She persuaded a hospital to do the first organ swap in the United States where different organs were exchanged between unrelated pairs of donors.

"The first thing that I asked when I woke up was just how was my Mom? Is she okay? Did she make it?

"I wasn't really worried about myself anymore, I was just kind of focused on getting through the pain that I was feeling. Just hearing that everybody had made it, I was able breathe again."

When Aliana says everyone else, she's not just talking about herself and her mother, because two other women - sisters - were also having operations.

One of Aliana's organs would go to one of the sister, and one of the sister's kidneys would go to Aliana's mum. Two lives were being, with two people donating organs to strangers to save a family member.

The operation was the result of two years of hard work which paid off. Aliana had saved her mother Erosalyn from years of kidney dialysis, illness and possibly an early death -and a complete stranger would go on to live a new life.

Kidneys are one of the only organs a living person can donate to another, as most of us are born with two but we only need one to function.

Yet people who need a kidney are not always able to take one from someone they love, even if that person is willing to give it.

Across the world around 150,000 organs were transplanted in 2019 - a small fraction of those who need a new organ.

Alvin Roth shared the prize for Economics from the Nobel Foundation in 2012 for his work devising a system to help more people give and get kidneys.

"Unlike many organs its possible for someone to give a kidney to someone they love and save their life," he explains.

"But sometimes they can't take your kidney even though you're healthy enough to give one. And perhaps I'm the donor in a in a similar pair, I would love to give a kidney to someone I love but I can't.

"But maybe my kidney would work for your patient and your kidney would work for my patient. That's the simplest kind of kidney exchange where two donor pairs get together, and each one gets a compatible kidney from the other patients."

The work of Alvin Roth and his colleagues resulted in a system which has been able to scale up the number of kidney swaps, so now each year thousands of lives are saved.

But these organ exchanges are not yet legal everywhere. In Germany, for example, you can still only give an organ directly to someone in your immediate family. One concern is that vulnerable people will be tempted to sell an organ for money.

It's not pairs of people. In some cases chains of people have come together to maximise the number of matched kidneys.

In one case, 70 different people were brought together so 35 donors gave their kidneys to 35 strangers so that others could get a new lease of life.

Aliana wasn't able to swap her kidney with her mother because doctors feared the kidney problems her mum had might be hereditary, so Aliana might have it too.

She still wanted to help her mum get a new kidney but time was running out, so she started to do some research and found it might be possible to swap part of a liver for a kidney.

"I started researching, the type of organs that can be donated while a person was still alive. And the liver is what came up most."

Aliana did not know that this was just a theoretical possibility and was not a regular operation. She started calling hospitals to see if she could donate part of her liver to someone in exchange for a kidney for her mum.

Aliana says a few hospitals did not understand what she meant: "I had a few hospitals transfer me to the morgue, because they didn't know what I was talking about."

Eventually she did get the right person for the job. John Roberts a surgeon at the University of California in San Francisco.

"He didn't just brush it off. I mean, I was just this 19-year-old girl, and I didn't know if I sounded crazy. My family was against it because they didn't want me putting myself in any danger."

With the help of the hospital they found two sisters who would pair with Aliana and her mum. One of the sisters would get part of Aliana's liver, and Aliana's mum would get a new kidney from the other sister.

Aliana has no regrets, so why does she think more of us are not doing it? "I think people gravitate away from the idea of organ donation, because of the fear surrounding it.

"These are major operations, there are definitely a lot of risks, but understanding it and going through the process with a team that will be there for you during the process is what helps."

Watch video at:


Small device that might render stethoscope obsolete

The medic sees internal body organs clearly, no longer having to make sense from a cacophony of body sounds
In Summary

- Advancements in technology have compressed the point-of-care ultrasound to such a degree that handheld, pocket-sized versions are now readily available in Kenya.

- Wachira says the Pocus has not replaced the stethoscope, but has become a standard tool that almost every doctor at Aga Khan carries.


Dr Benjamin Wachira, an emergency care physician at the Aga Khan University Hospital, scans a client's heart at the emergency wing using the point of care ultrasound. The device is now a standard at the hospital, which nearly every doctor carries.

For many doctors, the good old stethoscope is a symbol of the skill and knowledge they possess.

Yet now, a new diagnostic tool may render the stethoscope obsolete, even in Kenya.

Enter Dr Benjamin Wachira, an emergency care physician at the Aga Khan University Hospital in Nairobi.

Instead of a stethoscope around his neck, he carries a small handheld device that might, in time, relegate the former into the dustbins of medical history.

The gadget is the point-of-care ultrasound (Pocus) device.

“It has been used by radiologists and obstetricians for a long time,” he explains. But advancements have compressed the technology to such a degree that handheld, pocket-sized versions are now readily available in Kenya.

“Before, I would have used the stethoscope to listen to the patient's body and determine if the sounds are normal or there is a problem,” DrDr Wachira explains.

That means he would need to make sense from a cacophony of thumps, crackles, and wheezes from a patient’s body to decide the next course of action.

But at Aga Khan, doctors are now relying more on the Pocus.

It is basically a small probe attached to an Ipad or a mobile phone.

He applies bluish gel on the probe (size of a TV remote) and moves it around the patient’s chest. An image of a healthy heart pumping shows up on the tablet's screen. “Normal,” he says. He moves to the upper right portion of the abdomen. The liver comes up. “Normal,” he says.

“It takes away the guesswork. Before you had to use the stethoscope, listen to the sounds and decide whether to send the patient to the cardiology for a scan or what to do. Sometimes the results would come a week later. But this one helps us make decisions immediately,” he explains.

Wachira says the Pocus has not replaced the stethoscope, but has become a standard tool that almost every doctor at Aga Khan carries.

In fact, for low resource environments, the World Health Organization now recommends portable ultrasound devices as a primary diagnostic tool.

The device uses sound waves to produce pictures of the inside of the body. It is safe, non-invasive, and does not use radiation.

“Every emergency department in any facility should have this,” Dr Wachira says.

He says it is particularly useful in saving accident victims.

“You can easily pick out internal bleeding in the body within two minutes, or injuries to any vital organ. It basically takes away any guesswork,” he explains.

One study in the United States showed that ultrasound correctly identified particular issues in 82 per cent of patients as opposed to a 47 per cent detection rate with physical examination only.

Two weeks ago, Health CAS Mercy Mwangangi encouraged facilities to invest in ultrasound, giving the example of the Aga Khan University Hospital.

She was addressing biomedical engineers at the annual gathering, held in Kakamega.

“There is a gap which can be addressed by you, medical engineers, who know the advances in technology. You can challenge us within the policy table to avail such technologies because I am sure there is a whole field that you are aware of technologies that is happening outside there,” she said.

A random check in Nairobi shows the device will cost around Sh500,000. ... -obsolete/
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Post by kmaherali »


The Age of A.I.: And Our Human Future


Artificial Intelligence (AI) is transforming human society fundamentally and profoundly. Not since the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason have we changed how we approach knowledge, politics, economics, even warfare. Three of our most accomplished and deep thinkers come together to explore what it means for us all.

An A.I. that learned to play chess discovered moves that no human champion would have conceived of. Driverless cars edge forward at red lights, just like impatient humans, and so far, nobody can explain why it happens. Artificial intelligence is being put to use in sports, medicine, education, and even (frighteningly) how we wage war.

In this book, three of our most accomplished and deep thinkers come together to explore how A.I. could affect our relationship with knowledge, impact our worldviews, and change society and politics as profoundly as the ideas of the Enlightenment. ... 1668601109
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Post by kmaherali »

AI Is Helping Scientists Explain the Brain

But what if it’s telling them a false story?


The brain is often called a black box but any neuroscientist who has looked inside knows that’s a sobering understatement. Technological advances are making our neural circuitries increasingly accessible, allowing us to closely watch any number of neurons in action. And yet the mystery of the brain only deepens. What’s the meaning embedded in the collective chorus of spiking neurons? How does their activity turn light and soundwaves into our subjective experience of vision and hearing? What computations do neurons perform and what are the broad governing principles they follow? The brain is not a black box—it’s an alien world, where the language and local laws have yet to be cracked, and intuitions go to die.

Could artificial intelligence figure it out for us? Perhaps. But a recent recognition is that even our newest, most powerful tools that have achieved great success in AI technology are stumbling at decoding the brain. Machine learning algorithms, such as artificial neural networks, have solved many complex tasks. They can predict the weather and the stock market or recognize objects and faces, and crucially, they do so without us telling them the rules. They should, at least in theory, be able to learn the hidden patterns in brain activity data by themselves and tell us a story of how the brain operates. And they do tell a story. It’s just that, as some scientists are finding, that story is not necessarily of our brain.

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Post by kmaherali »

Stem cell surprise turns old brains young again..

Hi Karim,

My good friend, and colleague Dr. Al Sears has some astounding information about stem cell technology that helps you enhance your brain’s performance. Please read about it below.

To your health,


Julia Lundstrom, Neuroscience and Brain Health Educator
Simple Smart Science

Making a Measurable Improvement In Your Brain Health

You may have heard about stem cells in the news…

They act as your body’s main repair system…

And replace old, dysfunctional cells with healthy new ones.

So whenever there’s a stem cell breakthrough, it’s BIG news.

But this latest discovery is on an entirely different level…

Decades ahead of anything else I’ve seen.

A team from the University of Cambridge, England, has successfully taken old, withered, tired brains…

And rebuilt them so they perform like new.

All without drugs, surgeries, or a single hospital visit.

Stanford doctor Gary Steinberg saw 18 wheelchair-bound patients experience a full brain reboot, reporting:

"I’m shocked. Ten years ago we couldn’t even dream about these recoveries"

Sonia C., age 36, was almost completely immobile for two years after her stroke…

She said she felt "trapped in her body."

But just HOURS after activating her neural stem cells, she reports, "my limbs just woke up."

Her and other patients even regained their ability to walk again!

What does this mean for you?

Well, this same stem cell technology helps you enhance your brain’s performance.

And it’s a one hundred percent natural process involving no drugs or hospital visits.

You can boost every area of your brain’s functions for:

- Crystal-clear memory
- Sky-high IQ
- Encyclopedic knowledge
- Snappy wit
- No brain fog or "senior moments"
- Enhanced mood and happiness
- Less stress and anxious feelings
- What we’re witnessing is the future of medicine here NOW.

And the possibilities for ramping up brain performance are endless.

Click HERE ... s_20220303 now to learn more about how you can help rebuild a new and better you today.

To Your Good Health,

Al Sears, MD, CNS
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A.I. Is Mastering Language. Should We Trust What It Says?

Post by kmaherali »


A.I. Is Mastering Language. Should We Trust What It Says?

OpenAI’s GPT-3 and other neural nets can now write original prose with mind-boggling fluency — a development that could have profound implications for the future.

You are sitting in a comfortable chair by the fire, on a cold winter’s night. Perhaps you have a mug of tea in hand, perhaps something stronger. You open a magazine to an article you’ve been meaning to read. The title suggested a story about a promising — but also potentially dangerous — new technology on the cusp of becoming mainstream, and after reading only a few sentences, you find yourself pulled into the story. A revolution is coming in machine intelligence, the author argues, and we need, as a society, to get better at anticipating its consequences. But then the strangest thing happens: You notice that the writer has, seemingly deliberately, omitted the very last word of the first .

The missing word jumps into your consciousness almost unbidden: ‘‘the very last word of the first paragraph.’’ There’s no sense of an internal search query in your mind; the word ‘‘paragraph’’ just pops out. It might seem like second nature, this filling-in-the-blank exercise, but doing it makes you think of the embedded layers of knowledge behind the thought. You need a command of the spelling and syntactic patterns of English; you need to understand not just the dictionary definitions of words but also the ways they relate to one another; you have to be familiar enough with the high standards of magazine publishing to assume that the missing word is not just a typo, and that editors are generally loath to omit key words in published pieces unless the author is trying to be clever — perhaps trying to use the missing word to make a point about your cleverness, how swiftly a human speaker of English can conjure just the right word.

Siri and Alexa popularized the experience of conversing with machines, but this was on the next level, approaching a fluency that resembled science fiction.

Before you can pursue that idea further, you’re back into the article, where you find the author has taken you to a building complex in suburban Iowa. Inside one of the buildings lies a wonder of modern technology: 285,000 CPU cores yoked together into one giant supercomputer, powered by solar arrays and cooled by industrial fans. The machines never sleep: Every second of every day, they churn through innumerable calculations, using state-of-the-art techniques in machine intelligence that go by names like ‘‘stochastic gradient descent’’ and ‘‘convolutional neural networks.’’ The whole system is believed to be one of the most powerful supercomputers on the planet.

And what, you may ask, is this computational dynamo doing with all these prodigious resources? Mostly, it is playing a kind of game, over and over again, billions of times a second. And the game is called: Guess what the missing word is.

The supercomputer complex in Iowa is running a program created by OpenAI, an organization established in late 2015 by a handful of Silicon Valley luminaries, including Elon Musk; Greg Brockman, who until recently had been chief technology officer of the e-payment juggernaut Stripe; and Sam Altman, at the time the president of the start-up incubator Y Combinator. In its first few years, as it built up its programming brain trust, OpenAI’s technical achievements were mostly overshadowed by the star power of its founders. But that changed in summer 2020, when OpenAI began offering limited access to a new program called Generative Pre-Trained Transformer 3, colloquially referred to as GPT-3. Though the platform was initially available to only a small handful of developers, examples of GPT-3’s uncanny prowess with language — and at least the illusion of cognition — began to circulate across the web and through social media. Siri and Alexa had popularized the experience of conversing with machines, but this was on the next level, approaching a fluency that resembled creations from science fiction like HAL 9000 from “2001”: a computer program that can answer open-ended complex questions in perfectly composed sentences.

As a field, A.I. is currently fragmented among a number of different approaches, targeting different kinds of problems. Some systems are optimized for problems that involve moving through physical space, as in self-driving cars or robotics; others categorize photos for you, identifying familiar faces or pets or vacation activities. Some forms of A.I. — like AlphaFold, a project of the Alphabet (formerly Google) subsidiary DeepMind — are starting to tackle complex scientific problems, like predicting the structure of proteins, which is central to drug design and discovery. Many of these experiments share an underlying approach known as ‘‘deep learning,’’ in which a neural net vaguely modeled after the structure of the human brain learns to identify patterns or solve problems through endlessly repeated cycles of trial and error, strengthening neural connections and weakening others through a process known as training. The ‘‘depth’’ of deep learning refers to multiple layers of artificial neurons in the neural net, layers that correspond to higher and higher levels of abstraction: In a vision-based model, for instance, a layer of neurons might detect vertical lines, which would then feed into a layer detecting edges of physical structures, which would then report to a layer that identified houses as opposed to apartment buildings.

GPT-3 belongs to a category of deep learning known as a large language model, a complex neural net that has been trained on a titanic data set of text: in GPT-3’s case, roughly 700 gigabytes of data drawn from across the web, including Wikipedia, supplemented with a large collection of text from digitized books. GPT-3 is the most celebrated of the large language models, and the most publicly available, but Google, Meta (formerly known as Facebook) and DeepMind have all developed their own L.L.M.s in recent years. Advances in computational power — and new mathematical techniques — have enabled L.L.M.s of GPT-3’s vintage to ingest far larger data sets than their predecessors, and employ much deeper layers of artificial neurons for their training.

Chances are you have already interacted with a large language model if you’ve ever used an application — like Gmail — that includes an autocomplete feature, gently prompting you with the word ‘‘attend’’ after you type the sentence ‘‘Sadly I won’t be able to….’’ But autocomplete is only the most rudimentary expression of what software like GPT-3 is capable of. It turns out that with enough training data and sufficiently deep neural nets, large language models can display remarkable skill if you ask them not just to fill in the missing word, but also to continue on writing whole paragraphs in the style of the initial prompt. For example, when I gave GPT-3 the prompt:

In 1958, Frank Rosenblatt introduced the Perceptron, an early version of a neural net that could only detect the location of a square on a printed card. Fifty years later, neural nets are capable of . . .

The software dutifully completed the thought, and then continued on, picking up on the historical framing of the initial text:

. . . detecting and classifying faces, finding patterns in data, and emulating the human brain. While the neural net matured in academia, it also found its way into the tech industry. In the late 1980s and early 90s, neural nets were used in speech recognition and character recognition applications. The growth in computing power and the ability to collect larger data sets allowed other neural net applications to emerge.

Since GPT-3’s release, the internet has been awash with examples of the software’s eerie facility with language — along with its blind spots and foibles and other more sinister tendencies. GPT-3 has been trained to write Hollywood scripts and compose nonfiction in the style of Gay Talese’s New Journalism classic ‘‘Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.’’ You can employ GPT-3 as a simulated dungeon master, conducting elaborate text-based adventures through worlds that are invented on the fly by the neural net. Others have fed the software prompts that generate patently offensive or delusional responses, showcasing the limitations of the model and its potential for harm if adopted widely in its current state.

So far, the experiments with large language models have been mostly that: experiments probing the model for signs of true intelligence, exploring its creative uses, exposing its biases. But the ultimate commercial potential is enormous. If the existing trajectory continues, software like GPT-3 could revolutionize how we search for information in the next few years. Today, if you have a complicated question about something — how to set up your home theater system, say, or what the options are for creating a 529 education fund for your children — you most likely type a few keywords into Google and then scan through a list of links or suggested videos on YouTube, skimming through everything to get to the exact information you seek. (Needless to say, you wouldn’t even think of asking Siri or Alexa to walk you through something this complex.) But if the GPT-3 true believers are correct, in the near future you’ll just ask an L.L.M. the question and get the answer fed back to you, cogently and accurately. Customer service could be utterly transformed: Any company with a product that currently requires a human tech-support team might be able to train an L.L.M. to replace them.

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Video Quote: Proper Use of Technology

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Doctors Transplant Ear of Human Cells, Made by 3-D Printer

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3DBio Therapeutics, a biotech company in Queens, said it had for the first time used 3-D printing to make a body part with a patient’s own cells.

Alexa, the patient, before the surgery, left, and 30 days after the surgery.Credit...Dr. Arturo Bonilla, Microtia-Congenital Ear Institute

A 20-year-old woman who was born with a small and misshapen right ear has received a 3-D printed ear implant made from her own cells, the manufacturer announced on Thursday. Independent experts said that the transplant, part of the first clinical trial of a successful medical application of this technology, was a stunning advance in the field of tissue engineering.

The new ear was printed in a shape that precisely matched the woman’s left ear, according to 3DBio Therapeutics, a regenerative medicine company based in Queens. The new ear, transplanted in March, will continue to regenerate cartilage tissue, giving it the look and feel of a natural ear, the company said.

“It’s definitely a big deal,” said Adam Feinberg, a professor of biomedical engineering and materials science and engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. Dr. Feinberg, who is not affiliated with 3DBio, is a co-founder of FluidForm, a regenerative medicine company that also uses 3-D printing. “It shows this technology is not an ‘if’ anymore, but a ‘when,’” he said.

The results of the woman’s reconstructive surgery were announced by 3DBio in a news release. Citing proprietary concerns, the company has not publicly disclosed the technical details of the process, making it more difficult for outside experts to evaluate. The company said that federal regulators had reviewed the trial design and set strict manufacturing standards, and that the data would be published in a medical journal when the study was complete.

The clinical trial, which includes 11 patients, is still ongoing, and it’s possible that the transplants could fail or bring unanticipated health complications. But since the cells originated from the patient’s own tissue, the new ear is not likely to be rejected by the body, doctors and company officials said.

3DBio’s success, seven years in the making, is one of several recent breakthroughs in the quest to improve organ and tissue transplants. In January, surgeons in Maryland transplanted a genetically modified pig’s heart into a 57-year-old man with heart disease, extending his life by two months. Scientists are also developing techniques to extend the life of donor organs so they do not go to waste; Swiss doctors reported this week that a patient who received a human liver that had been preserved for three days was still healthy a year later.

United Therapeutics Corp., the company that provided the genetically engineered pig for the heart procedure, is also experimenting with 3-D printing to produce lungs for transplants, a spokesman said. And scientists from the Israel Institute of Technology reported in September that they had printed a network of blood vessels, which would be necessary to supply blood to implanted tissues.

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CRISPR, 10 Years On: Learning to Rewrite the Code of Life

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The gene-editing technology has led to innovations in medicine, evolution and agriculture — and raised profound ethical questions about altering human DNA.

By Carl Zimmer
June 27, 2022
Ten years ago this week, Jennifer Doudna and her colleagues published the results of a test-tube experiment on bacterial genes. When the study came out in the journal Science on June 28, 2012, it did not make headline news. In fact, over the next few weeks, it did not make any news at all.

Looking back, Dr. Doudna wondered if the oversight had something to do with the wonky title she and her colleagues had chosen for the study: “A Programmable Dual RNA-Guided DNA Endonuclease in Adaptive Bacterial Immunity.”

“I suppose if I were writing the paper today, I would have chosen a different title,” Dr. Doudna, a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley, said in an interview.

Far from an esoteric finding, the discovery pointed to a new method for editing DNA, one that might even make it possible to change human genes.

“I remember thinking very clearly, when we publish this paper, it’s like firing the starting gun at a race,” she said.

In just a decade, CRISPR has become one of the most celebrated inventions in modern biology. It is swiftly changing how medical researchers study diseases: Cancer biologists are using the method to discover hidden vulnerabilities of tumor cells. Doctors are using CRISPR to edit genes that cause hereditary diseases.

Editing the genome with CRISPR

“The era of human gene editing isn’t coming,” said David Liu, a biologist at Harvard University. “It’s here.”

But CRISPR’s influence extends far beyond medicine. Evolutionary biologists are using the technology to study Neanderthal brains and to investigate how our ape ancestors lost their tails. Plant biologists have edited seeds to produce crops with new vitamins or with the ability to withstand diseases. Some of them may reach supermarket shelves in the next few years.

CRISPR has had such a quick impact that Dr. Doudna and her collaborator, Emmanuelle Charpentier of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin, won the 2020 Nobel Prize for chemistry. The award committee hailed their 2012 study as “an epoch-making experiment.”

Jennifer Doudna shared the 2020 Nobel Prize for chemistry for her work on CRISPR.Credit...Anastasiia Sapon for The New York Times

Dr. Doudna recognized early on that CRISPR would pose a number of thorny ethical questions, and after a decade of its development, those questions are more urgent than ever.

Will the coming wave of CRISPR-altered crops feed the world and help poor farmers or only enrich agribusiness giants that invest in the technology? Will CRISPR-based medicine improve health for vulnerable people across the world, or come with a million-dollar price tag?

The most profound ethical question about CRISPR is how future generations might use the technology to alter human embryos. This notion was simply a thought experiment until 2018, when He Jiankui, a biophysicist in China, edited a gene in human embryos to confer resistance to H.I.V. Three of the modified embryos were implanted in women in the Chinese city of Shenzen.

In 2019, a court sentenced Dr. He to prison for “illegal medical practices.” MIT Technology Review reported in April that he had recently been released. Little is known about the health of the three children, who are now toddlers.

Scientists don’t know of anyone else who has followed Dr. He’s example — yet. But as CRISPR continues to improve, editing human embryos may eventually become a safe and effective treatment for a variety of diseases.

Will it then become acceptable, or even routine, to repair disease-causing genes in an embryo in the lab? What if parents wanted to insert traits that they found more desirable — like those related to height, eye color or intelligence?

Françoise Baylis, a bioethicist at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, worries that the public is still not ready to grapple with such questions.

“I’m skeptical about the depth of understanding about what’s at issue there,” she said. “There’s a difference between making people better and making better people.”

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