The Brainy Mouse, the Robot Mom, and us

Trying to keep up with the rapidly emerging sciences of genetic engineering and AI, artificial intelligence, is a daunting task. I can only race along, trying to catch the highlights, but that’s enough to absorb a great deal of time and effort in itself. Here are a couple recent examples and a very interesting video. The relationship among the three will become more evident as you examine them.

Mice have more than 20,000 genes in their DNA, around the same as humans and other primates. Mice have tiny brains that never develop to the extent of a primate brain because they have a genetic “brake” that stops brain development. Very recently, scientists at Germany’s Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics tried an experiment. That took one (yes, just one) primate gene known to affect brain development and engineered it into a mouse embryo. Bingo! They created “transgenic” mice whose brains continued to develop and express primate traits. Not so many years ago, this would have been big news, the headline variety. No more. It’s a bit dense, but for those who like references, here is the Institute’s report –

I am not suggesting that we are soon to have a species of mice with primate brains running around. This is just one tiny step of hundreds, even thousands, of tiny steps being taken in laboratories all over the world that will eventually bring us to the “great leaps”. Those leaps will amaze us, very possibly scare the hell out of us. Nonetheless, I have no problem with experiments like this. They are simply part of the search for truth in genetics. They are necessary, they are inevitable, and they are worthy of note, if only in passing.

Here’s an interesting question. Can robots, utilizing artificial intelligence, evolve? At the University of Cambridge, the answer appears to be “yes”. You can read about it here – NOTE: The first video shown is a nice overview of their lab work, but it’s the second video, along with the text, that shows “mom” creating a new generation of “child”. Like the mouse experiment, one more step on a long journey to the truth, but here in artificial intelligence.

Now the video, always more interesting than text! It’s a TED presentation by Yuval Noah Harari, author of the NY Times best-seller and Mark Zuckerberg favorite, “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind”. He explains his theory that humans are a unique species because we operate in two different realities at the same time. Very, very interesting and worth hearing just for that.

But the best is the last. In this case, the last two minutes of the video discussing Harari’s new book which is not yet available in English. He raises the very issue I am most concerned with. It is a tough subject to talk about, but one that has to be confronted, whether now by choice or later by necessity. The subject is already out there, but not widely. I will be discussing it frequently here. For the moment, I will leave it to Dr. Harari to share with you.


This is a personal blog, more of a personal notebook, unadvertised and without promotion. I try to post on a weekly basis, but there is no guarantee. Should you stumble across it and wish to be notified of new posts, just enter your email address at the upper-right of this page. I have no other use for email addresses. Rest assured, yours will be kept private. I also now tweet to share articles and essays that I think are important, but do not have room for here. You are welcome to make comments, if they are on topic and polite. I have no time or space for insults, foul language, or anything I judge to be offensive to readers.

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Automation versus a $15 minimum wage

One of the joys of being an American citizen living outside the United States is that it can give you at least the illusion of separation from the shouting and anger of the current American political scene. I may have my own feelings, but they are not significant to what I am doing here at Future Brief. However, an issue has been raised that strikes directly at my concerns regarding our ability to deal constructively with the consequences of technological change.

Recently, Senator Bernie Sanders, a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, has promoted an increase in the minimum wage to $15 an hour for federal employees, an idea that is now being proposed at state and municipal levels as well.   This is not for lack of sympathy for people trying to get by on the current minimum wage, but this is all but certain to cause more problems than it solves.

The difficulty in raising a topic like this is that partisan liberal Democrats have frequently turned to this as a solution in past years and they can instantly assume that any criticism comes from Republicans or otherwise from the right-wing.  In the current political atmosphere, this kind of “knee-jerk” reaction can be seen on both the liberal and conservative ends of the American political spectrum on many different topics and that leads to a lot of emotion, but little else.

So it is that I was very impressed with a recent commentary by Harry Holzer, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution.  As described at the Brooking Institution website, “Harry Holzer is a Nonresident Senior Fellow in Economic Studies at the Brookings Institution and a professor at the McCourt School of Public Policy at Georgetown. He previously served as Chief Economist for the U.S. Department of Labor and professor of economics at Michigan State University. Over most of his career, he has focused primarily on the low-wage labor market, and particularly the problems of minority workers in urban areas. In recent years he has worked on the quality of jobs as well as workers in the labor market, and how job quality affects the employment prospects of the disadvantaged as well as worker inequality and insecurity more broadly.”

I would add that Dr. Holzer was Chief Economist for the U.S. Department of Labor under President Clinton.  This is not a conservative Republican.  Indeed, with his background, one would expect he would more likely endorse a major increase like the one proposed.

Instead, he raises serious red flags in an essay for Brookings titled A $15-hour minimum wage could harm America’s poorest workers.   His approach is very, very gentle.  I do not know him, but I suspect he words it as he does so as not to instantly force a negative emotional response from the Brookings audience most likely to read his essay, liberals and Democrats.  I appreciate that as I, too, am tired of the angry shouting coming from both “sides of the aisle” and would not want to be caught in the crossfire.

I have no political “horse” in this race in either party.  I am an independent and will wait until all the shouting is done and the candidates are selected and the final election process is underway. I will consider them all, third party candidates nominated by the Libertarians, Greens, etc as well as the Republicans and Democrats.  Long ago, I decided to never vote “against” a candidate, but only “for” a candidate.  If I have no one I can vote for, I simply do not vote.   We are about a year from the point when I can begin that process.  In the meantime, I am happy to sit on the sidelines and let the partisan folks do their thing.

The only reason I bring this matter up today is the result of one sentence, “”For instance, fast-food workers might be more easily replaced by robots.”  That is the only reference made to an issue I have discussed here more than once – automation.  It is an indirect reference, but it is important to note.

As nearly five million people have seen at the YouTube video, Humans Need Not Apply, as well as from many other sources, automation is already here and more is coming.  Automation is not going away.  It is already a part of our lives and will only continue to grow as its benefits are too obvious to ignore.  But so are its negative consequences.  Those will not be enough to stop automation’s growth, but they are enough to cause a great deal of pain to some substantial segments of our population, and not just in the US.

Harry Holzer raises, no matter how gently and indirectly, an important issue.  A sudden increase in the minimum raise is a real incentive to automate.  As a business owner myself, I am very annoyed by people who think we hate our employees and look for any excuse to replace them.  That is simply not true.  My employees in various businesses over the years have been my associates and my friends.  Losing them because I cannot afford them is extremely painful.  I hate it.  It is the worst reason for letting someone go.  But if it is that or go out of business, I do what I have to do or we all end up unemployed.  And even if I and all my current competitors decided to raise our prices to cover the increase in wages, this would only be a clear incentive for new competitors to rise who automate from the start and offer lower prices we cannot meet.

The $15 minimum wage is an example of trying to use a 20th century “solution” to a 21st century problem.  It is not just automation, it can be found with many topics from artificial intelligence to genetic engineering.  Politicians know that technology is bringing momentous change now and much more in the near future, but they are not dealing with it.  It is too painful and there are no easy solutions to the negative consequences that will arrive along with the technology.  They are not in denial, they are in avoidance.  That is not going to work.


This is a personal blog, more of a personal notebook, unadvertised and without promotion. I try to post on a weekly basis, but there is no guarantee. Should you stumble across it and wish to be notified of new posts, just enter your email address at the upper-right of this page. I have no other use for email addresses. Rest assured, yours will be kept private. I also now tweet to share articles and essays that I think are important, but do not have room for here. You are welcome to make comments, if they are on topic and polite. I have no time or space for insults, foul language, or anything I judge to be offensive to readers.

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Smart Factories

This is a special post with a link to something that pulls together much of what is being said about the future and technology with a non-judgmental, balanced perspective. It also comes from Stratfor, a global analytical firm that is widely respected and to which I have referred before. This commentary is not yet available to the general public, but it is available to subscribers and I will link you that the web version of that newsletter issue. I have known the people at Stratfor well over a decade and I think they won’t mind if I share this with my followers here at Future Brief. So, here it is. If you are interested in Stratfor’s analyses and newsletter, you can visit their website here.

As I mentioned in my last post, I am preparing a commentary on the emerging global upper class that I have discussed before. It includes some directly relevant statistics and a new way of looking at this class. It has been delayed as I get clarification on some of the statistics. That is being taken care of, so I hope to have it ready soon.


This is a personal blog, more of a personal notebook, unadvertised and without promotion. I try to post on a weekly basis. Should you stumble across it and wish to be notified of new posts, just enter your email address at the upper-right of this page. I have no other use for email addresses. Rest assured, yours will be kept private. I also now tweet to share articles and essays that I think are important, but do not have room for here. You are welcome to make comments, if they are on topic and polite. I have no time or space for insults, foul language, or anything I judge to be offensive to readers.

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The Power of a Single Word

I said that I would provide some suggestions to people working in the fields of artificial intelligence (AI) and genetic engineering meant to help improve the debate on the moral and ethical issues that are so important to both fields.  Words are very powerful.  Even a small change in the words we use can have a major impact on the perception of the public and even on the self-perception of those involved in the debate. This example is more than one word, but ask a physician if she or he thinks medicine should not bother with the Hippocratic Oath as it is just words and nothing more.

I will quickly mention one example of an extremely controversial topic (it still is) and how this sudden realization on the part of people on both sides of a highly emotional debate led them to finally realize that they both needed to choose their words more carefully.

I am talking about abortion.  I remember that period years ago when those who defended a woman’s right to choose abortion stopped calling themselves “pro-abortion” and  decided to call themselves “pro-choice”, while those who had called themselves “anti-abortion” decided to call themselves “pro-life”.  The debate continued and continues today, but I have witnessed an increased willingness of the public to consider the views of both groups and a decreased level of the extreme emotionalism, even violence, that characterized the debate in the early days.  The words we use to describe who we are and what we do are very powerful words indeed.

On that note, let me proceed.

EI, not just AI

With AI, the troublesome word is “artificial”. These days, the word “natural’ is used all the time and often inappropriately, but people much prefer things that are natural to things that are artificial. Artificial intelligence sounds like something separate from you and me, something that could challenge us or even turn on us.  Calling it “machine intelligence”, as some do, really doesn’t help at all. In fact, it makes the situation a little worse.   On the other hand, calling it “natural intelligence” doesn’t make any sense.

I suggest using two terms.   I think in terms of a Group A and a Group B.  Group B would include all human beings. Group A would include everything that was not in Group B.

For group A, I would call it artificial intelligence because it has nothing to do with humans directly, so the word artificial is much less likely to be perceived as a danger to humans.

For Group B, I would call it Enhanced Intelligence, EI. I would stress that the purpose of research in this field was designed to enhance human intelligence and help us enjoy better lives, not replace us or attack us.

I think it is important to stress enhancement of human intelligence as the goal when dealing with humans. It is just as simple as that. That takes the scare factor out of the equation and encourages us to focus on humans receiving direct benefits from this kind of intelligence. And I think it is a simple reminder to researchers to focus on what I think they should be focusing on, enhancing the human experience.

How would this actually work?  One key is very likely to be found in research on a brain-computer interface (BCI) where the brain and computer work together wirelessly and as close to instantly as you are likely to get.  Sound too far out?  Actually research and design in this speciality has been underway for four decades.  It has a long way to go, but it has already come a long way.

Let’s take a look at a simple example.  Jan Sheuermann is quadriplegic, unable to move her arms and legs.  Understandably, she has never piloted an aircraft.  But she has worked with a brain-computer interface, so she was connected to a flight simulator and the results can be seen in a 40-second video at this Wired report (scroll down a little to see the video, but the text is worth reading too)  As the article points out and the video demonstrates, you won’t want her to be your pilot any time soon, but what should expect of someone with no background in piloting?  It’s not a “fail”, it is a great demonstration of a rapidly developing and very promising technology.  This is just one interesting, but very simple, example of EI.

As we are constantly told, research in this field and others like it is growing “exponentially”, happening so rapidly that it is nearly impossible to keep up with it, if you are not employed in that field and not always easy if you are.  But the day can come, sooner than we may think now, when an experienced pilot can have access to EI through a brain-computer interface that he or she can access at any time and fly the plane directly from the brain without having to use hands or arms.  The precious seconds saved could save even more precious lives.

This was a simple demonstration of a very sophisticated approach. It draws attention due to the unusual background of the pilot. But it is far more than this demonstration and the potential is huge. It took a lot of innovation to get to this stage, but that stage is history. The future will bring far more innovation and its application will dramatically enhance our human capabilities.

It’s only changing one word when talking about humans, and yet I think that one word carries a great deal of real power.

Enhancement, not just Engineering

I would recommend something very similar with genetic engineering. Here the word “engineering” is the problem. It makes everything that has genes sound like it’s nothing more than a machine and human beings do not like to be referred to as machines. I think that is the core of a problem in public perception.

Dividing Group A and Group B is a little more challenging here. Group B would include all human beings. Group A could include everything else. However, there may be good reason to include other species of animals in Group B, but that is a matter to be determined by the field of genomics and and an informed public. It has its own ethical and moral dimension, but for the moment, I will focus on the humans in Group B.

Again, I would like to see that field emphasize the direct benefits to humans of their work.  For Group B, I would focus on genetic enhancement, not genetic engineering.  In other words, let’s drop “designer babies” and focus on saving the lives of babies…and all of us.  Honestly, I have come to really despise the term “designer babies”.   Sure, it will attract a lot more attention than ‘gene enhancement for babies” and the media loves the attention, but it is not the actual focus of the research.

In any case, we are subject to too much use of the word “engineering”.  It turns people off.  That should be obvious.  No, I do not think the emphasis in the field of genomics is on building some new kind of “super-human”, a new version of human who, like AI above, might turn on us and choose to eliminate us.  

So, you want a super-human?  Here’s my suggestion as to how to get a super-human that we not only can live with, but can be!

We use genetic enhancement to eliminate genetic disease, increase our health, fitness, and longevity.  If we can enhance our intelligence genetically, fine, but that is when EI comes in to add the enhancement of artificial intelligence without creating ‘killer robots”.

Not a new species to threaten us, but an enhanced species…us.  That should be the goal.

And will the wealthy be the only ones to benefit?  Welcome to the human desire to improve our lives and to the free market.  I heard the same fears about computers, the Internet, even cell phones and guess what?  They all spread far further and far faster than anyone had predicted and they haven’t stopped yet.  The same will be true with enhanced genetics and EI, but even more so.  If they are successful in fulfilling their promise, any people or nation who refuses them will quickly fall behind. That will be their choice and should be, but I would not bet on them to be the majority and in fairly short order.

I began this series with sharp criticism for some “leading authorities” and the language they use when discussing these two topics.  I have not changed my opinion on that at all, but I have said what I needed to say and will move on to another topic.  I will come back to this when I have anything new to add, but for now, enough.

A few weeks ago, I wrote on the subject of the emerging global upper class.  In my next post, I plan to return to that topic, but with some statistics that are directly relevant to that discussion.  How rich are these people?  How many of them are there?  Where do they call “home”?  And so forth.  I hope you join me for that.  It’s a very interesting topic indeed and you may be a little surprised.


This is a personal blog, more of a personal notebook, unadvertised and without promotion. I try to post on a weekly basis. Should you stumble across it and wish to be notified of new posts, just enter your email address at the upper-right of this page. I have no other use for email addresses. Rest assured, yours will be kept private. I also now tweet to share articles and essays that I think are important, but do not have room for here. You are welcome to make comments, if they are on topic and polite. I have no time or space for insults, foul language, or anything I judge to be offensive to readers.

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Don’t blink!

This is a relatively brief post today to make a point.

A decade ago, “Future Brief” was a news publication that I edited and which was sent out to subscribers five days a week and is the namesake of this blog. We included new articles each day in key areas drawn from around the Web, but we also published original work by experts. One of those experts was Jeff Harrow who had been the chief technologist for the Corporate Strategy Groups of both Compaq and Digital Equipment Corporation. Jeff wrote on tech advances and he had a slogan. “Don’t Blink!” In other words, if you blink, you will miss something. At the time, tech progress seemed to be moving at an astonishing rate of speed.

As the saying goes, that was then, this is now. I bring to your attention two articles, both published on the same day, May 1, last Friday.

At Business Insider on May 1, Kelly Dickerson provided a well-written summary of research published that day in Science Advances, a peer-reviewed science publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It described an experiment blasting mouse brains with radiation to simulate what it would be like to get hit with cosmic rays, a very likely event in space travel over long periods. The damage done to their brains was significant. Given that, as the article states, a manned mission to Mars “would take at least six months (my emphasis) using today’s space travel technology”, this was potentially a huge obstacle to space travel.

On exactly the same day, Science Alert reported an announcement from NASA titled, NASA has trialled an engine that would take us to Mars in 10 weeks. It has a wonderful tag line, “And may have inadvertently created a warp drive in the process”.

Of course, this new space drive will require verification by other scientists and much testing, but NASA is not the sort of agency to make a public announcement on a subject as important as this without being very comfortable that they have something important to say. For now, at the speed of Voyager 2, it would take about 296,000 years to reach Alpha Centauri. At the speed of the Space Shuttle (17,600 mph or about 28,300 kph), it would take about 165,000 years to reach Alpha Centauri. If this new system works, it would take 92 years. The danger of cosmic rays remains, but nowhere near as severely.

Although a holiday in many nations, it was quite a day for tech news. So with a nod of the head to my old friend, Jeff Harrow, we once again have been taught the lesson he taught a decade ago.

Don’t blink!


This is a personal blog, more of a personal notebook, unadvertised and without promotion. I try to post on a weekly basis. Should you stumble across it and wish to be notified of new posts, just enter your email address at the upper-right of this page. I have no other use for email addresses. Rest assured, yours will be kept private. I also now tweet to share articles and essays that I think are important, but do not have room for here. You are welcome to make comments, if they are on topic and polite. I have no time or space for insults, foul language, or anything I judge to be offensive to readers.

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Public relations is communication, not just advertising

I am pulling back for a moment to try and look at the broader picture.  It is not easy and it certainly offers little comfort.  I have written before on what I see as the creation of a global upper class whose members are experiencing the 21st century differently than the rest of global society.  As a result, I feel they are losing touch with the rest of us and, in the process, are endangering themselves and everyone else.

.We need leaders, people who speak with authority, to help us judge issues and get on with our lives.  Very few of us are leaders on a national scale, much less a global scale, thus leadership at that level is extremely important.

We cannot do it well, ourselves.  We have to focus on making the “system” work.  We get the kids off to school.  We work at our jobs.  We plan for everything from a college education to retirement to a vacation.  Daily life keeps us very busy.  We have time for the “big issues”, but we do not have the time to research them and understand them fully.  That is where leadership and its authority play a primary role.

I am not speaking of political leaders alone. Leaders in finance, investing, science, technology, education and a wide range of other disciplines are as much leaders as any politician, at least in regards to their discipline.  Leaders by definition have followers.  With good leadership that inspires confidence, followers can keep track of the issue at hand, but not feel as if they are left to make the judgments that we expect from leaders.  Leaders set the direction and provide the “plan”.  As long as we feel confident in their leadership, we can follow.  If we lose that confidence, we are left to judge for ourselves and the results can be negative.

There is plenty of evidence of this loss of respect for the authority of leadership.  I have been writing about AI and genetic engineering, and my concern that these two fields have not got their collective acts together.  Some feel I am overstating the issue.  But a Pew Research Center study of American attitudes on a number of sci/tech issues in January of this year brings the point home.  To what extent does the American public (followers) trust the judgment of their scientists (leaders)?  Take a look at this.

Here is another from the same report focused on GMO foods.

You are looking at an obvious communications problem. If people are having trouble accepting scientific authority on the subject of genetically-modified foods, what do you think their reaction will be to genetically-modified humans? And this in a nation whose people are well-educated and well-informed by global standards and who, for decades, have been very proud of their nation’s contributions to science and technology. Sci/tech has a problem.  It no longer can assume that it speaks with “authority” to the public.

You can read a summary of all the Pew Research Center findings and download a free copy of their report at their website.

In the past, scientists normally didn’t have to worry much about this.  They didn’t get as much publicity and they didn’t really want it as they didn’t really need it.  And when they got publicity, it was often very positive. Two very popular scientists in my lifetime were Albert Einstein and Carl Sagan. Very different men, but both with a positive and passionate love of science and the technology that flowed from it. They represented “authority” and they were very well-respected by the public globally.

We were excited and delighted when humans finally made it to the Moon. But today we are watching as sci/tech turns its powerful eye on the cells of our bodies and the very genetic code which defines us. That is a very different direction and brings very different challenges.

We have faced this situation once before when science and technology created something dangerous to human life. We called it the Manhattan Project. But it was done in absolute secrecy, so the final results were the first time the public was aware of what had been done. I wonder how it would have turned out if the Manhattan Project had been public knowledge and open to debate from the beginning. That was unthinkable at the time, but today, it is simply business as usual.

I am being hard on AI and genomics, or so it seems, but I am a proponent of both.  I want them to succeed to everyone’s benefit.  My primary concern is that they may end up creating opposition to their work before they have a chance to demonstrate the benefits.  They cannot do this behind closed doors. They need to be public in their justification for what they are doing and provide clarity as to their goals.

They need to begin as soon as possible.  In the global community created by the Internet, whether we like it or not, new initiatives that are as important as these have to be concerned about public relations.  It is not a matter of obscuring the truth or white-washing it, but treating the public as adults and explaining their work carefully and with sensitivity to legitimate concerns. Public relations is communication, not just advertising.

In my next post, I plan to offer a few ideas of how both AI and genomics can refine their research approach and their public image to everyone’s benefit.  They are meant to be helpful, not definitive, but I cannot complain without at least putting some ideas out there for consideration.

Final note – I am scheduled to be interviewed tomorrow, Wednesday, at 6:30 pm local time by Classic Business, a business report on FM 102.7 in Johannesburg, South Africa.  I am told I will be joined by Antonio Regalado, Senior Editor for Biomedicine for the MIT Technology Review, a gentleman whose work I have linked to from here before and for whom I have great admiration.  I understand it will later be a podcast for download.  If all goes well and a podcast is available, I will share it with you.


This is a personal blog, more of a personal notebook, unadvertised and without promotion. I try to post on a weekly basis. Should you stumble across it and wish to be notified of new posts, just enter your email address at the upper-right of this page. I have no other use for email addresses. Rest assured, yours will be kept private. I also now tweet to share articles and essays that I think are important, but do not have room for here. You are welcome to make comments, if they are on topic and polite. I have no time or space for insults, foul language, or anything I judge to be offensive to readers.

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Crossing Lines

As most of you are aware who have read, here or elsewhere, the news of the first attempt to engineer a human embryo, a line has been crossed.  While geneticists elsewhere were debating the morality and ethics surrounding such engineering, the Chinese just went ahead and did it.

Yes, I am very much aware, as the Nature article linked to above reports, that they chose embryos that could not lead to live births and that, of the 54 embryos that survived and were tested, only 28 showed that the engineering had been successful.  As their lead researcher put it, “If you want to do it in normal embryos, you need to be close to 100%,” (Junjiu) Huang says.  “That’s why we stopped. We still think it’s too immature.”

In addition, the report adds, “His team also found a surprising number of ‘off-target’ mutations assumed to be introduced by the CRISPR/Cas9 complex acting on other parts of the genome. This effect is one of the main safety concerns surrounding germline gene editing because these unintended mutations could be harmful. “

Fine, but none of that denies a simple fact.  A line has been crossed.  In the future, it will likely be called a “seminal event” and rightfully so.  Every “first time” is going to have its problems in a discipline this young, as this one has just demonstrated and we will have a second time and more, but only after the first time and that is now part of our history.

The same will be true of AI, artificial intelligence.  There will be another “first time” that brings moral and ethical questions to the forefront in a similarly unexpected and explosive fashion in AI as well.

And that brings me to today’s point.  Genetic engineering and artificial intelligence are “two peas in the same pod”.  They are very similar, not superficially perhaps, but in at least two very fundamental respects.  Two words come to mind.


Both are directly concerned with code.  Every computer depends on code to actually operate.  The coding of AI must be mind-bogglingly difficult, but it is being written.  In like manner, genetic engineering is essentially an attempt to “recode” the human genome – the DNA, RNA, master proteins, and all the other substances that make up the human genome and determine how it will be expressed in our lives.

In one instance, the code must be created from scratch.  In the other, the code already exists, the result of random chance at the time of conception.  With the exception of identical twins, each of us has a unique code.  The two disciplines may be approaching their work from different directions, but their goal is common, at least in this very important respect.

We may now think of “humans and machines” as “organic machines and inorganic machines”, if we like, but code is essential to the development of both artificial intelligence and human intelligence.  What the Chinese research team reports is really not different from an AI programmer who discovers that her code works some of the time, but not always, and occasionally with very negative results.  The Chinese experiment with coding was simply far more dramatic.  However, in both disciplines, code is critical.


Both are global.  It makes no difference what researchers in either field on either side of the North Atlantic, as was usually the case in the 20th century, think should or should not be considered a “line” and whether or not it should be crossed.  The decision can be made independently and in nations far from the North Atlantic, as has just occurred.  Under the circumstances of the 21st century, any line can be crossed, anywhere the talent and equipment are available.  Today such talent and equipment can be found in many nations and I expect we will be hearing from researchers in other nations, India comes to mind as just one obvious candidate, but there are others and more to come.  If nothing else, these two fields attract talent and money!

In the near future, when time and circumstances allow, I will discuss the potential impact of genetic engineering, in particular, on our ability to control our own lives and how that might lead to a negative emotional reaction on the part not only of that field’s critics, but of its most ardent supporters.  I am not as pessimistic as some may think, but I do believe we can benefit by discussing it before we are forced to confront it as other lines are crossed.


This is a personal blog, more of a personal notebook, unadvertised and without promotion. I try to post on a weekly basis. Should you stumble across it and wish to be notified of new posts, just enter your email address at the upper-right of this page. I have no other use for email addresses. Rest assured, yours will be kept private.  I also now tweet to share articles and essays that I think are important, but do not have room for here.  You are welcome to make comments, if they are on topic and polite. I have no time or space for insults, foul language, or anything I judge to be offensive to readers.

Posted in Global analysis, Technology | Leave a comment

First Genetic Modification of a Human Embryo

As I said from my new Twitter account, “First genetic modification of human embryo, we step into a dark room searching for the light switch. Hope it’s there.” I will be using Twitter to share information I come across that deserves attention, but may not appear in a post here immediately.

You can read the article at Nature magazine. This is how it works. Some people sit and talk while others do, regardless of the consequences. Genetic research is global. Next time, an announcement may come from any of three dozen nations or more, but China is one of the most likely. The rumors were true. So here we go into a dark room, searching for the light switch, and hoping it’s there.

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Is this the sunset of the human race?

As I put my thoughts together on a number of different trends, I am reminded every day how rapidly science and technology are changing. You know when you read an article  on how to build your own robot (a lot like LEGO) on a general public website like MarketWatch or the latest in surveillance tech, things are indeed rapidly changing.  The robot article reminds me of the early days of computer kits, but in this case, way more sophisticated, reflecting the progress we have already made.

I discussed automation and artificial intelligence (AI) briefly in my last post.  I say “briefly” because any one of the many topics and trends I am raising in this short series could be the basis of a book, at the very least.  Detailed information can be found easily on the Internet and it is not my purpose to try and cover it all here.

Here come the engineers

Today I would like to talk about genetic engineering and the field of genomics, the study of the entire human genome (DNA, RNA, and much, much more)  and its interaction with its environment.  I am very fortunate to be able to provide you with a link to someone who can do a far better job than I can of describing the situation from a balanced perspective, with technical authority, and with a concern for both the “mechanical” and moral issues involved.

Antonio Regalado, senior editor for biomedicine for the MIT Technology Review, published such a report, titled Engineering the Perfect Baby, a few weeks ago.  If there is one link of those I provide in this series that I think is most useful, this is it.  It is not an academic paper.  It is in clear English, very up-to-date, and demonstrates that the field is also struggling with the implications of their work, as is artificial intelligence.  So take a few minutes and get ahead of 99.9% of the general public on this very important topic, painlessly.

If you have now read the article, you know there is one group within genomics that wants the field to “go slow”. I appreciate their concern, but I think they have the wrong approach. In my mind, it is not a question of speed, but a question of what we do with what we have. It is not a question of how quickly we move in a given direction, but what direction we are taking. Whatever direction is chosen, it will move quickly. No one wants to be left behind in that field or, for that matter, all the other fields that will be impacted by genetic engineering.

Even if progress in this field was to be “slowed down” in one nation or a dozen, there would still be plenty of nations moving along as quickly as possible.  Even if the slowdown was accepted globally in the research and development community open to public review, don’t count on that happening with the “private” work carried out by government agencies and their contractors.

No one, government or business or scientist, wants to wake up one morning only to discover that they are a generation behind others in genetic research and design by virtue of slowing down their own work.  Folks, it is not going to happen that way, whether we are aware of it or not.  Simple human behavior and thousands of years of human history provide plenty of evidence to support that.  We can have our various opinions, but let’s be realistic.

So what is the problem?

We fear genetic engineering.  We are uncomfortable with the thought that we can be “engineered”. Why?  Because it sounds as if we are machines.  Again, as that article I linked to earlier makes so clear, we are not pleased to think that someone can change our DNA and, in the process, change who we are, what we do, what we think, and more.

Throughout human history, we have wanted to know why things happen.  What caused the forest fire that destroyed my village?  Why are we suffering a multi-year famine?  What or who caused that earthquake, volcanic eruption, or other natural disaster?  Why did my child get sick and die?

Questions like these have gnawed at humans for thousands of years, but each of those questions has, effectively, a “mechanical” explanation that most of us accept immediately today.  We expect the weatherman to provide a forecast that is not based on throwing dice, reading tea leaves, or today’s astrology column, but on an understanding of how things work, just like a machine.

Our answers may not always be perfect or complete, but we accept that they flow from an understanding of the mechanics of weather, of forest fires, of droughts, and certainly of health.  Modern medicine has convinced us that we are made up of “parts” that can break down and require replacements, and if there is no replacement, someone is working on one.  We understand that germs are “tiny animals” that we cannot see with the naked eye, but which can kill the strongest among us.  That (the germ theory of disease) was not an easy sell.  It took centuries to fully establish it and finally convince the many skeptics.

Think of global climate change.  Regardless of what position you take on this controversy, it becomes quickly clear that nearly all the debate centers on mechanical (machine) behavior.  What causes it?  Is it a threat?  If so, we can we do about it, if anything?  What will be the effects of what we choose to do or not to do?  It is a very serious debate, but it basically a debate about a “climate machine” and what, if anything, should be done to change how it is working.

Throughout this period well into the last century, we learned to accept comfortably that pretty much everything around us was “machine-like” and could be manipulated, but with one exception.  Us.  We are humans, not machines.  But things began to change.  Let me tell you a true story about Don, not his real name, and his most amazing mother.

Meeting Don’s Mother

Don lived in Alexandria, Virginia across the river from Washington DC.  I lived further out in Maryland, renting a beautiful home deep in the woods surrounded by nature.  Don called me one day and told me his mother was coming to visit for a week.  He didn’t know what to do.  She wasn’t really interested in anything and would be just as happy to sit in his apartment for the whole week, but he didn’t want that.  So I said, bring her out on Saturday.  I’ll make a nice lunch and we can sit out on the deck and enjoy the surroundings.  He said, fine, and sounded relieved that he had at least one thing to do with her.

Saturday arrived and I looked out the window as Don parked his car and they got out.  The older woman with him looked angry.  I thought, oh boy, they must have had an argument.  Well, so be it.  I’m sure they will drop it now.

I have never met anyone as ugly as this woman.  I don’t mean physically, although her face was twisted into an angry look that did not disappear for a single moment during the more than four hours of their visit.  It was her attitude that slapped me across the face.   I had prepared a great lunch and had the house ready for company.  During the entire time, she never said one word to me or even looked at me for more than a second or two.  Once, she did grunt and that was all she had to say.

Don said nothing, as if this was normal, so I said nothing.  I didn’t want to embarrass him or make a bad situation worse, but it was agony.  Don and I talked throughout while she sat, scowling and looking away from us the whole time.  Lunch made no difference.  Trying to find something to talk about really became a challenge.  A couple hours into this fiasco and I was hating every minute of it.  As I finally watched them leave, the relief was huge.  The kindest thing I could think at the time was how sorry I felt for Don, but I really never wanted to see her again.  That’s not like me at all, but that was the way it was.  Don never talked about it and I had no interest in pushing it.  She was gone.  Fine.

Meeting Don’s Other Mother

Months went by and one day I got a call from Don.  I absolutely had to come to dinner at his place on Saturday evening.  No excuse was acceptable!  So I said, okay, but why?  He said, my mother is here and she wants to see you.  Oh good god, no, I thought.  It’s the last thing I wanted to hear, but I sucked it up and said, okay, I’ll be there, but I was not a happy man at all.

As I walked up to Don’s door, I reminded myself that if things were even half as bad as before, I at least could leave early based on some fake excuse.  I didn’t have to wait for them to leave this time.  I knocked, Don opened the door, and I saw his mother a few feet away.

She rushed up to me, grabbed my hand, looked me in the eye, and apologized for her unforgivably rude behavior at my house.  She told me that she had felt locked up in a jail cell in her head, unable to get out.  She knew what she was doing was terrible, but she couldn’t control it.  That was past now and she finally had the chance to ask forgiveness, which of course she got immediately.  This gracious, smiling, lovely older lady was not the woman I met before.  If I hadn’t known better, I would have sworn she was someone else, but she wasn’t.

She explained that Don and his brothers had intervened and insisted that she go to a psychiatrist.  She finally agreed to go.  As a result, she was given a prescription for a “cocktail” of psychoactive drugs.  Her life immediately improved and with a couple changes, she was finally out of jail and free to be the woman and mother she wanted to be.  Her happiness was infectious.  We had a wonderful dinner and I was blown away by her behavior, but this time for all the right reasons.

I left that evening and as I drove home, I thought to myself, that was amazing!  I had been critical of over-prescription of psychoactive drugs, but I had just met someone whose life had dramatically changed for the better as a result of psychoactive drugs.  I still worried about over-prescription, especially for children, but I no longer could ignore their value to those who needed them.  Don’s mother had taught me a lesson that I still remember.

We’re happy for Don’s mother.  So what?

Another thought that came to my mind that night was, who is the “real” mother?  Mother #1 or Mother #2?  Was the woman I just had dinner with Mother #1 returned?  Or really Mother #3?  And if her “cocktail” changed, would she be Mother #4?

In the years following, I would ask Don how his mother was doing and he would often say, her cocktail had to be changed.  Her brain chemistry kept changing and the old cocktail had less and less impact.  Eventually, he told me she was sliding back into a bad state again.  As they changed the cocktail, I wondered how many “mothers” there had been.

So what does this have to do with genetic engineering?  If you can successfully “engineer” the genome, it is forever.  Of course, you might go back and re-engineer it in the future, but the point is simple.  The effects of genetic engineering will not fade over time.  They are now a part of “you”.

I suspect the use of psychoactive drugs will eventually fall as genetic engineering takes their place.  When will that come?  The very first step in that direction has already been taken.

A few days ago, Popular Science introduced me to the BabySeq project where newborn babies will be checked for any of 30 genetic diseases.  They will not change the baby’s DNA, only alert the parents and their physician to the need to prepare.

How long will it be before parents demand that they not simply be told this genetic disease will strike their child, but demand that something be done about it before it strikes.  That something will be genetic engineering.  I see nothing extreme in a forecast like that.  This is simply the first of many steps to come.

I could go on for pages, but I will not.  There is enough up there, links included, to more than make my point.  Genetic engineering is controversial for good reasons, but it has too much potential for good and evil to be ignored.   It is not going away.

The Challenge

Let me summarize some of the concerns of this and my three prior posts.

1) Our physical bodies are organic machines.  Parts break down and require replacements, if they are available.  Systems malfunction and require repair or enhancement.  The recent 3D printing of a hip replacement is just one of many examples.  This understanding of our bodies as organic machines is close enough to universal that exceptions are few and far between.

2) Our brains are who we are.  No brain activity, no “us”.  We accept that the chemistry of our brain dramatically impacts our behavior and that the use of psychoactive (psychotropic) drugs can have an equally dramatic impact and can reverse unwanted behavior or, at the very least, reduce it substantially.  As of 2010, one in five American adults was using a psychoactive drug, and that does not include the 6.3% of adolescents 12-19 also using these drugs in 2010.

3) As I have discussed here before, AI or artificial intelligence is rapidly developing and improving.  AI is the source of controversy among those who fear it may destroy the human race, but I believe it is more likely to augment human intelligence, not destroy it.  But one thing is clear.  It is intent on demonstrating that intelligence, human or artificial, is a mechanical process…the work of a machine, be it organic or inorganic.

4) And then there is genomics, particularly genetic engineering.  In short, we are programmed at the point of conception.  We are the product of code, just like a web page.  We are coded differently than any web page, but unlike a web page, we can change our code.

5) As an added thought derived in part from my 2009 article at Barron’s, Next, the Retirement Bubble, along with all the above and as a result of much of it, our life spans are lengthening and there is every reason to believe that they will continue to grow during our lifetimes, but most of us continue to act as if we were our parents or grandparents, refusing to alter our dreams of traditional retirement and our “golden years”.  Those golden years may well be made of lead.

6) For decades now, or centuries if you prefer, humans have slowly come to think of themselves as “machines”.  At every step in that process, there was fear and opposition.  Today, this shift has accelerated and given every sign of continuing to accelerate even more.  If it happens quickly without taking the 99% of us who are only dimly aware of what is happening, if at all, then the potential for an explosive negative emotional reaction grows.

7) Finally, my earlier posts emphasized the changes in the traditional “class system”. The combination of the trends above may leave us with two classes – a global upper class and everyone else. Or it may destroy all the traditional classes. I would choose the latter. A new class system may develop, but the old one will no longer be useful, if we get this transition done right.

Enough gloom and doom, what needs to be done now?

We need leadership.  This is not a local or national issue, it is global.  I hope you understand why I have absolutely no faith at all in politicians providing leadership in this arena.  Leadership must come from those who are responsible for the trends.  They know what can go wrong.  Some talk about killer robots (Elon Musk), others warn of the extinction of the human race (Stephen Hawking), and others tell us our jobs will disappear (Bill Gates).  Those gentlemen mentioned, plus many others, are people with the knowledge and the resources to do something very constructive.  If I had the opportunity to talk to them, I would begin with two serious recommendations.

1) Guys, I have nothing but respect for all you have done and are doing.  Each of you is a “genius” in his own right.  The world is a better place because you are part of it.  But you have to stop telling us that we are going to be killed, our race is going to be destroyed, our jobs are going to disappear, and other very unpleasant outcomes of the work that you are partially responsible for, and leave it at that.  That is totally irresponsible and a stain on your reputations.  And no, tossing a few million dollars to a group to monitor the transition ahead is lame, at best.

You have a responsibility to all of us.  If you don’t act on that now, you will live to regret it, and so will we.  At the very least, you should call on those others you know in the various fields you work in to at least create a Code of Conduct, a Code of Ethics, new versions for each field of the Hippocratic Oath or whatever you want to call it.  The purpose would not be to stop research.  That is not going to happen.  And it is not to slow research down.  That might happen in some places, but it won’t in others.

Consider what I said earlier in this post, “it is not a question of speed, but a question of what we do with what we have”.  The Hippocratic Oath did not interfere with medical research, but it was and still is taken seriously by physicians, a reminder to do no harm.  It has been modified here and there, but it has served a good purpose.  It is evidence that the people responsible for the research understand their responsibilities to humanity and it requires them to swear allegiance to its principles before being allowed to practice.  No, it won’t stop someone determined to do harm, but taken seriously, it is an important step.  You, of all people, should be at the forefront of the creation of the code or the oath or whatever you choose to call it.  You have told us what can go wrong, show us how to do it right.

2) Then there are the XPRIZEs sponsored by Google and others, and ranging from ocean health to a permanent return to the Moon.  Tens of millions of dollars in prizes are offered to teams all over the world to come up with solutions to many of the world’s leading problems.  So why not a few XPRIZEs for teams to come up with ways to deal with some of the potential problems that come with automation and AI eliminating millions of jobs, for one example?  Do I have to tell you that it is better to do this before the jobs are eliminated, not afterwards?  If so, you are not as smart as I think you are.  But I could be wrong.

Gentlemen, here it is in as brief a form as possible:

  • Get moving on this and move now, not a year from now.
  • Do it right and we all stand to gain.
  • Ignore it and we all stand to lose.
  • So do it now and do it right!

This has been an incredibly difficult series to write.  So many trends, so much potential to benefit the human race, so much potential to damage the human race, trying to summarize it is a nightmare.  And every day, I read something new, another step forward in one or more trends.  Trying to “freeze” it long enough to discuss it intelligently is a constant challenge.

But I will tell you this.  I do not hate any of these trends.  I do not fear any of these trends.  What I hate and fear is that we mess it up and bring on a damaging conflict that must be avoided.  I insist on seeing all of this as a “sunrise”, not a “sunset”, of the human race.  But it isn’t going to happen because you or I or anyone else wants it to, but because we make it happen.

In the future, I will be discussing pieces of the puzzle facing us, not the whole puzzle, and how we can prepare for it in our own lives.  The journey has only begun.


This is a personal blog, more of a personal notebook, unadvertised and without promotion. I try to post on a weekly basis. Should you stumble across it and wish to be notified of new posts, just enter your email address at the upper-right of this page. I have no other use for email addresses. Rest assured, yours will be kept private. You are welcome to make comments, if they are on topic and polite. I have no time or space for insults, foul language, or anything I judge to be offensive to readers.

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From Caste to Class to Channel

My last two posts have focused on social class, the death of the American upper class and the collapse of the middle class.  I think the “class” approach to defining society is in decline and will eventually be abandoned. This post and my next one will explain why.

As I have written before, speaking of “social classes” was useful to some extent in the past based on the assumption that most members, if not all, of a “class” shared so much in common that it was reasonable to lump them together.  As I also have noted, this is not the case for more and more people in more and more nations today than ever before.  You just cannot toss everyone in an income range into a “class” and assume anything is true of all or even most of them.  This is especially the case with the “middle class”.

I feel silly stating what should be obvious, but I have met too many intelligent, competent, innovative people of middle income and too many upper income people who demonstrate less of all those qualities to accept any sense of “superiority” of the upper class.  If all you care about is money, fine.  Then I guess the upper class is cool, but five decades of working all over the world has not demonstrated that to me at all.  They are not cool.  They just have more money.

More importantly, the difference in educational level and the ability to do something productive with it between those called upper class and those called middle class these days is minimal, when it exists at all.  For the sake of this post, let me change the terminology.  Instead of talking about “class” based on income level, I choose to think in terms of “channel”.

It may be a channel called education, management, information technology, home economics, finance, sports, or a hundred other titles, depending on how you want to break it down.  Within each channel, we can find many different income levels.  What makes each part of a channel is not what they earn, but what they do.  That unpaid teenage hacker sitting on one side of the room may be every bit as bright or brighter than that high-paid Microsoft engineer sitting on the other side.   That educator from Thailand may be every bit as competent or more so than that educator from Germany, despite earning only a fifth of her income.  What they have in common with each other is the path each has chosen that, when seen together, form a commonality that cannot be expressed in dollars, yen or any other currency, a channel based on what they do, not what they earn.

When income level (call it class, if you  must) is allowed to separate us from each other rather than our self-chosen profession (channel), we all suffer.  But that happens, too much, too often.  If we stop and think about it, we understand it is just an old habit that needs to be broken.

However, keep in mind that if you do not earn a lot of income, this does not mean that moving from a class to a channel makes your life easier.  It is now based on what you do and excelling at what you do can a lot more difficult than getting paid more money than someone else.

My purpose in this post is not to discuss “channels”.  That will come in future posts.  I introduce the term in the hopes that it will help all of us begin to break out of the income/class straitjacket that can keep us from moving forward successfully into a very rapidly changing future.

Instead, my purpose is to briefly discuss two important trends among those that will crush the “social class” system.

Automation and Artificial intelligence

If you are unaware of the rapidly approaching revolution represented by automation, you are behind, way behind.  If you are not one of the 4 million+ people who have already seen it, taking the time to view the YouTube video, Humans Need Not Apply,  is definitely worth it.  It is a well-designed, fast-moving video that provides a lot of information as painlessly as possible.  The “threat” of automation is clearly described.  Tens of millions of jobs could disappear and not only for another one of those old classes, the “working class”, but for everyone, including “professionals” and those seen as “creative”.  Forgive me for all the quotation marks, but I learned a very long time ago that we all need to work, be professional, and be creative if we are to be successful and feel fulfilled by our work.  To say each is the responsibility of one or another “class” based on income is ridiculous.

Automation has been of great value to humans for a very long time.  It has freed us to be more productive, made our lives easier, opened new doors, and expanded our frontiers.  Good grief, it has given us a weekend to use as we like.  At various times, it has caused severe disruption.  It is again disrupting and not in the near future, but now and continuing into the future at an ever-increasing pace.

But this time, automation’s impact will be far greater due to one new factor – AI or artificial intelligence (also called MI or machine intelligence by some).  We were able to adapt to “dumb machines” because nearly all required our presence to be useful.  Now we have “smart machines” that need minimal human support to do massive amounts of highly demanding work on a 24/7 basis, less maintenance. Some can even learn without our help. That is truly disruptive.  That will cost jobs.

There is another perspective that is important in judging the effects of all this on our lives.  We are not going to wake up one morning to find that  AI-enhanced automation has eliminated tens of millions of jobs.  This is not an event, it is a process and it will unfold over time.  Initially, this may help to mitigate some of the problem.

As a simple example, many nations with relatively high labor costs have seen their businesses pack up and move to nations with relatively low labor costs for the simple reason that they cannot compete globally when labor costs are such a large portion of their total costs, but not their global competitors’ total costs.

But let’s say that driverless trucks are first put to use in high-income nations that can afford them, the very nations that have been losing jobs in the search for lower labor costs.  The machines “labor costs” are pretty much the same wherever they are used.  Today, it may be cheaper to make products in a low-labor-cost nation and transport them 8,000 miles or kilometers to higher-cost nations.  But remove labor costs as the primary challenge to a business and they are likely to find that it is now transportation costs that are their biggest headache, requiring them to move their operations to several different locations to best serve their clients and still compete on cost.

In the process, old jobs are lost while new jobs are created.  And those jobs at both ends can easily be lost or gained by lower, middle, and upper income groups.  This should not create some kind of  “class warfare”.  These are people of different incomes, but all of them are found in one professional channel.  They need to work together to deal with challenges, not spend their time shouting insults and blaming each other.

Now, does the above somehow mean that the total of jobs is going to be unaffected, so we have nothing to worry about?  No, of course not.  I cannot predict the future with accuracy any better than anyone else.  I look back at 2005 and wonder how anyone then could have predicted the 2015 of today.

However, I think a general forecast that a lot of jobs are going to be lost is a safe assumption.  We may well be talking about the loss of hundreds of millions of jobs over time, not just tens of millions.  If so, in years to come (but perhaps not as many as we think) billions of people could be impacted negatively, if indirectly, through a substantial drop in family income.

AI-enhanced automation is a huge and inescapable challenge.  It will not be stopped.  Of course, there will be those who insist that AI-enhanced automation must be stopped.  Uh huh.  Forget it.  As the video linked to earlier argues, if AI-enhanced automation can do a job more efficiently, with a higher level of quality, and far less expensively than a human, AI-enhanced automation wins.  Even if it can be successfully banned in one nation, others will adopt it and profit from it, leaving the first nation with the same result it is trying to avoid – unemployment.

This is a global challenge, not national.  There is no “one size fits all” solution that comes to mind.  But to look at it as a “class” problem is a big mistake.  It will be a problem with many variations, depending on what profession you are considering.  That profession (that channel) needs to be the source of solutions.  They have to work together, regardless of income level or nationality.

AI-enhanced automation doesn’t threaten the “class system”.  It stands outside the class system.  It is something very new and different and our discussion of solutions has to reflect that or we end up doing what we are already doing – fighting with each other and everyone losing, one way or another, in the process.

But there is more, much more…

I have only touched on issues today that deserve much more discussion and that day will come.  The subject of Artificial Intelligence is certainly one of them.  This is not a really new topic.  For some years, Elon Musk (among others like Stephen Hawking and Bill Gates recently) has raised the issue of what he so charmingly refers to as killer robots!

However, I am not all that concerned about killer robots terminating the human race.  I think there is a much more important, much more profound issue that needs to be confronted, but is rarely mentioned in the public media.

If there is anyone who thinks there is a rule against discussing AI in this respect, than I intend to break that rule.  It will be the subject of my next post.


This is a personal blog, more of a personal notebook, unadvertised and without promotion. I try to post on a weekly basis. Should you stumble across it and wish to be notified of new posts, just enter your email address at the upper-right of this page. I have no other use for email addresses. Rest assured, yours will be kept private. You are welcome to make comments, if they are on topic and polite. I have no time or space for insults, foul language, or anything I judge to be offensive to readers.

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