GLIMPSES OF THE FUTURE – AUGUST 2018

Attitudes Toward “Designer Babies” Start To Change

Letting parents use new gene-editing technology to pick characteristics of their unbornchild can be “morally acceptable”as long as it doesn’t increase social inequalities, an influential medical ethics group has said.

In a major report on the looming frontier of human gene-editing, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics (NCB) said it did not believe there was an ethical red line in tinkering with the genetic material that will be passed to future generations.

It also did not draw a distinction between using these techniques to tackle genetic diseases and for enhancing desirable physical or intellectual traits, so-called “designer babies”, so long as it meets strict ethical and regulatory tests.

The group, which appraises the ethical realities of new technology, called for the government to begin canvassing national opinion and said copies of the report would be sent to ministers and civil servants.

UK law does not currently permit any editing of heritable DNA – genetic information contained in an embryo, egg or sperm – though it is allowed for strictly controlled research purposes.

Even this, however, is hugely controversial and could have implications for people with diseases or less “desirable” traits if they become less common. Any change to the law would have to be subject to a national public debate and parliamentary legislation, as well as extensive testing for the safety of gene editing, the NCB said.

Why Lab-Grown Meat Is The Future of Food

 German drug-maker Merck KGaAand a top European meat processor are backing a start-up producing beef from cattle cells, ramping up a race to transform the global meat industry with cell-culture technology.

The $8.8 million investment in Netherlands-based Mosa Meat by Merck’s venture investing unit and Basel, Switzerland-based Bell Food Groupfuels a continuing effort to fulfil growing global demand for meat via a process that developers say requires a fraction of the resources used in traditional livestock and poultry production.

Cell-culture meat makers have yet to begin selling any of their products. But the emerging technology has drawn investments from major U.S. meat processors like Cargill Inc. and Tyson Foods Inc. It also is raising complaints among cattle ranchers and hog farmers, some of whom regard it as a lab-developed imitation of traditional hamburgers and pork.

Mosa is led by Mark Post, a Maastricht University physiologist who unveiled the world’s first lab-grown burger in 2013, and Peter Verstrate, a food technician at the university. Mr. Post’s prototype burger cost $330,000 to develop, but the project encouraged Mr. Post to form Mosa, which previously received funding from Google Inc. co-founder Sergey Brin.

“We’ve done a lot of work in scaling up the cell culture… to something that can be used on an industrial scale,” said Mr. Post.

Rand Report Suggests AI Could Start A Nuclear War

 The fear that computers, by mistake or malice, might lead humanity to the brink of nuclear annihilation has haunted imaginations since the earliest days of the Cold War.

The danger might soon be more science than fiction. Stunning advances in AI have created machines that can learn and think, provoking a new arms race among the world’s major nuclear powers. It’s not the killer robots of Hollywood blockbusters that we need to worry about; it’s how computers might challenge the basic rules of nuclear deterrence and lead humans into making devastating decisions.

That’s the premise behind a new paper from RAND Corporation, How Might Artificial Intelligence Affect the Risk of Nuclear War? It’s part of a special project within RAND, known as Security 2040, to look over the horizon and anticipate coming threats.

“This isn’t just a movie scenario,” said Andrew Lohn, an engineer at RAND who co-authored the paper and whose experience with AI includes using it to route drones, identify whale calls, and predict the outcomes of NBA games. “Things that are relatively simple can raise tensions and lead us to some dangerous places if we are not careful.”

At Last!  A Better Test For Prostate Cancer

 Scientists have announced the development of a highly accurate and reliable technique for diagnosing prostate cancer. The Dundee University-based team say they have used an ultrasound process called shear wave elastography (SWE) to detect prostate tumours. The method is non-invasive and cheaper than current detection techniques.

Prostate cancer has become the most common cancer in men in the UK. One in eight men will develop the condition at some point in their lives with more than 47,000 new cases being diagnosed every year. Men aged 50 or over, men with a family history of prostate cancer, and black men are at greatest risk of developing the condition.

“Current diagnosis of prostate cancer is extremely inefficient, leading to unnecessary treatments for many patients,” said the Dundee University team’s leader, Professor Ghulam Nabi. “Our new method is far more accurate and also allows us to identify the difference between cancerous and benign tissue in the prostate without the need for invasive surgery.”

The prostate is a small gland in the male reproductive system and is normally about the shape and size of a walnut. Current methods for determining if a prostate has become cancerous include a physical examination of the prostate (known as a digital rectal examination or DRE), MRI scans, a biopsy or tests to determine levels of the chemical prostate-specific antigen (PSA) in the blood.

Launching Rockets And Satellites From Aircraft

 Firing rockets from beneath the wings of an airborne 747 isn’t the most conventional way to get satellites into space, but it might be among the most cost-effective. Virgin spinoff company Virgin Orbit has been awarded a license for its maiden attempt to do just that, with hopes of beginning commercial services before the year is out.

Virgin Orbit’s space ambitions hinge on a similar methodology to sister company Virgin Galactic’s, in that both aim to use motherships as high-flying launchpads for smaller vehicles to travel to space.

Where Virgin Galactic hopes to give rise to space tourism by carrying well-heeled thrill-seekers to suborbital altitudes inside supersonic spaceplanes, Virgin Orbit will instead focus in launching small satellites.

This starts with its Cosmic Girl mothership, a Boeing 747-400 carrier aircraft that would fly to an altitude of around 35,000 ft (10,700 m) carrying  a so-called LauncherOne. This is a two-stage expendable rocket that, after being released at just the right time, fires up its main stage 73,500-lb (33,339-kg) engine for around three minutes.

Following separation from the main stage, the 5,000 lbf (22,241-N) upper stage then carries out multiple burns totalling almost six minutes to carry the customer’s payload into orbit. Thereafter, the Cosmic Girl aircraft returns to an airport and preparations begin for its next flight.

Why Climate Change Could Flood The Internet

 Underground internet cables criss-crossing coastal regions will be inundated by rising seas within the next 15 years, according to a new study.

Thousands of miles of fibre optic cables are under threat in US cities like New York, Seattle and Miami, and could soon be out of action unless steps are taken to protect them.

The report, presented at a meeting of internet network researchers in Montreal, is among the first to reveal the damage a changing climate will cause for the network of cables and data centres that underpins so much of modern life.

What shocked computer scientist Professor Paul Barford and his colleagues most when they investigated the effect of rising tides on US cities was the speed at which the internet will be compromised.

“Most of the damage that’s going to be done in the next 100 years will be done sooner than later,” said Professor Barford, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“That surprised us. The expectation was that we’d have 50 years to plan for it. We don’t have 50 years.”

Most of this infrastructure was constructed around 25 years ago along trails running parallel with highways and coastlines, with no thought given to how geography would alter as the climate changed

Microsoft Calls For Facial Pattern Recognition To Be Regulated

A top Microsoft Corp. executive is calling for the U.S. government to regulatefacial-recognition technology, an area Apple Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Facebook Inc. and other tech-giant rivals have made significant bets, and where Microsoft has made its own investments.

It is also the latest controversial topic Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer, has taken on. He has recently challenged the Trump administration over the immigration travel ban and the separation of children from parents at the Mexican border.

He also has weighed in on the role of artificial intelligence in society and tangled with the government over law-enforcement efforts to secretly search customer data on Microsoft servers in the U.S. and abroad.

Facial-recognition technology has become deeply integrated in tech giants’ products, whether the key feature for unlocking Apple’s iPhone X or identifying people in Google’s photos app.

Can This New Graphene Battery Really Be Charged In Five Minutes?

Billions of pounds have been poured into research of the “revolutionary” material graphene, though few real-world applications have so far been realised.

A Catalan start-up called Earthdas is aiming to address that by producing a graphene-based battery that it claims can charge 12-times faster than current lithium-ion batteries– potentially transforming the usability of electric vehicles by decreasing charging times from hours to just five minutes.

“Currently, cities are experiencing an obvious shift in terms of mobility,” Rafa Terradas, founder of Earhdas, told ZDNet.

Beyond the faster charging times, Earthdas batteries also have a 60 per cent increase in capacity compared to current batteries.

Unlike other start-ups and research initiatives developing graphene-based batteries, Earthdas says it is the first to build batteries that are commercially viable and plans to produce the first 3,000 units in the second half of 2018.