Weekend Briefing No. 251

Welcome to the weekend.

You may not have heard about it, but two events happened this week which will shape the future of the human species as we know it: 1) A scientist announced that he genetically modified human embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments, with one pregnancy resulting thus far; 2) A new brain machine interface technology allowed people who are paralyzed to use computer tablets.

It’s my belief that the combination of increasingly effective gene editing coupled with increasingly effective brain machine interfaces will create a mutually reinforcing loop of innovation that will result in the most rapid evolution humanity has seen since the adoption of language… or maybe ever. In a few generations our species may advance beyond humanity into something wholly new… post-human? trans-human?

This both excites and frightens me. It raises more questions than answers.

This topic is touched on in my briefing on brain machine interfaces about Neuralink and the Brain’s Magical Future. If you haven’t read it yet, I’d recommend checking it out before reading this briefing to give context.

Prime Numbers

It turns out that if you multiply all the humans that have lived by the length of their life (human years), 50% of the human experience has happened after 1309 AD. 15% of all experience has been experienced by people who are alive right now. We as a species have spent…

7,450,000,000 – human years having sex.

30,000,000 – human years watching Netflix.

50,000 – human years drinking Waffle House coffee.

CRISPR Babies

A daring effort is under way to create the first children whose DNA has been tailored using gene editing tool CRISPR. The invention of a powerful gene-editing tool, CRISPR, which is cheap and easy to deploy, made the birth of humans genetically modified in an in vitro fertilization (IVF) center a theoretical possibility. This week a researcher, He Jiankui of Shenzhen, said he altered embryos for seven couples during fertility treatments, with one pregnancy resulting thus far. He said his goal was not to cure or prevent an inherited disease, but to try to bestow a trait that few people naturally have — an ability to resist possible future infection with HIV, the AIDS virus. The clinical trial documents describe a study in which CRISPR is employed to modify human embryos before they are transferred into women’s uteruses. My personal belief is that this practice of editing the genes of embryos will start first with eliminating disease and disability, but once that becomes standard, then parents will elect positive physical and mental traits. MIT Technology Review (8 minutes)

Brain Machine Interface

Three people paralyzed from the neck down have been able to use unmodified computer tablets to text friends, browse the internet and stream music, thanks to an electrode array system called BrainGate2. The findings could have a major impact on the lives of those affected by neurologic disease, injury, or limb loss. The system uses an array of micro-electrodes implanted into the brain which decode, in real time, the neural signals associated with the intention to move a limb. The three people involved in the trial had electrode grids implanted over part of their motor cortex — the area of the brain that helps control movement — which picked up neural activity indicating they were thinking about moving a cursor on the screen. Those patterns were then sent to a virtual mouse that was wirelessly paired to the tablet. Engadget (7 minutes)

Millennial CEO Activism

Say what you will about TOMS shoes (I certainly have my own complex feelings on the company), but their announcement this week was the biggest act of activism I’ve seen from a Millennial CEO. On air, Blake Mycoskie announced a new campaign to end gun violence by making a record-breaking $5MM donation.  It’s evolving their shoe-giving model to support organizations working toward the cause. Additionally, they are leveraging the power of their customers by making it possible for them to send a postcard to their Congressperson to let them know that they support universal background checks for gun purchases. See Blake’s emotional announcement on Fallon in this video. The Tonight Show (6 minutes)

Ocean Drones

We know more about other planets than our own, because most of it is covered by ocean. Unfortunately, ocean data is scarce and expensive to gather. The challenge in studying the oceans at scale is one of energy, the energy that it takes to deploy sensors into the deep ocean. A breakthrough came from an unlikely source — the pursuit of the world speed record in a wind-powered land yacht. It took 10 years of research and development to come up with a novel wing concept that only uses three watts of power to control and yet can propel a vehicle all around the globe with seemingly unlimited autonomy. By adapting this wing concept into a marine vehicle, they had the genesis of an ocean drone. It belongs to a category known in the oceanographic community as an unmanned surface vehicle, or USV. And it uses no fuel. Instead, it relies on wind power for propulsion. And yet, it can sail around the globe for months at a time. TED (13 minutes)

Wellness Industrial Complex

While it may have antiestablishment origins, the industry is now subject to criticism as a new elite establishment, and one that profits off of serious insecurities, loneliness and addiction. There is an emerging wellness industrial complex of quick-fix products. If the movement indeed rejects the quick-fix products, which seems infeasible, it’s unclear what wellness is to become. If wellness is supposed to be the antidote to consumerism, and synonymous with connectedness and wholeness and feeling complete, then the industry will need a new way to monetize. At its best, wellness offers habits and practices around which to build a community that will help you feel whole, or at least distract from the sense of inadequacy that drives people to self-injurious behavior—whether it be substance abuse or gambling or mistreating others or spending three hours a day on Instagram despite knowing it makes us feel bad. An emerging theme in wellness is that sitting with pain was integral to finding one’s path to wellness. Yet none of the products on the market promise pain. I checked. Atlantic (12 minutes)

Unconditional Cash Transfers

When it comes to poverty alleviation in the developing world, cash transfer schemes have been at the center of a difficult debate. Critics argue they encourage dependency, negatively impact labor, and pit community members against each other. Using evidence collected in eight countries in sub-Saharan Africa over a decade, a new paper dispels some of these common misperceptions about unconditional cash transfers in Africa. Unconditional cash transfers, or UCT, are different from universal basic income in that they are time-bound and are given to poor households who make spending decisions consistent with their needs. The results showed cash injections generally empowered beneficiaries to invest, seek their own entrepreneurial initiatives, and didn’t lead to price distortion or inflation at a local market level. Quartz (5 minutes)

On Reflection

What really drives learning: Is it, as we’ve been taught for years, the idea that “practice makes perfect”? Is experience—or the act of doing—the key to learning? Or is it that we learn through reflecting on that experience? It turns out that once you’ve accumulated enough experience, reflecting on that experience to “articulate and codify” what you’ve learned is the most powerful way to improve your performance in the future. There are two reasons why this is true: 1) On an emotional level, reflection increases your self-efficacy, which is essentially your belief in your capacity to execute the behaviors necessary to achieve certain goals. 2) On a cognitive level, reflection increases your understanding of the task. Think of Albert Einstein’s saying, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” Jocelyn K. Glei (6 minutes)

Feedback Loop

Hi Kyle, The Geno-Economist idea is not new – science at the service of trying to pigeon-hole people into box (and then later what? correlate with race? ethnicity?).  Pity the article didn’t at least name and confront any ethical or moral hazards embedded in this work.  Nor did it examine the biases in what the researcher(s) defined as successful.  Remember at the end of the day all an IQ test measures – is one’s ability to score high on an IQ test! This stuff makes me super nervous.  We run the risk of denying people equal inputs so that they truly have equal opportunity! Keep the good stuff coming. Thank you. – Rose Barlow

Dear Kyle, Big Kudos to you. Impressive of what you have delivered so far. Thank you for so much devotion. This has become a full part of my WE routine. – Frank Van Gansbeke

From the Community

Leiv Parton and Esse See teamed up to create this brilliant music video critiquing high quantity / low quality American consumption.

Weekend Wisdom

Great thoughts speak only to the thoughtful mind, but great actions speak to all mankind.Theodore Roosevelt

About the Weekend Briefing

A Saturday morning briefing on innovation & society by Kyle Westaway – Managing Partner of Westaway and author of Profit & Purpose.

Photo by Tim Mossholder.