Young Again: How One Cell Turns Back Time

Carl Zimmer in The New York Times:

WormNone of us was made from scratch. Every human being develops from the fusion of two cells, an egg and a sperm, that are the descendants of other cells. The lineage of cells that joins one generation to the next — called the germline — is, in a sense, immortal. Biologists have puzzled over the resilience of the germline for 130 years, but the phenomenon is still deeply mysterious. Over time, a cell’s proteins become deformed and clump together. When cells divide, they pass that damage to their descendants. Over millions of years, the germline ought to become too devastated to produce healthy new life. “You take humans — they age two, three or four decades, and then they have a baby that’s brand new,” said K. Adam Bohnert, a postdoctoral researcher at Calico Life Sciences in South San Francisco, Calif. “There’s some interesting biology there we just don’t understand.” On Thursday in the journal Nature, Dr. Bohnert and Cynthia Kenyon, vice president for aging research at Calico, reported the discovery of one way in which the germline stays young.

Right before an egg is fertilized, it is swept clean of deformed proteins in a dramatic burst of housecleaning. The researchers discovered this process by studying a tiny worm called Caenorhabditis elegans. The worm has been a favorite of biologists for 50 years because its inner workings are much the same as our own. C. elegans relies on many of the same genes that we do to control the division of cells, for example, and to program faulty cells to commit suicide. In 1993, Dr. Kenyon discovered that a gene called daf-2 greatly influenced the life span of these worms. Shutting down the gene more than doubled the worm’s lifetime from 18 days to 42 days. That finding, which Dr. Kenyon made while a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, led to the discovery of an entire network of genes involved in repairing cells, allowing animals to live longer. Humans depend on similar genes to repair our cells, too. “Cynthia really pioneered the field of aging and rejuvenation using C. elegans,” said Irina M. Conboy, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley.

More here.

Authenticity and Modernity

Andrew Bowie in AIA News:

SetWidth592-bowiereduxIn Sincerity and Authenticity (1972) liberal critic Lionel Trilling distinguished between two particular ways of being in the modern world. Being ‘sincere’ (from Latin sincerus, of things, ‘whole, clean, pure, uninjured, unmixed’), ‘true to oneself’ by not ‘dissembling’, becomes an ideal during the early emergence of bourgeois individualism. Its new significance coincides with the increase in social mobility, mobility which also offered more chances for pretending to be what one wasn’t. Shakespeare’s plays often deal with this issue. However, being true to oneself by not pretending to be other than one’s social role dictates subsequently often comes to be seen as merely a kind of conformism that precisely lacks ‘authenticity’. This demands doing things on one’s own authority, which can be seen in terms of being ‘author of oneself’. Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew (1761), a dialogue with an eccentric man who is able to play character roles at will but who cannot stably adhere to any role for himself, explores the problems associated with self-authorship, and Hegel quotes the text in the Phenomenology of Spirit when explicating modern forms of consciousness.

Authenticity, then, demands truth to oneself of a different order from sincerity. Trilling dramatises this by reference to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, where the atrocities committed by Kurtz (which are based on the genocide committed by the Belgians in the Congo in the 19th century) are seen as linked to his plumbing the depths of what he is capable of: being ‘true to oneself’ here leads to sheer horror.

More here.

Kip Thorne, the man who helped prove Einstein correct weighs in on America’s startling science gap

Patt Morrison in the Los Angeles Times:

My perception is that that urgency about science has drifted away. There may be an indifference to science, even a hostility to science in some quarters.

ThorneThat’s also my impression in the United States. Of course, there are other parts of the world where science and technology are absolutely front and center. Let me give you a good example: South Korea.

I was invited to go there for something called the Seoul Digital Forum, as a result of my work on “Interstellar.” The first speaker at this event was the president of [South] Korea. The second speaker was the secretary general of the United Nations. And I was the third speaker.

This was televised throughout Korea, and it was part of the Korean government’s effort to mobilize the general population in terms of getting young people interested in science and technology. They viewed people as their only major natural resource, their biggest natural resource. And inspiring children to become interested in science and technology — whether they were going to be scientists or not — to have an educated populace was a central goal.

I was amazed at that when I saw it in Korea. Yeah, so we do have a problem in the United States today.

More here.

Parse The Word ‘Merit’

P. Vijaya Kumar in Outlook India:

ScreenHunter_2902 Nov. 23 09.08‘Check your privilege’, a phrase most often directed at cocky white males in America, never gained traction in India, probably because the equivalent of the privileged white male in India—the upper caste, English educated, affluent, entitled urbanite—instinctively shunned it. But most of them have also ignored the venerable Socratic exhortation ‘know thyself’. Until now, it would seem. Namit Arora’s wonderful collection of essays does both and, in the process, opens our eyes to the state of our land and civilisation at a crucial time in our history.

The book is made up of 15 brilliant essays on the subject of India and inequality. Some themes dominate—the English language, colonisation, Hinduism, the caste system, nationalism and Ambedkar.

Arora’s probing introduction tells us something few successful Indians will acknowledge—success is often not earned, but the result of the luck of being born in the right family. An intelligent analysis will show this, but most people pass off inherited advantages as ‘merit’. Unless this changes, and attempts made to create a level playing field, there will never be meaningful social change in India.

More here.

Michelangelo Exploded Art History

08-michelangelo-three-labours.nocrop.w710.h2147483647Jerry Saltz at New York Magazine:

The Metropolitan Museum’s “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer” is a stupendous metaphysical-visual exhalation. Somewhere amid the High Renaissance master’s drawings, time and mediums piled up for me, and art’s house was set on fire. The show burns, from Michelangelo’s time, into the past — with his rediscoveries and reinterpretations of Classical Greek and Roman art. It also simultaneously convulses forward, into sensibilities then unknown — breaching the exaggerations of Mannerism and the cinematic Baroque, into the cauldrons of brooding Romanticism, part-by-part Impressionism even into the shadows of our own existentialism. The tightly constructed survey, organized by the Met’s Dr. Carmen C. Bambach in 14 chronological galleries, is an exhibition in turns exhausting and exhilarating.

It is esoteric in its relentless focus on drawing, and you really have to get up close to these works to wholly imbibe them — which will be difficult given crowds; also Michelangelo’s are not works on paper that we love or covet like those of Seurat, van Gogh, Goya, Hiroshige, Wang Hui, Bill Traylor, or Rembrandt; Michelangelo leaves us thunderstruck, his work almost alien.

more here.

René Magritte, fifty years on

Magritte-Nov-22Roderick Conway Morris at the TLS:

René Magritte, surely the most humane and witty of all Surrealist artists, died at the age of sixty-eight, half a century ago this year. He enjoyed international recognition and financial security only during the last fifteen years of his life, and his reputation has continued to grow abroad. He is now seen as perhaps the greatest Belgian artist of the twentieth century.

In 2009, the Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium, which owns the largest single collection of his works, opened the five-floor Magritte Museum within its own walls in his home town, Brussels. This institutional act of homage had been anticipated by a local devotee of the artist, André Garitte, who – against considerable odds and official indifference – managed in 1992 to buy the apartment where Magritte and his wife Georgette lived during the key years 1930–54. He turned it into the René Magritte Museum, which, after much voluntary work by enthusiasts, opened its doors in 1999.

Any past sins of omission are currently being further expiated with various events marking the fiftieth anniversary of Magritte’s death.

more here.

What Is the Political Responsibility of the Artist?

Ii_15fda610cd64e8f0Taylor Plimpton at The Paris Review:

Perhaps no modern writer has experienced as much political turmoil and upheaval as the great Polish storyteller Ryszard Kapuscinski. Take, for instance, his claim that during his time serving as a reporter and war correspondent, he witnessed twenty-seven coups and revolutions and was sentenced to death four times. One might expect Kapuscinski to have a particularly informed response to the question that seems to be on so many people’s minds these days: What, if any, is the social or political responsibility of the artist? Or, to put it another way: Should writers be writing for a cause?

Penned thirty-five years ago, Shah of Shahs is Kapuscinski’s retelling of the most notorious revolution that he ever experienced firsthand—the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The book is a brilliant, nuanced portrait of a country and its corrupt leader in the tumultuous days leading up to and following his removal from power. Yet, upon close examination of the text, it seems that the author’s allegiance isn’t to any political party or ideology or cause—he is as harsh a critic of the powers that toppled the Shah as he is of the Shah himself. Instead, his allegiance is simply to art, and to the truth.

more here.

Does a sea of viruses inside our body help keep us healthy?

Giorgia Guglielmi in Science:

VirusA century after they were discovered killing bacteria in the feces of World War I soldiers, the viruses known as bacteriophages, or simply phages, are drawing new attention for the role they might play within the human body. Phages have been found most everywhere, from oceans to soils. Now, a study suggests that people absorb up to 30 billion phages every day through their intestines. Though where the viruses end up is unclear, those data and other recent studies have scientists wondering whether a sea of phages within the body—a “phageome”—might influence our physiology, perhaps by regulating our immune systems. “Basic biology teaching says that phages don’t interact with eukaryotic cells,” says phage researcher Jeremy Barr of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, who led the study published this week in mBio. He’s now convinced “that’s complete BS.” For decades, most medical research on phages focused on turning these bacterial parasites into antibiotics. There have been some compelling success stories, but phage therapy has struggled to become a dependable treatment.

Yet Barr’s earlier research showed that phages might naturally help protect us from pathogens. Studying animals ranging from corals to humans, he found that phages are more than four times as abundant in mucus layers, like the ones that protect our gums and gut, as they are in the adjacent environment. The protein shell of a phage, it turned out, can bind mucins, large secreted molecules that together with water make up mucus. This works out well for both phages and mucusmaking animals. Sticking to mucus enables the phages to encounter more of their bacterial prey. And as a result, Barr showed in a series of in vitro studies, the viruses protect the underlying cells from potential bacteria pathogens, providing an additional layer of immunity. Now, he has found evidence that these viruses can make their way from the gut’s mucus into the body. In a lab dish, his team showed that human epithelial cells such as those that line our guts, lungs, and the capillaries surrounding the brain take up phages and transport them across their interior. The transport mechanism remains unknown, but the researchers spotted the viruses enclosed in vesicles within the cells. What’s more, the cells consistently took up phages on the side that in the body faces outward, for example toward the gut lumen, and released them on the opposite, inward-facing side. From the rate at which the epithelial cells took up phages in the lab, the researchers estimated that a person might absorb up to 30 billion in a day.

More here.

Violence as a way of life


Manu S. Pillai in LiveMint:

If ever there was a man who was attentive to the tribulations of kings, that man was Kautilya. While there might have been several minds invested, across spans of time, in the composition of his Arthashastra, Kautilya’s manual of statecraft was a model of exactness to guide the hands of power. Thus, for instance, for relatively more ordinary varieties of criminal offence, the punishment suggested is “tearing apart by bullocks”, but for the singular error of romancing the monarch’s wife, things could only end with the seducer “cooking in a big jar”. Torture, in general, was to be perfectly timed, with meals in between for the torturer and the subject of his attention, though exceptions of format could be made if the criminal in question were a Brahmin—so while a regular sinner might discover parts of his body set on fire, one with the sacred thread wasn’t permanently charred, keeping his life, but losing his eyes.

Kautilya’s treatise is one of the many sources from ancient times that Upinder Singh studies in her authoritative new book, Political Violence In Ancient India (Harvard University Press). It is an unembellished title and the language of the book follows this pattern, offering a 1,000-year overview of how violence and its philosophical corollary, non-violence, were treated and reconciled by thinkers many centuries ago. So while some hagiographies might show Ashoka roasting his brother and rival for the Mauryan throne and slaughtering 18,000 Ajivikas before his evolution into a crusader for peace, the fact is that we don’t really have reliable statistics for how (or how many) people died in political settings all those ages ago. The book, therefore, is necessarily “a history of ideas”, which studies intellectual responses to violence, from sources such as the Vedas to the plays of Bhasa and Kalidasa, alluding to Harappan remains as well as to the times of the Guptas.

Singh sets out, in a very balanced fashion, to challenge a basic principle many of us have, over years of schooling and nation-building, systematically absorbed: that India has been an eternal beacon of non-violence and harmony. The truth, as the author demonstrates, is as complex as the other truths of life. For what we see is the emergence of non-violence as an ideal mainly among Buddhists and Jains, subsequently adopted by Hindu sources as well, but always with a parallel understanding that in the practical universe of economics and politics, involving masses of people, non-violence is a principle that cannot always be upheld. So we find even Ashoka struggling to persuade his palace establishment to accept a fully vegetarian kitchen, as much as we encounter Eastern oligarchies, sites evidently of greater political confrontation than the monarchical West, welcoming Buddha’s doctrine of peace and offering patronage without irony.

More here.

The Banality of Virtue


Madhav Khosla in the LA Review of Books:

The Ordinary Virtues lacks the psychological sophistication of a work like Shklar’s Ordinary Vices. Many readers are likely to find the book unsatisfying in important ways. Parts of it seem like a work of political theory, though its contribution in this regard is not fully clear. On other occasions, it appears as a collection of pieces in political journalism without the dramatic insights into human behavior to which narrative nonfiction writing aspires.

None of this, to be fair, is lost on Ignatieff. He regards the book as an anthropological and sociological inquiry into ethical behavior. This ambition is, alas, poorly served by the book’s sweeping character. Yet its animating theme — that what human beings share is “a common desire, in their own vernacular, for moral order” that can infuse their lives with meaning — is a significant one. It forces us to notice that we are meaning-generating creatures, and that any study of human behavior must not only acknowledge this fact but also try to understand how meaning is generated.

Two valuable reminders, in particular, emerge from Ignatieff’s study. The first is that successful societies, which is to say societies that manage to avoid severe forms of violence and disorder, often rest on prosaic social practices. There is a temptation — how could there not be? — to present the success or failure of societies in the grandest of terms, as evidence for the rightness or wrongness of this or that ideology or worldview. But whether or not our social world is likely to implode is more often than not determined by small acts between individuals. Communal bonds, exchanges between neighbors, the attitudes of employers toward employees, silent forms of understanding, and predictable forms of state action are all matters that may seem beneath the theorist’s notice, but Ignatieff asks that we remember their significance, and their fragility. Moreover, a society that is well ordered is one in which virtue is made banal. Its quiet practices become so deeply entrenched that it does not require heroes to triumph.

More here.

László Krasznahorkai’s “The World Goes On”

Saul Anton in 4 Columns:

Anton_WorldGoesOn_CoverWhen the Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first person to go to space in April 1961, he reportedly said the following words to his ground control as he looked out his capsule’s small window: “I see Earth. It is so beautiful.” Less than seven years later, he died in a plane crash on a routine flight near Moscow.

In “That Gagarin,” one of many richly suggestive pieces in The World Goes On, the Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai invokes the moment more than once as he deftly combines a reflection on the meaning of the cosmonaut’s words with an exploration of how a story like Gagarin’s attracts the conspiracy-minded. His narrator, a cagey double of the author himself, is an asylum patient who obsesses over why Gagarin started to drink heavily and why the Soviet authorities kept him away from his adoring public. What’s perhaps most astonishing, however, is that the thirty-seven-page story is composed as a single sentence.

In fact, seven of the twenty pieces (and a coda) in The World Goes On are single-sentence works, accounting for nearly two hundred of the book’s three hundred and eleven pages. The sixty-three-year-old winner of the 2015 Man Booker International Prize is on record arguing that the short sentence and the paragraph break are artificial constraints.

More here.

Spin: The Quantum Property That Should Have Been Impossible

Paul Halpern in Forbes:

ScreenHunter_2901 Nov. 21 19.59In the early 1920s, physicists were first working out the mysteries of the quantum Universe. Particles sometimes behaved as waves, with indeterminate positions, momenta, energies, and other properties. There was an inherent uncertainty to a great many properties that we could measure, and physicists raced to work out the rules.

Amidst this frenzy, a young Dutch researcher named George Uhlenbeck implored Paul Ehrenfest, his research supervisor at the University of Leiden, not to submit the paper he wrote with Samuel “Sam” Goudsmit about a new quantum number called spin. It was not correct, Uhlenbeck told him in a frenzy. Let’s just drop it and start over, he implored.

Uhlenbeck and Goudsmit, both then in their mid-20s, had just showed their joint result to the great Dutch physicist Hendrik Lorentz who had found what seemed like a major error. Electrons, he pointed out, couldn’t possibly rotate fast enough to generate the magnetic moment (interaction strength between a particle and an external magnetic field) that the duo had predicted. The particles would need to whirl faster than the sacred speed limit of light. How could they? The spin paper is unphysical, Uhlenbeck told Ehrenfest, and should not be published.

Ehrenfest’s reply was curt. “It is too late,” he told Uhlenbeck. “I have already submitted the paper. It will be published in two weeks.” Then he added, “Both of you are young and can afford to do something stupid.”

More here.

The destruction of graduate education in the United States

Scott Aaronson in Shtetl-Optimized:

ScreenHunter_2900 Nov. 21 19.50If and when you emerged from your happiness bubble to read the news, you’ll have seen (at least if you live in the US) that the cruel and reckless tax bill has passed the House of Representatives, and remains only to be reconciled with an equally-vicious Senate bill and then voted on by the Republican-controlled Senate. The bill will add about $1.7 trillion to the national debt and raise taxes for about 47.5 million people, all in order to deliver a massive windfall to corporations, and to wealthy estates that already pay some of the lowest taxes in the developed world.

In a still-functioning democracy, those of us against such a policy would have an intellectual obligation to seek out the strongest arguments in favor of the policy and try to refute them. By now, though, it seems to me that the Republicans hold the public in such contempt, and are so sure of the power of gerrymandering and voter restrictions to protect themselves from consequences, that they didn’t even bother to bring anything to the debate more substantive than the schoolyard bully’s “stop punching yourself.” I guess some of them still repeat the fairytale about the purpose of tax cuts for the super-rich being to trickle down and help everyone else—but can even they advance that “theory” anymore without stifling giggles? Mostly, as far as I can tell, they just brazenly deny that they’re doing what they obviously are doing: i.e., gleefully setting on fire anything that anyone, regardless of their ideology, could recognize as the national interest, in order to enrich a small core of supporters.

But none of that is what interests me in this post—because it’s “merely” as bad as, and no worse than, what one knew to expect when a coalition of thugs, kleptocrats, and white-nationalist demagogues seized control of Hamilton’s and Jefferson’s experiment. My concern here is only with the “kill shot” that the Republicans have now aimed, with terrifying precision, at the system that’s kept American academic science the envy of the world in spite of the growing dysfunction all around it.

More here.

The Real Cult of Charles Manson

Lead_960 (3)Sophie Gilbert at The Atlantic:

“All of us are excited by what we most deplore,” Martin Amis wrote in the London Review of Books in 1980, reviewing Joan Didion’s The White Album. In the title piece in that collection, Didion’s second, the essayist recalls sitting in her sister-in-law’s swimming pool in Beverly Hills on August 9, 1969, when the phone rang. The friend on the line had heard that across town there had been a spate of murders at a house rented by the director Roman Polanski, on Cielo Drive. Early reports were frenzied, shocking, lurid, and incorrect. “I remember all of the day’s misinformation very clearly,” Didion writes, “and I also remember this, and wish I did not: I remember that no one was surprised.

The killings orchestrated that summer by Charles Manson, who died on Sunday at the age of 83, after spending the past 48 years in prison, occupy a unique space in the American cultural psyche. All of the elements of the Tate–LaBianca murders, as they came to be known, seemed designed for maximum tabloid impact. There was the actor Sharon Tate, luminously beautiful and eight months pregnant, who was stabbed to death with four others at a rental home in Hollywood. There were the killers—young women, Manson acolytes corrupted by a sinister cult figure.

more here.

The Existential Threat of Big Tech

DownloadJohn Naughton at Literary Review:

World Without Mind thus joins a lengthening list of blistering critiques of our networked world that already includes works by Jonathan Taplin, Andrew Keen, Frank Pasquale, Astra Taylor, Cathy O’Neil and others. In its take-no-prisoners attitude to the digital giants, it echoes these protests against the hijacking of our culture by youthful moguls imbued with the invincible arrogance that often accompanies great – and suddenly acquired – wealth. What sets it apart is the style and verve of the writing. In this respect, it is more reminiscent of a much earlier critique of digital culture – Sven Birkerts’s The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, which was published over two decades ago.

But whereas Birkerts’s predominant tone was wistful, Foer’s is steely and hostile. The tech monopolies, he believes, ‘aspire to mold humanity into their desired image of it. They believe they have the opportunity to complete the long merger between man and machine – to redirect the trajectory of human evolution.’ He sees them as akin to the companies that transformed the market for food in the postwar era. And as with food, the tech giants ‘have given rise to a new science that aims to construct products that pander to the tastes of their consumers’ – a process that leads, ultimately, to homogeneity (not to mention the cultural equivalents of obesity, diabetes and heart disease).

World Without Mind is full of sharp insights, elegantly expressed. Like the companies, Foer devotes a lot of attention to algorithms. ‘The origins of the algorithm’, he writes, ‘are unmistakably human, but human fallibility isn’t a quality that we associate with it.’ And although it’s at the heart of computer science, the algorithm ‘is not precisely a scientific concept’ – it’s a tool created for specific purposes.

more here.

how writers envisioned tomorrow’s world

2017_45_books_leadJohn Gray at The New Statesman:

The future has not changed a great deal over the past hundred years. In the late 1920s a book called The Conquest of Life by Dr Serge Voronoff, a Russian émigré based in Paris, became a worldwide success with the claim that the author had found “a remedy for old age” with the aid of which “life can be prolonged, sex intensified, and death delayed”. The New York Times featured Voronoff’s work under the headline “Science promises an amazing future”, and his supposed advances were publicised in the Scientific American.

Voronoff’s techniques included transplanting testicular material obtained from apes, which he believed could rejuvenate human males and cure cancer. In The Conquest of Life, he promoted his transplant methods as a means of enhancing the abilities of children, asking “Why not try creating a race of super-men, endowed with physical and mental attributes very superior to ours?”

Others around the same time were promoting different methods to achieve similar goals. Eugen Steinach (1861-1944), a Viennese physician and endocrinologist, developed a type of vasectomy that aimed to divert seminal fluid into the body, where it would have sexually energising effects. The procedure was eulogised by WB Yeats, who after being “Steinached” in 1934 claimed to have been experienced “a second puberty”.

more here.

New Gene Treatment Effective for Some Leukemia Patients

Denise Grady in The New York Times:

Merlin_130347128_74ebe1b7-f1a7-4065-aa2f-2f1f504fc043-superJumboA new way of genetically altering a patient’s cells to fight cancer has helped desperately ill people with leukemia when every other treatment had failed, researchers reported on Monday in the journal Nature Medicine. The new approach, still experimental, could eventually be given by itself or, more likely, be used in combination treatments — analogous to antiviral “cocktails” for H.I.V. or multidrug regimens of chemotherapy for cancer — to increase the odds of shutting down the disease. Researchers say the treatment may be more promising as part of a combination than when given alone because, although some patients in the small study have had long-lasting remissions, many others had relapses. The research, conducted at the National Cancer Institute, is the latest advance in the fast-growing field of immunotherapy, which fires up the immune system to attack cancer. The new findings build on two similar treatments that were approved by the Food and Drug Administration this year: Kymriah, made by Novartis for leukemia; and Yescarta, by Kite Pharma for lymphoma.

In some cases, those two treatments have brought long and seemingly miraculous remissions to people who were expected to die. Kymriah and Yescarta require removing millions of each patient’s T-cells — disease-fighting white blood cells — and genetically engineering them to seek and destroy cancer cells. The T-cells are then dripped back into the patient, where they home in on protein molecules called CD19 found on malignant cells in most types of leukemia and lymphoma. The new treatment differs in a major way: the T-cells are programmed to attack a different target on malignant cells, CD22. Researchers have been eager to test this type of T-cell. One reason is that they hoped to find that CD19 was not the only vulnerable target, “not some kind of unicorn,” said Dr. Crystal L. Mackall, the senior author of the study and the associate director of the Stanford University School of Medicine’s cancer institute. Cancer cells are highly adaptable and often find ways to evade treatments aimed at only one target. “The idea that we could have one magic bullet is naïve,” she said. Another reason is that some patients with leukemia or lymphoma do not have CD19 on their cells, so the existing T-cell treatments do not work for them. Other patients, perhaps 30 percent or more, have CD19 at first and go into remission when treated, but then lose the protein and relapse within six months — a wrenching outcome for patients and their families, whose hopes soar and then crash. In theory, a treatment that goes after a different target could rescue patients who lack CD19 or lose it. An even more important reason for the interest in a new type of engineered T-cell is that it would enable scientists to develop combination immunotherapy that would attack cancer cells on different fronts at the same time — a proven key to success with chemotherapy.

More here.

What kind of jobs will the robots leave us?

by Thomas R. Wells

Let us assume that the automation of our job tasks by algorithms and our physical displacement by robots proceeds at a rapid pace. What is the future of work? Will it be awful or will it be nice?

Humanoid3Some people focus on the jobs that robots can’t do now, or not very well, such as cleaning toilets or programming other robots. But there aren’t enough of those jobs to be interesting. Others focus on who owns the robots, and what kind of jobs they might like the rest of us to do, such as Downton Abbey type flunkies. But this seems too determinedly dystopian.

It makes more sense to treat the future of work as the economic question it appears to be – at least at first. Especially since we have two hundred years of historical experience with technological revolutions. When technology displaces human employment, what generally happens to the humans? In every case, humans move down the value chain, moving into work of less economic value than before.

For example, in 1800 the overwhelming majority of people still worked on the land, even in Adam Smith’s Britain. They had to. Producing food required enormous amounts of human labour. Most people spent most of their income on bread, which is not surprising since that was the main product of the economy. As the agricultural revolution spread new technologies and methods, productivity per worker soared. Millions of workers were no longer required. Those workers moved to the cities and the new economic opportunities in factories. They went from growing food (essential to human survival) to making things that were merely nice to have (helpful to human living). A similar thing happened when factories became so efficient at making things that we could afford to transfer most of the human labour force to services (around 75% of most developed economies).

In other words, automation increases productivity, the amount of economic value a society can produce with the same inputs of labour and materials. That means we can have all the things we used to have, plus we now also have some spare labour that we can use to produce things lower down on our collective list of priorities, such as mass higher education and healthcare and telemarketing. The reason we didn’t make those things already is that they were not valuable enough to be worth the cost of giving up anything higher on the list. Technology driven economic change increases general prosperity by expanding the frontier of what an economy can produce, and therefore what the people in it can consume. (How those consumption possibilities are distributed is a different, political rather than economic question.)

Applying this logic to our current revolution in automation, it seems reasonable to conclude that the future of human work will be producing things even further down our list of priorities than what most of us do now. What might that look like?

Read more »