News — At The Edge — 8/5

The articles and video this week are predominantly science and technology related.

Technology issues focus on two of the most potent and potentially fraught areas today — synthetic biology (gene drives) and artificial intelligence (ability to imagine and plan).

There is one legal issue that discusses how data collected from implanted and wearable medical and health related devices can be used against you in legal cases.

Science articles and video are interesting inasmuch as they look at biology in new ways. One article and video are about how biological life was likely a natural result of physics, which reflects my own research and writings (see, Macroscopic Evolutionary Paradigm)


Technology Issues –

U.S. Defense Agencies Grapple with Gene Drives -

“JASONs, a group of elite scientists that advises the US government on national security…[recently] took stock of a new threat: gene drives, a genetic-engineering technology that can swiftly spread modifications through entire populations…drive species extinct and alter whole ecosystems….

[Imagine] how would-be bioterrorists might weaponize gene drives…[or] the potential for accidental release of gene-drive organisms….

[Now] ‘advances are outpacing biosecurity’….[Some] plan to develop tools to counter rogue gene drives that spread out of control…[using] chemicals that block gene-editing or ‘anti-gene drives’ that can reverse a genetic modification or immunize unaltered wild organisms so they are resistant to a gene drive. These tools could combat a gene drive deployed to do harm…[but] far more likely to be deployed against accidental gene-drive releases from research labs….

[DARPA] world’s largest government funder of gene-drive research…[sows] suspicions…in parts of the world.”

Agents that imagine and plan -

“Imagining the consequences of your actions before you take them is a powerful tool of human cognition…[crucial] in our everyday lives. If our algorithms are to develop equally sophisticated behaviors, they too must have the capability to ‘imagine’ and reason about the future…[and] be able to construct a plan using this knowledge.

[Big] results in this area…like AlphaGo…[with] clearly defined rules which allow outcomes to be predicted very accurately…[but] real world is complex, rules are not so clearly defined and unpredictable problems often arise….

[A] new family of approaches for imagination-based planning…provide new ways for agents to learn and construct plans to maximize the efficiency of a task…and can adopt flexible strategies for exploiting their imagination….[Agents] benefit from an ‘imagination encoder’- a neural network which learns to extract any information useful for the agent’s future decisions, but ignore that which is not relevant….

[T]hey learn to interpret their internal simulations…even when those dynamics are not perfect…adapting the number of imagined trajectories to suit the problem…[encouraging] the agent to try different strategies ‘in its head’ before testing them in the real environment….Because agents are able to extract more knowledge from internal simulations they can solve tasks more with fewer imagination steps than conventional search methods….

[If] we add an additional ‘manager’ component, which helps to construct a plan, the agent learns to solve tasks even more efficiently with fewer steps…[so] presented with multiple models of an environment, each varying in quality and cost-benefit, it learns to make a meaningful trade-off. Finally, if the computational cost of imagination increases with each action taken, the agent imagines the effect of multiple chained actions early, and relies on this plan later without invoking imagination again.”

Legal Issue –

Your Own Pacemaker Can Now Testify Against You In Court -

“Law enforcement can use legally obtained blood samples and medical records as evidence..[and] smart devices, such as steps counted by activity trackers and queries made to speakers, to establish how a crime was committed….

[The] courts have yet to distinguish between data interior to the body and data stored on the outside. Data isn’t considered more protected or more private by virtue of its personal nature or where it is stored.

The more connected, convenient, and smart our devices…more they have the potential to expose the truth….[So] ‘we are no longer the sole proprietors or controllers of our personal information’….

Each day we leave revealing data trails, and prosecutors are realizing how valuable these can be in solving crimes. More data [from]…Smart cars…homes can tell what rooms are occupied; and other smart appliances may track our daily routines. All of it can be used as incriminating evidence…a new frontier for criminal litigation and law enforcement….

In an era where consumers constantly reveal intimate information…[and] are worried…the reasonable solution certainly cannot be…avoid pacemakers and activity trackers….[Must] accept that using new smart technologies may cause them to forfeit what’s left of their privacy.

Science Issues –

The Internet of Living Things -

“[People] around the world now use pocket-size genomic sequencers to rapidly detect resistant pathogenic strains in hospitals, explore microbial diversity in Antarctic…and diagnose infectious agents in food…[but] what if sequencer-equipped researchers were able to transmit what they’re learning directly to others…[and] use biology as the main language to understand themselves and the world around them…in protecting global health and ecosystems….

[It’s] the second genomic revolution, where sequencing our genomes and those of other species becomes a pervasive data market in which DNA is the primary currency…[in] global commons where citizens can learn to turn their own data into innovations.

The new lab-in-your-hand technology…[could] democratize genomic sequencingsmall as a USB-stick and easy to use [as] to prepare samples of blood, bodily fluids or water to be fed into the device….[There’s] an intelligent cloud lab, Metrichor…used for genomics data storage in conjunction with smartphone apps that interpret the meaning of DNA sequences.

The convergence of automation…algorithms and cloud computing is progressively making genomics available to less skilled actors…[and] enable us to imagine…world around us would…equipped with increasingly sophisticated bio-sensing capacity…to identify the genetic composition of our bodily fluids, species surrounding us and microorganisms on our skins and in our backyards….

Portable genomic sequencers…integrated to our most strategic technical systems, including agro-food facilities, airports, battlefields and hospitals…would identify the nature, transmission paths and mutations of deadly viruses, engineered bacteria and even forgotten lethal pathogens….[Home] blood tests that could track their most vital biomarkers and identify at an early stage the pieces of DNA shredded by a cancer tumor or a viral agent.

If millions of citizens were streaming these data to the cloud, they would build the most powerful data set for preventive and precision medicine the world has ever known. The genetic identity of any living thing…[creates] Internet of living things (IoLT)….

[Now] genomic sequences of interest risk being held by private databases [to]…gain a competitive advantage by selling access…[and] large corporations using their vast computing and machine-learning platforms to commodify continuous streams of genetic data about humans and ecosystems.

Global conflicts over ownership would have to be balanced by open-source efforts to ensure that research, data and technological tools primarily serve the public good….

U.S. policymakers and regulators, in collaboration with technologists, should have an ambitious conversation about global data commons….Experts will also need to consider the challenge and cost of ensuring accuracy when dealing with biological and microbial samples….

The potential of monitoring for biological threats is enormous, but methods to validate data and address personal and collective liability issues are needed. What is more troubling as we slowly enter the age of ubiquitous genomics sequencing is that we face an increasing socioeconomic disparity.”

How Does Life Come From Randomness? (video 2.5 min)

[T]he law of increasing entropy could drive random bits of matter into the stable, orderly structures of life.

Controversial New Theory Suggests Life Wasn’t a Fluke of Biology — It Was Physics -

“[A] new theory [has]…origin of life as an inevitable outcome of thermodynamics…[whereby] under certain conditions, groups of atoms will naturally restructure themselves so as to burn more and more energy, facilitating the incessant dispersal of energy and the rise of ‘entropy’ or disorder in the universe….

[That] dissipation-driven adaptation fosters the growth of complex structures, including living things…and ‘should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill’….

Starting with random initial chemical concentrations, reaction rates and ‘forcing landscapes’ — rules that dictate which reactions get a boost from outside forces and by how much — the…chemical reaction network evolves until it reaches its final, steady state, or ‘fixed point.’ Often…an equilibrium state…[sometimes] far from equilibrium, where it vigorously cycles through reactions by harvesting the maximum energy possible from the environment…as examples of apparent fine-tuning’ between the system and its environment…in which the system finds ‘rare states of extremal thermodynamic forcing.’

Living creatures also maintain steady states of extreme forcing: We are super-consumers who burn through enormous amounts of chemical energy, degrading it and increasing the entropy of the universe, as we power the reactions in our cells….

’Most arrangements [of atomic building blocks] are not going to be the metabolic powerhouses that a bacterium is’….To perform this function, the atoms must be arranged in a highly unusual form…[so] the very existence of a form-function relationship ‘implies that there’s a challenge presented by the environment that we see the structure of the system as meeting’…[but] a natural outcome of thermodynamics in far-from-equilibrium systems. The Nobel-Prize-winning physical chemist Ilya Prigogine pursued similar ideas in the 1960s….

[As] groups of atoms…driven by external energy sources…start tapping into those energy sources, aligning and rearranging so as to better absorb the energy and dissipate it as heat…[that] might foster self-replication….(‘A great way of dissipating more is to make more copies of yourself.’)….

[I]t’s extraordinary confluence of form and function, as the ultimate outcome of dissipation-driven adaptation and self-replication….[Thus] the system increases its energy absorption over time by forming and breaking bonds in order to better resonate with a driving frequency….[When] the chemical reaction networks play out in such an environment, the networks seemed to become fine-tuned to the landscape….

[Still] the true hallmark of biological systems: their information-processing capacity. From simple chemotaxis (the ability of bacteria to move toward nutrient concentrations or away from poisons) to human communication, life-forms take in and respond to information about their environment….

[Life] requires some explicit notion of information that takes it beyond the non-equilibrium dissipative structures-type process’…[as] the ability to respond to information is key: ‘We need chemical reaction networks that can get up and walk away from the environment where they originated’….[So] aside from the thermodynamic properties and information-processing abilities of life-forms, they also store and pass down genetic information about themselves to their progeny.

The origin of life…[is] the emergence of a particular kind of dynamics, which is Darwinian. It’s the emergence of structures that reproduce…[and] ability for the properties of those objects to influence their reproductive rates. Once you have those two conditions, you’re basically in a situation where Darwinian evolution kicks in….

[Still] in the tool kit of the first life- or proto-life-forms, ‘maybe there’s more that you can get for free, and then you can optimize it using the Darwinian mechanism’….[So] dissipation-driven adaptation as the opening act of life’s origin story…[and] ‘as long as you can harvest energy from your environment, order will spontaneously arise and self-tune…from nothing.’”

Find more of my ideas on Medium at, A Passion to Evolve.
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May you live long and prosper!
Doc Huston