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As Goldman Embraces Automation, Even the Masters of the Universe Are Threatened

 

At its height back in 2000, the U.S. cash equities trading desk at Goldman Sachs’s New York headquarters employed 600 traders, buying and selling stock on the orders of the investment bank’s large clients. Today there are just two equity traders left.

Automated trading programs have taken over the rest of the work, supported by 200 computer engineers. Marty Chavez, the company’s deputy chief financial officer and former chief information officer, explained all this to attendees at a symposium on computing’s impact on economic activity held by Harvard’s Institute for Applied Computational Science last month.

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Machine Vision Helps Spot New Drug Treatments A startup uses algorithms that understand the anatomy of cells to discover new uses for existing drugs.

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Web users searching for photos and cops looking for suspects in video already benefit from software that understands the content of images. Chris Gibson says it can also make it easier to find treatments for diseases not targeted by existing drugs.

“By combining robotics and machine vision, we can work at large scale on hundreds of diseases simultaneously, using a small number of people,” says Gibson, who is CEO and cofounder of the 40-person startup Recursion Pharmaceuticals.

Recursion uses software to read out the results of high-throughput screening, which automates drug testing in cells. That isn’t a new idea, but Recursion uses algorithms that inspect cells at an unusual level of detail. The software measures a thousand features of a cell, such as the size and shape of its nucleus or the distance between different internal compartments.

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Five big mysteries about CRISPR’s origins Where did it come from? How do organisms use it without self-destructing? And what else can it do?

The biological advantages of something like CRISPR–Cas are clear. Prokaryotes — bacteria and less-well-known single-celled organisms called archaea, many of which live in extreme environments — face a constant onslaught of genetic invaders. Viruses outnumber prokaryotes by ten to one and are said to kill half of the world’s bacteria every two days. Prokaryotes also swap scraps of DNA called plasmids, which can be parasitic — draining resources from their host and forcing it to self-destruct if it tries to expel its molecular hitch-hiker. It seems as if nowhere is safe: from soil to sea to the most inhospitable places on the planet, genetic invaders are present.

Prokaryotes have evolved a slew of weapons to cope with these threats. Restriction enzymes, for example, are proteins that cut DNA at or near a specific sequence. But these defences are blunt. Each enzyme is programmed to recognize certain sequences, and a microbe is protected only if it has a copy of the right gene. CRISPR–Cas is more dynamic. It adapts to and remembers specific genetic invaders in a similar way to how human antibodies provide long-term immunity after an infection. “When we first heard about this hypothesis, we thought that would be way too sophisticated for simple prokaryotes,” says microbiologist John van der Oost of Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

Mojica and others deduced the function of CRISPR–Cas when they saw that DNA in the spaces between CRISPR’s palindromic repeats sometimes matches sequences in viral genomes. Since then, researchers have worked out that certain CRISPR-associated (Cas) proteins add these spacer sequences to the genome after bacteria and archaea are exposed to specific viruses or plasmids. RNA made from those spacers directs other Cas proteins to chew up any invading DNA or RNA that matches the sequence (see ‘Lasting protection’).

How did bacteria and archaea come to possess such sophisticated immune systems? That question has yet to be answered, but the leading theory is that the systems are derived from transposons — ‘jumping genes’ that can hop from one position to another in the genome. Evolutionary biologist Eugene Koonin of the US National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and his colleagues have found1 a class of these mobile genetic elements that encodes the protein Cas1, which is involved in inserting spacers into the genome. These ‘casposons’, he reasons, could have been the origin of CRISPR–Cas immunity. Researchers are now working to understand how these bits of DNA hop from one place to another — and then to track how that mechanism may have led to the sophistication of CRISPR–Cas.

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Rigorous replication effort succeeds for just two of five cancer papers

 

cancer_mainart_1280x720The first results of a high-profile effort to replicate influential papers in cancer biology are roiling the biomedical community. Of the five studies the project has tackled so far, some involving experimental treatments already in clinical trials, only two could be repeated; one could not, and technical problems stymied the remaining two replication efforts.

Some scientists say these early findings from the Reproducibility Project: Cancer Biology, which appear tomorrow in eLife, bolster concerns that too many basic biomedical studies don’t hold up in other labs. “The composite picture is, there is a reproducibility problem,” says epidemiologist John Ioannidis of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, an adviser to the project whose attention-getting analyses have argued that biomedical research suffers from systemic flaws.

But others say the results simply show that good studies can be difficult to precisely reproduce, because biological systems are so variable. “People make these flippant comments that science is not reproducible. These first five papers show there are layers of complexity here that make it hard to say that,” says Charles Sawyers, an eLife editor and cancer biologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.

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Electronic gene control could let us plug bacteria into devices

Pink bacterium with purple background

We don’t usually welcome bugs in digital technology, but that’s about to change. Researchers have developed a way to control bacterial genes at the flick of a switch using electricity.

Synthetic biologists are eager to find ways to connect engineered organisms to electronics, so we can make living components for devices.

The ability of custom-made microbes to sense the environment and make biological molecules would be particularly valuable for devices that work inside the body, says William Bentley at the University of Maryland.

“If you want to discover what’s going on in the gastrointestinal tract or the oral cavity, if you can connect to electronics you have a way of interpreting what’s going on and you may be able to manipulate it,” he says.

For example, a device could use an organism to sense chemicals produced by harmful bacteria in the body and secrete an antibiotic when it detects them.

To get specific genes in bacteria to respond to electrical stimulation, Bentley’s team took advantage of what are called redox molecules. These biological molecules are found in all cells and can pick up and pass on electrons. They are said to have a reduced state when they gain electrons, and an oxidised state when they lose electrons.

The team also made use of naturally occurring genetic components in E. coli that respond to oxidative stress, which occurs when too many molecules in the cell are o apply electrical input, the researchers submerged an electrode in a liquid containing the bacteria. When the electrode supplies a positive charge, certain redox molecules get oxidised and trigger the genetic mechanisms that respond to oxidative stress.

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Why Innovators Should Study the Rise and Fall of the Venetian Empire

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Most organizations would be happy to last for centuries, as the Venetian Republic did. From 697 to 1797 AD, Venice’s technological acumen, geographic position, and unconventionality were interlocking advantages that allowed the Most Serene Republic to flourish. But when change comes suddenly, it can turn strengths into weaknesses and sweep away even thousand-year success stories.
Venice’s military technology and the city’s pivotal location on the main trade routes of the time gave Venice several strong, mutually reinforcing advantages.

The Arsenal, an advanced naval munitions factory that anticipated by several centuries the production-line method of manufacture, was the beating heart of the Venetian naval industry. From the thirteenth century on, the Arsenal nurtured creativity and spurred innovation and entrepreneurship in the construction of its galleys.

The city’s geographic location helped it to defend itself from both land- and sea-based invaders. This location, consisting of a series of islands in a marshy lagoon, also pushed it to develop a (then unusual) trading and moneylending economy, since there was little land to support agriculture. And its position at the top of the Adriatic Sea allowed it to become a vital trading hub, connecting the East with the West via the Mediterranean.

If, as Michael Porter wrote, competitive advantage stems from how “activities fit and reinforce one another….creating a chain that is as strong as its strongest link,” then strategic fit is something that the Venetian Republic had in spades.

But, like a lot of successful entities, Venice reached a point where it focused more on exploitation than exploration: Venetian traders followed existing paths to success.

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Mathematical Model Reveals the Patterns of How Innovations Arise

Innovation is one of the driving forces in our world. The constant creation of new ideas and their transformation into technologies and products forms a powerful cornerstone for 21st century society. Indeed, many universities and institutes, along with regions such as Silicon Valley, cultivate this process.

And yet the process of innovation is something of a mystery. A wide range of researchers have studied it, ranging from economists and anthropologists to evolutionary biologists and engineers. Their goal is to understand how innovation happens and the factors that drive it so that they can optimize conditions for future innovation.

This approach has had limited success, however. The rate at which innovations appear and disappear has been carefully measured. It follows a set of well-characterized patterns that scientists observe in many different circumstances. And yet, nobody has been able to explain how this pattern arises or why it governs innovation.

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Questionable “Young Blood” Transfusions Offered in U.S. as Anti-Aging Remedy

Jesse Karmazin is the entrepreneur who made the practice possible, by launching a clinical trial on the potential of “young blood” through his startup Ambrosia. He says that within a month, most participants “see improvements” from the one-time infusion of a two-liter bagful of plasma, which is blood with the blood cells removed.

Several scientists and clinicians say Karmazin’s trial is so poorly designed it cannot hope to provide evidence about the effects of the transfusions. And some say the pay-to-participate study, with the potential to collect up to $4.8 million from as many as 600 participants, amounts to a scam.

What’s certain is that it’s based on some intriguing if inconclusive science. Karmazin, a 32-year-old Princeton graduate and competitive rower, says he was inspired by studies on mice that researchers had sewn together, with their veins conjoined, in a procedure called parabiosis.

Over the last decade or so, such studies have offered provocative clues that certain hallmarks of aging can be reversed or accelerated when old mice get blood from young ones. Yet these studies have come to conflicting conclusions. An influential 2013 paper in Cell showed that a particular component in young blood, GDF11, increased muscle strength, for example, but other researchers could not replicate the finding.

Further, parabiosis experiments offer little insight into how Ambrosia’s one-time transfusions will affect people. “In our study, circulation between the young and old mouse was maintained for nearly four weeks,” says Amy Wagers, a professor of regenerative biology at Harvard University and an author on the Cell report.

 

Despite such uncertainties, the potential of young blood to treat disease is being explored in a number of clinical trials. One test sponsored by the University of California, San Francisco, is examining the effects of transfusions in patients with a degenerative disorder called progressive supranuclear palsy. A study under way in China investigates whether young plasma alleviates the neurologic deficits induced by acute stroke.

In 2014, Stanford University neuroscientist Tony Wyss-Coray demonstrated that old mice had increased neuron growth and improved memory after about 10 infusions of blood from young mice. That prompted Wyss-Coray to launch a small company, Alkahest, based in Menlo Park, California, to test transfusions of plasma from young people in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

Alkahest’s clinical study is more conventional than Ambrosia’s: it does not charge participants, it expects to enroll only 18 volunteers, and it is initially looking at how well the elderly can tolerate small doses of plasma. Wyss-Coray says the company’s initial funding was provided by a billionaire in Hong Kong who felt that a plasma transfusion had helped his grandfather combat Alzheimer’s. In March 2015, the plasma company Grifols invested $37.5 million in the startup.

Like several other researchers and bioethicists, Wyss-Coray worries about the fact that Ambrosia’s trial is funded by participants rather than investors. “People want to believe that young blood restores youth, even though we don’t have evidence that it works in humans and we don’t understand the mechanism of how mice look younger,” Wyss-Coray says. “I think people are just attracted to it because of vampire stories.” He mentions a Hungarian tale of a wealthy woman who bathed in the blood of virgins to retain her youth.

 

As of December 15, Karmazin says, Wright had infused 25 people with young blood. Karmazin claims his participants are seeing miraculous results; a patient with chronic fatigue syndrome, for example, “feels healthy for the first time” and “looks younger.” Such anecdotes could help market the study, but they’re no proof the plasma infusions work, and would-be patients shouldn’t believe them.

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Weaponized AI, digital espionage and other technology risks for 2017

A recent wave of high-profile cyber-attacks — with objectives ranging from disrupting critical infrastructure to influencing the US presidential election — has heightened attention around the need for stronger security and governance measures in the public domain. Technological advances have also facilitated a significant uplift in industrial espionage, which could grow further in an era of state-sponsored use of cyber technology. Meanwhile, the future weaponization of AI and robotics by rogue states or terrorists and the scope for hacking global satellite systems are also firmly on the radar of security specialists.

A padlock is displayed at the Alert Logic booth during the 2016 Black Hat cyber-security conference in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S. August 3, 2016.

Image: REUTERS/David Becker

As businesses embrace innovation, they also take on new risks. Not only are companies buying and employing technology that creates new exposure, their IT systems are becoming increasingly connected to those of other companies in their value chain, such as suppliers, customers and utilities. Additionally, more IoT devices are being deployed to improve productivity or increase safety. This expanding interconnectedness, often facilitated by devices with limited security, creates additional points of vulnerability to cyber-attack and makes assessing the risk permutations that much more difficult.

Other innovations in the technology landscape, such as the migration of data and software to the Cloud and the use of AI and robotics in commercial applications, are also shifting the nature of cyber risk. At the same time, companies implementing innovations may be assuming, through legacy contracts, new liabilities where legal precedent is embryonic at best, along with vulnerabilities they will find challenging to mitigate or transfer into insurance markets.

Digital restrictions

Cross-border data flows are being slowed by a rise in government intervention. Some measures are aimed at consumer protection. For example, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GPDR) is driven primarily by privacy concerns on personal data. Other initiatives are aimed at state protection, driven by heightened security concerns. These measures enforce a range of protectionist policies, including prohibitive technical standards, censorship, surveillance and data localization. China, for instance, has joined Russia in tightening the requirements placed on foreign companies to store information within national borders. Increasing regulation is complicating the space for business to work in and aggravating “splinternet” tendencies.

These trends may present significant challenges for businesses. Compliance with new regulation could be costly, and failure to comply could result in significant sanctions. Restricted access to digital supply chains and markets will create complexities for firms with global operating models. In an era of heightened nationalism, this direction could threaten open global competition.

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Dreadful dads

Parenting authentically also involves coming to terms with what children are really like. They are not angels or hellions, sweethearts or monsters: they are little people who, as Kierkegaard suggests, are both angelic and beastly. This banal platitude expresses a deep truth about the human condition, namely that we are the sorts of creatures, perhaps the only ones, who possess radical freedom. Most of adult life is geared to ignoring this aspect of human nature, and modernity sets artificial constraints on behaviour, pretending that these constraints are God-given. Of course, for an existentialist, as for a child, all of this is nonsense – nothing is God-given. The boundaries that define civilised life are, more often than not, self-imposed, which is to say radically contingent. A child knows, in a way that most parents intentionally forget, that the range of life’s possibilities is always profoundly open. And the difficulty of life is to choose for oneself which possibilities should become actual.

Image result for Father and daughter, 1961. Erich Hartmann/Magnum

 

Dreadful dads — Few of the great existentialists had children. How can their philosophy help with the anxiety and dread of fatherhood? https://www.munkdebates.com/debates/progress

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