“Life Finds A Way”

Science fiction often has a way of accurately predicting the possibilities of the future. When Michael Crichton wrote Jurassic Park in 1990 he obviously did a lot of research into genetic engineering, but little could he have known that his novel was going to have a direct link to the resurrection of the Dodo thirty years later.

The Dodo has been extinct since around 1662 due to habitat loss and hunting, but a biotech startup called Colossal Sciences, is planning to resurrect the flightless bird in a similar way the dinosaurs were in Jurassic Park. Colossal Sciences is a “de-extinction” company who have previously floated plans to revive other long lost animals including the Wooly mammoth and Tasmanian tiger. And they’re not alone in their vision – since 2021 they have acquired $225 million in investment to make their proposals a reality.

Interestingly one of Colossal’s biggest backers is Thomas Tull (through States Innovative Technology Fund) who is also the producer of the Jurassic World films. Like the films foretold, reintroducing an extinct animal into a new ecosystem can have disastrous consequences, many of which might not be predictable.

If we’ve learned anything from Jurassic Park, we know that the first thing you need in order to recreate an animal is its DNA. Colossal Sciences lead paleogeneticist Beth Shapiro claims they are now in the possession of a complete Dodo genome after taking extracts from preserved remains in Denmark. But this isn’t to create a theme park, there’s a serious reason for trying to bring the Dodo back – to find a way to combat the current extinction crisis affecting the planet.

“We’re clearly in the middle of an extinction crisis,” Shapiro said. “And it’s our responsibility to bring stories and to bring excitement to people in a way that motivates them to think about the extinction crisis that’s going on right now.”

But can a true Dodo be recreated, or would it just a hybrid who’s DNA has been altered slightly?

The theory that resurrecting extinct animals from their DNA in the future could be a viable science is also confirmed by Chester Zoo, UK, whose animal researchers have teamed up with Nature’s SAFE to cryogenically freeze genetic material from animals at the zoo that have died, preserving their DNA for the future in the event of extinction.

Sadly, some scientists think that these efforts might be too late as human population and activity means we’re already in the process of a mass-extinction event, with some unique animal DNA lost forever.

Turning Waste into Fuel

Two problems seem to be plaguing the planet and our survival as a species – the ever growing mass of plastic waste we produce, and our dwindling supplies of fossil fuels. But surprisingly there could be one solution that solves both problems at the same time. And even better – it’s solar powered!

Researchers at the University of Cambridge claim that they have created a machine that takes CO2 as well as plastic waste and turns it into fuel using solar power. Their “Photoelectrochemical” system uses two compartments inside a reactor, one for greenhouse gases, and one for plastic waste. A light absorber called Perovskite and a chemical catalyst are then used to absorb enough light from the sun to convert the waste into carbon, a basic fuel.

“What’s so special about this system is the versatility and tunability — we’re making fairly simple carbon-based molecules right now, but in the future, we could be able to tune the system to make far more complex products, just by changing the catalyst,” explained Cambridge chemist Subhajit Bhattacharjee.

“Generally, CO2 conversion requires a lot of energy, but with our system, basically you just shine a light at it, and it starts converting harmful products into something useful and sustainable,” added coauthor Motiar Rahaman.

As well as carbon based fuels, the Photoelectrochemical system was also able to convert plastic bottles and CO2 into synthetic gas, and glycolic acid. Synthetic gas is an important part of liquid fuels.

On a side note, the Perovskite and catalyst combination could also help transform the solar power industry by making solar panels more productive and efficient in converting sun light into power.

But they’re not stopping there. While the system would be valuable in removing waste products from the planet and at the same time creating a fuel, the team at Cambridge believe that within the next five years they will be able to adapt the Photoelectrochemical system to transform other, more complex, materials and possibly create a solar recycling plant.

“Developing a circular economy, where we make useful things from waste instead of throwing it into landfills, is vital if we’re going to meaningfully address the climate crisis and protect the natural world,” explained Professor Erwin Reisner, a scientist at Cambridge’s Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry. “And powering these solutions using the sun means that we’re doing it cleanly and sustainably.”

Extinction Internet

If you look back only twenty or thirty years, the world seems a very different place to the one we’re familiar with now. Today, almost every aspect of our life depends on access to the internet and our ability to access social media every day, it’s the modern invention we physically cannot live without. So, it seems completely unbelievable that the end of life online could even be contemplated as a possibility. But that’s exactly what a Dutch professor thinks will eventually happen – we will start to “log off”.

Professor Geert Lovink, a media theorist from the University of Amsterdam, has produced a paper called “Extinction Internet” which considers the possibility that everyone will eventually become tired of being online, constantly being exposed to bad content, and decide to turn off.

Certain generations have already begun to discover that the internet is “both toxic and curative” resulting in disenchantment and a strong believe that the time to fix the internet has long passed. Swirling with fake news, misinformation and hatred, whilst intoxicating for the few, is destructive for most.

“There may come a point when that’s no longer acceptable, after which time the adverse consequences can no longer be controlled,” Lovink explained. “The internet is headed for a point of no return, and Big Tech is probably already aware of this, too.”

“Mark Zuckerberg has already moved away from his social media platforms and launched Meta,” he added, “as if nothing’s wrong and we can just start over again, but it’s clearly already broken.”

Lovink suggests that the psychological price associated with our addiction to the internet and social media will begin to cost too much of the average user, resulting in rejection of technology. And that point of no return is rapidly approaching – Lovink’s ‘peak internet moment’ will occur when our dependence hits a line most users will not want to cross.

“The observation that the internet is accelerating the world’s problems and is increasingly becoming problematic is reaching consensus status.”

But, could this really happen? Is the human race too addicted to a digital world to be able to unplug?

Whilst some will make a conscious decision to remove themselves from social media, the actual connection to the internet is also far more likely to be cut by a third party. The fragile thread of connection can simply be severed as a result of an electromagnetic pulse from a weapon of mass destruction – a threat that’s all too real.

Frozen Embryos

In 2022 a couple in Portland welcomed twins into the world. Whilst the chance of giving birth to twins is much smaller than a single child, what makes these twins even more extraordinary is that these children were born from embryos that had been frozen 30 years previously.

The babies were reported to be normal in every aspect, despite already being over 30 years old when they were born, after being perfectly preserved in liquid nitrogen at negative 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

The embryos were frozen in 1992 with the intention of being used for IVF (In-vitro fertilization) for a different couple. However, in 2007 that couple donated the embryos to the National Embryo Donation Center.

A viable embryo frozen in time which could then go one to become a child 30 years later, is a modern miracle, it’s not the first time embryos have successfully been transplanted in the future. Prior to 2022, the longest embryo to child gap had been 28 years. It just goes to show that the freezing process results in a stasis of the biological process which might theoretically mean that time doesn’t matter – could an embryo from 1992 be used successfully in 2092 to produce a child from the past?

Could this also help with the prospect of being cryogenically frozen to be reanimated at some time in the future?

The prospect of helping many childless couples in the future seems a lot brighter and promising, especially as mankind’s survival is becoming more and more precarious. Not only from climate change and global wars, but on the basic level of human reproduction.

Earlier in 2022 a team of scientists looked at over 250 studies from around the world to get a general idea of the global sperm count over the last 50 years. Incredibly, from 1973 to 2018 sperm count dropped by 1.2 percent per year until 2000, but then began dropping at a faster rate of 2.6 percent per year.

“We have a serious problem on our hands that, if not mitigated, could threaten mankind’s survival,” explained Professor Hagai Levine. “We urgently call for global action to promoted healthier environments for all species and reduce exposures and behaviors that threaten our reproductive health.”

With this alarming global decreases in sperm count, the use of frozen embryo’s in the future could be mankind’s best hope for survival.

Arming Robots

It’s another step closer to the story line from James Cameron’s Terminator movies, but one that’s being seriously considered by police in Oakland. They believe that the society we now live in justifies taking a bold step forward in weaponizing robots.

Oakland Police have added a “Percussion Actuated Nonelectric Disruptor (PAN Disruptor) as a top priority for 2022. A PAN is a laser-aimed shotgun-like attachment for wheeled robots which until now have previously been used in war zones or for sending in to diffuse or detonate a bomb. These robots are not autonomous. Similar robots have been weaponized by the US military with machine guns, although the military say they are for shooting suspected explosive devices. The gun can be loaded with blanks as well as live rounds making them potentially lethal.

 “One can imagine applications of this particular tool that may seem reasonable,” said Liz O’Sullivan, CEO of the AI bias-auditing startup Parity and a member of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control, “but with a very few modifications, or even just different kinds of ammunition, these tools can easily be weaponized against democratic dissent.”

Oakland Police Department had originally promised to only use the killing machines when deemed necessary, during “certain catastrophic, high-risk, high-threat, or mass casualty events.” However, they would not rule out the potential to use live ammunition “if they need it for some situation later on.”

A 2021 subcommittee meeting looked at the potential for arming robots, and agreed the robots could not be used to kill humans, but would allowed them to be armed with pepper spray.

“We will not be arming robots with lethal rounds anytime soon,” Lieutenant Omar Daza-Quiroz told the Intercept. “If and when that time comes each event will be assessed prior to such deployment.”

Incredibly this isn’t the only police department that is considering upgrading their staff. In 2016 Dallas Police Department used a wheeled robot to take down an alleged cop-killing sniper. The robot placed a bomb near the suspect who was cornered in a parking garage. Allegedly the suspect said he’d placed explosives around the city. “After a prolonged shootout we saw no other option but to use our bomb robot and place a device on it for it to detonate where the suspect was. Other options would have exposed our officers to grave danger,” explained Dallas Police Chief David O. Brown.

Also, in 2014 Albuquerque police deployed a bomb robot to release tear gas on an armed suspect.

In a similar way, North Dakota has legalized the use of police drones equipped with tasers and pepper spray. It seems like Oakland Police is merely following a trend to weaponize robots, which hopefully will continue to remain in the control of a human operator.

Reassured yet? Whilst the use of a robot in dangerous situations will undoubtedly save the lives of police and emergency responders, arming a robot could be a step too far.

Speaking to the Dead

Artificial Intelligence has come a long way in the last decade, but this latest advancement might be one of the most unusual applications for it – allowing the dead to speak to you!

In what was a surprise to the mourners at her funeral, Marina Smith was able to address them via a holographic conversational video experience, which was created by a startup company called StoryFile. Interestingly StoryFile was founded by Marina Smith’s son, Stephen Smith, based in LA. StoryFile was originally created to preserve the memories, recollections and stories of the Holocaust survivors. But, with Marina, they took 20 cameras and filmed her answering about 250 questions, allowing them to virtually recreate her in their software to make her appearance at her own funeral appear as natural as possible.

With so much visual and vocal data, Stephen Smith was able to converse with his mother at the funeral, as well as allowing other attendants to ask questions.

“The extraordinary thing was that she answered their questions with new details and honesty,” Stephen explained. “People feel emboldened when recording their data. Mourners might get a freer, truer version of their lost loved one.”

However, this wasn’t the first time StoryFile had used their technology to recreate a dead person at their own funeral. Earlier this year former Screen Actors Guild president Ed Asner answered questions from the mourners at his own funeral.

“Nothing could prepare me for what I was going to witness when I saw it,” said Matt Asner, Ed’s son. “Other attendees were ‘a little creeped out’ because it was like having him in the room.”

Currently, in Silicon Valley, there seems to be a bit of a trend to technology which allows users to speak to the dead. Amazon added a new feature to their Alexa speaker, allowing the voice of a dead relative to read a bedtime story to a child. Amazon made this possible, not by taking hours of recording in a studio, but by sampling less than a minute of speech. “We are unquestionably living in the golden era of AI, where our dreams and science fictions are becoming a reality,” said Rohit Prasad, head scientist for Alexa.

Whilst the application of mimicking a dead person’s voice might be comforting to some, it’s also seen by many as a step too far and an obscure use of Artificial Intelligence. It could also open up the possibilities for criminals using a person’s voice, dead or alive, for nefarious purposes.