Ariana Eunjung Cha

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Even under the best of circumstances, sperm banks aimed at creating “superior babies” are a faulty proposition. Want the donor father to be a Harvard grad? Remember that Anthony Scaramucci, Jared Kushner and Lou Dobbs—not particularly good or bright people—all fill that bill. Even the so-called “Nobel Prize sperm bank” didn’t really birth any great genius. Despite proactive planning, producing prodigies is a hit-or-miss proposition.

If such a sector serves any purpose at all, it’s as a harbinger of what’s to come when biotech eventually allows adults to “design” their offspring with greater precision. Such “remixing” probably won’t be possible in any profound way in our lifetimes, but something tells me that when it is, we’ll all be smart and beautiful and still kind of shitty.

From Ariana Eunjung Cha’s Washington Post article on the contemporary fertility industry:

Fertility companies freely admit that specimens from attractive donors go fast, but it’s intelligence that drives the pricing: Many companies charge more for donors with a graduate degree.

Talent sells, too. One cryobank, Family Creations, which has offices in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Austin and other large cities, notes that a 23-year-old egg donor “excels in calligraphy, singing, modeling, metal art sculpting, painting, drawing, shading and clay sculpting.” A 29-year-old donor “excels in softball, tennis, writing and dancing.”

The Seattle Sperm Bank categorizes its donors into three popular categories: “top athletes,” “physicians, dentists and medical residents,” and “musicians.”

And the Fairfax Cryobank in Northern Virginia, one of the nation’s largest, typically stocks sperm from about 500 carefully vetted donors whose profiles read like overeager suitors on a dating site: Donor No. 4499 “enjoys swimming, fencing and reading and writing poetry.” Donor No. 4963 “is an easygoing man with a quick wit.” Donor No. 4345 has “well-developed pectorals and arm muscles.”

Some companies offer a face-matching service that finds donors who look most like the prospective mom or dad. Or, if they prefer, like Jennifer Lawrence. Or Taye Diggs. Or any other famous person they want their offspring to resemble.•



Two thoughts about the intersection of human and artificial intelligence:

  1. If we survive other existential risks long enough, we’ll eventually face the one posed by superintelligence. Or perhaps not. That development isn’t happening today or tomorrow, and by the time it does machine learning might be embedded within us. Maybe a newly engineered version of ourselves is the next step. We won’t be the same, no, but we’re not meant to be. Once evolution stops, so do we.
  2. The problem of understanding the human brain will someday be solved. That will be a boon in many ways medically, but there’s some question as to whether this giant leap for humankind is necessary to create intelligent, conscious machines. The Wright brothers didn’t need to simulate the flapping wings of birds in creating the Flyer. Maybe we can put the “ghost” in the machine before we even fully understand it? I would think the brain work will be done first because of the earnest way it’s being pursued by governments and private entities, but I wonder if that’s necessary.

From Ariana Eunjung Cha’s Washington Post piece about Paul Allen’s dual brain projects:

Although today’s computers are great at storing knowledge, retrieving it and finding patterns, they are often still stumped by a simple question: “Why?”

So while Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, Microsoft’s Cortana — despite their maddening quirks — do a pretty good job of reminding you what’s on your calendar, you’d probably fire them in short of a week if you put them up against a real person.

That will almost certainly change in the coming years as billions of dollars in Silicon Valley investments lead to the development of more sophisticated algorithms and upgrades in memory storage and processing power.

The most exciting — and disconcerting — developments in the field may be in predictive analytics, which aims to make an informed guess about the future. Although it’s currently mostly being used in retail to figure out who is more likely to buy, say, a certain sweater, there are also test programs that attempt to figure out who might be more likely to get a certain disease or even commit a crime.

Google, which acquired AI company DeepMind in 2014 for an estimated $400 million, has been secretive about its plans in the field, but the company has said its goal is to “solve intelligence.” One of its first real-world applications could be to help self-driving cars become better aware of their environments. Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg says his social network, which has opened three different AI labs, plans to build machines “that are better than humans at our primary senses: vision, listening, etc.”

All of this may one day be possible. But is it a good idea?•


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Predictive medicine powered by Big Data can alert you if you’re unwittingly headed downhill–and we all are to varying degrees–but what if this information isn’t just between you and your doctor?

CVS is phasing in IBM’s Watson to track trends in customer wellness. Seems great, provided you aren’t required to surrender your “health score” to get certain jobs the way you now must sometimes submit to drug tests. What if you needed a certain number to get a position the way you’re required to have a good credit score to get a loan? Seems unlikely, but tools are only as wise as the people who govern them in any particular era. Like most of the new normal, this innovation has the potential for great good–and otherwise.

From Ariana Eunjung Cha at the Washington Post:

[CVS Chief Medical Officer Troyen A.] Brennan said he could imagine the creation of mobile apps that would integrate information from fitness trackers and allow Watson to identify when a person’s activity level drops substantially and flag that as an indicator of something else going on. Or perhaps act as a virtual adviser for pharmacy or clinic staff that could help them identify “early signals” for when interventions may not be working and additional measures should be considered.

“Basically, if you can identify places to intervene and intervene early, you help people be healthier and avoid costly outcomes,” he said.

He added that the key to making these types of systems work will be to open lines of communication between a pharmacist, clinic staff and a patient’s physician, and that technology can help facilitate this dialogue.•


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Sometime in the 21st century, you and me and Peter Thiel are going to die, and that’s horrible because even when the world is trying, it’s spectacular.

The Paypal cofounder is spending a portion of his great wealth on anti-aging research, hoping to radically extend life if not defeat death, which is a wonderful thing for people of the distant future, though it likely won’t save any of us. I will say that I wholly agree with Thiel that those who oppose radical life extension because it’s “unnatural” are just wrong.

From a Washington Post Q&A Ariana Eunjung Cha conducted with Thiel:


Leon Kass — the physician who was head of the President’s Council on Bioethics from 2001 to 2005 — as well as a number of other prominent historians, philosophers and ethicists have spoken out against radical life extension. Kass, for instance, has argued that it’s just not natural, that we’ll end up losing some of our humanity in the process. What do you think of their concerns?

Peter Thiel:

I believe that evolution is a true account of nature, but I think we should try to escape it or transcend it in our society. What’s true of evolution, I would argue, is true of all of nature. Even basic dental hygiene. If it’s natural for your teeth to start falling out, then you shouldn’t get cavities replaced? In the 19th century, people made the argument that it was natural for childbirth to be painful for women and therefore you shouldn’t have pain medication. I think the nature argument tends to go very wrong. . . . I think it is against human nature not to fight death.


What about the possibility of innovation stagnation? Some argue that if you live forever, you won’t be as motivated to invent new ways of doing this.

Peter Thiel:

That’s the Steve-Jobs-commencement-speech-in-2005 argument — that he was working so hard because he knew he was going to die. I don’t believe that’s true. There are many people who stop trying because they think they don’t have enough time. Because they are 85. But that 85-year-old could have gotten four PhDs from 65 to 85, but he didn’t do it because he didn’t think he had enough time. I think these arguments can go both ways. I think some people could be less motivated. I think a lot of people would be more motivated because they would have more time to accomplish something meaningful and significant.•


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