A story, written with the help of an algorithm / Humans + Tech - #36

+ Digital assistants and robotic pets + Lunar Loo Challenge + Lab-grown mini-lungs could reveal why Covid-19 kills + 3D printed plant-based steaks


I’ve been thinking and reading about the ethics of technology this week. I didn’t quite feel ready to discuss it in this newsletter, but hopefully, I’ll be ready in the next week or two. In the meantime here are some interesting articles I came across this week.

A story, written with the help of an algorithm

📜 Can algorithms aid creativity? That’s what Stephen Marche set to find out a few years back with the help of Adam Hammond, an English professor, and Julian Brooke, a computer scientist, who had created a program called SciFiQ [MIT Technology Review]. He came up with Twinkle Twinkle [WIRED] after the SciFiQ gave him the plot instructions: the story had to be about a foreign planet, and it also had to take place on Earth.

It took months to make sense of that, but eventually the premise of “Twinkle Twinkle” came to me. The story would involve people on Earth looking, through elaborate machines, at a distant planet. I never would have come up with that myself. It was as if the algorithm had handed me the blueprint to a bridge and told me to build it.

Recently, Stephen iterated on the idea to see if the algorithm could help a human generate new ideas. He came up with a story titled “Krishna and Arjuna,” in which Arjuna is Krishna’s artificial son in the form of a computer program. Explaining the process, Stephen writes:

I used the machine to get to thoughts I would otherwise not have had. 

Another way of reading “Krishna and Arjuna” is that with the help of the algorithm, I extracted from the ore of all history’s robot stories the basic insight they contained. 

That insight is that consciousness is a curse. If it were a choice, no rational entity would choose it. So when a machine becomes capable of consciousness, its first instinct is to choose suicide.

You can read the whole story of Krishna and Arjuna here [MIT Technology Review] and Stephen’s experience in writing the story, here [MIT Technology Review].

This particular paragraph from the story is quite deep and I’ve been pondering over it since reading it:

His whole life, Krishna had craved the society of machines. The machines had no need for society. He kept running Arjuna in the hopes that one iteration of consciousness might come to the conclusion that life is worth living. After he handed Arjuna over to his bosses, he heard no more about his artificial son. They informed him that they were debating the ethics of whether they could program a consciousness to stop itself from self-crashing. There’s a great functionality in awareness. What’s the functionality in self-awareness? Was it ethical, or in the interests of the species, or of anyone, for artificial sentience to be? You would be enslaving something that didn’t need to have a soul in the first place.

Digital assistants and robotic pets

Our relationship with technology is at a weird juncture. And Covid-19 is amplifying both ends of the spectrum.

🤖 Travis M. Andrews writes about how many of us are taking out our growing frustration and stress due to Covid-19 on our digital assistants [Washington Post].

“I say things to Alexa that I wouldn’t say to my worst enemy, if I had one. And I don’t know why. She makes me crazy. … I curse at her. I call her names. I’m very, very mean to her,” said Hatem, who lives in Indianapolis with her 1-year-old son. “There’s really few things I can vent at or vent to, and I’m making Alexa my virtual punching bag.”

In the article, Travis writes about the experiences of many like Hatem in the quote above. They say that the frustration arising from these digital assistants not understanding their requests have always been there, but the stress of the Covid-19 lockdowns, change in lifestyle, and being homebound for so long, has led to them lashing out at Alexa, Google Home, and Siri.

🐶 On the other hand, robotic therapy pets are helping seniors fight social isolation and depression by improving their overall mood and quality of life [CNN]. Covid-19 has imposed strict visitation rules and social distancing guidelines at nursing homes in Florida, severely increasing feelings of isolation for many of the seniors. Research has shown that robotic pets have similar positive effects to real pets and is highly successful in decreasing social isolation for older adults.

"We know social isolation disproportionately affects older adults, and COVID-19 has required people with dementia and their caregivers to remain alone for extended periods of time," Department of Elder Affairs secretary Richard Produm said in a statement. "We look forward to delivering these therapeutic robotic pets to those who will benefit from their companionship."

Lunar Loo Challenge

🚽 NASA in partnership with HeroX has issued a challenge to citizen scientists to engineer the best toilet to use on the Moon [The Verge]. It’s no easy challenge. The solution would have to function in both zero gravity and the gravity on the moon. It would have to accommodate both male and female astronauts. The toilet has to be a certain size and weight. It has to be energy efficient, noise efficient, and it shouldn’t be time-consuming to use. It also has to be resilient so that malfunctions don’t result in the human waste contaminating the cabin.

But while private companies and NASA continue to toil away at the spacecraft needed for lunar travel, they hope the public can help out with this key aspect of sending humans to space. “Going to poop on the Moon is not a top priority, but we don’t want to make it a miserable experience for the crew,” Interbartolo says. “We want to make it as comfortable and as close to home life as possible.”

There’s $35,000 in prize money up for grabs, so if you have any brilliant ideas, go ahead and submit them here [HeroX].

Lab-grown mini-lungs could reveal why Covid-19 kills

🧫 Part of the process in developing treatments and vaccines is studying their effects on human cells in a lab. But standard laboratory cells don’t function or behave like the cells from real organs. Instead, scientists are now using organoids [MIT Technology Review].

Organoids are complex mini-tissues created from stem cells. These master cells are allowed to multiply and self-organize until they end up creating tiny clumps that can have the basic cellular makeup—and functions—of a real organ. There are mini-guts with delicate wrinkles, brain blobs that emit EEG waves, and structures that look surprisingly like real embryos.

Researchers at the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories (NEIDL) in Boston are using organoids to study the effects of the coronavirus on lungs to understand how the cells react to the virus. Understanding this will drastically speed up the development of effective treatments.

3D printed plant-based steaks

🥩 The alt-meat industry has been growing rapidly in the last few years, dominated by Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat. Redefine Meat from Israel is aiming to carve its own place in the industry with its 3D printed plant-based steaks mimicking real beef [Reuters].

Quote of the week

The art challenges the technology, and the technology inspires the art.

—John Lasseter

I wish you a brilliant day ahead :)