It’s only natural – let’s make it better

If we can improve, we should.

A bad few weeks, then, for misbehaving chromosomes. First, a Hollywood star draws attention to their errant ways. Next, laboratory scientists find a way to cut them out of the picture. And then, just a day later, camera-wielding researchers announce they can spot the miscreants a mile off.

We can only hope that the IVF pioneer Robert Edwards was given a special preview of the latter research before he died last month. IVF has always been criticised for raising too much hope and too much cash. A round can cost a couple £10,000 yet the chance of it ending in a live birth in the UK is still only 26 per cent. Now, however, a relatively straightforward technique of watching for misbehaving chromosomes might rocket that success rate up to 80 per cent.

The technique sidelines the entirely natural shortcomings of our chromosomes – the packages of DNA inside every cell nucleus. Even in normal circumstances, roughly half of all fertilised eggs carry some kind of abnormality. This predisposes the embryo to problems and usually ends the pregnancy before it begins. But in the sealed glass box where an IVF embryo begins, those chromosomal problems expose themselves in a way that allows doctors to choose the one with the best chance of survival.

The four-day process of turning into a blastocyst, the ball of cells that would normally be implanted in the mother’s womb, takes about six hours longer if there is a chromosomal problem. Using time-lapse photography, you can see which embryos have issues and which are ideal for implantation. The simplicity of the technique would no doubt have brought a smile to Edwards’s face.

He would have been less happy about this month’s press surrounding the breakthrough in human cloning. Scare stories abounded – the Daily Mail went with the headline “New spectre of cloned babies” – and much was made of how it is the same technique as produced Dolly the Sheep, who died prematurely due to abnormalities induced by the cloning process.

The breakthrough is not aimed at making new human beings, however: the idea is to make ill human beings feel like new. First, take a cell from the patient and fuse it with a human egg cell that has had its genetic information removed. The egg then develops into a source of embryonic stem cells that can be turned into bone, blood, heart or liver tissue, or anything else that might be necessary for the patient’s return to health. Such tissues would not be rejected by the immune system, because they would be a perfect match for the patient’s biology.

Until now, the only hope of doing this has been to use chemicals to turn back the clock on a cell, so that it rewinds to the state where it could become any kind of tissue. This chemical approach, however, creates a high chance of inducing abnormalities that elevate the risk of subsequent problems – cancer, for instance.

Cancer comes naturally, too: it has been our constant companion throughout human history. However, this natural phenomenon also suffered a setback this month. The actress Angelina Jolie announced that she had undergone a double mastectomy to counter an inherited genetic fault (on chromosome 17, but there’s a related fault that can appear on chromosome 13) that would almost certainly give her breast cancer. There’s a very strong chance the surgery will have saved her from a premature death, and her courageous broadcasting of the news will put many other women on the path to saving themselves. Take that, nature.

A nucleus being injected from a micropipette into an enucleated oocyte. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, You were the future once

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Should we protect artificial intelligence from sexual harassment?

Should anything be done to stop people sending sexually explicit messages to their AI personal assistants?

If you ask Apple’s artificially intelligent personal assistant “Siri” whether it is a virgin, it will waste no time in shooting you down. “We were talking about you, not me,” it replies in the clear, sharp tones of Susan Bennett, the woman chosen to voice the genderless computer program.

If you ask Apple’s artificially intelligent personal assistant “Siri” whether it is a virgin, you are probably not very weird. But a recent article in Quartz has detailed the extent to which AI systems – particularly personal assistant bots – are sexually harassed. Ilya Eckstein, CEO of Robin Labs, claims 5 percent of interactions in their database are sexually explicit, and that “some people try very hard to establish a relationship with the bot.”

Engineers have been aware of this problem for a while. Microsoft’s Cortana has been programmed to fend off sexual harassment, with Deborah Harrison, an editorial writer for the program, claiming: “If you say things that are particularly asshole-ish to Cortana, she will get mad.” But what about the other “female” AI out there? Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant, which is voiced by a woman, don’t currently seem to fend for themselves, so should we be fighting for them?

Probably not. Although developers should definitely program their “female” AI to shoot down anyone feeling frisky, as long as AI lacks sentience it’s hard to see these sexual interactions as a big enough problem to warrant further action. Yes, undoubtedly some lonely people have taken inspiration from Spike Jonze’s Her and fancy an AI girlfriend, and yes, a robust robot reply that teaches men to respect women can only be a good thing, but on the whole, most people that get saucy with Siri aren’t actually deranged perverts. They are just a boy, standing in front of a girl, asking them to say the world “willy”.

This is because despite what Quartz are claiming, the “sexual harassment” of bots is nothing new. It might, in fact, not even be gendered. Who among the MSN users of the Noughties didn’t ask the chatterbot SmarterChild whether he (most people, and media outlets, considered it a “he”) liked sex or had a penis? In fact, if you search Google Images for “Smarterchild”, pretty much all the screencapped chats are sexually explicit in some way.

Tumblr: The Dynamic Conversationalist

It’s hard to see someone sexting Siri as a problem, then, because it is part of a long tradition of humans being incredibly, incredibly dumb. Find me the man who doesn’t provoke every new chat bot on the market in the hopes of making them say something funny or rude, and you have found me a liar.

It is, of course, a big problem that AI personal assistants are so often female, as – in Laurie Penny’s words – it “says an uncomfortable amount about the way society understands both women and work.” But this, therefore, is the problem we should be tackling – instead of wasting our time debating the ethics and legality of coming on to Cortana.

I recently attended the UK launch of Amazon Echo, whose personal assistant is Alexa. Watching a room of old, balding, white, male journalists laugh heartily as the speaker on stage commanded Alexa to “Stop”, definitely troubled me. “If only I could get my…” began the speaker – as I desperately willed him not to say the word “wife” – “…children to do that,” he finished. Before we even begin to consider sexually explicit chatter, then, we should be confronting the underlying issue of gender bias in the AI industry.

Once we can set our personal assistants to have either male or female – or, even better, completely genderless – voices, we can get back to using them for what they were intended for. Asking them if they're virgins and then laughing at the response.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.