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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Don’t shoot the messenger: are social media giants really “consciously failing” to tackle extremism?

MPs today accused social media companies of failing to combat terrorism, but just how accurate is this claim? 

Today’s home affairs committee report, which said that internet giants such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat extremism, was criticised by terrorism experts almost immediately.

“Blaming Facebook, Google or Twitter for this phenomenon is quite simplistic, and I'd even say misleading,” Professor Peter Neumann, an expert on radicalisation from Kings College London, told the BBC.

“Social media companies are doing a lot more now than they used to - no doubt because of public pressure,” he went on. The report, however, labels the 14 million videos Google have removed in the last two years, and the 125,000 accounts Twitter has suspended in the last one, a “drop in the ocean”.

It didn’t take long for the sites involved to refute the claims, which follow a 12-month inquiry on radicalisation. A Facebook spokesperson said they deal “swiftly and robustly with reports of terrorism-related content”, whilst YouTube said they take their role in combating the spread of extremism “very seriously”. This time last week, Twitter announced that they’d suspended 235,000 accounts for promoting terrorism in the last six months, which is incidentally after the committee stopped counting in February.

When it comes to numbers, it’s difficult to determine what is and isn’t enough. There is no magical number of Terrorists On The Internet that experts can compare the number of deletions to. But it’s also important to judge the companies’ efforts within the realm of what is actually possible.

“The argument is that because Facebook and Twitter are very good at taking down copyright claims they should be better at tackling extremism,” says Jamie Bartlett, Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

“But in those cases you are given a hashed file by the copyright holder and they say: ‘Find this file on your database and remove it please’. This is very different from extremism. You’re talking about complicated nuanced linguistic patterns each of which are usually unique, and are very hard for an algorithm to determine.”

Bartlett explains that a large team of people would have to work on building this algorithm by trawling through cases of extremist language, which, as Thangam Debonnaire learned this month, even humans can struggle to identify.  

“The problem is when you’re dealing with linguistic patterns even the best algorithms work at 70 per cent accuracy. You’d have so many false positives, and you’d end up needing to have another huge team of people that would be checking all of it. It’s such a much harder task than people think.”

Finding and deleting terrorist content is also only half of the battle. When it comes to videos and images, thousands of people could have downloaded them before they were deleted. During his research, Bartlett has also discovered that when one extremist account is deleted, another inevitably pops up in its place.

“Censorship is close to impossible,” he wrote in a Medium post in February. “I’ve been taking a look at how ISIL are using Twitter. I found one user name, @xcxcx162, who had no less than twenty-one versions of his name, all lined up and ready to use (@xcxcx1627; @xcxcx1628, @xcxcx1629, and so on).”

Beneath all this, there might be another, fundamental flaw in the report’s assumptions. Demos argue that there is no firm evidence that online material actually radicalises people, and that much of the material extremists view and share is often from mainstream news outlets.

But even if total censorship was possible, that doesn’t necessarily make it desirable. Bartlett argues that deleting extreme content would diminish our critical faculties, and that exposing people to it allows them to see for themselves that terrorists are “narcissistic, murderous, thuggish, irreligious brutes.” Complete censorship would also ruin social media for innocent people.

“All the big social media platforms operate on a very important principal, which is that they are not responsible for the content that is placed on their platforms,” he says. “It rests with the user because if they were legally responsible for everything that’s on their platform – and this is a legal ruling in the US – they would have to check every single thing before it was posted. Given that Facebook deals with billions of posts a day that would be the end of the entire social media infrastructure.

“That’s the kind of trade off we’d be talking about here. The benefits of those platforms are considerable and you’d be punishing a lot of innocent people.”

No one is denying that social media companies should do as much as they can to tackle terrorism. Bartlett thinks that platforms can do more to remove information under warrant or hand over data when the police require it, and making online policing 24/7 is an important development “because terrorists do not work 9 to 5”. At the end of the day, however, it’s important for the government to accept technological limitations.

“Censorship of the internet is only going to get harder and harder,” he says. “Our best hope is that people are critical and discerning and that is where I would like the effort to be.” 

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