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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Move objects with your mind – telekinesis is coming to a human brain near you

If a user puts on the Neurable headset, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

On 30 July, a blog post on Medium by Michael Thompson, the vice-president of Boston-based start-up Neurable, said his company had perfected a kind of technology which would be “redrawing the boundaries of human experience”. 

Neurable had just fulfilled the pipe dreams of science fiction enthusiasts and video game fanboys, according to Thompson – it had created a telekinetic EEG strap. In plain English, if a user puts on the Neurable headset, and plays a specially-designed virtual reality video game, they can move virtual objects with their thoughts. 

Madrid-based gaming company eStudioFuture collaborated with Neurable to create the game, Awakening. In it, the user breaks out of a government lab, battles robots and interacts with objects around them, all hands-free with Neurable's headset. Awakening debuted at SIGGRAPH, a computer graphics conference in Boston, where it was well received by consumers and investors alike.

The strap (or peripheral, as it’s referred to) works by modifying the industry standard headset of oversized goggles. Neurable's addition has a comb-like structure that reaches past your hair to make contact with the scalp, then detects brain activity via electroencephalogram (EEG) sensors. These detect specific kinds of neural signals. Thanks to a combination of machine-learning software and eye-tracking technology, all the user of the headset has to do is think the word “grab”, and that object will move – for example, throwing a box at the robot trying to stop you from breaking out of a government lab. 

The current conversation around virtual reality, and technologies like it, lurches between optimism and cynicism. Critics have highlighted the narrow range of uses that the current technology is aimed at (think fun facial filters on Snapchat). But after the debut of virtual reality headsets Oculus Rift and HTC Vive at 2016’s Game Developers conference, entrepreneurs are increasingly taking notice of virtual reality's potential to make everyday life more convenient.

Tech giants such as Microsoft, Facebook and Google have all been in on the game since as far back as 2014, when Facebook bought Oculus (of Oculus Rift). Then, in 2016, Nintendo and Niantic (an off-shoot from Google) launched Pokémon Go. One of Microsoft’s leading technical fellows, Alex Kipman, told Polygon that distinctions between virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality were arbitrary: "At the end of the day, it’s all on a continuum." 

Oculus’s Jason Rubin has emphasised the potential that VR has to make human life that much more interesting or efficient. Say that you're undergoing a home renovation – potentially, with VR technology, you could pop on your headset and see a hologram of your living room. You could move your virtual furniture around with minimal effort, and then do exactly the same in reality – in half the time and effort. IKEA already offers a similar service in store – imagine being able to do it yourself.

Any kind of experience that is in part virtual reality – from video games to online tours of holiday destinations to interactive displays at museums – will become much more immersive.

Microsoft’s Hololens is already being trialled at University College London Hospital, where students can study detailed holograms of organs, and patients can get an in-depth look at their insides projected in front of them (Hololens won’t be commercially available for a while.) Neurable's ambitions go beyond video games – its headset was designed by neuroscientists who had spent years working in neurotechnology. It offers the potential for important scientific and technological breakthroughs in areas such as prosthetic limbs. 

Whether it was a childhood obsession with Star Wars or out of sheer laziness, as a society, we remain fascinated by the thought of being able to move objects with our minds. But in actual realityVR and similar technologies bring with them a set of prickly questions.

Will students at well-funded schools be able to get a more in-depth look at topography in a geography lesson through VR headsets than their counterparts elsewhere? Would companies be able to maintain a grip on what people do in virtual reality, or would people eventually start to make their own (there are already plenty of DIY tutorials on the internet)? Will governments be able to regulate and monitor the use of insidious technology like augmented reality or mixed reality, and make sure that it doesn't become potentially harmful to minors or infringe on privacy rights? 

Worldwide spending on items such as virtual reality headsets and games is forecast to double every year until 2021, according to recent figures. Industry experts and innovators tend to agree that it remains extremely unlikely you’ll walk into someone examining a hologram on the street. All the same, VR technology like Neurable’s is slowly creeping into the fabric of our lived environment.