23andMe Co-Founder Anne Wojcicki. Photo: Kimberly White/Getty Images
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23andMe: Why bother with predictions about yourself when you are almost certainly average?

Want to understand your genes? Call your parents.

Why bother with predictions about yourself when you are almost certainly average? Alongside the columns packed with advice for creating a healthy new you, you will have seen at least one account of “everything that will matter in 2015”. You shouldn’t take either too seriously. Remember that the news predictions you read at the start of 2014 failed to foresee, say, a Russian invasion of Ukraine, the ebola epidemic, or the rise of Ukip.

It’s a truism to say that prediction is difficult. What is interesting is just how compelling human beings find any kind of window on the future. It’s a trait that the genetic analysis service 23andMe depends on.

The company offers an analysis of the DNA in your saliva. For £125, you can find out information about yourself such as whether you are a carrier of certain inherited conditions and your risk of developing particular kinds of disease. The company says that its reports are “for informational purposes only and do not diagnose disease or illness”, but that they will help you “make better lifestyle choices and appropriately monitor your health”.

Experts are divided on the value of 23andMe’s services. In November 2013 the US Food and Drug Administration ordered the firm to “immediately discontinue” marketing, though ancestry and raw genetic data tests are still available. Ahead of the UK launch, the Science Media Centre gathered the opinions of various UK geneticists. Shirley Hodgson, professor of cancer genetics at St George’s Hospital in London, said 23andMe’s tests were “very open to misunderstanding” and could lead to wasted NHS time.

According to the Cambridge geneticist Eric Miska, 23andMe can give us “a glimpse of the fun, excitement and risks associated with human genome data” but we ought to discuss how our personal genome should be accessed and shared. As Google is one of 23andMe’s financial backers, that’s a conversation we need to have sooner rather than later.

Privacy issues aside, 23andMe has very limited powers when it comes to drawing conclusions from your genetic information. Accurate predictions rely on accurate information. Where genes are concerned, certainty is rare and surprises are common.

Take a study published at the end of last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The study looked at data collected over a 30-year period and found a strong correlation between possession of a particular gene variant (the rs993609 variant of the FTO gene, to be precise) and a higher-than-desirable body-mass index.

That was expected: it is what we have seen in recent studies. What wasn’t expected was the absence of this correlation in subjects born before 1942. Only when we began to do less manual work, rely more on technology and have better access to food resources did the genes have something to work with.

So, even with a genetic predisposition, obesity was far from inevitable in the pre-war years. For most health conditions, environment and lifestyle matter far more than the details of your genome.

What’s more, most of 23andMe’s customers will surely find themselves devoid of any meaningful predisposition: the odds are that you are decidedly average. So, whatever your genetic destiny, wherever and whenever you happen to be living, a life of moderate consumption and moderate exercise is probably the best prescription. If that’s too banal and you really want to harness technology to predict the impact of your genes on your future health, pick up your miracle smartphone. Use it to call your parents and ask them how they are. No one knows more than they do about the troubles coming your way. 

Editor’s note, 20 January 2015: The FDA has ordered 23andMe to cease trading its health tests. Ancestry and raw genetic data tests are still available in the US. A change to the text was made to reflect this.

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 08 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Churchill Myth

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A quote-by-quote analysis of how little Jeremy Hunt understands technology

Can social media giants really implement the health secretary’s sexting suggestions? 

In today’s “Did we do something wrong? No, it was social media” news, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has argued that technology companies need to do more to prevent sexting and cyber-bullying.

Hunt, whose job it is to help reduce the teenage suicide rate, argued that the onus for reducing the teenage suicide rate should fall on social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter.

Giving evidence to the Commons Health Committee on suicide prevention, Hunt said: “I think social media companies need to step up to the plate and show us how they can be the solution to the issue of mental ill health amongst teenagers, and not the cause of the problem.”

Pause for screaming and/or tearing out of hair.

Don’t worry though; Hunt wasn’t simply trying to pass the buck, despite the committee suggesting he direct more resources to suicide prevention, as he offered extremely well-thought out technological solutions that are in no way inferior to providing better sex education for children. Here’s a quote-by-quote analysis of just how technologically savvy Hunt is.

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“I just ask myself the simple question as to why it is that you can’t prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18…”

Here’s Hunt asking himself a question that he should be asking the actual experts, which is in no way a waste of anybody’s time at all.

“… If that’s a lock that parents choose to put on a mobile phone contract…”

A lock! But of course. But what should we lock, Jeremy? Should teenager’s phones come with a ban on all social media apps, and for good measure, a block on the use of the camera app itself? It’s hard to see how this would lead to the use of dubious applications that have significantly less security than giants such as Facebook and Snapchat. Well done.

“Because there is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent it being transmitted.”

Erm, is there? Image recognition technology does exist, but it’s incredibly complex and expensive, and companies often rely on other information (such as URLs, tags, and hashes) to filter out and identify explicit images. In addition, social media sites like Facebook rely on their users to click the button that identifies an image as an abuse of their guidelines, and then have a human team that look through reported images. The technology is simply unable to identify individual and unique images that teenagers take of their own bodies, and the idea of a human team tackling the job is preposterous. 

But suppose the technology did exist that could flawlessly scan a picture for fleshy bits and bobs? As a tool to prevent sexting, this still is extremely flawed. What if two teens were trying to message one another Titian’s Venus for art or history class? In September, Facebook itself was forced to U-turn after removing the historical “napalm girl” photo from the site.

As for the second part of Jezza’s suggestion, if you can’t identify it, you can’t block it. Facebook Messenger already blocks you from sending pornographic links, but this again relies on analysis of the URLs rather than the content within them. Other messaging services, such as Whatsapp, offer end-to-end encryption (EE2E), meaning – most likely to Hunt’s chagrin – the messages sent on them are not stored nor easily accessed by the government.

“I ask myself why we can’t identify cyberbullying when it happens on social media platforms by word pattern recognition, and then prevent it happening.”

Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, can’t you spot your problem yet? You’ve got to stop asking yourself!

There is simply no algorithm yet intelligent enough to identify bullying language. Why? Because we call our best mate “dickhead” and our worst enemy “pal”. Human language and meaning is infinitely complex, and scanning for certain words would almost definitely lead to false positives. As Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire famously learned this year, even humans can’t always identify whether language is offensive, so what chance does an algorithm stand?

(Side note: It is also amusing to imagine that Hunt could even begin to keep up with teenage slang in this scenario.)

Many also argue that because social media sites can remove copyrighted files efficiently, they should get better at removing abusive language. This is a flawed argument because it is easy to search for a specific file (copyright holders will often send social media giants hashed files which they can then search for on their databases) whereas (for the reasons outlined above) it is exceptionally difficult for algorithms to accurately identify the true meaning of language.

“I think there are a lot of things where social media companies could put options in their software that could reduce the risks associated with social media, and I do think that is something which they should actively pursue in a way that hasn’t happened to date.”

Leaving aside the fact that social media companies constantly come up with solutions for these problems, Hunt has left us with the burning question of whether any of this is even desirable at all.

Why should he prevent under-18s from sexting when the age of consent in the UK is 16? Where has this sudden moral panic about pornography come from? Are the government laying the ground for mass censorship? If two consenting teenagers want to send each other these aubergine emoji a couple of times a week, why should we stop them? Is it not up to parents, rather than the government, to survey and supervise their children’s online activities? Would education, with all of this in mind, not be the better option? Won't somebody please think of the children? 

“There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things.

Alas, if only we could say the same for you Mr Hunt.

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