Why Mark Zuckerberg Just Pledged to Give Away 99% of His Facebook Stock

If sold at today's value, the value of that stock would be $45 billion.

Fatherhood has already made Mark Zuckerberg a very generous man. While he and his wife, Priscilla Chan, announced the birth of their new daughter, Max, the Facebook CEO pledged to give away 99 percent of his own stock in Facebook. Profits from nearly all future stock sales will go to philanthropic efforts. If sold today, that would equal approximately $45 billion.


In 2010, Zuckerberg signed the Giving Pledge, a commitment by the world's wealthiest individuals to sign more than half of their fortune away for the good of humanity. Today's announcement makes good on that pledge, with Zuckerberg making his commitment in an open letter to their daughter.  

The letter itself is a fascinating glimpse at what Zuckerberg may aim to do with his sizable fortune. Perhaps the most fascinating and futuristic question he poses about how future generations will benefit from science and technology is this:

Can you learn and experience 100 times more than we do today?

The aim of the letter undergirds some of Facebook's current aims, such as connecting the entire world to the Internet, bypassing wired delivery systems and beaming signals from solar-powered drones, for example. Here is an excerpt from the letter:

"Many of the greatest opportunities for your generation will come from giving everyone access to the Internet. People often think of the Internet as just for entertainment or communication. But for the majority of people in the world, the Internet can be a lifeline. It provides education if you don't live near a good school. It provides health information on how to avoid diseases or raise healthy children if you don't live near a doctor. It provides financial services if you don't live near a bank. It provides access to jobs and opportunities if you don't live in a good economy."

The birth of Max is notable for other reasons. Chan has been public about her difficulties coming to term. Prior to Max, she had two miscarriages but her openness about it ignited a discussion over social taboos and women's health issues. 
And while funneling more money in the direction of socially positive goals is unquestionably good, that this money comes from Zuckerberg's company raises important questions. The degree to which we praise Zuckerberg acknowledges the power of concentrated wealth. He has already joined forces with Bill Gates, as The New York Times explains: 
"Earlier this week, Mr. Zuckerberg was one of the billionaires who signed on to the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, a group organized by the Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates to contribute toward a multibillion-dollar clean energy fund. The announcement coincided with a Paris summit meeting intended to forge a global accord to cut planet-warming emissions."

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Image: Mark Zuckerberg, Chairman and CEO of Facebook and his wife, Priscilla Chan, arrive for a State Dinner hosted by US President Barack Obama for Chinese President Xi Jinping at the White House in Washington, DC, September 25, 2015. AFP PHOTO / MOLLY RILEY (Photo credit should read MOLLY RILEY/AFP/Getty Images)

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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