How diversity melts away our biases, and technology is the great equalizer

The most revelatory answers in life come from complex, diverse populations. Technology can open our eyes to what we're missing and destroy our subconscious biases in one fell swoop.

Beau Lotto: If the process of seeing differently is the process of first and foremost having awareness of the fact that everything you do has an assumption, figuring out what those are—and by the way, the best person to reveal your own assumptions to you is not yourself, it’s usually someone else, hence the power of diversity, the importance of diversity. Because not only does that diversity reveal your own assumptions to you, but it can also complex-ify your assumptions. Because we know from complex systems theory that the best solution is most likely to exist within a complex search space, not a simple search space, simply because of statistics. So whereas a simple search space is more adaptable, it’s more easy to adapt, it’s less likely to contain the best solution.

So what we really want is a diversity of possibilities, a diversity of assumptions—which diverse groups, for instance, enable. But also diverse experience. So one of the best ways to diversify, complex-ify your search space, your assumptions, is through experience. And one of the great ways to do that is actually through technology. So we think about technology, and most of our technologies are good technologies. But what defines a great technology? What is a transformative technology?

The good technologies are the ones that enable us to do what we can already do faster, easier, more efficiently. And that’s because so much of our society focuses on efficiency. It’s about maximizing performance. We’re great engineers but we’re crap philosophers. We’re very good at making things more efficient, but that’s only one side of innovation.We also need the other side of innovation, which is creativity. And so the best technologies are the ones—in my view—that make the invisible visible. They enable us to see things that we could never have seen before. They create assumptions. They expand our space of assumptions. We typically think, of course, of digital technologies, but we can also think of the telescope, the microscope. In fact we can even think of the sail.

So the sail was in one sense invented on the Nile, because the currents the wind go in opposite directions. So you could sail up current and then you could float back down. But what the sail enables us to do was to travel, which meant we could see different ecologies, different cultures. Which, when approached in an open way, enabled us to not only challenge but expand our assumptions, because we would have incorporated their biases into our own. So you could view it in a different way. The best transformative technologies enable us to travel. But not just travel physically. Travel in our minds. So a book, writing, this also leads onto things like augmented reality and even virtual reality. So in our case we’ve actually done experiments and created a whole platform in augmented reality to see if we can explore how the brain makes meaning by engaging with a new layer in the world. Not to replace the real world but to expand it.

Another example is the feelSpace belt. So what this was was a belt that was, in fact, a belt, right. It went around your waist, and effectively what it did is it vibrated in the direction of north, which effectively gave people the ability to see what they couldn’t see before. They made the invisible visible. And what happened is that people would consciously make reference—well initially they just felt a vibration—and then they started incorporating it into their movement and into their navigation consciously.But eventually it became unconscious to the point that when they actually removed the belt they felt insecure. So effectively they were almost turning people into birds, who are able to detect magnetic north in their migrations. And the brain was able to adapt and redefine normality based on this new information that it was getting. But not just the data, the meaning of the data by physically engaging with the world. Because only in that sense did it come to literally make sense.

Being close-minded is like being in handcuffs—you can't let yourself out, someone has to pop the lock for you. That's why diversity matters, says neuroscientist Beau Lotto. Meeting others unlocks our perception. We spend our lives in the cuffs of our own assumptions, but encountering people who think and act differently teaches us so much about ourselves, and what we may have been blind to up until that point. If creativity is the act of thinking differently, then surrounding ourselves with a diversity of people, with diverse life experiences, can radically expand our field of possibility. Technology is another way to do that, says Lotto, and if you leaf through history it's apparent that the most radical technological breakthroughs are the ones that have expanded our perceptions: the printing press gave us books, which let us see other people's stories; the telescope gave us the universe, which gave us curiosity (and humility); the ship gave us mobility, which gave us cultural and material trade. Technology enables us "to see things that we could never have seen before," and it makes the invisible visible, says Lotto. The more layers of meaning we can detect—whether through diversity or technology—the better we're able to think, innovate, and connect. Beau Lotto's new book is Deviate: The Science of Seeing Differently.

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This article was originally published by our sister site, Freethink.

For the first time, researchers appear to have effectively treated a genetic disorder by directly injecting a CRISPR therapy into patients' bloodstreams — overcoming one of the biggest hurdles to curing diseases with the gene editing technology.

The therapy appears to be astonishingly effective, editing nearly every cell in the liver to stop a disease-causing mutation.

The challenge: CRISPR gives us the ability to correct genetic mutations, and given that such mutations are responsible for more than 6,000 human diseases, the tech has the potential to dramatically improve human health.

One way to use CRISPR to treat diseases is to remove affected cells from a patient, edit out the mutation in the lab, and place the cells back in the body to replicate — that's how one team functionally cured people with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia, editing and then infusing bone marrow cells.

Bone marrow is a special case, though, and many mutations cause disease in organs that are harder to fix.

Another option is to insert the CRISPR system itself into the body so that it can make edits directly in the affected organs (that's only been attempted once, in an ongoing study in which people had a CRISPR therapy injected into their eyes to treat a rare vision disorder).

Injecting a CRISPR therapy right into the bloodstream has been a problem, though, because the therapy has to find the right cells to edit. An inherited mutation will be in the DNA of every cell of your body, but if it only causes disease in the liver, you don't want your therapy being used up in the pancreas or kidneys.

A new CRISPR therapy: Now, researchers from Intellia Therapeutics and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals have demonstrated for the first time that a CRISPR therapy delivered into the bloodstream can travel to desired tissues to make edits.

We can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically.

—JENNIFER DOUDNA

"This is a major milestone for patients," Jennifer Doudna, co-developer of CRISPR, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR.

"While these are early data, they show us that we can overcome one of the biggest challenges with applying CRISPR clinically so far, which is being able to deliver it systemically and get it to the right place," she continued.

What they did: During a phase 1 clinical trial, Intellia researchers injected a CRISPR therapy dubbed NTLA-2001 into the bloodstreams of six people with a rare, potentially fatal genetic disorder called transthyretin amyloidosis.

The livers of people with transthyretin amyloidosis produce a destructive protein, and the CRISPR therapy was designed to target the gene that makes the protein and halt its production. After just one injection of NTLA-2001, the three patients given a higher dose saw their levels of the protein drop by 80% to 96%.

A better option: The CRISPR therapy produced only mild adverse effects and did lower the protein levels, but we don't know yet if the effect will be permanent. It'll also be a few months before we know if the therapy can alleviate the symptoms of transthyretin amyloidosis.

This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine.

—FYODOR URNOV

If everything goes as hoped, though, NTLA-2001 could one day offer a better treatment option for transthyretin amyloidosis than a currently approved medication, patisiran, which only reduces toxic protein levels by 81% and must be injected regularly.

Looking ahead: Even more exciting than NTLA-2001's potential impact on transthyretin amyloidosis, though, is the knowledge that we may be able to use CRISPR injections to treat other genetic disorders that are difficult to target directly, such as heart or brain diseases.

"This is a wonderful day for the future of gene-editing as a medicine," Fyodor Urnov, a UC Berkeley professor of genetics, who wasn't involved in the trial, told NPR. "We as a species are watching this remarkable new show called: our gene-edited future."

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