Psychedelics: The scientific renaissance of mind-altering drugs
There is a lot we don't know about psychedelics, but what we do know makes them extremely important.
MICHAEL POLLAN: How do these psychedelics work? Well, the honest answer is we don't entirely know, but we know a few things. One is they fit a certain receptor site: the serotonin 5-HT2A receptor. And they look a lot like serotonin if you look at the molecular models of them and, in fact, LSD fits that receptor site even better than serotonin does and it stays there longer. And that's why the LSD trip can last 12 hours. What happens after that we don't really know. It's an agonist to that receptor. So it increases its activity. And this, you know the neuroscientists say lead to a cascade of effects which is shorthand for don't really know what happens next. But one thing we do know, or we think we know, is that it appears that one particular brain network is deactivated or quieted. And that is the default mode network. This was discovered not very long ago by a researcher in England named Robin Carhart-Harris who was dosing people with psilocybin and LSD and then sliding them into an MRI machine, to take an FMRI a functional magnetic resonance image. The expectation I think was that people would see an excitation of many different networks in the brain. You know, that's what the kind of mental fireworks sort of foretold, but he was very surprised to discover that one particular network was down-regulated and that was this default mode network.
So what is that? Well, it's a tightly linked set of structures connecting the prefrontal cortex to the posterior cingulate cortex, to the deeper older centers of emotion and memory. It appears to be involved in things like self-reflection, theory of mind, the ability to impute mental states to others, mental time travel, the ability to project forward in time and back, which is central to creating an identity, right? You don't have an identity without a memory and the so-called autobiographical memory, the function by which we construct the story of who we are by taking the things that happened to us and folding them into that narrative. And that appears to take place in the posterior cingulate cortex. So, you know, to the extent the ego can be said to have a location in the brain it appears to be this, the default mode network. It's active when you're doing nothing. When your mind is wandering. It can be very self-critical, it's where self-talk takes place. And that goes quiet. And when that goes quiet, the brain is sort of as one of the neuroscientists put it, let off the leash, because those ego functions, that self idea is a regulator of all mental activity and kind of, you know, the brain is a hierarchical system and the default mode network appears to be at the top. It's kind of the orchestra conductor or corporate executive. And you take that out of the picture, and suddenly you have this uprising from other parts of the brain and you have networks that don't ordinarily communicate with one another suddenly striking up conversations. So you might have the visual cortex talking to the auditory system, and suddenly you're seeing music, or it becomes palpable. You can feel it or smell it and, you know, synesthesia. So you have this temporary rewiring of the brain, in the absence of the control of the regulator. And this appears to have, you know, a beneficial effect in terms of jogging the brain out of bad patterns.
SAM HARRIS: The truth is virtually any experience you can have with psychedelics you can have without psychedelics. Because all psychedelics do, is modulate the existing neurochemistry of the brain. They're not doing something that the brain can't do on its own, you're just playing with neuro-transmitters or mimicking neurotransmitters. I have had the same experience to a more or less similar degree just through meditation, but it's clear to me that I would never have suspected that such an experience was possible but for my experimenting with MDMA in the beginning and it had not been adopted by popular culture as a party drug. So this was coming very much out of the therapeutic community. People were doing in a closeted way psychotherapy with it. And I took it as a means of discovering something about the nature of my mind. It was not a social situation. A friend and I were alone, and we took it together and just had a conversation on this drug. And what was revelatory about it was that it was an experience of absolute sobriety. There was no druggie component to it. We just became clearer and clearer and clearer in our thinking and feeling. And the crucial component of this was a loss of any feeling of self-concern. I was no longer looking at myself through my friend's eyes. I was no longer worried about what he was thinking about me. I was no longer subtly correcting course, based on changes I saw in how he was perceiving what I was saying.
There was a whole veneer of fear frankly, that I didn't know was there that got stripped away. And there was just kind of naked awareness of the present moment. And what came into that void was a very clear understanding that I loved him. The feeling that came crashing down to that point it was just, you know, boundless love for one of my best friends, and absolutely no egoic self-concern, no possibility for feeling envy, for feeling any kind of petty emotion that separated myself from him. But then I realized in the next moment, that I would feel this way for anyone who walked through the door. That there was nothing contingent on our relationship about this feeling. It was not justified by my friendship with him. This was the way I felt for every other conscious being. It frankly blew my mind. And it took me years for me to integrate this understanding of this possibility into my intellectual life.
JASON SILVA: There was a great essay written by Timothy Leary that I think is fabulous, a piece in the '60s called "Programming the Psychedelic Experience," in which he defined the psychedelic experience as a period of increased reactivity to stimuli, both from within and from without. So there's this increased suggestibility. It's almost like we dissolve the boundaries and the filters that keep us from sort of being flooded by sense impressions. And so one is in a kind of delicate suggestible state. So you wouldn't wanna be like driving or having to worry about crossing the street with a red light or a green light when you're tripping. But the psychotherapeutic use of being in a state of increased adjustability is that if you pattern the input signals, if you sequence and control what you're subjected to during this period of heightened sensibility to stimuli, you could steer awareness towards useful spaces of mind. You could navigate that evanescent flux of sensation and perception that Erik Davis says is all we have and all we are, towards places of ecstatic illumination.
Text: Who can benefit from the use of psychedelics?
HARRIS: For some people taking a drug is the only way they're gonna notice that it's possible to have a very different experience of the world. They're sufficiently lumping and uninquisitive about the nature of their own minds. That if you tell them to meditate, if you teach the mindfulness, you tell them how to follow their breath, they will look inside for 30 seconds or 30 minutes and see nothing of interest, and walk away feeling that there's no there there. Either it doesn't work for them or that everyone else must be just faking it, or it requires a certain talent and a certain degree of luck, therefore, to have enough concentration, to connect with any quote spiritual practice, the first time or even the 10th time or even after a year of attempting it, because it's just these practices are difficult. And the conditioning of our minds to just ceaselessly talk is deep. So where drugs have been indispensable for many people is in advertising the possibility of a change in consciousness. And so I don't think they're durable methods for people that you, I don't think you need or should just keep taking drugs month after month, year after year as a mode of spiritual inquiry. But there's certainly a period in many people's lives at the beginning where you wouldn't have, you wouldn't even see a glimmer of reason to suspect that a radical change in the nature of your experience would be possible.
POLLAN: Many of the disorders that psychedelics appears to treat well, are manifestations of a stuck brain. A brain that is locked in loops, a mind that's telling itself destructive stories. Like I can't get through the day without a cigarette. I'm unworthy of love. My work is shit. You know, these kind of evidence of habitual thinking in a really negative loop are relieved. And it may be that an overactive ego is what punishes us. And that relief from that dictator is exactly what some people need to free themselves from habits, mental habits and behavioral habits. I remember talking to smoking addicts, and one in particular, cause I was a little baffled at how could a single psychedelic experience break you know, what was a lifelong or a very, you know, very long-term 30-year smoking habit in a woman who was 60. She was Irish, she was a book editor, and she wanted to quit smoking and had tried everything without success. And she had a psilocybin trip. This was at Johns Hopkins. And she said, "I sprouted wings. And I flew all through European history and I saw the battle of Waterloo and saw Shakespeare, and I died three times, and I saw the smoke from my body rise from the Ganges on the funeral pyres. And I thought to myself 'there's so many amazing things to do and see in the world that it was really stupid to kill yourself with smoking.'" And she stopped. Now, I was very struck by the fact that surely she had had that insight before, that life is too interesting to shorten it by smoking. But for some reason, in the midst of the psychedelic trip, those seemingly ordinary even banal insights take on an authority. They're sticky, they're sturdy. And they're suddenly something that doesn't just seem like an insight or an opinion. It seems like a revealed truth, you know, absolute knowledge. And this is very common on psychedelics.
And it's very common in the mystical experience. William James said that the Noetic quality is what he called it. This idea that what you learn in that experience, has a special absolute authority, it's just a factor in mystical experience. So this is what I think allows many of the addicts to break their habit. The kind of resolution that most of us make every day and break the next day, becomes something that they can actually live by. And I thought that was quite extraordinary. And I heard that from many people and they would all say the same thing. I realized, you know, I acquired a new perspective on the scene of my life. It was like the camera had been pulled further back than it's ever been. And I saw myself and I saw what I was doing. And I realized this is really stupid. So perspective. I mean a perspectival shift can be very powerful. Other indications that the drugs show promise for, and this is psilocybin mostly that's the psychedelic that's been studied the most, depression, anxiety, obsession, addiction. There've been trials of alcoholics, of cocaine addicts and smokers, all showing great promise. And there're future trials for eating disorders. And, you know, a new trial of obsessive-compulsive is being planned. So this is a very exciting time. And again, the drugs still have to go further to prove themselves in larger groups of people. And we have to figure out exactly the optimal way to offer it to people, but we've got some new tools and we've had so little innovation in mental healthcare, since the early nineties, really since, you know, the introduction of the SSRI antidepressants, whose effectiveness is starting to fade and fail. And I don't think people fully realize how lousy the tools we have to treat psychiatric illness are right now, and how many side effects they have. They put on weight. They cost people their libido, they're hard to get off of, and they only treat symptoms.
BEN GOERTZEL: There's a tremendous amount of insight that can be plumbed using these various substances. There's also a lot of risks there, as with most valuable things. I mean, I've had friends and family members, you know, literally, be pushed over the verge of insanity by excessive and poorly thought out use of psychedelics. So I mean, it's a great potential benefit and a great potential risk. And I think it's generally a terrible thing that these substances are illegal in most modern governments because that means that we're not developing the right set of cultural institutions to guide people in really productive use of these substances.
Text: The history of psychedelics.
SILVA: There's a lot of talk nowadays about the psychotherapeutic use of psychedelics. We're kind of going through a psychedelic renaissance. It's been a while since the 1960s. These substances have been repressed, but, you know mankind has been using and experimenting with entheogenic or God facilitating substances for millennia.
POLLAN: Psychedelics have been used in societies, in Central America and South America, and the old world as well for thousands of years. And they were used in healing, as a sacrament in religions, for divination and purposes like that. So there's an ancient history of psychedelics that goes way back. And then there is the kind of mid-century, 20th-century history, which begins with Albert Hoffman, who is a brilliant chemist with the Sandoz company in Switzerland. And he in effect invents LSD. First in 1938 but he doesn't know what he has yet. But then in 1943 in the middle of World War II, he got this premonition that this was a particularly interesting and beautiful molecule and he should take a second look at it. And he resynthesized it and accidentally ingested some of it perhaps through his skin or by touching his eye, and realized that this was a powerful psychoactive molecule. Sandoz is the company he worked for really didn't know what was it good for? How could you use this drug? How could you monetize it as we would say? So Sandoz does something very interesting. They organize, you know, basically a crowd-searched research project, where they offer LSD to any researcher, therapist who wants it for free. And this led to this very fertile period of research in the '50s. LSD becomes, it's considered by many a psychiatric wonder drug. So here you have this very exciting promising period of research, that's going on without any government interference, without a lot of controversy, but in the '60s everything goes haywire. And what happens in the '60s, is that basically the drugs escaped the lab and become a very important ingredient in the creation of the counterculture.
Timothy Leary has something to do with this. He is a psychologist who ends up at Harvard in 1960, but the summer before he gets there he is introduced to psilocybin while in Mexico and has a profound experience. He was by the pool in Cuernavaca and he said he learned more in those four hours on psilocybin than he'd learned 15 years as a therapist. But, like several people who've studied psychedelics, Leary gets intoxicated by them, by the promise, not just to heal but to change society. And this is a very dangerous thought. And Leary then becomes a psychedelic evangelist, you know, turn on, tune in, drop out. Everybody should use acid. If we can turn on 4 million people we can blow the mind of America. And it becomes very threatening to the powers that be. I mean, Richard Nixon called Leary the most dangerous man in America. He felt that LSD and other drugs were sapping the will of American boys to fight in Vietnam. And he may well have been right. I mean LSD encourages people to think for themselves, to not accept the frames of social values, the games that we play socially, and in important ways LSD did fuel the counterculture and was very threatening to adult society, and to the powers that be. By the end of the decade, they're made illegal, a schedule one drug beginning in 1970. The research gradually atrophies and dies by the mid-seventies, early seventies, which is unprecedented in science, that you would have this incredibly promising avenue of inquiry, scientific inquiry, that's stopped for reasons that have nothing to do with the science. I think there's a lot more we need to learn, but beginning in 1999, with some private funding from some people in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, Johns Hopkins undertakes to begin studying psychedelics again. So profound effects from a single application of a non-toxic drug is a big deal. And I think portends a potential revolution in the way we practice mental healthcare.
- Having been repressed in the 1960s for their ties to the counterculture, psychedelics are currently experiencing a scientific resurgence. In this video, Michael Pollan, Sam Harris, Jason Silva and Ben Goertzel discuss the history of psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin, acknowledge key figures including Timothy Leary and Albert Hoffman, share what the experience of therapeutic tripping can entail, and explain why these substances are important to the future of mental health.
- There is a stigma surrounding psychedelic drugs that some scientists and researchers argue is undeserved. Several experiments over the past decades have shown that, when used correctly, drugs like psilocybin and LSD can have positive effects on the lives of those take them. How they work is not completely understood, but the empirical evidence shows promise in the fields of curbing depression, anxiety, obsession, and even addiction to other substances.
- "There's a tremendous amount of insight that can be plumbed using these various substances. There's also a lot of risks there, as with most valuable things," says artificial intelligence researcher Ben Goertzel. He and others believe that by making psychedelics illegal, modern governments are getting in the way of meaningful research and the development of "cultural institutions to guide people in really productive use of these substances."
- Could psychedelic civil disobedience help fight climate change ... ›
- Researchers discover how LSD works - Big Think ›
- From mushrooms to ecstasy, a renaissance in psychedelics research ›
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Ancient corridors below the French capital have served as its ossuary, playground, brewery, and perhaps soon, air conditioning.
- People have been digging up limestone and gypsum from below Paris since Roman times.
- They left behind a vast network of corridors and galleries, since reused for many purposes — most famously, the Catacombs.
- Soon, the ancient labyrinth may find a new lease of life, providing a sustainable form of air conditioning.
Ancient mining areas below Paris for limestone (red) and gypsum (green).Credit: Émile Gérards (1859–1920) / Public domain
"If you're brave enough to try, you might be able to catch a train from UnLondon to Parisn't, or No York, or Helsunki, or Lost Angeles, or Sans Francisco, or Hong Gone, or Romeless."
China Miéville's fantasy novel Un Lun Dun is set in an eerie mirror version of London. In it, he hints that other cities have similar doubles. On the list that he offhandedly rattles off, Paris stands out. Because the City of Light really does have a twisted sister. Below Paris Overground is Paris Underground, the City of Darkness.
Most people will have heard of the Catacombs of Paris: subterranean charnel houses for the bones of around six million dead Parisians. They are one of the French capital's most famous tourist attractions – and undoubtedly its grisliest.
But they constitute only a small fragment of what the locals themselves call les carrières de Paris ("the mines of Paris"), a collection of tunnels and galleries up to 300 km (185 miles) long, most of which are off-limits to the public, yet eagerly explored by so-called cataphiles.
The Grand Réseau Sud ("Great Southern Network") takes up around 200 km beneath the 5th, 6th, 14th, and 15th arrondissements (administrative districts), all south of the river Seine. Smaller networks run beneath the 12th, 13th, and 16th arrondissements. How did they get there?
Paris stone and plaster of Paris
It all starts with geology. Sediments left behind by ancient seas created large deposits of limestone in the south of the city, mostly south of the Seine; and gypsum in the north, particularly in the hills of Montmartre and Ménilmontant. Highly sought after as building materials, both have been mined since Roman times.
The limestone is also known as Lutetian limestone (Lutetia is the Latin name for ancient Paris) or simply "Paris stone." It has been used for many famous Paris landmarks, including the Louvre and the grand buildings erected during Georges-Eugène Haussmann's large-scale remodelling of the city in the mid-19th century. The stone's warm, yellowish color provides visual unity and a bright elegance to the city.
The fine-powdered gypsum of northern Paris, used for making quick-setting plaster, was so famed for its quality that "plaster of Paris" is still used as a term of distinction. However, as gypsum is very soluble in water, the underground cavities left by its extraction were extremely vulnerable to collapse.
Like living on top of a rotting tooth: subsidence starts far below the surface, but it can destroy your house.Credit : Delavanne Avocats
In previous centuries, a road would occasionally open up to swallow a chariot, or even a whole house would disappear down a sinkhole. In 1778, a catastrophic subsidence in Ménilmontant killed seven. That's why the Montmartre gypsum quarries were dynamited rather than just left as they were. The remaining gypsum caves were to be filled up with concrete.
The official body governing Paris down below is the Inspection Générale des Carrières (IGC), founded in the late 1770s by King Louis XVI. The IGC was tasked with mapping and, where needed, propping up the current and ancient (and sometimes forgotten) mining corridors and galleries hiding beneath Paris.
A delightful hiding place
Also around that time, the dead of Paris were getting in the way of the living. At the end of the 18th century, their final destination consisted of about 200 small cemeteries, scattered throughout the city — all bursting at the seams, so to speak. There was no room to bury the newly dead, and the previously departed were fouling up both the water and air around their respective churchyards.
Something radical had to happen. And it did. From 1785 until 1814, the smaller cemeteries were emptied of their bones, which were transported with full funerary pomp to their final resting place in the ancient limestone quarries at Tombe-Issoire. Three large and modern cemeteries were opened to receive the remains of subsequent generations of Parisians: Montparnasse, Père-Lachaise, and Passy.
The six million dead Parisians in the Catacombs, from all corners of the capital and across many centuries, together form the world's largest necropolis — their now anonymized skulls and bones methodically stacked, occasionally into whimsical patterns. The Catacombs are fashioned into a memorial to the brevity of life. The message above the entrance reads: Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort. ("Halt! This is the empire of Death.")
That has not stopped the Catacombs, accessible via a side door to a classicist building on the Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, making just about every Top 20 list of things to see in Paris.
An underground economy
However, while the Catacombs certainly are the most famous part of the centuries-old network beneath Paris, and in non-pandemic times draw thousands of tourists each day, they constitute just 1.7 km (1 mile) of the 300-km (185-mile) tunneling total.
Subterranean Paris wasn't just used for mining and storing dead people. In the 17th century, Carthusian monks converted the ancient quarries under their monastery into distilleries for the green or yellow liqueur that still carries their name, chartreuse.
Because the mines generally keep a constant cool temperature of around 15° C (60° F), they were also ideal for brewing beer, as happened on a large scale from the end of the 17th century until well into the 20th century. Several caves were dug especially for establishing breweries, and not just because of the ambient temperature: going underground allowed brewers to remain close to their customers without having to pay a premium for real estate up top.
Overview of the Paris Catacombs.Credit: Inspection Générale des Carrières, 1857 / Public domain.
At the end of the 19th century, the underground breweries of the 14th arrondissement alone produced more than a million hectoliters (22 million gallons) per year. One of the most famous of Paris' underground breweries, Dumesnil, stayed in operation until the late 1960s.
In that decade, the network of corridors and galleries south of the Seine, long since abandoned by miners, became the unofficial playground for the young people of Paris. They explored the fantastical world beneath their feet, in some cases via entry points located in their very schools. Fascinated, these cataphiles ("catacomb lovers") read up on old books, explored the subterranean labyrinth, and drew up schematics that were passed around among fellow initiates as reverently as treasure maps.
As Robert Macfarlane writes in Underland, Paris-beneath-their-feet became "a place where people might slip into different identities, assume new ways of being and relating, become fluid and wild in ways that are constrained on the surface."
Some larger caves turned into notorious party zones: a 7-meter-tall gallery below the Val-de-Grâce hospital is widely known as "Salle Z." Over the last few decades, various other locations in subterranean Paris have hosted jazz and rock concerts and rave parties — like no other city, Paris really has an "underground music scene."
Hokusai's Great Wave as the backdrop to the "beach" under Paris.Credit: Reddit
Cataphiles vs. cataphobes
With popularity came increased reports of nuisance and crime — the tunnels provided easy access to telephone cables, which were stolen for the resale value of their copper.
The general public's "discovery" of the underground network led the city of Paris to officially interdict all access by non-authorized persons. That decree dates back to 1955, but the "underground police" have an understanding with seasoned cataphiles. Their main targets are so-called tourists, who by their lack of knowledge expose themselves to risk of injuries or worse, and degrade their surroundings, often leaving loads of litter in their wake.
The understanding does not extend to the IGC. Unlike in the 19th century, when weak cavities were shored up by purpose-built pillars, the policy now is to inject concrete to fill up endangered spaces — thus progressively blocking off parts of the network. That procedure has also been used to separate the Catacombs to prevent "infiltration" of the site by cataphiles.
Many subterranean streets have their own names, signs and all. This is the Rue des Bourguignons (Street of the Burgundians) below the Champs des Capucins (Capuchin Field), neither of which exists on the surface.Credit: Jean-François Gornet via Wikimedia and licensed under
The cataphiles, however, are fighting back. In a game of cat and mouse with the authorities, they are reopening blocked passages and creating chatières ("cat flaps") through which they can squeeze into chambers no longer accessible via other underground corridors.
Catacomb climate control
Alone against the unstoppable tide of concrete, the amateurs of Underground Paris would be helpless. But the fight against climate change may turn the subterranean labyrinths from a liability into an asset — and the City of Paris into an ally.
The UN's 2015 Climate Plan — concluded in Paris, by the way — requires the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent by 2050. And Paris itself wants to be Europe's greenest city by 2030. More sustainable climate control of our living spaces would be a great help toward both targets. A lot of energy is spent heating houses in winter and cooling them in summer.
This is where the constant temperature of the Parisian tunnels comes in. It's not just good for brewing beer; it's a source of geothermal energy, says Fieldwork, an architectural firm based in Paris. It can be used to temper temperatures, helping to cool houses in summer and warming them in winter.
One catch for the cataphiles: it also works when the underground cavities are filled up with concrete. So perhaps one day, Paris Underground, fully filled up with concrete, will completely fall off the map, reducing the city's formerly real doppelgänger into an air conditioning unit.
Cool in summer, warm in winter: Paris Underground could become Paris A/C.Credit: Fieldwork
Strange Maps #1083
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Meconium contains a wealth of information.
- A new study finds that the contents of an infants' first stool, known as meconium, can predict if they'll develop allergies with a high degree of accuracy.
- A metabolically diverse meconium, which indicates the initial food source for the gut microbiota, is associated with fewer allergies.
- The research hints at possible early interventions to prevent or treat allergies just after birth.
The prevalence of allergies arising in childhood has increased over the last 50 years, with 30 percent of the human population now having some kind of atopic disease such as eczema, food allergies, or asthma. The cause of this increase is still subject to debate, though it has been associated with a number of factors, including changes to the gut microbiomes of infants.
A new study by Canadian researchers published in Cell Reports Medicine may shed further light on how these allergies develop in children by examining the contents of their first diaper.
The things you do for science
The research team examined the first stool of 100 infants from the CHILD Cohort Study. The first stool of an infant is a thick, green, horrid-looking substance called meconium. It consists of various things that the infant ingests during the second half of gestation. Additionally, it provides not only a snapshot of what the infant was exposed to during that time, but it also reveals what the food sources will be for the initial gut bacteria that colonize the baby's digestive tract.
The content of the meconium was examined and found to contain such varied elements as amino acids, lipids, carbohydrates, and myriad other substances.
A graph of the comparative, summed abundance of different elements in a metabolic pathway after scaling to median abundance of each metabolite. The blue figures are those children without atopy, the yellow ones show the data for those with an atopic condition. Petersen et al.
The authors fed this information into an algorithm that used this data, along with the identities of the bacteria present as well as the baby's overall health, to predict which infants would go on to develop allergies within one year. The algorithm got it right 76 percent of the time.
A way to prevent childhood allergies?
Infants whose meconium had a less diverse metabolic niche the initial microbes to settle in the gut were at the highest risk of developing allergies a year later. Many of these elements were associated with the presence or absence of different bacterial groups in the digestive system of the child, which play an increasingly appreciated role in our overall health and development. The findings were summarized by senior co-author Dr. Brett Finlay:
"Our analysis revealed that newborns who developed allergic sensitization by one year of age had significantly less 'rich' meconium at birth, compared to those who didn't develop allergic sensitization."
The findings could be used to help understand how allergies form and even how to prevent them. Co-author Dr. Stuart Turvey commented on this possibility:
"We know that children with allergies are at the highest risk of also developing asthma. Now we have an opportunity to identify at-risk infants who could benefit from early interventions before they even begin to show signs and symptoms of allergies or asthma later in life."
A model for early childhood allergies
Petersen et al.
As shown above, the authors constructed a model of how they believe metabolites and bacterial diversity help prevent allergies. Increased diversity of metabolic products in the meconium encourage the development of "healthy" families of bacteria, like Peptostreptococcaceae, which in turn promote the development of a healthy and diverse gut microbiome. Ultimately, such diversity decreases the likelihood that a child will develop allergies.
Even with six months' notice, we can't stop an incoming asteroid.
- At an international space conference, attendees took part in an exercise that imagined an asteroid crashing into Earth.
- With the object first spotted six months before impact, attendees concluded that there was insufficient time for a meaningful response.
- There are an estimated 25,000 near-Earth objects potentially threatening our planet.
The asteroid 2021 PDC was first spotted on April 19, 2021 by the Pan-STARRS project at the University of Hawaii. By May 2, astronomers were 100% certain it was going to strike Earth somewhere in Europe or northern Africa. On October 20, 2021, the asteroid plowed into Europe, taking countless lives.
There was absolutely nothing anyone could do to deflect it from its deadly course. Experts could only warn a panicking population to get out of the way as soon as possible, if it was possible.
The above scenario is the result of a recently concluded NASA thought experiment.
The question the agency sought to answer was this: If we discovered a potentially deadly asteroid destined to hit Earth in six months, was there anything we could do to prevent a horrifying catastrophe? The disturbing answer is "no," not with currently available technology.
While Europe can breathe easy for now, the simulation conducted by NASA/JPL's Center for Near Earth Object Studies and presented at the 7th IAA Planetary Defense Conference is troubling. Space agencies spot "near-Earth objects" (NEOs) all the time. Many are larger than 140 meters in size, which means they're potentially deadly.
Credit: ImageBank4U / Adobe Stock
"The level [at] which we're finding the 140-meter and larger asteroids remains pretty stable, at about 500 a year. Our projection of the number of these objects out there is about 25,000, and we've only found a little over one-third of those so far, maybe 38% or so," NASA's Planetary Defense Office Lindley Johnson tells Space.com.
With our current technology, spotting an NEO comes down to whether we just happen to have a telescope pointing in its direction. To remove humanity's blind spot, the Planetary Society — the same organization that deployed Earth's first light sails — is developing the NEO Surveyor spacecraft, which they plan to deploy in 2025. According to the Planetary Society, it will be able to detect 90 percent of NEOs of 140 meters or larger, a vast improvement.
How to move an asteroid
The DART spacecraft will attempt to deflect an asteroid.Credit: NASA
The NASA/JPL exercise made clear that six months is just not enough time with our current technology to prepare and launch a mission in time to nudge an NEO off its course. (Small course adjustments become significant over great distances, which is why "nudging" an asteroid is a potential strategy.)
What would such a mission look like? Hollywood aside — remember Armageddon?— we know of no good way to redirect an NEO headed our way. Experts believe that shooting laser beams at an incoming rock, exciting as it might look, is not a realistic possibility. Targeted nuclear blasts might work, but forget about landing Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, and Liv Tyler on an asteroid to set off a course-altering bomb, especially just a month after its discovery (as was the case in the movie).
Another thing that might work is crashing a spacecraft into an NEO hard enough to shift its course. That's the idea behind NASA's Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART). This mission will shoot a spacecraft at the (non-threatening) asteroid Dimorphos in the fall of 2022 in the hope of changing its trajectory.
The deadly asteroid's journey
The asteroid "2021 PDC" hit Europe in NASA's simulation.Credit: NASA/JPL
The harrowing "tabletop exercise," as NASA/JPL called it, took place across four days at the conference:
- Day 1, "April 19" — The asteroid named "2021 PDC" is discovered 35 million miles away. Scientists calculate it has a 1-in-20 chance of striking Earth.
- Day 2, "May 2" — Now certain that 2021 PDC will hit Earth, space mission designers attempt to dream up a response. They conclude that with less than six months to impact, there's not enough time to realistically mount a mission to disrupt the NEO's course.
- Day 3, "June 30" — Images from the world's four largest telescopes reveal the area in Europe that will be hit. Space-based infrared measurements narrow the object's size to between 35 and 700 meters. This would pack a similar punch as a 1.2-megaton nuclear bomb.
- Day 4, "October 14" — Six days before impact, the asteroid is just 6.3 million km from Earth. Finally, the Goldstone Solar System Radar has been able to assess the size of 2021 PDC. Scientists calculate the blast from the asteroid will be primarily confined to the border region between Germany, Czechia, Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia. Disaster response experts develop plans for addressing the human toll.
"Each time we participate in an exercise of this nature," says Johnson, "we learn more about who the key players are in a disaster event, and who needs to know what information, and when."
Practically speaking, little can be done to hurry technological development along other than budgeting more money toward that goal. Maybe we should have Bruce Willis on call, just in case.
If you ask your maps app to find "restaurants that aren't McDonald's," you won't like the result.
- The Chinese Room thought experiment is designed to show how understanding something cannot be reduced to an "input-process-output" model.
- Artificial intelligence today is becoming increasingly sophisticated thanks to learning algorithms but still fails to demonstrate true understanding.
- All humans demonstrate computational habits when we first learn a new skill, until this somehow becomes understanding.
It's your first day at work, and a new colleague, Kendall, catches you over coffee.
"You watch the game last night?" she says. You're desperate to make friends, but you hate football.
"Sure, I can't believe that result," you say, vaguely, and it works. She nods happily and talks at you for a while. Every day after that, you live a lie. You listen to a football podcast on the weekend and then regurgitate whatever it is you hear. You have no idea what you're saying, but it seems to impress Kendall. You somehow manage to come across as an expert, and soon she won't stop talking football with you.
The question is: do you actually know about football, or are you imitating knowledge? And what's the difference? Welcome to philosopher John Searle's "Chinese Room."
The Chinese Room
Searle's argument was designed as a critique of what's called a "functionalist" view of mind. This is the philosophy that argues that our mind can be explained fully by what role it plays, or in other words, what it does or what "function" it has.
One form of functionalism sees the human mind as following an "input-process-output" model. We have the input of our senses, the process of our brains, and a behavioral output. Searle thought this was at best an oversimplification, and his Chinese Room thought experiment goes to show how human minds are not simply biological computers. It goes like this:
Imagine a room, and inside is John, who can't speak a word of Chinese. Outside the room, a Chinese person sends a message into the room in Chinese. Luckily, John has an "if-then" book for Chinese characters. For instance, if he gets <你好吗>, the proper reply is <我还好>. All John has to do is follow his instruction book.
The Chinese speaker outside of the room thinks they're talking to someone inside who knows Chinese. But in reality, it's just John with his fancy book.
What is understanding?
Does John understand Chinese? The Chinese Room is, by all accounts, a computational view of the mind, yet it seems that something is missing. Truly understanding something is not an "if-then" automated response. John is missing that sinking in feeling, the absorption, the bit of understanding that's so hard to express. Understanding a language doesn't work like this. Humans are not Google Translate.
And yet, this is how AIs are programmed. A computer system is programmed to provide a certain output based on a finite list of certain inputs. If I double click the mouse, I open a file. If you type a letter, your monitor displays tiny black squiggles. If we press the right buttons in order, we win at Mario Kart. Input — Process — Output.
Can imitation become so fluid or competent that it is understanding.
But AIs don't know what they're doing, and Google Translate doesn't really understand what it's saying, does it? They're just following a programmer's orders. If I say, "Will it rain tomorrow?" Siri can look up the weather. But if I ask, "Will water fall from the clouds tomorrow?" it'll be stumped. A human would not (although they might look at you oddly).
A fun way to test just how little an AI understands us is to ask your maps app to find "restaurants that aren't McDonald's." Unsurprisingly, you won't get what you want.
The Future of AI
To be fair, the field of artificial intelligence is just getting started. Yes, it's easy right now to trick our voice assistant apps, and search engines can be frustratingly unhelpful at times. But that doesn't mean AI will always be like that. It might be that the problem is only one of complexity and sophistication, rather than anything else. It might be that the "if-then" rule book just needs work. Things like "the McDonald's test" or AI's inability to respond to original questions reveal only a limitation in programming. Given that language and the list of possible questions is finite, it's quite possible that AI will be able to (at the very least) perfectly mimic a human response in the not too distant future.
What's more, AIs today have increasingly advanced learning capabilities. Algorithms are no longer simply input-process-output but rather allow systems to search for information and adapt anew to what they receive.
A notorious example of this occurred when a Microsoft chat bot started spouting bigotry and racism after "learning" from what it read on Twitter. (Although, this might just say more about Twitter than AI.) Or, more sinister perhaps, two Facebook chat bots were shut down after it was discovered that they were not only talking to each other but were doing so in an invented language. Did they understand what they were doing? Who's to say that, with enough learning and enough practice, an AI "Chinese Room" might not reach understanding?
Can imitation become understanding?
We've all been a "Chinese Room" at times — be it talking about sports at work, cramming for an exam, using a word we didn't entirely know the meaning of, or calculating math problems. We can all mimic understanding, but it also begs the question: can imitation become so fluid or competent that it is understanding.
The old adage "fake it, 'till you make it" has been proven true over and over. If you repeat an action enough times, it becomes easy and habitual. For instance, when you practice a language, musical instrument, or a math calculation, then after a while, it becomes second nature. Our brain changes with repetition.
So, it might just be that we all start off as Chinese Rooms when we learn something new, but this still leaves us with a pertinent question: when, how, and at what point does John actually understand Chinese? More importantly, will Siri or Alexa ever understand you?