Is technology corrupting humanity? History says no.

Build up, tear down—new technology stirs up a cycle of progress and cynicism we've seen all throughout history.

Elad Gil: So one of the things that worries me the most in the technology world today is the degree to which the external world has viewed technology with more and more cynicism and the degree to which there's a little bit of a backlash starting. And I think that there's a few drivers for that here. I think the recent elections is sort of one example where people feel they were manipulated I should say by third parties abusing technology. And I think separate from that there's also just these sort of media waves where media tends to go in cycles where the press will build something up and then tear it down and then build something up and tear it down. And I think technology was really built up in the media for a 20-year period or so, and now it's sort of a time of reckoning to some extent.

I think that's very unfortunate because I believe that optimism is a reflexive asset in sort of the George Soros' view of the world where something that people give value to gains value by that belief in the value of that thing. And if you actually look at the major changes that have happened in the world it's because people have been extremely optimistic in ways that some folks thought was irrational, but that optimism allowed them to actually accomplish that giant goal.

I mean think of putting somebody on the moon and what we were able to accomplish in the '60s, or think about a variety of other examples like that the Manhattan Project or major breakthroughs have all sort of come through an enormous sense of optimism and "we can do this." Manifest destiny and sort of the development of the United States as a country is a good example of that on the sort of country and governance level.
And so one thing that I've seen more and more increasingly is an increase in cynicism and people being made fun of. The first thing they want to change the world and they're genuine about it and I think that's a very big negative. And so one of the things that I've been thinking a lot about recently is: how can you actually increase societal optimism?
What are the mechanisms by which people can become more enthusiastic about their future and more enthusiastic about technology? Because if you look at the changes that technology has rote over the last 20/30 years it literally has lifted tens or hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. It has created access to global markets and it has created access to global information. Everybody is walking around with literally a super computer in their pocket that gives them access to the sum of all of humanity's knowledge with maybe the exception of the scientific journals, which are still blind. So I do think that people should be incredibly optimistic about the future and one thing I wonder about is how can you help spread that optimism? Because I think if people believe they can do something they often achieve things that they never thought was possible.

So, a lot of people have recently had a lot of very cogent concerns around the rise of misinformation and disinformation on social media platforms and how that impacted our last election. And I think those are very legitimate concerns and I think some of the platforms have made pretty major mistakes in terms of how they've approached some of those things. It's interesting though, because if you look at it over the arc of history this is not a new story. Every time that there's a new technology, particularly around media, there's a set of outcries around how that media is corrupting culture or how it's destroying certain aspects of our life, and in some cases those are real concerns. There's a great book from Tom Standage about the early telegraph in the 1800s called The Victorian Internet and he basically makes the argument that a lot of the behavior that exists online today was being done by telegraph operators in the 1800s because they were just sitting on these lines talking with each other over Morse Code, and they would gossip and they would trade recipes and they would date, but also it was a way for news to spread quickly. And a lot of people argued that it was a downfall of a variety of things. It could be the downfall of markets because suddenly markets were more efficient or it could impact religion or other things. And then we had radio. Actually before radio we had to newspapers in the early 1900s, and there was the wave of yellow journalism, there's a Spanish American War that was caused by a new form of media. And then we had a radio, and radio was "corrupting youth" by spreading rock 'n' roll and sin and all sorts of bad things. And then we had TV, which was turning everybody into vegetables. And then we had video games, which was turning all of our children into killers. And now we have social media as the next new media platform, and Instagram is destroying our youth. And I think that fact about Instagram is true—I'm joking about that. But in the broader context if you think about it every time we have a new form of media we make the argument that that form of media is the thing that's going to destroy our society, that's correcting our politics, that's corrupting our children, that's destroying our ability to think for ourselves and every time society has turned out okay. Now that doesn't mean that social media platforms shouldn't be reacting or shouldn't be addressing these issues, I'm just saying if you look at it through the larger lens of history this is not a new story.

  • "Every time that there's a new technology, particularly around media, there's a set of outcries around how that media is corrupting culture or how it's destroying certain aspects of our life," says entrepreneur and author Elad Gil.
  • In some cases there are real concerns, but taking a historical view can quell unnecessary panic. Progress and cynicism work in a cyclical fashion. New tech is unveiled, the media builds it up, then the media tears it down in a wave of backlash.
  • Today we worry about kids and smartphones; 80 years ago we worried about kids and the radio; same cynicism, different day.
  • Technology lifts the lid on human potential and quality of life, says Gil. We should be duly cautious, but optimism is more valuable (and arguably more rational) than pessimism.

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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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