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Printing Guns, Drugs, and DNA Weapons: Organized Crime Is Being Decentralized

Every time there’s a new technology, criminals immediately take advantage of it, explains Steven Kotler. It's only a matter of time before they find new, nefarious uses for 3D printing and synthetic biology.

Steven Kotler: If you look at kind of the three biggest criminal enterprises in the world right now, it’s arms dealing, drugs, and exotic animals — the exotic animal trade. Those are the three biggest illegal trades right now. Well we can use 3D printing to print guns already, right? That’s already possible. There are people working on a 3D printer for drugs, right? The idea is prescription pharmaceuticals — you could print them in 3D. It’s a chemistry set 3D printer. The off label use of this stuff is obviously going to be the manufacturer of drugs, right? Synthetic biology lets us create brand-new organisms from scratch so do you want your exotic parrot or do you want something that’s brand-new?

So what’s interesting about this — and some of this stuff is a little farther out — but over the next 20-25 years it means that the three largest criminal enterprises in the world are going to be available to anyone, right? With 3D printers, with a DNA typewriter, which his sort of an at-home synthetic-biology interface so anybody can program DNA. It means that we’re going to all the illegal drug trades we’re going to pull the rug out from underneath them and nobody has any idea what happens next, right? That’s never happened before. We’ve always had organized crime because there’s always been stuff that we couldn’t get that we wanted. Well pretty soon we’re going to be able to get whatever we want. This is kind of the weird side of the abundance idea, right? When you live in world of abundance, when we can use 3D printers and synthetic biology and when anybody can do it, it means that a lot of the illegal trades, right, the bottom’s just fallen out. And what happens then we have no idea.

Synthetic biology is progressing so quickly, right? All kinds of new weapons are now possible, right? One of the things I look at in Tomorrowland is the question of could you design a bioweapon, a synthetic bioweapon that targets the president’s DNA alone. It’s very, very difficult to protect DNA, right? It lasts a very, very, very long time. It’s a long-lived molecule and it’s everywhere, right. Every time you shake somebody’s hand, the president hands somebody a pen, they’re getting DNA samples along the way. The government is already taking steps to protect the presidential DNA, right? If the president goes into public and he drinks a beer out of a mug there is somebody there to grab that glass afterwards.

Hillary Clinton — and this was released in some of the NSA stuff that [Edward] Snowden released — told foreign diplomats that they should secretly collect DNA from foreign dignitaries. So the United States is already on the offense when it comes to genetics. I’d be very, very surprised if other countries weren’t doing the same back at us. And it’s going to become more and more of an issue. So, you know, right now we have to worry about all kinds of assassinations by bullets and by bombs and along those lines. With what’s coming — I can make a disease. I can make a disease that I spray into the air; you pass through it; nobody else gets sick and you get a slow neurodegenerative disease, say, that unfolds over a couple of years. Nobody even knows you’ve been attacked, right. They think you’ve just gotten sick. So we’re looking at a whole new kind of assassination and to think that, you know, terrorists aren’t going to be interested in this technology is ridiculous. Every time there’s a new technology, criminals immediately take advantage of it. And this is the next technology so we’re going to start seeing criminals get involved in it.

 

Tomorrowland author Steven Kotler posits a future in which the three biggest criminal enterprises in the world are supplanted by technologies such as 3D printing and synthetic biology. Would drug cartels exist in a world in which 3D-printed drugs become available? Could a DNA typewriter curb the demand for the illegal exotic animal trade? We don't know for sure. All we know is that these kinds of technology are fast approaching.

"Every time there’s a new technology," explains Kotler, "criminals immediately take advantage of it." Think about how the internet reshaped the ways criminals work. Now imagine they have the abilities to print any object and create artificial beings with a machine. Entire security apparatuses will have to shift their perceptions of the sorts of violent crime that could be possible.


Does conscious AI deserve rights?

If machines develop consciousness, or if we manage to give it to them, the human-robot dynamic will forever be different.

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  • Does AI—and, more specifically, conscious AI—deserve moral rights? In this thought exploration, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, ethics and tech professor Joanna Bryson, philosopher and cognitive scientist Susan Schneider, physicist Max Tegmark, philosopher Peter Singer, and bioethicist Glenn Cohen all weigh in on the question of AI rights.
  • Given the grave tragedy of slavery throughout human history, philosophers and technologists must answer this question ahead of technological development to avoid humanity creating a slave class of conscious beings.
  • One potential safeguard against that? Regulation. Once we define the context in which AI requires rights, the simplest solution may be to not build that thing.

A new hydrogel might be strong enough for knee replacements

Duke University researchers might have solved a half-century old problem.

Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Technology & Innovation
  • Duke University researchers created a hydrogel that appears to be as strong and flexible as human cartilage.
  • The blend of three polymers provides enough flexibility and durability to mimic the knee.
  • The next step is to test this hydrogel in sheep; human use can take at least three years.
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Hints of the 4th dimension have been detected by physicists

What would it be like to experience the 4th dimension?

Two different experiments show hints of a 4th spatial dimension. Credit: Zilberberg Group / ETH Zürich
Technology & Innovation

Physicists have understood at least theoretically, that there may be higher dimensions, besides our normal three. The first clue came in 1905 when Einstein developed his theory of special relativity. Of course, by dimensions we’re talking about length, width, and height. Generally speaking, when we talk about a fourth dimension, it’s considered space-time. But here, physicists mean a spatial dimension beyond the normal three, not a parallel universe, as such dimensions are mistaken for in popular sci-fi shows.

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Predicting PTSD symptoms becomes possible with a new test

An algorithm may allow doctors to assess PTSD candidates for early intervention after traumatic ER visits.

Image source: camillo jimenez/Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • 10-15% of people visiting emergency rooms eventually develop symptoms of long-lasting PTSD.
  • Early treatment is available but there's been no way to tell who needs it.
  • Using clinical data already being collected, machine learning can identify who's at risk.

The psychological scars a traumatic experience can leave behind may have a more profound effect on a person than the original traumatic experience. Long after an acute emergency is resolved, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continue to suffer its consequences.

In the U.S. some 30 million patients are annually treated in emergency departments (EDs) for a range of traumatic injuries. Add to that urgent admissions to the ED with the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. Health experts predict that some 10 percent to 15 percent of these people will develop long-lasting PTSD within a year of the initial incident. While there are interventions that can help individuals avoid PTSD, there's been no reliable way to identify those most likely to need it.

That may now have changed. A multi-disciplinary team of researchers has developed a method for predicting who is most likely to develop PTSD after a traumatic emergency-room experience. Their study is published in the journal Nature Medicine.

70 data points and machine learning

nurse wrapping patient's arm

Image source: Creators Collective/Unsplash

Study lead author Katharina Schultebraucks of Columbia University's Department Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons says:

"For many trauma patients, the ED visit is often their sole contact with the health care system. The time immediately after a traumatic injury is a critical window for identifying people at risk for PTSD and arranging appropriate follow-up treatment. The earlier we can treat those at risk, the better the likely outcomes."

The new PTSD test uses machine learning and 70 clinical data points plus a clinical stress-level assessment to develop a PTSD score for an individual that identifies their risk of acquiring the condition.

Among the 70 data points are stress hormone levels, inflammatory signals, high blood pressure, and an anxiety-level assessment. Says Schultebraucks, "We selected measures that are routinely collected in the ED and logged in the electronic medical record, plus answers to a few short questions about the psychological stress response. The idea was to create a tool that would be universally available and would add little burden to ED personnel."

Researchers used data from adult trauma survivors in Atlanta, Georgia (377 individuals) and New York City (221 individuals) to test their system.

Of this cohort, 90 percent of those predicted to be at high risk developed long-lasting PTSD symptoms within a year of the initial traumatic event — just 5 percent of people who never developed PTSD symptoms had been erroneously identified as being at risk.

On the other side of the coin, 29 percent of individuals were 'false negatives," tagged by the algorithm as not being at risk of PTSD, but then developing symptoms.

Going forward

person leaning their head on another's shoulder

Image source: Külli Kittus/Unsplash

Schultebraucks looks forward to more testing as the researchers continue to refine their algorithm and to instill confidence in the approach among ED clinicians: "Because previous models for predicting PTSD risk have not been validated in independent samples like our model, they haven't been adopted in clinical practice." She expects that, "Testing and validation of our model in larger samples will be necessary for the algorithm to be ready-to-use in the general population."

"Currently only 7% of level-1 trauma centers routinely screen for PTSD," notes Schultebraucks. "We hope that the algorithm will provide ED clinicians with a rapid, automatic readout that they could use for discharge planning and the prevention of PTSD." She envisions the algorithm being implemented in the future as a feature of electronic medical records.

The researchers also plan to test their algorithm at predicting PTSD in people whose traumatic experiences come in the form of health events such as heart attacks and strokes, as opposed to visits to the emergency department.

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