How do we learn to be citizens of a smart info-state, New Scientist

How do we learn to be citizens of a smart info-state?

Grappling with the new information state, two diametrically opposed books leave us smarter about what it means to be a digital citizen

“THE man who wears the shoe knows best where it pinches, even if the expert shoemaker is the best judge of how the trouble is to be remedied.” So said the American philosopher John Dewey, defining something of an ideal relationship between government and citizen – or for that matter, company and consumer. The ideal? Listen carefully to what people want, and then expertly fashion policies (and products) to service those appetites well.

The grandees of state and the CEOs of corporate life think they have been “smart” in that way for at least a century. The historical record of both can, at the very least, somewhat dent their professional confidence.

Recently, however, enabled by the internet, the people have raised their game. Hands-on expertise is everywhere. The makers and DIY-ers are on the march. How should mandarins and moguls respond to newly smart consumers and citizens?

Though they come from radically opposed positions, Smart Citizens by Beth Simone Noveck and Exposed by Bernard Harcourt shed much light on the balance of state, market and social power in the network age.

As an academic who was an early member of Obama’s 2008 back-room staff, Noveck has a sharp take on the current sclerosis of policy-making. She faced a White House bureaucracy that took a year to allow a software upgrade. The Obama newbies might have been “on top of the world”, recalled Noveck, “but we were running Windows 2000”.

Scarred by this, and by her few sputtering attempts to open the White House to public input, she is now an evangelist for breaking open the circles of jargonised expertise that shape policy. Inspired by Wikipedia, she wants citizens with practical expertise of all sorts to sign up to a networked, searchable “Brains Trust” – named after a group of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s advisers who forged the 1930s’ New Deal.

Participants will receive points, sometimes prizes, but mostly just the status of being identified by their government as useful to the policy development of the nation. “And who would refuse the White House?” asks Noveck, like the former staffer she is.

There are millions of Americans who already come together to improve their communities. They would be all too eager to bring their practical smarts to what sounds like the Huffington Post for politically active citizens, as Noveck tells it. Beneath the ephemeral Snapchattery of digital living, she assumes that the civil society of Alexis de Tocqueville’s 19th-century account of American democracy still pulses away.

But if her Brains Trust were to be embraced, government would get a piece of the action that the likes of Amazon, Google, Facebook and Netflix enjoy. That is, the ability to mine the data interactions of their users, identifying them (and their interests) exactly. “If we can develop the algorithms and platforms to target consumers,” asks Noveck breathlessly, “can we not also target citizens for the far worthier purpose of undertaking public service?”

Many would answer: no, we can’t, and shouldn’t. This is a book with only one passing mention of Edward Snowden’s revelations (yes, the US’s reputation for “open government” was “lambasted for what many perceived to be duplicity and hypocrisy”). In the light of this, Noveck’s wider ambitions here are remarkably naive. Isn’t the way the state “targets the citizen” exactly the problem that Snowden raises?

Exposed begins where Noveck’s imagination falters – at the point where Harcourt writes that “the technologies that end up facilitating surveillance are the very technologies we crave”.

With the UK Home Secretary Theresa May’s newly announced Investigatory Powers Bill set to pressure service providers to wire in a state-accessible “back door” to all our digital interactions, Harcourt’s accounts of recent US revelations will enlighten. But the book’s power comes from a readiness to grapple with not just the structure of our super-surveillant, public-private system, but the desires that keep us compulsively interacting with it (as opposed to Noveck’s bloodless, implausibly dutiful citizenry).

Harcourt’s big claim is that we live in an “expository” society. Not only are we exposed to the state and corporations (while they are opaque to us), we also relentlessly expose ourselves to each other, through psyche-tickling devices and social tools. He lays out the emotional landscape of our entanglement in digital culture. Networks can offer the illusion of transparency (which Snowden shatters), or an all-too-real seduction – such as the sonorous lulling of an Apple Watch advert promoting a GPS device that can monitor you as easily as a police-issued ankle bracelet.

Our bodily health can be turned into a usable stream of data, the basis for a new “authenticity” built on a highly competitive model of the self. Life narratives spin out easily on Facebook or Tumblr: revelations of our passions and commitments can be precisely tailored there, too. Creating the “brand called Me” becomes an expected daily task.

It’s not just that this is now all part of an unimaginably vast data stream (in a single day, says Noveck, the world’s data generation is bigger than the entire US Library of Congress). Nor just that it is accessible and searchable by spooks and marketeers. It’s that we now live with what Harcourt calls virtual “doppelgängers” – digital versions of ourselves, assembled in the clouds of state and commerce, communicating back to us via adverts or stories that increasingly (and weirdly) anticipate our every desire.

“In a single day, the world’s data generation is bigger than the entire Library of Congress”

For Noveck, this “matching” of real and digital selves is what enables smarter government, letting officials locate those constructive, energetic citizens that reformers have been waiting for: “less statecraft, more Minecraft,” she quips.

Harcourt’s political response moves in the opposite, indeed anarchist, direction. He wants us to reclaim some genuine human privacy, eroded by the infinite desire machines of the info-corporations whose capture of our interactive behaviour is increasingly utilised by the state. Harcourt wants a “leaderless” form of social resistance, using open-source, encryption and small-group meetings, which he hopes will eventually destroy these doppelgängers.

As terror strikes burst across European cities, organised to some degree by “leaderless”, network-enabled cells, it’s a brave call to invoke such techniques to protect us against the all-seeing eyes of state and commerce.

You couldn’t imagine two responses to a smarter state more at odds conceptually. Yet each is plausible in its way. Together, they leave us smarter and sharper about being a digital citizen.

(Images: Ed Kashi/VII/Corbis, Kevork Djansezian/Getty)

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D.C. is gearing up to become the capital of esports, sponsors team NRG Esports

A crowd waves American flags at U.S. President Barack Obama’s second swearing in.,Jan. 21, Washington, D.C.

For Washington, D.C., being the capital of the United States of America isn’t enough. The city is looking to become the capital of something else entirely: esports.

North American esports team NRG Esports is now being sponsored by D.C., the district’s official convention and sports authority, Events D.C. revealed to me in a series of interviews yesterday. Not only is the city’s sponsorship one of the first of its kind, it marks the District of Columbia’s official push into the world of professional competitive gaming.

NRG Esports — which has professional teams and players competing in Overwatch, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Hearthstone, Super Smash Bros., Rocket League and more — was founded by Sacramento Kings co-owners Andy Miller and Mark Mastrov, and has big name investors like four-time NBA champion Shaquille O’Neal and MLB stars/World Series champions Alex Rodriguez and Jimmy Rollins. Washington D.C. will have logos on the teams’ jerseys, players’ streams and the NRG website, plus it will host NRG bootcamps where players get together and practice for long hours for days on end.

Sponsoring a team like this is a way for D.C. to show that it’s embracing esports and gearing up to be an esports hub, Events D.C. Chairman Max Brown said.

«This is just another prong in our strategic approach to continue to make D.C. a great place to live and work and play,» he said.

D.C. welcomes esports

D.C. is changing, Brown said, with an average of 1,000 people moving to the city every month. The influx of new people is causing the district to evolve from a government town to a broader and more diverse economy.

«We have a bunch of universities here in Washington,» Brown said. «There are lots of younger kids who are here and are coming here every year through our universities so we think it makes a lot of sense for us as a city to plant a flag [for esports], and ultimately be the capital of esports like we’re the capital of the United States.»

Esports demographics tend to skew younger and D.C. needs to provide entertainment to keep people coming.

The city is planning to build a brand new arena that sounds perfectly suited to host sizable esports events.

D.C.’s esports presence won’t be limited to logos on NRG Esports, though. The city is planning to build a brand new arena that sounds perfectly suited to host sizable esports events.

«A $65 million 4,200-seat, state-of-the-art arena,» Brown said. «[It will] come online in late-2018, early-2019. Fully tailored and wired for esports.»

The arena will be the new home of WNBA team the Washington Mystics. Though it’s being build with esports in mind, it’ll be open to host other events, like concerts and boxing matches.

NRG Esports co-founder Any Miller said bringing esports events to D.C. could be huge for local fans who would normally have to travel to major cities like New York City, Los Angeles, Atlanta or Seattle to attend live events.

«These events sell out in two seconds, you need to travel, you need to spend good money and they’re big and they’re fun and they’re super cool but it’s not like, ‘I want to go watch my team play this weekend, head down and check them out at the local arena,'» Miller said. «That just doesn’t happen in esports, and that’s something that’s missing when you want to have a real connection with an organization and with players.»

Being able to host esports events could entice visitors, too. D.C. already gets around 20 million visitors a year, a chunk of who are international.

«Of that group, Asian visitors — Chinese in particular — are the no. 1 market for us internationally,» Events D.C.’s Brown said. «Why is that important? People who come from overseas to Washington spend more money because they stay longer. So what we want to is get our brand — as a city and as Events D.C. — out into the country and across the globe in various ways. And this way, sponsoring NRG and being a part of their platform in terms of content, jerseys, other platforms for them to publicize our brand, makes a tremendous amount of sense.»

For NRG Esports, the sponsorship is validation not only for the team but for esports as a whole.

NRG’s new sponsorship

D.C.’s sponsorship of NRG is exciting, NRG’s Miller said.

«We’re really excited about it,» he said. «I think it’s definitely a first for esports and a great validation of NRG but also the esports space and how big and interesting it’s becoming to the point that now you have really forward-thinking folks like Events D.C. taking a look and actually wading into the waters here and putting time and money behind it.»

The sponsorship doesn’t mean that NRG is tied to the city like more traditional sports organizations.

«We’re not the D.C. NRG,» Miller said. «But we will be spending a bunch of time down there, we will definitely be bootcamping down there. and then hopefully we can bring real big events across all the different leagues and games that we play in to D.C. so that people can actually go and watch them.»

Esports organizations have not traditionally been tied to specific cities, and although some games and publishers may not want to go down that patch, Miller said he likes the idea of teams having local ties in some games.

«Anytime a new partner enters esports, it draws more attention from others outside the industry, which is great for the scene.» — Seagull

«There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be Washington D.C. against New York, or Boston against LA and see these rivalries developing,» Miller said. «And we have our own rivalries in different games that we play with different organizations but it would be really neat if it was city-based as well.»

Overwatch developer Blizzard Entertainment announced the Overwatch League with a plan to have teams represent and play in different cities around the world. NRG may become one of those teams when the league kicks off in late-2017 or in 2018.

When asked whether D.C.’s sponsorship could be a hint at NRG representing the city in the Overwatch League in the future, Miller said that wasn’t the case.

«One — we want to make sure we’re in the Overwatch League,» he said, noting that the league’s teams have yet to be decided. «Two — if it’s Washington D.C., that would be great. We have a wonderfully exciting team that we want to keep together and we want to keep growing and we have a fanbase and we’ve been in it for a while and we’ve been carrying the torch for Overwatch for a while now. I do think this [sponsorship] is a validation for the city-based approach that they’re trying to put together.»

NRG’s D.C. sponsorship is almost akin to the team dipping its toes into representing a city and Miller said there is potential that this local presence will be great for strengthening the organization’s fanbase.

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«We have a really, really popular Overwatch team and an incredibly popular player named Seagull [real name: Brandon Larned] and the amount of people — 20,000, 30,000 people — concurrently watching him every minute when he practices — those are people that I’m sure would love to go meet him, see him in person and watch him play,» Miller said. «If they had that opportunity to do that, that would change the game and move this whole esports world into the next level.»

Seagull himself echoed the sentiment that the partnership is a positive move for esports as a whole.

CRISPR gene editing explained: What is it and how does it work?

Everything you need to know about the gene-editing breakthrough that one day could cure disease, eradicate species and build designer babies.

We are in the midst of a gene-editing revolution.

For four decades, scientists have tinkered with our genes. Since the 1970s, they’ve experimentally switched them on and off, uncovering their functions; mapped their location within our genome; and even inserted or deleted them in animals, plants and human beings.

And in November 2018, a Chinese scientist claimed to have created the world’s first genetically modified human beings.

Though scientists have made great inroads into understanding human genetics, editing our genes has remained a complex process requiring imprecise, expensive technology, years of expertise and just a little luck, too.

In 2012, a pair of scientists developed a new tool to modify genes, reshaping the entire field of gene-editing forever: CRISPR. Often described as «a pair of molecular scissors,» CRISPR is widely considered the most precise, most cost-effective and quickest way to edit genes. Its potential applications are far-reaching, affecting conservation, agriculture, drug development and how we might fight genetic diseases. It could even alter the entire gene pool of a species.

The field of CRISPR research is still remarkably young, yet we’ve already seen how it might be used to fight HIV infection, combat invasive species and destroy antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Many unknowns remain, however, including how CRISPR might damage DNA, leading to pathologies such as cancer.

Such a monumental leap in genetic engineering is full of complexities that ask big, often philosophical questions about science, ethics, how we conduct research and the future of humanity itself. With the confirmation that two human embryos were modified using CRISPR and carried to term, those questions have come sharply into focus. The future of gene-editing seemingly arrived overnight.

But what exactly is CRISPR and what are the outstanding concerns about such a powerful tool?

Let’s break it all down.

CRISPR has the potential to be used in editing human embryos to create «designer babies.»

Science Photo Library/Getty Images

What is CRISPR?

Few predicted how important CRISPR would become for gene editing upon its discovery 30 years ago.

As early as 1987, researchers at Osaka University studying the function of Escherichia coli genes first noticed a set of short, repeated DNA sequences, but they didn’t understand the significance.

Six years later, another microbiologist, Francisco Mojica, noted the sequences in a different single-celled organism,
Haloferax mediterranei. The sequences kept appearing in other microbes and in 2002, the unusual DNA structures were given a name: Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats.

Studying the sequences more intensely revealed that CRISPR forms an integral part of the «immune system» in bacteria, allowing them to fight off invading viruses. When a virus enters the bacteria, it fights back by cutting up the virus’ DNA. This kills the virus and the bacteria stores some of the leftover DNA.

The leftover DNA is like a fingerprint, stored in the CRISPR database. If invaded again, the bacteria produce an enzyme called Cas9 that acts like a fingerprint scanner. Cas9 uses the CRISPR database to match the stored fingerprints with those of the new invader. If it can find a match, Cas9 is able to chop up the invading DNA.

How is CRISPR used to edit genes?

Nature often provides great templates for technological advances. For instance, the nose of a Japanese bullet train is modeled on the kingfisher’s beak because the latter is expertly «designed» by evolution to minimize noise as the bird dives into a stream to catch fish.

In a similar way, CRISPR/Cas9’s ability to efficiently locate specific genetic sequences, and cut them, inspired a team of scientists to ask whether that ability could be mimicked for other purposes.

The answer would change gene editing forever.

In 2012, pioneering scientists Jennifer Doudna, from UC Berkeley, and Emmanuelle Charpentier, at Umea University Sweden, showed CRISPR could be hijacked and modified. Essentially, they’d turned CRISPR from a bacterial defense mechanism into a DNA-seeking missile strapped to a pair of molecular scissors. Their modified CRISPR system worked marvelously well, finding and cutting any gene they chose.

An illustration of the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing complex. The Cas9 nuclease protein (white and green) uses a guide RNA (red) sequence to cut DNA (blue) at a complementary site.

Molekull/Science Photo Library/Getty

Several research groups followed up on the original work, showing that the process was possible in yeast and cultured mouse and human cells.

The floodgates opened, and CRISPR research, which had long been the domain of molecular microbiologists, skyrocketed. The number of articles referencing CRISPR in preeminent research journal Nature has increased by over 6,000 percent between 2012 and 2018.

While other gene-editing tools are still in use, CRISPR provides a gigantic leap because of its precision and reliability. It’s really good at finding genes and making accurate cuts. That allows genes to be cut out with ease, but it also provides an opportunity to paste new genes into the gap. Previous gene-editing tools could do this, too, but not with the ease that CRISPR can.

Another huge advantage CRISPR has over alternative gene-editing techniques is its expense. While previous techniques might cost a laboratory upward of $500 to edit a single gene, a CRISPR kit can do the same thing for under $100.

What can CRISPR do?

The CRISPR/Cas9 system has been adapted to enable gene editing in organisms including yeast, fungi, rice, tobacco, zebrafish, mice, dogs, rabbits, frogs, monkeys, mosquitoes and, of course, humans — so its potential applications are enormous.

For research scientists, CRISPR is a tool that provides better, faster tinkering with genes, allowing them to create models of disease in human cell lines and mouse models with much higher proficiency. With better models of say, cancer, researchers are able to fully understand the pathology and how it develops, and that could lead to improved treatment options.

One particular leap in cancer therapy options is the genetic modification of T cells, a type of white blood cell that’s critical for the human immune system. A Chinese clinical trial extracted T cells from patients, used CRISPR to delete a gene that usually acts as an immune system brake, and then reintroduced them into the patients in an effort to combat lung cancer. And that’s just one of the many trials underway using CRISPR edited cells to fight particular types of cancer.

Beyond cancer, CRISPR has the potential to treat diseases caused by a mutation in a single gene, such as sickle cell anemia or Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Correcting a defective gene is known as gene therapy, and CRISPR is potentially the most powerful way to perform it. Using mouse models, researchers have demonstrated the efficacy of such treatments but human gene therapies using CRISPR remain untested.

Mosquitoes will be targeted using CRISPR gene drives, which could potentially drive malaria-carrying species to extinction.

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Crisanti Lab/Alekos Simoni

Then there are CRISPR gene drives , which use CRISPR to guarantee a genetic trait will be passed from parent to offspring — essentially rewriting the rules of inheritance. Guaranteeing certain genes will spread through a population provides an unprecedented opportunity to tackle mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria, enabling scientists to create infertile mosquitoes in the lab and release them in the wild to crash the population — or even render a species extinct. CNET published an extensive report of their proposed use and the ethical concerns that surround them in February 2019.

And CRISPR’s potential benefits don’t end there. The tool opens up new ways of creating antimicrobials to combat rising levels of antibiotic resistance, targeted manipulation of agricultural crops such as wheat to make them hardier or more nutritious, and, potentially, the ability to design human beings, gene by gene.

CRISPR concerns

CRISPR may be the most precise way to cut DNA we’ve yet discovered, but it’s not always perfect.

One of the chief barriers to getting CRISPR effectively working in humans is the risk of «off-target effects.» When CRISPR is tasked with hunting down a gene, it sometimes finds genes that look very similar to its target and cuts them, too.

An unintended cut may cause mutations in other genes, leading to pathologies such as cancer, or it may have no effect at all — but with safety a major concern, scientists will need to ensure CRISPR acts only on the gene it’s intended to impact. This work has already begun, and several teams of researchers have tinkered with CRISPR/Cas9 to increase its specificity.

To date, CRISPR work in humans has been confined to cells that don’t pass on their genome to the next generation. But gene editing can also be used to edit embryos and thus, change the human gene pool. In 2015, an expert panel of CRISPR scientists suggested that such editing — known as germline editing — would be irresponsible until consensus can be reached on safety, efficacy, regulation and social concerns.

Still, research into germline editing has been occurring for several years. In 2017, scientists in the UK edited human embryos for the first time, and researchers in the US used CRISPR to correct a defective gene that causes heart disease. The ability to edit embryos begins to raise ethical concerns about so-called designer babies, wherein scientists may select beneficial genes to increase physical fitness, intelligence or muscle strength, creeping into the controversial waters of eugenics.

That particular future is likely a long way off — but the era of editing the human genome has already begun.

Editing humans

On Nov. 25, 2018, Chinese scientist Jiankui He said he had created the world’s first CRISPR babies. By using CRISPR, He was able to delete a gene known as CCR5. The modified embryos resulted in the birth of twin girls, known by the pseudonyms Lulu and Nana.

The scientific community widely condemned the research, criticizing He’s lack of transparency and asking whether there was an unmet medical need for the two girls to receive such a modification. In the wake of the research, several high-profile researchers involved with CRISPR’s creation even suggested a global moratorium on using the tool for germline editing.

Few would argue that He’s work highlights a need for stricter regulatory controls and effective oversight of clinical trials in which embryos are edited. While He maintains his own experiment was concerned with improving the health of the twin girls by making them HIV-resistant, the experiment was deemed reckless and ethically wrong and the potential consequences overlooked. Recent research suggests that the deletion He created in the CCR5 gene may affect brain activity, after a study in mice showed that blocking CC5 improves cognition and recovery from stroke.

In January 2019, the Chinese government said that He acted both unlawfully and unethically and would face charges. He was later dismissed by his university.

Jiankui He claimed to have created the world’s first gene-edited babies.

The most recent International Summit for Human Genome Editing, in November 2018, concluded, as it did in 2015, «the scientific understanding and technical requirements for clinical practice remain too uncertain and the risks too great to permit clinical trials of germline editing at the time.»

He’s work, which remains unpublished, heralds the first clinical trial and birth of genetically modified human beings — which means, whether it was the intention or not, a new era for CRISPR has begun.

As the revolution surges forward, the greatest challenges will continue to be effective oversight and regulation of the technology, the technical hurdles that science must overcome to ensure it is precise and safe, and managing the larger societal concerns of tinkering with the stuff that makes us us.

Recent advances

CRISPR continues to make headlines as scientists refine its specificity and turn it toward myriad genetic diseases. On Feb. 4, researchers at UC Berkeley, including CRISPR pioneer Jennifer Douda, revealed that another enzyme, CasX, could be used to edit genes in place of Cas9.

The scientists identified CasX in a ground-dwelling bacteria not normally present in humans, which means our immune systems are less likely to rebel against it. Because it’s smaller and potentially more specific than Cas9, it can clip genes with greater success and less chance of any negative effects.

Then, on Feb. 18, scientists at UC San Francisco revealed they had used CRISPR to make stem cells «invisible» to the immune system. Stem cells are able to mature into adult cells of any tissue, so they have been proposed as a way to repair damaged organs. However, the immune system typically tries to annihilate any foreign invader and stem cells are seen as such. CRISPR has enabled the stem cells to evade the immune system so they can get to work at healing.

Only a day later, researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences published in Nature Medicine their findings on a CRISPR therapy for Hutchinson-Gilford progeria, a disease associated with rapid aging. The disease is caused by a genetic mutation that results in a buildup of abnormal proteins, ultimately leading to premature cell death. A single dose of CRISPR/Cas9 was shown to suppress the disease in a mouse model, paving the way for further exploration of CRISPR’s therapeutic potential.

And still more CRISPR success stories continue to roll in. On Feb. 25, CRISPR Therapeutics, a company co-founded by CRISPR visionary Emmanuelle Charpentier, announced that the first human patients had been infused with a CRISPR/Cas9 drug to treat the disease beta-thalassemia. The illness is caused by a genetic mutation that results in red blood cells being unable to create the oxygen-transport molecule haemoglobin. To combat this, the CRISPR Therapeutics team takes stem cells from a patient, edits them with CRISPR/Cas9 outside the body to increase haemoglobin production and then transfuses them back into the bloodstream. The company plans to use a similar approach to treating the blood disease known as sickle cell anemia.

CRISPR research is advancing at a rapid pace, and it can be hard to keep up. In only seven years, CRISPR went from an evolutionary adaptation in bacteria to a gene-editing tool that created the very first genetically modified human beings. We’ve already seen CRISPR transform the entire field of molecular biology and that effect has rippled across the biological and medical fields.

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