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Bionic Bug Podcast
29 minutes | Jan 26, 2019
My Hero (Ch. 42) – Bionic Bug Podcast Episode 042
Hey everyone, welcome back to Bionic Bug podcast! You’re listening to episode 42. This is your host Natasha Bajema, fiction author, futurist, and national security expert. I’m recording this episode on January 26, 2019. I’m sad to say that this is my final episode of the Bionic Bug podcast. This is somewhat bittersweet because I’ve grown fond of sharing my thoughts with you. If you’ve been listening from the beginning, thank you so much for joining me on this journey. If you want to keep listening to me, I’ll be launching a new podcast called the Authors of Mass Destruction Podcast. I’ll talk tech and weapons of mass destruction, but will take a slightly different approach. I’m planning to focus on helping authors write great stories about national security issues while getting the technical details right. Tune in for interviews with leading experts on weapons of mass destruction and emerging technologies, author interviews, technical modules, and reviews of what TV shows and movies get right and wrong. The podcast will help authors who write about mass destruction develop impactful ideas for their page-turning plots and provide tips for conducting research. Let’s talk tech one more time. I have two headlines for this week: The first is “Beware the Jabberwocky: The AI Monsters Are Coming,” published on www.natashabajema.comon January 22. I wrote this essay as part of A Strategic Multilayer Assessment (SMA) Periodic Publication entitled AI, China, Russia, and the Global Order: Technological, Political, Global, and Creative Perspectives edited by Nicholas D. Wright and Mariah C. Yager. I’ll link to the full paper in the show notes. Science fiction plays an important role in shaping our understanding of the implications of science and technology and helping us to cope with things to come. I describe three AI monsters depicted in science fiction films as one day disrupting the global order and potentially destroying humanity: the automation monster, the supermachine monster, and the data monster. Fears about the implications of the automatic and supermachine monsters distract us from the scariest of them all. Below the surface of our daily lives, the data monster is stealthily assaulting our sense of truth, our right to privacy, and our freedoms. My second headline is “AI can be sexist and racist — it’s time to make it fair,” published in on Nature.com on July 18, 2018. If you listen to this podcast, you’re aware of the growing influence of machine learning algorithms in our lives. One of the more troubling issues about the excitement around the power of algorithms for helping society, is the lack of attention to data. Machine learning algorithms rely upon huge datasets to train them on the relationships between data. But what if the data is biased? Humans are biased, therefore the data we generate is biased. If data scientists do not take special care to ensure the data does not under or over represent certain groups, things go wrong with the algorithms they develop. Data is not the only place where bias can occur; algorithms are created by humans. As such, they can inject bias into them as well. This is one of the most important issues of our time, and it’s not well understood or even regulated by policymakers. Okay, let’s turn to the final chapter of Bionic Bug. Last week, we left Lara in a bit of a sticky situation, with a deadly syringe pressed to her neck. Let’s find out what happens next. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
24 minutes | Jan 20, 2019
Anagram (Ch. 41) – Bionic Bug Podcast Episode 041
Hey everyone, welcome back to Bionic Bug podcast! You’re listening to episode 41. This is your host Natasha Bajema, fiction author, futurist, and national security expert. I’m recording this episode on January 20, 2019. Two episodes in one week? Yes, it’s true. This is my second to last episode of Bionic Bug. If you’ve enjoyed the podcast, I hope you’ll tune into my new podcast called Authors of Mass Destruction, which will be launching in March. Let’s talk tech: I have one headline for this week: “Twins get some 'mystifying' results when they put 5 DNA ancestry kits to the test,” published on CBC online on January 18. Throughout this podcast, I’ve talked about the power of data and warned you to think about how freely you give it out. I’ve talked about the potential risks in sending away your DNA to companies like 23&Me and Ancestry.com. Many of you do it anyway since you’re curious about your ancestry, and I can understand that. However, this article raises questions about the value of that data. The DNA of twins is identical. In other words, if a pair of twins each send off their DNA for ancestry result, then the results should be exact matches. A pair of twins, Charlsie and Carly Agro decided to test this premise and sent their DNA to five companies: AncestryDNA, MyHeritage, 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA and Living DNA. They were surprised by the results, which were not exact matches. “The results from California-based 23andMe seemed to suggest each twin had unique twists in their ancestry composition. According to 23andMe's findings, Charlsie has nearly 10 per cent less "broadly European" ancestry than Carly. She also has French and German ancestry (2.6 per cent) that her sister doesn't share. The identical twins also apparently have different degrees of Eastern European heritage — 28 per cent for Charlsie compared to 24.7 per cent for Carly. And while Carly's Eastern European ancestry was linked to Poland, the country was listed as "not detected" in Charlsie's results.” “None of the five companies provided the same ancestry breakdown for the twins.” Dr. Mark Gerstein, a computational biologist at Yale University thinks that this must have “to do with the algorithms each company uses to crunch the DNA data.” What does this mean? Detecting ancestry from DNA is more an art than a science. But this isn’t what the companies are selling in exchange for your precious data. “Despite the popularity of ancestry testing, there is absolutely no government or professional oversight of the industry to ensure the validity of the results.” Let’s turn to Bionic Bug. Last week, Lara interviewed Fiddler and tried to get information about CyberShop. Will she bring Sully’s killer to justice? Let’s find out what happens next. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
20 minutes | Jan 20, 2019
CyberShop (Ch. 40) – Bionic Bug Podcast Episode 040
Hey everyone, welcome back to Bionic Bug podcast! You’re listening to episode 40. This is your host Natasha Bajema, fiction author, futurist, and national security expert. I’m recording this episode on January 20, 2019. Let’s talk tech: Outerspace is heating up. My headline for this week is “Pentagon to Study Putting Anti-Missile Laser Weapons in Space,” published on Defense One by Patrick Tucker on January 16. The Pentagon released its long-awaited Missile Defense Review, the first one since 2010. It includes a controversial proposal by the Pentagon “to study the possibility of space weapons — perhaps particle beams, ray guns, space lasers, or orbiting missiles — that could intercept enemy missiles coming off the launch pad.” This is a response to a dramatically altered security environment since 2010 in which we face “not just ballistic missile threats but also cruise missile threats and novel types of weapons like hypersonics.” The proposal is reminiscent of President Reagan’s Star Wars effort in the 1980s; it’s controversial because it involves the weaponization of space, will cost billions of dollars and may not be any more effective than the ballistic missile defense system we currently have. If it is effective, it could lead to a decline in strategic stability and increase incentives for first-strike nuclear attacks. For decades, since the dawn of the exploration of space, countries have agreed not to weaponize space. Today, we rely upon space for satellite communications and GPS tracking. If shots are fired in space at missile launches, they will also be shot across space at the missile defense laser systems. What could possibly go wrong? We might get into satellite wars, and our country could go dark. To offset this troubling news, I have another headline that’s going around. Netflix announced that Steve Carell will star in a comedy based on Trump's space force. According to Twitter’s website, this show will be a story about how the U.S. government stands up the new branch of the military. .@SteveCarell will star in a new workplace comedy series he co-created with #TheOffice’s Greg Daniels about the people tasked with creating a sixth branch of the armed services: the Space Force! pic.twitter.com/6GEFNgP18w — See What's Next (@seewhatsnext) January 16, 2019 Let’s turn to Bionic Bug. Last week, Lara and her team worked to stop Fiddler from carrying out his plot to kill thousands of innocent people with his beetles. Let’s find out what happens next. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
20 minutes | Jan 13, 2019
Poison Darts (Ch. 39) – Bionic Bug Podcast Episode 039
Hey everyone, welcome back to Bionic Bug podcast! You’re listening to episode 39. This is your host Natasha Bajema, fiction author, futurist, and national security expert. I’m recording this episode on January 13, 2019. Thanks to the winter storm, you’re getting a bonus episode this weekend. Let’s talk tech! I have one more tech headline for you this weekend. “DARPA Thinks Insect Brains Might Hold the Secret to Next-Gen AI” published on Defense One on January 10. If you’ve read Bionic Bug, then you know why I love this headline. DARPA is soliciting “ideas on how to build computing systems as small and efficient as the brains of ‘very small flying insects.’” The new program is called the Microscale Biomimetic Robust Artificial Intelligence Networks program, or MicroBRAIN. Gotta love the acronym! “Understanding highly-integrated sensory and nervous systems in miniature insects and developing prototype computational models … could be mapped onto suitable hardware in order to emulate their impressive function.” Think about it. Much of AI has focused on developing systems that mimic the human brain. A human brain contains “between 60 to 70 billion interconnected neurons... By contrast, some insect brains contain less than 1,000 neurons, making them much easier map. Despite the smaller number of neurons, insects are capable of sophisticated activities, especially coordinated activities over thousands of individual insects. Think about how ants work together to build their mounds and tunnels or how certain insects swarm to devour a target. “DARPA will provide up to $1 million in funding to groups to create a physical model of insects’ neural systems, analyze how insects’ brains develop over time and design hardware platforms that mimic the neural structure of those brains.” “Responses to the solicitation are due Feb. 4, and the program is expected to launch April 3.” Since I read this article, I’ve been tinkering with the notion of a return of the beetles in the Lara Kingsley Series. I can’t make promises, but this idea of converging insects with AI has definitely lit a fire. Speaking of beetles, let’s turn to Bionic Bug. Last week, Lara got closer to uncovering Fiddler’s true intentions and tries to stop him. Let’s find out what happens next. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
17 minutes | Jan 13, 2019
The Building (Ch. 38) – Bionic Bug Podcast Episode 038
Hey everyone, welcome back to Bionic Bug podcast! You’re listening to episode 38. This is your host Natasha Bajema, fiction author, futurist, and national security expert. I’m recording this episode on January 13, 2019. No personal update today except that we’re stuck inside in the middle of a beautiful winter snow storm. Let’s talk tech. I have one headline for this week: “I Gave a Bounty Hunter $300. Then He Located Our Phone,” published on motherboard on January 8. I talked about the power of location data a few weeks ago. As a nation, we are behind the curve in understanding the power of data. Many Americans still believe that data without direct connection to identity is somehow anonymous. Policymakers have failed to address privacy issues for data and issue proper protections. Private sector companies who gather your data are selling it off. If this article is true, it’s possible for anyone to pay a couple hundred bucks to geolocate your smartphone. In other words, anyone can find you wherever you are because of your handheld tracking device. How is this possible? I thought even the police need a warrant to track cell phones. It’s possible because the cell phone companies are selling access to their customer’s location data. Scary stuff, eh? Let’s turn to Bionic Bug. Last week, Lara realized that Fiddler had fooled her about his true intentions. Let’s find out what happens next. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
20 minutes | Jan 6, 2019
The Plague (Ch. 37) – Bionic Bug Podcast 037
Hey everyone, welcome back to Bionic Bug podcast! You’re listening to episode 37. This is your host Natasha Bajema, fiction author, futurist, and national security expert. I’m recording this episode on January 6, 2019. Happy New Year everyone! I hope this year is full of promise. For the past three years, I’ve spent the end of the year reflecting on what I’ve achieved as an Indie author. I also set my publishing goals for the coming year. My first of two posts is entitled “Sowing the Seeds for your Writer’s Journey” and takes a look at how I met my writing goals in 2018. I’ll include the link in the show notes. We are nearing the end of this podcast with five more episodes left to go. If you enjoy following my writer’s journey and listen to me discuss technology, you’ll be relieved to know that I’m launching a new podcast in March 2019 called “Authors of Mass Destruction”. For this podcast, I’ll be helping authors get the technical details write on WMD and emerging technology. I’ll feature interviews from subject matter experts and authors who write on these issues. We can use fiction to generate awareness among the public about technology issues. Let’s talk tech. Only one headline for this week: “Sequencing the DNA of Newborns Uncovered Hidden Disease Risks and a Whole Lot of Tricky Issues,” published on gizmodo.com on January 3. “In the not-too-distant future, it will be possible to get a complete readout of a person’s genetics with ease, even right after they’re born.” “many children are born with genetic conditions that can’t be found with current screening” What will this mean for the practice of medicine? How will this information change society and change how we think about genetic tinkering? “Doctors and researchers at the Brigham Women’s Hospital and the Boston Children’s Hospital, both in Massachusetts, began a trial in 2015 that would test just how practical and useful sequencing could be if it were regularly done on newborns. They called it the BabySeq Project.” If you want to read more, the study was published in The American Journal of Human Genetics. More than 300 families volunteered for the BabySeq Project; they were randomly assigned to two groups. “Those in the control group would get the same sort of usual care, including standard genetic screening for the newborns and genetic counseling for caretakers with a family history of genetic disease. Newborns in the second group would get all that and also have their DNA sequenced in whole.” 159 babies received genetic sequencing. “15 (9.4 percent) were found to have mutations that raised their risk of health conditions likely to show up before they turned 18.” “None of them were anticipated [to have a risk] based on their family or clinical histories.” “the team was initially allowed to tell the families only about mutations known to raise the risk of childhood genetic conditions. But they could also spot mutations that raised the risk of conditions that would pop up in adulthood.” “Of 85 families who consented to having this information disclosed, three newborns had such mutations. And when the parents of these children were tested, they too were found to have the mutations.” Let’s consider the implications: First, the study shows that DNA mapping at birth is superior to other screening in detecting potential health problems. Having this knowledge from the outset will change behaviors. Many genetic conditions are recessive, meaning that people carry one copy of the gene (not two) and do not develop the condition. Instead, they carry it to future generations. Second, genetic conditions are often inherited. Medical treatment could involve from treating an individual to an entire family Third, in the future, we’ll be receiving customized treatments based on our genetic make-up, called precision medicine. Fourth, such findings about potential health risks in the future could lead to discriminati...
28 minutes | Dec 24, 2018
The Targets (Ch. 36) – Bionic Bug Podcast Episode 036
Hey everyone, welcome back to Bionic Bug podcast! You’re listening to episode 36. This is your host Natasha Bajema, fiction author, futurist, and national security expert. I’m recording this episode on December 24, 2018. Happy holidays! First off, I have an update for Bionic Bug fans. Last week, I produced my first “Bionic Bug On Location” video where I take readers behind the scenes to visit a real location in my novel. I show how the location inspired the drone show that takes place at the beginning of the book. I’ll include the link to the video on YouTube in the show notes. Second, the drones are coming. And I don’t mean as presents for Christmas. They’ve made headlines quite a bit this past year, most significantly in the alleged assassination attempt on the President of Venezuela. Most recently, drones made the headlines for closing down Gatwick airport in London last week, the second largest airport in the UK. The sightings of two drones shut down the airport leading to the cancellation of hundreds of flights and disruptions for thousands of passengers. The incident has demonstrated how woefully unprepared we are for the misuse of existing technology. These types of disruptions have been predicted for years, but governments have done next to nothing to prepare for the era of drones. Today’s off-the-shelf drone capabilities allow individuals to project power into the air. Until recently, this was the sole domain of nation-states. Read about our lack of preparedness and possible solutions in “Drones At Gatwick Airport Was Just Waiting To Happen,” published by Noel Sharkey on forbes.com on December 20. One of the many unrecognized dangers of not preparing for drone incidents is the potential for knee-jerk reactions to the use of drones. In reality, drones offer far more benefits to society than risks—think agriculture, film, construction, humanitarian aid, emergency response, and delivery. In the latest reporting on the incident, it’s not even clear that there were any drones sighted. Again, this speaks to our lack of preparedness. Drones are hard to detect, but it’s not impossible. If we start shutting down airports for fear of sighting drones, we’ve lost the war before it’s even started. This lowers the bar for anyone who wishes to cause mischief leading to major economic loss. We can’t afford to keep things as they are. Last week, Lara made it out of the beetle tank with some unexpected assistance. Now they need to figure out a plan to stop Fiddler from killing thousands of innocent people. Let’s find out what happens next. The views expressed on this podcast are my own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
26 minutes | Dec 16, 2018
The Tank (Ch. 35) – Bionic Bug Episode 035
Hey everyone, welcome back to Bionic Bug podcast! You’re listening to episode 35. This is your host Natasha Bajema, fiction author, futurist, and national security expert. I’m recording this episode on December 16, 2018. Let’s talk tech: “Does AI Truly Learn And Why We Need to Stop Overhyping Deep Learning,”published on Forbes.com on December 15. This is great article that clearly articulates what today’s AI is and more importantly what it isn’t. The media hype about AI has led the general public to have misconceptions about the art of the possible When I talk about AI to my students, I refer to it as the next generation in software applications. Of course, that’s an oversimplification. Hardware is important as well. But it’s important to understand that machine intelligence at this current stage is not all that intelligent, at least not when compared to humans. Can machines outperform humans in certain areas? Yes, but that’s been true for decades. Machine learning refers to a new approach that allows computers to “learn” from data rather than be limited to manually coded sets of rules and to “reason” their way to accurate outcomes. But it’s important to understand what “learning” and “reasoning” means when it comes to computers. It’s not even close to human notions of learning and reasoning. The author of this piece argues that data scientists “treat their algorithmic creations as if they were alive, proclaiming that their algorithm ‘learned’ a new task, rather than merely induced a set of statistical patterns from a hand-picked set of training data under the direct supervision of a human programmer who chose which algorithms, parameters and workflows to use to build it.” When a machine learning tool “learns” to identify dog breeds, it does so using “spatial groupings of colors and textures with particular strings of text.” The tool doesn’t understand what “breed” or “dog” means or that the dog is wearing a collar and why that is the case. A slight change of context and this tool would fail to perform its task. For example, what if we dressed the dogs up in Halloween costumes? Unless the tool was specifically trained on images of dogs in costumes, it would most likely fail to identify them as dogs. Compare this to human ability to learn – once a child understands what a dog is, it doesn’t matter if the dog is wearing a hat, boots or a costume, it is a dog. For a detailed understanding of the current status of AI, I encourage you to check out the Artificial Intelligence Index, 2018 Annual Report. It will give you current numbers, but also analysis on the current capabilities and limitations. “Congress Can Help the United States Lead in Artificial Intelligence,” by Michael Horowitz and Paul Scharre on foreignpolicy.com on December 10 The U.S. has fallen behind in the development of AI. Last year, China released its “Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan.” It plans to become the world leader in artificial intelligence by 2030. Many other countries have released AI strategies. The US does not yet have a comprehensive AI strategy. Congress is about to hold hearings to assess Department of Defense’s progress on AI. The most recent National Defense Authorization Act mandated the creation of the National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence. Members will be appointed by senior congressional leaders and agency heads and will develop recommendations for advancing the development of AI techniques to bolster U.S. national security. The authors make three important recommendations for the commission: First, we need to accelerate the pace of bureaucracy to leverage developments in the private sector Second, we need to address some of the key problems with today’s AI such as data bias, the brittleness of machine learning tools, the lack of transparency of certain AI methods Third,
21 minutes | Dec 9, 2018
The Lab (Ch. 34) – Bionic Bug Podcast Episode 034
Hey everyone, welcome back to Bionic Bug podcast! You’re listening to episode 34. This is your host Natasha Bajema, fiction author, futurist, and national security expert. I’m recording this episode on December 9, 2018. First off, a quick personal update. I’m now in the editing phase for Genomic Data, Book Three of the Lara Kingsley series. If you’re enjoying Bionic Bug thus far, you can order Project Gecko. I’m offering print versions on Amazon and the ebook version on Kobo or Walmart. Also, I’ve selected a professional narrator to produce the audiobook for Bionic Bug. I expect that will become available in February or March of 2019. Let’s talk tech. Two headlines for this week: Last week, I talked at length about the CRISPR baby controversy. This week’s headline is “Despite CRISPR baby controversy, Harvard University will begin gene-editing sperm” published on November 29 in MIT’s technology review by Antonio Regalado. This article highlights a critical dilemma surrounding many emerging technologies, the many benefits they offer to society. Of course, these are juxtaposed with risks and ethical gray areas. What troubles me most is the lack of discourse and awareness beyond the scientific communities who are concerned with the research. Do we want to prevent genetic diseases from birth? If so, under what conditions? At Harvard University, scientists will use CRISPR to edit the DNA of sperm cells in order to reduce the risk of Alzheimers. Unlike the controversial experiment in China, this research will not produce embryos or the birth of genetically modified babies. We’re getting closer to the reality in which we can alter the DNA of children before they are born to enhance their health prospects. But should we? This article raises some important questions: “What if a new killer virus arises and sweeps the world? Maybe there will be no vaccine but some people will be able to resist it thanks to their genes, as some fared better with the Black Death in medieval times. Wouldn’t we want to then give the genetic antidote to all members of the next generation?” Last week, the Atlantic came out with a great summary of the issues surrounding the CRISPR baby controversy: “The CRISPR Baby Scandal Gets Worse by the Day.” I’ll include the link in the show notes. My next headline is “The coming cyberwar: China may already be monitoring your electronic communications,” an opinion editorial published by Morgan Wright on The Hill on December 4. Over the course of this podcast, I’ve talked a lot about China and its appetite for data. I’ve also spoken about some of its predatory technology transfer practices. In fact, this is a running theme in the Lara Kingsley series that starts in Project Gecko, the second book. This op-ed highlights yet another example of China’s activities designed to support its “Made in China 2025” strategy. And it shows how we’re missing the big picture. In the article, Mr. Wright discusses how U.S. subsidiaries of Chinese transportation companies are competing for contracts in the United States. In fact, they’ve “won four contracts valued at $2.5 billion.” For example, one of these Chinese-owned companies won the bid for producing 254 subway cars for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. The bid was half the amount of the next highest bid. How’s that possible? The Chinese government offered the company massive subsides to give it the upper hand in the competition. If you’re upset about this, then you’re really missing the big picture. The real issue is the technology installed on these subway cars: “Wi-Fi. Surveillance cameras. Automatic passenger counters. Internet-of-things (IoT) technology. And Chinese software and hardware.” All of this allows China to gather data. It’s time for a soapbox moment. I don't think we value data in this country. Most of us, myself included, offer up massive amounts of data about ourselves to ...
30 minutes | Dec 2, 2018
The Beetle Farm (Ch. 33) – Bionic Bug Podcast Episode 033
Hey everyone, welcome back to Bionic Bug podcast! You’re listening to episode 33. This is your host Natasha Bajema, fiction author, futurist, and national security expert. I’m recording this episode on December 2, 2018. Several distinct threads are converging in this episode—my personal update, tech news and Chapter 33 of Bionic Bug. For my personal update, I just finished the first draft of Genomic Data, Book Three in the Lara Kinsley Series, which features topics such as genomic data, CRISPR, germ-line genetic engineering, in-vitro fertilization, designer babies, and China. Chapter 33 of Bionic Bug features Fiddler, our rogue scientist, explaining how and why he created bionic bugs; he used CRISPR and gene drives to modify the beetles to bite humans and spread disease. The big tech news last week came out of China. “Chinese scientists are creating CRISPR babies,” published in the MIT Technology Review on November 25. We knew this was on the near-term horizon and in my novel, I anticipated the development coming from China. In 2015, Chinese scientists modified human embryos for the purpose of curing genetic disease. Scientists in the U.S. have carried out similar experiments. Germ-line engineering, i.e., producing humans with edited genes has been banned in the U.S. Germ-line engineering is fundamentally different from the kind of gene editing or gene therapies that show promise for curing disease in humans. This type of fix affects only the person whose genes are edited. Germ-line engineering—editing embryos—makes changes that are passed on to future generations. CRISPR combined with in-vitro fertilization made genetically modified babies a theoretical possibility. According to MIT Review, Statnews and the NY Times, this possibility is no longer theoretical. Last week, Chinese scientists announced the birth of genetically modified twins who have been edited to be immune to the HIV virus He Jiankui, on leave from Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, led the experiment. Risks include unwanted mutations or children with mixed batches of cells edited in different ways. Also, “studies are already under way to edit the same gene in the bodies of adults with HIV.” There are other issues with the study such as the utility of making humans immune to HIV when exposure to the virus is not pervasive, and there are simpler ways of protecting against infection. Some think the experiment is in the ethical gray zone between treatment and enhancement This experiment has not yet been verified and a Chinese investigation is now underway. Statnews provides some supplementary information in “What we know — and what we don’t — about the claim of world’s first gene-edited babies,” published on November 26. The twin girls were born a few weeks ago. The parents consented to the experiment. The infants appear to be healthy. The scientist’s home university has denounced the experiment. The announcement has led to a major outcry across the scientific community. The scientist claimed later in the week that another genetically modified child is on the way. Are we a step closer to a future of designer babies as portrayed in the film Gattaca? For more information, read “Gene Editing for ‘Designer Babies’? Highly Unlikely, Scientists Say,” published in the NY Times on August 4, 2017. Researchers are getting closer to being able to correct single gene mutations that lead to genetic diseases But it’s unlikely that we will be able to use gene editing to producer smarter, better looking, and more talented children any time soon. “That’s because none of those talents arise from a single gene mutation, or even from an easily identifiable number of genes. Most human traits are nowhere near that simple.” “Even with an apparently straightforward physical characteristic like height, genetic manipulation would be a tall order.
20 minutes | Nov 25, 2018
The Files (Ch. 32) – Bionic Bug Podcast Episode 032
Hey everyone, welcome back to Bionic Bug podcast! You’re listening to episode 32. This is your host Natasha Bajema, fiction author, futurist, and national security expert. I’m recording this episode on November 25, 2018. I’m thrilled to deliver a bonus episode this weekend! This is to make up for the one we missed earlier in November. Just one additional news headline for today: “The Human Brain is a Time Traveler” published in the New York Times Magazine this weekend. This is a fascinating piece and worth reading several times. It looks at the inner workings of the human brain and how AI might augment or replace our ability to analyze the past and predict the future. In neuroscience in the 1990s, scientists wanted to use scans of the brain’s “resting state” to compare scans of the brain doing certain activities. The theory was that the brain uses different amounts of energy depending on the activity. But it turned out that the brain’s resting state was more active that the brain’s active state. This revelation was “one of the first hints of what would become a revolution in our understanding of human intelligence.” When our brain is resting, it engages in time travel. And that’s unique to being human. Our brain’s ability to time travel is one thing that sets Homo sapiens apart from other mammals. This refers to our ability to go back in time and imagine things that occurred in the past, but also our ability to imagine ourselves in the future and to plan for future prospects. “The seemingly trivial activity of mind-wandering is now believed to play a central role in the brain’s “deep learning,” the mind’s sifting through past experiences, imagining future prospects and assessing them with emotional judgments.” The article examines how AI and machine learning might come to support human decision-making and potentially replace it. For me, one of the more stunning revelations was how our use of smartphones prevent us from entering into the brain’s resting state. Before smartphones, how did we spend our downtime – reflecting on the events of the day or week and planning for the future. What are the consequences of filling all the gaps for human time travel with the use of the smartphone? If time travel is key to our being wise, are we becoming dumber? Let’s turn to Bionic Bug. Last week, Lara had a strange conversation with Fiddler. Let’s find out what happens next. The views expressed on this podcast are my own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
21 minutes | Nov 25, 2018
For Hire (Ch. 31) – Bionic Bug Podcast Episode 031
Hey everyone, welcome back to Bionic Bug podcast! You’re listening to episode 31. This is your host Natasha Bajema, fiction author, futurist, and national security expert. I’m recording this episode on November 25, 2018. Let’s talk tech: My first headline is “Wanted: The ‘perfect babysitter.’ Must pass AI scan for respect and attitude” published in the Washington Post on November 23 Machine learning tools are beginning to impact our lives in big ways without us taking a moment to think through the limitations of such tools or the potential consequences. It’s scary. This article describes new software tools/services driven by machine-learning to improve the screening of potential employees—in this case, babysitters. Parents are increasingly turning to online services like Predictum to make choices about babysitters. This service leverages “artificial intelligence” to screen the social media activity of prospective babysitters to generate an automated risk rating. Babysitters are assessed for their risk of negative behaviors such as drug abuse, violence, bullying, and harassment. The system is a black box – it spits out a number, but doesn’t explain how it produced its ratings. The article talks about parents who previously thought their babysitter was trustworthy, but began to have doubts when the risk assessment score came back as a 2 instead of a perfect 1. The system is based on the concept that social media shows a person’s character. I can imagine a future system also analyzing a person’s google searches, in which case I and all other fiction writers are doomed. This is problematic on so many levels. A computer software tools tends to produce more trust than human instinct. This is problematic if the tool is flawed. And I’ve never met a computer software that wasn’t flawed. Unlike your standard computer software, humans don’t program the rules for machine learning tools. A machine learning tool determines rules based on patterns of data. Here’s a question: how many of us are honest on social media? Platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter lend themselves to the creation of online personas – designer versions of our true selves. Are the images we show to the public for consumption actually the full truth. How well can these tools determine the context for social media posts? Can they decipher between sarcastic and serious posts? How do these tools distinguish between things people actually say and what articles or people they may be quoting. According to the article, “The technology is reshaping how some companies approach recruiting, hiring and reviewing workers, offering employers an unrivaled look at job candidates through a new wave of invasive psychological assessment and surveillance.” My second headline is “China blacklists millions of people from booking flights as 'social credit' system introduced” published on the Independent on November 23. I’ve talked about such headlines before. Many of you know that China plans to fully implement its social credit system by 2020. This system tracks the behavior of citizens based on the their data and evaluates them for “trustworthiness”, which is determined by the behaviors the government wishes to encourage or discourage. Citizens with low scores will be denied access to travel, high-speed internet, good schools, certain jobs, certain hotels and even the right to own pets. You might breathe a sigh of relief that at least you don’t live in China. Most democracies have resisted the alluring pull of monitoring technologies in the name of protecting privacy. Or have we? If our data trail is not being funneled to our government, then to whom are we giving the power? And do we trust them to do the right thing? Let’s turn to Bionic Bug. Last week, Rob, Lara and Vik went to check out Linda’s apartment, but just missed her. Let’s find out what happens next. The views expressed on this podcast are my own and do n...
25 minutes | Nov 18, 2018
Memex (Ch. 30) – Bionic Bug Podcast Episode 030
Hey everyone, welcome back to Bionic Bug podcast! You’re listening to episode 30. This is your host Natasha Bajema, fiction author, futurist, and national security expert. I’m recording this episode on November 18, 2018. First off, a personal update. I’m excited to announce that I’m in the midst of producing an audio book for Bionic Bug.I’m currently auditioning professional narrators and expect the project to be finished in early 2019. I apologize for the break in releasing podcast episodes. I’ve been recovering from a nasty sinus infection the past few weeks, and my voice continues to be scratchy. You’ll probably notice if you listen to the next chapter of Bionic Bug. I hope you enjoyed the bonus episode where I interviewed Samuel Bennett, an expert on robotics, AI and Russia. Check out the episode and the show notes, which include links to his recent publications. Let’s talk tech. Just two headlines for this week. “Jon and Daenerys United in First Pic from Game of Thrones’ Eighth and Final Season,” published on Nov 1 on SyFy.com “Production on the final season stretched to 10 months and includes another year of post to tackle the challenging visual effects.” “Season 8 is anticipated to showcase what's being touted as the biggest battle in TV history, which took an unprecedented 55 nights to shoot.” “And the whole process has been so secretive that HBO has taken to deploying "drone killers" to take out any drones that might have been flying above the set to spy on the action.” “HBO Literally Shooting Down Drones To Prevent Game of Thrones Season 8 Spoilers” “Shaped like a gun, a "drone killer" is aimed at any flying nuisance and shoots out a beam, disabling the drone and driving it back down to the ground. IXI Technology in Yorba Linda, California is responsible for the technology, which costs about $30,000 a pop. The company's also supplied new gadgets to the U.S. military for over three decades.” “Are Killer Robots the Future of War? Parsing the Facts on Autonomous Weapons,” published on Nov 15 by Kelsey Atherton in the NY Times. This article addresses a fundamental question: should machines be allowed to make lethal decisions in battle. Until now, these decisions have been made by humans. Even though autonomous systems exist today, a human remains in the loop to make the ultimate decisions on destroying targets. But we’re moving into an era where autonomous systems are becoming more intelligent and thus more capable of making such decisions. One of the challenges is the decision-making speed of machines exceeds that of humans. When one country decides to go fully autonomous on the battlefield, others may be compelled to follow. Because as Paul Scharre has said: speed kills. Check out his book Army of Noneon Amazon. This is a fantastic article to introduce you to the key issues and I encourage you to read it. Let’s turn to Bionic Bug. Last week, Lara found important clues at Sully’s townhouse, and Rob and Lara got locked in the safe room. Let’s find out what happens next. The views expressed on this podcast are my own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
32 minutes | Nov 17, 2018
Interview with Samuel Bendett – Bionic Bug Podcast BONUS Episode
This is a special episode of the Bionic Bug Podcast streamed LIVE on YouTube on November 12 at 7:00PM EST. Join me for a riveting interview with Mr. Samuel Bendett to talk AI and Robotics. Mr. Bennett is currently a researcher at the Center for Naval Analyses and specializes in robotics and Russia. He is also a Fellow in Russia Studies at the American Foreign Policy Council. Mr. Bendett has over 15 years of program and project management experience with US government, Department of Defense and private sector. Currently conducting research on the Russian defense and security issues, as well as the emergence of unmanned warfare. Formerly an Assistant Research Fellow at the National Defense University, working on emerging and disruptive technology for the Department of Defense policy development and concept of operations. If you’re interested in reading more, check out some of Sam’s latest articles: Samuel Bendett, "Here’s How the Russian Military Is Organizing to Develop AI,” Defense One, 20 July 2018. Samuel Bendett, "In AI, Russia Is Hustling to Catch Up,” Defense One, 4 April 2018. Samuel Bendett and Elsa B. Kania, "Chinese and Russian Defense Innovation, with American Characteristics? Military Innovation, Commercial Technologies, and Great Power Competition,” Strategy Bridge, 2 August 2018. The views expressed on this podcast are my own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
27 minutes | Nov 4, 2018
The Remote (Ch. 29) – Bionic Bug Podcast Episode 029
Hey everyone, welcome back to Bionic Bug podcast! You’re listening to episode 29. This is your host Natasha Bajema, fiction author, futurist, and national security expert. I’m recording this episode on November 4, 2018. Last week, I was at the United Nations in New York City where I spoke about the digitization of biology at a side event of the UN Security Council Committee on Resolution 1540 hosted by the Bolivian and Swedish missions. I’m happy to say that my remarks were well received. It was thrilling to be a speaker in the same room where I was once a junior staffer taking notes. I’ve included some pictures in the show notes. Project Gecko is now available both in paperback and ebook. You can purchase the paperback on Amazon.The ebook version is currently only available on Kobo.I’ll include the links in my notes if you’re interested. This month, I’m participating in Nanowrimo which stands for National Novel Writing Month. This is a challenge in which hundreds of thousands of novel writers attempt to write 50K words in one month. I am writing Genomic Data, the third novel in the Lara Kingsley Series and hope to finish it by the end of the month. Let’s talk tech: My first headline for this week is “Slightly heavier than a toothpick, the first wireless insect-size robot takes flight” published on cnbc.com on November 2. Engineers from the University of Washington have managed to fly the first wireless insect-size robot. This work has been going on for some time, the key challenge being the weight of the power source. The engineers created the “RoboFly, a robo-insect powered by an invisible laser beam that is pointed at a photovoltaic cell, which is attached above the robot and converts the laser light into enough electricity to operate its wings.” The engineers designed a circuit to boost the power in the solar cell to power the robot’s wings and a microcontroller that acts as its brain. The RoboFly can only take off and land at this time, but they are working on a way to steer the robot. They expect such robots to be fully autonomous within five years. Of course, if you’ve been listening to me read Bionic Bug, you know why I like this story. Robot insects have been constrained by the weight of power sources and electronics. Live insects are self-powered; work to control the flight of insects has advanced more quickly. My second headline is “Can we predict when and where a crime will take place?”published on bbc.com on October 30. Cops in the UK are using algorithms and big data to predict where and when crimes will occur and adjusting their policing accordingly. The idea is that crime prediction leads to crime prevention. Sound familiar? In Minority Report (1956), a short story by Philip K. Dick, a set of precogs are able to see and predict all crime before it occurs, eliminating crime in a future society. Instead, people are arrested and tried for precrimes based solely on the logical progression of their thoughts. There is historical precedent for these practices. In the past, police would use hot spot analysis based on past crime patterns to determine where to post officers. Predictive tools offer a way to show where crime will take place based on a wide range of factors. But what about bias? Some allege the system has learned racism and bias, leading to increased policing in areas with high crime rates and to self-fulfilling prophecies. Let’s turn to Bionic Bug. Last week, we learned Lara’s fate from her beetle bites and put the pieces together on Fiddler’s plot. Let’s find out what happens next. The views expressed on this podcast are my own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
22 minutes | Oct 28, 2018
Biological Attack (Ch. 28) – Bionic Bug Podcast Episode 028
Hey everyone, welcome back to Bionic Bug podcast! You’re listening to episode 28. This is your host Natasha Bajema, fiction author, futurist, and national security expert. I’m recording this episode on October 28, 2018. First off, I have a personal update. On Tuesday of next week, I’m headed to the United Nations in New York. I’ve been invited to talk about the digitization of biology at a side meeting of the UN Security Council on Resolution 1540. My colleagues and I published a paper on this topic. I’ll include a link in the show notes in case you’re interested in reading it. This is a particularly exciting opportunity for me since I began my career in WMD working as a Junior Political Officer at the UN where it was part of my job to track developments in the Security Council on various WMD-related resolutions. Let’s talk tech. A few headlines caught my attention this week: “Designer babies aren’t futuristic. They’re already here” published in MIT’s Technology Review on October 22. Many of you know that I’m working on my third novel in the Lara Kingsley series called Genomic Data. One of the themes I’ll be addressing in my novel is that of designer babies and related issues. You may have watched the movie Gattaca in the 1990s which is a story about a naturally born man trying to navigate a world full of fully-grown designer babies who are not only viewed to have all the advantages, they are given preference over naturally born humans. That future is here. Our knowledge of the human genome, vast repositories of genomic data combined with well-established procedures of in-vitro fertilization means that we are on the cusp of allowing parents to customize their children. Parents are already selecting embryos for health purposes. The only thing stopping us from picking traits in the near-term is public opinion. “In general, Americans approve of using reproductive genetic tests to prevent fatal childhood disease, but do not approve of using the same tests to identify or select for traits like intelligence or strength.” One of the major issues is that IVF and genetic screening are expensive. That means only the wealthy population can afford giving their children genetic advantages from the start. “Microlight3D Offers a New Kind of Microscale 3D Printing” published on October 18 at 3Dprint.com One feature of advanced technology that I find fascinating (and scary) is our ability to study and manipulate matter at smaller and smaller scales, invisible to the human eye. A company called Microlight3D is capable of producing parts at the microscale—100 times smaller than a strand of hair. “These microscopic parts have a wide variety of applications, including in micro-optics, microfluidics, micro-robotics, metamaterials, and cell-biology. “FLIR Nano Drone Creating a Buzz for Military,” published on dronelife.com on October 22 Speaking of microrobotics, my next headline involves a tiny drone system called the Black Hornet Vehicle Reconnaissance System. It is designed to be integrated with and launched from a robust vehicle. These drones are tiny, one of the world’s smallest so far, about the length of a pen and flies with a single rotor. It can fly up to 25 minutes in close quarters and up to a mile. It is virtually undetectable from 15 feet away. It provides live video feed to the operator on a chest-mounted display. The total system of two drones, a controller and a video screen weighs less than three pounds The company describes the missions of the tiny drones as “situational awareness, threat detection and surveillance.” It could also be used by law enforcement and first responders. “Mystery of how black widow spiders create steel-strength silk webs further unraveled” published on October 22 at sciencedaily.com Continuing the theme of very small stuff, my next headline addresses the popular topic of spider silk. Scientists have been trying to synthesize spider si...
15 minutes | Oct 21, 2018
Infection (Ch. 27) – Bionic Bug Podcast Episode 027
Hey everyone, welcome back to Bionic Bug podcast! You’re listening to episode 27. This is your host Natasha Bajema, fiction author, futurist, and national security expert. I’m recording this episode on October 21, 2018. I’m excited to deliver a bonus episode this week. There’s been so many interesting tech headlines lately, I couldn’t resist sharing more. Especially since recent headlines have featured technologies I use in my fiction novels. I’m thrilled to announce that Project Gecko is now available as a paperback on Amazon. I’ll include the link in my show notes. I hope you check it out! My first headline is not a headline, but rather a YouTube video to demonstrate the rising quality of “deep fakes”. In Project Gecko, I use fake photos as a tool of blackmail. This week, I watched a short video where a young Harrison Ford has been inserted into the new Hans Solo movie. Here you can see for yourself how authentic such videos can be and ponder the potential implications for social media, politics and elections. My second headline is “How Swarms of Super Intelligent Drones Are Taking Over Live Entertainment” published on gizmodo.com on October 10, 2018. Of course, you’ve probably already seen a drone show at a major sports event. A few years ago, Lady Gaga took stage during the Super Bowl half-time show and sung to a swarm of drones above. There was also a drone show at the Winter Olympics in February. This is becoming increasingly more common, which fits nicely with the drone show featured at the start of Bionic Bug. My third headline is “Volocopter flying taxi sets down in Singapore” published in newatlas.com on October 18, 2018. German aviation startup Volocopter has tested an 18-rotor electric aircraft in Dubai, essentially a passenger drone. It has plans to begin testing in Singapore and launching the first-ever taxi service by drone. This is particularly fun because Lara makes her fear and dislike of passenger drones clear in the beginning of Bionic Bug. In Project Gecko, she must confront that fear head-on and decide if she’s ready to take a ride. Finally, several weeks ago, I talked about how police were able to determine the identity of the Golden State killer by comparing his DNA profile to those loaded up in a free online genealogy database. Several additional headlines on this issue came out recently. The first is “The DNA technique that caught the Golden State Killer is more powerful than we thought” published on theverge.com on October 11, 2018. Several scientists have published a research paper in Science Magazinesuggesting that nearly an entire population could be identified using a small base of samples. These scientists have “devised a way to extrapolate from incomplete samples, building out a broader picture of the genome than was originally tested. Taken together, those techniques would allow researchers to identify nearly anyone using only existing samples, a frighteningly powerful new tool for DNA forensics.” What does this mean? It may not matter that you haven’t had your DNA mapped or uploaded into a database, soon your identity may be determined from any DNA samples you leave behind. Okay, that’s scary, right? Let’s turn to Bionic Bug for some comic relief (or maybe not). Last week, Lara was attacked by a swarm of bionic bugs. Will she get the plague? Let’s find out what happens next. The views expressed on this podcast are my own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
20 minutes | Oct 21, 2018
The Library Book (Ch. 26) – Bionic Bug Podcast Episode 026
Hey everyone, welcome back to Bionic Bug podcast! You’re listening to episode 26. This is your host Natasha Bajema, fiction author, futurist, and national security expert. I’m recording this episode on October 20, 2018. First off, a quick personal update. Last week, I was unable to record a podcast episode because I was in Austin for a writer mastermind event. I’m still processing everything I learned talking to fellow writers about my fiction and author business. Perhaps, my biggest takeaway is that I should develop a presence on Medium. I’m certain that most of you have read a post from medium.com at one point or another. It is a platform designed specifically for quality content by the world’s most insightful writers, thinkers, and storytellers. I will be posting articles regularly building upon the content in this podcast. If you’re interested in learning more, I hope you follow me there. While in Austin, I have the opportunity to visit my first Amazon bookstore. What’s the big deal, you say? It’s just a bookstore. Actually, it’s a different experience than most book stores and it comes down to curation and displays. Your typical bookstore is curated by the traditional publishers; if you’re an Indie publisher, you can’t get into most of these bookstores unless one features local authors. The different spaces and displays in a bookstore are like real estate for purchase to the highest bidder. In some cases, placement on the tables out front go for tens of thousands of dollars. The cheapest real estate in a bookstore is on the shelves in a spine-out layout. Face-out displays cost more. In an Amazon bookstore, the readers curate the selection. That’s right, you choose the books. Simply put, the highest ranking books in different genres are featured in an Amazon bookstore. Each book is face-out and has rank information listed. The face-out displays make for an entirely different experience for browsing. You don’t have to know what you’re looking for, you can simply browse covers and pick up ones that interest you. Let’s talk tech: Last time, I mentioned the news headline about the alleged hardware hack by China, which sent ripple effects through technology and national security circles. There’s has been much debate since the article that’s worth discussing. Since the publication of the article, Amazon and Apple have denounced the veracity of the story. Most recently, DHS issued a statement during a Senate hearing rejecting the claims made by the Bloomberg article. My first headline for this week is “The security community increasingly thinks a bombshell Bloomberg report on Chinese chip hacking could be bogus” published on businessinsider.com on October 13. The article raises doubts about the claims made in the bombshell article. Even if the article is wrong, however, government and technology experts are saying that such a scenario is possible. And I think that’s what is key. Today, everything increasingly depends on electronics, which use chips produced overseas. Such a hardware hack could provide back doors into computer networks. My next headline is related and even more distressing than the hardware hack. “Many of the US Military’s Newest Weapons Have Major Cyber Vulnerabilities: GAO” published on Defense One by Patrick Tucker on October 9, 2018. The GAO has assessed the U.S. military’s weapons systems and found them vulnerable to cyberhacks. “Using relatively simple tools and techniques, testers were able to take control of systems and largely operate undetected, due in part to basic issues such as poor password management and unencrypted communications.” If you’re interested reading more, you can read the report Again this is a function of our reliance on computers connected to networks and/or the Internet. If not secured properly, they are exposed to a wide range of cyber-vulnerabilities My last headline is a bit of good news. While emerging technologies pose new risks,
24 minutes | Oct 7, 2018
The Stakeout (Ch. 25) – Bionic Bug Podcast Episode 025
Hey everyone, welcome back to Bionic Bug podcast! You’re listening to episode 25. This is your host Natasha Bajema, fiction author, futurist, and national security expert. I’m recording this episode on October 7, 2018. Two episodes in one weekend? Yeah, that’s right. Next weekend, I’m heading off on my final trip of the year. I’m going to Austin, Texas for a writer event. I wanted to make sure you don’t wait too long for the next chapter, so I’m doing double duty this weekend. Let’s turn to what I think was the biggest tech story last week. “The Big Hack: How China Used a Tiny Chip to Infiltrate U.S. Companies” published on Bloomberg Business Week on October 4. If you’ve been following the news about China, you know their government is making an aggressive push to acquire a technological edge and using all sorts of tactics to do this. You’re probably also aware of how the U.S. has outsourced production of a wide variety of goods to China, including electronics. If this story is true, the implications are enormous for national security. A U.S. company based on Oregon sells servers for storing data to their customers. The servers were produced by another company based in San Jose. The Oregon company sent a number of these servers to a third-party tester in Canada. That’s when they discovered microchips the size of a rice grain embedded in the servers. The company has sold servers to the Department of Defense, the CIA, the Navy, Amazon and Apple. The chips allowed hackers to install a door into networks and access data. Both Amazon and Apple refuted the report. In any event, this article brings home the fact that we entering a whole new world of conflict. One that occurs in the digital world rather than the physical one. Let’s turn to Bionic Bug. Last week, Rob and Lara interviewed Ashton and learned more details about Fiddler’s plans. However, he was hesitant to say too much. Let’s find out what happens next. The views expressed on this podcast are my own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
27 minutes | Oct 7, 2018
The Assistant (Ch. 24) – Bionic Bug Podcast Episode 024
Hey everyone, welcome back to Bionic Bug podcast! You’re listening to episode 24. This is your host Natasha Bajema, fiction author, futurist, and national security expert. I’m recording this episode on October 6, 2018. First off, I have a fiction update. I’m excited to announce that my first novel, Bionic Bug, is now available as a paper back on Amazon. To find it, type in bionic bug fiction. I’ll also include the link the show notes. The release is especially timely given a headline in the New York Times last week. My first tech headline for this week: “Viruses Spread by Insects to Crops Sound Scary. The Military Calls It Food Security” by Emily Baumgaertner in the New York Times on October 4. This article is about DARPA’s Insect Allies Program, which has three technical areas—viral manipulation, insect vector optimization, and selective gene therapy in mature plants. DARPA wants to improve the resilience of crops against drought, floods and even foreign attacks by genetically modifying them to be more resilient with gene therapy. And they want to do this through a virus that will be carried by insects. Typically, classical plant breeding would be used to improve crops, but this takes a long time. Moreover, scientists are unable to address emerging threats quick enough. Using an army of insects, quick and comprehensive modifications to crops to ensure food security. The project kicked off in 2016 seeking proposals by scientists and researchers. Universities and companies have already received the awards to begin this work. For example, scientists at the Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI), the University of Minnesota, the University of California, Davis, and Iowa State Universityreceived a four-year $10.3 million award in 2017. Why is this project making the news now? A group of scientists recently published a warning in Science magazine about the dangers of controlling a swarm of insects and the equally troubling prospect of inadvertently creating biological weapons. In fact, they’re alleging that doing so might be breaching the Biological Weapons Convention, an international treaty prohibiting the development and use of dangerous pathogens and toxins as weapons. DARPA published its rebuttal last week, defending its project and disagreeing with the claims made by these scientists. Notably, DARPA is not funding open release projects at this time. All work under the project will be conducted inside. If you’ve been listening to my podcast from the beginning, you know that I’ve envisioned the scenario the scientists warn about. In my novel, Bionic Bug, a rogue scientist genetically modifies a swarm of beetles to carry a disease—a particularly frightening form of a biological weapon, invoking images of the plagues from the Bible. Aside from DARPA’s good intentions and my concerns about food security in the U.S., I’m inclined to agree with the dangers of controlling such a swarm. If for some reason, we are not able to control what happens with this flying gene therapy mechanism, we could undermine the goal of food security in the first place. My second headline is “A Controversial Virus Study Reveals a Critical Flaw in How Science Is Done” by Ed Yong in the Atlantic on October 4. This article continues the debate around the horsepox experiment carried out in Canada a few years ago, the results of which were published last January. As you may recall, scientists were able to reconstruct the horsepox virus, a cousin of the smallpox virus, from genomic data. They ordered sequences of the virus’s genome from companies and stitched them together. Once they had the full genome, they inserted it into a cell and booted up the organism, recreating the virus from scratch. They were able to do this in under 6 months for about $100K. This experiment has led to concerns about bad actors doing the same thing with the now eradicated smallpox virus. If you’re interested in the debate surrounding research that can...
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