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Wed, Dec 31 19:00 UTC

Kevin Esvelt accepted our offer and will be joining us in January as an assistant professor heading his new Sculpting Evolution research group.

Kevin is a Harvard-trained biologist who is merging some of the newest techniques in molecular biology with ecological engineering. He contributed to the development of the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology, and was responsible for revealing the possibility of CRISPR gene drives. CRISPR gene drives allow us to edit the genomes of existing organisms and force all subsequent offspring to inherit the alteration. This could, for instance, allow us to release mosquitoes into the wild and over time eliminate the ability for the populations of wild mosquitoes to carry malaria, dengue, or other diseases. Other possible applications include eliminating Lyme disease by permanently immunizing the mice who transmit the disease to ticks, eradicating the blood fluke parasite responsible for schistosomiasis, and even alleviating the need for harmful pesticides by programming pests so they do not want to eat our crops.

As you might imagine, there is a tremendous amount of upside, but also quite a bit of fear and some real risks. One of the key things that Kevin is working on, in addition to figuring how we might deploy these technologies, is to develop safety technologies to ensure that laboratory accidents don't affect the environment as well as an "undo" version that could be released if we wanted to revert the edit.

Kevin and George Church published the first papers on CRISPR gene drives even before starting experiments because they wanted to set a precedent that conversations on responsible use should start early. One of the key things about CRISPR is its low cost - add CRISPR gene drive, and the number of bio facilities able to release potentially world-changing alterations will only grow with time.

At the Media Lab's 30th anniversary event this past October, Kevin asked the audience, "Who should decide?" Who can responsibly make the decision whether we should release these mosquitos and potentially eliminate malaria or allow us to reduce the tons of pesticides we are using, knowing that at the same time we will risk altering our ecosystem in irreversible ways? In a country where the majority of people don't believe in evolution and where we have a Congress that can't even get behind the idea that climate change is a critical issue, it's a hard question.

At our secret meeting with JJ Abrams, Kevin explained that we not only need to decide how to deal with world-changing new science like CRISPR and gene drive, but that we also need to prepare ourselves for a world where the rate at which these world-changing sciences are discovered continues to increase. It is critical for us to understand how to responsibly make decisions as society and as scientists.

We hope that the Media Lab can play a critical role in the discovery of these new technologies, the discussion around their impact, as well as the responsible design and deployment of them. We believe that design in the context of science provides reflection and ethical considerations at a fundamental level. No one discipline should ever be developed in isolation from the many other lenses on the world; the Media Lab has held this as a guiding principle for 30 years. As this new science around gene editing comes online, we are happy it does so here, where science is bound to design, much as it is in Esvelt himself.


Announcement on MIT News and crossposted on the MIT Medium Blog.

Bassel Khartabil, a leading figure in the Syrian Open Source software community, has been imprisoned by the Syrian government since March 2012, accused of "harming state security". The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has declared his imprisonment arbitrary and called for his immediate release.


Khartabil's wife, human rights attorney Noura Ghazi, has recently been contacted by insiders in the Assad government and told that Bassel has been secretly sentenced to death. (English translation/comments on Noura's Facebook post, which is in Arabic.) It is impossible to confirm these rumors, but this is deeply disturbing news for friends of Bassel and defenders of freedom of expression anywhere.

The Internet Governance Forum in João Pessoa, Brazil, has released a statement demanding that the Syrian government alert Bassel's family to his whereabouts and exercise clemency in his case. We at the MIT Media Lab join this call, and urge the internet community to exercise whatever pressure we can on the Syrian government to make Bassel's whereabouts known and release him from detention.

On October 22, the MIT Media Lab invited Bassel Khartabil to join the Lab as a research scientist in the Center for Civic Media, to continue his work building 3D models of the ancient city of Palmyra, whose ruins have been destroyed by ISIS. We continue to hope that Bassel will be able to take his position at the Media Lab, and we desperately hope the rumors of his death sentence are untrue.

We ask for your help in calling attention to Bassel's arbitrary detention and seeking his whereabouts and immediate release.

- Joi Ito, Director, MIT Media Lab
- Ethan Zuckerman, Director, MIT Center for Civic Media


Post on Ethan's Blog

I am proud to announce that we have offered Bassel Khartabil a position as a research scientist in the Center for Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab, where he will work directly with its director, principal research scientist Ethan Zuckerman. As a research scientist at the Media Lab, Bassel will be able to continue his longstanding work protecting spaces for online speech-work that fits naturally with the core research mission of the Center. In particular, Bassel is currently working on reconstructing in 3D the ancient ruins of Palmyra, one of the sites raided and destroyed by ISIS.
Bassel Safadi
Bassel Khartabil is a dear friend and former colleague at Creative Commons, and a vocal and brilliant advocate and worker for free culture on the Internet. Bassel invited me to Damascus in 2009 and introduced me to students, artists, and Syrian culture, and it remains the most inspiring trip I've ever made in the region. While I was there, he took me to visit ancient Roman sites as well as arranging a wonderful dinner with local tech entrepreneurs. The relationship between history, arts, and technology was stunning-something that no other city does as elegantly as Damascus. (Here are some of my photos from the trip.)

On March 15, 2012, Bassel was arrested by the Syrian military police, and eventually tried without a lawyer present at a military field court. Advocates across the globe have challenged his arrest and detention, arguing that his work presented no threat to anyone inside or outside of Syria, and instead represented the best aspirations of the open software movement.

I am writing this post now because, along with his family, friends, and colleagues around the world, I am very concerned about Bassel's safety. Until recently, he has been held at Adra Prison, but his current whereabouts are unknown-as of yet the Syrian government has not shared any information about where he is or why he was moved.

Bassel has devoted his career to the rich culture of Syria and to protecting that culture. His contributions to the open Internet and open culture internationally, and his research and creativity, have benefitted all of us. Without people like Bassel, the Internet wouldn't be the vibrant and open resource that many of us take for granted.

Stéphanie Vidal has written a detailed and thoughtful piece about Bassel's situation for, and Creative Commons has published a translation by Philippe Aigrain, Mélanie Dulong de Rosnay, and Jean-Christophe Peyssard on their blog. I encourage you to read these to understand the intricacies of Bassel's situation. One part of Stéphanie's essay in particular really stood out for me:

When there is no longer respect for human rights, public calls can only state what one hopes for. This brings us to the second point: the more the affirmation of our hope is shared and present on the Web and social media, the more it may turn to a reality. Bassel's engagement in favor of a free Internet may have brought him to jail, but the attention that we, citizens on the Internet, give to this case may, to some degree, help bring him out of the darkness.

In the name of the international academic community, I would like to ask President Assad to please give Bassel Khartabil a presidential pardon. He is an important world citizen and a true Syrian trying to protect the heritage of the country, and a pardon would be a tremendous show of good will and a contribution to the preservation of Syrian culture.

Please share this post widely and keep Bassel in your thoughts.

Petition Online:

Freebassel Campaign:
Twitter: @freebassel
Hashtags: #newpalmyra #freebassel #missingbassel

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