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.

Bassel

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 Slate.fr, 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.


Links:
Petition Online: http://bit.ly/freebassel-petition

Freebassel Campaign: http://www.freebassel.org
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/FreeBasselSafadi
Twitter: @freebassel
Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/FreeBassel2013
Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/freebassel
Hashtags: #newpalmyra #freebassel #missingbassel

MITCOIN.jpg

As Bitcoin continues to gain momentum and capture the interest of entrepreneurs, hackers, businesses, policymakers, and academics, we have decided to launch an Initiative at the MIT Media Lab, with participation from faculty and students from across the Institute, focusing on Bitcoin and more generally cryptocurrencies.

The Initiative will explore vital research topics that our faculty and students will engage in with the support and participation of some Media Lab member companies. The students running the MIT Bitcoin Club, the MIT Bitcoin Project, and the various events including the Bitcoin Expo have been a key part of getting this initiative started. The MIT Bitcoin Expo, which was hosted by MIT Bitcoin Club President Jonathan Harvey-Buschel and Wellesley Bitcoin Club President Jinglan Wang this year exemplified the kind of interscholastic collaboration and excitement over Bitcoin research that we want to see going forward.

The Media Lab has hired former White House senior advisor for mobile and data innovation, Brian Forde to lead the overall effort along with MIT CSAIL's Nickolai Zeldovich, a highly distinguished professor in security and distributed systems, who will be coordinating the research and academics. Jeremy Rubin, an undergraduate who helped run the MIT Bitcoin Project, will coordinate communications with the broader developer community and MIT students and will also work on research projects. More details on other MIT participants can be found in Brian's blog post.

The Initiative's focus will be heavily informed by the work done by the Bitcoin community, as well as by companies and forward-thinking policy makers. We hope to be able to contribute academically and technically to the field, following the great example set by Princeton and others. This is more about rallying interest within the MIT community than forming a general long-term solution for Bitcoin development and governance.

As I've said in a previous blog post and my talk at the MIT Bitcoin Expo, I do think there is a real need for a coordinating function around standards and policy. I believe that this effort must be multinational and multistakeholder. Continuing discussion with the Berkman Center at Harvard, Stanford Center for Internet and Society, and Oxford University will, we hope, contribute to the broader conversation on this matter.

See the post by Brian on the Media Lab blog for more information about the Initiative. We've set up an IRC channel irc.freenode.net/#mit-dci, where we will be hanging out. We look forward to your feedback and ideas for collaboration.

In the post that follows I'm trying to develop what I see to be strong analogues to another crucial period/turning point in the history of technology, but like all such comparisons, the differences are as illuminating as the similarities. I'm still not sure how far I should be stretching the metaphors, but it feels like we might be able to learn a lot about the future of Bitcoin from the history of the Internet. This is my first post about Bitcoin and I'm really looking more for reactions and new ideas than trying to prove a point. Feedback and links to things I should read would be greatly appreciated.

I'm fundamentally an Internet person -- my real business life started around the dawn of the Internet and for most of my adult life, I've been involved in building layers and pieces of the Internet, from helping start the first commercial Internet service provider in Japan to investing in Twitter and helping bring it to Japan. I've also served on the boards of the Open Source Initiative, the Internet Corporation for Names and Numbers (ICANN), The Mozilla Foundation, Public Knowledge, Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), and been the CEO of Creative Commons. Given my experiences in the early days of the net, it's possible that I'm biased and everything new looks like the Internet.

Having said that, I believe that there are many parallels between the Internet and Bitcoin and there are many lessons from the Internet that can help provide guidance in thinking about Bitcoin and its future, but there are also some important differences.

The similarity is that Bitcoin is a transportation infrastructure that is decentralized, efficient and based on an open protocol. Instead of transferring packets of data over a dynamic network in contrast to the circuits and leased lines that preceded the Internet, Bitcoin's protocol, the blockchain, allows trust to be established between mutually distrusting parties in an efficient and decentralized way. Although you could argue that the ledger is "centralized", it's created through mechanical decentralized consensus.

The Internet has a root -- in other words, just because you use the Internet Protocol doesn't mean that you're necessarily part of the Internet. To be part of THE Internet, you have to agree to the names and numbers protocol and root servers that are administered by ICANN and its consensus process. You can use the Internet Protocol and make your own network, using your own rules for names and numbers, but then you're just a network and not The Internet.

Similarly, you can use the blockchain protocol to create alternative bitcoins or alt.coins. This allows you to innovate and use many of the technological benefits of Bitcoin, but you are no longer technically interoperable with Bitcoin and do not benefit from the network effect or the trust that Bitcoin has.

Also like the beginning of the Internet, there are competing ideas at each of the levels. AOL created a dialup network and really helped to popularize email. It eventually dumped its dialup network, its core business, but survived as an Internet service. Many people still have AOL email accounts.

With crypto-currencies, there are coins that don't connect to the "genesis block" of Bitcoin -- alt.coins that use fundamentally the same technology. There are alt.coins that use slightly different protocols and some that are fundamentally different.

On top of the coin layer, there are various services such as wallets, exchanges, service providers with varying levels of vertical integration -- some agnostic to whichever cryptocurrency ends up "winning" and some tightly linked. There are technologies and services being built on top of the infrastructure that use the network for fundamentally different things than transacting units of value, just as voice over IP used the same network in a very different way.

In the early days of the Internet, most online services were a combination of dialup and x.25 a competing packet switching protocol developed by Comité Consultatif International Téléphonique et Télégraphique, (CCITT), the predecessor to the International Telecom Union (ITU), a standards body that hangs off of the United Nations. Many services like The Source or CompuServe used x.25 before they started offering their services over the Internet.

I believe the first killer app for the Internet was email. On most of the early online services, you could only send email to other people on the same service. When Internet email came to these services, suddenly you could send email to anyone. This was quite amazing and notably, email is still one of the most important applications on the Internet.

As the Internet proliferated, the TCP/IP stack, free software that anyone could download for free and install on their computer to connect it to the Internet, was further developed and deployed. This allowed applications that ran on your computer to use the Internet to talk to other programs running on other computers. This created the machine-to-machine network. It was no longer just about typing text into a terminal window. The file transfer protocol (FTP) and later Gopher, a text-based browsing and downloading service popular before the web was invented, allowed you to download music and images and create a world wide web of content. Eventually, permissionless innovation on top of this open architecture gave birth to the World Wide Web, Napster, Amazon, eBay, Google and Skype.

I remember twenty years ago, giving a talk to advertising agencies, media companies and banks explaining how important and disruptive the Internet would be. Back then, there were satellite photos of the earth and a webcam pointing at a coffee pot on the Internet. Most people didn't have the imagination to see how the Internet would fundamentally disrupt commerce and media, because Amazon, eBay and Google hadn't been invented -- just email and Usenet-news. No one in these big companies believed that they had to learn anything about the Internet or that the Internet would affect their business -- I mostly got blank stares or snores.

Similarly, I believe that Bitcoin is the first "killer app" of The Blockchain as email was the killer app for the beginning of the Internet. We are in the process of inventing eBay, Amazon and Google. My hunch is that The Blockchain will be to banking, law and accountancy as The Internet was to media, commerce and advertising. It will lower costs, disintermediate many layers of business and reduce friction. As we know, one person's friction is another person's revenue.

One of the main things we worked on when I was on the board of ICANN was trying to keep the Internet from forking. There were many organizations that didn't agree with ICANN's policies or didn't like the US's excessive influence over the Internet. Our job was to listen to everyone and create an inclusive and consensus-based process so that people felt that the benefits of the network effect outweighed the energy and cost of dealing with this process. In general we succeeded. It helped that almost all of the founders and key technical minds and technical standards organizations that designed and ran the Internet worked together with ICANN. This interface between the policy makers and the technologists -- however painful -- was viewed as something that wasn't great but worked better than any of the other alternatives.

One question is whether there is an ICANN equivalent needed for Bitcoin. Is Bitcoin email and The Blockchain TCP/IP?

One argument about why it might not be the same is that ICANN fundamentally had to deal with the centralization caused by the name space problem created by domain names. Domain names are essential for the way we think the Internet works and you need a standards body to deal with the conflicts. The solutions to Bitcoin's centralization problems will look nothing like a domain name system (DNS), because although there is currently centralization in the form of mining pools and core development, the protocol is fundamentally designed to need decentralization to function at all. You could argue that the Internet requires a degree of decentralization, but it has so far survived its relationship with ICANN.

One other important function that ICANN provides is a way to discuss changes to the core technology. It also coordinates the policy conversation between the various stakeholders: the technology people, the users, business and governments. The registrars and registries were the main stakeholders since they ran the "business" that feeds ICANN and provides a lot of the infrastructure together with the ISPs.

For Bitcoin it's the miners -- the people and companies that do the computation required to secure the network by producing the cryptographically secure blockchain at the core of Bitcoin -- all in exchange for bitcoin rewards from the network itself. Any technical changes that the developers want to make to Bitcoin will not be adopted unless the miners adopt them, and the developers and the miners have different incentives. It's possible that the miners have some similarities to the registrars and registries, but they are fundamentally different in that they are not customer-facing and don't really care what you think.

As with ICANN, the users do matter and are key for the network effect value of Bitcoin, but without the miners the engine doesn't run. The miners aren't as easy to identify as the registrars and registries and it's unclear how the dynamics of incentives for the miners will develop with the value of bitcoin fluctuating, the difficulty of mining increasing and the transaction fees being market driven. It's possible that they will develop into a community with a user interface and a governance function, but they are mostly hidden and independent for a variety of reasons that are unlikely to change for now. Having said that, one of the first publicly traded Bitcoin companies is a miner.

The core developers are different as well. The founders of the Internet may have been slightly hippy-like, but they were mostly government-funded and fairly government-friendly. Cutting a deal with the Department of Commerce seemed like a pretty good idea to them at the time.

The core Bitcoin developers are cypherpunks who do what they do because they don't trust governments or the global banking system and are trying to build a distributed and autonomous system, one that is impervious to regulation and meddling by anyone at any time. At some level, Bitcoin was designed to not care what regulators think. The miners have an economic interest in Bitcoin having value, since that's what they're paid in, and they care about scale and the network effect, but the miners probably don't care if it's Bitcoin or an alt.coin that ends up winning, as long as their investments in hardware and plant don't disappear before they make a return on their investment.

Regulators clearly have an incentive to influence the rules of the network, but it's unclear whether the core developers really need to care what the regulators think. Having said that, without some sort of buy-in by regulators, it's unlikely to scale or have the mainstream impact that the Internet did.

Very much like the early days of the Internet, when we saw the power of Internet email but hadn't yet invented the Web, we are just imagining the potential uses of concepts such as crypto-equity and smart contracts ... to name just a few.

I believe it's possible that over-regulation could cause Bitcoin or the blockchain to never achieve its full potential and remain a feature of the side-economy, much in the same way that the Tor anonymizing system is extremely valuable to people who really need privacy but not really used by "normal people"... yet.

What helped make the Internet successful was the lack of regulation and the generally inclusive and permissionless nature of innovation. This was driven in large part by free and open source software and the venture capital community. The question I have is whether the fact that we're now talking about "money" and not "content," and that we seem to be innovating at a much higher speed (venture capital investment in Bitcoin is outpacing early Internet investments), the dialog in popular media is growing, and governments are very interested in Bitcoin makes this a completely different game. I think ideas like the five-year moratorium on Bitcoin regulation proposed by US Representative Steve Stockman are a good idea. We really have no idea what this whole thing is going to turn into, so a focus on dialog versus regulation is key.

I also believe that layer unbundling and innovation at each layer, assuming that the other layers will sort themselves out, is a good idea. In other words, exchanges and wallets that are coin-agnostic or experiments with colored coins, side chains and other innovations that are "unbundled" as much as possible allow the learnings and the systems created to survive regardless of exactly how the architecture turns out.

It feels a lot to me like when we were arguing over ethernet and token ring -- for the average user, it doesn't really matter which we end up with as long as in the end it's all interoperable. What's different is that there is more at stake and it's moving really fast, so the shape of failure and the cost of failure might be much more severe than when we were trying to figure out the Internet and a lot more people are watching.

This year's annual Edge question was "What do you think about machines that think?"

Here's my answer:

"You can't think about thinking without thinking about thinking about something". --Seymour Papert

What do I think about machines that think? It depends on what they're supposed to be thinking about. I am clearly in the camp of people who believe that AI and machine learning will contribute greatly to society. I expect that we'll find machines to be exceedingly good at things that we're not--things that involve massive amounts of data, speed, accuracy, reliability, obedience, computation, distributed networking and parallel processing.

The paradox is that at the same time we've developed machines that behave more and more like humans, we've developed educational systems that push children to think like computers and behave like robots. It turns out that for our society to scale and grow at the speed we now require, we need reliable, obedient, hardworking, physical and computational units. So we spend years converting sloppy, emotional, random, disobedient human beings into meat-based versions of robots. Luckily, mechanical and digital robots and computers will soon help reduce if not eliminate the need for people taught to behave like them.

We'll still need to overcome the fear and even disgust evoked when robot designs bring us closer and closer to the "uncanny valley," in which robots and things demonstrate almost-human qualities without quite reaching them. This is true for computer animation, zombies and even prosthetic hands. But we may be approaching the valley from both ends. If you've ever modified your voice to be understood by a voice-recognition system on the phone, you understand how, as humans, we can edge into the uncanny valley ourselves.

There are a number of theories about why we feel this revulsion, but I think it has something to with human beings feeling they're special--a kind of existential ego. This may have monotheistic roots. Right around the time Western factory workers were smashing robots with sledgehammers, Japanese workers were putting hats on the same robots in factories and giving them names. On April 7, 2003, Astro Boy, the Japanese robot character, was registered as a resident of the city of Niiza, Saitama.

If these anecdotes tell us anything, it's that animist religions may have less trouble dealing with the idea that maybe we're not really in charge. If nature is a complex system in which all things--humans, trees, stones, rivers and homes--are all animated in some way and all have their own spirits, then maybe it's okay that God doesn't really look like us or think like us or think that we're really that special.

So perhaps one of the most useful aspects of being alive in the period where we begin to ask this question is that it raises a larger question about the role of human consciousness. Human beings are part of a massively complex system--complex beyond our comprehension. Like the animate trees, stones, rivers and homes, maybe algorithms running on computers are just another part of this complex ecosystem.

As human beings we have evolved to have an ego and believe that there such a thing as a self, but mostly, that's a self-deception to allow each human unit to work within the parameters of evolutionary dynamics in a useful way. Perhaps the morality that emerges from it is a self-deception of sorts, as well. For all we know, we might just be living in a simulation where nothing really actually matters. It doesn't mean we shouldn't have ethics and good taste. I just think we can exercise our sense of responsibility in being part of a complex and interconnected system without having to rely on an argument that "I am special." As machines become an increasingly important part of these systems, their prominence will make human arguments about being special increasingly fraught. Maybe that's a good thing.

Perhaps what we think about machines that think doesn't really matter--they will "think" and the system will adapt. As with most complex systems, the outcome is mostly unpredictable. It is what it is and will be what it will be. Most of what we think is going to happen is probably hopelessly wrong and as we know from climate change, knowing that something is happening and doing something about it often have little in common.

That might sound extremely negative and defeatist, but I'm actually quite optimistic. I believe that the systems are quite adaptive and resilient and that whatever happens, beauty, happiness and fun will persist. Hopefully, human beings will have a role. My guess is that they will.

It turns out that we don't make great robots, but we're very good at doing random and creative things that would be impossibly complex--and probably a waste of resources--to code into a machine. Ideally, our educational system will evolve to more fully embrace our uniquely human strengths, rather than trying to shape us into second-rate machines. Human beings--though not necessarily our current form of consciousness and the linear philosophy around it--are quite good at transforming messiness and complexity into art, culture, and meaning. If we focus on what each of us is best at, I think that humans and machines will develop a wonderful yin-yang sort of relationship, with humans feeding off of the efficiency of our solid-state brethren, while they feed off of our messy, sloppy, emotional and creative bodies and brains.

We are descending not into chaos, as many believe, but into complexity. At the same time that the Internet connects everything outside of us into a vast, seemingly unmanageable system, we find an almost infinite amount of complexity as we dig deeper inside our own biology. Much as we're convinced that our brains run the show, all while our microbiomes alter our drives, desires, and behaviors to support their own reproduction and evolution, it may never be clear who's in charge--us, or our machines. But maybe we've done more damage by believing that humans are special than we possibly could by embracing a more humble relationship with the other creatures, objects, and machines around us.


When I became the director of the MIT Media Lab three years ago, my previous primary "occupation" was investing in and advising startup companies. I invested in mostly Internet-related software and service companies (e.g., Twitter, Flickr, Kickstarter). Joining the Media Lab and MIT was bit of a "pivot"-academia was a fundamentally different model for impacting the world, focused more on fundamental science and technology that wasn't as easily commercialized.

In order to focus on the Media Lab after joining, I decided I would stop investing in startup companies. (I invested in Media Lab alumni companies, Littlebits and Form Labs, before I officially started at the Lab.) As I immersed myself in learning about the Lab and MIT, I continued to learn and think about how different types of science and technology made their way into the world. In particular, I was intrigued by how biomedical research, which has a major impact on human health, seemed to have an extremely different profile, requiring a great deal of upfront investment. I knew very little about biomedical research but was very interested.

Even before I arrived at MIT, I had heard about Bob Langer. He is famous for his impact on commercializing biomedical research, and for helping to substantially advance the field of bioengineering. He has 1,050 patents and a group of dozens of researchers. Bob is one of the 11 Institute Professors at MIT who are recognized by the Institute for their outstanding contributions and who report directly to the provost and not a dean.

Last June, David L. Lucchino, a former student of Bob's who had run a startup coming out of Bob's lab, invited me to my first Red Sox game together with Bob Langer and a few of his friends. I got to sit next to Bob and he offered to teach me about his field and show me how to do things at MIT. Since then, Bob has become a true mentor and now has an affiliation at the Media Lab, working with the Center for Extreme Bionics, an Institute-wide initiative based at the Media Lab to work on a wide variety of technologies focused on eliminating human disabilities.

Recently Bob told me about a related project that he has been working on as a co-founder and senior partner at a company called PureTech. PureTech focuses on taking science and engineering, primarily in the healthcare area, and developing innovative products and companies. It provides a base for researchers and funds the early development of both the technologies and the companies.

A team of senior partners, researchers, and entrepreneurs is currently working on 11 projects at various stages of development. The company is run by Daphne Zohar, its founder and CEO. On the surface, it looks like an incubator, but it really is a new model in many ways. There is actual translational research going on within PureTech, where the PureTech team is actively both acting as founders and also operating labs and running experiments.

Bob told me that more and more of the PureTech companies had software and Internet elements, and that they were looking for more expertise in that area on the board. This sounded like the perfect opportunity for me-participating in conversations about healthcare, bioengineering and biomedical technology with the best in the field while being allowed to contribute an area of business where I had some experience.

Healthcare is universal: we are all patient-consumers on some level and the patient will increasingly be at the center of healthcare decision making. We will also be immersed in technology that can measure our physiology in real-time as shown by the emergence of wearables. As technology and clinical practice converge, digital technologies will also increasingly enter the world of mainstream medicine, creating an entirely new area increasingly being referred to as "electronic medicine," which has the potential for incredible growth. Vast amounts of data that Internet and tech companies use to make decisions can also be leveraged for healthcare, opening opportunities for real-time disease monitoring and new targeted patient engagement opportunities.

I recently joined the board and PureTech announced a new funding round today. I have been working on two companies in particular, Akili - a cognitive gaming company that aims to diagnose and treat cognitive problems, and another cross-disciplinary digital health project that is still in stealth mode.

I think that healthcare and bioengineering are exciting spaces that are growing quickly, and thanks to many amazing labs in this field in the Kendall Square/Cambridge area, we have a regional advantage. I hope that PureTech can help create an effective pathway to impact health in new and positive ways, and that I can help contribute to this while continuing to learn.

Photo: via Alkili

LabPhoto.png

One of the first words that I learned when I joined the Media Lab was "antidisciplinary." It was listed an a requirement in an ad seeking applicants for a new faculty position. Interdisciplinary work is when people from different disciplines work together. An antidisciplinary project isn't a sum of a bunch of disciplines but something entirely new - the word defies easy definition. But what it means to me is someone or something that doesn't fit within traditional academic discipline­­­-a field of study with its own particular words, frameworks, and methods. Most academics are judged by how many times they have published in prestigious, peer-reviewed journals. Peer review usually consists of the influential members of your field reviewing your work and deciding whether it is important and unique. This architecture often leads to a dynamic where researchers focus more on impressing a small number of experts in their own field than on taking the high risk of an unconventional approach. This dynamic reinforces the cliché of academics-learning more and more about less and less. It causes a hyper-specialization where people in different areas have a very difficult time collaborating-or even communicating-with people in different fields. For me, antidisciplinary research is akin to mathematician Stanislaw Ulam's famous observation that the study of non-linear physics is like the study of "non-elephant animals." Antidisciplinary is all about the non-elephant animals.

The Media Lab focuses on "uniqueness, impact and magic." What our students and faculty do should be unique. We shouldn't be doing something that someone else is doing. If someone else starts doing it, we should stop. Everything we do should have impact. Lastly, things should induce us to be passionate and should go beyond incremental thinking. "Magic" means that we take on projects that inspire us. In the Lifelong Kindergarten group, researchers often describe the "Four Ps of Creative Learning" as Projects, Peers, Passion and Play. Play is extremely important for creative learning. There is a great deal of research showing that rewards and pressure can motivate people to "produce," but creative learning and thinking requires the "space" that play creates. Pressure and rewards can often diminish that space, and thus, squash creative thinking.

The kind of scholars we are looking for at the Media Lab are people who don't fit in any existing discipline either because they are between--or simply beyond--disciplines. I often say that if you can do what you want to do in any other lab or department, you should go do it there. Only come to the Media Lab if there is nowhere else where you could do what you want to do. We are the home of the misfits-the antidisciplinarians.

When I think about the "space" that we've created, I like to think about a huge piece of paper that represents "all science." The disciplines are little black dots on this paper. The massive amounts of white space between the dots represent antidisciplinary space. Many people would like to play in this white space, but there is very little funding for this, and it's even harder to get a tenured positions without some sort of disciplinary anchor in one of the black dots.

As we engage in tackling harder and harder problems that require many fields and perspectives, the separation of disciplines appears to be causing more and more damage. The complex system that is the human body has become impossibly multi-disciplinary. We should really be working on "One Science," but instead we are a mosaic of different disciplines sometimes not even recognizing when we are looking at the same problem because our language is so different and microscopes are set so differently.

The Center for Extreme Bionics at the Media Lab--led by Hugh Herr, Ed Boyden, Joe Jacobson, and Bob Langer--utilizes everything from mechanical engineering to synthetic biology to neuroscience in its quest to eliminate a variety of disabilities. This disparate collection of disciplines would never fit in any traditional department or lab.

Media Lab co-founder Nicholas Negroponte famously coined a twist on the academic dictum that faculty must "publish or perish." Media Lab faculty, he said, must "demo or die." I have made a modification- "Deploy or die." I'd like all of the Lab's faculty and students thinking about how their work ultimately deploys in the world, and if they can deploy it themselves, even better.

I think this philosophy of working together on big projects will help bring researchers together across disciplines - creating a single science instead of fragmented disciplines. We will still need disciplines, but I think that it's time we focus on a higher mission and the changes needed in academia and research funding to allow more people to work in the wide-open white space between disciplines - the antidisciplinary space.

--

Update: One of our faculty members pointed out that disciplines are more like broad swaths and that a lot of the most cited papers are the ones in the disruptive "antidisciplinary" spaces.

I remember my 24th birthday very clearly. It was 1990. I had just finished working as the associate to the executive producer on the film The Indian Runner. I was running a nightclub in the Roppongi district of Tokyo at the time together with my team fromThe Smart Bar in Chicago. Madonna had just released "Vogue," Chicago House music had evolved into Acid House and the rave scene was going strong. It was a fun and tumultuous time in the world and in my life.

I met Timothy Leary for the first time through a mutual friend, David Kubiak, the editor of The Kyoto Journal at the time. I remember being very excited about meeting Tim because the rave scene had caused a revival of many 1960s themes. I had been reading books about consciousness and the mind - trying to chart my own journey along a path where Timothy often appeared as a central figure. Most recently, I had read a book by Robert Anton Wilson called Cosmic Trigger in which the author first tells the reader that everything in the book is a lie, and then proceeds to weave a story about one of the most wonderfully elaborate conspiracy theories every described. In the book, Wilson explains that "23" is a magic number and also explains that Timothy Leary had received "transmissions" from aliens. I wasn't sure what to believe, if anything, but at the time, I was convinced that the world was full of secrets and I wanted in on them.

I remember standing with Tim at the main Roppongi crossing called "Almond's" at the time named after the venerable coffee shop on that corner where everyone met up on their way into town at night. As we stood there talking about the budding Cyberpunk scene and how it was unfolding in Japan, I remember explaining to Timothy that I had just turned 24 and that I had hoped something magical would happen when I was 23 since it was the "magic number." I also asked him about the "Starseed transmissions" described in Cosmic Trigger. I remember Timothy's laugh vividly, as he told me that the whole thing was a joke. He said that everything in that book as well as most of the stuff that those guys talked about was one big joke and that I shouldn't believe any of it. In one instant, Timothy, the guru of the particular shrine that I was worshiping, knocked me whirling off my path.

Later, Timothy told me another joke.

A bunch of hippies go to India looking for the meaning of life. They travel for years climbing mountains and looking everywhere for the guru who knew the answer. They finally find the guru who was said to know the meaning of life. They ask the guru, "What is the meaning of life?" The guru says, "Wet birds don't fly at night." The hippies say, "They don't?" The guru says, "Do they?"

This was one of the most important spiritual lessons that I ever learned. That evening, I took Timothy on a whirlwind tour of the Tokyo nightlife scene introducing him to the Japanese kids who he later called "The New Breed" - a new youth culture that was technically and culturally savvy and wanted to take over instead of drop out. Tim modified his "Tune in, Turn on, Drop Out" slogan to "Tune in, Turn on, Take Over." He recruited me as his God Son explaining to me that the role of a God Son was to teach the Godfather. We started writing a book together and did public events around this theme.

Timothy always told everyone to "Question authority and think for yourself." I remember after an event where he and I spoke, a bunch of kids came up to Tim and said, "so what should we do?!?!" and Tim shouted at them, "Think for yourself!!" What I realized as I spent time with Tim was that people wanted gurus and that the more you tried to explain that you weren't a guru, the more many people became convinced that you were in fact a guru and that they wanted in on the secret. People wanted "answers" and wanted to get to some kind of goal. The thing is, there is no answer and there is no goal. You don't "win."

Ever since being knocked off of my original "path to enlightenment" by Timothy Leary, I've dabbled in various spiritual and mindfulness investigations and pursuits with a curious but skeptical stance. In retrospect, I think that Timothy probably believed that there was a spiritual path, but that the particular version of the path that I was on and the naive way that I was thinking about it was best completely destroyed so that I could start again with a more questioning mind.

I've tried very hard to avoid the pull of gurus or being mistaken for some kind of guru myself. I've had many teachers and have tried a variety of meditation and mindfulness techniques, but I still consider myself a novice. I am very happy with my journey and with relative consistency, each year of my life brings more happiness and becomes more interesting and I thank Timothy for the trajectory correction at a key point in my life.

Last year, in an email exchange, Pierre Omidyar, an old friend from my short stint at Tufts University, mentioned that I should look up Tenzin Priyadarshi. Tenzin runs the Dalai Lama Center at MIT and when we met, we decided we should teach a class together. Remembering the adage that the best way to learn is to teach, I jumped on the opportunity to teach a class where I could learn more about mindfulness and work on my practice.

Tenzin and I decided to call the class "Principles of Awareness".

What is awareness? Is self-awareness a "default" state or is it cultivated? Can it improve performance and wellbeing? What role does technology play in promoting or hindering awareness? Is there an ethical framework for our capacity to be aware? Can self-awareness be linked to happiness? The course will be set in an experiential learning environment where students/ participants will explore various theories and methodologies around awareness. Students will be required to keep an open lab book documenting methods and evaluations. Students will present their findings and observations regularly during class sessions. The final project will consist of evaluating various tools, techniques, and interfaces around awareness targeted towards "performance" and "wellbeing."

Class meetings (virtual and real) will consist of practice, lectures, and discussions with invited speakers/experts. Some of the talks will be open to the public. And the practice will range from meditation to hacking.

The first class last Wednesday was fascinating. We had a wide range of students, some students had never meditated, some engaged in regular prayer (a form of meditation) and others were experienced in many forms of mindfulness practice. In the conversation about awareness, Tenzin and I talked a lot about meditation. One of the students asked me, "so what's the 'there' you keep referring to?" I realized that I used "there" to refer to the "place" that you get to when you meditate - the place where you connect to true nature and depending on your skill and style of meditation, "there" can be a place of bliss. "There" can also be "enlightenment". Tenzin quickly jumped in and explained that we should not focus on getting "there" because everyone will want to get "there" and that wasn't the point.

I totally agree. One of the best comments I've heard about Qi Gong, a form of Chinese energy movement and meditation is that you shouldn't be goal oriented. You can't "win" at Qi Gong. The purpose wasn't to get better, although you will, but that the purpose was just the practice. I find the exact same thing about meditation. The point is not to "win" against yourself or anyone else. I find that even writing this blog post smacks of boastfulness and "know-it-all-ness" which is so not the point of the exercise. One will get better at any form of practice the more you do it and feeling good about progress isn't a bad thing, but the whole point of mindfulness and meditation is being present in the "Now" and NOT being goal oriented, egotistical or focused on the future or the past.

I find it off-putting to hear people boast about their meditation practice and in the past, I've mostly only talked about meditation and mindfulness with small groups of people where we were sharing our own experiences. However, now that I'm "teaching" a class about awareness where I'm asking my students to share all of their experiences as well as keeping an open log of their experiences, I thought I should share as well.

I hope to be posting more updates in the coming weeks about some of my experimentation and observations.

I first heard about Synbiota at SXSWi this year, when they won an Accelerator Award. According to the announcement, "Synbiota is a virtual collaboration site that connects scientists, researchers, universities and others from around the world to solve complex problems using genetic engineering." That week they announced the world's first Massive Open Online Science (MOOS) event. Called #ScienceHack, hundreds of researchers from around the globe (some as clueless as us!) would use a new "wetware" kit to produce prohibitively expensive medicine at a fraction of the price.

A month later I got this email:

From: Connor Dickie
To: Joi Ito
Cc: Kim de Mora
Date: Apr 17, 2014, at 11:12
Subject: ML alumni wins SXSW prize for SynBio startup & Invitation to #ScienceHack

"I'm writing to invite you to participate in #ScienceHack, our distributed science effort to make real medicine for just a fraction of current costs using Synthetic Biology and the Synbiota platform. O'Reilly Radar recently called #ScienceHack the most ambitious distributed science project, and knowing your interest in biotech, I thought I'd reach out to you with a cool opportunity to learn with us.

Participation is easy - I'll ship you one of our "Violacein Factory" wetware kits, and connect you with Kim de Mora at iGEM HQ (CC'd) who is not only interested to build one of the kits, but also has the required wet lab skills. It will take about an hour and a half for the in-silico design and build of the actual DNA part. Kim would handle the incubation etc. You would then come back to his lab in about 5 days to look at the results.

We recently built a Violacein Factory kit here in Canada, and more recently at Genspace in NYC, and everyone learned a bunch and helped us make significant advances towards our goal of an optimized violacein-producing organism.

I'll be in Boston/Cambridge on the 27th-through-30th as part of a Canadian trade delegation, and will have some time to meet you and chat about the opportunity in person if it interests you.

With regards,

Connor Dickie
http://alumni.media.mit.edu/~connord/

I knew about iGEM. It was the spinout from MIT that brought high school and college students together to hack DNA much in the same way that robot competitions bring together kids interested in robots to hack and learn and compete. What's amazing is that iGEM, now bringing together over two thousand students at their Jamboree, takes the state of the art of synthetic biology and brings it to the masses.

Violacein is a natural purple compound made by Chromobacterium violaceum, a bacteria that is found in the soil in the tropics such as the Amazon. Violacein is created by the bacteria as a natural defense against amoebic creatures that try to eat it and is viewed as a potential anti-parasitic. It also appears to show promise as a treatment for cancer. The problem is that it currently costs $356,000 per gram because of the difficulty of harvesting it in the wild.

An opportunity to learn synthetic biology through doing it (my favorite way to learn) was too good to turn down so I immediately accepted the challenge. I started by taking the required safety courses for playing with recombinant DNA : General Biosafety for Researchers, check. Bloodborne Pathogens: Researchers, check. Hepatitis Information form, check. General Chemical Hygiene (web) and Managing Hazardous Waste (web). Check and check.

Then I started hunting for a place to do the actual work. That turned out to be a bit more of a challenge. Although the kit and process provided by Synbiota were basically safe and non-toxic, work with recombinant DNA and bacteria required a proper wet lab at MIT which are in short supply and used for more important things than the Media Lab director messing around with street bio.

After discussing with the team and looking at what we needed, we decided that my kitchen would be the least disruptive place to do the work.

On July 27, the Synbiota team and Kim from iGEM gathered at my house with a rag tag team of researchers from the Media Lab and elsewhere to work on the Violacein Factory #Sciencehack. We started with a briefing on what we were actually doing.

Our mission was to be one of the hundreds of teams participating in trying to innovate on developing the most effective method of synthesizing Violacein using synthetic biology.

Scientists have determined the metabolic pathway in Chromobacterium violaceum that converts tryptophan, a common amino acid, into violacein. This pathway involves five enzymes and various genetic sequences for their production. These "parts" of genetic code can be positioned differently in the DNA molecule and each combination has different attributes and tradeoffs - the optimal sequence and combination being currently unknown.

The #ScienceHack Violacein Factory Kit co-designed with Genomikon which develops synthetic biology kits, had vials of all of the various genetic "parts" and the other materials needed to assemble these parts into a plasmid. According to Synbiota:

This Kit includes everything you need except:

• pipettes, nitrile gloves, petri dishes, PCR tubes, lab coats (for the full biotech experience, but any ol' trench coat will do!)
• ice buckets and ice
• 42 C water bath with epi tube floaty blanket
• 37 C incubator

All the above can be found around the house, from online suppliers, at your local university lab store, or in a friendly scientist's stash.

Kim from iGEM brought everything from the iGEM lab. He walked us through the kitchen version of the protocol for using all of the equipment safely.

Synbiota, in addition to putting together this amazing #ScienceHack project has developed a suite of online tools to publish and share lab books online (I guess I don't need that fancy paper notebook I bought!), design DNA using a very nice graphical interface and provide researchers with a whole suite of tools to do synthetic biology as a community. Everything was very well designed and worked well.

First, I created an account on the Synbiota website and logged into our notebook. Justin explained the violacein pathway and explained how we can use the online gene editor, GENtle3, (video) to design the gene sequence online.

In GENtle3, we were able to drag and drop any of the genetic parts that came in the kit into our sequence and as long as we followed the basic rules of which parts could be connected to each other. The sequence I designed was Anc-ABEDDDC-Cap, where A, B, C, D, E represent the enzymes that make up the violacein metabolic pathway. (Visit the sequence tab in the Sciencehack project to view this and other designed sequences.)

The sequence had to start with the Anchor--Origin-X' part because that was the part that was attached to the magnetic bead. One of the keys to being able to do all of this amazing work in a kitchen had to do with this innovation.

In the kit were tiny sub-micron magnetic beads with the anchor part - a strand of DNA attached to it. What this meant is that we could use a small but very strong external magnet held to the side of the container - the epi tube - to pull all of the genetic material we were working with to the side of the epi tube allowing us to insert and extract liquids from the container using pipettes while leaving our working material secured to the container.

What we needed to do after designing our sequence was to assemble it. We did this putting the beads in a epi tube, adding a "wash", removing the wash, adding a genetic part from a color coded tube that corresponded with the next link in our design, adding the T4 DNA ligase, the "genetic glue" to attach that new part to the strand on the bead, removing the excess material, washing again, and then repeating until we had added each part in order to the bead. Theoretically, we should now have a long strands of DNA attached to each bead representing our version of the DNA sequence (plasmid) that we designed.

The last step was to use a buffer to remove the bead from the strands and we had a little drop of genetic material that when inserted into a living bacteria should create all of the enzymes necessary to produce violacein from tryptophan.

The next step was what was called "transformation" which is the process that takes our plasmid and inserts it into a bacteria, in our caseE. coli. The "competent" E. coli designed for easier transfection were created at iGEM. The process we used for transformation was called "heat shock" which involved adding our genetic material to a salt solution with the E. coli and then rapidly heating it which caused the genetic material to be absorbed into the E. coli. The device used for heating, I noticed, had a sticker from the "MIT Property Equipment Office" on it. Definitely a bit punk rock. After the "shock" we added liquid material with nutrients and minerals that "rebooted" the E. coli, waking it up and preparing it to be incubated for execution of the DNA code we just inserted.

The E. coli were then spread onto petri dishes with Jello-like "food" as well as an antibiotic, chloramphenicol. The chloramphenicol would kill all other bacteria on the dish except our own because we had cleverly included a chloramphenicol resistance building genetic part in our sequence.

We then sent the petri dishes back to iGEM for incubation. The results were not perfect, but none-the-less, it looks like violacein and other molecules from the pathway were created (some other got different colours). The images of my petri dish show a kind of blackish zig-zag smear which are billions of bacteria producing metabolites because the executed DNA I designed and created. At this point I don't know for sure whether violacein was created - I need to do more verification and experimentation, but for a first go at building a complex metabolic pathway, not too shabby. Something else that is cool, is that my intended DNA design was very long, 12,000 base pairs, the next #ScienceHack step is to verify that the entire code I designed was actually assembled properly. We shared our designs, protocols and procedures with the rest of the teams. The next step was to look at the work of the other teams and try to find out what we could improve and try again.

In two half days of work, we were able to do in our kitchen what would have been Nobel Prize winning work a decade ago. We designed a sequence of genes, actually assembled the genes and then injected them into a bacteria and rebooted the bacteria.

Also, unlike traditional labs where one team would do the work and publish a paper and then other teams would try to replicate the work, we worked as one large team of parallel labs sharing our work as we went along, iterating, innovating and discussing.

I think that there is a good chance that one of the hundreds of teams will discover an efficient way of synthesizing, extracting, and purifying violacein and that soon we will have something that will probably initially look something like a homebrew beer brewing contraption producing the extremely rare compound for researchers with instructions on how anyone can build one of these violacein factories.

--

Disclosure : After this experience, I was so excited that I donated to iGEM and decided to invest in Synbiota.

Monthly Archives