“I don’t mind being called a propagandist,” Edward R. Murrow told a reporter at the Miami Herald in April of 1962. “So long as that propaganda is based on the truth.”

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Everything that’s good, and bad, about X-Men: Apocalypse can be traced to it being part of the successful X-Men franchise. It’s not only the third film in the series (in the new movie continuity), but also the sixth (overall), and also the ninth (if you count solo movies) creates certain expectations—expectations that no movie could possibly meet.

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“In a future with mass unemployment, young people are forced to sell blood.”

This is the opening line of a short film entered in this year’s Sci-Fi London Film Challenge. It’s dark, enigmatic, contemporary…and written by a computer. In fact, the film’s entire screenplay is the work of a neural net trained on sci-fi scripts.

Once the software completed the screenplay—which you can read in all its unadulterated glory here—it was up to the film’s director and actors to make it into something someone might actually watch. And they did an admirable job.

Here’s the delightfully absurd result.

The film’s byline, 32 Tesla K80 GPUs, references the powerful computer processors on which this particular robowriter does its fine work. But creative credit should probably also go to the programmer behind the scenes: Ross Goodwin.

Goodwin is an NYU student finishing the last semester of a two-year graduate program investigating the intersection of communications and technology. His personal obsession is computational creative writing—poetry, prose, and now, screenwriting.

You may have heard that algorithms are drafting articles for some of the biggest news organizations, but these are mostly canned summaries of sports or financial statistics. There’s another world in which robowriters really let their hair down.

National novel generation month (Nanogenmo), for example, is an annual event in which programmers write programs that write novels. In last year’s edition, 500 such novels were generated on a widely varying (often weird) list of topics.

In this vein, Goodwin wants to take computational creative writing to the next level. In a Medium post, he describes his odyssey from political speech writer to writer of neural networks. Using NYU’s high performance computing lab, he’s trained software on poetry, prose, the dictionary, science fiction novels—the complete works of Noam Chomsky.

One of his creations writes poetic image captions and was (suitably) used to title the trippy visual art generated by Google’s Deep Dream algorithm.

artificial-intelligence-writes-screenplay-21The neural net behind “Sunspring” was trained on science fiction screenplays, and generated the script after being fed prompts provided by the contest. The director, Oscar Sharp, and cast, which included Silicon Valley’s Thomas Middleditch, cut the script down and began to interpret the uninterpretable.

Notably, the script wasn’t purely dialogue. The software also added prompts.

Middleditch, for example, vomits up an eyeball in response to the prompt “taking his eyes from his mouth.” Later, he grabs the camera and looks into it in response to, “He takes a seat on the counter and pulls the camera over to his back. He stares at it.”

The end result is weirdly, irresistibly entertaining.

So, is this the beginning of the end for writers. Will we soon be forced to “sell blood”? Not so much. If anything, “Sunspring” is an example of how completely indispensable the human touch is to creative works. The cast and crew are the main reason the film is the least bit watchable.

But it’s still a potentially powerful partnership. Neural networks tuned to language are perhaps just the next technology to become a useful artistic tool.

Take the song in the surreal sequence towards the end. Its lyrics were written by a neural net Goodwin trained on 25,000 folk songs. Armed with words, Tiger Darrow and Andrew Orkin wrote the song in just a few hours. After initial skepticism, the two came to view the software as a helpful tool and asked whether they might use its lyrics in songs outside the contest.

“When we teach computers to write, the computers don’t replace us any more than pianos replace pianists,” Goodwin writes. “In a certain way, they become our pens, and we become more than writers. We become writers of writers.”

All this hints at a continuing collaboration of humans and technology in creative endeavors. And it’s how the one breathes life into the other that makes “Sunspring” one of my favorite pieces of robowritten fiction to date.


Image credit: Sunspring/Vimeo

Would you like to have Hyperloop in your city?

I’m proud to be a founding board member of Hyperloop One (the new name for what was formerly known as Hyperloop Technologies).

Last week, I was in the Nevada desert for the Hyperloop Propulsion Open Air Test with the rest of the board, the Hyperloop One team, and hundreds of members of the press.

Hyperloop

Hyperloop

If you’re not familiar with Hyperloop One, consider what it would be like to travel on the ground at 760+ mph (faster than a jet airplane).

Here are some fun travel examples:

  • L.A. >> San Francisco in 35 minutes
  • Montreal >> Toronto in 30 minutes
  • L.A. >> Vegas in 20 minutes
  • Dubai >> Abu Dhabi in 15 minutes
  • London >> Paris in 15 minutes

In this post, I am going to give an overview of the Hyperloop and explain how you could bring this transportation system to your city through the Hyperloop Challenge.

What Is Hyperloop?

In 2013, Elon Musk and a group of engineers from Tesla and SpaceX published a speculative design document for a concept they called “The Hyperloop.”

Born out of frustration with California’s plan for a bullet train between Los Angeles and San Francisco—the slowest and most expensive per mile bullet train around, with an estimated cost of $70 billion—the vision for the Hyperloop is a high-speed transportation system that could take travelers from San Francisco to L.A. in 35 minutes for a fraction of the cost.

In other words, it’s a “vacuum tube transportation network” that will be able to travel at around 760 mph (1200 kilometers per hour) — on land and underwater.

The team is led by Brogan BamBrogan, who did the design work on the second-stage engine of SpaceX’s Falcon 1 and was lead architect for the heat shield of the Dragon capsule.

This team is going big and bold, and they’re doing it the right way.

They just closed their latest round of funding of $80 million and achieved a major technology milestone last week.

The Hyperloop Propulsion Open Air Test

Last Wednesday, the Hyperloop One team held what was essentially its first test run, conducting a “propulsion open-air test.”

The team built a half-mile track 35 miles north of Vegas to test its custom-designed linear electric motor at speeds of 540 km/hour.

The motor accelerated from zero to 100 mph in about 1 second and proceeded down the track until stopped by a custom, sand-based braking system. It was a smashing success!

Hyperloop

This was the first of a series of unique innovations from the Hyperloop One team, including advancements in propulsion, tube design and fabrication, levitation systems, pod designs, and thermodynamics and systems engineering.

Hyperloop One’s new CEO Rob Lloyd (past Global President of Cisco) notes that passing this hurdle means they are well on their way to having a full-scale hyperloop to test by the end of the year — on a projected 2-mile track reaching full speeds of over 700 mph.

Hyperloop

Hyperloop’s Kitty Hawk Moment — End of This Year!

In 1903, the Wright brothers flew their aircraft for the first time in Kitty Hawk, NC.

The flight lasted only 12 seconds and covered a distance of just 120 feet, but it marked a major milestone in human history: humanity realized that powered flight was real.

This moment changed the face of transportation forever.

Today, every major city throughout the world has an airport, and thousands of airlines fly between them, transporting millions of passengers daily.

Rob Lloyd calls this week’s Open Air Test Hyperloop One’s “pre-Kitty Hawk Moment.”

He expects the Hyperloop One team will have their real Kitty Hawk moment by the end of this year.

Just as in 1903, when few people realized how much the world would change as a result of that first flight, we have likely not yet fully grasped how much the world will change because of Hyperloop.

Lloyd is already looking towards the future — noting that once the Hyperloop is fully functional, “we then imagine how we’re going to take this technology and solve the world’s toughest problems.”

As to where the Hyperloop goes, well… maybe it’s up to you! Keep reading…

The Hyperloop Challenge

Want the Hyperloop to come to your city?

Hyperloop One is hosting a global competition inviting teams from around the world to submit a commercial, transport, economic and policy case for their city, region or country to be considered to host the first Hyperloop networks.

The challenge, a first-of-its-kind competition, aims to identify and select locations around the world with the potential to develop and construct the world’s first Hyperloop networks.

Our goal is to get different key stakeholders (government officials, academics, private investors and architects, to name a few) involved to facilitate the implementation of this technology.

We are asking for teams comprised of these stakeholders to make the case for how Hyperloop can drive economic growth and create new opportunities in their community.

If you or someone you know is interested, register for the challenge here.

As a member of the Judging Committee, I am excited to hear about your proposals.

Hyperloop is just one example of the amazing transformations that exponential technologies are causing across industries.


Image credit: Hyperloop One

Back in 2006, Nike introduced the high-performance SUMO 2 golf club driver, specially engineered to help golfers hit straighter shots, even for slightly off-center hits. There was just one problem: the newly designed club made an unpleasantly loud, tinny sound when it struck the ball—so much so, that most players proved unwilling to tolerate it, even in exchange for improved performance.

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Among the (many) mysteries surrounding the gigantic black holes that live at the center of galaxies is just how they managed to get so big, so fast. Finally, scientists have come up with an explanation for their improbably large existence.

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What Makes Calvin and Hobbes So Special?

Calvin and Hobbes should be everyone’s favorite comic strip. But what makes it so special? Kaptain Kristian dives in to explain why the strip is so good. The argument centers around the idea that Calvin and Hobbes puts art before commerce, as all art should.

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In need of a quick refresher course on, well, the science of pretty much everything? Here’s a cheeky, irreverent summation of the universe in just four minutes from Exub1a, YouTube purveyor of “spacey stuff and existential angst.”

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Last weekend, an invite-only group of about 150 experts convened privately at Harvard. Behind closed doors, they discussed the prospect of designing and building an entire human genome from scratch, using only a computer, a DNA synthesizer and raw materials.

The artificial genome would then be inserted into a living human cell to replace its natural DNA. The hope is that the cell “reboots,” changing its biological processes to operate based on instructions provided by the artificial DNA.

In other words, we may soon be looking at the first “artificial human cell.”

But the goal is not just Human 2.0. The project, “HGP-Write: Testing Large Synthetic Genomes in Cells,” also hopes to develop powerful new tools that push synthetic biology into exponential growth on an industrial scale. If successful, we won’t only have the biological tools to design humans as a species — we would have the ability to redesign the living world.

Manufacturing Life

At its core, synthetic biology is a marriage between engineering principles and biotechnology. If DNA sequencing is about reading DNA, genetic engineering is about editing DNA, synthetic biology is about programming new DNA — regardless of its original source — to build new forms of life.

Synthetic biologists view DNA and genes as standard biological bricks that can be used interchangeably to create and modify living cells.

The field has a plug-and-play mentality, says Dr. Jay Kiesling, a pioneer of synthetic engineering at the University of California at Berkeley. “When your hard drive dies, you can go to the nearest computer store, buy a new one, swap it out,” he says, “Why shouldn’t we use biological parts in the same way?”

is-the-world-ready-for-synthetic-life-5To accelerate the field, Kiesling and colleagues are putting together a database of standardized DNA pieces — dubbed “BioBricks” — that can be used as puzzle pieces to assemble genetic material completely new to nature.

To Kiesling and others in the field, synthetic biology is like developing a new programming language. Cells are hardware, while DNA is the software that makes them run. With enough knowledge about how genes work, synthetic biologists believe that they will be able to write genetic programs from scratch, allowing them to build new organisms, alter nature and even guide the course of human evolution.

Similar to genetic engineering, synthetic biology gives scientists the power to tinker with natural DNA. The difference is mostly scale: genetic editing is a cut-and-paste process that adds foreign genes or changes the letters in existing genes. Often, only a few sites are changed.

Synthetic biology, on the other hand, creates genes from scratch. This allows scientists far more opportunities to make extensive changes to known genes, or even design their own. The possibilities are nearly endless.

Biodrugs, Biofuels, BioCrops

The explosion of synthetic biology in the past decade has already churned out results that thrilled both scientists and corporations.

Back in 2003, Kiesling published one of the earliest proof-of-concept studies demonstrating the power of the approach. He focused on a chemical called artemisinin, a powerful anti-malaria drug extracted from sweet wormwood that’s often the last line of defense against the disease.

Yet despite numerous attempts at cultivating the plant, yields remain extremely low.

Kiesling realized that synthetic biology offered a way to bypass the harvesting process altogether. By introducing the right genes into bacteria cells, he reasoned, the cells could turn into artemisinin-manufacturing machines, thus providing an abundant new source for the drug.

Getting there was tough. The team had to build an entirely new metabolic pathway into the cell, allowing it to process chemicals otherwise unknown to the cell.

Through trial-and-error, the team pasted together part of dozens of genes from several organisms into a custom DNA package. When they inserted the package into E. Coli, a bacteria commonly used in the lab to produce chemicals, it created a new pathway in the bacteria that allowed it to secrete artemisinin.

With more tinkering to increase efficacy, Kiesling and his team were able to bring up production by a factor of a million and reduce the drug’s price more than 10-fold.

Artemisinin was only the first step in a much larger program. The drug is a hydrocarbon, which belongs to a family of molecules often used to make biofuels. So why not use the same process to manufacture biofuels? By swapping out genes used to make artemisinin with those coding biofuel hydrocarbons, the team has already engineered multiple microbes capable of converting sugar to fuel.

is-the-world-ready-for-synthetic-life-7 Agriculture is another field poised to benefit from synthetic biology. Theoretically, we could take genes used to fix nitrogen from bacteria, put it into cells from our crops to completely alter their natural growth process. With the right combination of genes, we may be able to grow nutrition-packed crops — directed by an artificial genome — that require less water, land, energy and fertilizers.

Synthetic biology may even be used to produce completely new foods, such as flavorings created through fermentation with engineered yeast, or vegan cheeses and other animal-free milk products.

“We need to reduce carbon emissions and toxic inputs, use less land and water, combat pests, and increase soil fertility,” says Dr. Pamela Ronald, a professor at UC Davis. Synthetic biology may give us the tools to get there.

Re-creating Life

Practical applications aside, one of the ultimate goals of synthetic biology is to create a synthetic organism made exclusively from custom-designed DNA.

The main roadblock right now is technological. DNA synthesis is currently expensive, slow and prone to errors. Most existing techniques can only make DNA strands that are roughly 200 letters long, whereas genes are usually over ten times as long. The human genome contains roughly 20,000 genes that make proteins.

That said, costs for DNA synthesis have been rapidly dropping over the past decade.

According to Dr. Drew Endy, a geneticist at Stanford University, the cost of sequencing an individual letter has plummeted from $4 in 2003 to a mere 3 cents now. The estimated cost of printing all 3 billion letters of the human genome at the moment is a staggering $90 million, although that is expected to drop to $100,000 within 20 years if the trend continues.

is-the-world-ready-for-synthetic-life-8An increasingly reasonable price tag has already opened doors to whole-genome synthesis.

Back in the 90s, Craig Venter, best known for his leading role in sequencing the human genome, began investigating the minimal set of genes required to make life. Together with colleagues at the Institute for Genomic Research, Venter removed genes from a bacterium Mycoplasma genitalium to identify those critical to life.

In 2008, Venter pieced together these “essential genes” and built the entire new “minimal” genome from a soup of chemicals using DNA synthesis.

Several years later, Venter transplanted the artificial genome into a second bacterium. The genes took over and “rebooted” the cell, allowing it to grow and self-replicate — the first living organism with a completely synthetic genome.

From Bacteria to Human

The new venture, if funded, would replicate Venter’s experiments using our own genome. Given that the human genome is nearly 5,000 times larger than Venter’s bacterium, it’s hard to say just how much more difficult the synthesis might be.

Even if that goal fails, however, the field is still bound to take a quantum leap forward. According to Dr. George Church, a leading geneticist at Harvard Medical School, the project could generate technological advances that improve our general ability to synthesize long strings of DNA — regardless of origin.

In fact, Church stressed that the project’s main goal is advancing technology.

But many are skeptical. According to Endy, who was invited to the meeting but decided to bow out, the project was originally named “HGP2: The Human Genome Synthesis Project,” and its primary goal was “to synthesize a complete human genome in a cell line within a period of 10 years.”

It’s perhaps not a surprise that news of the meeting caused a stir.

Regardless of its actual goals, the project raises the prospect of building custom-designed humans, or even semi-humans who have computers as parents.

The associated risks are easy to imagine and undoubtedly terrifying: how safe is it to directly manipulate or build life? How likely are accidents that unleash new organisms on an unprepared world? Who owns and has access to the technology? Would it breed new discrimination or further separate the 1% from the 99%?

“You can’t possibly begin to do something like this if you don’t have a value system in place that allows you to map concepts of ethics, beauty, and aesthetics onto our own existence,” says Endy.

“Given that human genome synthesis is a technology that can completely redefine the core of what now joins all of humanity together as a species, we argue that discussions of making such capacities real…should not take place without open and advance consideration of whether it is morally right to proceed,” he said.


Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

India is joining the reusable space race. Its space agency has today launched a 22-foot space shuttle, that will be used test the country’s plans for creating a spacecraft that can be used multiple times.

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