Three years ago, the company forced out Timnit Gebru, the co-lead of its ethical AI team, essentially over a paper that raised concerns about the dangers of large language models. Gebru’s concerns have since become mainstream. Her departure, and the fallout from it, marked a turning point in the conversation about the dangers of unchecked AI. One would hope Google learned from it; from her.
And then, just last week, Geoffrey Hinton announced he was stepping down from Google, in large part so he’d be free to sound the alarm bell about the dire consequences of rapid advancements in AI that he fears could soon enable it to surpass human intelligence. (Or, as Hinton put it, it is “quite conceivable that humanity is just a passing phase in the evolution of intelligence.”)
And so, I/O yesterday was a far cry from the event in 2018, when the company gleefully demonstrated Duplex, showcasing how Google Assistant could make automated calls to small businesses without ever letting the people on those calls know they were interacting with an AI. It was an incredible demo. And one that made very many people deeply uneasy.
Again and again at this year’s I/O, we heard about responsibility. James Manyika, who leads the company’s technology and society program, opened by talking about the wonders AI has wrought, particularly around protein folding, but was quick to transition to the ways the company is thinking about misinformation, noting how it would watermark generated images and alluding to guardrails to prevent their misuse.
There was a demo of how Google can deploy image provenance to counter misinformation, debunking an image search effectively by showing the first time it (in the example on stage, a fake photo purporting to show that the moon landing was a hoax) was indexed. It was a little bit of grounding amidst all the awe and wonder, operating at scale.
And then … on to the phones. The new Google Pixel Fold scored the biggest applause line of the day. People like gadgets.
The phone may fold, but for me it was among the least mind-bending things I saw all day. And in my head, I kept returning to one of the earliest examples we saw: a photo of a woman standing in front of some hills and a waterfall.
Magic Editor erased her backpack strap. Cool! And it also made the cloudy sky look a lot more blue. Reinforcing this, in another example—this time with a child sitting on a bench holding balloons—Magic Editor once again made the day brighter and then adjusted all the lighting in the photos so the sunshine would look more natural. More real than real.
How far do we want to go here? What’s the end goal we are aiming for? Ultimately, do we just skip the vacation altogether and generate some pretty, pretty pictures? Can we supplant our memories with sunnier, more idealized versions of the past? Are we making reality better? Is everything more beautiful? Is everything better? Is this all very, very cool? Or something else? Something we haven’t realized yet?
The Download: child online safety laws, and ClimateTech is coming
Matt Kaeberlein is what you might call a dog person. He has grown up with dogs and describes his German shepherd, Dobby, as “really special.” But Dobby is 14 years old—around 98 in dog years.
Kaeberlein is co-director of the Dog Aging Project, an ambitious research effort to track the aging process of tens of thousands of companion dogs across the US. He is one of a handful of scientists on a mission to improve, delay, and possibly reverse that process to help them live longer, healthier lives.
And dogs are just the beginning. One day, this research could help to prolong the lives of humans. Read the full story.
We can still have nice things
A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)
+ All hail the unsung women of indie sleaze.
+ It’s officially October!
+ This list of sartorial advice has been entertaining us at MIT Technology Review—how many points do you agree with?
+ Put down the expired milk, it’s got a whole lot more to give. 🥛
+ Some top tips for remembering your dreams more fully: should you want to, that is.
Everything you need to know about artificial wombs
The technology would likely be used first on infants born at 22 or 23 weeks who don’t have many other options. “You don’t want to put an infant on this device who would otherwise do well with conventional therapy,” Mychaliska says. At 22 weeks gestation, babies are tiny, often weighing less than a pound. And their lungs are still developing. When researchers looked at babies born between 2013 and 2018, survival among those who were resuscitated at 22 weeks was 30%. That number rose to nearly 56% at 23 weeks. And babies born at that stage who do survive have an increased risk of neurodevelopmental problems, cerebral palsy, mobility problems, hearing impairments, and other disabilities.
Selecting the right participants will be tricky. Some experts argue that gestational age shouldn’t be the only criteria. One complicating factor is that prognosis varies widely from center to center, and it’s improving as hospitals learn how best to treat these preemies. At the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital, for example, survival rates are much higher than average: 64% for babies born at 22 weeks. They’ve even managed to keep a handful of infants born at 21 weeks alive. “These babies are not a hopeless case. They very much can survive. They very much can thrive if you are managing them appropriately,” says Brady Thomas, a neonatologist at Stead. “Are you really going to make that much of a bigger impact by adding in this technology, and what risks might exist to those patients as you’re starting to trial it?”
Prognosis also varies widely from baby to baby depending on a variety of factors. “The girls do better than the boys. The bigger ones do better than the smaller ones,” says Mark Mercurio, a neonatologist and pediatric bioethicist at the Yale School of Medicine. So “how bad does the prognosis with current therapy need to be to justify use of an artificial womb?” That’s a question Mercurio would like to see answered.
What are the risks?
One ever-present concern in the tiniest babies is brain bleeds. “That’s due to a number of factors—a combination of their brain immaturity, and in part associated with the treatment that we provide,” Mychaliska says. Babies in an artificial womb would need to be on a blood thinner to prevent clots from forming where the tubes enter the body. “I believe that places a premature infant at very high risk for brain bleeding,” he says.
And it’s not just about the baby. To be eligible for EXTEND, infants must be delivered via cesarean section, which puts the pregnant person at higher risk for infection and bleeding. Delivery via a C-section can also have an impact on future pregnancies.
So if it works, could babies be grown entirely outside the womb?
Not anytime soon. Maybe not ever. In a paper published in 2022, Flake and his colleagues called this scenario “a technically and developmentally naive, yet sensationally speculative, pipe dream.” The problem is twofold. First, fetal development is a carefully choreographed process that relies on chemical communication between the pregnant parent’s body and the fetus. Even if researchers understood all the factors that contribute to fetal development—and they don’t—there’s no guarantee they could recreate those conditions.
The second issue is size. The artificial womb systems being developed require doctors to insert a small tube into the infant’s umbilical cord to deliver oxygenated blood. The smaller the umbilical cord, the more difficult this becomes.
What are the ethical concerns?
In the near term, there are concerns about how to ensure that researchers are obtaining proper informed consent from parents who may be desperate to save their babies. “This is an issue that comes up with lots of last-chance therapies,” says Vardit Ravitsky, a bioethicist and president of the Hastings Center, a bioethics research institute.
The Download: brain bandwidth, and artificial wombs
Last week, Elon Musk made the bold assertion that sticking electrodes in people’s heads is going to lead to a huge increase in the rate of data transfer out of, and into, human brains.
The occasion of Musk’s post was the announcement by Neuralink, his brain-computer interface company, that it was officially seeking the first volunteer to receive an implant that contains more than twice the number of electrodes than previous versions to collect more data from more nerve cells.
The entrepreneur mentioned a long-term goal of vastly increasing “bandwidth” between people, or people and machines, by a factor of 1,000 or more. But what does he mean, and is it even possible? Read the full story.
This story is from The Checkup, MIT Technology Review’s weekly biotech newsletter. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.
Everything you need to know about artificial wombs
Earlier this month, US Food and Drug Administration advisors met to discuss how to move research on artificial wombs from animals into humans.
These medical devices are designed to give extremely premature infants a bit more time to develop in a womb-like environment before entering the outside world. They have been tested with hundreds of lambs (and some piglets), but animal models can’t fully predict how the technology will work for humans.