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The general-purpose computer is one of the crowning achievements of industrial society. Prior to its invention, electronic calculating engines were each hardwired to do just one thing, like calculate ballistics tables. John von Neumann’s “von Neumann architecture” and Alan Turing’s “Turing-complete computer” provided the theoretical basis for building a calculating engine that could run any program that could be expressed in symbolic language. That breakthrough still ripples through society, revolutionizing every corner of our world. When everything is made of computers, an improvement in computers makes everything better.
But there’s a terrible corollary to that virtuous cycle: Any law or regulation that undermines computers’ utility or security also ripples through all the systems that have been colonized by the general-purpose computer. And therein lies the potential for untold trouble and mischief.
Because while we’ve spent the past 70 years perfecting the art of building computers that can run every single program, we have no idea how to build a computer that can run every program except the one that infringes copyright or prints out guns or lets a software-based radio be used to confound air-traffic control signals or cranks up the air-conditioning even when the power company sends a peak-load message to it.
The closest approximation we have for “a computer that runs all the programs except the one you don’t like” is “a computer that is infected with spyware out of the box.”
2. Accelerating Drug Development with Organ-on-a-Chip Technology
Something that may help reverse Eroom’s Law : that’s Moore’s law backward—which observes that the number of new drugs approved per billion dollars spent on R&D has halved every nine years since 1950.
The idea is to authentically replicate, or “bioemulate” in science-speak, the workings of human organs. This way, scientists and even clinicians without high-level expertise can determine the efficacy and safety of potential new drugs, chemicals and cosmetics, with no animal models in the process.
“This advanced technology is the beginning of a revolution in the way we study human biology and disease,” said senior scientist Geraldine Hamilton. She added that Emulate is more predictive of the human situation than animal models, besides being more cost-effective and less time-consuming. Therefore, new pharmaceuticals could get to market, and to those in need of them, more rapidly.
Another aspect of the new technology is that it paves the way for more personalized treatment with stem cells. “Our vision is we can one day put each patient’s cells on chips that mimic the function of organs, and this will open up new ways for us to design truly personalized treatment with stem cells, based on each patient’s unique genetic profile on their own individualized Organs-on-Chips,” added Shlomo Melmed, senior vice president for Academic Affairs and Dean of the medical faculty at Cedars-Sinai, one of the institutional investors in the new company.
Besides the lung-on-chip seen at the top of the page, in the last four years the researchers have also developed more than 10 types of organ/chips, including some that emulate the liver, gut, kidney, and bone marrow.
The blurring of lines between individual actors and national governments has been happening more and more in cyberspace. What has been called the first cyberwar, Russia vs. Estonia in 2007, was partly the work of a 20-year-old ethnic Russian living in Tallinn, and partly the work of a pro-Kremlin youth group associated with the Russian government. Many of the Chinese hackers targeting Western networks seem to be unaffiliated with the Chinese government. And in 2011, the hacker group Anonymous threatened NATO.
It’s a strange future we live in when we can’t tell the difference between random hackers and major governments, or when those same random hackers can credibly threaten international military organizations.
This is why people around the world should care about the Sony hack. In this future, we’re going to see an even greater blurring of traditional lines between police, military, and private actions as technology broadly distributes attack capabilities across a variety of actors. This attribution difficulty is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future.
If North Korea is responsible for the cyberattack, how is the situation different than a North Korean agent breaking into Sony’s office, photocopying a lot of papers, and making them available to the public? Is Chinese corporate espionage a problem for governments to solve, or should we let corporations defend themselves? Should the National Security Agency defendU.S. corporate networks, or only U.S. military networks? How much should we allow organizations like the NSA to insist that we trust them without proof when they claim to have classified evidence that they don’t want to disclose? How should we react to one government imposing sanctions on another based on this secret evidence? More importantly, when we don’t know who is launching an attack or why, who is in charge of the response and under what legal system should those in charge operate?
Lehman and Zechory have spent much of 2014 trying to scrub their past clean. They’ve shortened the company’s name to Genius and secured $40 million in funding to plunge fully into a Silicon Valley “pivot”: the transition from doing one thing better than anyone else—annotating rap lyrics—to doing something bigger and bolder—“annotating the world,” a capaciously vague ambition that no one, themselves included, is certain they can pull off. Annotation has been a Silicon Valley dream since the invention of the first web browser, but it has yet to produce an elegant solution comparable to what Wikipedia did with the crowdsourced encyclopedia. The Genius founders see their platform as a means for enlightened discussion in contrast to the dark world of the internet comment. Users can upload a text, click on any word, and add whatever context they deem worthwhile. Most annotations must be approved by other members of the Genius community, so that only valuable commentary, grounded in specific parts of a given text, will pass muster and appear on the site. But the Genius founders’ ultimate goal is bigger still. If their plans come to fruition, users will visit genius.com to annotate Shakespeare, Apple earnings reports, and the State of the Union, but the Genius platform will be built into the code of every website in the world, allowing users to mark up any text, anywhere. “It’s gonna take a decade to build or more,” the investor Horowitz said. “But it ought to be as long-lasting as any technology company that’s getting built right now and any that’s in existence.” In grasping for an analogy to encompass their ambition, the Genius founders have variously described the project as a “wall of history” and an “internet Talmud.” Critics, who consider the majority of its annotations sophomoric at best, have called it an “internet decoder ring.”
“All Rhodes Scholars had a great future in their past.”
― Peter Thiel, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future