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News: August/September 2019

Michel Serres • Transgenic monkeys • Humans “quite nice” say researchers — News reports by Anja Steinbauer

Brainy Monkeys

In an attempt to better understand human intelligence, Chinese scientists have implanted human genes in monkey brains. The gene microcephalin (MCPH1), thought to play a crucial role in human fetal brain development, was implanted in the brains of eleven rhesus monkey embryos by means of an engineered virus. Their brain development took longer than normal but the six who survived to adulthood performed much better than their peers in a control group when tested for short term memory and reaction times.

The study by Lei Shi and others, published in the Beijing journal National Science Review, was a collaboration between Kunming Institute of Zoology in Yunan, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the University of North Carolina.

The Poison, the Fish & the Solution

In order to demonstrate that a chemical substance is not harmful to humans or animals, the European Union requires extensive tests, among them data that show at which concentration the substance will kill 50% of fish. Toxicological tests that yield such information kill millions of fish per year both in the EU and the US, a moral issue of which many practical ethicists are not aware.

Kristin Schirmer, professor of environmental toxicology in Dübendorf, has found a solution. She proposes using cells from the gills of rainbow trout instead of live fish. The new measure of toxicity would be about showing at what point 50% of the gill cells die. Her method has passed all initial institutional and scientific hurdles and may well replace the old procedure within the next two years.

Michel Serres

Influential French philosopher Michel Serres died on 1 June at the age of 88. The author of more than fifty books, Serres was a pacifist and champion of dialogue between the sciences and the humanities. Hailing from Agen in the south of France, Serres studied Philosophy and became professor for the history of science at the Sorbonne in 1969. From 1984 onwards he also regularly lectured at Stanford University. In 1990 he became a member of the prestigious Académie Franc ̧ aise. On being awarded the Meister Eckhart Prize in Germany in 2012 he was lauded for his “brilliant insight into the structures of thought.” We will publish a full obituary in our next issue.

People are Nicer Than You Think

Swiss and US scientists have published surprising results of an international study in the journal Science. They conducted an ‘honesty’ test in 355 cities in 49 different countries, which, though simple, is revealing in its conclusions. They left wallets lying in the street to observe if finders would ignore, keep or try to return them to their rightful owners. They used about 17,000 wallets, all equipped with the name and contact details of their ‘owners’, some including keys, some without but most with differing amounts of money.

The greatest surprise was that the higher the amounts of cash involved were, the more likely it was that they would be returned. Of the wallets with no money about 40% were returned to their owners. Amounts of about €12 increased this percentage to 51. In further tests in Poland, the US and the UK with amounts of €80, 71% were returned. The pattern was the same in all test countries.

Furthermore, the researchers asked members of the public, including top economists, whether they thought that wallets with money would be handed back. The overwhelming majority believed that particularly higher amounts would be kept rather than returned. “The study demonstrates that our image of human beings is too negative,” commented coauthor Christian Lukas Zünd of Zurich University.

AI Exhibition Review

Ever wanted to smell the flowers of a tree that humans cut to extinction in 1912? Or to give your therapist a Turing Test? Then the Barbican, London, is where you need to be right now. Co-curated by philosopher Dr Suzanne Livingston and running until 26 August, AI: More Than Human is a thought provoking, thoroughly interactive exhibition.

It opens by placing the pursuit of Artificial Intelligence within the context of the perennial human desire to awake the inanimate. Traditional Shinto beliefs, the Jewish Golem, alchemy, and Frankenstein are all explored as expressions of this desire. Visitors are then treated to a thorough history of AI as we know it today, from Ada Lovelace to AlphaGo. The timelines and reading materials are plentiful here, but neatly presented on interactive screens. Those that don’t need a history lesson can simply enjoy the impressive collection of historical artefacts, prototype robots, and examples of AI on display.

The second half of the exhibition reveals and revels in the vastly varied world of contemporary artificial intelligence. Interacting with this world, visitors can contribute to the aesthetic education of AI, create data about the emotional experiences of drivers, watch a digitally synthesised Obama deliver a real speech on TV, communicate face-to-face with the eerie Alter 3, and much more. Many of the exhibits draw out philosophical questions ranging from the ethical to the linguistic. Others point towards a future that is sometimes frightening and always fascinating. Fittingly for the Barbican, there is a slight emphasis on the artistic avenues of artificial intelligence and this delivers a fresh take on the accelerating technology. AI: More Than Human leaves you feeling that the world of AI can offer beauty, the sublime, and new ways of creatively understanding the world. TBG

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