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How will technologies shape the future?

The New York Times gathered five big thinkers in a room at a bar for a three-hour dinner to discuss the future of healthcare and humanity under the moderation of Mark Jannot.


The five guests at the table were:

  • Catherine Mohr is an engineer, a medical doctor, Vice President of Strategy at Intuitive Surgical (makers of the Da Vinci surgical robot), and President of the Intuitive Foundation;
  • Siddhartha Mukherjee is a physician, biologist, oncologist and author of “The Gene: An Intimate History” and “The Emperor of All Maladies: a biography of cancer,” which won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction;
  • Regina Barzilay is a professor at MIT and a member of MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory;
  • George Church is a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and director of personalgenomes.org, an open-access information resource on human genomic, environmental and trait data;
  • Jennifer Egan is a writer whose most recent novel, “Manhattan Beach,” was awarded the 2018 Andrew Carnegie Medal for excellence in fiction.

The topic of the talk varied into many sections from genes editing to AI.

The first topic of genes started with a question: Will we engineer our children, and ourselves?

The idea of editing the sperm cell, collecting the best traits and removing all the diseases fascinates people. “You could edit the sperm, change that allele so that all sperm are healthy, and your offspring will be fine. All sperm come from spermatogonia stem cells in the man’s testes. You can use editing tools and work on stem cells in Petri dishes so that you’re removing the bad allele and replacing it with DNA that has been designed and synthesized on computer-controlled machines,” said Professor George Church.

However, it has not been done since scientists have not figured out the way to apply stem cells and sperm cell. Mukherjee claimed that they edited a gene in human blood stem cells to enable therapy for some form of leukemia, then they encountered technical issues, but the potential of the system is remarkable. In addition, mature people can also have their genes edited by adding and removing DNA parts. Nonetheless, in such complex system, all the adjustment can bring some unexpected side effects we can’t control.

What are the most interesting applications for AI in medicine right now?

In Barzilay’s opinion, the interesting application of AI is the ability to personalize user experience by collecting our data. She told the story of how she found out she had breast cancer. Many questions she had at the time could have been answered by AI better than human doctor who would make you wait for months to diagnose the symptoms in such an unnecessary procedure.

With the help of AI, medicine can be transformed, as it can provide early detection and save many lives. However, it might take time, but with thorough training through a huge amount of database, record, AI could reach human level in diagnosis. “To achieve this, it isn’t just recognizing what is in the picture or the sounds; these algorithms need to understand the context, where you are in the procedure, what’s going to happen and what should ordinarily happen next,” said Catherine Mohr.

Will we know too much?

As the data collected is going to be enormous, we can even actually make even deeper clinical assessment for example life expectancy. This might result in privacy problems as the body can be known too well. Your own data could also go beyond your control and fall into any hand.

Will we live longer and happier?

According to Mohr, as our living condition improves, healthcare is much better, diseases are predicted earlier, it is a fact that the longevity will be extended. However, there might still be a chance that we could only extend the weaker part of our life, which is not what we desire; secondly, our time could be longer but living too long means using more resources of the planet.

Regarding people’s happiness, “we already confront so much less death than people did, say, before antibiotics. But does having fewer of those losses really make us happier?” asked Egan.

Mohr also claimed what bring joy to life were working toward the acquisition of new skills and the ability to make choices for yourself. However, if we live in an era when machines do most of thing, we will have none of this. So what will we do with those machines? We will need an ethical framework for using machines for peace and safety, which is what Michael Dukakis Institute is doing with the AIWS Initiative.