Science Friday

The future is written in binary 

The future is written in binary 

Superpowers such as telekinesis, mind reading and mind control have long been portrayed as merely a matter of science fiction. While advances in technology and neurology have led to some brain-controlled prosthetics that users can operate seamlessly with their minds, these inventions have largely been limited to the research setting.

Are designer babies the future? 

Are designer babies the future? 

In November of 2018, we saw the first “designer” babies being born in China after the scientist in charge used CRISPR, a novel gene-editing tool, to alter the embryos to rid the twins of a potential HIV-positive diagnosis. The success of the girls’ births was met with a lot of discussion regarding what this could mean for the future.

The code behind life’s curtains 

The code behind life’s curtains 

In an age where the power of supercomputers and the code behind the curtains of software are continually increasing in power, the implications of such advances extend beyond cold circuitry. DNA, the instructions behind life as we know it, determines the makeup of our cells, allowing for proper function or, if a mutation is present, causing disease.

Medicinal computers and the importance of documentation in AI

(Sugree/Flickr Creative Commons)

AI has recently been used as a diagnostic tool for tuberculosis and HIV. In this case, a computer which taught itself. The researchers input data into the system and the system would then determine whether or not a given patient had the disease.

In this case, the computer did well, but the exact mechanism was unknown, the AI used a “black box” algorithm. Like the human brain, a black box mechanism is a mechanism where the researchers lack information on what the algorithm looks like. Black box algorithms were key to the several advances in Deep Blue beating Kasparov and Go and other strategy games. However, some analysts found that the machine was using top-down processing of the images. Top-down processing means that a system utilizes knowledge external to the features of the problem at hand. In this case the computer utilized information about what type of x-ray was used to create the image. Cynthia Rudin argues that black boxes are problematic and that a better solution is to use explicable models in the first place. She also argues that if the algorithm is built from clinical knowledge, it will be easier for medical professionals to verify and check the work.

Black box models are important outside of medicine. In the field of criminal justice, they have been used to determine risk assessments of criminals. Yet, in the field of criminology, a post-mortem analysis yielded that COMPAS, which was intended to assess criminal risk independent of prejudice, produced samples where African American criminals obtained higher scores than European Americans with comparable or worse records. Sometimes that was due to the coding of certain crimes, and COMPAS does release the algorithm it believed was impartial. But this highlights the need for documentation, so that humans can run analyses independent of the given AI system and determine the reliability of an assessment.

Furthermore, “black boxes” inject a false sense of impartiality because there may be unknown priors that the original designers failed to realize when they designed the system. One key epistemological tool of science is replicability, or the principle that theoretically another scientist could apply the same procedures and would be able to add evidence to whether or not the significant finding depicts a true effect or a sampling quirk. However, verifying that a “black box” made a proper decision is difficult as there is no procedure that can be applied to ensure that the positive is correct, short of running conventional tests to avoid accidental misdiagnoses. With humans, you can repeat conventional procedures and if the second test is also positive you can apply Bayes’ Theorem to determine whether or not the positive is a false positive or a true positive and then make treatment decisions. However, this also represents another foray of the machine into a field that was previously occupied by humanity. The computers in this case did not make critical treatment decisions, but unless the humans can verify the procedure and confirm the analysis, doctors would be forced to accept the analysis and thus make choices based on the decisions of a machine. Luckily, it has not yet reached the level of suggesting replacement of humans, and John Hopkins does require Statistics and data science for doctorates. There is merit to AI as it reveals that humans understand how to create thinking machines which indicates knowledge of information processing and demonstrates that the TRACE model or similar models of cognition are more likely to be valid. Documentation enables humans to verify and a means of allowing  analysts to use the same data to reproduce comparable results to detect implicit biases not accounted for by the programmers or flaws in the current methodology utilized by the machine to arrive at its conclusion. 


Jacob Ningen is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at jacob.ningen@uconn.edu

Deep Brain Stimulation: It's electrifying

Deep Brain Stimulation: It's electrifying

What if you could walk into a doctor’s office and say, “I want to be less introverted” or, “I want to be braver” and plan a surgery to accomplish that desire? Would you do it? And more importantly, should you do it? While the technology is not yet at that point, deep brain stimulation could one day be used to selectively tailor changes in one’s personality.

Keto diet: proceed with caution

Keto diet: proceed with caution

The ketogenic diet uses sources of energy other than carbohydrates and glucose to fuel the body. Its goal is to use ketone, which is produced by liver from stored fat, as the body’s main source of fuel. This is known as ketosis, and to achieve it, one must deprive themself of carbohydrates for a few days and eat a controlled amount of protein (because an excess consumption of protein will interfere with ketosis). By using stored fat as the body’s source of energy, fat is shed and people see fat-loss results.

'Gene drive' technology may help eradicate malaria

'Gene drive' technology may help eradicate malaria

Malaria is the most devastating disease humanity has ever seen. Caused by the parasite plasmodium, it is transferred to humans through a certain species of mosquito. The disease has existed for the entirety of recorded human history. Through medicine and pest management techniques, we have made some headway in reducing its rampage. However, in 2015, it still killed 435,000 people. We need a technological breakthrough to extinguish the danger.

Global health literacy, advocacy and action in a modernizing world

Global health literacy, advocacy and action in a modernizing world

In an ever-modernizing world where the economies, politics and social constructs of different countries are becoming increasingly intertwined, the field of healthcare must also adapt its perspective to incorporate and all aspects of all the patients that make up our planet. Global health is an outlook that views health in both an interdisciplinary and international context, involving research and medical care that emphasizes the importance of wellness, health and healthcare equity around the world. It tackles all the common and unique factors influencing health across different cultures, involving diverse fields such as economics, politics, public policy, environmental studies, sociology, epidemiology and human rights.  

Footprints in the Human Genome March to Uncertain Future

Footprints in the Human Genome March to Uncertain Future

In recent years, science has allowed us to explore beyond the realm of everyday experience into unfamiliar and exciting territories. However, many of these new frontiers do not lie on a distant planet or in a deep ocean ecosystem, but rather delve into the very core of human life, where it begins and how that inception determines one’s life path. Dieter Egli, a developmental biologist at Columbia University, is conducting research that investigates the use of CRISPR, a powerful technology that can edit human genomes to repair mutations in human embryos.

Improved climate data should lead to change

Improved climate data should lead to change

Weather instruments have evolved from the simple thermometers, anemometers and rain gauges of old to the more advanced technology of satellites and radars. Improvements continue to be made in the field of meteorology, allowing for accurate weather reporting and creating a growing database for observing climate patterns. 

The fall and rise of resistance 

The fall and rise of resistance 

One-hundred years ago, the top cause of death was caused by infection and diseases such as tuberculosis and pneumonia occurred rampantly without cures. This all changed with the introduction of penicillin, a slew of subsequently discovered antibiotics and improvements in public health. Widespread mortality caused by bacterial infections was becoming a thing of the past and science as a whole moved forward.  

Poverty, not uneven funding, explains the achievement gap

Poverty, not uneven funding, explains the achievement gap

I grew up in East Rock, the affluent, predominantly white neighborhood that is home to the highest achieving middle school in New Haven. The city as a whole lags behind the rest of the state in terms of academic achievement, but middle schools like my alma mater which are located in wealthy, white neighborhoods regularly meet or exceed state average test scores. Conversely, poor black and Hispanic neighborhood schools often fall well short of academic standards. Unequal funding is usually blamed for achievement gaps across school districts, but it doesn’t explain this type of inter-district achievement gap. After all, there are no significant funding differences across New Haven middle schools. So what gives?

Ethics and E. Coli

Ethics and E. Coli

The most recent bout of E. coli-infested romaine lettuce brought on a major sense of déjà vu; this is the third time that romaine lettuce has been recalled due to E. coli poisoning in the past year. Since E. coli is a bacterium that lives in animal intestines and is typically found in contaminated meat, the bacteria’s source in produce seems puzzling. And although there have been many speculations, the method by which the contamination spreads from animals to plants is still unknown. As E. coli once again makes victims of unsuspecting salad eaters, one cannot help but wonder why the food industry has not yet found a solution to this health crisis.

Don’t be a Chicken, Vaccinate

Don’t be a Chicken, Vaccinate

Many of us have returned somewhat dejectedly from the past week-long break, feelings of thankfulness fading as we immerse ourselves in pre-finals studying. Meanwhile, elementary school students at Asheville Waldorf School in North Carolina are currently spending a whole 21 days off from school, but for an entirely different reason. 

The Singapore Declaration: Simple, optimistic, and highly Ineffective

The Singapore Declaration: Simple, optimistic, and highly Ineffective

Last June, President Donald Trump and Chairman Kim Jong Un of the State Affairs Commission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) met to discuss how to improve relations between the United States and North Korea. On June 12, 2018, they signed a document, known as the Singapore Declaration, that broadly mentioned that the U.S. would normalize relations with North Korea in exchange for “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula”