Posts tagged with "WIRED"

Startup that selects embryos with good genes says it’s not doing eugenics

April 15, 2024

A former Thiel fellow has launched a startup allowing parents to pick which embryos they want to incubate based on which has the best genes—and is insisting that the practice doesn’t amount to eugenics, reports Futurism.

Did we mention that “eugenics” literally means “good genes”?

Or, specifically, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute, “Eugenics is the scientifically inaccurate theory that humans can be improved through selective breeding of populations.”

And trials of eugenics got an exceedingly bad rep when the Nazis used them to support the extermination of the Jews during World War II.

Anyway, in a much-discussed interview with Wired, Noor Siddiqui, the 29-year-old founder of a reproductive startup called Orchid, talked a big talk about “reducing suffering by screening embryos’ genomes.

But when Wired editor Jason Kehe asked her about the startup’s origin story—her mother’s diagnosis with retinitis pigmentosa, which has made her legally blind—things started to get dicey.

Following the sci-fi-esque rationale that changing aspects of one’s family line would essentially stop them from being born, Kehe argued during the same interview that, if Siddiqui’s maternal grandparents had had access to a service like Orchid and chosen an embryo that would not go blind, neither the CEO nor her mother would ultimately have been born.

“I mean, I’m not deleting my mom,” Siddiqui said, defensive.

“But, sort of retroactively, there is a world where you would, kind of, have deleted her,” the interviewer responded.

The Stanford-educated startup founder continued to resist the conceit, insisting that she “would have a mom,” but the woman in that theoretical timeline wouldn’t have suffered. But Kehe kept up the pressure.

“You wouldn’t have had to see her suffer,” he quipped, “because— not to be a broken record here— you wouldn’t exist.”

Eventually, the reporter tactfully moved on from the testy exchange and onto the specifics of what Orchid does. But even those failed to offer a vision of a technology and service that are different from the “e” word that Siddiqui doesn’t like having ascribed to her company.

Unlike its competitors, which only look at narrow arrays of genetic information linked to cancer and other diseases, Orchid sequences embryos’ entire genomes—for an eye-watering $2,500 per embryo screened—and has already begun doing so for a secretive list of clientele.

For all her own good intentions, however, Siddiqui seems to refuse the see that choosing embryos based on whether they have “good genes” could be a form of, well, eugenics.

“Every other time we examine something, we develop—we develop insulin, right? We’re like, ‘That’s great!’ It’s not like you’re playing god there. But you actually are, right?” she told Wired. “You’re creating something that didn’t exist before.”

After touching upon the fraught subjects of population decline and Theranos—which Siddiqui, at the mention of the latter and its founder, Elizabeth Holmes, remarked was “so mean” of her interviewer the conversation eventually fizzled out.

Nevertheless, this complicated and clearly emotional exchange shows just how dissonant the worldviews of biotech founders can be—and how genetic selection as a consumer service has crept up on us without us even noticing.

Research contact: @Futurism

AI photography is taking over social media. Why are some concerned about privacy?

December 8, 2022

The latest social media trend among users, young and old,  is sharing virtual avatars generated through the Lensa AI app, reports ABC News.

Lensa, which has been around since 2018, enables users to upload from 10 to 20 photos of their selfies or portraits—and then it creates dozens, even hundreds, of digital images called “Magic Avatars.”

While the pictures could be considered pieces of digital art, those who are worried about personal online privacy have begun raising concerns about data collection.

Cybersecurity expert Andrew Couts is a senior editor of security at WIRED—overseeing privacy policy, national security, and surveillance coverage. He recently told ABC’s Good Morning America that it’s almost “impossible” to know what happens to a user’s photos after they are uploaded onto the app.

“It’s impossible, without a full audit of the company’s back-end systems, to know how safe or unsafe your pictures may be,” Couts said. “The company does claim to ‘delete’ face data after 24 hours and they seem to have good policies in place for their privacy and security practices.”

According to Lensa’s privacy policy, the uploaded photos are automatically deleted after the AI avatars are generated, and the face data on other parts of the app is automatically deleted within 24 hours after being processed by Lensa.

Prisma Labs, the developer of Lensa AI, told ABC News in a statement that images users upload are used “solely for the purpose of creating their very own avatars.”

“Users’ images are being leveraged solely for the purpose of creating their very own avatars. The system creates a personalized version of the model for every single user and models never intersect with each other. Both users’ photos and their models are deleted within 24 hrs after the process of creating avatars is complete,” the company said in a statement. “In very simple terms, there is no[t] a ‘one-size-fits-all collective neural network’ trained to reproduce any face, based on aggregated learnings.”

The statement continued, “We are updating our Terms & Conditions to make these more clear to everyone. The much-discussed permission to use the content for development and improving Prisma’s work and its products refers to the users’ consent for us to train the copy of the model on the 10-20 pictures each particular user has uploaded,” the statement continued. “Without this clause, we would have no right to perform this training for each subsequent generation. We are fully GDPR and CCAP compliant. We store the bare minimum of data to enable our services. To reiterate, the user’s photos are deleted from our servers as soon as the avatars are generated. The servers are located in the United States.”

Couts added that he isn’t too worried about the photos because most of us already have our faces on social media. He said his main concern is data collection that can be potentially lifted from users’ phones.

Research contact: @abcnews

Scientists are working on a gene-hacking drug that could treat baldness

September 15, 2022

Using gene modification techniques, a team of researchers has come up with a new treatment for balding, Wired reports — a condition experienced to varying degrees by two-thirds of American men by age 35.

The team members—associated with the University of California-Irvine and a biotech company called Amplifica—believe they’ve identified the signaling pathway that drives hair growth to find new ways to stop stem cells from giving up on producing hair follicles.

Experiments with mice—as detailed in a new paper published in the journal Developmental Cell last month—have been promising. The mice were genetically modified to have the hair growth signaling pathway turned on permanently.

The result, according to a report in Futurism:The mice rapidly grew hair, in a promising first step towards a potentially groundbreaking treatment for an incredibly common condition—especially considering that current treatment options like hair transplants and hair growth drugs are invasive and expensive.

Using RNA sequencing, the team found that a molecule called SCUBE3, which appears to hack follicles into producing hair again, was being expressed by the mice that had their genes modified.

In an especially promising twist, the technique even worked in mice that had human hair follicles grafted to their skins.

There’s much work to do before the treatment could be used on people. But UCLA professor and Amplifica chief scientific officer Maksim Plikus has no problems envisioning a future in which SCUBE3 is a simple, Botox injection-like treatment for balding patients.

“You have a patient sitting in a dentist-like chair, they close their eyes, and then you go tch, tch, tch, tch,” Plikus told Wired.

The molecule would simply be injected into the scalp less than a millimeter into the skin, a procedure that would take less than 20 minutes, according to Plikus.

The system does have one major flaw: what if patients don’t have hair follicles to begin with? In that case, they’ll be stuck with the option of having new follicles transplanted.

Despite that limitation, scientists are investigating new ways of addressing an issue faced by the majority of the male population—and a large chunk of the female population as well—with options that are far less invasive and potentially much cheaper.

Research contact: @futurism

Taking your measure: At Redthread, the perfect pair of jeans is just a 3D body scan away

May 15, 2019

For every woman we see on the street, strutting her stuff in a skintight pair of jeans, there’s another in a dressing room somewhere, quietly swearing because she cannot find of pair that fits both her waist and her hips.

In fact, Meghan Litchfield, the founder and CEO of San Francisco-based Redthread recently told Wired that she spent years dreading going into a store to shop for jeans.

There were the garden-variety complaints: inconsistent sizing between brands, the way back pockets stretched or sagged, the humiliation of walking into a dressing room with half a dozen options only to walk out empty-handed. Even the best candidates were ill-fitting. Most of the time, she’d buy jeans one size up to fit her hips; then, ask a tailor take them in at the waist.

Litchfield, formerly a vice president at GoPro, figured there must be a way to shop that wasn’t so demoralizing. Instead of taking off-the-rack clothes to the tailor, what if she could buy her clothes tailor-made? And what if she could make that happen for other women, too?

Now, Wired reports, her company creates bespoke clothing for anyone with a smartphone. Customers choose an item from Redthread’s website, fill out a “fit quiz,” and capture a series of full-body photos with their phone. Redthread pulls 3D measurement data from those photos and, combined with a customer’s fit preferences, creates a made-to-order item.

Redthread currently offers an essential ankle pant, essential wide leg pant, a tee, and a snap jacket—fitted to the customer’s personal requirements, hand-sewn in San Francisco, and shipped to the front door in a week for just $4.99. If customers don’t like the results, that $4.99 is quickly refunded; if the patent-pending technology provides the perfect fit, the full price is invoiced ($128 for the ankle pants and $78 for the tee).

The result, Litchfield hopes, will go beyond simply outfitting a more diverse set of body types. It will upend the way clothes are bought, sold, and designed in the future.

Redthread licenses its photographic measurement technology from a company called CALA, which lifts 15 exact measurements from the pictures the customer sends in. The company then uses those measurements to tailor a garment in a dozen or so places before shipping it out.

This kind of customization represents “a huge shift in the industry,” says Sophie Marchessou, a partner at McKinsey who consults on retail brands. A McKinsey report on The State of Fashion in 2019 pointed to personalization as a key trend— especially among younger customers, noting, “They have a desire to individualize products, and they’re often willing to pay a premium for it.”

While custom-made clothing might save retailers money on returns and overstock, Marchessou says it’s not yet sustainable for most brands to ship out custom-produced single orders. Technologies like automated sewing and 3D printing for clothes could make it easier to scale up a bespoke garment business (and also drive down costs), but those technologies aren’t widely accessible yet.

Litchfield, for her part, told Wired that she imagines a world “where stacks of apparel inventory and sizes are eliminated, everyone has their measurements in a digital wallet, and all clothing is created on-demand, personalized to each person.” She thinks we’ll get there, eventually—one pair of made-to-measure pants at a time.

Research contact: @WIRED