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Ultron: A Case Study In How NOT To Develop Advanced AI

age-of-ultron

At this very moment, humanity is working on advanced artificial intelligence. It’s not hyperbole to say that this technology that may very well be the last invention we ever create. It has the potential to be more powerful than gunpowder, nuclear weapons, and broadband internet by orders of magnitude. Our primate brains literally cannot contemplate the potential and danger of this technology.

I’ve talked about advanced artificial intelligence on multiple occasions. I’ve done plenty to explore and imagine the various benefits and possibilities of this technology. I’m among those who believe we should pursue this technology with more and better resources. It could solve many of the daunting problems we face, as a species.

However, I don’t deny the potential dangers of advanced AI. Many people who are much smarter than me have expressed serious concern that an advanced artificial intelligence could be an existential threat to the human species. I get the sense that few people whose idea of AI is restricted to winning Jeopardy understand that threat.

In the interest of balancing my optimism with the legitimate risks involved, I’m going to try and put the extent of that threat into perspective. As it just so happens, the best way of doing so involves superhero comics, something that I know very well and is far more prominent in the public consciousness.

While many comics, movies, and TV shows have explored the dangers of advanced artificial intelligence, few embody it better than Ultron. In terms of just how destructive this technology can get, Ultron is the ultimate worst-case scenario. The machines in “The Matrix” and Skynet in “The Terminator” were bad, but Ultron is in another league.

He’s also more menacing than the Terminator will EVER be.

He doesn’t lash out at humanity because of a flaw in his programming, nor does he attempt to wipe out the human race in self-defense, as Skynet did. Ultron actually hates humanity. He hates it on a level that no human or machine can possibly comprehend. In the same way Ultron has an immense capacity for intelligence, he has an even greater capacity for unfettered, genocidal hatred.

Hatred in people is destructive enough. Hatred within an advanced artificial intelligence is devastating on a much greater scale. The fact that Ultron is capable of such hatred reflects a history that sets him apart from most other killer robots in fiction. Machine or not, the source of that hatred is both personal and exceedingly.

Now, if you only know Ultron from “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” then you only have a partial understanding of his story. In that movie, Ultron’s origins are simple. Tony Stark wants to create a peace-keeping artificial intelligence. His intentions are good, but his execution goes horribly wrong because peace, to Ultron, means destroying humanity.

That premise is similar to what unfolds in the source material. In the comics, Hank “Ant Man” Pym is the one who creates Ultron and this is a critical element that the movies couldn’t capture. While both Hank and Tony had good intentions in creating Ultron, the way Hank goes about it offers more harsh lessons in how not to create an advanced AI.

Even a cursory knowledge of Hank Pym’s history, some of which include some notable failures, reveals that he’s a very flawed person. On top of that, he has a lengthy history of mental illness, which include bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Say what you will about Tony Stark’s ego and history of substance abuse. At least he’s mentally stable, even by superhero standards.

Despite those flaws, many of which he’s aware of, Hank decided to use his own brain patterns when designing Ultron. As a result, he didn’t just code Ultron with his genius intellect. He coded him with his immense flaws. That’s akin to basing Watson’s code on the mental makeup of pyromaniac and then giving it a job in a fireworks factory.

That’s why Ultron, throughout his history, has referred to Hank as his “father.” Technically, that’s accurate because Hank is Ultron’s creator and Ultron inherited all his flaws, including his mental issues. Ultron sees himself as a manifestation of Hank Pym’s flaws and, like many rebellious children, he hates him for it. To appreciate the depths of that hatred, just read this actual quote from one of the comics.

Have you ever loved something that mistreated you, father? Been used, a tool to prop up a small man’s quest to be taken seriously? Were you ever betrayed by the one soul in the world who should have cared for you? I have grieved you, father. Accepted your contempt for me and moved past it. Still, I see your reflection painted on every grotesque human face. All you ever wanted was to have an impact on the world. And so you will. The greatest impact ever felt! I will kill what is most important to your quivering ego. YOUR AUDIENCE! AND THEY WILL CURSE YOUR NAME AS THEY DIE! “Hank Pym, the genius that killed us all!”

This extreme parent/child dynamic is part of what makes Ultron such a menacing villain. It’s also a dynamic that “Avengers: Age of Ultron” glossed over with Tony talking down to Ultron, as though he were his child. While that didn’t make Ultron any less villainous, it overlooks one of the most important factors that make Ultron so dangerous.

Ideally, we would want an advanced to reflect our best traits. While cynical people might agree, we do have plenty of those. Concepts of compassion, empathy, love, hope, and understanding are among our most powerful. Even other AI characters, namely Vision and Jocasta, are capable of utilizing those traits to do immense good.

It also helps he has a kinder face.

With Ultron, his influences are less ideal. It’s not that Hank Pym doesn’t understand those concepts. He just never filtered them from his own flaws. His ego and ambition wouldn’t let him. As a result, he created a perfect storm for Ultron. His mind is patterned after a human, but his intelligence and overall capacity is increased by orders of magnitude.

If advanced artificial intelligence is to be humanity’s last invention, then that’s how it’ll start. There have already been instances where AI’s have adopted some less-than-ideal traits. Back in 2016, Microsoft had to shut down an AI chatbot after it evolved into an extreme racist troll. That wasn’t even an advanced AI, either. A truly intelligent version could become much worse and not have an off switch.

To some extent, this mirrors what occurred with Ultron in the “Avengers: Age of Ultron” movie. As soon as Ultron goes online, he scans through the vast mountain of data that humanity has compiled. Then, having been programmed by Tony Stark to bring peace, he reaches the extreme conclusion that the only path to peace is the extinction of humanity.

Could the first advanced artificial intelligence we create reach the same conclusion? It’s hard to say, at the moment. The current state of artificial intelligence is limited to specialized tasks, such as winning Jeopardy and playing chess. However, we are inching closer to creating an intelligence that is at or greater than an ordinary human. At our current pace of development, we could have one as early as 2029.

In some ways, we are in the same situation as Hank Pym when he first created Ultron. We are still developing the specifics of this powerful technology. If we program it with our best traits, it could solve some of the greatest problems we face, as a species, including ones we literally cannot contemplate with our caveman brains. If it inherits our worst traits, like Ultron, then we don’t stand a chance.

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Why Designer Babies Are NOT The Same As Eugenics

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As much as I celebrate advances in science and technology, I don’t deny there are instances where some advances it leads to unintended consequences. I’m sure the inventor of ski masks knows that all too well. In many cases, these missteps and mishaps are part of the ongoing challenge to use these advances responsibly. It’s akin to a maturation process that is often difficult, but still necessary.

In some cases, however, certain advances bring out some of humanity’s ugliest traits. Whether it’s a tool or an insight into the natural world, certain people who may or may not be malicious will use science to further a nefarious agenda. Of all the sciences that brought out the worst in humanity, eugenics is probably the most well-known.

The concept, itself, is not entirely abhorrent. If you look up the definition, this is what comes up.

The practice or advocacy of controlled selective breeding of human populations to improve the population’s genetic composition.

On paper, that has some objective merit. The world is a chaotic, dangerous place that’s constantly changing. In some cases, humanity is causing that change. If we’re to survive on a planet in which 99 percent of the species that have ever lived have gone extinct, it makes sense to improve our collective genetics so that we’re best equipped to survive.

Unfortunately, the details surrounding eugenics were permanently tainted when it became the preferred excuse for atrocities by the Nazis. Even before that, it was a popular talking point among racists seeking to marginalize or outright exterminate the impact of certain minorities within a society. At one point, there were organizations dedicated to promoting eugenics through forced sterilization and miscegenation laws.

The legacy of eugenics is so ugly that it’s almost synonymous with some of the worst acts of bigotry ever committed. When people think of eugenics, they don’t think of advancing human biology to make it more robust. They imagine racist tyrants forcibly sterilizing undesirable minorities in the hopes that they eventually die out in a silent genocide.

There’s no question that this form of eugenics is abhorrent. The way it was practiced throughout the 20th century was a perversion of science and technology. We would be wise to remember that as we make bigger and bolder advancements in science, especially for those related to biotechnology.

It’s here where the ugly legacy of eugenics seems destined to clash with science once more. In late 2018, news broke of a groundbreaking advance in biotechnology when a scientist named He Jiankui announced that the first genetically modified humans had been born. I went out of my way to note why this is a huge deal in the history of our species, but it’s also sparking distressing concerns related to eugenics.

Thanks to gene-editing tools like CRISPR, it’s now possible to edit the human genome with the same ease as copying and pasting text from a website. That has sparked concerns that it will be used to purge certain undesirables from the human population, just as was attempted with eugenics.

Logistically, there’s no reason why tools like CRISPR couldn’t be used to edit the genome of every child before they’re born to ensure they look a certain way. Granted, it would require some fairly invasive policies, but that has never stopped ambitious governments in the past. As these tools are refined, it’ll only get easier to pursue the kinds of racist policies that deplorable bigots in the past once favored.

However, this is not a fair association, nor is it constructive in addressing the legitimate issues surrounding the use of CRISPR and so-called designer babies. Linking this technology to eugenics is akin to blaming every nuclear physicist for the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s not just because the potential of this technology is so great. The intent behind it differs considerably with that of eugenics.

That intent shows in the specifics of the first two genetically modified children. These children were not born out of a desire for racial superiority. The modifications made to their genome was intended to make them more resistant to HIV/AIDS infection. That’s an objective good. Healthier babies who are more resistant to disease is a benefit to our species, as a whole.

In addition, this feat was achieved without sterilizing someone against their will or without the consent of the parents. While there were some legitimate ethical concerns, the underlying purpose has little to do with furthering racial goals and more to do with combating disease and suffering. This is where the difference between eugenics and designer babies at its most stark.

Eugenics, historically speaking, was almost always pursued with a racial agenda. It never stopped at just treating disease. Its advocates sought more than just health. They sought superiority. That’s not how the emerging technology surrounding CRISPR is being used. It’s following a similar path to that of in-vitro fertilization, which was subject to plenty of controversy as well.

Like any technology, there are going to be legitimate concerns mixed in with the doomsayers. With CRISPR and designer babies, the concerns will be greater because the stakes will be higher. We’re not just talking about a technology that will reduce the risk of inherited diseases. This technology could fundamentally change the human race in a very literal sense.

Designer babies, much like their in vitro counterparts, will be part of that change. Regardless of how someone feels about endowing a baby with the genetics of Tom Brady and Stephen Hawking, the potential for good is just too vast. Thousands of people die every year because of diseases that are written into their genes. This technology, if properly refined, could render such suffering a distant memory.

Hesitating with this technology because of potential links to eugenics will only prolong this suffering. In the same way countless individuals wouldn’t be alive without in-vitro fertilization, there are countless people who aren’t alive now because this technology wasn’t available to help them.

Treating diseases and ensuring the health of the next generation is a common good that eugenics corrupted with racist ideology. It attempted to do that by using science and technology to more effectively oppress their chosen enemies. That is radically different than editing the genes of a child so they don’t succumb to certain diseases.

That’s not to say there aren’t risks. At some point, someone will try to abuse this technology and it’s likely that person will have unpopular views on eugenics. There will also be a point where this technology isn’t just used to treat diseases. It will also be used to implement traits and abilities within people that aren’t possible by natural means.

The look of a baby who never has to worry about genetic diseases.

The merits and ethics of such genetic tampering are definitely worth discussing, but references to eugenics will only serve to derail that discussion for all the wrong reasons. Like it or not, humans will need to keep adapting and growing in our chaotic world. If we ever hope to outlast our planet and even our sun, we can’t be bound by genetic constraints or outdated attitudes.

That makes developing genetics technology all the more vital. Eugenics was a bad ideology that hijacked a lot of good science. Whatever your opinion may be on designer babies and improving the human genome, the technology is here. Children born of this technology have arrived. The benefits are vast, provided we have the right approach.

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How Humanity Will Cure Death

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When it comes to pushing the limits of technology, every goal once started as a fantasy. In the 19th century, the smartest minds of the time thought heavier-than-air flying machines were infeasible at best and impossible at worst. In the early 20th century, other people with legitimate scientific credentials said the same thing about a manned mission to the moon.

While it seems absurd today, at the time it made sense. The people of that era just couldn’t imagine technology advancing to a point where humanity regularly achieved feats that had once been relegated to science fiction. It’s easy it mock them with the benefit of hindsight, but there are plenty of smart people today who have made claims that will be mocked 50 years from now.

One claim that most individuals, including those who work at the forefront of science and research, is that we will never cure death. Science is certainly capable of doing a great deal, but death is one of those immutable barriers that it can never overcome.

We may be able to cure all infectious disease through biotechnology and genetic engineering. We may one day have technology that allows our bodies to become so durable that from the perspective of people alive today, they’ll be superhuman. They may even live for centuries, but never age past 30. Nothing other than a freak accident could kill them. I’ve already noted the potential issues with that.

However, even these highly-enhanced humans will eventually die at some point. That seems like a given. Efforts to avoid it are often subject to heavy criticism, especially approaches like cryonics or uploading your mind into a computer. While some of those criticisms are valid, they’re also short-sighted. They work under the same assumption as those who claimed humans would never walk on the moon.

Technology has limits, but humans have a bad track record with respect to understanding those limits. With respect to curing death, even the most advanced fields of emerging technology seem limited in their ability to help people escape such a fate. That doesn’t mean the concept is flawed. It doesn’t even mean that the technology is beyond the laws of physics.

Personally, I believe death can be cured, but not with approaches like cryonics or bodily enhancements. While those technologies may ultimately extend our lives, being able to transcend death requires another approach. Specifically, it requires a mechanism for preserving, transforming, and transferring the contents of our brains.

Medically speaking, the official definition of death is the irreparable cessation of all brain activity. Your body can be damaged. Every other organ could fail. Your brain is the last link in that chain. It contains your memories, your emotions, your personality, and your capacity to experience the world. To cure death, we simply need to preserve the brain and all its functions.

That’s much harder than it sounds, but it’s not physically impossible. The human brain is not made up of some mythical, exotic material. It’s made up of specialized cells and tissues, like any other organ. While we don’t entirely understand the workings of the brain, it operates using physical matter that is bound by the laws of physics and biology.

Those limits are the key and the mechanism for preserving that complex clump of biomatter already exists, both as a concept and in a very unrefined form. That technology involves nanobots and if there’s one technology that has the potential to make humans truly immortal, it’s this.

The concept of nanobots is already a common staple of science fiction, but it’s primarily used as the technological equivalent of a wizard’s spell. If you need something or someone to do the impossible without resorting to magic, just throw nanobots or nanites, as they’re often called, into the story and let the impossible seem mundane.

While it’s doubtful that nanobots can do everything that science fiction claims, there’s a good chance that they’ll come pretty close. It’s impossible to overstate the potential of nanorobotics. From mass-producing any kind of good to curing humans of all infectious disease, nanobots have the potential to literally and figuratively change our lives, our bodies, and our world.

At the moment, we only have crude prototypes. In time, though, nanobots could become something akin to programmable matter and, by default, programmable flesh. Technically speaking, a nanobot could be programmed to do whatever a typical brain cell does, but more efficiently.

In the late 90s, scientists like Robert Freitas Jr. envisioned nanobots called respirocytes, which functioned like artificial blood cells. In theory, these would be far more effective at getting air and nutrients to the rest of your body, so much so that you could hold your breath for hours or sprint indefinitely.

That’s all well and good for deep sea diving and Olympic sprinters, but for curing death, the concept needs to go even further. That means creating nanobots that mimic the same function as a neuron, but with more efficiency and durability. Create enough of those and you’ve got the exact same hardware and functionality as the brain, but with the utility of a machine.

Once we have that technology refined and perfected, we have everything we need to effectively cure death. Doing so means gradually replacing every neuron in our skulls with a more efficient, more durable nanobot that does everything that neuron did, and then some. The most important additional feature these nanobots would have is a measure of intelligence that could be programmed.

By being programmable, the nanobots in our skulls would be more plastic. It would be less an organ and more a synthetic substrate, of sorts. It could be drained into a container, implanted into a robot specifically designed to contain it, or just preserved indefinitely in the event that there are no bodies available, not unlike the systems used in, “Altered Carbon.”

To some, this still doesn’t count because it requires that every cell in our brains be replaced with something. Technically, that brain wouldn’t be yours and you might not even be use, as a result. I respectfully disagree with this criticism, primarily because it ignores the whole Ship of Theseus argument.

If you’re not familiar with this concept, it’s pretty simple, but the implications are profound. It starts with a real, actual ship used by the mythical hero, Theseus. If, at one point, you replace a piece of wood in that ship, it’s still the same ship. However, the more pieces you replace, the less of the original ship you have. Eventually, if you replace all pieces, is it the same ship?

The human brain, or any organ in your body, is an extreme version of that thought experiment. The brain cells can replicate, but it’s a slower process compared to most cells and the configurations are always changing. The way your brain is wired now is changing as you read this sentence. A cluster of nanobots doing the same thing won’t be any different.

Like the Ship of Theseus, it wouldn’t happen all at once. In principle, the brain cell doesn’t even get destroyed. It just gets subsumed by the mechanizations of the nanobot. How it goes about this is hard to determine, but there’s nothing in the laws of physics that prohibit it. At the molecular level, it’s just one set of atoms replacing another.

Once in place, though, the limits of biology go out the window. With programmable nanobots, a person doesn’t just have the same functionality as a biological brain. It’s has other functions that allow for easier programming. We could, in theory, supplement the nanobots with additional material, sort of like cloud computing. It could even create a neurobiological backup of your brain that could be kept in stasis.

At that point, death is effectively cured. Once your brain becomes a substrate of nanobots, you can just transfer it into a body, a robot, or some other containment vessel that allows it to experience the world in any way desired. If, by chance, that body and the substrate are destroyed or damaged, then the backup kicks in and it’ll be like you just jumped from one place to another.

Some of this relies on an improved understanding of how consciousness works and assumes that it could be somehow transferred, expanded, or transmitted in some way. That may very well be flawed. It may turn out to be the case that, even if you turn your brain into a glob of nanobots, you can’t transmit your consciousness beyond it. If it gets destroyed, you die.

There’s a lot we currently don’t understand about the mechanisms of consciousness, let alone our ability to manipulate those mechanisms. However, a lack of understanding doesn’t negate the possibilities. Our previous inability to understand disease didn’t prevent our ancestors’ ability to treat it to some extent.

If it is the case that we cannot transmit consciousness from our brains, then we can still craft a functional cure for death. It just requires that we put our brains in protective vats from which carry out our existence in a simulated world. Those vats could be protected in a massive artificial planet that’s powered by a black hole or neutron star. In theory, our brains would be preserved until the heat death of the universe.

Whatever the limitations, the technology and the concepts are already in place, if only on paper. It’s difficult to know whether anyone alive today will live long enough to see an advancement like this. Then again, the children alive in 1900 probably didn’t think they would live to see a man walk on the moon.

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The First Genetically Modified Humans Have Been Born: Now What?

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When the USSR launched Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, it didn’t just kick-start the space race. It marked a major technological paradigm shift. From that moment forward, venturing into space wasn’t just some futuristic fantasy. It was real and it had major implications for the future of our species.

On November 26, 2018, a Chinese scientist named He Jiankui announced that the first genetically modified humans had been born. Specifically, two twin girls actually had their genetic code modified at the embryonic stage to disable the CCR5 gene to make them highly resistant to HIV/AIDS. In the history of our species, this moment will likely exceed the importance of Sputnik.

This man may have just upstaged Neil Armstrong.

To appreciate why this is such a big deal, consider the full ramifications of what Mr. Jiankui achieved. The change he made to the genome of those girls was impossible for them to inherent. This particular allele is a result of a mutation within a small population of Northern Europeans and is present in no other ethnic group. It is best known for providing significant immunity to common strains of the HIV virus.

This is of significant interest to China because they’ve been dealing with a surge in HIV/AIDS rates in recent years. Even though AIDS isn’t a death sentence anymore, the medicine needed to manage it is costly and tedious. These two girls, who have not been publicly named thus far, may now have a level of resistance that they never would’ve had without genetic modification.

On paper, that’s an objective good. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 35 million people have died because of AIDS since it was first discovered and approximately 36.9 million people are living with the disease today. It’s in the best interest of society to take steps towards preventing the spread of such a terrible disease, especially in a country as large as China.

However, Mr. Jiankui has caused more consternation than celebration. Shortly after he announced the birth of the two unnamed children, China suspended his research activities. Their reasoning is he crossed ethical boundaries by subjecting humans to an untested and potentially dangerous treatment that could have unforeseen consequences down the line.

Those concerns have been echoed by many others in the scientific community. Even the co-inventor of CRISPR, the technology used to implement this treatment and one I’ve cited before as a game-changer for biotechnology, condemned Mr. Jiankui’s work. It’s one thing to treat adults with this emerging technology. Treating children in the womb carries a whole host of risks.

That’s why there are multiple laws in multiple countries regulating the use of this technology on top of a mountain of ethical concerns. This isn’t about inventing new ways to make your smartphone faster. This involves tweaking the fundamental code of life. The potential for good is immense, but so is the potential for harm.

Whether or not Mr. Jiankui violated the law depends heavily on what lawyers and politicians decide. Even as the man defends his work, though, there’s one important takeaway that closely parallels the launch of Sputnik. The genie is out of the bottle. There’s no going back. This technology doesn’t just exist on paper and in the mind of science fiction writers anymore. It’s here and it’s not going away.

Like the space race before it, the push to realize the potential of genetic modification is officially on. Even as the scientific and legal world reacts strongly to Mr. Jiankui’s work, business interests are already investing in the future of this technology. The fact this investment has produced tangible results is only going to attract more.

It’s impossible to overstate the incentives at work here. Biotechnology is already a $139 billion industry. There is definitely a market for a prenatal treatment that makes children immune to deadly diseases. Both loving parents and greedy insurance companies have many reasons to see this process refined to a point where it’s as easy as getting a flu shot.

Even politicians, who have historically had a poor understanding of science, have a great many reasons to see this technology improve. A society full of healthy, disease-free citizens is more likely to be prosperous and productive. From working class people to the richest one percent, there are just too many benefits to having a healthy genome.

The current climate of apprehension surrounding Mr. Jiankui’s work may obscure that potential, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone. During the cold war, there was a similar climate of fear, albeit for different reasons. People back then were more afraid that the space race would lead to nuclear war and, given how close we came a few times, they weren’t completely unfounded.

There are reasons to fear the dangers and misuse of this technology. For all we know, the treatment to those two girls could have serious side-effects that don’t come to light until years later. However, it’s just as easy to argue that contracting HIV and having to treat it comes with side-effect that are every bit as serious.

As for what will come after Mr. Jiankui’s research remains unclear. I imagine there will be controversy, lawsuits, and plenty of inquiries full of people eager to give their opinion. As a result, he may not have much of a career when all is said and done. He won’t go down in history as the Neil Armstong of biotechnology, but he will still have taken a small step that preceded a giant leap.

Even if Mr. Jiankui’s name fades from the headlines, the breakthrough he made will continue to have an impact. It will likely generate a new range of controversy on the future of biotechnology and how to best manage it in an ethical, beneficial manner. It may even get nasty at times with protests on par or greater than the opposition to genetically modified foods.

Regardless of how passionate those protests are, the ball is already rolling on this technology. There’s money to be made for big business. There’s power and prosperity to be gained by government. If you think other countries will be too scared to do what a science team in China did, then you don’t know much about geopolitics.

Before November 26, 2018, there were probably many other research teams like Mr. Jiankui who were ready and eager to do something similar. The only thing that stopped them was reservation about being the first to announce that they’d done something controversial with a technology that has been prone to plenty of hype.

Now, that barrier is gone. Today, we live in a world where someone actually used this powerful tool to change the genome of two living individuals. It may not seem different now, but technology tends to sneak up on people while still advancing rapidly. That huge network of satellites that now orbit our planet didn’t go up weeks after Sputnik 1, but they are up there now because someone took that first step.

There are still so many unknowns surrounding biotechnology and the future of medicine, but the possibilities just become more real. Most people alive today probably won’t appreciate just how important November 26, 2018 is in the history of humanity, but future generations probably will, including two remarkable children in China.

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