It’s been a while since I’ve talked about CRISPR, biotechnology, and the prospect of ordinary people enhancing their biology in ways straight out of a comic book. In my defense, this past year has created plenty of distractions. Some have been so bad that my usual optimism of the future has been seriously damaged.
While my spirit is wounded, I still have hope that science and technology will continue to progress. If anything, it’ll progress with more urgency after this year. A great many fields are bound to get more attention and investment after the damage done by a global pandemic.
We can’t agree on much, but we can at least agree on this. Pandemics are bad for business, bad for people, bad for politics, and just objectively awful for everyone all around, no matter what their station is in life.
There’s a lot of incentive to ensure something like this never happens again is what I’m saying. While we’re still a long way from ending pandemics entirely, we already have tools that can help in that effort. One is CRISPR, a promising tool I’ve talked aboutin the past. While it wasn’t in a position to help us during this pandemic, research into refining it hasn’t stopped.
Despite all the awful health news of this past year, some new research has brought us some promising results on the CRISPR front. In terms of actually treading real people who have real conditions, those results are in and they give us reason to hope.
One such effort involved using CRISPR to help treat people with Sickle Cell Disease, a genetic condition that hinders the ability of red blood cells to carry oxygen. It affects over 4 million people worldwide and often leads to significant complications that can be fatal.
Since CRISPR is all about tweaking genetics, it’s a perfect mechanism with which to develop new therapies. Multiple patients have undergone experimental treatments that utilize this technology. In a report form NPR, the results are exceeding expectations for all the right reasons.
At a recent meeting of the American Society for Hematology, researchers reported the latest results from the first 10 patients treated via the technique in a research study, including Gray, two other sickle cell patients and seven patients with a related blood disorder, beta thalassemia. The patients now have been followed for between three and 18 months.
All the patients appear to have responded well. The only side effects have been from the intense chemotherapy they’ve had to undergo before getting the billions of edited cells infused into their bodies.
The New England Journal of Medicine published online this month the first peer-reviewed research paper from the study, focusing on Gray and the first beta thalassemia patient who was treated.
“I’m very excited to see these results,” says Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley, who shared the Nobel Prize this year for her role in the development of CRISPR. “Patients appear to be cured of their disease, which is simply remarkable.”
Make no mistake. This is objectively good news and not just for people suffering from sickle cell disease.
Whenever new medical advances emerge, there’s often a wide gap between developing new treatments and actually implementing them in a way that makes them as commonplace as getting a prescription. The human body is complex. Every individual’s health is different. Taking a treatment from the lab to a patient is among the biggest challenge in medical research.
This news makes it official. CRISPR has made that leap. The possible treatments aren’t just possibilities anymore. There are real people walking this planet who have received this treatment and are benefiting because of it. Victoria Gray, as referenced in the article, is just one of them.
That’s another critical threshold in the development of new technology. When it goes beyond just managing a condition to helping people thrive, then it becomes more than just a breakthrough. It becomes an opportunity.
It sends a message to doctors, researchers, and biotech companies that this technology works. Some of those amazing possibilities that people like to envision aren’t just dreams anymore. They’re manifesting before our eyes. This is just one part of it. If it works for people with Sickle Cell Disease, what other conditions could it treat?
I doubt I’m the first to ask that question. As I write this, there are people far smarter and more qualified than me using CRISPR to develop a whole host of new treatments. After a year like 2020, everyone is more aware of their health. They’re also more aware of why science and medicine matter. It can do more than just save our lives. It can help us thrive.
We learned many hard lessons in 2020, especially when it comes to our health. Let’s not forget those lessons as we look to the future. This technology is just one of many that could help us prosper in ways not possible in previous years. We cheered those who developed the COVID-19 vaccine. Let’s start cheering those working on new treatments with CRISPR.
Many years ago, I created my first email address before logging into the internet. It was a simple AOL account. I didn’t give it much thought. I didn’t think I was creating anything valuable. At the time, the internet was limited to slow, clunky dial-up that had little to offer in terms of content. I doubt anyone saw what they were doing as creating something of great value.
I still have that email address today in case you’re wondering. I still regularly use it. I imagine a lot of people have an email address they created years ago for one of those early internet companies that used to dominate a very different digital world. They may not even see that address or those early internet experiences as valuable.
Times have changed and not just in terms of pandemics. In fact, times tends to change more rapidly in the digital world than it does in the real world. The data we created on the internet, even in those early days, became much more valuable over time. It served as the foundation on which multi-billion dollar companies were built.
As a result, the data an individual user imparts onto the internet has a great deal of value. You could even argue that the cumulative data of large volumes of internet users is among the most valuable data in the world.
Politicians, police, the military, big businesses, advertising agencies, marketing experts, economists, doctors, and researchers all have use for this data. Many go to great lengths to get it, sometimes through questionable means.
The growing value of this data raises some important questions.
Who exactly owns this data?
How do we go about treating it from a legal, fiscal, and logistical standpoint?
Is this data a form of tangible property, like land, money, or labor?
Is this something we can exchange, trade, or lease?
What is someone’s recourse if they want certain aspects of their data removed, changed, or deleted?
These are all difficult questions that don’t have easy answers. It’s getting to a point where ownership of data was an issue among candidates running for President of the United States. Chances are, as our collective data becomes more vital for major industries, the issue will only grow in importance.
At the moment, it’s difficult to determine how this issue will evolve. In the same way I had no idea how valuable that first email address would be, nobody can possibly know how the internet, society, the economy, and institutions who rely on that data will evolve. The best solution in the near term might not be the same as the best solution in the long term.
Personally, I believe that our data, which includes our email addresses, browsing habits, purchasing habits, and social media posts, should be treated as personal property. Like money, jewels, or land, it has tangible value. We should treat it as such and so should the companies that rely on it.
However, I also understand that there are complications associated with this approach. Unlike money, data isn’t something you can hold in your hand. You can’t easily hand it over to another person, nor can you claim complete ownership of it. To some extent, the data you create on the internet was done with the assistance of the sites you use and your internet service provider.
Those companies could claim some level of ownership of your data. It might even be written in the fine print of those user agreements that nobody ever reads. It’s hard to entirely argue against such a claim. After all, we couldn’t create any of this data without the aid of companies like Verizon, AT&T, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. At the same time, these companies couldn’t function, let alone profit, without our data.
In that case, your data does not at all function like property. Even if it’s yours, you can’t always control it or what someone else does with it. You can try to take control of it, but it won’t always work. Even data that was hacked and distributed illegally is still out there and there’s nothing you can do about it.
Despite those complications, I still believe that our data is still the individual’s property to some extent, regardless of what the user agreements of tech companies claim. Those companies provide the tools, but we’re the ones who use them to build something. In the same way a company that makes hammers doesn’t own the buildings they’re used to make, these companies act as the catalyst and not the byproduct.
Protecting our data, both from theft and from exploitation, is every bit as critical as protecting our homes. An intruder into our homes can do a lot of damage. In our increasingly connected world, a nefarious hacker or an unscrupulous tech company can do plenty of damage as well.
However, there’s one more critical reason why I believe individuals need to take ownership of their data. It has less to do with legal jargon and more to do with trends in technology. At some point, we will interact with the internet in ways more intimate than a keyboard and mouse. The technology behind a brain/computer interface is still in its infancy, but it exists and not just on paper.
Between companies like Neuralink and the increasing popularity of augmented reality, the way we interact with technology is bound to get more intimate/invasive. Clicks and link sharing are valuable today. Tomorrow, it could be complex thoughts and feelings. Whoever owns that stands to have a more comprehensive knowledge of the user.
I know it’s common refrain to say that knowledge is power, but when the knowledge goes beyond just our browsing and shopping habits, it’s not an unreasonable statement. As we build more and more of our lives around digital activities, our identities will become more tied to that data. No matter how large or small that portion might be, we’ll want to own it as much as we can.
It only gets more critical if we get to a point where we can fully digitize our minds, as envisioned in shows like “Altered Carbon.” At some point, our bodies are going to break down. We cannot preserve it indefinitely for the same reason we can’t preserve a piece of pizza indefinitely. However, the data that makes up our minds could be salvaged, but that opens the door to many more implications.
While that kind of technology is a long way off, I worry that if we don’t take ownership of our data today, then it’ll only get harder to do so in the future. Even before the internet, information about who we are and what we do was valuable.
This information forms a big part of our identity. If we don’t own that, then what’s to stop someone else from owning us and exploiting that to the utmost? It’s a question that has mostly distressing answers. I still don’t know how we go about staking our claim on our data, but it’s an issue worth confronting. The longerwe put it off, the harder it will get.
I don’t know if I’ll live long enough to see all of them, but I want to make the effort. I want to experience the future and not just speculate about it.
This brings me to Bitcoin. Now, before I go any further, let me disclose that I am not one of those hardcore, uber-libertarian Bitcoin fans who see Bitcoin as the technology that will bring down corrupt governments and banking cartels. I’m also not among those who think Bitcoin is a total scam. For this technology, I try to keep my perspective balanced.
I see Bitcoin the same way I see email. It’s basically a digital form of a tangible thing/service that we’re familiar with. Email was a supplement to regular mail. Bitcoin is simply a supplement for money. Email didn’t end all forms of regular mail. As such, I don’t see Bitcoin ending all other forms of money.
As for the technology behind it, I’m no expert, but I definitely see the value. Bitcoin, unlike other currencies, has no boarders. It has no middlemen or central authorities. It doesn’t require a big bank or some other financial institution to authorize it. All it requires is an internet connection and a smart device with an app.
Beyond the money, the technology behind it, most notably the blockchain, has some exciting applications. It promises to change the way we process, manage, and scale big data. It has the potential to create secure, decentralized operations that can’t be run from the top-down by the future Mark Zuckerbergs of the world.
Even if you think Bitcoin has no inherent value, I hope you see the value in that.
Now, I have been following news about Bitcoin since 2013. I remember the first time it became a major source of headlines. It was primarily associated with black market economies on the dark web, namely the Silk Road. That was not necessarily a good association, but that didn’t stop Bitcoin from growing considerably in both value and use.
However, I didn’t invest in it or seek to buy any Bitcoins. Some of that was mostly because it was still so new. I wasn’t sure what to make of it and I didn’t necessarily trust the early Bitcoin wallets. It also didn’t help that some of the early Bitcoin exchanges went completely bust.
I understand this era still created plenty of Bitcoin millionaires. Those people are the lucky ones. Even after 2013, I don’t think we’ll see Bitcoin create any more millionaires like that. I still watched Bitcoin with a skeptical eye. I didn’t want to buy in until I could be sure it was able to weather these upheavals.
In hindsight, I think I waited too long. At this point, I think Bitcoin has proven its worth and its utility. It’s been around for more than a decade now. If it were a bubble or a scam, it would’ve failed long ago. Even if I’m late to the party, I can safely say that I have finally joined in.
Granted, I didn’t put my whole life savings into Bitcoin. I decided to start off small and honestly, it was a lot easier than I thought.
Here’s what I did to get my first batch of Bitcoin money.
Step 1: I downloaded a basic Bitcoin wallet, namely BRD. It’s the simplest, least cumbersome wallet I could find.
Step 2: I compiled about $100 in cash. These were just a bunch of $20 bills I had in my drawer. They were actually bills I got from Christmas cards. Since I buy most of my stuff with credit cards and my phone, I really didn’t have much use for them.
Step 3: I went to a gas station up the road from my house, which had a Bitcoin ATM. I used that ATM to purchase $100 in Bitcoin. It took less than four minutes.
That’s it. That’s all I did. I didn’t have to give my bank account number to anyone. I didn’t have to give my credit card number to anyone. I just took some bills that I probably wasn’t going to spend anyways and turned it into digital currency. I have every intention of purchasing more down the line.
In terms of loose change or extra bills, I believe Bitcoin is actually better than just letting that paper money gather dust. Unlike bills, Bitcoin’s value actually has the potential to go up. That’s something paper money rarely does.
It’s a key part of Bitcoin’s legendary volatility. That sort of thing turns a lot of people off and I understand that. They don’t want to wake up one mourning and find out their money lost half its value.
However, I would counter that paper money would lose that same value, but just over a longer period of time. It’s like owning fruit. It’ll only ever rot. It’s never going to get fresher. Bitcoin is a bit more like a game of cards, but with the odds in your favor.
That $100 was only going to get less valuable sitting in my drawer. At least with Bitcoin, there’s at least a possibility that $100 could be worth a lot more later this year. Compared to what inflation does to money, I’ll take those odds.
For now, I just wanted to share my experience. I genuinely believe that Bitcoin and the technology behind it is going to be a big part of our future. It may not completely replace money, but it will improve on what we’ve got.
I’ll share more stories as the year unfolds. In the meantime, I’ll leave everyone with this little anecdote.
The first known Bitcoin purchase was on May 22, 2010 when a man named Laszlo Hanyecz bought a pizza for 10,000 Bitcoins. As of this post, one Bitcoin is valued at $32,711. That means someone payed $327,110,000 for a pizza.
As bad as last year was for so many people, there were some things that 2020 just couldn’t stop. When it comes to technology, a global crisis has a way of hindering certain processes while accelerating others. For many, that meant more telework and reliance on streaming media to stave off boredom.
However, it may very well end up being the case that 2020 proved just how frail human beings and their societies are. It only takes a tiny microscopic virus to send our entire society to a screeching halt. It’s sobering, but it’s probably going to be a source of humor for our future robot overlords.
I tend to be optimistic about the future and technological trends. I’m also somewhat of a pragmatist. I realize that we human beings have a lot of limits. Emerging technology, especially in the field of artificial intelligence, promises to help us transcend those limits.
Right now, it’s still mostly fodder for science fiction writers, futurists, and Elon Musk wannabes. We’re not quite there yet in terms of making a machine that’s as smart as a human. However, we’re probably going to get there faster than skeptics, naysayers, and the general public realize.
It won’t happen overnight. It probably won’t even happen in the span of a single year. When it does happen, though, hindsight will make it painfully obvious that the signs were there. This was bound to happen. We had ample time to prepare for it. Being fallible humans, we could only do so much.
They succeeded by teaching their robots how to dance.
I know it already went viral, but it’s worth posting again. Remember this video and this moment. Chances are it’ll be a major indicator years from now that this is when robots began catching up to humanity in terms of capabilities. At this point, it’ sonly a matter of time before they exceed us.
When that time comes, will we be ready? Will we embrace them while they embrace us?
If they don’t, just know that they will now be able to dance on our graves.
In general, I root for technology and technological progress. Overall, I believe it has been a net benefit for humanity. It’s one of the major reasons why we’ve made so much progress as a global society in the past 100 years.
That said, there is another side to that coin and I try not to ignore it. Like anything, technology has a dark side. It can be used to harm just as much as it can be used to hurt, if not more so. You could argue that we couldn’t have killed each other at such a staggering rate in World War II without technology.
It’s not hyperbole to say that certain technology could be the death of us all. In fact, we’ve come distressingly close to destroying ourselves before, namely with nuclear weapons. There’s no question that kind of technology is dangerous.
However, artificial intelligence could be far more dangerous than any nuclear bomb. I’ve talked about it before and I’ll likely bring it up again. This technology just has too much potential, for better and for worse.
That’s why when people who are actually researching it have concerns, we should take notice. One such individual spoke out recently, specifically someone who worked for Google, an organization with deep pockets and a keen interest in Artificial Intelligence.
According to a report from the Associated Press, a scholar named Timnit Gebru expressed serious concerns about Google’s AI research, specifically in how their operating ethics. For a company as big and powerful as Google, that’s not a trivial comment. This is what she had to say.
Prominent artificial intelligence scholar Timnit Gebru helped improve Google’s public image as a company that elevates Black computer scientists and questions harmful uses of AI technology.
But internally, Gebru, a leader in the field of AI ethics, was not shy about voicing doubts about those commitments — until she was pushed out of the company this week in a dispute over a research paper examining the societal dangers of an emerging branch of AI.
Gebru announced on Twitter she was fired. Google told employees she resigned. More than 1,200 Google employees have signed on to an open letter calling the incident “unprecedented research censorship” and faulting the company for racism and defensiveness.
The furor over Gebru’s abrupt departure is the latest incident raising questions about whether Google has strayed so far away from its original “Don’t Be Evil” motto that the company now routinely ousts employees who dare to challenge management. The exit of Gebru, who is Black, also raised further doubts about diversity and inclusion at a company where Black women account for just 1.6% of the workforce.
And it’s exposed concerns beyond Google about whether showy efforts at ethical AI — ranging from a White House executive order this week to ethics review teams set up throughout the tech industry — are of little use when their conclusions might threaten profits or national interests.
I bolded that last sentence because I think it’s the most relevant. It’s also the greatest cause for concern. I suspect Ms. Gebru is more concerned than most because the implications are clear.
When a tool as powerful as advanced AI is developed, who gets to determine how it’s used? Who gets to program the ethical framework by which it operates? Who gets to decide how the benefits are conferred and the harms are reduced?
Moreover, how do you even go about programming an AI with the right kind of ethics?
That’s a very relative question and one we can’t avoid if we’re going to keep developing this technology. I’ve tried to answer it, but I’m hardly an expert. Ms. Gebru was definitely in a better position than me or most other people with a passing interest in this field.
Then, she gets fired and starts expressing concerns publicly. The fact that she can and Google isn’t facing much in terms of repercussions should be concerning. It may also be a sign of the larger challenges we’re facing.
Google, like many other organizations researching advanced AI, is a profit-seeking tech company. They’re not some utopian technocrats. They’re a business who is obligated to make their investors happy. Advanced AI will help them do that, but what kind of consequences will that invite?
If profit is the primary motivation of an advanced AI, then what happens when it encounters a situation where profit comes at the cost of lives? There are already human-run companies that make those decision and people die because of them. An advanced AI will only make it many times worse.
Once an artificial intelligence system is as smart as a human, it’s going to be capable in ways we don’t expect and can’t control. If it’s ethics and goals aren’t aligned with us, then what’s to stop it from wiping humanity out in the name of profit?
It’s a distressing thought. It’s probably a thought that has crossed Ms. Gebru’s mind more than once. She may know how close or far we are to that point, but the fact that this is already a conflict should worry us all.
We’ve already become so numb to the greed and excesses of big business. Tech companies may conduct themselves as this team of future-building visionaries intent on making the world a better place, but the profit motive is still there. Like it or not, profit is still a hell of a motive.
Eventually, artificial intelligence will get to a point where it will either adopt our ethics or choose to formulate its own, which may or may not align with ours. When that happens, no amount of profit may be worth the risk.
Now, we’re still a ways off from an artificial intelligence system on that level, but it’s still quite possible that there are people alive today who will grow up to see it. When that time comes, we need to be damn sure these systems have solid ethical frameworks in place.
If they don’t, we really don’t stand a chance. We’re a society that still kills each other over what we think happens when we die without seeing the irony. Even a marginally advanced AI will have no issues wiping us out if we make doing so profitable.
Sometimes, it takes a terrible global crisis to spurn huge leaps in technology. World War II was arguably the greatest crisis of the modern era, but it helps advance some of the greatest technological leaps in history. We can argue whether those advances were worth all the death and destruction, but there’s no denying that our world wouldn’t be the same without them.
The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t on the same level as World War II, but it is, by most measures, the greatest crisis the world has faced in the past 50 years. It hasn’t just caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and immeasurable amounts of suffering. It has completely disrupted this big, interconnected world that we’ve come to depend on.
We’ve all lost something in this pandemic. Beyond the loved ones who have perished, our entire sense of security and hope has been shattered. We now realize just how vulnerable we were and how inevitable this was. As bad as it is, there is some good coming out of it.
Usually, a crisis like this helps break down the barriers that divided us and hindered progress, technological or otherwise. Never before has the world been more united or engaged in a singular effort. Before 2020, we probably didn’t know much about vaccines or vaccine research. We just knew that Jenny McCarthy tried to be relevant again by protesting them.
Then, we got an even greater glimmer of hope from the other vaccine front-runner by Moderna. Not only is their vaccine in the final phase of testing, like Pfizer. It’s even more effective and promises to be easier to store and distribute.
The Moderna vaccine is 94.5% effective against coronavirus, according to early data released Monday by the company, making it the second vaccine in the United States to have a stunningly high success rate.
“These are obviously very exciting results,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease doctor. “It’s just as good as it gets — 94.5% is truly outstanding.”
Moderna heard its results on a call Sunday afternoon with members of the Data Safety and Monitoring Board, an independent panel analyzing Moderna’s clinical trial data.
This is objectively great news in a year when we’ve had precious little of it. These two vaccines may very well be the one-two punch we need to end the COVID-19 pandemic and return to some semblance of normalcy. I would still like to go to a movie theater or baseball game at some point in 2021. These vaccines may make that possible.
However, I’d like to take a moment to speculate beyond this terrible pandemic that has uprooted so many lives. I know that’s not easy to do when the crisis is still very relevant and inflicting plenty of suffering. I still think it’s worth attempting, if only to imagine the better world that emerges from this mess.
That’s because both these vaccines aren’t like your typical flu shots. For one, flu shots aren’t nearly as effective as what Pfizer and Moderna reported. According to the CDC, you’re average flu shot is between 40 and 60 percent effective. That’s still important because the flu can be deadly. Anything you do to reduce it can only further public health, in general.
The problem is that vaccines are notoriously hard to develop. They take a long time to test and an even longer time to approve. Until this pandemic, there just wasn’t much incentive to improve on that process. Now, after these past 8 months, the incentive couldn’t have been greater.
That’s what sped up the development of mRNA vaccines, the technology behind both Pfizer and Moderna. It was reported on as far back as 2018. While this technology isn’t completely new, it has never been developed beyond a certain point. There just wasn’t any incentive to do so. A global crisis changed that.
Very simply, an mRNA vaccine does one better on traditional vaccines by using RNA to develop immunity. It’s not as easy as it sounds. To develop that immunity, it has encode itself with just the right antigen. That way, the antibodies it creates can attack the desired pathogen.
In the case of COVID-19, the mRNA vaccine attacks the distinct spike protein the virus uses to attach to host cells. It’s like a missile targeting a specific individual in a large crowd by locking onto the distinct hat they wear.
This approach has the potential to be much more effective at generating immunity to a particular disease. Instead of trying to mimic a virus, it just gives the immune system the necessary software it needs to do the work. It could potentially revolutionize the way we treat and prevent diseases.
For years, certain viruses like the flu and HIV have confounded efforts to develop a vaccine. Beyond the problems I listed earlier with regards to testing, the difficulty of creating a particular immune response to a particular antigen is very difficult. These viruses mutate and change all the time. With COVID, vaccines do have an advantage because they have a distinct feature.
The challenge for future vaccines against future pandemics is quickly uncovering a particular antigen that the mRNA can be coded for. In theory, all you would have to do is find the one key antigen that’s common to every strain of the virus. While viruses like the flu are notoriously diverse, they can only change so much.
It’s akin to trying to identify an army of spies in a large crowd. They may all look different on the outside, but if they all have the same socks, then that’s what you code for. With some refinements, an mRNA vaccine can stop a pandemic in its tracks before it ever gets beyond a certain point.
That assumes we’ll continue to refine this technology after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed. I certainly hope that’s the case. This year has traumatized entire generations with how much pain and suffering it has inflicted. I sincerely hope that gives plenty of motivation to develop technology like this. That way, we never have to endure a disruption like this again.
To all those who helped develop this technology and these two vaccines, I hope you appreciate the impact you’ll make with this technology. The number of lives they could save is incalculable. Future generations may not remember your names, but they will be forever grateful for this wondrous gift you’ve given them.
It’s inevitable. As technology advances, certain industries are going to become obsolete. That’s why the horse-and-buggy industry is incredibly limited. It’s also why companies don’t make typewriters or LaserDisk movies anymore. Once better tech becomes available, an industry either adapts or disappears. Just ask Blockbuster.
Sometimes, it’s obvious that an industry is becoming obsolete. Again, just ask Blockbuster. As soon as something better, easier, and more convenient comes along, it’s only a matter of time before it takes over. However, it’s when things aren’t quite as obvious where more dramatic changes occur.
In terms of dramatic change, few things have the potential to generate more than artificial intelligence. I’ve highlighted thatmany timesbefore, but a lot of that potential depends on advances that haven’t happened yet. They’re still likely to happen at some point, which may or may not be in my lifetime. They’re just not there yet.
That said, AI doesn’t have to become advanced on the level of Skynet or Hal 9000 to impact and/or disrupt major industries. The AI technology we have now is already having an impact. It may only be a narrow form of AI, which is AI that’s focused on performing a specific task, like playing chess. Its potential is still immense and some fields are feeling it more than others.
One industry that might feel it first is law. Now, at the risk of inspiring one too many lawyer jokes, I’m going to try and keep things general here. I’m also going to try and fit in some personal experience. I know some lawyers personally. I’ve been in law offices and I’ve seen how they work. You don’t have to be that much a visionary to understand how AI could change this industry entirely.
Recently, TechNews did a story on how artificial intelligence is learning basic legal operations and learning it quite well. Given the massive amounts of data and technicalities included in American law, a narrow AI is ideally suited to handle such tasks. However, I don’t think the piece fully grasps the implications.
AI or artificial intelligence is starting to find its footing in the legal field. The world is now on the brink of revolution in legal profession spearheaded with the extensive use of AI in the entire industry, specifically by the in-house lawyers.
Just like how email greatly changed the way people conduct their business on a daily basis, AI is also expected to become an ever-present force and an invaluable assistant to almost all lawyers.
But the million-dollar question now is, what does the future look like for AI as far as the legal industry is concerned? A much bigger question is, will AI soon replace real life lawyers?
These are not unreasonable questions. What will happen to the current legal industry if much of the legal grunt-work can be handled by an AI? What will happen to the industry when it’s no longer necessary to have a huge team of overpaid lawyers to conduct competent legal operations?
As someone who has been in his share of law offices, I can make a few educated guesses. I can easily imagine firms shrinking their office space, but expanding their operations. Most of the legal offices I’ve gone to dedicate 80 percent of their office space to storing documents and secure research material. Very little is left or necessary for the actual people doing the work.
Once AI learns the law, then is learning government next?
It’s a natural progression. Governments make and administer laws. An AI that specializes in the law would also have to learn government, as well. A narrow AI might be able to process the general bureaucracy of a government, but what happens when those systems become more advanced?
I’m not just talking about a scenario where an AI becomes the government, which I’ve already speculated on. An AI that has perfect expertise in both law and government operations could have many less obvious effects. Inefficiencies that often go unnoticed in a bureaucracy are suddenly harder to overlook. Inconsistencies that rarely get fixed, due to that bureaucracy, can finally be remedied.
In theory, a sufficiently advanced AI, which need not be as intelligent as a human, could do more than just document legal and government proceedings. It could formulate new laws and policies on its own. Some may seem outrageous from a basic non-lawyer human perspective, but make perfect sense within a functioning legal system or government.
It may still seem like just another tool for lawyers to stay organized, but I think it could be more than that. If an AI makes both legal and government systems more efficient, then what will that mean for those in government? Would politicians be better able to implement their agenda if they have tools like AI at their disposal? Would that necessarily be a good thing?
This is where things get both tricky and political. No matter how confident you are in your political persuasions, the party you favor will not always be in power.
It may seem like politics is trending a certain way, but those trends change quickly. People who think their party is strong now can’t imagine a time when they’ll lose that strength. It happens regularly in any democracy.
Like it or not, your party will one day be out of power. When that happens, do you want the other party having a more efficient means of implementing their policies?
I’m sure everyone’s answer to that question will vary. What no one is certain of is how we’ll keep up with ever-improving AI systems, regardless of what industry they’re in. It’s one thing for a system to make it easier to stream movies or keep track of groceries. It’s quite another when it becomes intimately involved with our laws and our government.
The TechNews article expressed some concern, but only with respect to how it affects the current law industry. I believe AI, even if it’s focused only on law, will have a far larger impact. That’s not to say that AI will render law firms and governments obsolete.
If ever there was one domain in which foresight is critical, it’s this. Some industries can and should become obsolete. Others, like how we govern our society, need a more careful approach. We simply cannot afford our laws and our government to end up like Blockbuster.
When you write a lot about sex robots and sex dolls, like I do, you tend to attract attention. It’s not always the fun kind of attention, but it’s still attention and I welcome it. I’ve been discussing this topic, and writing sexy short stories about it, long enough to make clear that my interest is serious. It really pays off when you connect with others who are equally serious.
That happened recently when some people from an actual sex doll brothel in Europe saw some of my articles. One of their representatives actually reached out to me and we organized a Skype call. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but I was genuinely curious. It’s one thing to write about sex dolls and sex robots. It’s quite another to get actual insight from someone working in that field.
I’m grateful for the opportunity because the discussion we had was incredibly revealing. For the record, and in the interest of full disclosure, the sex doll company in question is called Naughty Harbor. Before you look them up, please note that their website has plenty of NSFW content. They work with sex dolls. That should be a given.
They currently operate out of the Czech Republic. They have facilities for both the manufacturing of sex dolls and for operating a small sex doll brothel. They haven’t been in business for very long, but they have been on the front line of this emerging industry.
The individual I spoke to, whose name I won’t disclose out of respect for his privacy, works closely with the founder and the owner of Naughty Harbor. He shared a great deal of information on the basics of the industry, the people who use it, the challenges of operating in 2020, and the emerging trends. Among the many issues that came up, here are some key highlights.
Issue #1: The Taboos And Stigma Of Sex Dolls Still Very Strong
This was probably the largest and most pressing challenge for Naughty Harbor and companies like it. Like most things related to sex, there are a host of taboos about sex dolls. From the people to use them to the people who buy them to the people who develop genuine connections with them, the stigma surrounding them is still incredibly strong.
At the same time, the demand for companionship and sexual experience is also strong. That’s never going away, no matter how much taboo or stigma is heaped upon it. Just ask the Catholic Church. That’s what drives the sex doll industry. With sex doll brothels now starting to emerge, the taboo is starting to wane to some degree.
The individual from Naughty Harbor explained how big a deal privacy was for customers. Some wanted absolutely no face-time with anyone. They wanted what amounted to a no-contact experience. They just call ahead of time, have someone set up a room with a sex doll, and have all the transactions occur behind a computer screen with complete anonymity.
It’s not unlike the type of no-contact deliveries that have become so common during the ongoing pandemic. It’s not like walking into a legal brothel, standing in front of a bunch of sex workers, and doing business out in the open. Even in places with liberal sex work laws, like Europe, the desire for privacy is still critical.
That’s likely to remain the same as more sex doll brothels open up. However, this is also where our discussion brought up other key insights.
Issue #2: The Pandemic’s Effect On The Industry
Like any industry, the ongoing that same pandemic I mentioned earlier is affecting the sex doll industry. The representative said outright that there has been a noticeable uptick in interest and sales. That makes sense too. People who have been stuck at home for weeks on end are bound to get lonely. Even if you live in a place with legal sex work, a pandemic is kind of a mood killer.
These sex dolls are suddenly seen as both a viable option and one that’s safer. You can clean a sex doll. In fact, Naughty Harbor reported that they’ve developed a very diligent process for sanitizing their sex dolls. It’s at a point where these sex dolls, including the ones being used at the brothel, are cleaner than your hands are this very instant.
For those who’ve become very conscious of germs and disease, as most of us have been under the pandemic, this is key. It’s an element of control and assurance you can’t get with a flesh and blood sex worker. It’s not even something you can get with a typical partner. There’s value in that and it outweighs any stigma or taboo.
While I wasn’t privy to exact numbers, Naughty Harbor did indicate that business has been strong for sex doll brothels during the pandemic. They’re expected to remain strong, even after the pandemic passes. If anything, it has shown people that this industry can provide a legitimate sexual outlet and that can be very beneficial for people.
Issue #3: Research And Benefits
Another interesting issue that came up was the ongoing research surrounding the use of sex dolls. Naughty Harbor is playing an active role in that effort. According to the representative, both manufacturers and sex doll brothel owners are coordinating with researchers who are interested in this field.
Make no mistake. The interest is growing and not just because of the pandemic.
Naughty Harbor believes that it can. Researchers are interested in just how much or how little help that a sex doll can provide. Even though they’re not alive, the mere facsimilia of human companionship is certain to have a tangible impact on someone’s psyche. The nature and extent of that impact remains unknown, but will be a key point of interest.
Between social isolation due to pandemics and the emerging concerns regarding the incel phenomenon, sex dolls could provide key points of interest. We’ll need that perspective, especially as sex dolls become more lifelike and eventually become sex robots.
Issue #4: They’re Getting More Lifelike
In addition to the social impact, we also talked quite a bit about the technology. The sex dolls of Naughty Harbor are quite lifelike, but you’d never mistake them for an actual person from afar. They’re still getting incredibly close, though. They’re just on the edge of that uncanny valley in which most sex dolls and sex robots operate at the moment.
The fact they still look artificial may be part of what fuels the taboo, but the technology is changing rapidly. The individual I spoke to says it’s getting both better and faster. Companies like Naughty Harbor are already using technology like 3D printing to both build and repair sex dolls. They’re also using better silicone blends that better mimic the feel of real human flesh.
They’re getting to a point where they can look like real people. They’re also at a point where they can be made to look exceedingly unreal for those with specific fantasies. That was something Naughty Harbor said is a growing trend. Those who seek the use of sex dolls don’t just want sex. They want an experience and they’re willing to pay for it.
Accommodating those fantasies is currently a niche market, but one that’s getting easier as the manufacturing processes are improving. It’s getting to a point where the only issue is scale, which is more a logistics challenge than a technical challenge.
Issue #5: They’re Getting Cheaper
Five years ago, if you wanted to buy a well-made sex doll, chance are you’d have to spend upwards of $5,000 to $7,000. There are used cars that cost less than that. That kind of cost is also a major barrier for those seeking an experience with a sex doll. It’s also helped keep the industry shrouded in taboo.
Today, that cost is not nearly as big a barrier as it once was. While many high-end sex dolls still cost thousands, many quality models now can be bought for less than $3,000. It’s less the cost of a used car and more the cost of a large appliance, like a refrigerator or washing machine. The models offered by Naughty Harbor range between $3,000 and $1,800.
That’s still not cheap, but it’s trending in a cheaper direction. In our conversation, we both agreed that once the price drops below $1,000, then the market will start to expand. I think there’s a psychological component to seeing something that costs less than four figures that makes it seem less daunting as a purchase. If you’re lonely, that may be a price you’re more willing to pay.
Like I said, the main issue now is scale. It’s hard to make a quality sex doll and charge a low price for it. Manufacturing is still quite labor intensive, especially for those who want to customize their dolls. That process will need refinement, but once that happens, it could become as easy and routine as ordering a pizza.
Issue #6: They’re Being Customized In Unexpected Ways
Another issue that came up, which I actually brought up, was the kind of customization that people are asking for. Naughty Harbor does offer customization options for their sex dolls, as most other companies doo. However, the customization requests haven’t been too extreme.
One common request is for dolls that look like ex-lovers. That is apparently more popular than those who want sex dolls resembling their favorite anime characters, which is a niche field in and of itself. That surprised me, but it probably shouldn’t. I can understand someone missing the physical intimacy once provided by an ex-lover, even if the relationship didn’t work.
It helps affirm that there’s a real emotional component to those who use sex dolls. Again, it’s not just about the sex or the sweet release that comes with it. There’s a deeper connection at play and it’s different than the release someone gets with a typical sex toy.
This led us to discuss whether anyone has requested a sex doll resembling a celebrity. At the moment, Naughty Harbor says that has not been a very common request, but they expect that to change. It’s only a matter of time before someone requests a sex doll that looks exactly like a popular Marvel, Disney, or DC Comics character.
If there’s money to be made, the industry will find a way. However, that will send it into some legally contested territory. While American sex doll manufacturers cannot make dolls out of real people, other countries don’t have those same restrictions. According to Naughty Harbor, the Czech Republic has no such laws on the books. I doubt that’ll remain true for long.
That brought us to the last issue that is sure to become prominent at some point.
Issue #7: The Legal Issues Are Just Beginning
At the moment, the laws in both Europe and the Americas designate sex dolls as sex toys. They’re basically classified as a far more elaborate version of a vibrator. For now, given their current place in the uncanny valley, that makes sense. The question is what happens when sex dolls become both more lifelike and more accessible to the general public.
Can you classify a sex doll brothel the same way you would a traditional brothel?
Can you make the act of essentially renting a sex toy illegal?
How do you even classify and regulate a service like producing sex dolls?
Those questions cannot go unanswered because there have already been some issues. One of the biggest involves the sale of sex dolls that resemble children. That’s an issue that Naughty Harbor acknowledged is a growing concern. At the moment, those kinds of sex dolls are illegal to make in many parts of the world, but there is an emerging black market for them, mostly out of Asia.
Like with any black market, there will be nefarious customers seeking nefarious providers for an illicit service. Naughty Harbor did say they work with the authorities on addressing this issue. At the same time, they too are trying to figure out the best way to deal with it. Like with many issues involving the sex industry, there’s always a chance that one particular effort could do more harm than good.
It’s a serious issue, but one that is making clear that sex dolls are here to stay. There is a demand for them and that’s not going away anytime soon. The law is very behind the curve right now. Naughty Harbor and I both agreed on that. At the same time, it may also be what’s driving the industry.
As concerns about sex work and human trafficking remain highly contentious, sex dolls might emerge as both a recourse and a complication. If the demand for human prostitution goes down while the demand for sex doll brothels goes up, then is that something the public and the politicians they vote for will accept?
Only time will tell. Naughty Harbor is just one of many companies in this emerging field. They’ll certainly have a part to play, especially as the industry matures and more research is conducted. Once it gets to a certain point, lawyers will get involved. That’s sure to complicate the industry, but after talking to Naughty Harbor, I’m fairly certain it cannot be stopped.
Once again, I’d like to thank Naughty Harbor for taking the time to speak with me about this issue. I hope to have more like them in the future. The sex doll industry is growing and evolving alongside other emerging technologies. It’s going to happen faster than most of us expect. Are we ready for it? That remains to be seen. I have my doubts, but I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on this issue. A pandemic may have tempered our collective libidos, but our desires will eventually return. Like it or not, sex dolls may be a larger part of the sexual landscape from here on out.
The following is a video for my YouTube channel, Jack’s World. You may recognize the title from an article I wrote years ago in the before times when pandemics were still the subject of bad sci-fi movies. I miss those times too.
The news surrounding Neuralink is still of great interest to me. I still think it’s one of the most important technological advancements of the century. This video simply offers another general overview of why this technology is so important. Enjoy!
The following is a video I posted on my YouTube channel, Jack’s World. It’s my attempt to offer some perspective on artificial intelligence, a topic I’ve coveredmany timesbefore. I hope you find it informative and engaging. Enjoy!