Summary

Scientists grew tiny human brains and hooked them up to robots

Jan 29, 2021 | 🚀 Fathership

On the International Space Station, clusters of nerve cells called mini-brains are developing in ways that scientists didn’t previously think was possible.

The organoids were grown from stem cells at the University of California, San Diego lab of biologist Alysson Muotri, before being packed into a box and shipped to space, where Muotri told The New York Times they’re likely “replicating like crazy.” Now, his team has found that the organoids are giving off brain waves — complex patterns of neural activity — similar to those of premature babies. It’s a bizarre finding that could force scientists to revisit the limitations of lab-grown mini-organs and the ethical issues surrounding them.

Muotri hooked the mini-brains up to spider-shaped robots to read their neural activity, according to the NYT. The findings could be a sign that scientists are approaching the capability to generate at least partially-conscious life in the lab — a development that’s long been little more than a speculative horror story in the field.

“The closer we come to his goal, the more likely we will get a brain that is capable of sentience and of feeling pain, agony and distress,” Christof Koch, chief scientist and president of the Allen Brain Institute, told the NYT.

The human brain is so complex that scientists are still guessing at many aspects of how it works. That’s the appeal of mini-brains — they’re comparatively simple balls of neurons that simulate some characteristics of full brains but which barely scratch the surface of their capabilities. But this new study, published Thursday in the journal Cell, suggests that the mini-brains could be more complex than previously believed.

“There are some of my colleagues who say, ‘No, these things will never be conscious,'” Muotri told the NYT. “Now I’m not so sure.”

If these brain waves are a sign that organoids could be capable of consciousness, neuroscientists will need to grapple with a major ethical dilemma — as continued experimentation would potentially mean creating and destroying self-aware, human-like life. But we may not be there yet, cautioned University of Southern California biologist Giorgia Quadrato, who wasn’t involved in the new study.

“It’s pretty amazing. No one really knew if that was possible,” Quadrato told the NYT, before clarifying that it didn’t conclude that the mini-brains reached human levels of activity.

“People will say, ‘Ah, these are like the brains of preterm infants,'” she said. “No, they are not.”

PAP members call on party to embrace diversity and be open to opposing views

Nov 29, 2021 | 🚀 Fathership
Two People’s Action Party (PAP) members have called on the ruling party to embrace diversity and listen to opposing views, with one Member of Parliament (MP), Ms Nadia Ahmad Samdin, going as far as to say that PAP has to fix its "empathy deficit and grow more comfortable with understanding views we disagree with".

The MP for Ang Mo Kio Group Representation Constituency (GRC) was among some party activists who spoke at the annual PAP convention on Sunday (Nov 28). There were about 2,000 party activists as well as members from the National Trades Union Congress (NTUC) who attended the event both physically at Suntec Convention and Exhibition Centre and online.

Ms Gho Sze Kee, branch secretary of the party’s Bukit Timah branch, also talked about how the party needed to introduce a diversity of perspectives to avoid the dangers of groupthink and being part of an echo chamber.

Addressing fellow party activists in her speech, Ms Nadia acknowledged that there is a tendency for people to live in “bubbles”, which refer to how individuals are often surrounded by others who look or think the same way as them, and that these “bubbles” have led to social divisions.

And these differences have played out online in the way party members have responded to opposing views as if they were threats.

However, she urged party members to be conscious of their own inherent biases and not view these differences as a threat, but as opportunities to have hard conversations.

“I hope we have them, and in listening, be at least open to the possibility of changing our minds,” she added.

“More than any trait during this time, I call for empathy that goes two ways. Empathy should drive us to amplify voices of others, to join forces for a shared cause, for our future.

“We have always been a party of action, and empathy is how we will continue to stay relevant, and continue to take meaningful action for our fellow Singaporeans.”

Recounting her own experience as a party activist since 2012, Ms Gho, 42, said PAP’s biggest pressing need is to ensure that it renews its members at every level of the party’s hierarchy, and not only in the candidates it fields during a general election.

Citing some branch-level statistics, she said that there are only 12 branch secretaries who are female, compared with 81 who are male.

“We need to ensure our party’s membership at the branch level truly reflects the diversity of Singapore. And we have to make sure that diversity counts when anticipating ground needs, giving inputs to policy formulation, and communicating our messages to our voters,” said Ms Gho.

When asked by reporters later if her point about PAP needing to embrace people from diverse backgrounds extends to people from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, Ms Gho agreed.

Recurring theme

The need to embrace people from diverse backgrounds and different viewpoints was a recurring theme at Sunday’s party convention.

PAP’s secretary-general Lee Hsien Loong, who is also Singapore’s Prime Minister, made similar points in his speech.

He had said that the party must show that it is not afraid of opposing views or being challenged, and that voters today want to see more debate, contestation and questioning of established ideas.

“We welcome good ideas, regardless of who proposed them… We also have to rebut wrong views, if possible gently, but when necessary firmly,” said Mr Lee.

Speaking to reporters after the event, MP for MacPherson ward Tin Pei Ling said that embracing diverse viewpoints would strengthen trust.

“It’s not just me pushing things to you and you have to accept it, or I just say things that you like to listen. But I explain to you so that even if we may not see eye-to-eye 100 per cent on everything, you know where I am coming from, that it’s not self-serving,” she added.

“And so, it comes back to what are we in politics for? It’s about serving people. And if that’s the case, then, having that empathy, bridging those differences, listening to people and to willingly engage and see whether we can have a midpoint perhaps, and letting you know where I come from. I think that’s important.”

Also speaking at Sunday’s convention was Mr Ling Weihong, 40, branch secretary of Sengkang Central, which is currently under the Workers’ Party.

He talked about the difficulties operating in an opposition ward, but said that his team would continue to work to win back Sengkang GRC, though he acknowledged that it would be an uphill task.

Representing the trade unions, Mr Sanjeev Tiwari, general secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Public Employees, talked about the need to reinforce the strong ties between NTUC and PAP.

He said the collaboration between both organisations is mostly happening within the leadership level and that it needs to be extended to all members of both organisations.