My wife and I visited a will-and-trust lawyer after our first son was born. Everything seemed simple and clear until the lawyer asked, without missing a beat, "So, what about your social media management?" My wife looked at me and, even though I'm more tech savvy, I felt as confused as a Luddite.
One can imagine chatbots becoming the next generation of care management alongside funeral services, and will and testaments.
"Social media management?" I laughed, making a joke about my wife spending more time on Facebook than I do. But the lawyer's question was serious, as were the legal documents asking for our profile page links, passwords, and related information.
What do you want to happen to your Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms after you die? Your grandfather may have wanted his cremated ashes poured into the Ganges, or a burial in a prepaid plot. But unlike earlier generations, whose personas ended with their last breath, your bits and bytes could live on across multiple servers, holding a space for you online like a digital obelisk. Or, if you desire, your relatives can do the equivalent of a DNR: Delete account.
"It is the future of 'Get your affairs in order,'" says John Havens, Executive Director of the IEEE Global Initiative on Ethics of Autonomous and Intelligent Systems. He remembers being pulled aside when his father was being put into the ICU and realizing that his dad wasn't going to come back.
Havens says if we are lucky enough to know that we are wrapping up our time, then we have the opportunity not just to bow out of the digital world gracefully, but to have our digital persona carry on beyond us. This persona could go beyond today's static memorial pages on Facebook and Instagram; it could be an interactive computer program designed from your specific speech patterns, memories, and personality – a chatbot.
"I could have an algorithm trained to hear what I say and how I say it," Havens told me. "You can say, 'I'm Damon and I'm going to pass in the next few months, but, you know, over the past six months, I've created a chatbot to continue our conversations. In the upcoming months, my partner or loved ones will let you know when the chatbot will take over and be involved.'"
The chatbot could become an extension of you on platforms like Messenger or WhatsApp, for example. One can imagine this becoming the next generation of care management alongside funeral services, and will and testaments. You can see the future in Eugenia Kuyda, an entrepreneur who successfully created an interactive chatbot of her late friend, Roman Mazurenko, just based on his text messages. Her new program, Replika, may eventually give us the same technology so we, too, can all potentially do the same with our loved ones. Expect other tech companies to follow suit.
There is now no real separation between IRL and online – just as there may be an increasingly blurred line between our personas before and after death.
Chatbots offer us an irresistible decision: They are artificial intelligence programs built to have conversations with people, usually within a service capacity like canceling a shipping order or getting to the right help desk. You can view it as a modern-day helpline and, no doubt, you've interacted with chatbots when you've made purchases online. Chatbots are now becoming verbal, too, managing phone calls you make to your credit card company, local utilities, and other daily operations.
We witnessed our future this spring when Google showed off Google Duplex. It is a voice-driven system that will call people on your behalf with the intention, Google says, to manage your life. At the Google I/O conference, Google CEO Sundar Pichai showed Duplex calling a hair salon and interacting with the human receptionist – with nearly all the pauses, mmm-hmms, and colloquialisms as its female counterpart. "The amazing part is the assistant can actually understand the nuances of conversation," Pichai said to the rapt tech audience.
Recode's Kurt Wagner explained the immediate problem with the Google Duplex demo, which is the same problem technologists so often overlook: What if someone uses your technology in ways you didn't intend? "The major concern with that demo was that Google Assistant never said it was a robot or told the salon that the call was being recorded. When pressed by members of the media in the days after the demo, Google declined to comment, leading some to believe the company had simply overlooked this privacy element altogether."
"This is why disclosure will be so huge," Havens says. "When people call, they will begin with, 'Hello. I am a human.'"
This conflict between the physical and the digital is now coming to a head, though it isn't the clichéd man against machine Skynet conspiracy theories, but rather us against us. Today, it is as if we are split into two or, perhaps more accurately, two personas – our "real-life" persona and our online persona – and we're now experiencing fatigue trying to hold center.
It is a new phenomenon reflective of our social media: Media forerunners like MySpace and Friendster as well as classic websites like LiveJournal and Tumblr allowed us to explore the online world – and, in a sense, the physical world beyond our physical reach – using avatars as close to or as far from our real selves as we desired. On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog.
Facebook truly eliminated the powerful choice of anonymity, as its extensive verification process required people to give up anonymity to participate in the biggest social network in the world. This was a willful, purposeful decision by Facebook: Founder Mark Zuckerberg has been an advocate of being yourself online, and the former Director of Market Development Randi Zuckerberg infamously said, "I think anonymity on the Internet has to go away… People behave a lot better when they have their real names down."
This was Facebook's intention and, whether or not its theory of people behaving better is true, especially in light of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, the effects on us are real. Sex workers and other high-risk, anonymity-driven entrepreneurs are being outed via social media. The parallel rise in online addiction clinics isn't a coincidence, as the blur between the physical self and the digital self has never been hazier. There is now no real separation between IRL and online – just as there may be an increasingly blurred line between our personas before and after death.
Chatbots represent a tempting form of convenience: A way to remove our cognitive load to an assistant that will manage our relationships.
We have Carrie Fisher starring in the next Star Wars movie, potentially winning the first truly post-humous Oscar thanks to technology that can help transition older footage into live-recorded footage. Similar, more subtle turns occurred with Paul Walker in the Fast and the Furious 7, which used a combination of CGI and stand-ins. But a key difference is that we actually know they are dead before the movie is even released. As not-famous individuals, we have the ethical choice (duty?) to disclose that information to our social media followers after we die.
While we're still alive, though, chatbots represent a tempting form of convenience: A way to remove our cognitive load to an assistant that will manage our relationships. The rub is that our online relationships are our personal relationships, so we're not just potentially automating, say, our social media feed or our online postings, but our responsibilities in the real-life relationships that we've built. There is no line.
"It's naïve to think that the Google Duplex that was designed to make your hair appointments won't be used to do more difficult things like break up with a girlfriend," Havens says. "Record 50 words, use different inflections, and put in phrases like 'It's not you, it's me.' Why wouldn't people do that?"
Well, it really depends on the person. My wife and I ended up leaving the social media management section of our will blank for now. I even took a long social media sabbatical to connect with people more in person. If my online relationships and my in-person relationships are all becoming the same, then maybe it's OK to let them die – just like I will.
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.