In 2016, when my family found out that my father was dying from cancer, I did something that at the time felt completely obvious: I started building a chatbot replica of him.
I simply wanted to create an interactive way to share key parts of his life story.
I was not under any delusion that the Dadbot, as I soon began calling it, would be a true avatar of him. From my research about the voice computing revolution—Siri, Alexa, the Google Assistant—I knew that fully humanlike AIs, like you see in the movies, were a vast ways from technological reality. Replicating my dad in any real sense was never the goal, anyway; that notion gave me the creeps.
Instead, I simply wanted to create an interactive way to share key parts of his life story: facts about his ancestors in Greece. Memories from growing up. Stories about his hobbies, family life, and career. And I wanted the Dadbot, which sent text messages and audio clips over Facebook Messenger, to remind me of his personality—warm, erudite, and funny. So I programmed it to use his distinctive phrasings; to tell a few of his signature jokes and sing his favorite songs.
While creating the Dadbot, a laborious undertaking that sprawled into 2017, I fixated on two things. The first was getting the programming right, which I did using a conversational agent authoring platform called PullString. The second, far more wrenching concern was my father's health. Failing to improve after chemotherapy and immunotherapy, and steadily losing energy, weight, and the animating sparkle of life, he died on February 9.
John Vlahos at a family reunion in the summer of 2016, a few months after his cancer diagnosis.
(Courtesy James Vlahos)
After a magazine article that I wrote about the Dadbot came out in the summer of 2017, messages poured in from readers. While most people simply expressed sympathy, some conveyed a more urgent message: They wanted their own memorializing chatbots. One man implored me to make a bot for him; he had been diagnosed with cancer and wanted his six-month-old daughter to have a way to remember him. A technology entrepreneur needed advice on replicating what I did for her father, who had stage IV cancer. And a teacher in India asked me to engineer a conversational replica of her son, who had recently been struck and killed by a bus.
Journalists from around the world also got in touch for interviews, and they inevitably came around to the same question. Will virtual immortality, they asked, ever become a business?
The prospect of this happening had never crossed my mind. I was consumed by my father's struggle and my own grief. But the notion has since become head-slappingly obvious. I am not the only person to confront the loss of a loved one; the experience is universal. And I am not alone in craving a way to keep memories alive. Of course people like the ones who wrote me will get Dadbots, Mombots, and Childbots of their own. If a moonlighting writer like me can create a minimum viable product, then a company employing actual computer scientists could do much more.
But this prospect raises unanswered and unsettling questions. For businesses, profit, and not some deeply personal mission, will be the motivation. This shift will raise issues that I didn't have to confront. To make money, a virtual immortality company could follow the lucrative but controversial business model that has worked so well for Google and Facebook. To wit, a company could provide the memorializing chatbot for free and then find ways to monetize the attention and data of whoever communicated with it. Given the copious amount of personal information flowing back and forth in conversations with replica bots, this would be a data gold mine for the company—and a massive privacy risk for users.
Virtual immortality as commercial product will doubtless become more sophisticated.
Alternately, a company could charge for memorializing avatars, perhaps with an annual subscription fee. This would put the business in a powerful position. Imagine the fee getting hiked each year. A customer like me would find himself facing a terrible decision—grit my teeth and keep paying, or be forced to pull the plug on the best, closest reminder of a loved one that I have. The same person would effectively wind up dying twice.
Another way that a beloved digital avatar could die is if the company that creates it ceases to exist. This is no mere academic concern for me: Earlier this year, PullString was swallowed up by Apple. I'm still able to access the Dadbot on my own computer, fortunately, but the acquisition means that other friends and family members can no longer chat with him remotely.
Startups like PullString, of course, are characterized by impermanence; they tend to get snapped up by bigger companies or run out of venture capital and fold. But even if big players like, say, Facebook or Google get into the virtual immortality game, we can't count on them existing even a few decades from now, which means that the avatars enabled by their technology would die, too.
The permanence problem is the biggest hurdle faced by the fledgling enterprise of virtual immortality. So some entrepreneurs are attempting to enable avatars whose existence isn't reliant upon any one company or set of computer servers. "By leveraging the power of blockchain and decentralized software to replicate information, we help users create avatars that live on forever," says Alex Roy, the founder and CEO of the startup Everlife.ai. But until this type of solution exists, give props to conventional technology for preserving memories: printed photos and words on paper can last for centuries.
The fidelity of avatars—just how lifelike they are—also raises serious concerns. Before I started creating the Dadbot, I worried that the tech might be just good enough to remind my family of the man it emulated, but so far off from my real father that it gave us all the creeps. But because the Dadbot was a simple chatbot and not some all-knowing AI, and because the interface was a messaging app, there was no danger of him encroaching on the reality of my actual dad.
But virtual immortality as commercial product will doubtless become more sophisticated. Avatars will have brains built by teams of computer scientists employing the latest techniques in conversational AI. The replicas will not just text but also speak, using synthetic voices that emulate the ones of the people being memorialized. They may even come to life as animated clones on computer screens or in 3D with the help of virtual reality headsets.
What fascinates me is how technology can help to preserve the past—genuine facts and memories from peoples' lives.
These are all lines that I don't personally want to cross; replicating my dad was never the goal. I also never aspired to have some synthetic version of him that continued to exist in the present, capable of acquiring knowledge about the world or my life and of reacting to it in real time.
Instead, what fascinates me is how technology can help to preserve the past—genuine facts and memories from people's lives—and their actual voices so that their stories can be shared interactively after they have gone. I'm working on ideas for doing this via voice computing platforms like Alexa and Assistant, and while I don't have all of the answers yet, I'm excited to figure out what might be possible.
[Adapted from Talk to Me: How Voice Computing Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Think (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, March 26, 2019).]
Glioblastoma is an aggressive and deadly brain cancer, causing more than 10,000 deaths in the US per year. In the last 30 years there has only been limited improvement in the survival rate despite advances in radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Today the typical survival rate is just 14 months and that extra time is spent suffering from the adverse and often brutal effects of radiation and chemotherapy.
Scientists are trying to design more effective treatments for glioblastoma with fewer side effects. Now, a team at the Department of Neurosurgery at Houston Methodist Hospital has created a magnetic helmet-based treatment called oncomagnetic therapy: a promising non-invasive treatment for shrinking cancerous tumors. In the first patient tried, the device was able to reduce the tumor of a glioblastoma patient by 31%. The researchers caution, however, that much more research is needed to determine its safety and effectiveness.
How It Works
“The whole idea originally came from a conversation I had with General Norman Schwarzkopf, a supposedly brilliant military strategist,” says Dr David Baskin, professor of neurosurgery and leader of the effort at Houston Methodist. “I asked him what is the secret to your success and he said, ‘Energy. Take out the power grid and the enemy can't communicate.’ So I thought about what supplies [energy to] cancer, especially brain cancer.”
Baskin came up with the idea of targeting the mitochondria, which process and produce energy for cancer cells.
This is the most exciting thing in glioblastoma treatment I've seen since I've been a neurosurgeon but it is very preliminary.”
The magnetic helmet creates a powerful oscillating magnetic field. At a set range of frequencies and timings, it disrupts the flow of electrons in the mitochondria of cancer cells. This leads to a release of certain chemicals called ROS (Reactive Oxygen Species). In normal cells, this excess ROS is much lower, and is neutralized by other chemicals called antioxidants.
However, cancer cells already have more ROS: they grow rapidly and uncontrollably so their mitochondria need to produce more energy which in turn generates more ROS. By using the powerful magnetic field, levels of ROS get so high that the malignant cells are torn apart.
The biggest challenge was working out the specific range of frequencies and timing parameters they needed to use to kill cancer cells. It took skill, intuition, luck and lots of experiments. The helmet could theoretically be used to treat all types of glioblastoma.
Developing the magnetic helmet was a collaborative process. Dr Santosh Helekar is a neuroscientist at Houston Methodist Research Institute and the director of oncomagnetics (magnetic cancer therapies) at the Peak Center in Houston Methodist Hospital. His previous invention with colleagues gave the team a starting point to build on. “About 7 years back I developed a portable brain magnetic stimulation device to conduct brain research,” Helekar says. “We [then] conducted a pilot clinical trial in stroke patients. The results were promising.”
Helekar presented his findings to neurosurgeons including Baskin. They decided to collaborate. With a team of scientists behind them, they modified the device to kill cancer cells.
The magnetic helmet studied for treatment of glioblastoma
Dr. David Baskin
After success in the lab, the team got FDA approval to conduct a compassionate trial in a 53-year-old man with end-stage glioblastoma. He had tried every other treatment available. But within 30 days of using the magnetic helmet his tumor shrank by 31%.
Sadly, 36 days into the treatment, the patient had an unrelated head injury due to a fall. The treatment was paused and he later died of the injury. Autopsy results of his brain highlighted the dramatic reduction in tumor cells.
Baskin says, “This is the most exciting thing in glioblastoma treatment I've seen since I've been a neurosurgeon but it is very preliminary.”
The helmet is part of a growing number of non-invasive cancer treatments. One device that is currently being used by glioblastoma patients is Optune. It uses electric fields called tumor treating fields to slow down cell division and has been through a successful phase 3 clinical trial.
The magnetic helmet has the promise to be another useful non-invasive treatment according to Professor Gabriel Zada, a neurosurgeon and director of the USC Brain Tumor Center. “We're learning that various electromagnetic fields and tumor treating fields appear to play a role in glioblastoma. So there is some precedent for this though the tumor treating fields work a little differently. I think there is major potential for it to be effective but of course it will require some trials.”
Professor Jonathan Sherman, a neurosurgeon and director of neuro-oncology at West Virginia University, reiterates the need for further testing. “It sounds interesting but it’s too early to tell what kind of long-term efficacy you get. We do not have enough data. Also if you’re disrupting [the magnetic field] you could negatively impact a patient. You could be affecting the normal conduction of electromagnetic activity in the brain.”
The team is currently extending their research. They are now testing the treatment in two other patients with end-stage glioblastoma. The immediate challenge is getting FDA approval for those at an earlier stage of the disease who are more likely to benefit.
Baskin and the team are designing a clinical trial in the U.S., .U.K. and Germany. After positive results in cell cultures, they’re in negotiations to collaborate with other researchers in using the technology for lung and breast cancer. With breast cancer, the soft tissue is easier to access so a magnetic device could be worn over the breast.
“My hope is to develop a treatment to treat and hopefully cure glioblastoma without radiation or chemotherapy,” Baskin says. “We're onto a strategy that could make a huge difference for patients with this disease and probably for patients with many other forms of cancer.”
Astronauts at the International Space Station today depend on pre-packaged, freeze-dried food, plus some fresh produce thanks to regular resupply missions. This supply chain, however, will not be available on trips further out, such as the moon or Mars. So what are astronauts on long missions going to eat?
Going by the options available now, says Christel Paille, an engineer at the European Space Agency, a lunar expedition is likely to have only dehydrated foods. “So no more fresh product, and a limited amount of already hydrated product in cans.”
For the Mars mission, the situation is a bit more complex, she says. Prepackaged food could still constitute most of their food, “but combined with [on site] production of certain food products…to get them fresh.” A Mars mission isn’t right around the corner, but scientists are currently working on solutions for how to feed those astronauts. A number of boundary-pushing efforts are now underway.
The logistics of growing plants in space, of course, are very different from Earth. There is no gravity, sunlight, or atmosphere. High levels of ionizing radiation stunt plant growth. Plus, plants take up a lot of space, something that is, ironically, at a premium up there. These and special nutritional requirements of spacefarers have given scientists some specific and challenging problems.
To study fresh food production systems, NASA runs the Vegetable Production System (Veggie) on the ISS. Deployed in 2014, Veggie has been growing salad-type plants on “plant pillows” filled with growth media, including a special clay and controlled-release fertilizer, and a passive wicking watering system. They have had some success growing leafy greens and even flowers.
"Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources."
A larger farming facility run by NASA on the ISS is the Advanced Plant Habitat to study how plants grow in space. This fully-automated, closed-loop system has an environmentally controlled growth chamber and is equipped with sensors that relay real-time information about temperature, oxygen content, and moisture levels back to the ground team at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In December 2020, the ISS crew feasted on radishes grown in the APH.
“But salad doesn’t give you any calories,” says Erik Seedhouse, a researcher at the Applied Aviation Sciences Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. “It gives you some minerals, but it doesn’t give you a lot of carbohydrates.” Seedhouse also noted in his 2020 book Life Support Systems for Humans in Space: “Integrating the growing of plants into a life support system is a fiendishly difficult enterprise.” As a case point, he referred to the ESA’s Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative (MELiSSA) program that has been running since 1989 to integrate growing of plants in a closed life support system such as a spacecraft.
Paille, one of the scientists running MELiSSA, says that the system aims to recycle the metabolic waste produced by crew members back into the metabolic resources required by them: “The aim is…to come [up with] a closed, sustainable system which does not [need] any logistics resupply.” MELiSSA uses microorganisms to process human excretions in order to harvest carbon dioxide and nitrate to grow plants. “Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources,” Paille adds.
Microorganisms play a big role as “fuel” in food production in extreme places, including in space. Last year, researchers discovered Methylobacterium strains on the ISS, including some never-seen-before species. Kasthuri Venkateswaran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of the researchers involved in the study, says, “[The] isolation of novel microbes that help to promote the plant growth under stressful conditions is very essential… Certain bacteria can decompose complex matter into a simple nutrient [that] the plants can absorb.” These microbes, which have already adapted to space conditions—such as the absence of gravity and increased radiation—boost various plant growth processes and help withstand the harsh physical environment.
MELiSSA, says Paille, has demonstrated that it is possible to grow plants in space. “This is important information because…we didn’t know whether the space environment was affecting the biological cycle of the plant…[and of] cyanobacteria.” With the scientific and engineering aspects of a closed, self-sustaining life support system becoming clearer, she says, the next stage is to find out if it works in space. They plan to run tests recycling human urine into useful components, including those that promote plant growth.
The MELiSSA pilot plant uses rats currently, and needs to be translated for human subjects for further studies. “Demonstrating the process and well-being of a rat in terms of providing water, sufficient oxygen, and recycling sufficient carbon dioxide, in a non-stressful manner, is one thing,” Paille says, “but then, having a human in the loop [means] you also need to integrate user interfaces from the operational point of view.”
Growing food in space comes with an additional caveat that underscores its high stakes. Barbara Demmig-Adams from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder explains, “There are conditions that actually will hurt your health more than just living here on earth. And so the need for nutritious food and micronutrients is even greater for an astronaut than for [you and] me.”
Demmig-Adams, who has worked on increasing the nutritional quality of plants for long-duration spaceflight missions, also adds that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Her work has focused on duckweed, a rather unappealingly named aquatic plant. “It is 100 percent edible, grows very fast, it’s very small, and like some other floating aquatic plants, also produces a lot of protein,” she says. “And here on Earth, studies have shown that the amount of protein you get from the same area of these floating aquatic plants is 20 times higher compared to soybeans.”
Aquatic plants also tend to grow well in microgravity: “Plants that float on water, they don’t respond to gravity, they just hug the water film… They don’t need to know what’s up and what’s down.” On top of that, she adds, “They also produce higher concentrations of really important micronutrients, antioxidants that humans need, especially under space radiation.” In fact, duckweed, when subjected to high amounts of radiation, makes nutrients called carotenoids that are crucial for fighting radiation damage. “We’ve looked at dozens and dozens of plants, and the duckweed makes more of this radiation fighter…than anything I’ve seen before.”
Despite all the scientific advances and promising leads, no one really knows what the conditions so far out in space will be and what new challenges they will bring. As Paille says, “There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns.”
One definite “known” for astronauts is that growing their food is the ideal scenario for space travel in the long term since “[taking] all your food along with you, for best part of two years, that’s a lot of space and a lot of weight,” as Seedhouse says. That said, once they land on Mars, they’d have to think about what to eat all over again. “Then you probably want to start building a greenhouse and growing food there [as well],” he adds.
And that is a whole different challenge altogether.