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Category Archives: Human Genetic Engineering
GMOs, short for genetically modified organisms, are subject to a lot of controversy.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), GMO seeds are used to plant over 90% of all maize (corn), cotton, and soy grown in the United States, which means that many of the foods you eat likely contain GMOs (1).
Although most notable organizations and research suggest that GMO foods are safe and sustainable, some people claim they may harm your health and the environment.
This article helps explain what GMOs are, provides a balanced explanation of their pros and cons, and gives guidance on how to identify GMO foods.
GMO, which stands for genetically modified organism, refers to any organism whose DNA has been modified using genetic engineering technology.
In the food industry, GMO crops have had genes added to them for various reasons, such as improving their growth, nutritional content, sustainability, pest resistance, and ease of farming (2).
While its possible to naturally give foods desirable traits through selective breeding, this process takes many generations. Also, breeders may struggle to determine which genetic change has led to a new trait.
Genetic modification significantly accelerates this process by using scientific techniques that give the plant the specific desired trait.
For example, one of the most common GMO crops is Bt corn, which is genetically modified to produce the insecticide Bt toxin. By making this toxin, the corn is able to resist pests, reducing the need for pesticides (3).
GMO crops are incredibly common in the United States, with at least 90% of soy, cotton, and corn being grown through genetic techniques (4).
In fact, its estimated that up to 80% of foods in supermarkets contain ingredients that come from genetically modified crops.
While GMO crops make farming much easier, there is some concern around their potential effect on the environment and their safety for human consumption specifically surrounding illnesses and allergies (5).
However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and USDA maintain that GMOs are safe for human and animal consumption (6).
GMOs are food items that have been made using genetic engineering techniques. They comprise 90% of soy, cotton, and corn grown in the United States and are deemed safe for human consumption.
GMO foods may offer several advantages to the grower and consumer.
For starters, many GMO crops have been genetically modified to express a gene that protects them against pests and insects.
For example, the Bt gene is commonly genetically engineered into crops like corn, cotton, and soybeans. It comes from a naturally occurring bacteria known as Bacillus thuringiensis.
This gene produces a protein that is toxic to several pests and insects, which gives the GMO plants a natural resistance. As such, the GMO crops dont need to be exposed to harmful pesticides as often (7).
In fact, an analysis of 147 studies from 2014 found that GMO technology has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37% and increased crop yields by 22% (8).
Other GMO crops have been modified with genes that help them survive stressful conditions, such as droughts, and resist diseases like blights, resulting in a higher yield for farmers (9, 10, 11).
Together, these factors help lower the costs for the farmers and consumers because it allows a greater crop yield and growth through harsher conditions.
Additionally, genetic modification can increase the nutritional value of foods. For example, rice high in beta carotene, also called golden rice, was developed to help prevent blindness in regions where local diets are chronically deficient in vitamin A (12).
Moreover, genetic modification may be used simply to enhance the flavor and appearance of foods, such as the non-browning apple (13).
In addition, current research suggests that GMO foods are safe for consumption (14).
GMO foods are easier and less costly for farmers to grow, which makes them cheaper for the consumer. GMO techniques may also enhance foods nutrients, flavor, and appearance.
Although current research suggests that GMO foods are safe, there is some concern around their long-term safety and environmental impact (14).
Here are some of the key concerns around GMO consumption.
There is some concern that GMO foods may trigger an allergic reaction.
This is because GMO foods contain foreign genes, so some people worry that they harbor genes from foods that may prompt an allergic reaction.
A study from the mid-1990s found that adding a protein from Brazil nuts to GMO soybeans could trigger an allergic reaction in people sensitive to Brazil nuts. However, after scientists discovered this, they quickly abandoned this GMO food (15).
Although allergy concerns are valid, there have been no reports of allergic reactions to GMO foods currently on the market.
According to the FDA, researchers who develop GMO foods run tests to ensure that allergens arent transferred from one food to another (16).
In addition, research has shown that GMO foods are no likelier to trigger allergies than their non-GMO counterparts (17).
Yet, if you have a soy allergy, both GMO and non-GMO soy products will prompt an allergic reaction.
Similarly, theres a common concern that GMO foods may aid the progression of cancers.
Because cancers are caused by DNA mutations, some people fear that eating foods with added genes may affect your DNA.
This worry may stem partly from an early mice study, which linked GMO intake to a higher risk of tumors and early death. However, this study was later retracted because it was poorly designed (18, 19, 20).
Currently, no human research ties GMO intake to cancers.
The American Cancer Society (ACS) has stated that theres no evidence to link GMO food intake to an increased or decreased risk of cancer (21).
All the same, no long-term human studies exist. Thus, more long-term human research is needed.
Although GMO crops are convenient for farmers, there are environmental concerns.
Most GMO crops are resistant to herbicides, such as Roundup. This means that farmers can use Roundup without fear of it harming their own crops.
However, a growing number of weeds have developed resistance to this herbicide over time. This has led to even more Roundup being sprayed on crops to kill the resistant weeds because they can affect the crop harvest (22, 23, 24).
Roundup and its active ingredient glyphosate are subject to controversy because animal and test-tube studies have linked them to various diseases (25, 26, 27).
Still, a review of multiple studies concluded that the low amounts of glyphosate present on GMO foods are safe for human consumption (28).
GMO crops also allow for fewer pesticide applications, which is a positive for the environment.
That said, more long-term human research is necessary.
The main concerns around GMOs involve allergies, cancer, and environmental issues all of which may affect the consumer. While current research suggests few risks, more long-term research is needed.
Although GMO foods appear safe for consumption, some people wish to avoid them. Still, this is difficult since most foods in your supermarket are made with ingredients from GMO crops.
GMO crops grown and sold in the United States include corn, soybean, canola, sugar beet, alfalfa, cotton, potatoes, papaya, summer squash, and a few apple varieties (29).
In the United States, no regulations currently mandate the labeling of GMO foods.
Yet, as of January 2022, the USDA will require food manufacturers to label all foods containing GMO ingredients (6).
That said, the labels wont say GMO but instead the term bioengineered food. It will display either as the USDA bioengineered food symbol, listed on or near the ingredients, or as a scannable code on the package with directions, such as Scan here for more information (6).
Presently, some foods may have a third-party Non-GMO project verified label, which indicates that the product contains no GMOs. However, this label is voluntary.
Its also worth noting that any food labeled 100% organic does not contain any GMO ingredients, because U.S. law prohibits this. However, if a product is simply labeled organic, it may contain some GMOs (30).
In the European Union (EU), foods with more than 0.9% GMO ingredients must list genetically modified or produced from genetically modified [name of food]. For foods without packaging, these words must be listed near the item, such as on the supermarket shelf (31).
Until the new regulations come into place in the United States, there is no clear way to tell if a food contains GMO ingredients.
However, you can try to avoid GMO foods by eating locally, as many small farms are unlikely to use GMO seeds. Alternatively, you can avoid foods that contain ingredients from the GMO crops listed above.
Until the 2022 USDA rule takes effect, its hard to determine which foods contain GMOs in the United States. You can avoid GMOs by limiting GMO ingredients, eating locally, looking for third-party non-GMO labels, or buying 100% organic.
GMOs are foods that have been modified using genetic techniques.
Most foods in your local supermarket contain GMO ingredients because theyre easier and more cost-effective for farmers, which makes them cheaper for the consumer.
In the United States, foods grown using GMO techniques include corn, soybean, canola, sugar beet, alfalfa, cotton, potatoes, papaya, summer squash, and a few varieties of apples.
Although current research suggests that GMO foods are safe for consumption, some people are concerned about their potential health effects. Due to a lack of long-term human studies, more research is needed.
In the United States, its currently not mandatory to label foods that contain GMOs. However, as of 2022, all foods that contain GMO ingredients must have the term bioengineered food somewhere on the packaging or a scannable code to show that it has GMO ingredients.
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GMOs: Pros and Cons, Backed by Evidence - Healthline
In this Perspective on Pharma feature, Jung Doh, market development scientist at Beckman Coulter Life Sciences, explains how they entered the pharmaceutical industry after an unexpected opportunity arose.
As an early career scientist with a good number of years of graduate and post-doctoral training (two post-docs, actually), I made an unexpected leap: from academiawhere I thought I would spend my entire professional lifeto industry. And though it wasnt a move Id initially planned, Im the first to say that Im incredibly happy to have ended up here, since its afforded me research and personal growth opportunities I didnt even know I wanted.
After I received my doctorate in biology, I completed a post-doc in HIV research and a second, NASA-funded post-doc in the effects of microgravity on genomes. My dreamand a very concrete goal for many yearswas to become a professor at a research university, running my own lab in an area I was passionate about.
But then life intervened: my wife was offered a teaching position in Indianapolis that she couldnt pass up, so we relocated. After a few months of fruitless application to teaching and research positions at local universities, I started looking elsewhere. There are a lot of pharma and biotech companies in Indianapolis, so I started exploring some of them. In the interview process, (and much to my surprise), I discovered that they shared many of the same passions and goals I did: to benefit human health and life in fundamental and lasting ways.
The company where I ended up and still work, Beckman Coulter Life Sciences, was particularly interesting to me, since one of their key focuses was on next generation sequencing (NGS). Toward the end of my Ph.D. and in my post-doc training, NGS was becoming more routine, and I was fortunate to be able to learn and apply the techniques in my own research.
So I joined Beckman Coulter Life Sciences, which offers a range of scientific research instruments used to study complex biological problems and to advance scientific breakthroughs, first as a marketing application scientist, and then expanding into a dual role as application scientist and proof of principle scientist. In the latter, I worked with customers to develop modified protocols and tools to help research be done more efficiently. I then became product manager for our genomics product line, and as of this year, I have yet another new role, as market development scientist. In this role, I engage with the scientific community to learn from them, as well as support them to perform research better, faster, and with superior results and outcomes. I also bring the learnings and techniques gained from these collaborations to create collateral to offer other labs, or help our internal team develop product offerings for a specific need.
After making the leap into industry, I never looked back. There are, of course, benefits to both sectors. In academia, theres a certain degree of freedom and job securityonce youre tenured, that is. But it takes a lot to get tenured these daysthe funding and grants and a constant stream of publicationsparticularly in biology and related disciplines.
Though industry may seem more constrained at first glance, in many ways, theres as much or more opportunity, since there are a plethora of techniques to learn and apply in novel ways. And since technology evolves so rapidly, especially in genetic engineering and diagnostics, it seems like there are always new methods to master.
Related to this aspect, and alluded to earlier, is the strong sense that my and my colleagues work is genuinely translating into helping people across the globe. I got an inkling of that in the interview process, but its also been a palpable part of my work here. With the current pandemic, for instance, the company came together, and, within a matter of weeks, we were able to offer labs RNA extraction solutions for the virus, which are so critical right now. I felt honoured to be part of a company doing such great work, with flexibility and speed. It definitely speaks to the versatility of the industry.
Beyond the scientific, Ive learned about areas seemingly outside of science, but that are actually integral parts of the business. When I was product manager, for instance, I learned how to manage people, run meetings, build financial models, approach marketing and sales, and many other facets of the business. I had no formal business training going in, but you learn by doing, from your manager and peers. I ended up really loving all these other parts of the business of sciencetheyre challenging, but incredibly rewarding, because they push you beyond your comfort zone into uncharted areas. For that, industry has opened up areas that I didnt even know would be important, let alone fun and rewarding.
Finally, Ive been surprised and heartened by the strong sense of family that exists within a company. Part of this is felt through the opportunities for development, which is evident in all the stages I went through and all the roles Ive had. Theres a sense that staff are supported to grow as scientists and as people, which has made my accidental leap into industry all the more fulfilling.
For young scientists, theres a lot to think about when making decisions about what to study and what track to follow. I would encourage people to not get too hung up on tracks, but to stay open to the possibilitiesin other words, dont get too stuck on academia as the only option just because its where youve done your training. What really matters is having a passion for what you do, and following your interests. Genetic engineering is an area thats exploded in recent years, and will likely grow in the coming years. Ive been lucky that my own work has translated so tangibly into helping people, and at a large scalebut the same is true for many other areas in medical science. So carry onyou may end up in a totally different place from where you started, and thats not a bad thing at all.
Its unlikely a coincidence that countries run by women have done far better controlling corona than countries run by men. Theyre less obsessed with being right and more focused on taking care of things (and people). Thats just basic biology: When women step out of the spotlight to assess what needs doing, they dont have to worry about losing their masculinity.
That said, among the impossible happenings last week was Dick Cheney launching the hashtag #RealMenWearMasks to coax guys with fragile egos to cover up. A whole industry has popped up to make masks macho enough for real men: whiskey bottle masks, Darth Vader masks, mustache masks. Seriously, this is a real thing.
Part of whats wrong with our vision of right, no doubt, is our bloated diet of advice books, columns, TV shows, videos, Instagram feeds. They school us in right way to be content, raise children, have sex, succeed, be a man. It goes without saying these generalities almost never apply to individual cases. Whats right for which man? Which kids? Succeed at what? Content with what?
Whats right is what works in any given space, time, context. Newtons laws of gravity are wrong if you want to explore a black hole, but can be right enough to get spacecraft around the solar system.
What matters is finding the right way to thrive in whatever world youre in.
Coronas environment is us, its all-too-welcoming hosts. Its found the right way to use us to get it where it wants to go.
What do we have that corona doesnt? Well, weve got science, weve got art, weve got fun.
Science tells us whats true, whats possible. Art reminds us of what it means to be human, what matters. Play lets us fool around with crazy ideas that might turn out to be brilliant. Between them, weve got tools for creating a sustainable equilibrium that preserves the best and discards the worst of our ideas for vaccines, for prevention, even policing.
Meanwhile, weve got families and friends we care about. Weve got orchestras playing for houseplants, ballerinas dancing at home with their dogs and cats, Zoom charades, cat videos, now even dancing Karen videos. Weve got magicians. Weve even got search tools that reveal exactly how Houdini made that elephant disappear.
Viruses mutate to survive, to take advantage of changing environments. Corona cant live without us. So it learns all about our lungs, our hearts, our behavior, our global health system, the better to spread and grow strong. In turn, it teaches us about ourselves.
Black people, in a weirdly analogous way, have been learning about white peoples worlds for centuriesin order to survive. Most white people havent felt the same need to learn about Black peoples worlds. So to some, scenes of brutality seemed to come almost out of the blue (pun intended)an elephant if there ever was one, trampling on people for realon their freedoms, yes, but also literally on their lives. What does that teach us about ourselves?
In the end, we must co-evolve. Like the spinning Earth, we roll along together, or not at all.
Trevor Noah recently said that if mutation is coronas secret weapon, then were going to have to mutate to fight back.
He concentrates, muttering to himself: Mutate! Mutate! Mutate!
A third eye appears on his forehead. He cant see it, of course, because its a part of himself.
He shrugs his shoulders. I guess nothing happened.
Maybe were already adapting and just dont know it.
Photographs: Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe/Getty Images; Andrea Savorani Neri/Getty Images; Steve Pfost/Getty Images
More From WIRED on Covid-19
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Keeping Up With the Coronasor Why the Virus Is Winning - WIRED
Back when we started WIRED magazine, it was all digital, all the time. In Silicon Valley, bodies were treated like the somewhat inconvenient and sometimes embarrassing things that needed to be fueled and occasionally rested so that they could support big heads that housed big ideas about the future. Human biology wasnt exactly on our radar, except in science fiction, where pandemics always seemed du jour.
Jane Metcalfe is the founder, with Louis Rossetto, of WIRED. After a stint as the president of TCHO Chocolate, she created NEO.LIFE to track the ways we are changing as we bring an engineering mindset to our own biology. For more on this topic, read Neo.Life: 25 Visions for the Future of Our Species. To share your thoughts, please send email to email@example.com.
Then, in 1995, we published Scenarios, our first special issue, which imagined the future in 25 years, i.e. 2020. One article from that issue, The Plague Years, almost reads like a report from the current pandemic.
In it, a virus from China, of course named Mao flu, afflicts the elderly and the immunocompromised. A bio conference becomes a significant vector for infection. Singapore is initially able to contain the virus using draconian measures. The whole world goes into lockdown and cities empty as those who can afford it escape to the countryside. Theres an extensive loss of lives among medical personnel. Mao flu research becomes the only medical research taking place. The transgenic source of the virus is eventually traced back to a lab in China. There is even a cruise ship involved in our version. Ultimately, the cure is open sourced.
Our imagined solutions were based on a lot of computational and bioengineering virtuosity. In Scenarios, genomics, big data, sophisticated modeling, and immunotherapy end up solving the problem and saving our future selves. And thats pretty close to whats happening now. But what we didnt predict back in 1995 is the unprecedented amount of collaboration, cooperation, and data sharing thats going on now worldwide. And we certainly didnt anticipate the general disregard for who owns the intellectual property or who gets academic credit.
In Scenarios, it took 20 years to find the solution. Today we envision a vaccine within two years, and for frontline health care workers, probably much sooner. Its remarkable how fast science can happen when everyone is focused on the same problem. This devastating pandemic, with all its worldwide chaos and horror, has at the same time created a perfect alignment of technology, science, need, and opportunity. The global impact of Covid-19 could change science forever.
In the mid-20th century, World War II and the space race ignited the fields of computer science and communications. In the 1990s, the digital revolution came along and transformed, well, pretty much everything, from the way we communicate with each other to the way we do business, education, entertainment, and politics. Now, the next phase of technological innovationwe call it the Neobiological Revolutionis literally transforming our species. From gene editing to brain computer interfaces, our ability to engineer biological systems will redefine our species and its relation to all other species and the planet.
And Covid-19 is accelerating this transformation.
Last week marked the 20th anniversary of the day the White House announced the first draft of the human genome. In Bill Clintons words, it was the most important, most wondrous map ever produced by humankind. Since then, we have gone on to sequence over 12,000 other eukaryotes (which include humans, animals, plants, and fungi), along with even larger numbers of prokaryotes, viruses, plasmids, and organelles. We rapidly sequenced the SARS-CoV-2 virus and are watching it mutate in almost real time. We are sequencing individual patients who have had particularly adverse reactions to it, and using our big data technologies to help us understand why.
Read the rest here:
Covid-19 Is Accelerating Human TransformationLets Not Waste It - WIRED
Musk believed the internet, nascent in the '90s, would "fundamentally change humanity," he said on the podcast.
"I would not regard this as a profound insight but rather an obvious one," Musk said.
He compared the internet to the human nervous system: "If you didn't have a nervous system, you wouldn't know what's going on. Your fingers wouldn't know what's going on. Your toes wouldn't know what's going on. You'd have to do it by diffusion," he said.
"The way information used to work was by diffusion. One human would have to call another human or write them in a letter. [That was] extremely slow diffusion. And if you wanted access to books, and you did not have a library, you don't have it. That's it."
He knew the internet could change all that.
And while Musk only had minimal access to the internet at the time (only to use it for his physics studies, he said), he knew the internet would be a "fundamental and profound change."
"Now, you have access to all books instantly, and you can be in a remote mountaintop location and have access to all of humanity's information if you got a link to the internet," he said on the podcast. "Now suddenly, human organisms anywhere would have access to all the information instantly."
Musk believed "making life multi-planetary and making consciousness multi-planetary" would change the world, he said on the podcast.
As a child, Musk was influenced by a variety of science fiction booksand he believed he'd one day "[build] spaceships to extend the human species's reach," according tothe book"Elon Musk." (Musk previously said that theseven-book "Foundation" science fiction series by scientist and author Isaac Asimov, for example, was "fundamental to the creation of his aerospace company, SpaceX.")
On May 30, SpaceXsuccessfully launched two NASA astronautsinto orbit for the first time. It was a milestone forhuman spaceflightand got Musk one step closer to achievinghis Mars ambitions.
Just as a character in the 1997 movie Gattaca undergoes genetic engineering to pursue his dream of space travel, according to Musk, when he was younger he believed being able to change human genetics could change the world.
And it's happening today, with technology like Crispr, Musk said on the podcast.
"It will become normal, I think, to change the human genome for getting rid of diseases or propensity to various diseases," he said. "That's going to be like the first thing you'd want headed out. If you've got a situation where you're definitely going to die of some cancer at age 55, you'd prefer to have that edited out."
"There's the Gattaca sort-of extreme thing where it's not really edited out but it's edited in for various enhancements and that kind of thing," he said, "which probably will come too."
"I'm not arguing for or against it," Musk said. "I'm just saying it's more likely to come than not down the road."
As a teenager, Musk felt a "personal obligation" for the fate of mankind and felt inspired to create "cleaner energy technology" one day, according to the book"Elon Musk."
So he believed that sustainable energy would change the future.
"Sustainability, actually, was something that I thought was important before the environmental implications became as obvious as they are," he said on the podcast. "If you mine and burn hydrocarbons[compounds that form the basis of natural gas, oil and coal], then you're going to run out of them. It's not like mining metals.... We will never run out of metals, but we will run out of hydrocarbons."
He said the future may bring a carbon taxthat would raisethe cost of burning fossil fuels to mitigate climate change, which is a "no brainer."
In 2004, Musk invested in and became a co-founder ofelectric car companyTesla.Hebecame CEO in 2008. On Wednesday, Tesla became the world's most valuable automakerwhen the electric vehicle company's market capitalization surpassed Toyota's for the first time.
"AI is a really major one" too, Musk said on the podcast.
In 2019,at the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai, Musk (who co-founded non-profit AI research lab OpenAIbut laterleft the company's board) said computers will "surpass us in every way," including scary things, likejob disruptionfrom robots or even apotentialAIracethatleadstoa third World War.
AI is "capable of vastly more than almost anyone knows and the rate of improvement is exponential," he saidhe said at the 2018 South by Southwest tech conference.
Musk also founded machine intelligence venture Neuralink, because he believes humans must merge with AI to avoid becoming irrelevant.
"We do want a close coupling between collective human intelligence and digital intelligence,"he said at the SXSW conference, "and Neuralink is trying to help in that regard by trying creating a high bandwidth interface between AI and the human brain."
Check out: The best credit cards of 2020 could earn you over $1,000 in 5 years
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In college, Elon Musk thought these 5 things would change the world - CNBC
Each night, around 7 o'clock, I drift off into a little daydream. This has been the case for weeks now. My beloved Mets are jogging onto the grass at Citi Field, taking their positions; their ace, Jacob deGrom, making a beeline to the mound. I am up out of my seat, applauding, gazing out onto the field. I look up to the sky, and that's it, really. The scene tends to slip away from there. I look down to see the gates of my apartment's window guard and the emptied streets of Manhattan beyond them. I really am clapping, but it's got nothing to do with baseball. It's in support of local nurses and doctors at work or changing shifts. Across New York City, this ritual plays out night after night (the clapping for health care workersnot the Mets fantasies, I don't think).
There's a crossing of wires at play, like my precious sports memories are mingling with the signatures of my life during the COVID-19 eraclapping, quarantining, boredom. Will it stay this way? For a while, at least, I think it will.
As MLB, the NBA and other leagues near their returns, I find myself fascinated by questions pertaining to the virus and the ways it will ripple through our leagues. How many players will contract it? How will leagues' models evolve as they move forward? Even for mea lifelong overcommitted fan who sends excessive, neurotic text threads (unresponded to) during regular-season gamesI think most of the drama in sports will come not from daily games but from daily tests results. This is the virus overpowering the once-invincible sports machine.
Already, so much of the mystique of sports has been lost. I miss the steady, circular rhythm of leagues in-season, the way they appeared day after day, overlapping only a few sacred times a year as if choreographed by the moon instead of computers and marketing teams. I miss the shameless self-importance of teams playing no matter what. (Spring training continued for 10 days after the first cases of COVID-19 appeared in Florida.) It was simply more fun back when we could view athletes as impervious superheroes rather than as bored video-gamersor, worse, as medical patients. There is something uncomfortable about having seen a dominant, intimidating player like Rudy Gobert briefly exposed as reckless and unhygienic. Games will return soon enough, but what about the underlying myths that lend them relevance and depth?
The NBA's bubble-based return, set for July 30, cuts against team fandomso driven by proximityby moving everyone to Disney World. It admits that the game could go on without us, the fans, rowdy old faithful, by playing in near silence. Game rules are changing, too, yielding to the virus' demands. There are smaller coaching staffs to protect older people from exposure, and expanded rosters for when the inevitable happens. Every league is making compromises: MLB might ban its most endearing prop, the sunflower seed, and tweak its most fundamental, unique feature, the nine-inning game.
These leagues are right to weigh these measures and to take them. They are preventing tragedies, not creating them. But the bending of tradition makes me wonder about the future of sports, about how things just changed overnight, and how they might change again in 10 years or 50. Maybe that will be the enduring impact of COVID-19 when it comes to sportsthat it opened the gates to change.
Naturally, this is where things get strange. Stick it out anyway. Consider the ways that fans and leagues are already adapting to this odd time, this time of no sports, and then imagine what comes next, and what after that. One small bit of innovation leads to an unpredictable new one, and on it goes. Very quickly, this evolution brings us into the realm of science fiction.
We might be there already. While games were on hold, the public embraced something that in the past seemed both silly and dystopian: game simulations. Las Vegas offered sim-game betting lines; we hosted virtual Madden watch parties right here at B/R. They were and are an obvious placeholder for real sports. Still, their popularity made me curious about their power down the road, if animated graphics improve enough to match real sports. Technologically speaking, could that day be coming? I asked an expert.
Nicholas Bostrom is a professor at Oxford and a pioneer of the simulation theory, which posits that we may be living in a knockoff version of Earth created by a more advanced (real-life) society. (Assuming that computers will someday be able to produce unlimited realistic simulations of life, we might be wise, he suggests, to already "think that we are likely among the simulated minds rather than among the original biological ones.") Bostrom published Are You Living in a Computer Simulation? way back in 2003. Today, few are better equipped to tell us about the future of sims. So, Professor, how good can they get?
"Eventually we will have completely realistic virtual reality simulations that would be indistinguishable from physical reality," he says. "I don't see why in theory you couldn't have a purely artificial creature that was competing against another in a way that would create a sports event."
You might be wondering what the point of this would be once sports return. Well, consider the NBA's most exhausting debate topic: load (or injury) management. Back when there were regularly scheduled games, we wasted much time meditating on the notion of, say, Kawhi Leonard taking a night off, letting his teammates dominate the lowly Cavaliers or Knicks in front of a crowd that paid to see him play. It's obvious that if there were fewer games, the need to skip some of them would decrease. Fewer games would also soothe another of the league's concerns: players' lack of sleep amid a busy travel schedule.
Simulations could merge these issues and resolve them at once. Why not simulate lopsided games like Clippers-Cavs, providing rest for Leonard and everybody else involved? Each year, each team could sim 10 or 12 games, allowing a 70- or 72-game schedule for playersalready a desired ballparkand a full 82-game slate for the league's partners, like TV networks and casinos, who would package the simulated visuals and box scores.
Maybe this idea seems a little far out, but the NBA rarely minds. It is already welcoming the ideas of the future, from the four-point shot to aerospace revolution.
Indeed, Commissioner Adam Silver has long seen supersonic flight as the key to a truly global league. With it, Portland could face Sydney and return four hours later, in time for bed. We already have an Atlantic Division with teams from America's Northeast; how about adding a Transatlantic Division featuring Brazil, Spain and Nigeria? For now, the problem is a logistical one. "Under existing airline technology, the planes aren't fast enough to at least play in the current framework of our regular season," Silver told USA Today in 2017. Fortunately, with help from Elon Musk, Richard Branson and more, supersonic jets are on their way. Just one of many game-changers to come.
Robots have perfected three-point shooting and will someday make flawless floor-spacers. Salaries paid in cryptocurrency will provide a cap loophole and threaten the league's financial structure. Augmented reality on-screen willsomehowincrease complaints about players' shot selection. Advanced tracking through biometric data will grow into a major concern regarding personal privacy. How much should bidding teams know about a free agent's body? Who gets to dictate the right body fat percentage for somebody else or whether a balky ankle is strong enough to play on? And, as the Wall Street Journal once asked: If a fan gains access to a player's medical status and uses it to wager on a game, is that insider trading? (If the answers to these questions seem like a privacy violation, then consider how quickly athletes' COVID-19 test results became expected public information, even though they're irrelevant so long as sports are on hold. If there is already a demand to know whether Ezekiel Elliott, a running back, is experiencing an inability to smell, then there's no doubting the future demand for intimate insight about his legs.)
Yes, the future can seem vast and spookythough not to Thomas Frey. Frey is an author and member of the Association of Professional Futurists. His job is to burst with ideas, and he's bursting all right, riffing on the future of medicine, tech, sports, you name it. He envisions not only the events of the future but also the issues that will counter those eventsthe future's future. "Drone racing is kind of a hot area right now," he says, "but my sense is that the drone racing eventually gets so fast that you can't even see it, and so I'm not sure that sport sticks around." Dang. What else? Frey wants to elevate existing sportsthe ones played on the groundthrough the control and reduction of gravity. (Think NFL meets Quidditch or Slamball with no need for trampolines.) He wonders about anti-aging, tooin this case, what 3,000-year lifespans might mean for athletic primes.
Other revolutions are impossible to imagine playing out (unless you happen to be a member of the APF). "We're close to reviving extinct species like woolly mammoths," Frey notes, before pondering the cruelty of secluding them from other, natural-born animals. An idea strikes him. "Creating a sport with woolly mammoth riders going around the trackthat would seem bizarre today," he says. "But I would definitely pay to go see that."
Of course, there is not only the matter of tweaking (or inventing) sports, but also that of tweaking the players themselves. One of Frey's favorite topics is genetic engineeringthe process of tinkering with human genes before birth. "We're reinventing people. We're making people more durable. We're giving rights to CRISPR [the bio-tech giant], who will give us superbabies who grow up to be superhumans," he says. OK then. Frey thinks it's inevitable that, someday, we'll be able to genetically manufacture superior athletes: bigger, faster, smarterto an uncanny degree. He wonders about "downloading the human brain" and uploading it into the mind of another person. In time, if this all gets easy and silly enough, a supertoddler could have the basketball IQ of LeBron James. (Just imagine the recruiting violations that would follow.)
Bostrom has explored genetic engineering as well. "The enhancement options being discussed," he wrote in 2003, "include radical extension of human health-span, eradication of disease, elimination of unnecessary suffering" and more. A superhuman ability to ward off illnesssay, a coronaviruswould certainly come in handy. So too would advancements that eliminate athletic limitations. Imagine how a perfect set of knees would have changed the careers of Greg Oden, Brandon Roy and others; imagine Shaquille O'Neal with a sprinter's endurance; imagine Jimmer Fredette at 7'3".
Sounds pretty greator actually it sounds like it would look pretty great, visually. But would this be good for sports? Is it ethical? Or the right spirit? And how would this impact the lives of the athletes we love?
Every tech innovation takes something away from the humans it replaces or (ostensibly) aids. Flawless three-and-D bots entering the NBA would not only change the game but also eliminate dozens or hundreds of lucrative jobs. Supersonic travel, alluring as it may be, could have untold effects on passengersespecially international-league athletes, flying overseas day after day. Genetic engineering could draw a devastating, permanent line between the haves and the have-nots.
When it arrives in full force, Frey says, crafting a given attribute"20/10 vision, a perfect heart"may well cost tens of thousands of dollars. There's no telling what else will be at the disposal of fortunate young athletes then (though Frey, of course, has some ideas, including advanced VR headsets).
Already, financial inequality pervades all of sports. Young basketball players need to be able to cover the costs of trainers and AAU travel teams to earn recognition; it's probably not a coincidence that the children of well-off former players are entering the league at a higher rate than ever. Young baseball players need not only training but also equipment, toomitts, balls, bats, helmets, cleats. (Cleveland pitcher Mike Clevinger recently blamed these costs for the sport's declining popularity among young athletes.) Golf, football, hockeyevery major sport operates behind a financial barrier to entry. In 2018, The Atlantic noted that "just 34 percent of children from families earning less than $25,000 played a team sport at least once a day in 2017, versus 69 percent from homes earning more than $100,000." (Those numbers came from a study by the Aspen Institute, which found that the gap was rapidly growing.)
Imagine a world in which the NBA MVP is an 8'6" trust-fund kid. It seems awfully shallow. Could a souped-up superhuman celebrate the award with the same tenderness as Kevin Durant did in 2014? Even if they did, would we bother to cry along with them? There is no great story in sports without long odds and a dash of relatability.Genetic engineering would destroy the enduring notion of the underdog. It would dull the sweetness of our games, the unpredictability, the misery, the reward. What, then, would be left?
"I'm not particularly excited about sports enhancements," Bostrom says, speaking broadly. "We shouldn't make the mistake of thinking everything that makes the sport easier or makes performance better makes the sport more enjoyable. I think we should think of these things more as, You're designing a game. Think creatively about what would make the most fun game. It's not always the easiest thing."
So far, leagues have mostly welcomed new tech as it arrives, a concerning trend. Consider the modern obsession with instant replay.
Think back to the men's NCAA title game last April. With the season on the line, the ball was knocked out of a Texas Tech dribbler's hands and flew out of bounds. For anybody who has ever picked up a basketball and played a game on any level, it was instantly recognizable as Tech's ball. But after several minutes of replaywhich included referee consultant Gene Steratore saying, "At times, guys, I will tell you, when you start running replay really, really slow, you get a little bit of distortion in there as well, so you've gotta be cognizant to that," suggesting that looking more closely may bring us further from the truththe ball was given to Virginia, the underlying logic being that the most important thing is to get the call right. Is it? What about the flow of the game, the sanity of the viewer, the unspoken understandingsI knocked it out; it's your ballthat run between players and fans, deepening the sport?
This, I will always believe, is the good stuff. Even Bostromwho is so technical that he at one point connects sports fandom to ancient Greek war and says, "You can speculate that, from an evolutionary point of view, being able to detect small differences in fitness would be valuable"agrees these intangibles are worth protecting. Even at the cost of, say, letting simulations run wild.
"You can't predict how an actual game will play out just by sort of measuring the circumference of the biceps and the speed on the treadmill of the athletes," Bostrom says. "And I think if you could predict it, in some sense it could reduce interest. It's not the same as seeing the struggle, the human spirit, the grit, the audience cheering them on."
The question, then, is not so much whether replay or sims or any other technical advance are helpful or efficient but whether we have the ability to recognize when they are aiding sports versus when they are harming them, and when the time is right to rein them in.
"Rather than just allowing everything that makes the performance better," Bostrom says, "we should think more about changes that make the game more fun and rewarding for both the players and the audience."
Are we doing this now? It's hard to say. The COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating change and the acceptance of change. It is clouding the rule-changing thought process. Already, long-standing traditions and powerful illusions have been altered across sports. After years of debate within baseball about the designated hitter, it will be implemented leaguewide as part of MLB's plan for a safe return. It is but a footnote to a much more complex story, which is fine. But also, how does the DH protect anybody from the coronavirus?
The NBA's bubble league will introduce its own oddities, though not everyone will be there to experience them firsthand. Several players have already tapped out of the NBA reboot, some fearing the virus, some having tested positive for it, some unwilling to separate from their loved ones. Others are sitting out so they can focus on social justice reform after expressing concerns that basketball could detract from those efforts. For those traveling to Disney World, it will be a lonely undertaking. Players themselves "are not permitted to enter each other's hotel rooms." Card games, if they do occur, will be monitored closely, and decks will be swapped out frequently.
Every league is drawing its own unprecedented game plan. The NFL is planning to cover the seats closest to the sidelines to keep fans away from players (though the league of course will advertise on the tarp). The NHL will reportedly route its action through two hub cities, Toronto and Edmonton. The measures that college sports will need to takeassuming anybody is on campus come Septemberfigure to be the most drastic of all.
Tech innovation will accompany each return: temperature screenings, artificial crowd noise, broadcasting from home. As quarantine warps our collective sense of time, it feels as though we've known these quirks forever. But not long ago they would have seemed quite strange, impossible, unwelcome, like somebody somewhere out there was toying with our settings.
Leo Sepkowitz joined B/R Mag in 2018. Previously, he was a Senior Writer at SLAM Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter: @LeoSepkowitz.
The Future of Sports - Bleacher Report