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Tag: technology

When selling technology gets out ahead of understanding technology

cartoon6

When the marketing of a new technology gets ahead of refining that technology, and finding its best use, it can be disastrous.

But, biotech being what it is, and greed being what it is, it happens — a lot: Let’s start selling it before we fully understand it, much less the repercussions it might bring.

Dog cloning is one example of that. Canine genetic testing — now being marketed by some companies — might well be another.

Promising uses may exist in both technologies, but the rush to market them, the gullibility of humans, and the total lack of oversight and restrictions governing their use, have resulted in a whole new market niche — selling false hope.

With both, claims have been made that can’t be backed up. With both, the marketing claims can’t be confirmed by scientific evidence, at least in amounts most scientist deem acceptable to serve as proof. With both, the zeal to put a product or service on the marketplace has led to many outrageous claims and more than a few “woops” moments.

71VI6KUzxML._SL1500_DNA testing of dogs has become a booming business in the last 10 years, starting with the marketing of tests that promised to determine what breeds are in your dog — a fun little method of solving they mystery of a dog’s heritage by testing its blood or saliva in a lab.

Companies said then that knowing what breeds make up your dog could also be a way of keeping him or her healthy, and allow you to watch out for certain diseases and disorders that those breeds are prone to.

In more recent years, it has been used to test for genetic mutations, making it, seemingly, a more valuable diagnostic tool for veterinarians.

Today, it can be used to make life or death decisions and that, a commentary piece in the journal Nature warned last week, is a mistake.

At least it appeared to be a mistake for a little dog named Petunia.

Petunia, 13, started having trouble walking and controlling her bladder and bowels last year.

91Wg3qmDurL._SL1500_Her owners bought a $65 home genetic test, and the results showed their pug carried a mutation that is linked to a neurodegenerative condition similar to the human disease ALS — one that would lead to paralysis and eventual death.

Based on that, her owners had her put down.

What they might not have realized is that as few as 1 in 100 dogs that test positive for the common mutation develop the rare disease. Petunia’s condition could have been the result of a more-treatable spinal disorder.

“Genetic testing for pets is expanding,” the Nature article said. “Hundreds of thousands of dogs have now been genetically screened, as Petunia was, and companies are beginning to offer tests for cats. But the science is lagging. Most of these tests are based on small, underpowered studies. Neither their accuracy nor their ability to predict health outcomes has been validated. Most vets don’t know enough about the limitations of the studies, or about genetics in general, to be able to advise worried owners.

“Pet genetics must be reined in. If not, some companies will continue to profit by selling potentially misleading and often inaccurate information; pets and their owners will suffer needlessly; and opportunities to improve pet health and even to leverage studies in dogs and cats to benefit human health might be lost. Ultimately, people will become more distrustful of science and medicine.”

71aDTs6xiFL._SL1440_What’s not to be trusted here, though, is the marketing.

Claims are made before there is enough science to back them up, and we — minds boggled by all the indecipherable advances in technology around us — accept them.

Few of us really understand, and nobody — I’d argue — bothers much to look at the repercussions, to where it might all lead.

That’s what makes this Nature commentary exceptional. It was written by Lisa Moses, a veterinarian at the MSPCA-Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston and a research scholar on bioethics at Harvard, along with two other Boston-based experts.

Petunia’s case, she said, “is one, but there have been many of them. In fact, a number of cases just like that one are what started me thinking about this years ago, when the first genetic tests started to be used routinely.”

Co-author Elinor Karlsson, a researcher on dog genetics based at the UMass Medical School and the Broad Institute, said she was “aghast” when she learned from Moses that genetic research like hers is being used to make clinical decisions — including euthanasia.

“It really upset me,” she said. “Both the idea that people were already using genetics like this and the idea that the papers that I’ve published on things like bone cancer and compulsive disorder may also end up being used as tests, and that people wouldn’t understand what the limitations were of the work that we’ve done so far.”

The article calls for several remedies, including quality standards for how pet genetic tests are performed, how results are shared, and counselors who could help owners interpret results.

“One of the purposes of this article was just a heads-up to everybody that this needs some serious attention in an organized fashion,” said Veterinarian Steven Niemi, who co-authored the Nature commentary and is the director of the Office of Animal Resources at Harvard.

“We shall sell no wine before its time,” a wine-making company once boasted, hiring Orson Welles to voice those words in a TV ad. Of course, it wasn’t true. Gallo specialized in cheaper wines — Thunderbird even.

Nevertheless, it is advice those who are marketing technology might do well to take, at least if they want to come anywhere close to gaining the public’s trust. For the public, my advice would be don’t do it; wait for the proof.

Revolt of the robot dogs?

It may look like this robot dog is attempting to escape and carry out whatever other carnage he was programmed to inflict.

But it’s only a test by Boston Dynamics, the company developing these creatures for wartime and other uses.

The robot dog has been directed to open the door and leave the room. The technician has been assigned to pose an obstacle, using a hockey stick. The resulting struggle — in which the technician ends up grabbing the metal beast’s tail/handle, and breaking a piece of it off — is shown in this newly released video.

Boston Dynamics describes the video as a test of the dog’s (named SpotMini) “ability to adjust to disturbances as it opens and walks through a door” because “the ability to tolerate and respond to disturbances like these improves successful operation of the robot.”

In other words, they want to be sure the dogs will complete their assigned mission at all costs.

It’s that “at all costs” part that gets a little scary. When you program a robot to “do this and don’t let anything get in the way,” you want to be sure that you, and other living breathing humans, aren’t in the way.

In this case, the robot succeeds in getting out the door. Boston Dynamics assured watchers that “this testing does not irritate or harm the robot.”

The company, owned by Google at the time, took a little heat three years ago when it released a video that showed a technician kicking a robot dog. Even back then, they assured watchers, “No robot dogs were harmed in the making of this video.”

Last year the company was sold to SoftBank.

Retired professor foresees the day we’ll be able to talk with dogs — and it’s soon

slobodchikoff

A retired Northern Arizona University biology professor says a device that could provide humans with a basic idea of what dogs are thinking could be developed within the next 10 years, or even as few as two years.

Con Slobodchikoff says the device would decode a canine’s vocalizations, facial expressions and actions and then tell the human user what the dog is trying to say.

There are some far less scientific, far more gimmicky types of devices already on the market, but what Slobodchikoff is proposing — and attempting to raise money for — would be as simple as pointing your cell phone at your pet to get a translation of what he is trying to communicate.

Slobodchikoff, who spent decades researching prairie dog communication at NAU, says the technology would hinge on an artificial intelligence program that would learn to recognize animal sounds and actions through videos and pictures.

“The program would synthesize all of it, then tell the person the dog says ‘I want to go for a walk’ or ‘you’re scaring me, back off please,'” Slobodchikoff told the Arizona Daily Sun in Flagstaff.

b8e37915bfa7749f147182db37a4dcebWe’d point out here that the average dog owner is probably already getting such messages from his dog non-verbally. And we’d guess that “let’s go for a walk” or “isn’t it time for dinner” would account for 90 percent of any messages the device picked up.

Then again, what dog owner doesn’t want to get a little deeper into his dog’s head.

People like to think of their dogs as thinking, feeling beings and want to respond to them in some way, Slobodchikoff said. “But they don’t know what their dogs are trying to say to them.”

He says between two million and three million dogs are euthanized each year for behavioral problems, and that most of those problems arise because of a lack of communication between people and their dogs.

Last year, Slobodchikoff started the company Zoolingua to develop animal communication technology.

The timeline for developing a working translation device depends on how much money he and his partners can raise, he said. “If we get a lot of money we can do it in two to five years, not as much money then it probably will be 10 years.”

He hopes to perfect a device for dogs, then expand it to cats, horses, other domestic animals, and possibly wild animals someday.

Before he retired from NAU about seven years ago, Slobodchikoff’s research focused on analyzing the calls of prairie dogs that live around Flagstaff.

screen-shot-2015-08-16-at-11-00-02-pmSlobodchikoff conducted experiments where he parsed out prairie dog calls and determined that the animals had different calls for different threats or predators, like humans, birds and coyotes.

Upon further analysis, he found that the prairie dogs’ alarm calls had a structure similar to the nouns and adjectives used in human sentences. The animals also had different dialects, he said. You can read more about his work with prairie dogs in this New York Times article.

chasing“People see … that they’re not just this nuisance ground squirrel that digs burrows. They really are a complex animal that has unique personalities. Hopefully people can relate to that in a different way so that makes them stop and think a little bit before they just decide to shoot one or poison one on their property just because they don’t like it.”

After retiring, Slobodchikoff wrote the book “Chasing Doctor Dolittle,” in which he explored the languages of everything from whales to honeybees.

“Many animals do have language but we humans simply have not been listening,” he said.

When something as simple as feeding the dog requires technology, we’re in trouble

Because your dog is not going to tell you that he has already been fed, a California company is introducing a “smart scoop” that, via bluetooth technology and an app, will let you know if that daily deed has been done.

That’s right. A smart dog food scoop. What’s next? Smart spatulas? Smart doorstops? Don’t tell me if they already exist; I don’t want to know.

Leave it to 21st Century America to come up with fancy, complex, intrusive and expensive communication technology to get the most mundane of chores accomplished when much simpler ways exist, such as a hand-written note, or perhaps the spoken word.

YaDoggie delivers its brand of dog food and treats to your door, and it plans to make the smart scoop available this spring to those who sign up for subscription plans.

The company showed off the scoop at the CES tech show in Las Vegas Monday.

scoopCNET described how it works:

“The YaDoggie scoop will connect to an iOS app on your phone through a Bluetooth connection. A small light on the scoop will turn green if no one has picked up the scoop and connected with the app that day, which means you’re good to feed your dog. The light will turn red if the app has detected that someone has used the scoop. The app will also tell you who has fed the dog based on whose phone is closest to the scoop.”

Now I understand that, in an active, on-the-go modern American family, multiple family members might take it upon themselves to feed a dog not knowing he had already been fed. I understand that such mundane matters aren’t always communicated between family members.

I can understand that happening even when it’s just a couple sharing a home with a dog.

And I’ll admit that even those who live alone, such as me, might forget if they’ve already fed their dog on a particular day. (My solution is attaching a Post-it note to my forehead.)

In all seriousness, though, there truly are simpler, no-cost ways, to accomplish this.

I don’t think that multiple feedings alone are the main cause of overweight dogs, as the company’s promotional video (above) implies. Treats, lack of exercise and table scraps are all probably bigger factors.

On its website, the company says the “simple, elegant scoop,” when paired with the app, notifies everyone in the family that the dog has been fed. It also lets the company “figure out when you’re running low on food so we can make sure you never run out.”

At least it doesn’t keep tabs on how many times you are feeding yourself, or sneaking treats for yourself, in the kitchen — at least as far I know.

The company says the battery in the scoop will last at least “a year, if not more” so there is “no need to worry about charging or replacing batteries.” It doesn’t make clear whether you get a new scoop after a year, or a new battery, or have to spend hours reprogramming everything, but it says more information will be coming out before the device hits the market.

I don’t want one. I’m old school enough to suspected that the more “smart” devices we come to rely on, the more stupid we are going to get. And I’m already getting stupid enough. Sometimes I don’t even realize I’m walking around with a Post-it note on my head — until the dog tells me.

Dogs herding sheep, as seen from above

Counting imaginary sheep has never worked as a sleep aid for me, but maybe that’s because I always visualized them at ground level.

A bird’s-eye view (or drone’s-camera, in this case) is something entirely different, and quite fantastic. It may not be sleep-inducing, but it is definitely soothing and mesmerizing.

This footage of dogs herding sheep in New Zealand, captured by a camera-equipped drone, is from Tim Whitaker, a filmmaker and aerial photographer in New Zealand. It was taken at a farm in Rangitikei.

As for the choreography, we can thank dog for that.

As the dogs direct them, the massive herd of sheep wash over the green hills like a wave, spreading and narrowing as they make their way to the destination.

Beautiful as this footage is, it raises the unfortunate question: If you’ve got the drones, do you need the dogs?

(The answer — at least until drones start cuddling and looking up at us with big soulful eyes — is yes.)

That’s not to say drones can’t herd dogs. Paul Brennan of Carlow, Ireland, employed a drone nicknamed “Shep” a couple of years ago to herd sheep from one field to another, capturing the process as Shep saw it from the air.

Unlike the video at the top of this post, it’s not nearly as peaceful and soul-enriching — but maybe that’s just the fast-motion pace and the Benny Hill music.

Chinese scientists clone dogs with heart disease — and call it an achievement

longlong

China says it has managed to join South Korea as a world leader in canine cloning — by managing to create a clone of a sick dog.

Longlong, a beagle, was born with a blood-clotting disorder, and that was just what the scientists were hoping for.

The pup is a clone of Apple, a different dog whose genome was edited to develop the disease atherosclerosis, CNN reported.

longlong1By cloning the bioengineered dog, the scientists ensured they will have a good supply of diseased dogs for experiments they say could lead to cures for the condition that causes strokes and heart disease in humans.

Longlong was created by the Beijing-based biotech company Sinogene, which is boasting about having created the world’s first dog cloned from a gene-edited donor.

With Longlong’s birth, and two more clones of the bio-engineered dog being born since then, the scientists claimed that China had matched South Korea as a leader in canine cloning technology. South Korean scientists cloned the first dog, an Afghan hound named Snuppy, in 2005.

“Dogs share the most inheritable diseases with human beings, which makes them the best disease models to study,” says Feng Chong, technical director at Sinogene.

While the pups haven’t shown any signs of cardiovascular disease yet, their cloning ensures they will get it. Experimental drugs to treat cardiovascular diseases are already being tested on them.

Longlong’s birth combined two technologies: A gene-editing tool called CRISPR with somatic cell cloning technology, the method used to clone Dolly the sheep and later, Snuppy.

Zhao Jianping, vice manager of Sinogene, says the company’s success in dog cloning is about 50%. Two surrogate dogs out of four gave birth to three cloned puppies. The other two did not get pregnant.

Scientists at Sinogene believe their work aids the future of pharmaceutical development and biomedical research and it plans to produce more cloned dogs like Longlong.

“Gene-edited dogs are very useful for pharmaceutical companies,” said Feng. “The supply falls short of the demand every year.”

(Poor little pharmaceutical companies.)

The scientists also say cloning bio-engineered dogs to create puppy clones that will be born with the disease is kinder than the previous method of creating atherosclerosis in lab dogs — namely, force feeding with meals high in sugar.

Scientists, in case you haven’t noticed, have also invented a way to justify just about anything they want to do.

So if you want to hail this as a great achievement in technology, go ahead. I prefer to see it as scientists taking another giant stride toward playing God — giveth-ing life to dogs, only to taketh it away. Mankind may benefit (or at least live a longlong time), but rest assured the biggest gains will go to pharmaceutical companies.

(Photos: CNN)

Sony working on reincarnating Aibo, this time as a smart home assistant

aiboAibo is coming back, and he hopes to take a bite out of Alexa.

Sony is reportedly re-forming the team behind its discontinued robot dog Aibo, and plans are for him to come back in a form that will compete with Alexa, the artificially intelligent household assistant produced by Amazon.

Aibo made a splash when he was introduced back in 1999, but after a few years consumer interested waned.

In large part that was because, aside from the novelty, he was less than cuddly and really couldn’t do much other than sit and bark.

Nikkei Asian Review reports that Sony is preparing to compete with Amazon, Google and Apple by producing a smart, speaking, more helpful version of the robot dog.

After a 12-year hiatus from robotics, the company announced last year it was turning its attention back to robots. Aibo’s return would be the first of several products brought to the market.

He will engage in all the dog-like behavior the old one did, but this time will be equipped with artificial intelligence, Internet connectivity, and he will speak the human language.

He’ll be able to control home appliances, play music and query the Internet at the command of his owner’s voice. Equipping him with AI will allow consumers to use him the same way they use any other digital assistant, all while being a little more personable, a little more like family, than just a futuristic looking speaker.

Whether the smarter, reincarnated version will be named Aibo isn’t certain yet, but the company says it is a possibility.