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Did Uber Steal Google's Intellectual Property?

The New Yorker

In the spring of 2011, a small group of engineers working on a secretive project at Google received an e-mail from a colleague. Anthony is going to get fired. Several of the recipients gathered in one of the self-serve espresso bars that dot the company's headquarters, and traded rumors suggesting that Anthony Levandowski--one of the company's most talented and best-known employees--had finally gone too far. Levandowski was a gifted engineer who frequently spoke to newspapers and magazines, including this one, about the future of robotics. On the Google campus, he was easy to pick out: he was six feet seven and wore the same drab clothes every day--jeans and a gray T-shirt--which, in Silicon Valley, signalled that he preferred to conserve his cognitive energies for loftier pursuits.


James Mattis, a Warrior in Washington

The New Yorker

On January 22nd, two days after President Trump was inaugurated, he received a memo from his new Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, recommending that the United States launch a military strike in Yemen. In a forty-year career, Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general and a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, had cultivated a reputation for being both deeply thoughtful and extremely aggressive. By law and by custom, the position of Defense Secretary is reserved for civilians, but Mattis was still a marine at heart. He had been out of the military for only three years (the rule is seven), and his appointment required Congress to pass a waiver. For the first time in his professional life, he was going to the Pentagon in a suit and tie. Mattis urged Trump to launch the raid swiftly: the operation, which was aimed at one of the leaders of Al Qaeda in Yemen, required a moonless night, and the window for action was approaching. Under previous Administrations, such attacks entailed ...


Margaret Atwood, the Prophet of Dystopia

The New Yorker

The ritualized procreation in the novel--effectively, state-sanctioned rape--is extrapolated from the Bible. " 'Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her,' " Atwood recited. "Obviously, they stuck the two together and out came the baby, and it was given to Rachel.


Silicon Valley's Quest to Live Forever

The New Yorker

On a velvety March evening in Mandeville Canyon, high above the rest of Los Angeles, Norman Lear's living room was jammed with powerful people eager to learn the secrets of longevity. When the symposium's first speaker asked how many people there wanted to live to two hundred, if they could remain healthy, almost every hand went up. The venture capitalists were keeping slim to maintain their imposing vitality, the scientists were keeping slim because they'd read--and in some cases done--the research on caloric restriction, and the Hollywood stars were keeping slim because of course. When Liz Blackburn, who won a Nobel Prize for her work in genetics, took questions, Goldie Hawn, regal on a comfy sofa, purred, "I have a question about the mitochondria. I've been told about a molecule called glutathione that helps the health of the cell?" Glutathione is a powerful antioxidant that protects cells and their mitochondria, which provide energy; some in Hollywood call it "the God molecule." But taken in excess it can muffle a number of bodily repair mechanisms, leading to liver and kidney problems or even the rapid and potentially fatal sloughing of your skin. Blackburn gently suggested that a varied, healthy diet was best, and that no single molecule was the answer to the puzzle of aging. Yet the premise of the evening was that answers, and maybe even an encompassing solution, were just around the corner. The party was the kickoff event for the National Academy of Medicine's Grand Challenge in Healthy Longevity, which will award at least twenty-five million dollars for breakthroughs in the field. Victor Dzau, the academy's president, stood to acknowledge several of the scientists in the room. He praised their work with enzymes that help regulate aging; with teasing out genes that control life span in various dog breeds; and with a technique by which an old mouse is surgically connected to a young mouse, shares its blood, and within weeks becomes younger. Joon Yun, a doctor who runs a health-care hedge fund, announced that he and his wife had given the first two million dollars toward funding the challenge. "I have the idea that aging is plastic, that it's encoded," he said. "If something is encoded, you can crack the code." To growing applause, he went on, "If you can crack the code, you can hack the code!" It's a big ask: more than a hundred and fifty thousand people die every day, the majority of aging-related diseases. Yet Yun believes, he told me, that if we hack the code correctly, "thermodynamically, there should be no reason we can't defer entropy indefinitely. We can end aging forever." Nicole Shanahan, the founder of a patent-management business, announced that her company would oversee longevity-related patents that Yun had pledged to the cause.


Alternate Endings

The New Yorker

Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, young directors who go by the joint film credit Daniels, are known for reality-warped miniatures--short films, music videos, commercials--that are eerie yet playful in mood. In their work, people jump into other people's bodies, Teddy bears dance to hard-core dubstep, rednecks shoot clothes from rifles onto fleeing nudists. Last year, their first feature-length project, "Swiss Army Man"--starring Daniel Radcliffe, who plays a flatulent talking corpse that befriends a castaway--premièred at Sundance, and left some viewers wondering if it was the strangest thing ever to be screened at the festival. The Times, deciding that the film was impossible to categorize, called it "weird and wonderful, disgusting and demented." Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that when the Daniels were notified by their production company, several years ago, that an Israeli indie pop star living in New York wanted to hire them to experiment with technology that could alter fundamental assumptions of moviemaking, they took the call. The musician was Yoni Bloch, arguably the first Internet sensation on Israel's music scene--a wispy, bespectacled songwriter from the Negev whose wry, angst-laden music went viral in the early aughts, leading to sold-out venues and a record deal. After breaking up with his girlfriend, in 2007, Bloch had hoped to win her back by thinking big. He made a melancholy concept album about their relationship, along with a companion film in the mode of "The Wall"--only to fall in love with the actress who played his ex. He had also thought up a more ambitious idea: an interactive song that listeners could shape as it played. But by the time he got around to writing it his hurt feelings had given way to more indeterminate sentiments, and the idea grew to become an interactive music video. The result, "I Can't Be Sad Anymore," which he and his band released online in 2010, opens with Bloch at a party in a Tel Aviv apartment. Standing on a balcony, he puts on headphones, then wanders among his friends, singing about his readiness to escape melancholy. He passes the headphones to others; whoever wears them sings, too. Viewers decide, by clicking on onscreen prompts, how the headphones are passed--altering, in real time, the song's vocals, orchestration, and emotional tone, while also following different micro-dramas. If you choose the drunk, the camera follows her as she races into the bathroom, to Bloch's words "I want to drink less / but be more drunk." Choose her friend instead, and the video leads to sports fans downing shots, with the lyrics "I want to work less / but for a greater cause."


Ted Chiang's Soulful Science Fiction

The New Yorker

In the early nineteen-nineties, a few occurrences sparked something in Ted Chiang's mind. He attended a one-man show in Seattle, where he lives, about a woman's death from cancer. A little later, a friend had a baby and told Chiang about recognizing her son from his movements in the womb. Chiang thought back to certain physical principles he had learned about in high school, in Port Jefferson, New York, having to do with the nature of time. The idea for a story emerged, about accepting the arrival of the inevitable.


The Bot Politic

The New Yorker

In February, I took a job designing the personality of a chatbot called Kai. I ghostwrite the lines it says, and I have thought, while testing it, that talking to myself has rarely been so unpredictable. Kai, which was conceived by my employer, Kasisto, to help customers with online banking, works over text message, Slack, and especially Facebook Messenger, where more than thirty-four thousand other chatbots have joined it since April, when Facebook opened the platform to developers. Many of these bots possess no personality. The ones created by CNN and the Wall Street Journal, for instance, greet first-time users with "we," as if the whole newsroom were on the other side of the screen, and run keyword searches rather than engaging in conversation.


Rewriting the Code of Life

The New Yorker

Early on an unusually blustery day in June, Kevin Esvelt climbed aboard a ferry at Woods Hole, bound for Nantucket Island. Esvelt, an assistant professor of biological engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was on his way to present to local health officials a plan for ridding the island of one of its most persistent problems: Lyme disease. He had been up for much of the night working on his slides, and the fatigue showed. He had misaligned the buttons on his gray pin-striped shirt, and the rings around his deep-blue eyes made him look like a sandy-haired raccoon. Esvelt, who is thirty-four, directs the "sculpting evolution" group at M.I.T., where he and his colleagues are attempting to design molecular tools capable of fundamentally altering the natural world. If the residents of Nantucket agree, Esvelt intends to use those tools to rewrite the DNA of white-footed mice to make them immune to the bacteria that cause Lyme and other tick-borne diseases. He and his team would breed the mice in the laboratory and then, as an initial experiment, release them on an uninhabited island. If the number of infected ticks begins to plummet, he would seek permission to repeat the process on Nantucket and on nearby Martha's Vineyard. More than a quarter of Nantucket's residents have been infected with Lyme, which has become one of the most rapidly spreading diseases in the United States. The illness is often accompanied by a red bull's-eye rash, along with fever and chills. When the disease is caught early enough, it can be cured in most cases with a single course of antibiotics. For many people, though, pain and neurological symptoms can persist for years. In communities throughout the Northeast, the fear of ticks has changed the nature of summer itself--few parents these days would permit a child to run barefoot through the grass or wander blithely into the woods. "What if we could wave our hands and make this problem go away?" Esvelt asked the two dozen officials and members of the public who had assembled at the island's police station for his presentation. He explained that white-footed mice are the principal reservoir of Lyme disease, which they pass, through ticks, to humans.


Two Ways to Bring Shakespeare Into the Twenty-First Century

The New Yorker

For the four-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare's death, Gregory Doran, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, wanted to dazzle. He turned to "The Tempest," the late romance that includes flying spirits, a shipwreck, a vanishing banquet, and a masque-like pageant that the magician Prospero stages to celebrate his daughter's marriage. "The Tempest" was performed at the court of King James I, and it may have been intended in part to showcase the multimedia marvels of Jacobean court masques. "Shakespeare was touching on that new form of theatre," Doran told me recently, over the phone. "So we wanted to think about what the cutting-edge technology is today that Shakespeare, if he were alive now, would be saying, 'Let's use some of that.' " The politics behind Shakespeare and stage illusion are more fraught than usual these days.


The Fantastic Ursula K. Le Guin

The New Yorker

Politics has been obsessing a lot of people lately, and Ursula K. Le Guin is far from immune to bouts of political anger. In an e-mail to me last winter, she wrote that she felt "eaten up" with frustration at the ongoing occupation of an eastern Oregon wildlife refuge by an armed band of antigovernment agitators led by the brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy. She was distressed by the damage they had done to scientific programs and to historical artifacts belonging to the local Paiute tribe, and critical of the F.B.I. for being so slow to remove these "hairy gunslinging fake cowboys" from public property. She had been mildly cheered up, she added, by following a Twitter feed with the hashtag #BundyEroticFanFic. The high desert of eastern Oregon is one of Le Guin's places. She often goes there in the summer with her husband, Charles, a professor emeritus of history at Portland State University, to a ranch on the stony ridge of Steens Mountain, overlooking the refuge. She has led writing workshops at the Malheur Field Station, a group of weather-beaten buildings used mainly by biologists and birders, and published a book of poems and sketches of the area, with photographs by Roger Dorband, called "Out Here." She likes the awareness the desert gives her of distance, emptiness, and geological time. In a poem, "A Meditation in the Desert," she imagines a stone being "full / of slower, longer thoughts than mind can have." She has roots in eastern Oregon that go back to the early days of white settlement. Not long ago, she told me excitedly that she'd rediscovered records in the attic of her grandmother's childhood: "My great-grandfather, with my grandmother age eleven, moved from California to Oregon in 1873. . . . They drove three hundred and fifty head of cattle up through Nevada and built a stone house on the back side of Steens Mountain. I don't think he made a claim; there was nowhere to make it. He was one of the very first ranchers in what is still very desolate country."