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Margaret Atwood, the Prophet of Dystopia

The New Yorker

When Margaret Atwood was in her twenties, an aunt shared with her a family legend about a possible seventeenth-century forebear: Mary Webster, whose neighbors, in the Puritan town of Hadley, Massachusetts, had accused her of witchcraft. "The townspeople didn't like her, so they strung her up," Atwood said recently. "But it was before the age of drop hanging, and she didn't die. She dangled there all night, and in the morning, when they came to cut the body down, she was still alive." Webster became known as Half-Hanged Mary.


Silicon Valley's Quest to Live Forever

The New Yorker

" (In the book, the author, Yuval Noah Harari, discusses Google's anti-aging research, and writes that the company "probably won't solve death in time to make Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin immortal.") A few years ago, there was great excitement about telomeres, Liz Blackburn's specialty--DNA buffers that protect the ends of chromosomes just as plastic tips protect the ends of shoelaces. But it turns out that animals with long telomeres, such as lab mice, don't necessarily have long lives--and that telomerase, the enzyme that promotes telomere growth, is also activated in the vast majority of cancer cells. Aubrey de Grey likes to compare the body to a car: a mechanic can fix an engine without necessarily understanding the physics of combustion, and assiduously restored antique cars run just fine.


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. Bloch called his software Treehouse and his company Interlude--the name hinting at a cultural gap between video games and movies which he sought to bridge. In Borges's telling, the novel remained a riddle--chaotic, fragmentary, impenetrable--for more than a century, until a British Sinologist deciphered it: the book, he discovered, sought to explore every possible decision that its characters could make, every narrative bifurcation, every parallel time line. Conversely, making choices in a video game often produces emotional withdrawal: players are either acquiring skills or using them reflexively to achieve discrete rewards.


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. assistants that she designs, Amy Ingram and Andrew Ingram, schedule meetings over e-mail. Psychologists define human personality according to traits known as the Big Five: extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness, and neuroticism. Designing Kai, I was able to anticipate off-topic questions with responses that lightly guide the user back to banking, but Alexa and Siri are generalists, set up to be asked anything, which makes defining inappropriate input challenging, I imagine.


Rewriting the Code of Life

The New Yorker

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. Esvelt has spoken about Lyme dozens of times in the past year, not just on Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard but at forums around the world, from a synthetic-biology symposium in Chile to President Obama's White House Frontiers Conference, in Pittsburgh. Esvelt plans to release enough genetically modified mice, tens of thousands of them, to overwhelm the wild population. But I would submit that the single most important application of gene drive is not to eradicate malaria or schistosomiasis or Lyme or any other specific project.


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.


Sam Altman's Manifest Destiny

The New Yorker

One balmy May evening, thirty of Silicon Valley's top entrepreneurs gathered in a private room at the Berlinetta Lounge, in San Francisco. Paul Graham considered the founders of Instacart, DoorDash, Docker, and Stripe, in their hoodies and black jeans, and said, "This is Silicon Valley, right here." All the founders were graduates of Y Combinator, the startup "accelerator" that Graham co-founded: a three-month boot camp, run twice a year, in how to become a "unicorn"--Valleyspeak for a billion-dollar company. Thirteen thousand fledgling software companies applied to Y Combinator this year, and two hundred and forty were accepted, making it more than twice as hard to get into as Stanford University. After graduating thirteen hundred startups, YC now boasts the power--and the peculiarities--of an island nation.


When Products Talk

The New Yorker

Last month, the Washington Post reported on a surprising new job in Silicon Valley: bot-writer. "Increasingly, there are poets, comedians, fiction writers, and other artistic types charged with engineering the personalities for a fast-growing crop of artificial intelligence tools," the Post's Elizabeth Dwoskin wrote. These personalities, Dwoskin reported, will soon be joined by more specialized bots developed by other companies, among them Sophie and Molly, "nurse avatars" that talk to patients about their medical conditions. There's even a "guru avatar" in development, designed to teach meditation. These products are exciting and futuristic--just a decade ago, the possibility of conversing with a computer program seemed like science fiction.