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Weekly Dose of Optimism #41
Khanmigo, GPT Brain Reading, Fifth State of Matter, Forever Chemicals, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Embiid
Hi friends 👋,
Happy Friday and welcome back to our 41st Weekly Dose of Optimism.
We’re feeling pretty pumped up about everything going on in the world right now.
Let’s get to it.
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Sal Khan for Ted
Sal Khan, the founder and CEO of Khan Academy, thinks artificial intelligence could spark the greatest positive transformation education has ever seen. He shares the opportunities he sees for students and educators to collaborate with AI tools -- including the potential of a personal AI tutor for every student and an AI teaching assistant for every teacher -- and demos some exciting new features for their educational chatbot, Khanmigo.
Improving education is the best way to make sure the pages of the Weekly Dose will be filled for decades to come. Education is upstream of everything.
Sal Khan basically invented internet-scale education when he launched Khan Academy in 2006, so we take his thoughts on AI’s impact on education quite seriously. Through AI, Khan sees an opportunity to give every student a personalized tutor and every teacher an amazing teaching assistant. Just how impactful is that? According to a 1984 study, 1:1 tutoring yields a two-sigma improvement on educational outcomes — turning an average student into an exceptional student.has a great three-parter on aristocratic tutoring, starting with Why we stopped making Einsteins.
Khan Academy has been on a decades-long mission to create that type of personalized, scalable tutoring offering, and according to Khan, it’s getting much closer to that goal with the release of Khanmigo — the company’s AI product. The whole product demo is worth watching. Who knows if Khan Academy will be the winning provider of these AI-powered tutors in the future (although it seems well-positioned), but it’s tough not to be optimistic about the future of education after watching Khan get this excited about this product release.
Michael Zhang for Artisana
A team of scientists has made a groundbreaking discovery by employing a Generative Pre-trained Transformer (GPT) AI model similar to ChatGPT to reconstruct human thoughts with up to 82% accuracy from functional MRI (fMRI) recordings. This unprecedented level of accuracy in decoding human thoughts from non-invasive signals paves the way for a myriad of scientific opportunities and potential future applications, the researchers say.
Welp, I guess AI can read our minds now. That was pretty quick.
A team of researchers from UT-Austin used a custom trained LLM to decode human thought from non-invasive brain signals. The applications here are far reaching — think of any use-case in which it would be helpful to automatically translate our thoughts into transmittable words: communications, entertainment, education, and more. Of course, there are also privacy concerns. Your private thoughts are now non-invasively decodable.
It’s easy to let your mind go all Minority Report here — is pre-crime going to be a thing? — but we’d encourage you to think off all of positive capabilities this unlocks. Like Brain-Computer Interfaces (BCI), the first use cases here will probably be for the disabled — blind, deaf, and mute populations seem like they could meaningfully benefit from this type of technology.
Further down the line, if text is the universal interface, this brings us one step closer to bringing worlds to life simply by imagining them. Dreams and reality are moving ever closer to each other.
Louise Lerner from The University of Chicago via Kyle Russell
The study found links at the atomic level between photosynthesis and exciton condensates—a strange state of physics that allows energy to flow frictionlessly through a material. The finding is scientifically intriguing and may suggest new ways to think about designing electronics.
Now this is exciton news! (that’s a quasiparticle joke, you’ll get it if you read the article.)
Studying what happens at the molecular level during photosynthesis, UChicago scientists discovered that the process is similar to what happens in Bose-Einstein condensates, sometimes referred to as the “Fifth State of Matter,” when atoms are cooled down to near absolute zero temperatures. As the article explains is, “In this material, excitons can link up into the same quantum state—kind of like a set of bells all ringing perfectly in tune. This allows energy to move around the material with zero friction.”
The fact that the something similar occurs normal temperatures amidst the disorder of nature opens up possibilities for new technologies. As Kyle tweeted, “What if solarpunk and AGI take off because we genetically engineer big leafy supercomputers and grow them everywhere.”
But there’s also just something beautiful about the strange connections that happen at the quantum level, that the way atoms behave at near-zero temperatures in a lab and the process that lets plants feed themselves from the sun’s light rhyme with each other.
Co-author David Mazziotti said, “We think local correlation of electrons are essential to capturing how nature actually works.” Read Web of Relations for an expansion of this idea via Carlo Rovelli.
Lou Corpuz-Bosshart for The University of British Columbia
Engineers at the University of British Columbia have developed a new water treatment that removes “forever chemicals” from drinking water safely, efficiently – and for good.
Forever chemicals? More like never chemicals, amiright? Yes, I am right, thanks to a team of engineers at UBC that developed a new treatment for removing “forever chemicals” from drinking water.
Forever chemicals, formally known as PFAS (per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances), are a large group of substances that make certain products non-stick or stain-resistant. Think non-stick pots and pans. Companies are definitely safer about releasing this stuff out into the wild these days, but there was a period of time when DuPont was really wildin’ out on Teflon and spraying this stuff willy nilly into the environment…where, true to their name, they’d stick around forever.
The UBC team’s technique, which according to initial data, safely and effectively removes PFAs from water, is not yet commercial available and still needs to go through some real world testing. But the hope is that technologies like this could prevent nightmare situations, like the one documented in “The Devil We Know” from ever happening again.
Hannah Thomasy for The Scientist
Researchers reported a strain of Subdoligranulum bacteria that may drive Rheumatoid Athritis development (2). Some people at risk for the disease have antibodies against this bacteria, and Subdoligranulum activation of T cells was more prevalent in people with RA than in healthy controls. Perhaps even more intriguingly, mice given this bacterium developed a condition similar to human RA.
According to The World Health Organization, more than 23 million people wordwide live with Rheumatoid Arthritis. Chances are, you know somebody that does. It’s an autoimmune disease which means that your immune system attacks healthy cells in your body by mistake, causing painful swelling in the affected parts of the body, most often your joints.
There is currently no cure for RA and treatments vary widely depending on the individual. The cause of RA is also unknown, but it’s long been suspected that the microbiome influenced development of the disease. Now, researchers are reporting that a strain of Subdoligranulum bacteria may be the root cause of the disease. Understanding where the disease comes from (which was previously unknown) means researches can better design therapeutic treatments that target that specific bacteria.
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times: fuck Subdoligranulum.
Rich Hofmann for The Athletic
You didn’t think we’d make it all the way through without mentioning the Sixers’ playoff run and Joel Embiid’s MVP, did you?
This isn’t a Philly sports blog, but it’s written by two Philly sports fans, and over the past year or so we’ve had a lot to write about. Phillies World Series appearance, Eagles Super Bowl appearance, and now the Sixers are in the Eastern Conference semifinals. And this week, Joel Embiid, the Sixers’ center, was named NBA MVP.
Joel’s personal story is inspiring — a Cameroonian immigrant who picked up the sport in his teenage years, battling injuries, doubters, and a long “Process” to finally win the league’s most coveted individual award. It’s tough to not like him (although I'm sure some of you think otherwise.) But Embiid’s story is part of a larger Sixer’s story, one which if you read Not Boring, you are likely familiar with. The Process.
The Process, crafted by former Sixer’s GM Sam Hinkie, was a controversial strategy which involved prioritizing long-term success over short-term gains by intentionally fielding a non-competitive team to secure high draft picks. The driving idea behind the process is that you need a top tier superstar to win a championship, and in order to draft a top superstar you need to lose a lot. While the Sixers haven’t fully fulfilled The Process’ prophecy of winning a championship, Embiid’s MVP award is a clear signal that it did yield an undisputed superstar — one capable of leading a team to a championship.
One of the great things about sports is that they’re contained environments that can serve as practice grounds and metaphors for the bigger, messier world. The Process is chock full of lessons on taking the longest view in the room, zigging when others zag (being differentiated), and sticking to your convictions in the face of setbacks.
This is as good of a time as any to draw your attention back to Sam Hinkie’s leaked resignation letter, which beyond being a peek behind The Process curtain is one of the best pieces of general strategy writing we’ve come across.
That’s all for this week. We’ll be back in your inbox on Monday.
Thanks for reading,