Weekly Dose of Optimism #80
Vesuvius Challenge, OSV Fellowship, Mental Health Chatbots, India, CAR-T,
Hi friends 👋,
Happy Friday and welcome back to our 80th Weekly Dose of Optimism. It’s Super Bowl weekend here in the U.S. and this year that means one thing: Taylor. We’re all about sharing unsolicited opinions here at Not Boring, so here’s mine. I’ve enjoyed the Taylor Swift storyline this football season. It adds a new, fun, and ultimately harmless dimension to the game. Football is entertainment, and I couldn’t think of a more entertaining subplot than one of the league’s most notable players dating one of the most famous people in the world — and that famous person lugging herself to places like Kansas City, Buffalo, and Baltimore every weekend to her cheer on her man. So yeah, I’m taking the over on 5.5 Taylor Swift appearances during the Super Bowl and I’ll be enjoying each one.
Now, let’s get to it.
Today’s Not Boring is brought to you by… Plaid
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As the months ticked by, it became clear that Friedman’s hunch was a good one. Contestants from around the world, many of them twentysomethings with computer science backgrounds, developed new techniques for taking the 3D scans and flattening them into more readable sheets.
On Monday, Nat Friedman announced that the Vesuvius Challenge had a winner. Three winners actually — Youssef Nader, Luke Farritor, and Julian Schillinger. The trio solved the ancient problem of the Herculaneum Papyri, a library of scrolls that were flash-fried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. The scrolls, or a portion of them, are now readable for the first time in over 2,000 years, unlocking ancient knowledge of the world that was previously unknown.
The team cracked 15 columns of text at the very end of first scroll. It appears that the text was likely authored by the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus and covers things like music, food, daily pleasures, and some apparent dislike for the Stoics. Classic ancient age stuff.
Ashlee Vance of Bloomberg covered the whole story for Bloomberg — the challenge’s origins, advancements in 3D and AI technology, the global community of enthusiasts involved in the challenge, and why it’s even important in the first place. The whole story is worth a read — it’s able to turn a seemingly nerdy, niche story into an exhilarating one.
And there’s more to come… the Vesuvius Challenge’s 2024 goal is to read 90% of the text from all four scrolls, and Elon tweeted that the Musk Foundation will support the effort.
We love this type of citizen science. It has everything: underdog stories, fierce competition, big paydays. It feels like we’re watching sports. We should celebrate these winners like they just won the Super Bowl.
The O’Shaughnessy Fellowship is a one-year program for ambitious people who want to make their mark on the world. Fellows receive $100,000 to work on any project they choose with support from OSV's network of founders, investors, and experts.
Nat Friedman used his wealth to fund the Vesuvius Challenge — sparking young, technical folks to take on a ambitious but otherwise non-lucrative project in the hopes that it would inspire a generation of builders to take on hard challenges. Our friends over at O’Shaugnessy Ventures are stealing a page from that scrollbook with their O’Shaughnessy Fellowships program.
The program is designed to encourage talented individuals to take a one-year flyer on a project of their choosing. The $100K is meant to alleviate the financial pressures of taking on a new project and lessen the opportunity cost of dedicating yourself to a project for a full year. Peter Thiel has proven out the feasibility of this model with his Thiel Fellowship — producing success stories like Dylan of Figma, Vitalik of Ethereum, and Josh of DoNotPay. It seems like the combination of deep networks, financial support, and a long-term vision attracts a certain type of builder.
We think that same magic could play out at OSV. We have no direct affiliation with OSV other than being massive fans of theirs and their approach to supporting talented peoples’ life’s work. If we want a modern Renaissance, we need modern Medicis. The more experimentation the better!
Applications for this year’s Fellowship are now open.
Habicht et al in Nature
We found that the services that implemented the personalized self-referral chatbot identified a 15% increase in the total number of referrals, from 30,690 to 36,070 referrals.
A new study has shown that AI chatbots may close the accessibility gap in mental health treatment. The observational study analyzed data from 129,400 patients within England's NHS services, demonstrating that AI chatbots could significantly increase patient referral volume, particularly among minority groups. Services using the chatbot saw a 15% increase in overall referrals, with notable spikes among nonbinary individuals (179% increase) and ethnic minorities (29% increase). Referrals, in this context, are when people are directed or recommended to mental health services for further assessment or treatment. If you don’t seek help, you often times don’t get help — which is why this referral step is so important.
In the U.S. alone, 1 in 5 adults live with a mental illness. But due to a variety of obstacles — stigma, access to care, education — many folks go untreated. Part of the issue is the current system to address mental health issues early are not built for the size or the particular challenges of the issue today. AI chatbots offer a solution here in that they’re infinitely scalable, easily accessible, and can be anonymous.
Plus, at least for now, it’s a great example of machines doing what they do best (handling huge volume) and handing off to humans to do what they do best (treat people).
(4) India’s Growth
This chart has been going viral on X this week.
We’ve written a fair amount about India at Not Boring. In part because of its rapid growth and modernization. Any country that’s experienced such rapid change and improvement deserves further analysis. And in part because that growth and modernization is happening at a scale that is hard to fathom. The country has a population of about 1.4 billion, making it the most populous country in the world. So when you see charts like the above that show a 20% drop in poverty rates in 10 years, that means that nearly 280 million people have been lifted out of poverty. That’s like the entirety of Germany, France, the UK, and Italy being raised out of poverty in a decade.
And the good times appear to keep on rolling for India. While global growth is starting to slow, India’s economy is still growing at over 6%. A portion of the credit must be given to Prime Minister Modi — a somewhat controversial character — whose economic and governmental initiatives have instilled investor confidence in the region. The country also has all the basics, too: a young, ambitious, and educated population, a growing manufacturing base, improving infrastructure, and optimism. Chalo!
Asher Mullard for Nature
Is it just me or are we writing about new CAR-T every week now? As a reminder, CAR-T cell therapies involve genetically modifying a patient's T cells to express chimeric antigen receptors (CARs) that specifically target and eliminate cancer cells.
Now, researchers have developed a new CAR-T cell therapy using a mutation from cancer cells, enhancing their ability to destroy tumors in mice without turning cancerous themselves. The new methodology enhances the effectiveness of CAR-T cells by incorporating a specific mutation, originally identified in cancerous T cells, into the CAR-T cells themselves. This mutation involves the CARD11–PIK3R3 protein, which significantly boosts the CAR-T cells' ability to infiltrate tumors and sustain their cancer-fighting activity over time. By borrowing this trait from cancer cells, the modified CAR-T cells become more potent and durable in their response, allowing them to effectively target and destroy tumor cells, even in cases where traditional CAR-T cell therapies have failed.
The mutated CAR-T cells showed significant potency against both blood and solid tumors, potentially improving treatment outcomes in those specific areas. We’re still just working with mice here, but this methodology could offer new hope for treating cancers that are resistant to current treatments.
Cancer is incredibly challenging to beat. Siddhartha Mukherjee calls it “The Emperor of All Maladies.” But we’re heartened by the variety and sophistication of new approaches scientists are throwing at the emperor, from CAR-T to screening. Yesterday, our friends at Ezra announced $21 million in fresh funding to make early detection the norm. Early detection + new tools to use against the cancers we detect could be a potent combination.
If you have some time this weekend, check out Plaid.
We’ll be back in your inbox on Tuesday.
Thanks for reading,
Dan + Packy