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Tomorrow’s world

AI takes a great leap forward

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Artificial intelligence company DeepMind has overcome “a huge scientific hurdle”, says Matthew Sparkes in New Scientist. It took “decades of painstaking research” for scientists to map the complex structure of just 17% of the 20,000 proteins in the human body – a vital step in creating medicines for many diseases. In less than a year, DeepMind has raised that figure to 98.5%, and this “treasure trove of data” is being made freely available, “which could lead to rapid advances in the development of new drugs”.

“If you’re working on some rare disease and you never had a structure, now you’ll be able to go and look at structural information that was basically very, very hard or impossible to get before,” says Professor John Moult of the University of Maryland. Previously it took scientists months, sometimes years, in the laboratory to identify the shape of a single protein based on the sequence of amino acids it is made up of. DeepMind hopes to catalogue more than 200 million – “the entire protein universe” – in a matter of months.

This could help scientists invent “highly targeted drugs”, design crops that withstand climate change or develop enzymes to degrade plastics. It could also improve treatment of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and cystic fibrosis, which are often caused by misshapen proteins. “The applications are limited only by our imaginations,” says Edith Heard, director of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory.

Digital life after death

A hologram of Kim Kardashian’s late father, Robert

The dead are “being digitally resurrected with growing frequency” as 3D holograms, CGI renderings and AI chatbots, says Adrienne Matei in The New York Times. A new documentary about Anthony Bourdain features an AI-generated version of the chef’s voice reading out a private email. Last October Kanye West gave Kim Kardashian a hologram of her late father, Robert, that told her West was the “most genius man in the world”. In 2012 a holograph of rapper Tupac Shakur performed at Coachella, 15 years after his death, and in 2013 a likeness of Audrey Hepburn starred in an ad for Galaxy chocolate.

While holograms can cost more than $100,000, there are “more affordable forms of digital reincarnation”. The genealogy site MyHeritage will animate family photos of dead relatives for free. An app called HereAfter interviews clients and uses the footage to create a Siri-like chatbot that their great-grandchildren can one day talk to. Vive Studios has created a virtual-reality avatar to “reunite” a South Korean woman with her young daughter, who had died of cancer. As they enter the mainstream, digital afterlife technologies could “ease the process of bereavement” and foster relationships between past and present generations.