Welcome to 2021

This is the Bad Place. Read on for chatter about FDA fines for hand sanitizer, friendly bacteria, a makeup robot that "biohacks" you, and more...

When I was in undergrad, I briefly minored in philosophy. In one class, we read the classic existentialist play “No Exit,” by Sartre, in which three dead people are stuck in a room and torture each other by being selfish and stupid in ways that annoy the others.

This is how we live now.

It doesn’t have to be this way, but it will be for the foreseeable future. So buckle up and welcome to the Bad Place: another year of panic about a situation out of our control in which we know the solutions… we just won’t implement them.

But we’ll just continue on and try to find some good news. Here’s the latest.

Good work on dual use in AI

Congrats to the organizers at NeurIPS, a conference for researchers working on artificial intelligence systems, who demanded that submitted papers also include an analysis of all potential societal and ethical impacts of proposed projects… the good and the bad. According to this v good piece in Nature, “Hanna Wallach, a researcher at Microsoft in New York City, called for researchers to assess and mitigate any potential harm to society from the early stages of research, without assuming that their colleagues who develop and market end products will do that ethical work.” Here for it!

The altruism of bacteria?

In a thoughtful essay for Biodesigned called “Bacteria: A New American Zeitgeist,” Joanne De Luca and Jenine Lopiano write about the familial love that bacteria have for each other, and the ways we can learn from these organisms. “By understanding the varied functions and the methods of bacteria’s self-organization, adaptation, and co-evolution, we are better able to understand our human potential,” they say. It seems to be true. A recent study found that different kinds of bacteria can work together to protect crops. By collaborating, the bacteria adhere to roots better and keep out pathogens. Perhaps we should all look more closely at the mutual aid networks of microorganisms.

Craft alcohol manufacturers screwed by the small print

According to a local ABC News affiliate in Asheville, NC, distilleries that pivoted to manufacture alcohol-based hand sanitizer at the beginning of the pandemic are now being asked to pay $14,000 in fees to the FDA. The federal agency tooted its own horn in a statement, saying that due to its “significant flexibility” over 1,500 companies have been producing hand sanitizer in line with federal guidance. The Washington Post reports that while the FDA can’t waive the fees, which are tied to the CARES Act, an HHS staffer tweeted that FDA had been directed to “cease enforcement of these arbitrary, surprise user fees.” Another brave day for the FDA.

“Biohacking” has lost the plot

It seems like satire, but the British editions of both Vogue and Glamour magazines have big features on biohacking this month. No, it’s not the kind of biohacking you think. Somewhere along the twisty turny media narrative that followed the evolution of DIYbio, open science, and self experimentation with gene editing technologies, the term “biohacking” got co-opted by the wellness industry. Thank Jack Dorsey for ruining yet another thing, and then read an interview with a luxury skincare expert who wants to “biohack” you with an LED facial, followed by an investigation into big biohacker trends like pillowcases and—seriously—L’Oréal’s skincare robot.

We all need to get vaccinated! But have you thought about it this way?

I hear a lot of chatter about making Covid vaccines mandatory. But forcing people into healthy choices might do more harm than good to the cause of herd immunity. Health law experts Dorit Rubinstein Reiss and Y. Tony Yang explain at least three reasons why mandates are a terrible plan in a post for Bill of Health that also includes this head-scratching statistic: “A recent Gallup poll shows that more than a third of Americans would refuse a free, FDA-approved vaccine if it was ready today.”

A moment of design delirium.

Close your eyes and imagine you’re inside “Grass House,” a conceptual design by artist Paul Milinski and Loftgarten, whose work I recently included in my latest piece for Neo.Life. Ah….

Extra Credit:

The science events to watch for in 2021, Nature

Predictions for 2021, Neo.Life

When Machine Learning Goes Off the Rails, Harvard Business Review

Talent, culture, and ethics are all necessary ingredients in the biotech recipe for success, STAT

What’s behind the historic spike in drug overdose deaths under COVID-19? PBS News