World Bytes: Reversing Extinction

BY Terrance Malkinson Posted: 1 Jun 2014

Advances in genetic engineering are opening up possibilities that were once the stuff of science fiction movies.  A 14 May "World View" column in Nature by Ben Minteer, entitled "Is It Right To Reverse Extinction?"  [Nature, 509(#7500) pg. 261, 14 May 2014, www.nature.com], examines some of the issues related to the possibility of using genetic engineering and cloning to recreate species that have vanished from the earth � a movement known as de-extinction. A number of animals, including the Passenger Pigeon, Pyrenean Ibex, the Tasmanian Tiger and the Woolly Mammoth, are envisioned as candidates for de-extinction. Proponents argue that such experiments would afford man the opportunity to right past wrongs, restore lost ecological functions, and enhance the diversity of life on earth.  Opponents, however, argue that de-extinction would create conflicts because the animals would be returning to a changed earth, no longer suitable for their needs; and could bring with them risks of new transmissible diseases. The genetically created animals could never be identical to their accessorial predecessors, they contend.

Then there is also the enormous ethical issue of potentially extending the technology to the human species.  Minteer concludes that "there is great virtue in keeping extinct species extinct," and continues, "we are a species that often becomes mesmerized by its own power."

Engineering is multi-disciplinary, and all engineers as professionals should have an understanding of developments in a diversity of fields other than their own.  The IEEE Society on Social Implications of Technology [www.ieeessit.org] focuses on the effects of technology on people and society, how engineers play a public role, and ethical issues that engineers may face during their careers.

Other Bytes

Here are some of the things going on in and around the community:

  • In their article "Reading Global Clients' Signals" Peter Gloor and Gianni Giacomelli. discuss how managing employees in highly distributed global companies often presents difficulty in monitoring the quality of their relationships with clients. [MIT Sloan Management Review. 55(3):23-29. Spring, 2014. www.sloanreview.mit.edu ]. Face-to-face meetings between suppliers and customers are often not possible. Methods such as customer satisfaction surveys are used but with only limited success as they provide no insight on how things are said and body language.  The authors describe an assessment method which uses the analysis of email communication patterns between customers and vendors in geographically distributed companies.  The structure and properties of the email networks are correlated with external performance metrics to provide insights into the customer-client relationship.

  • Organizations often place prominence only on short-term financial metrics in their business plan.  Managing an organization that effectively balances a sense of purpose while being profitable can be challenging. Based on five years of research; Julian Birkinshaw, Nicolai Foss and Siegwart Lindenberg describe how goal-framing theory can provide an understanding on how to work toward common causes that go beyond the business goal of making money.  ["Combining Purpose with Profits". MIT Sloan Management Review 55(3):49-56. Spring, 2014. ]. The authors believe that the broadening of corporate goals will be intrinsically valuable and will generate long-term payoffs to all.

  • The cover story of the May-June, 2014 issue of MIT Technology Review focuses on ten milestone projects that solve difficult problems or create powerful new ways of using technology. [�Ten Breakthrough Technologies-2014�. 117(3):25-64. May-June 2014. www.technologyreview.com ]. The ten breakthroughs include genome editing, agile robots, ultraprivate smartphones, microscale 3-D printing, mobile collaboration, smart wind and solar power, oculus rift, neuromorphic chips, agricultural drones, and brain mapping.

  • The June, 2014 issue of Entrepreneur [www.entrepreneur.com] provides their annual examination of the people, and ideas behind the important innovations that are shaping our world. The 144-page issue is filled with numerous success stories of entrepreneurism at its best.

  • Jonathan Foley provides the first of a series of eight monthly National Geographic articles that will explore how we will feed the quickly growing population of the world in �A Five Step Plan to Feed the World� [225(5):26-59 May, 2014. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com  ].  Introducing the article is the statement that the biggest danger to our planet is food supply to feed an estimated nine billion people by the year 2050.  Agriculture is a significant contributor to climate change for a variety of reasons including methane, nitrous oxide, and carbon dioxide emissions, loss of biodiversity and as a user of vast amounts of water. A five step plan proposed by a team of scientists is discussed to double the availability of food while simultaneously reducing the environmental harm caused by agriculture.

  • A Calgary, Canada based robot that can perform brain surgery and its creators have received top honours from an international space advocacy organization. NeuroArm [ www.neuroarm.org  ]was inducted into the Space Foundation's Space Technology Hall of Fame.  NeuroArm is a robotic system that can do neurosurgery. The surgeon is located at a workstation that recreates the sight, sound and touch of surgery.  The robotic system includes arms that the surgeon controls from the workstation. The workstation has monitors, speakers and hand controllers that transmit to the surgeon the feel of surgery. The arms can be placed inside an MRI machine where imaging is occurring.  Machines are much more precise and accurate than a person. This particular robot can move in increments of 50 microns whereas a surgeon can move in increments of one or two millimetres. Most of the operations have been on brain tumours and vascular malformations of the brain.  It is forecast that more and more hospitals will employ robotic technology and apply it to surgery. A lot of the technology that has gone into NeuroArm was derived from engineering for Canadarm and Dexter, the robotic arm that was on the International Space Station.

  • Julian Birkinshaw cautions readers to realize that not every management innovation will produce rewards for your company in his article "Beware the Next Big Thing" [Harvard Business Review. 92(5):50-57. May, 2014 www.hbr.org ]. Innovative management ideas that work well in one company may not necessarily be effective in another company.  He goes on to describe two ways used to borrow management innovation from other companies. He suggests that an approach where you determine the management practices essential principle and then ask a series of questions to determine if it is right for your situation.

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