Saturday, August 26, 2017

Gene Editing for Behavior Design

Illustrated by Bill Butcher for The Economist

Because ants are social creatures, an ant colony is really a superorganism, making them a valuable model for studying complex biological systems. And because of the way they reproduce, scientists can edit whole colonies in one stroke.

Although ants have 350 odor receptor genes (similar to humans), they also have this thing called a coreceptor gene that every odor gene has to go through to work. Shut that one off, and you shut down the whole system.

And what happens when ants can't smell? They stop talking to other ants, stop doing their job, and they get lost from the group. That's not it though, they also saw changes in brain anatomy, where some sensory substructures didn't grow at all.

Scientists are hoping these studies can help understand how social behavior changes the way neurological disorders like schizophrenia or depression work, and how sensory development in general change the brain.

Now, as I stretch on a heavy tangent here, I think about how there are developers on the other side of candy crush and facebook whose job it is to model your behavior and then tweak it to make you stay using the product. Game theory maybe, the science of addiction perhaps? Behavior design, according to this article (an earlier attempt termed it captology). Not sure what we're calling this, but everything from dating websites to the weather channel are using these techniques to keep us tapping into the pleasure centers of our brains and therefore coming back for more. In a distant future, I wonder if we might want to try knocking out the olfactory receptors in people in order to make them more malleable. If we take away people's sense of smell, maybe they will be more easily influenced to do what we want them to do.

Researchers use CRISPR to manipulate social behavior in ants
Aug 2017,

From two different studies:
Cell, Trible et al: "orco mutagenesis causes loss of antennal lobe glomeruli and impaired social behavior in ants." , DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2017.07.001

Cell, Yan et al: "An engineered orco mutation produces aberrant social behavior and defective neural development in ants" , DOI: 10.1016/j.cell.2017.06.051

Post Script:
The Scientists Who Make Apps Addictive, Ian Leslie, Nov 2016, The Economist

good explanation of behavior design in computer programming/software development:

When you get to the end of an episode of “House of Cards” on Netflix, the next episode plays automatically unless you tell it to stop. Your motivation is high, because the last episode has left you eager to know what will happen and you are mentally immersed in the world of the show. The level of difficulty is reduced to zero. Actually, less than zero: it is harder to stop than to carry on. Working on the same principle, the British government now “nudges” people into enrolling into workplace pension schemes, by making it the default option rather than presenting it as a choice.

When motivation is high enough, or a task easy enough, people become responsive to triggers such as the vibration of a phone, Facebook’s red dot, the email from the fashion store featuring a time-limited offer on jumpsuits. The trigger, if it is well designed (or “hot”), finds you at exactly the moment you are most eager to take the action. The most important nine words in behaviour design, says Fogg, are, “Put hot triggers in the path of motivated people.”

Unconscious impulses are transformed into social obligations, which compel attention, which is sold for cash.

see also: Addiction by Design, by Natasha Dow Schüll, Princeton 2013

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