Author: GETAWAYTHEBERKSHIRES

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About 40 years ago, Louise Brown, the first human created using in vitro fertilization, was conceived in a petri dish. Not long after her birth, Leon Kass, a prominent biologist and ethicist at the University of Chicago, wrung his hands about the then-­revolutionary technology of joining sperm and egg outside the body. The mere existence of the baby girl, he wrote in an article, called into question “the idea of the humanness of our human life and the meaning of our embodiment, our sexual being, and our relation to ancestors and descendants.” The editors of Nova magazine suggested in vitro fertilization was “the biggest threat since the atom bomb.” The American Medical Association wanted to halt research altogether.

Yet a funny thing happened, or didn’t, in the decades that followed: Millions of babies were conceived using IVF. They were born healthy and perfectly normal babies, and they grew to become healthy and perfectly normal adults. Brown is one of them. She lives in Bristol, England, and works as a clerk for a sea freight company. She’s married and has two healthy boys. Everyone is doing fine.

Nothing so excites the forces of reaction and revolution like changes in human reproduction. When our ideas of sex are nudged aside by technologies, we become especially agitated. Some loathe the new possibilities and call for restrictions or bans; others claim untrammeled rights to the new thing. Eventually, almost everyone settles down, and the changes, no matter how implausible they once seemed, become part of who we are.

We are now on the brink of another revolution in reproduction, one that could make IVF look quaint. Through an emerging technology called in vitro gametogenesis (or IVG), scientists are learning how to convert adult human cells—taken perhaps from the inside of a cheek or from a piece of skin on the arm—into artificial gametes, lab-made eggs and sperm, that could be combined to create an embryo and then be implanted in a womb. For the infertile or people having trouble conceiving, it would be a huge breakthrough. Even adults with no sperm or eggs could conceivably become biological parents.

In the future, new kinds of families might become possible: a child could have a single biological parent because an individual could theoretically make both their own eggs and sperm; a same-sex couple could have a child who is biologically related to both of them; or a grieving widow might use fresh hair follicles from a dead spouse’s brush to have a child her late husband didn’t live to see.

At the same time, modern gene-editing technologies such as Crispr-Cas9 would make it relatively easy to repair, add,
or remove genes during the IVG process, eliminating diseases or conferring advantages that would ripple through a child’s genome. This all may sound like science fiction, but to those following the research, the combination of IVG and gene editing appears highly likely, if not inevitable. Eli Adashi, who was dean of medicine at Brown University and has written about the policy challenges of IVG, is astounded by what researchers have achieved so far. “It’s mind-boggling,” he says, although he cautions that popular understanding of the technology has not kept pace with the speed of the advances: “The public is almost entirely unaware of these technologies, and before they become broadly feasible, a conversation needs to begin.”

The story of artificial gametes truly begins in 2006, when a Japanese researcher named Shinya Yamanaka reported that he had induced adult mouse cells into becoming pluripotent stem cells. A year later, he demonstrated that he could do the same with human cells. Unlike most other cells, which are coded to perform specific, dedicated tasks, pluripotent stem cells can develop into any type of cell at all, making them invaluable for researchers studying human development and the
origins of diseases. (They are also invaluable to humans: Embryos are composed of stem cells, and babies are the products of their maturation.) Before Yamanaka’s breakthrough, researchers who wanted to work with stem cells had to extract them from embryos discarded during IVF or from eggs that had been harvested from women and later fertilized; in both cases, the embryos were destroyed in the process of isolating the stem cells. The process was expensive, controversial, and subject to intense government oversight in the United States. After Yamanaka’s discovery, scientists possessed a virtually inexhaustible supply of these so-called induced pluripotent stem cells (or iPSCs), and all over the world, they have since been trying to replicate each stage of cellular development, refining the recipes that can coax stem cells to become one cell or another.

In 2014, as a consequence of Yamanaka’s work, a Stanford researcher named Renee Reijo Pera cut skin from infertile men’s forearms, reprogrammed the skin cells to become iPSCs, and transplanted them into the testicles of mice to create human germ cells, the primitive precursors to eggs and sperm. (No embryos were created using these germ cells.) Two years later, in a paper published in Nature, two scientists in Japan, Mitinori Saitou and Katsuhiko Hayashi, described how they had turned cells from a mouse’s tail into iPSCs and from there into eggs. It was the first time that artificial eggs had been made outside of an organism’s body, and there was even more extraordinary news: Using the synthetic eggs, Saitou and Hayashi created eight healthy, fertile pups.

But baby mice do not a human make, and Saitou and another scientist, Azim Surani, are each working directly with human cells, trying to understand the differences between how mice and human iPSCs become primordial germ cells. In December 2017, Surani announced a crucial milestone concerning the eight-week cycle, after which germ cells begin the process of transforming into gametes. His lab had successfully nudged the development of stem cells to around week three of that cycle, inching closer to the development of a human gamete. Once adult human cells can be made into gametes, editing the stem cells will be relatively easy.

How soon before humans have children using IVG? Hayashi, one of the Japanese scientists, guesses it will take five years to produce egg-like cells from other human cells, with another 10 to 20 years of testing before doctors and regulators feel the process is safe enough to use in a clinic. Eli Adashi is less sure of the timing than he is of the outcome. “I don’t think any of us can say how long,” he says. “But the progress in rodents was remarkable: In six years, we went from nothing to everything. To suggest that this won’t be possible in humans is naive.”

Some cautiousness about IVG and gene editing is appropriate. Most medicines that succeed in so-called mouse models never find a clinical use. Yet IVG and gene editing are different from, say, cancer drugs: IVG induces cells to develop along certain pathways, which nature does all the time. As for gene editing, we are already beginning to use that in non-germ-line cells, where such changes are not heritable, in order to treat blood, neurological, and other types of diseases. Once scientists and regulators are confident they have minimized the potential risks of IVG, we could easily make heritable changes to germ cells like eggs, sperm, or early-stage embryos, and with those changes, we’d be altering the germ line, our shared human inheritance.

Used together, we can imagine would-be parents who have genetic diseases, or are infertile, or want to confer various genetic advantages on their children going to a clinic and swabbing their cheeks or losing a little piece of skin. Some 40 weeks later, they’ll have a healthy baby.

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The demand for IVG coupled with gene editing would be significant. Around 7 percent of men and 11 percent of women of reproductive age in the US have reported problems with fertility, according to the National Institutes of Health. And IVF, which is typically the last, best hope for those struggling to conceive, is invasive, often doesn’t work, and can’t work for women who have no eggs at all.

Then there is genetic disease. Of the more than 130 million children who will be born next year, around 7 million will have serious genetic disorders. Today, parents who don’t want to pass on genetic abnormalities (and who have the thousands of dollars often required) might resort to IVF with preimplantation genetic diagnosis, where embryos are genetically tested before they are transferred to a woman’s uterus. But that process necessarily involves the same invasive process of IVF, and it entails rejecting and often destroying embryos with the unwanted genes, an act that some parents find morally impermissible. With IVG and gene editing, prospective parents would think it unremarkable to give doctors permission to test or alter stem cells or gametes. A doctor might say, “Your child will have a higher chance of developing X. Would you like us to fix that for you?”

Proving that IVG and gene editing are broadly safe and reliable will be necessary before regulatory agencies around the world relax the laws that currently preclude creating a human being from sythnetic gametes or tinkering with the human germ line. Although IVF was greeted with alarm by many mainstream physicians and scientists, it nonetheless was subject to little regulation; it slipped through the federal regulatory machinery charged with overseeing drugs or medical devices, as it was neither. Because IVG and gene editing are so strange, there may be popular and expert demand for their oversight. But in what form? Richard Hynes, a professor of cancer research at MIT, helped oversee a landmark 2017 report on the science and ethics of human genome editing. “We set out a long list of criteria,” Hynes says, “including only changing a defect to a gene that was common in the population. In other words, no enhancements; just back to normal.”

Critics imagine other ethical quandaries. Parents with undesirable traits might be coerced by laws—or, more likely, preferential insurance rates—to use the technologies. Or parents might choose traits in their children that others might consider disabilities. “Everyone thinks about parents eliminating disease or [about] augmentation, but it’s a big world,” says Hank Greely, a professor of law at Stanford University and the author of The End of Sex and the Future of Human Reproduction. “What if there are parents who wanted to select for Tay-Sachs disease? There are plenty of people in Silicon Valley who are somewhere on the spectrum, and some of them will want children who are neuro-atypical.”

And what of unknown risks? Even if Saitou, Hayashi, and their peers can prove that their techniques don’t create immediate genetic abnormalities, how can we know for sure that children born using IVG and gene editing won’t get sick later in life, or that their descendants won’t lack an important adaptation? Carriers of the gene for sickle cell, for example, enjoy a protective advantage against malaria. How can we know if we are shortsightedly eliminating a disorder whose genes confer some sort of protection?

George Daley, the dean of Harvard Medical School, has a simple answer to that question: We can’t. “There are always unknowns. No innovative therapy, whether it is a drug for a disease or something so bold and disruptive as germ line intervention, can ever remove all possible risk. Fear of the unknown and unquantifiable risks shouldn’t absolutely prohibit us from making interventions that could have great benefits. The risks of a genetic, inherited disease are quantifiable, known, and in many cases devastating. So we go forward, accepting the risks.”

Among the current unknowns are the name and sex of the first child who will be born using IVG. But somewhere there might be two people who will become her parents. They may not know each other yet or the difficulties with fertility or genetic disease that will prompt their physician to suggest IVG and gene editing. But sometime before the end of the century, their child will have her picture taken for a birthday profile in whatever media exists. In the likeness, her smile, like Louise Brown’s today, will be radiant with the joy of being here.

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Jason Pontin (@jason_pontin) is the former editor in chief and publisher of MIT Technology Review.

This article appears in the April issue. Subscribe now.

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Last week, a commercial made by the producers of My So-Called Life and Thelma and Louise, the author of the Orphan X thriller series, and a left-leaning PAC went modestly viral. The commercial, “Built Not Bought,” is a highly polished, beautifully scored, Americana festooned four minute short film. By crafting an optimistic, pro-business-yet-anti-corruption message, the video aims to be a new mission statement for the branding-challenged Democratic Party. It features a diverse cast of factory workers, and a down-home rhetorical style and message best summed up by its opening line: “We stand for the working men and women. Always have, always will.”

It is, in short, exactly what you’d expect to get when you add Hollywood cinematic glamor to the political campaign ad. “After the 2016 election, my colleagues kept saying the same thing over and over,” says Mark Riddle, CEO of Future Majority, a PAC Riddle founded to support centrist Democratic politics. “‘We have a lot of very talented people in our party, the best storytellers in the world, and we don’t make good use of them. Why would you not be using those talents?’”

Fair question. But then again, Hollywood’s relationship with American politics has always been fraught. Though these days Hollywood is most often linked to Democrats, for the last 90 years both parties have made frequent use of LA’s glamor factory—often disparaging the other’s strategies as elitist and out of touch, then copying them immediately. By inserting itself into politics, Hollywood may think that it was doing something at worst benign and at best patriotic. But by giving choice candidates a broader, more attention seeking tool-set, in reality what they did was prime American audiences for a new kind of political voice—one that prioritizing grabbing and holding attention over anything else.

Hollywood may now be a bastion of liberalism, but it wasn’t always that way. In 1928, Louis B. Mayer, the cofounder of Metro-Goldwin-Mayer, “turned MGM into the publicity wing of the Republican party,” says Steven Ross, author of Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics. (Mayer also got to spend a night in the Lincoln bedroom as a thank you for helping elect Herbert Hoover.) Hollywood didn’t make as strong a showing for progressive politics until the mid-‘30s and ‘40s—when movie stars like Orson Welles, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart worked to promote Franklin Roosevelt’s candidacy and social issues like ending segregation.

Both parties have been vying to capture Hollywood’s glitz ever since—but with very different strategies, in part because of the Red Scare. In the late 1940s, many of the actors investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee were advocating for Democrats. Creating close ties with individual celebrities backfired. Rather than acquiring glamor, political candidates acquired a whiff of communism at the worst possible moment. “That really shaped the way the Democratic party thought about Hollywood,” says Kathryn Cramer Brownell, author of Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life. “They got really nervous and moved towards looking to Hollywood primarily for fundraising instead.” In addition to campaign contributions, Hollywood liberals from Harry Bellafonte to Jane Fonda began backing movements more than they did candidates.

Republicans took the opposite tack. Though publicly, party leaders criticized Democrats for glamorizing politics with show business, internal memos reveal that, secretly, some conservatives wanted to resurrect the chummy relationships of FDR’s presidency. In the 1950s, President Eisenhower gave actor Robert Montgomery an office in the White House so he could coach the president on how to be more photogenic and media-friendly. Instead of giving politicians’ celebrity-style poise, the strategy snowballed until politicians began casting themselves as actual entertainers. Figures like Nixon (as advised by Roger Ailes) began to credit their campaign successes celebritizing stunts like Nixon appearing on Laugh In. Eventually, Republicans started recruiting entertainers to run for office themselves—beginning in the 1950s, but accelerating over the next two decades.

Enter Ronald Reagan, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and President Trump. Despite the perception of liberal Hollywood’s political power, liberal Hollywood has actually produced vanishingly few political candidates—Al Franken and Cynthia Nixon being notable exceptions. Most ultra-successful Democrats like Presidents Obama and Clinton are politicians-first, and managed to celebritize and glamorize themselves with the help of Hollywood money and counsel.

But hang on—aren’t conservatives supposed to identify more with heartland fly-over states more than frivolous Hollywood? “Few voters, Democrat or Republican, are persuaded on who to vote for by an endorsement from a Hollywood star or group,” says Don Critchlow, an American political historian at Arizona State University. “As evidenced by many polls, they don’t see Hollywood as saviors of the Republic or protectors of working Americans.” Riddle noted that this dynamic is one of the reasons he’s sometimes hesitant to publicize Future Majority’s Hollywood collaborators.

So why do political operators, past and present, think buddying up with Hollywood is the way to go?

Because, in some ways, it works. Celebrity endorsements and appearances only go so far: “Voters aren’t idiots,” says Ross. “Oprah endorsing Obama didn’t get him elected. Celebrity endorsements just make people more likely to take a closer look at a candidate.” According to Brownell, the key benefit of working with Hollywood is celebrities’ ability to generate excitement for a person or issue. Think: Chance the Rapper leading Chicago voters to the polls, Beyoncé endorsing feminism to generate more mainstream acceptance, or President Trump tweeting about winning or witchhunts to rile up (and distract) his audience.

But in other ways, all that matters is that the people running campaigns believe their showbiz politics is working. “What politicians believe makes a successful campaign can really impact how the campaigns that come after it are run,” Brownell says. “Trump and Cynthia Nixon are both products of ideas like Richard Nixon’s—that political authority is firmly rooted in being able to get media attention.” Trump’s qualifications, as he often says himself, are that he’s able to get good ratings. The same idea powers some progressive’s longing for President Oprah Winfrey or President Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.

The polish of projects like “Built not Bought” are good uses of Hollywood’s undeniable storytelling skills. But it’s important that Hollywood and average citizens alike be aware of movie magic’s role in fueling Trump-style politics. LA glitz and glam does capture attention, but ultimately, it’s a marketing technique with serious, country-shaping consequences.

Before it was even released, Homecoming was notable for many reasons. For one, it was the new project from Mr. Robot mastermind Sam Esmail. For another, it marked Julia Roberts’ first turn leading an episodic television show. And finally, the Amazon original series was one of Hollywood's first big bets on adapting podcasts for the screen.

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None of those things would matter if Homecoming fell flat. Yet, this Friday the series hit Amazon Prime and—voila—it very much soared. A little bit drama, a little bit noir, and a lot of suspense, Esmail’s new show proved to be a tense thriller that kept us pushing Play on each new installment—right up to the breath-holding ending.

Homecoming also gave viewers a lot to unpack: emotional turns, surprise twists, and a really trippy score. (Also, let’s hear it for Julia Roberts!) To dig into Amazon’s latest, we corralled WIRED’s biggest bingers—writers and editors Jason Parham, Brian Raftery, Peter Rubin, and Angela Watercutter—to break down everything they liked, or didn’t, about Amazon’s latest prestige series.

Angela Watercutter: I’ll be honest: If I start this off it’s just going to be one long Stephan James appreciation post and even though we should definitely talk about how amazing he is as returning Afghanistan veteran Walter Cruz, there’s a lot to discuss with Homecoming. What did you all think? When did the show click for you?

Peter Rubin: Even with the best shows, I’ve become accustomed to experiencing Pilot Syndrome—that wait-and-see generosity we deploy to forgive the exposition and worldbuilding contrivances that can overwhelm a first episode. Not Homecoming. From the opening sequence that zoomed out of an aquarium and into social worker Heidi Bergman’s office, to the typography and aerial shots that so define the show’s art direction, Homecoming felt like a cohesive thing, an assured and compelling fully formed entity.

The question, of course, is whether that’s due to Sam Esmail’s work adapting the original Gimlet podcast—something you talked to him about, Angela—or if it’s simply the podcast’s merits shining through. I came in having never listened to an episode of the podcast, which honestly felt like a bit of an advantage; I never thought about how Julia Robert’s Bergman stacked up to Catherine Keener’s, or how James as Walter Cruz matched Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of the soldier who entered the secretive “Homecoming” program for help integrating into civilian life. However, they both gave measured, naturalistic performances (as did Bobby Cannavale as Bergman's super-shady boss, Colin, and Shea Whigham as the magnetically bespectacled DoD official looking into what exactly happened at Homecoming), so it seems like a win-win.

Jason Parham: I think because TV, as a medium, has undergone a kind of bloat in the last half-decade—as it stands, there are simply too many TV shows to keep up with—I often look for small aesthetic flourishes in a series. More than plot or award-worthy acting, what can pull me in? The Good Place, Atlanta, Random Acts of Flyness, Pose—each show has its own particular set of aesthetic quirks. Where Homecoming excels in this regard, and to Peter’s point about it feeling like a fully formed entity, was Esmail’s visual vocabulary. All of it had the sheen of a Hitchcock noir-mystery—but it didn’t feel at all dated, or out of touch.

There's a particular sense of paranoia that runs through each episode and Esmail does a fantastic job—maybe even more so than on Mr. Robot; though I only made it through Season 1 of that show, so take this with a grain of salt—of translating that paranoia to the screen, and often without dialogue (an even more impressive feat given Homecoming is based on a podcast). The overhead shot of Carrasco (Whigham) descending into a maze-like stairwell. The hazy, hushed lighting that haunts just about every shot. The use of split screens, or of aspect ratios to delineate between the past and present, heightening the sense of claustrophobia. It felt like gazing into a petri dish and watching people’s lives play out in disastrous concert. I couldn’t take my eyes off any of it.

Watercutter: Jason, that’s absolutely it. I’ll admit, and I’m in the minority here, it took me a while to get into the Homecoming groove. I enjoyed Roberts and James’ chemistry, but I wasn’t gripped until the fourth or fifth episode. It was those flourishes, though, that kept me coming back. The show doesn’t give us a lot in the beginning—sure, Shrier (Jeremy Allen White) says he doesn’t trust Homecoming but the mystery doesn’t unravel until much later—but those notes of more to come made me want to keep digging. It is, as Jen Chaney noted on Vulture, the best of WTFTV.

Raftery: Like all of you, I admired Homecoming for its medium-bending stylistic flourishes; its intoxicating corporate-noir-meets-Hitchcock set-up; and its performances (I especially enjoyed watching Shea Whigham–who’s played so many memorably ball-busting alpha-males–sweat it out as a neutered middle-management lifer). But one of the reasons why the show had me hooked from the get-go came down to pure math: With each episode clocking in at around 30 minutes, I didn’t have to worry that I was throwing away time that could be better spent elsewhere.

My Wired coworkers know all too well my frustration with Netflix’s dramas, which are invariably in need of editing–with the exception of the excellent Mindhunter, I can’t think of a single Netflix series that didn’t overstay its welcome at one point, either with sloggy episodes, or with drawn-out episode orders. But a five-hour, fast-burning thriller like Homecoming? That seems doable, especially our way-too-packed prestige-streaming era, in which it feels like a half-dozen new offerings are being shoved down the internet’s tubes every week.

And even though Homecoming could have ultimately shed an episode or so and still not lost the plot–I’m not sure how much we needed Sissy Spacek’s character, as much as I love her performance–I think Esmail and his writing team did a fine job of stripping the story down to its high-end-pulp essentials. The streamers like long-playing, long-running series–it keeps viewers stuck within their eco-system. All too often, creators have abused that privilege. But Homecoming proves you can accomplish a lot in just a few hours.

Watercutter: Also, what did you all think of the music? It was intense. Also, I felt like I had Shazam open for quite a bit of my binge—just like, wait, what is this?? (Fun fact: During that scene where Heidi freaks out a little bit and pulls all of her desk tools under her head and lays down on top of them, the song playing is from The Conversation, which Esmail had mentioned was an influence on Homecoming.) And any show that ends its season with—spoiler alert!—Iron & Wine is OK by me. Any other musical queues strike you all?

Raftery: It took me a while to realize just how deftly Esmail and his music-supervision team were incorporating classic film scores into Homecoming, but once I did, it became a welcome spot-the-tune semi-distraction: I loved hearing John Carpenter’s haunted synth-score for The Thing being repurposed for a white-collar thriller, or catching David Shire’s classic All the President’s Men cue play out in one of its final episodes. Esmail is clearly a movie obsessive: Mr. Robot was loaded with references to everything from Kubrick to The Third Man to even Risky Business. But Homecoming takes it even further, with its soundtrack-swipes and numerous Hitchcock nods–all of which are so carefully grafted into the show, they never once feel like fawning homages. It’s a uniquely mixed-medium show: A drama that’s based on a scripted podcast; structured as a TV show; and shot and stylized like a patient, claustrophobic ’70s thriller.

Watercutter: And what did folks think of the show beyond its flourishes? Personally, once I felt invested in everyone I found it to be quite wrenching, really. I enjoyed the suspense questions—What are the goals of the Homecoming facility?, What’s that drug doing to the returning soldiers?, Why can’t Heidi remember what she did while she worked there?—but there was something about Walter and Heidi’s struggle to connect in such a sterile environment that just killed me. I know that’s a really obvious point to make, but at the same time I think those kind of core relationships are lacking, or very thin, in a lot of suspense thrillers, so I was glad to find them here. Also, the back-and-forth scenes as Heidi, Carrasco, and Walter’s mother Gloria (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) start putting the pieces together had me holding my breath at times. Carrasco

Parham: Beyond the visual and auditory highpoints, I found the series mostly compelling. It’s the breed of narrative that sits in that fragile corridor between truth and fiction—one that seems almost too ideal, too devastatingly ripe, for our fractured moment. It’s a story bizarre enough to be believable: Geist, a Fortune 500 corporation known for developing food and skincare products, wants to manufacture a drug that cures soldiers of PTSD. So they build a facility with the goal of transitioning veterans back into the real world—only the truer, darker aim isn’t actually to get these men ready for family and work life, but to rid them of their psychological war wounds so they can re-enlist. Of course, the other catch is just as gutting: the drug doesn’t just wipe clean symptoms of anxiety, social isolation, depression, or explosive bouts of anger, it erases whole memories.

What Homecoming becomes, then, is a sharp critique on systemic abuse, and how the corruption of such power infects everything, and everyone, it touches. For me, the saddest realization was how easy it remains for veterans—already discarded by the same government they so proudly served—to be exploited, and held captive. Stephan James brings humanity, if a bit of naivety, to Walter Cruz, but in doing so sheds light on how the system can, at every turn, fail people, even as they continue to believe in its good.

Watercutter: Yes, that’s it! Which is why when it all comes together in the end…

Parham: What made the closing scene so satisfying, for me, was all the brilliant stylistic work Esmail did in the lead-up to those last few minutes. The scene rejects the isolation, darkness, and near-violent panic that shadowed characters all season. We’re in a northern town, far from the swamps of Tampa, the skies are as radiantly blue as we’ve seen them, and the score that augments the shot—Iron & Wine’s “The Trapeze Swinger”—carries with it none of the soundtracked terror from earlier episodes. It’s as if this scene exists in an alternate universe. I won’t spoil the final shot, but how it culminates—for Walter and Heidi, at least—is just as surprising: with a flash of tangible, no-strings-attached hope that everything, for the first time in a very long time, might actually be OK.

The past seven days have brought another Democrat looking to be president, another Trump associate being called to testify before Congress, another potential escalation—and then de-escalation—in the tension between India and Pakistan, another sign that California is struggling more than many states with climate change, and another album from Solange. (It also brought another Oscars, but whether it's upset over Green Book's wins or gossip about Gaga, that already feels like a lifetime ago.) It's not all been re-runs, though; there have also been big developments in ongoing stories that people have been discussing for some time. What have people been talking about online this last week? We're glad you asked.

What Not to Say in Your Outside Voice

What Happened: You'd think that an attorney would know better than to attempt to intimidate a witness via social media, considering how much trouble it could get everyone in. You'd think.

What Really Happened: It was the (now deleted) tweet that got everyone's attention. Ahead of former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen's testimony to Congress last week, Florida Republican representative Matt Gaetz tweeted the following message: "Hey @MichaelCohen212 — Do your wife & father-in-law know about your girlfriends? Maybe tonight would be a good time for that chat. I wonder if she'll remain faithful when you're in prison. She's about to learn a lot."

Well, that's certainly a thing. And one that got a lot of people's attention, not least of all the media, because of course.

Some had some theories about where this tweet actually came from.

We'll come back to that later. For now, let's be thankful that Gaetz seemed to appreciate see the gaffe here. Just kidding.

The tweet remained up until the Speaker of the House sent out a particularly pointed subtweet of her own.

That, in turn, prompted Gaetz to finally apologize.

Turns out, an apology wasn't enough to handle the fallout of the tweet. Not from Michael Cohen, who had more important things on his mind—we'll come back to that soon enough, too—but from the Florida Bar, which launched an investigation into Gaetz over whether or not he violated professional conduct rules with the tweet. It may not be the only investigation he faces; a Democratic lawmaker has asked for an House Ethics Committee investigation, too.

Oh, and remember the question about whether or not the president was involved with the tweet in the first place?

For his part, Gaetz denies this. But, really, what is true anymore?

The Takeaway: For those who thought that this entire story seemed too cliché to be true, you're not alone, apparently.

The Michael Cohen Hearing

What Happened: For those hoping for epic political theater, last week's public testimony from former personal attorney (and infamous “fixer,” although, says who?) Michael Cohen proved to be not only worth the price of admission, but everything anyone could have hoped for.

What Really Happened: So, how did that whole Michael Cohen testimony on Wednesday go, anyway? The answer, as might have been expected, was "particularly explosively." So much so that things started exploding as soon as his opening statement leaked to the press hours before the hearing itself.

The statement, which really should be read in full for the appropriate effect, is available in many places but this Washington Post annotated piece is perhaps the best primer. It was, to be blunt, pretty damning stuff, although of course there were those who simply brushed it off as the ravings of an admitted liar. The hearing itself, however, proved to be just as amazing. Some brief highlights:

Heady stuff, and enough to give the media a lot to pick over and analyze for days to come. (And not just how poorly the Republicans fared.) The president, who was out of the country at the time of the hearing—stay tuned, we're about to get to why—let his spokesperson do the talking for him, for once.

Well, OK; he waited a day before commenting directly, at least.

All other kinds of interested parties had a lot to say about Cohen's testimony, as well.

Still, at least the Republican Party had a plan to make sure that people didn't pay too much attention to everything that Cohen was saying.

Yes, that's right. We should all stay focused on the president's historic meeting with North Korea. There's no way that could go wrong, right?

The Takeaway: For those wondering just how bad this was for the president, you might want to read this Twitter thread. But, suffice to say: This was a historic event when it came to demonstrating just how bad things have become.

The North Korea Summit Goes South

What Happened: If the Trump administration had hoped to drown out any and all bad news last week with a successful summit with North Korea, reality took a very different turn. Really, it wasn't a good week for the president.

What Really Happened: Getting back to why President Trump was out of the country during the Cohen testimony: He was in Vietnam for the second US/North Korea summit, a prospect that worried some, not least because of concerns over how far the president would go to get a deal he could boast about. Despite attempts to silence the press, initially, hopes were high.

Late Wednesday, however, it suddenly became obvious that things weren't going according to plan.

The hastily-rescheduled press conference confirmed what people were suspecting: The talks had fallen apart.

There's something odd about this sticking point, however; while Trump said that he was willing to ease some sanctions but North Korea was asking for all sanctions to be lifted, that's not what North Korea is saying they asked for.

Some after-the-fact positioning so North Korea could save face, or a case of the president lying? It's genuinely difficult to tell. On social media, some were arguing against those calling the summit a failure for Trump, as the hashtag #TrumpFail started to trend.

Funny story about giving legitimacy to a dictator; even though the summit fell apart, that didn't mean that the president wasn't willing to find some way to bow to North Korean interests in a truly dangerous, damaging way.

It didn't escape anyone's notice, either.

All told, this trip really didn't go so well for the president. But there's always next time, right?

The Takeaway: You know the traditional thing where Donald Trump says something today, and there's usually a tweet from the past where he completely contradicts himself? This time, it's not a tweet; it's far longer.

Takers and Fakers and Talkers Won't Tell You

What Happened: Oh, don’t worry; as bad a week as it had been for Trump before Thursday, things actually got worse when news emerged that he'd overruled experts to help his son-in-law.

What Really Happened: As last Thursday afternoon rolled around, Trump was surely glad to get back to the United States, where everything was calm and … You know where this is going, don’t you?

As reported by The New York Times, President Trump ordered then-Chief of Staff John Kelly to grant top-secret security clearance to son-in-law Jared Kushner last year, despite concerns by intelligence officials and the White House's top lawyer. Kelly was so disturbed by the order that he quit in protest—no, sorry, he "wrote a memo about how it wasn't his fault." Potato, tomato. You know how it is.

The report was quickly picked up by other outlets. It's almost as if people care about who gets security clearances that they probably shouldn't have.

The fact that the president had overruled his own intelligence people was, unsurprisingly, very much at odds with the way in which the issue had been addressed by administration officials in the past.

But that's not to say they didn't know what was going on wasn't a problem, apparently.

The timing of this would appear to be an issue for the administration.

Meanwhile, it's the substance that's an issue for … well, everyone else in the United States, really?

For those wondering why this is such an issue, here's one explanation:

Here's another, arguably more speculative, definitely more serious, one:

Maybe we're all overreacting, though! Perhaps there was a really good reason for it.

The Takeaway: If only there was some sign that the man who advised Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman shouldn't be given top secret security clearances. If only.

Meanwhile, in Another Hipster Coffee Shop

What Happened: Let's wrap up this week with something lighter, of sorts. If you have ever thought to yourself, "Hey! Twitter doesn't seem to do anything about all the ideologues on the platform, what would it take to get one thrown off?" Congratulations; You got an answer this week, and it was perfect.

What Really Happened: Maybe you remember Jacob Wohl. He's a far-right activist, who you may recall tried unsuccessfully to create a sexual assault conspiracy against Robert Mueller. He is, shall we say, someone that is going places, as long as it’s understood that those places may include being a punchline.

His journey towards that destination went farther last week when he gave an interview to USA Today in what seemed to be an attempt to tout his genius and strength in the surreal electoral playing field that is 2019.

In said story, Wohl boasted that he planned to create fake Facebook and Twitter accounts to, quote, "steer the left-wing votes in the primaries to what we feel are weaker candidates compared with Trump." Funny thing about announcing your intent to essentially duplicate the Russian troll operation during the 2016 election in a national newspaper: People notice.

Yes, a man famous for using Twitter to report on how hipsters in hipster coffee shops were repeating right-wing talking points ended up being banned from the platform after declaring his intent to weaponize it. There's no small irony here, and as should only be expected, a lot of people couldn't pass up the chance to use a favorite Wohlian construct to talk about his banishment.

It wasn't all jokes about Wohl's former meme-worthy status, however. There were some other things to consider about his removal. Well, kind of.

Wohl responded to the news with an amazing YouTube video in which he declared that the ban was actually good news, really, because look how viral he'd become before heading to the conservative conference CPAC to push a new conspiracy theory about Democratic lawmaker Ilhan Omar. Guess how that went?

Once again: This man got a profile in USA Today where he claimed to be an important figure in national politics. Just in case you're wondering how 2019 is going.

The Takeaway: It’s worth considering this when it comes to Wohl getting banned from Twitter.

If you think your on-the-job training was tough, imagine what life is like for newbie surgeons. Under the supervision of a veteran doctor, known as an attending, trainees help operate on a real live human, who might have a spouse and kids—and, if something goes awry, a very angry lawyer.

Now add to the mix the da Vinci robotic surgery system, which operators control from across the room, precisely guiding instruments from a specially-designed console. In traditional surgery, the resident gets hands-on action, holding back tissue, for instance. Robotic systems might have two control consoles, but attendings rarely grant residents simultaneous control. According to UC Santa Barbara’s Matt Beane—who recently published a less-than-rosy report on robot training for residents—he never once saw this happen.

Beane judged the state of the field by collecting interviews with surgeons and observations of hundreds of traditional and robotic procedures. (Robots, by the way, are good for things like hysterectomies or removing cancerous tissue from a prostate.) What he found was troubling: During minimally invasive robotic procedures, residents sometimes get just five or 10 minutes at the controls on their own.

“Even during that five or 10 minutes during practice, I'm helicopter-teaching you,” Beane says. “Like, ‘No no no no!’ Literally that kind of stuff. ‘Why would you ever do that?’ So after five minutes you're out of the pool and you feel like a kid in the corner with your dunce cap on.”

Some medical schools put more emphasis on robotic training than others. But Beane has found that a worrying number of residents struggle mightily in this environment. “I realized, good god, almost none of these residents are actually learning how to do surgery,” he says. “It's just failing.” Beane reckons that at most, one out of five residents at top-tier institutions are succeeding at robotic surgery.

That’s especially troubling considering that the da Vinci robot, the pioneer in a growing class of medical robo-assistants, has been in service for almost two decades. The benefits of the system are obvious: precision, cleanliness, reduced fatigue. But those benefits only materialize if medical schools are properly training their residents on the system. (Intuitive Surgical, maker of the da Vinci system, declined to comment for this story.)

The da Vinci system is indeed designed to accommodate residents in training, thanks to that secondary console. “The resident will be watching either on a monitor or on the second console,” says Jake McCoy, a urology resident at Louisiana State University. “At some point either the attending decides it's an appropriate time for the resident to take over, or if the resident wants to speak up and say something, then the resident might get control of the robot.” But McCoy is nearly done with his training, and he says he's never worked a case from start to finish. “There are certain parts that they just absolutely won't let me do.”

“I think at this point I'm going to be a little bit hesitant, or at least a little bit wary, to go out and unsupervised do any case that has any bit of complexity,” he adds.

Which is not to say 100 percent of residents aren’t getting fully trained on robotic surgery. “I think we get excellent robotic experience, and I’m very comfortable doing certainly standard procedures and maybe even more complex ones on my own,” says Ross McCaslin, a urologic surgery resident at Tulane. For McCaslin, that competence came in part from doing base-level training in simulators, just like a pilot would, supplemented by real patient experience. (All programs that Beane studied required simulator training.)

Same as it ever was, though. “It's a dirty little secret, but even when we did open surgery there are residents that are trained better than others depending on what program they're at and who their mentors are,” says Jonathan Silberstein, chief section of urologic oncology at Tulane.

Good training, whether in open or robotic surgery, requires extreme patience. “Training can slow us down,” Silberstein adds. “It can add significant time to an operation. It certainly increases my stress level, my blood pressure, the number of gray hairs I have. But that's our duty as physicians who have accepted this responsibility to train the next generation.”

While teaching by way of robotics may have its challenges, it also has its perks. For one, in open surgery, a resident and an attending have literally a different view of the procedure, which gets particularly complicated in a labyrinthine system of overlapping organs. But with the robot, they see the exact same picture through a camera. And after the surgery, the attending can walk the resident through a recording of the procedure, a sort of play-by-play for the operating room.

But residents who aren’t so well-nurtured tend to slip into what Beane calls shadow learning. They go out of their way to load up on simulations, or binge on YouTube videos of procedures. Which seems useful until you consider that attendings notice they're improving and give them more time at the console at the expense of other residents.

The good news hidden in all of this? Maybe surgery training gaps won’t be a problem for long. “Many of the very advanced surgeons at top institutions that I talked to say surgery definitely has a half-life,” says Beane. “In 50 years we're going to look back and be like, What? You wounded someone to try to heal them? What?” He’s thinking about noninvasive solutions like nanobots.

The field of surgery was early to the robotics game, and although the da Vinci system comes with serious costs, robotic surgery also means less recovery time and therefore less hospitalization. (Malfunctioning surgery robots, though, have also been implicated in patient injuries.) But the future will see doctors ceding ever more control to the machines, and then the difficulties of training residents will be history. “Maybe this problem is just going to suck for a little while,” says Beane. “And then people won't do that anymore.”

More Medical Robotics

  • Robot surgeons need to train, just like humans do. So researchers at UC Berkeley have developed a shifting platform that simulates the heaving body of a living patient.

  • Implantable robots also hold great promise in medicine. Take, for instance, a robotic sleeve that fits over the heart to keep it pumping.

  • In less … invasive medical robotics, we'd like you to meet Tug, the charming robot that roams hospitals delivering drugs and food.

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Fear Not the Robot Singularity

The robot revolution we’re in the midst of is way more interesting and way less murder-y than science fiction. Call it the multiplicity.

When Stephen Hillenburg premiered SpongeBob SquarePants in 1999, there’s no way he could’ve known what would become of his animated creation. Sure, he may have foreseen success: the cartoon's years on Nickelodeon, multiple feature films, even an eventual Broadway musical. What was less imaginable then, though, was the fact that Hillenburg's titular tetrahedral goofball and the rest of the gang from Bikini Bottom would cast such a sway over the meme-loving corners of the internet.

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The double helix of SpongeBob and the internet is so prevalent you don't even register it. Imagining the web without Hillenburg’s creation is like imagining it without Google or Facebook (where at least one post in your feed on any given day would feature SpongeBob, Patrick, Squidward or another undersea character.) The show is simply part of online culture's fabric—a part that Hillenburg, who died today at age 57 after a battle with ALS, built whether he knew he was doing it or not.

SpongeBob is one of the most significant television series in meme history,” says Know Your Meme managing editor Don Caldwell, noting that the show currently has 90 sub-entries and some 290 entry search results related to the show—that's more documented memes than either The Simpsons or My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. "SpongeBob clearly resonates with a large part of internet culture like no other, and I don't think this is simply driven by nostalgia.”

Figuring out why the internet grew attached to SpongeBob is like trying to figure out why the internet likes (or dislikes) anything. It just happens. But something about Hillenburg's show proved irresistible to memery. The show’s characters—and its titular hero specifically—are expressive enough to communicate a mood in a single frame. The show's wholesome, if slyly subversive, tone makes recontextualizing those faces all the funnier. (My personal fave: An image of SpongeBob making a rainbow with his hands juxtaposed with the words “Nobody Cares” in bold Impact font.)

The result is memes like Evil Patrick (aka Savage Patrick or Angry Patrick), which uses an image of the pink starfish making a slightly sinister face to convey anything remotely devilish, Tired SpongeBob, which can basically relay any kind of exhaustion, and Krusty Krab vs. Chum Bucket, which illustrates any kind of rivalry where one thing is superior to the other (Marvel vs. DC, etc.). There are many, many more—far too many to count—and each one is as familiar to internet users as the last.

There’s a reason for that familiarity. Although Hillenburg originally came up with the idea for SpongeBob (then SpongeBoy) a few years before his debut, his cartoon hit just as internet access began to get faster and easier. As the web grew, so did the show's popularity; its fans are some of the first digital natives. Add to that the show's cross-generational appeal and international reach—at one point, it aired in 170 countries—and you've got a majority of the internet covered. Put an image of any of the SpongeBob characters online, and more will get the reference than won't. Scenes from Bikini Bottom are the lingua franca of the meme world.

And while the bulk of the show’s popularity amongst meme-makers is due to the creators themselves, a lot of credit also goes directly to Hillenberg. He stepped away from the show’s day-to-day operations in 2004 after the first animated feature and, as Caldwell points out, SpongeBob’s early seasons provided a lot of the insightful commentary that the internet glommed onto. “The show's first three seasons, prior to Hillenburg's departure,” he says, “dealt with real issues in an authentic and clever way, which I suspect has a lot to do with its enduring cultural relevance online.”

Today, that is obvious. As news of Hillenberg’s passing hit the internet, social media, and the show’s subreddit filled with tributes, more than a few of which thanked the creator not just for his show but for the memes that came out of it. His character lived in a pineapple under the sea, but his legacy survives in a much bigger world.

Self-driving cars have it rough. They have to detect the world around them in fine detail, learn to recognize signals, and avoid running over pets. But hey, at least they’ll spend most of their time dealing with other robot cars, not people.

Now, a delivery robot, on the other hand, it roams sidewalks. That means interacting with people—lots of people—and dogs and trash and pigeons. Unlike a road, a sidewalk is nearly devoid of structure. It’s chaos.

Block by block, a San Francisco startup called Marble has been trying to conquer that chaos with a self-driving delivery cart. Today, they’re announcing a new, more powerful robot they hope is up to the task—and that will prove to skeptical regulators that the machines are smart enough operate safely on their own.

Marble’s previous robot is what we might call semi-autonomous. It can find its way around, but a human chaperone always follows to remote-control it out of trouble. But that’s a temporary measure—Marble wants to make these things proficient enough to find their own way around the people and the buskers and the intersections. One particularly important upgrade is extra cameras to fill in blind spots. “As you might imagine, one of the challenges that we have is seeing a small curb, understanding where it is, and driving around that in a sensible way, or telling the difference between a dog's tail and a stick,” says Kevin Peterson, Marble cofounder and software lead. “So the upgrades in cameras have improved that.”

The new robot also has three times the amount of computing power, meaning it can crunch more data coming in from the environment. That’ll be essential for getting the robot to go fully autonomous. The idea is that instead of following the robot around, a human chaperone could someday sit in a call center and monitor a fleet of robots from afar. (Babysitter for robots is actually a hot new job, by the way.)

To get to that point, though, Marble has to be sure its robot can follow the rules of the road. “We believe it's important to have a very polite robot that understands the kind of cues of walking through a crowd,” says Matt Delaney, CEO and cofounder of Marble. Self-driving cars have nice orderly lanes, but think about what happens when you’re walking right at another person on a sidewalk.

Human behavior on a sidewalk is weirdly complex. You know that thing where a group in front of you is walking just too slow for your liking, and you’ve got to turbo around them? Or if you’re feeling lazy, you just slow down a bit to match their speed. But you don’t follow too close, because you’re not a weirdo.

So Marble has been rating the robot’s interactions with people on the street. “When we see something really awkward happen in real life, we take that and reproduce it,” says Peterson. “There we come up with a scoring system and sort of evaluate how the system is doing.” Thus the team can objectively score the human notion of “awkwardness.”

Marble is learning that a robot has to nonverbally telegraph its intentions if it expects to get anywhere. Take a super-crowded intersection, for instance. Lots and lots of cars in a delicate ballet coming from all directions. The robot can’t just sit there and expect everyone to notice. “If you're too cautious then cars will just drive, if you're too bold then of course you get hit,” says Peterson. “So there's a sweet spot, where the vehicle has to wait an appropriate amount of time and indicate that it's going into the world.”

That means inching out a bit to nonverbally announce, Hey, I’m not just waiting on this street corner. I need to get across. Ideally at that point drivers let it pass like they would for a human pedestrian. The robot has analyzed the scenario and chosen the course of action that’s both efficient and safe.

On a more subtle level, the design of Marble’s robot also seems to telegraph information. For one, this new version is pared down (yet still carries the same amount of payload), perhaps giving it a friendlier vibe. “What we found is that people just enjoy the vehicle more if it's smaller,” says Delaney.

Though people shouldn’t enjoy it too much. Marble has found its robot to be very … approachable. Pedestrians will stop and stand in its way, apparently to test the soundness of its sensors. Which may be inevitable in these early days of street-roaming robots—humans still want to test the novel system. So Marble’s robot comes equipped with a microphone and speaker for the human chaperone who follows it to remind gawkers that the machine is on the job.

Marble’s robot has also attracted the attention of San Francisco regulators. Last December, the Board of Supervisors voted to severely restrict the machines to areas with low foot traffic.
“The business model is basically get as many robots out there to do deliveries and somebody in some office will monitor all these robots,” San Francisco supervisor Norman Yee told WIRED at the time. “So at that point you're inviting potential collisions with people.”

Yes, whether or not we trust robots to not run down pedestrians is now a conversation we need to have. But Marble and other companies that have unleashed robots on cities are learning fascinating lessons in human-robot interaction, lessons that will shape a world we’ll be sharing with more and more machines. So if you see a robot waiting the cross the street, be patient. It’s working harder than you think.

More robots

  • We got a ride-along with Marble's robot last year to see how hard it is to deal with dogs and buskers.

  • Marble isn't the only delivery robot out there. This little machine delivers pizza.

  • Also in San Francisco, a security robot found itself in trouble after it allegedly disrupted a homeless camp.

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The Robot That's Roaming San Francisco's Streets to Deliver Food

Hungry? But you don't want to deal with a human? If you live in San Francisco's Mission district, you can get your food delivered by a robot named Marble.

Let's begin with family. With fathers and sons. Love and defeat. Forgiveness and redemption. The heart of Creed II, the sequel to Ryan Coogler's mostly perfect 2015 boxing flick, pumps with all the typicality of the sports movie canon, though director Steven Caple Jr. works tirelessly to mainline such themes with contemporary resonance. The result lands somewhere in the middle: a boxing epic trapped by the legacy of all that came before it—the generation-defining intensity of the Rocky saga; the visual poetry of Coogler's predecessor—even as it fights to ascend to their elevated planes.

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To hear Buddy Marcelle tell it, "Rumble in the Jungle didn't just manifest itself … You need a narrative. Something that sticks to the ribs." Marcelle (Russell Hornsby) is a boxing promoter, a sort of low-carb Don King, and every bit the shark. Still, his words are not without truth, and newly minted light-heavyweight champion Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) knows this. It's why he accepts the challenge from Viktor Drago (an imposing Florian Munteanu). The match isn't for fame, money, or adoration—all of which Adonis has in excess these days—but for family, his father, the reclamation of his birthright. The kind of narrative that sticks to the ribs.

If the name Drago sounds familiar, it should. In 1985's Rocky IV, the feared Russian boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) beat Apollo Creed, Adonis' father, breathless in the ring, killing him. Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa later avenges Apollo's death, but the consequence of triumph comes at a cost. Those long-simmering furies is where Creed II commences.

Left to a working-class existence in the bleak tundra of Kiev, the elder Drago was ripped of everything in his loss to Rocky: "Country, love, respect." And so the son must exact retribution in his father's name. Ivan will do anything to return honor back to the former Soviet Empire, and thus himself, even as Viktor remains conflicted by his father's motivations. Ivan hungers for acceptance among the Russian elite, the very same people who disowned him after his headlining loss. This is where the lifesource of the film shows itself. More than anything else, Creed II is a film about fatherhood, its necessary failures and its hard-won victories.

Rocky and Adonis' relationship is also tested, the former seeing Apollo for what he was, the latter seeing him for what he wasn't. This, expectedly, causes a rift in their bond, and fuels the film's final acts. Fearful of the past, Rocky decides to forego training Adonis for the title match, which sends the young fighter down a path in which he must confront all that haunts him: death, defeat, and what he's ultimately fighting for.

For all its flash and emotional vibrancy, Creed II is largely an uneven experiment in boxing cinema, laced with the sweet footwork and lyrical bloodthirst of any great sparring match but predictable in all the ways sports flicks have become. Caple Jr.'s landscape is best understood through its onscreen relationships; they can hum with life, as is the case with Adonis and girlfriend Bianca (a magnetic Tessa Thompson), or they can flat-line completely. Stallone's Rocky feels less essential this time around; even as he tries to rebuild a connection with his biological son, his mentorship often presents itself through a series of simple, childlike maxims. "Sometimes when you want to make a change, you have to change things" might have worked on the page, but tautology can't cover triteness.

The genius of the original film was Coogler's ear for reinvention: He upended the Rocky franchise while still lending it an air of relevance. And Caple Jr. delivers a more than satisfying film (his 2016 feature, The Land, about four Cleveland teens trying to arise from their circumstances was utterly fantastic). It's not that Creed II wants for such reinvention, it's that moments of transcendence rarely arrive—either for the characters or for the film itself.

I think that's the most vital lesson I left with: that with precious few exceptions—among them, A League of Their Own, The Wrestler, and Oliver Stone's Shakespearean opus Any Given Sunday—a sports movie can only be, or do, so much. And this one is simply a product of history's parameters: impassioned and glazed with drama in all the right spots, but rarely venturing to higher planes. Creed II is a safe bet—not because it lacks heart, but because it does exactly what you expect it to.

Cry it out from the rooftops: we survived 2018. (At least as of press time, so, y'know, probably.) And in this long, complicated year, a few games stuck out as the best, the most interesting, the most surprising, of the year. Whether you're catching up over the holidays or just looking for fuel to argue with your friends, here are our picks for the best videogames released in 2018. And yes, they're ranked. And no, your eyes aren't deceiving you: a certain Western-themed open-world game isn't in here. (Nor is Celeste, which honestly should have warranted making this a Top 11 list.) Games are a vast and varied field, friends; so are opinions. Argue away!

10. Monster Hunter World (Capcom, PC/PS4/Xbox One)

Monster Hunter has, for a certain variety of player, been a big deal for years. The once-obscure franchise has garnered a cult following addicted to its obtuse but idiomatically playable rhythms of hunting monsters, crafting gear, and hunting tougher monsters. World takes those rhythms of play and expertly makes them accessible to a broader audience, one that might have an interest in Monster Hunter but never had the time and will to learn how to play it. Using all the power of the modern gen, Monster Hunter World strikes a perfect balance between being welcoming to new players while still being challenging and strange. Explore a vast island full of prehistoric wonders, learn them, and then fight them to the honorable death.
[Original review; buy now]

9. Into the Breach (Subset, PC/Switch)

Giant robots! Time travel! Horrible aliens! If Pacific Rim went into a VitaMix with that one time-travel arc of Heroes when that show was good, this would be the videogame smoothie that resulted. Travel back in time repeatedly to try to save humanity from a horde of alien bugs—building, and losing, dozens of small squads of mech pilots while you do so. This is the rare strategy game that sings because of just the right amount of story, a veneer of melancholy and grief over the repetition. You've let a lot of people die to get to this point. But this run? It's going to be different. It has to be different.
[Original review; buy now]

8. Minit (Vlambeer, PC/PS4/Switch/Xbox One)

What can a game accomplish in 60 seconds? Traditionally, not much—but Minit presents a strong argument to the contrary. Think a 2D Legend of Zelda game, only you die every minute. What this means is that everything in the game worth doing has been compressed into 60-second increments, a design conceit that grows beyond a gimmick and into something brilliant. Riffing on the original Legend of Zelda is a favorite hobby of gaming's commercial indie scene, and I usually have absolutely zero interest in it as a trend. But Minit brings something concise, and witty, and absolutely jovial to its deconstruction of the game that became a genre. Minit only asks for one minute of engagement at a time. But you're going to want to give it a lot more.
[Original review; buy now]

7. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate (Nintendo/Bandai Namco, Switch)

This was something of an off year for the Nintendo Switch. Quality titles abounded, but first-party flagships were few and far between; the new Pokemon games this year didn't scratch that specific itch that Nintendo regularly crafts their games to scratch. That place of semi-nostalgic, simple wholesomeness. For that, the only game in town is really the multiplayer epic Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Far from a perfect entry in the series, it's still more playable than almost any other game released this year. Nintendo excels at building games that are just good, clean fun, and this is the best the company they put out this year.
[Original review; buy now]

6. God of War (Santa Monica, PS4)

The grimmer by far of the two PlayStation 4 exclusives on this list, God of War is a difficult game to anoint with cheerful superlatives—not because it doesn't deserve them, but because they don't really fit the mood. It is, after all, a game about a bad, violent man trying to raise a son only moderately less broken than he is. It's a game about butchering droves of monsters and supernatural warriors, for no other good reason than because they're standing in your way. It's a game about going too far and trying to dial it back, maybe just a little, maybe just until you can almost see something approaching decency. It's a great game. Just not exactly the sort you want to praise with a smile on your face.
[Original review; buy now]

5. Hitman 2 (Io Interactive, PC/PS4/Xbox One)

If I could take any game with me to a desert island, provided that island also had electricity and a compatible game console, it would probably be Hitman 2. Agent 47, the series star, is a murderous cipher in an infinite cycle of assassination and disguise, and this is his perfect outing. Io's latest refines the nontraditional stealth sandbox of earlier titles into a tightly wound, impossibly complex series of puzzle box levels that burst open with an explosive giggle. Sure, you can just run up and shoot your target before fleeing, but even if you survive, what fun is that? How about throwing them off a roof while dressed as a corporate mascot. Or pretending to be a tattoo artist and then taking them out when you're all alone. Hitman 2 rewards creativity and black humor, and it can be played pretty much forever. What a game.
[Original review; buy now]

4. Donut County (Ben Esposito, PC/PS4/Switch/Xbox One)

Donut County is not a long game, nor is it particularly complex. The puzzle premise, of sucking objects into a hole in the ground, never really gets more challenging than that, and the rhythms here are more those of a scenery showcase than a traditional puzzle game. But it's still a delight, bright and goofy, written with a shining wit and an effervescent joy. This is a comedy critique of capitalism disguised as a game about mischievous citygoing raccoons, and, like, honestly, I'm not sure what more you really want from your videogames. It ticks all of my boxes. I waited for this one for years, and it did not disappoint.
[Original review; buy now]

3. Dead Cells (Motion Twin, PC/PS4/Switch/Xbox One)

Dead Cells is an almost peerless action game. There, I said it. Within the framework of a simple roguelike structure—die, progress, die again, slowly eking your way toward an ultimate goal—Motion Twin has built one of the most satisfying 2D combat systems I've ever had the joy of getting my hands on. Every sword slash, bomb throw, and slammed door bristles with energy. The visual and auditory feedback, the speed, everything in this game's design is built to make the action absolutely soar. Dead Cells is a morbid, challenging game, which in 2018 isn't exactly a strong differentiating factor. But I've rarely, if ever, played a game that just feels so good.
[Original review; buy now]

2. Dragon Ball FighterZ (Arc System Works, PC/PS4/Switch/Xbox One)

Honestly, the only reason this didn't get my top spot is because fighting games are about as niche as they come. Still, this game is stunning. A distillation of everything that makes Dragon Ball one of the most influential and enjoyable pieces of Japanese comic media of all time, Dragon Ball FighterZ is also just one of the best fighting games ever. Responsive, surprisingly easy to learn, and predictably difficult to master, it turns the clear visual language of the anime it's based on into brilliant play. FighterZ (pronounced "fighters," to settle that bet) is also home to some of my favorite videogame moments of the year as a spectator. No other competitive game has such a fascinating sense of visual energy, or such clear mechanical drama. It absolutely slaps, is what I'm saying. Play it, watch it, pretend to be 13 again.
[Buy now]

1. Spider-Man (Insomniac Games, PS4)

2018 was a conservative year in videogames. There were some gems, and a few exceptionally innovative titles in the indie scene, but nothing earth-shattering happened. No paradigms shifted this year. Expectations were rarely, if ever, subverted. Spider-Man likely wouldn't have made the top of a list like this in a bigger, stranger year. It's a conservative title, a triple-A open-world game in a world full of them. But don't let that fool you: even if Spider-Man is a game well suited to a quiet year, it's still an excellent game. It's pure comfort food in a year where even the best stuff rarely provoked that warm, happy feeling. Insomniac Games has crafted a title that adores its source material, that shapes its entire form around celebrating it. Spider-Man loves Spider-Man, and Spider-Man is a welcome, fun, bright presence in 2018. This is a quintessential Peter Parker adventure, perfectly translated into game form, and my impression of it has only grown more fond with time. One of my big litmus tests for games is if I find myself going back to it after I'm done covering it for work, and this was one of the few this year to pass. If you have a PlayStation 4, you owe it to yourself to check this one out.
[Original review; buy now]

Whether they believe robots are going to create or destroy jobs, most experts say that robots are particularly useful for handling “dirty, dangerous and dull” work. They point to jobs like shutting down a leaky nuclear reactor, cleaning sewers , or inspecting electronic components to really drive the point home. Robots don’t get offended, they are cheap to repair when they get “hurt,” and they don’t get bored. It’s hard to disagree: What could possibly be wrong about automating jobs that are disgusting, mangle people, or make them act like robots?

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Matt Beane (@mattbeane) received his PhD from MIT's Sloan School of Management and now a faculty member at UC Santa Barbara's Technology Management program and a research affiliate with MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy.

The problem is that installing robots often makes the jobs around them worse. Use a robot for aerial reconnaissance, and remote pilots end up bored. Use a robot for surgery, and surgical trainees end up watching, not learning. Use a robot to transport materials, and workers that handle those materials can no longer interact with and learn from their customers. Use a robot to farm, and farmers end up barred from repairing their own tractors.

I know this firsthand: For most of the last seven years, I have been studying these dynamics in the field. I spent over two years looking at robotic surgery in top-tier hospitals around the US, and at every single one of them, most nurses and surgical assistants were bored out of their skulls.

In an open procedure—doing surgery with scalpels, retractors, sponges, and large incisions—nurses and scrubs are part of the action, with a regular and dynamic flow of critical work to do. They can learn a lot about surgery, trauma, anatomy, and organizational operations. It’s dirty, dangerous, and interesting work. People who study collaborative work agree: Often, dirt, danger and drudgery mean that you’ve got your hands on a satisfying job—it challenges you, you’re doing something meaningful for others, and you get respect.

For many support workers, robotic surgery is much less satisfying than open surgery. There’s a huge amount of solitary setup work to allow the robot to work, then there’s a big sprint to get the robot draped and docked to the patient. And then…everyone watches the procedure on TV. While the surgeon is operating via an immersive 3-D control console, the scrub folds his arms and waits. The nurse sits in the corner at a PC entering data, or sometimes checking email or Facebook. There’s not a lot to do, but you always have to be ready. Compared to open surgery, it's clean, safe, and dull work.

At most of these hospitals, robots have been in service for over a decade—and conditions haven't improved. Though workers and executives sensed deeper problems, they didn’t advocate strongly enough to make changes. On paper, things seemed to be working: the focal task had been “improved” via cutting-edge technology, patient results looked fine and the hospital workers still had jobs (albeit, duller ones.)

Across my studies, the pattern is similar. The robot gets installed, handling a focused set of dirty, dangerous, or boring tasks. Efforts to redesign the work slow to a trickle: once results are the same or slightly better than before the redesign stops there. This means organizations miss innovative work designs and instead settle on ones that make the work worse: less challenging with fewer opportunities to learn and relate to other people in the process.

There’s good evidence that this dynamic is hard to dodge; try this 1951 study of coal mining on for size. Without proof that the new robotic install could be better, no one is motivated enough to try out alternative approaches. As we automate work like trucking, people transport, or package delivery—things that touches hundreds of thousands or even millions of people—these effects will get worse.

From the front lines, it seems clear that organizations that take robots as an opportunity to learn will come out ahead. Surgery’s a good example: putting a robot in the operating room left many workers in the lurch, but it also revealed how hospitals might improve robotic surgical work. Nurses and surgical technicians might now help across simultaneous procedures, for example, or could even formally train surgical residents who are starved for attention and practice.

Getting these clues takes careful, boots-on-the-ground attention to the entire work system as it changes. Using them to guide a broader work redesign can cost more than a typical robotic install—and not all roboticization is worth equal attention. But not doing this work guarantees an outcome we can't afford: a future of degrading work.

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