How to Succeed in Venture Capital the John Doerr Way

Venture capitalist John Doerr arrives at San Francisco Superior Court where he is set to testify on Tuesday in a gender discrimination trial involving his firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, March 3, 2015. Venture capitalist John Doerr arrives at San Francisco Superior Court where he is set to testify on Tuesday in a gender discrimination trial involving his firm, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, March 3, 2015. ROBERT GALBRAITH/REUTERS/LANDOV

John Doerr, a managing partner at Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers, is considered a king-maker of sorts in the world of tech. He sits on the boards of as many as 80 technology companies, including Google, and has led KPCB’s investments in such once-obscure startups as Amazon, Twitter, and Intuit.

As such, people want to know what he thinks it takes to become a successful venture capitalist. Today, on the witness stand in a high-profile gender bias lawsuit against his firm, Doerr offered an answer. “My advice for people who want to be a venture capitalist is to forget about it,” he said. “Try to be a successful entrepreneur instead.”

But the nagging question tugging at Doerr’s answer, the question at the heart of the suit, is whether it also helps to be a man.

I don’t think the venture capital world has fought off women. John Doerr

Doerr’s second day of testimony in this San Francisco courtroom provided a glimpse of the tension between his belief that the venture capital world rewards merit and his stated desire to be an advocate for women. Outwardly, Doerr has tried to show that he has put in the work to get more women into this small but influential industry. He has backed twelve women-led companies during his time at Kleiner Perkins, he testified, and had a hand in hiring many of the female partners at the firm. He has called the lack of women in the VC world “pathetic” while testifying that Kleiner’s 20 percent female workforce is well above the industry average.

VC Instincts

At the same time, Doerr insistently painted a picture of an industry that works largely as a meritocracy. “I don’t think the venture capital world has fought off women,” he said in response to a juror’s question. No business program or college course in the world that can teach you to be a venture capitalist, Doerr testified. Above all, it’s the experience—entrepreneurial experience or considerable operating experience at a company—that counts.

But Doerr acknowledged the need for such experience is the essence of the problem women hoping to break into venture capitalism face. You learn to be a venture capitalist by doing, he said. But with the difficulties female entrepreneurs face in getting funding—funding that the venture capital industry provides—only a handful of candidates ever become qualified.

In their testimonies, top partners at the firm said Pao was 'not a team player' and described her as 'territorial.'

Doerr has previously testified that he thinks women often make better leaders, and that more diverse VC firms would produce better work. But, he said, the firms would first need to find “more female partners qualified to do the work.”

Doerr’s deposition comes in the seventh day of the trial in San Francisco court, which pits former Kleiner partner Pao against one of Silicon Valley’s most influential venture capital firms. According to Pao’s allegations, Kleiner Perkins held her back professionally while the men at the firm were allowed to succeed, and she experienced retaliation after engaging in an affair with a senior colleague that she eventually ended.

In response, the Kleiner Perkins defense team has tried to show that no discrimination existed. Pao was not promoted at the firm and was eventually terminated, the defense has argued, because she simply did not have the skills to be a venture capitalist. In their testimonies, top partners at the firm said Pao was “not a team player” and described her as “territorial.” Though the managers admitted she was a good operator, they claimed she did not have “VC instincts.”

Business Judgment

The trial has captured the attention of the tech world, where women are still a clear minority. Apart from getting a front-row seat to a show that could air some of Silicon Valley’s dirtiest laundry, the case has the potential to change how the larger industry deals with gender inequality issues. In venture capital, the gender disparity between men and women is in similarly bad—or even worse—shape.

Pao’s team has argued that, in spite of Doerr’s declared advocacy, he too succumbed to a bias towards favoring men. At one point in the trial, Pao’s attorney played an audio clip of a conversation between Doerr and Mike Moritz of Sequoia Capital, another industry star, recorded during a May 2008 meeting of the National Venture Capital Association. In the clip, Doerr says it was “very clearly male nerds who had no social or sex lives” and who were dropouts of Harvard or Stanford who were likely to succeed as some of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs. “When I see that pattern coming in … it’s very easy to decide to invest,” Doerr said.

Kleiner has argued that Pao consistently showed poor performance at the firm, and has tried to drive the point home by showing the court negative performance reviews from 2005 to 2012 that said Pao had trouble with her interpersonal skills. Even so, Doerr said in court that he believed in Pao’s skills and “wanted her to succeed” at the firm. Doerr fought to keep Pao at the firm when she was thinking about leaving in 2007, and again in 2009, the year she interviewed for a general partner position with Google Ventures. “I saw Ellen’s performance and potential differently than the other partners,” he testified today.

Doerr acknowledged that in 2011 he pushed for a revision in her performance review that stated Pao was “no longer on track” to be promoted at KPCB. In 2012, after years of mentorship, he relented and agreed with the other Kleiner partners that Pao should move on. “My business judgment was after four reviews citing the same problems, and all partners recommending that she leave, I couldn’t fight for her to stay,” Doerr testified. He denied that he had agreed to let Pao go because of her lawsuit against the firm.

Etsy Lost Its Soul, But That Doesn’t Matter to Its IPO

Etsy will soon be a ticker symbol on the NASDAQ stock exchange.

On Wednesday, 10 years after launching a website for buying and selling all sorts of handmade goods, Etsy filed for its initial public offering. With its filing, the Brooklyn, New York-based company revealed that’s its ticker symbol is identical to its name. The symbol isn’t ETY or ESY or ES or ET. It’s ETSY.

And it’s a symbol in more ways than one. A name that once stood for crafts handmade by real, live, individual people is now a way of, well, making lots and lots of money. This was the case well before the company filed to go public. But its IPO casts this reality in stark relief. While some people are very upset that Etsy has sold its artisanal soul, their sorrow doesn’t really make a difference to its capitalistic goals.

In the end, the sellers stayed for the money, and Etsy reaped the benefits.

In the fall of 2013, you see, Etsy changed its terms of service, letting people sell stuff made not by hands but by massive manufacturing operations. Many of the site’s earliest users, including Grace Dobush, were not pleased. “They fundamentally changed the purpose of Etsy,” Dobush says. “To stay true to my handmade ethos, I had to move my business elsewhere.”

Some like Dobush quit the site. But that hasn’t really mattered to Etsy. In the end, the change increased the number of people using the site and increased revenues—as it was designed to do. According to the company’s IPO filing, revenues reached $74.6 million in 2012 and $125 million in 2013. Last year, after the change in policy, they topped $195 million.

That kind of financial muscle even gave Dobush pause—she needed an extra year to quit. “It took me a while to actually go through with it,” says Dobush. “They have huge customer base. So, even when sellers are dissatisfied with Etsy or have ethical problems with the site, sellers have problems leaving—because you can make really good money.”

In the end, the sellers stayed for the money, and Etsy reaped the benefits. This is often the case with internet businesses, whether they’re pushing handmade rugs or 140 characters. They’re founded on certain principles. They’re helped along by a small and passionate group of early adopters. They grow to a certain size. And then they change their principles, alienating those early adopters but capturing the mainstream—all with an eye towards the big IPO. It’s what happened with Facebook. And Twitter.

Such corporate-minded compromises can backfire if a company makes them too early. But if you want the big bucks, the alienation is inevitable. When you become a public company, shareholders come first. That’s what mainstream means. That’s why ETSY traded its original ideals for a ticker symbol.

Instagram Debuts Slideshows, But Only for Advertisers

Screen-Shot-2015-03-04-at-2.32.00-PM Instagram

Instagram has been tiptoeing into the world of mobile advertising since 2013, wary of rocking the boat and upsetting its 300 million users and counting. But today, Instagram announced a major change to its advertising strategy with the introduction of slideshow ads.

The new ad format, which the company calls “carousel,” will allow advertisers to post several photos at once for users to flick through. But perhaps more critically, these ads will also allow advertisers to link to websites outside of Instagram where users can learn more about their brands. This is something that brands, hoping to translate “likes” into real world purchases, have always craved but never had access to on Instagram. Now they do. And for Instagram, it makes it much easier to demonstrate the effectiveness of its ads to other potential advertisers.

“One way to look at it is carousel ads bring the potential of multi-page print campaigns to mobile phones—with the added benefit of taking people to a website to learn more,” the company wrote in a blog post.

Facebook is looking for more ways to coax money out of the brands that use, and increasingly rely on, its platforms.

At the same time, the question remains whether this product could make it more difficult for brands that use Instagram but don’t buy ads on it, to get noticed. A similar tension arose when Facebook, Instagram’s parent company began tweaking its News Feed algorithms in a way that seemed to prioritize advertisements over regular posts from brands and businesses. It’s a change that left many companies with no choice but to begin buying access to their own followers through ads or risk watching their so-called “organic” reach continue to slide.

Now, it seems, Facebook is looking for more ways to coax money out of the brands that use, and increasingly rely on, its platforms. Instagram, of course, is still in the early stages of this transformation. Carousel ads will roll out slowly over the coming weeks to a limited number of advertisers, and brands will still show up in their followers’ feeds, even if they don’t buy ads.

But if slideshows are successful, it’s hard to see how brands that don’t advertise won’t find themselves at a disadvantage. If all goes according to Facebook’s plan, they’ll find themselves with little choice but to become paying customers, whether they “like” the idea or not. In the meantime, Instagram hasn’t said whether slideshows will ever be an option for regular users. But if the company is trying to sell the new format to advertisers as a premium option, chances are they won’t be available to the rest of us anytime soon.”

Instagram Debuts Slideshows, But Only for Advertisers

Instagram has been tiptoeing into the world of mobile advertising since 2013, wary of rocking the boat and upsetting its 300 million users and counting. But today, Instagram announced a major change to its advertising strategy with the introduction of slideshow ads.

The new ad format, which the company calls “carousel,” will allow advertisers to post several photos at once for users to flick through. But perhaps more critically, these ads will also allow advertisers to link to websites outside of Instagram where users can learn more about their brands. This is something that brands, hoping to translate “likes” into real world purchases, have always craved but never had access to on Instagram. Now they do. And for Instagram, it makes it much easier to demonstrate the effectiveness of its ads to other potential advertisers.

“One way to look at it is carousel ads bring the potential of multi-page print campaigns to mobile phones—with the added benefit of taking people to a website to learn more,” the company wrote in a blog post.

Facebook is looking for more ways to coax money out of the brands that use, and increasingly rely on, its platforms.

At the same time, the question remains whether this product could make it more difficult for brands that use Instagram but don’t buy ads on it, to get noticed. A similar tension arose when Facebook, Instagram’s parent company began tweaking its News Feed algorithms in a way that seemed to prioritize advertisements over regular posts from brands and businesses. It’s a change that left many companies with no choice but to begin buying access to their own followers through ads or risk watching their so-called “organic” reach continue to slide.

Now, it seems, Facebook is looking for more ways to coax money out of the brands that use, and increasingly rely on, its platforms. Instagram, of course, is still in the early stages of this transformation. Carousel ads will roll out slowly over the coming weeks to a limited number of advertisers, and brands will still show up in their followers’ feeds, even if they don’t buy ads.

But if slideshows are successful, it’s hard to see how brands that don’t advertise won’t find themselves at a disadvantage. If all goes according to Facebook’s plan, they’ll find themselves with little choice but to become paying customers, whether they “like” the idea or not. In the meantime, Instagram hasn’t said whether slideshows will ever be an option for regular users. But if the company is trying to sell the new format to advertisers as a premium option, chances are they won’t be available to the rest of us anytime soon.”

Oculus Will Officially Go Consumer With Mobile VR In 2015

Oculus’ first big consumer push for its virtual reality technology will come at the end of this year with the next iteration of the Samsung Gear VR for mobile, the company’s CTO John Carmack said at Game Developers Conference on Wednesday.

“The official formal strategy is that Oculus goes big, full consumer on Samsung’s next release cycle,” Carmack said.

The Gear VR is currently available as an “Innovator’s Edition,” Carmack noted, technically for sale to the public but with a caveat that it is intended for early adopters and those who don’t mind an incomplete experience.

Carmack said that he’s happy with the Gear VR hardware and the Samsung phones that it requires to run—it’s just the Oculus software and the digital games store that need to be polished up and filled with content before they move foward with a launch.

Developers should expect the Gear VR store to be more like Apple’s walled garden versus Android’s Wild West. “It is a reviewed store,” Carmack said. “We have already rejected some apps.”

Earlier this week, the Gear VR store added paid apps to its library. And Oculus showed its new version of the Gear VR, which works with Samsung’s new Galaxy S6 phones. This will be available soon, but still as an “Innovator’s Edition.”

But it’s the third iteration of Gear VR, which Carmack says will work with the as-yet-unannounced new phones that Samsung will release at the end of 2015, that Oculus will be trying to sell to anyone and everyone who wants to get in on virtual reality.

“It is going to be real,” Carmack said. “There are going to be customers.”

Metabolic path to improved biofuel production

Researchers with the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), a partnership that includes the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the University of California (UC) Berkeley, have found a way to increase the production of fuels and other chemicals from biomass fermented by yeast. By introducing new metabolic pathways into the yeast, they enable the microbes to efficiently ferment cellulose and hemicellulose, the two major families of sugar found in the plant cell wall, without the need of environmentally harsh pre-treatments or expensive enzyme cocktails.

"We've discovered new chemicals generated by fungi and bacteria as metabolites in their strategy for consuming the plant cell wall that are a general part of the global carbon cycle," says Jamie Cate, a staff scientist in Berkeley Lab's Physical Biosciences Division and a professor of biochemistry, biophysics and structural biology at UC Berkeley. "We should now be able engineer biofuel-producing yeast to do what these fungi and bacteria do, opening up many new possible scenarios for making biofuels and other important products."

The cost of gasoline at the pump may be going down, but the excessive carbon being released into the atmosphere continues to escalate. Clean, green and renewable transportation fuels are needed to replace gasoline, diesel and jet fuel. Also needed are green and sustainable alternatives to petro-chemicals. Microbial fermentation of the cellulosic sugars stored in plant cell walls and other forms of biomass is a highly promising source of biofuels and chemicals provided the process can be done with sufficient economy. This requires the conversion of complex sugars into simple sugars that can be fermented.

Working through the EBI, Cate and a team of collaborators identified metabolic pathways in the fungus Neurospora crassa that are used to digest xylose, one of the most abundant sugars in hemicellulose. Yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the microbe most commonly used for the production of biofuels, can't ferment xylose.

"In contrast to S. cerevisiae, many cellulolytic fungi including N. crassa naturally grow well on both the cellulose and hemicellulose components of the plant cell wall," Cate says. "By using functional genomics data and N. crassa knockout strains, we identified separate pathways used by N. crassa to consume the cellodextrins and xylodextrins released from plant cell walls by its secreted enzymes."

To enable the N. crassa metabolic pathways to work in yeast, Cate and his collaborators introduced five new genes into the yeast. While the new pathways and genes allow the yeast to directly ferment xylose sugars into a desired biofuel or chemical product, those sugars still have to be released from the plant cell walls. This can be done, however, with a simple hot water-pretreatment rather than the acids or ionic liquids that current pre-treatment methods deploy. Harsh chemicals like acids and ionic liquids, unlike hot water, must be removed prior to fermentation so as not to harm the microbes. This is another major expense in addition to the expensive enzymes required to break down the xylose sugars.

"We believe that introducing N. crassa metabolic pathways into yeast could find widespread use in helping to overcome existing bottlenecks to the fermentation of lignocellulosic feedstocks as a sustainable and economical source of biofuels and renewable chemicals," Cate says.

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The above story is based on materials provided by DOE/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Google Tackles Quantum Computing’s Hardest Problem: Errors

The promise of quantum computing is computers powerful enough to break the encryption techniques we now use to protect the world’s data. But realizing that promise means, among other things, cracking a thorny paradox. A basic operation of any computer is checking for mistakes. But by the logic of quantum computing, the act of checking is itself likely to create an error.

Researchers at Google have been trying to solve this problem, and now they believe they’ve made some progress. What you see above you is a tiny piece of aluminum film on a sapphire wafer built by the Google team. The nine miniaturized firehose nozzle-type devices in the middle of the chip house quantum bits, or qubits—quantum computing’s more elaborate answer to the 1s and 0s of traditional microprocessors. The researchers say they’ve devised a sneaky technique for some of the qubits to check out their neighbors for errors without injecting new mistakes themselves.

The crux of the problem is a phenomenon called bit-flipping. This happens when some kind of interference—cosmic rays, for example—causes the bits stored in memory to “switch state”—to jump from a 0 to a 1 or vice versa. On a PC or a server, error correction is relatively easy. You can simply measure all of the bits in the chip to check for the flips.

But things don’t work that way in the quantum world, where the data moves beyond mere 1s and 0s. If you measure a qubit directly, you change it. And all kinds of interference can easily modify the fragile state of the qubits stored in the machine

As a result, quantum computing in the real world will require a lot of error correction, says Austin Fowler, a quantum electronics engineer at Google and a member of the team that built the chip. “It’s an absolutely unavoidable part of building a practical quantum computer,” he says. Fowler and his team published the results of their work in the science journal Nature today.

To do their error correction, the researchers lined up the five qubits holding the data—called data qubits—right next to four other qubits that are there to measure. They check out their neighbors, but in a stealthy way, pulling up “just enough information” to see if there’s been a bit error, but not enough information to screw up the quantum behavior of the system, says Julian Kelly, another Google engineer.

Despite the researchers’ success, the Google hardware is still lousy compared to your PC, where bit flipping is an extreme rarity. With their code, the Google team was able to reduce bit-flip errors to about 1 percent. But comparing these error rates is beside the point. If they are ever built, quantum computers will have vastly more computing capacity that classical computers. As a result, they’ll also be able to devote more resources toward error correction.

As with so many other developments in the long slog toward building a useful quantum computer, this work represents an important step forward, but not a giant leap. Until now, error correction’s role in quantum computing has been a bit of an open question. For example, the D-Wave quantum computer that Google and NASA are experimenting with does not have error correction built into it. “There have been a number of people out there who have postulated that doing quantum error correction would just be impossible and that quantum computing will just not work,” says Kelly.

Quantum computing still has its skeptics, but score one for the optimists.

The Weird Quantum Behavior of Light, Captured in a Lab

Subatomic particles—photons, let’s say, or electrons—sometimes also act like waves. And waves sometimes act like subatomic particles. It’s weird. It’s also one of the fundamental tenets of quantum physics…and now, for the first time, scientists have taken a picture of that duality at work.

Other experiments have confirmed this two-faced behavior. As far back as the 19th century, physicists learned that if they shined a dim light—which is to say, few photons—at two super-narrow slits, a screen on the other side shows that photons go through one or the other. But crank up the amount of light, and the screen shows alternating dark and light bands, the interference patterns of waves crossing each other. The same thing works with lasers. “However, all of these experiments have exposed these two things not at the same time,” says Fabrizio Carbone, a physicist at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland. But in the new experiment, Carbone captured both wave-like and particle-like behavior in one shot.

The picture isn’t exactly a photograph. It actually shows light trapped inside a 40-nanometer wide length of silver wire. Carbone’s team blasted the wire with electrons, which means one of two things would happen: Either the light field in the wire would kick some energy into a colliding electron, speeding it up, or the electron would pump energy into the light and slow down. So the speed and location of the electrons actually tells you where the light is in the wire and whether it’s taking or giving energy.

So in the image, the axis pointing toward the left shows peaks and valleys of the light trapped in the wire. That’s wave-like behavior.

But in the axis going off to the right, you can see energy imparted to the electrons. Now, light only gains or loses energy in discrete amounts (those would be “quanta”). In light’s case, that amount is a photon. Bumps along the rightward energy axis are individual packets of energy the electrons got from photons. In other words: particle-like behavior.

“It does appear to me as fantastic work,” says Frank Koppens, a physicist at the Institute of Photonic Sciences in Spain who wasn’t involved in the experiment. “You could indeed argue that this is showing wave-particle duality.”

The fact is, every object has wave-like properties—even you. From a physics perspective, you’re just a big particle with a super teeny tiny wavelength. Call it 10-26 nanometers, give or take. That’s too tiny to measure. But as a particle gets smaller, its wavelength gets bigger. Down at the subatomic scale, wavelengths are about the same size as the particle itself. It’s a basic property of the universe, and it’s where duality comes from.

If that seems disqualifyingly weird to you, you’re not alone. Physicists accept that wave-particle duality is true, but that doesn’t mean they like it. Having a picture of the thing happening makes the medicine go down a little easier. “Although you’re sure that the theory works and it should be like that, it’s rather disturbing—at least to me—not to have the experimental evidence,” Carbone says. Just because it’s weird doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

Infant gut bacteria and food sensitization: Associations in the first year of life

A new study from Canadian researchers at the University of Alberta and University of Manitoba is shedding new light on changes in intestinal bacteria of infants that can predict future development of food allergies or asthma.

The research, published in the February edition of the journal Clinical & Experimental Allergy and highlighted as the publication's "Editor's Choice," reveals that infants with a fewer number of different bacteria in their gut at three months of age are more likely to become sensitized to foods such as milk, egg or peanut by the time they are one year old. Infants who developed food sensitization also had altered levels of two specific types of bacteria, Enterobacteriaceae and Bacteroidaceae, compared to infants who didn't.

"Using DNA techniques to classify bacteria in the Scott and Guttman laboratories at the University of Toronto, we obtained information on the different types of 'good' bacteria present in infant stool collected at three months of age and then at one year of age," says Anita Kozyrskyj, professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Alberta and senior author of the study. "We were able to then see which bacteria present at three months predicted the development of food sensitization at one year, as measured by a skin reaction test to the food."

"We are continuing to study this process," says Meghan Azad, assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics & Child Health at the University of Manitoba and lead author of the study. "Ultimately, we hope to develop new ways of preventing or treating allergies, possibly by modifying the gut microbiota."

The study, funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and AllerGen NCE, looked at data from 166 infants enrolled in the Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development (CHILD) Study. This landmark study involves more than 3,500 families and their newborn infants across Canada, including 1,000 in Manitoba and 750 in Edmonton, who are being closely monitored to determine the genetic and home environment factors that contribute to future allergies and asthma.

Researchers say the data on gut bacterial patterns during infancy can serve as a biomarker for future disease.

"It is something that one can measure that indicates increased risk of food sensitization by one year of age," says Kozyrskyj.

Both Kozyrskyj and Azad, who is also a research scientist at the Children's Hospital Research Institute of Manitoba, caution that the results don't necessarily mean the children will progress to full-blown food allergies in later life. The researchers will soon be expanding their sample size as data comes in from other children at CHILD Study sites in Edmonton, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Toronto. The hope is to eventually have data from as many as 2,500 children from across Canada. The researchers plan to follow them as they grow, examining results again at the ages of three and five.

"At the end of the day, we want to know if infants who show changes to normal gut bacteria composition will go on to develop food or other allergies, or even asthma," says Kozyrskyj.

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The above story is based on materials provided by University of Alberta Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Basis for cadmium toxicity uncovered

University of Adelaide research has uncovered how the metal cadmium, which is accumulating in the food chain, causes toxicity in living cells.

Published in the journal Nature Communications, this research has shown how cadmium disrupts the transport of the essential metals manganese and zinc into and out of cells.

"Cadmium is a very important industrial metal, but exposure to it results in accumulation in the food chain, leading to toxicity in animals and humans," says project leader Dr Christopher McDevitt, Senior Research Fellow and Deputy Director of the University's Research Centre for Infectious Diseases.

"Exposure to cadmium can occur due to poor disposal of industrial or electronics waste, and also through cigarette smoke and ingestion of contaminated food. While the toxicity of cadmium has been known for a long time, how it causes toxicity and damages cells hasn't been understood."

"We've shown, in a model bacterial system, that the chemistry of cadmium allows it to bypass the mechanisms that prevent other metals, such as iron and zinc, from freely entering cells.

"Once inside the cell, cadmium inserts itself into the cell's metal sensing machinery causing it to malfunction and pump out the wrong metal ions while still bringing in more cadmium. This ultimately leads to death of the cell.

"This understanding of how cadmium causes toxicity, at a molecular level, is crucial for developing new strategies for preventing cadmium poisoning."

Dr McDevitt and the team of researchers including PhD student Stephanie Begg, who conducted the research, are investigating how the disease-causing bacteria Streptococcus pneumoniae is able to scavenge essential metals during infection, and how this might be blocked to prevent disease.

Cadmium is an important metal for a range of electronics industries and is used widely in nickel-cadmium batteries. Cadmium from industrial waste can leach back into soil and water and isn't degraded. Global cadmium production has risen by more than one thousand-fold since the beginning of the 20th century to approximately 20,000 tons per year. It is estimated that humans ingest up to 30 micrograms every day.

"Cadmium isn't used in biological systems (with one rare exception) which means that cells haven't evolved ways to deal with this metal when they encounter it," says Dr McDevitt. "Our findings here open the way for developing new therapies for preventing cadmium toxicity."

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The above story is based on materials provided by University of Adelaide . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Experiments support conductivity claims for microbial nanowires

Scientific debate has been hot lately about whether microbial nanowires, the specialized electrical pili of the mud-dwelling anaerobic bacterium Geobacter sulfurreducens, truly possess metallic-like conductivity as its discoverers claim. But now University of Massachusetts Amherst microbiologist Derek Lovley, with postdoctoral researcher Nikhil Malvankar and colleagues, say they have settled the dispute between theoretical and experimental scientists by devising a combination of new experiments and better theoretical modeling.

In a series of papers going back to 2011, Lovley's group provided several lines of experimental evidence that Geobacter pili conduct electrons through the close interaction of aromatic amino acids in the protein filament structure. As Malvankar explains, "Electrons flow like they do in a copper wire, hence the term metallic-like conductivity." However, in the last two years many groups of theoretical modelers have published papers concluding that Lovley and Malvankar's results are impossible.

But, says Lovley, "In my view, experimental data trumps modeling. As the late physicist Richard Feynman said, 'It doesn't matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn't matter how smart you are. If it doesn't agree with experiment, it's wrong.'"

In search of even more experimental data, Malvankar traveled to Brookhaven National Laboratory for two years to further evaluate the structure of Geobacter pili with sophisticated approaches including synchrotron X-ray microdiffraction and rocking-curve X-ray diffraction. He found a periodic 3.2-angstrom spacing of aromatic amino acids in the Geobacter pili, far closer together than the theoretical models predicted. Findings appear in the current issue of the journal mBio.

Lovely says, "In Nikhil's experiments, we see a clear signature of the close packing of the aromatic amino acids. Non-conductive pili lack this. Also, when Nikhil acidified the pili, there was an increase in the packing of the aromatics in proportion to an increase in their conductivity. These results are consistent with our concept of metallic-like conductivity in the pili. None of the models that rejected our hypothesis were consistent with these results."

To better understand the lack of correspondence between the experiments and models, Malvankar teamed up with Eric Martz, UMass Amherst emeritus professor and protein modeling expert. They found changing one simple assumption in building the pili model dramatically changed the outcome. Malvankar explains, "Previous models started with a template of the structure for Neisseria gonorrhoeae pili. However, Geobacter pili are actually more closely related to those of Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Our model is based on Pseudomonas."

Malvankar's model predicts dense packing of aromatic amino acids consistent with their experimental results and the hypothesis that Geobacter pili possess metallic-like conductivity.

Martz cautions, "We're not claiming our model is 100 percent correct. In fact, we're sure it's not. But the other models simply can't explain the experimental results. Our does. Also, the conductivity is coming from a protein. Scientists have always said that proteins cannot perform this function. We found not only do they do it, but they also do it well. This is fundamentally such an interesting finding that scientists will have to pay attention."

This discovery, supported by funding from the U.S. Office of Naval Research, is expected to aid in engineering other bacteria to produce microbial nanowires with synthetic biology methods. For example, Lovley's lab has invented an artificial form of photosynthesis in which microbes use renewable electricity to convert carbon dioxide to fuels and other organic chemicals. He says, "The better we understand how microbial nanowires work, the better our chances of optimizing the electrode-microbe electron exchange."

Malvankar adds, "There is also the opportunity to capitalize on the fundamental design principles that nature is teaching us to produce novel electronic materials in a sustainable way." In nature, Geobacter use their microbial nanowires to breathe; they transfer electrons onto iron oxides, natural rust-like minerals in soil, which serve the same function for these bacteria that oxygen does in humans. "What Geobacter can do with its nanowires is akin to breathing through a snorkel that's 10 kilometers long," he says.

Others in Lovley's group have shown that Geobacter uses microbial nanowires to electrically communicate with other microbial species. This cooperative electron sharing is important in the conversion of organic wastes to methane, an effective bioenergy strategy. Nanowires are also key components of ongoing studies by Lovley's lab to build biocomputers and novel biosensors. The UMass Amherst team is now working on a "pili factory" to make purified Geobacter pili freely available to other researchers, to repeat these experiments or carry out other studies.

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The above story is based on materials provided by University of Massachusetts at Amherst . Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

Nvidia’s New Shield: A Superpowered Set-Top Box For the 4K Era

It’s tempting to ignore Nvidia’s new Shield box if you’re not a gamer. A $200 streaming box and console, with powerful enough guts to run Crysis 3 and other serious games, certainly seems to have a very specific demo in mind. But when you consider that this Shield can also pump out 4K video and runs Android TV—the same newish smart TV platform found on the Nexus Player and upcoming TVs from Sharp and Sony—it starts to look less like a niche product, and more like the most future-proof media streamer you can buy today.

Eventually, all of the major set-top boxes—Apple TV, Roku, Amazon Fire TV, you name it—will have versions that output at 4K. That could be years away, though. The Shield, meanwhile, will do so when it launches this May. Not only that, but it includes HEVC and VP9 decoders, meaning it should run 4K video from Netflix, YouTube, and the Android TV version of Google Play. It’ll also work like a Chromecast, acting as middleman to stream content from your device to your television. Amazon Instant Video isn’t part of the Android TV offerings, which cuts into the potential 4K content available, but there should still be plenty to watch.

Between the inevitable transition to 4K over the next several years, Google’s continued investment in the Android TV platform, and the Shield box’s robust guts, it’s not unreasonable to assume that this little black box could have a useful life expectancy that’s far longer than any of its competitors.

And all that’s before you even get to the gaming. The Shield was announced at the Game Developers Conference 2015 in San Francisco, and will be the first piece of hardware that runs on Nvidia’s new Maxwell-based Tegra X1 system on a chip. That insane tiny chip has a 256-core GPU, an eight-core processor, and 3GB RAM. It’s a whole lot of power packed in a relatively small space.

That mighty little chip won’t have to do all of the processing for games. According to Nvidia, the box ties into the Nvidia Grid gaming service, which streams “PC-quality games” from supercomputer servers to the device. There are no 4K game-streaming plans at the moment, though. The highest-level Grid Plus plan supports 1080p streaming at 60fps, while a cheaper Grid plan streams games at 720p. Pricing is still to be announced.

Grid also won’t be the only way to get games for the new Shield. There will be ports of major titles available through Google Play for Android TV, offered on a pay-per-download basis. While set-top boxes like Amazon Fire TV and Google’s Nexus Player also offer gaming experiences, they don’t have nearly enough horsepower to run the sort of titles Shield will offer.

Along with HDMI-out, dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth 4.1 support, the new box also has a Gigabit Ethernet jack, a pair of USB 3.0 ports, and a microSD slot. You’ll probably end up needing that microSD slot or USB ports for storage, because the box only has 16GB onboard.

So yes, at $200 the Shield box comes about double the price of most full-feature set-top boxes. But it’s also significantly more capable than its current competition, as it’s the first big-name offering to support 4K, and its guts and services should make gamers pretty happy. Keep in mind that you’ll actually need a 4K TV to see any 4K. And if you can afford to sit tight, non-gamers will probably want to wait it out until a 4K version of Roku is ready.

WIRED Binge-Watching Guide: Misfits

Have you ever wondered what would happen if the X-Men were a bunch of British juvenile delinquents whose only interests were getting drunk, shagging, and punching people in the face? Well, buckle up. Misfits is here to give you just what you’ve been looking for. And the result is the raunchiest, most uncoordinated superhero show ever made.

Set around a London community center, Misfits is the story of a handful of teenagers/early twentysomethings who are all compelled to perform community service for various reasons and whose lives take a sharp zigzag when a freak storm gives them (and many others in its path) superpowers. But world-saving isn’t exactly first on their list; in fact, the world doesn’t really seem to need saving. Instead, their powers act like steroids for their otherwise humdrum, puerile problems: daddy issues, failure, self-esteem, sexuality, rent—all stakes that are multiplied by the addition of invisibility, shape-shifting, telepathy, and (of course) time-travel.

Similar premises have sunk lesser shows (see: Heroes, Alphas) but what made Misfits great—or at least, great while the greatness lasted—was its characters, their development, and their surprising capacity for simultaneous mile-a-minute quips and depth. Over the show’s five seasons, Curtis (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) goes from woe-is-me hubris to evolved gender-bending; Kelly (Lauren Socha) from hotheaded lollygagger to fulfilled rocket scientist; Alisha (Antonia Thomas) from blazing hedonist to matured personal savior; Nathan (Robert Sheehan) from insufferable, filthy-minded punk/class clown to … OK, just a slightly more evolved insufferable, filthy-minded punk/class clown. Simon (Iwan Rheon) of course is utterly unrecognizable by his last episode on the show compared with his first. Even Rudy (Joseph Gilgun), the unexpectedly lovable comic relief who arrives in Season 3, belies a subtle complexity when he’s not trying to whip his junk out of his orange jumpsuit.

In creating the series and its staple personalities, creator Howard Overman took a note from Gene Roddenberry’s book, bringing his actors in to collaborate with the writers in creating their characters, a move that grounded an inherently insane fictional world and gave it its cult-worthy charm in the process. Plus, it’s a UK show, so there are few hang-ups about swearing, drugs, or graphic sex, and it gets away with exponentially more lame stuff solely because its very British humor totally sells it. Ready to get weird? Read on.


Number of Seasons: 5 (37 episodes)

Time Requirements: This one will take about 27 hours, so you can do three episodes a day for 12 days (with four on the last day), four episodes a day for nine days (five on the last day), or five a day for a week (with six on both Saturday and Sunday). Talk to your mates and choose a plan that’s right for you.

Where to Get Your Fix: Hulu

Best Character to Follow: Even split between Nathan and Simon. Without spoiling anything, all we can tell you is that Simon’s growth on the show surpasses that of all the other characters, and is also the most rewarding. What’s more, if you’ve already caught up on Game of Thrones , it’s a relief to see that show’s psychopathic Ramsay Bolton play someone this adorable. Nathan, meanwhile, makes it literally impossible to avoid following him, since he almost never stops talking (read: mocking and calling his peers the wrong names on purpose). Even if you find him totally intolerable at the beginning, by the end of his arc—or at least on your second binging round—he no doubt will become your favorite raving lunatic, the show’s endless fountain of (kind of literal) youth.

Seasons/Episodes You Can Skip:

Season 1: Episode 4 Curtis’s ex-girlfriend shows up, having just gotten out of jail for the crime they both committed (he only got community service). Curtis feels bad that she took the fall for him, and thus commences the most played-out time-travel plot in TV history: Character regrets decision; Character tries to go back and change things; Character realizes you can’t mess with time unless you want to mess with literally everything about life as you currently know it. Zzzz.

Season 3: Episode 4 There comes a time in every sci-fi/supernatural show’s life where it must follow the laws of TV inertia and make a what-if-we-went-back-in-time-and-killed-Hitler episode. That is all you need to know. The choice is yours.

Season 3: Episode 7 The zombie invasion episode, courtesy Curtis’s newly obtained resurrection abilities (it’s a long story, which you should know by now). Kelly gets hers in the romance department, which is quite nice. It’s another trope you can indulge in if you choose, but it’s not crucial.

Season 4 Apart from the disappointingly misogynist and racially inflammatory storylines littered throughout this season, the real reason you should just quit after Season 3 is because it’s hard to believe anyone’s motives for doing anything anymore.

Season 5 If you were stubborn enough to plow through the previous season, you’ve already put yourself through enough already, you masochist. At this point, there’s basically nothing holding the original, brilliant spirit of the show intact. Whatever sense of direction Misfits began with has vaporized into—no joke—satanic anal sex and terminally ill patients, for what reason, we have no idea. However you feel about Rudy’s comedy, the force of his character is just not enough to support an entire season of television. Even sticking it out until lone survivor Nathan Stewart-Jarrett leaves midway through Season 4 (in the worst way possible, we might add) is a stretch.

Seasons/Episodes You Can’t Skip:

Season 1: Episode 2 Nathan meets a pretty girl at a senior citizen dance at the community center who is not what she seems. Mostly skippable if you’re an exposition fan, as it doesn’t move the larger story along that much, but Robert Sheehan’s comedic rhythm already reaches tip-top shape, just two episodes in, and the twist is a perfect example of Misfits‘ ability to juggle hysterical absurdity and humanity with masterful strokes.

Season 1: Episode 6 Guest-star Jessica Brown-Findlay (aka Abi from Black Mirror, aka Sybil from Downton Abbey) pulls the strings in the first season finale as a wholesome religious girl whose superpower is convincing everyone to abandon their delinquent behavior in favor of celibacy, Jesus Christ, and cardigans buttoned all the way up. We’re also introduced to the masked ninja-like BMX rider henceforth known as Superhoodie, who saves the gang multiple times at crucial moments. And with the aid of a seeming tragedy, we finally discover what Nathan’s power is.

Season 2: Episode 3 Alisha figures out who the gang’s secret ninja is and it’s super sexy. Plus, the monster of the week is a crazy tattoo artist (or as Simon pronounces it, “tuh-TOO”) with self-esteem and anger issues whose tattoo art is magic and who also happens to have a ridiculous weakness. The exploitation of that weakness isn’t written especially well, but this is such an important episode story-wise it must be watched. Besides, it’s sort of fun watching the Nathan/Simon ‘shipper dream teased (then dashed, unfortunately).

Season 2: Episode 7 (Christmas Special) In which the landscape is shaken up by Seth (Matthew McNulty), a hot dude with a neck tuh-too whose power is giving and taking other people’s powers. Alisha of course can’t wait to be rid of her (awful, victimizing) power, so she just gives it to him. Meanwhile, the rest of the gang sell theirs because they’re young and stupid and 20,000 quid is a lot of money. The introduction of the possibility of exchanging powers is a major story shift that, while obviously meant to keep the characters from stagnating and introduce heightened levels of uncertainty into the plot, works without feeling desperate.

Season 3, Episode 1 With Nathan sailing off into the sunset with his new little family, the gang is crippled by the loss of its funniest, most inane life force, so of course the writers had to bring in a ringer. Welcome Rudy, his just-as-crass, slightly older replacement! Rudy has an alter-ego—literally, his power is splitting into two people: his foul-mouthed, offensive outer persona and the more sensitive, kind and weepy inner Rudy. Rudy is almost as funny as Nathan, but what he lacks in puckish charm he makes up for in loud, crass, and obviously put-on atrociousness that makes for a lovable trainwreck (once he’s, you know, learned his lesson about consent—see below).

Season 3: Episode 2 This one goes out to all the old-dude politicians trying to police women’s bodies: Curtis, who has taken on the only power Seth had left at the time, can now switch genders at will. This is great because Curtis is a self-centered misogynist, forever moping about his lost track-star potential, so when he decides to use his female body to compete in track again (he implies it’s illegal, but I’m not exactly sure there are sports competition rules that cover shape-shifting), he gets a real lesson in what it’s like to be a woman—not to mention what to even do with one when she comes back to your place. It’s a rare Misfits episode that attempts to say something about social politics without doing too much damage. (See: Curtis and the racist blind-girl subplot. Or don’t, since that’s Season 4.)

Season 3: Episode 8 This is the episode that brings all the time-travel drama full-circle again. A phony psychic has obtained real medium powers and brings back a bunch of the people the gang has killed, several of whom are not too pleased about having been murdered. Somehow they’re able to walk and talk and touch like the living when summoned, and they go about finishing their business—which of course means really bad news for the gang. Again, can’t spoil much, but this is by far the saddest episode of the series.

Why You Should Binge:

Misfits is the type of show that’s just charming, intense, and wacky enough to keep you addicted for at least the first three seasons. It’s just complex enough to keep you moving forward into each next episode, and yet just fluffy enough to have it on in the background while you’re doing something else (after you’ve gotten through it once, that is). Like a great sitcom, its dialogue is razor-sharp and the comedic timing is embarrassingly good—embarrassing, as in, you’ll laugh loud enough to wake everyone in your apartment when Rudy tries to express feelings or Nathan sensuously rubs sunscreen into his ass cheeks. Plus, it’s always a good idea to binge-watch British comedies—really does wonders for the spirits.

Best Scenes:

In order to not spoil anything particularly major, here are the two best scenes in GIF form.

The Takeaway:

Only mess with the space-time continuum if you’re as good at parkour as Simon.

If You liked Misfits You’ll Love:

The early seasons of Heroes and maybe Alphas. Also, just pick a BBC comedy at random sometime, you likely won’t be disappointed.

Alien Landscapes Created Inside a Fish Bowl

Alien Landscapes Created Inside a Fish Bowl

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Kamiel Rongen conjures alien landscapes inside a fish bowl. Kamiel Rongen conjures alien landscapes inside a fish bowl. Source

Uber Buys Mapping Software, Signaling Growing Tensions With Google

Uber is finally loosening its chokehold on the billions of dollars it’s raised over the years, with the acquisition of deCarta, a mapping software business that was founded back in 1996.

The acquisition, which Uber confirmed to Mashable Tuesday evening, is one of a small number of low-profile acquisitions Uber has made since it was founded back in 2009. It could signal Uber’s first step toward distancing itself from Google and Apple’s mapping services, which it currently relies on.

As one Uber spokesperson told Mashable, “A lot of the functionality that makes the Uber app so reliable, affordable and seamless is based on mapping technologies. With the acquisition of deCarta, we will continue to fine-tune our products and services that rely on maps—for example UberPOOL, the way we compute ETAs, and others—and make the Uber experience even better for our users.”

It stands to reason that Uber would want to develop its own mapping technology, especially in light of the fact that both Google and Apple are now working on their own car technologies. Google is a particularly interesting adversary. Despite being one of Uber’s largest backers, the search giant is reportedly working on its own ride-hailing app, which would compete head on with Uber. Meanwhile, in an apparent challenge to Google, Uber recently announced a partnership with Carnegie Mellon to develop its own self-driving car technology.

As the lines between allies and enemies in this industry continue to merge and blur, it makes sense that these tech giants would begin arming themselves for battle with each other. For Uber, that would require developing mapping technology that’s as sophisticated as Google’s.

DeCarta’s software should certainly help. The company’s technology has long been the backbone for General Motors’ OnStar system and Samsung’s location-based services. And according to its website, between 2005 and 2008 it even powered a little product called Google Maps.

Photographing Snowflakes in Freefall

Photographing Snowflakes in Freefall

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A Smartwatch App That Lets Your Boss Track You Constantly


Kris Duggan is building a social smartwatch app that lets your boss track your quantified self.

That may sound like a Silicon Valley send-up. But it’s the real thing. Today, Duggan and his 18-month-old startup, BetterWorks, announced that this wearable app would arrive in the summer, bringing their corporate-goal-setting service to the much-anticipated Apple Watch. And the app’s pedigree—for what it’s worth—is littered with notable names.

BetterWorks is backed by John Doerr—a Google board member, one of the Valley’s most respected investors, and, it so happens, a witness in this week’s high-profile gender bias case brought against his firm: Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield, and Byers. Despite the trial—now underway in San Francisco—Doerr has been out pitching BetterWorks to the press. He’s adamant the service can app-ify the sort of high-energy performance tracking he brought to Google in the late ’90s.

The app is very real indeed. And it plays into not one but several ideas the pundits say will remake the business world in the years to come: social apps, “the quantified self,” and, yes, wearable hardware. As Duggan puts it, the new app rides the BYOW trend: “bring your own wearable.” And that may well be. The question—for BetterWorks and for the rest of the tech world—is just how much people really want these trends. Businesses may want them. But do workers? Will they really bring their own?

Why Didn’t I Think of That?

BetterWorks is an app that lets businesses track the performance of their employees. A company agrees on specific goals for each employee, and from the app, managers and workers can monitor the progress of these goals. The basic idea is that all this happens constantly and in the open (anyone can track the progress of anyone else).

“The real product metaphor for me is: FitBit for Work,” Duggan says, referring to the wearable device that tracks your physical activity. “How do we make things open, transparent, measurable, and engaging?”

Doerr compares the service to the OKR (Objectives and Key Results) methods he learned at Intel under Valley legend Andy Grove and brought to Google in 1999. “Google was about 30 employees,” he remembers, “and we were around a ping-pong table on University Avenue above an ice cream shop in Palo Alto.” When Duggan first pitched him the BetterWorks idea, Doerr says, he was both “exhilarated and depressed.” As he tells WIRED: “I knew the need was there. I saw how this transformed Google. But I also thought: ‘Why didn’t you think of this, John?'”

That said, Google tracks performance from quarter-to-quarter—with monthly “check-ins”—while BetterWorks tracks it all time. It’s meant to be a social app, where people digitally “nudge” each other to pick up the pace and congratulate colleagues when the job is done. Today, all this happens on desktop, laptops, and smartphones (about 50 companies are now using the existing BetterWorks service). And now Duggan is expanding into watches, so you can nudge people from your wrist.

BetterWorks Upwind

Peter Wells, the CEO of a green-energy startup called Upwind, says his company has been using BetterWorks for the past six months—at least among some of its employees. He cut his teeth at GE, under a very different form of performance tracking, but he sees real value in the way BetterWorks does OKR. The company can monitor performance on “an almost daily basis.”

“I love the ability to nudge people, to check in with people, to see the activity, to encourage, to cheer, to really stay engaged with what’s happening, and to see where you’re falling behind,” he says. But he acknowledges that some employees may not like the methods as much as managers.

Sce Pike came to a similar conclusion overseeing a different kind of quantified self program at Citizen, a Portland, Oregon, mobile tech company. It explored not company goals, but the exercise, eating, and sleep habits of workers to see if the company could correlate lifestyle habits with success on the job. She acknowledged that while such intel could be valuable to employers, these kinds of programs don’t work without buy-in from workers. You need a company culture that believes in “quantification,” she says, before acknowledging that Citizen has shut down its program.

Happiness Over Performance

If there’s one person qualified to speak for the individuals of the world on the subject of the quantified self, it’s probably Chris Dancy. He has spent the last six years publicly tracking nearly everything he does on the job–and more—and he warns that employees may not have the time to add this to their online social existence. He also warns that such tracking should be used merely to look for ways to change habits or behavior—not necessarily to rate the performance of every employee.

“If it’s not looking at what I could be doing to make me happier—in ways that don’t necessarily line up with a company’s goals—it’s not going to succeed,” he says. “It may get a lot of funding. And a lot of people may sign to use it. But that doesn’t meant it’s good for people.”

Duggan says that employees are free to participate in BetterWorks as much or as little as they see fit, calling it “opt in.” But he also acknowledges whether people opt in or not, their companies set the goals on the service. And that means there’s built-in pressure to participate. In short, it’s a complicated situation. But that’s often the case with BYOW—“bring your own whatever.”

Chappie Is Loud, Messy, and Surprisingly Radical

Chappie is a movie that somehow blends Bicentennial Man with Pacific Rim. It’s a big-budget science fiction movie with one of the best ever CG-capture performances not by Andy Serkis. It features Sigourney Weaver as a glorified window dressing executive, Hugh Jackman wearing a mullet and his shirt tucked into khaki shorts, and South African hip-hop group Die Antwoord playing loosely fictionalized gun-loving versions of themselves. It has a giant robot fight and completely earnest scenes of an engineer trying to teach a robot to paint. The fact that it exists at all is something of a miracle. And the only person who could have made it is Neill Blomkamp.

Blomkamp is one of the most distinctive science fiction directors of the modern era. Watching his first film, District 9, it’s easy to see why—a saga of aliens roped into a ghetto in Blomkamp’s hometown of Johannesburg, it’s one of the most acclaimed genre films of the last few years, mixing well-designed aliens and ripping action with a surprisingly potent apartheid allegory. Elysium, Blomkamp’s second outing, suffered from the same overindulgence as the later work of his mentor, Peter Jackson. But now he’s got some breathing room: not only is Chappie as close to a personal vision as it is possible for a big-budget movie about CG robots to be, it’s also (with the exception of Johnny Depp’s execrable Transcendence) one of the most radical pop culture representations of mind-body dualism in years.

At this point, the movie’s off-the-wall trailer is so familiar that you might be able to write out the movie’s beats from memory: a broken police droid is given sentience by a scientist with a conscience (Dev Patel), then learns to think (in true Iron Giant fashion, Chappie also acts like an adorable child in an Oscar-bait movie). Also, stuff blows up. But for a filmmaker who tends to be primarily excited by explosions—his love of Michael Bay is well-chronicled—Blomkamp seems to have done some serious thinking about the nature of consciousness. Much of that is visible in Chappie’s third act, which essentially (in the interest of keeping things spoiler-free) attributes sentience to a vague “energy” that turns out to be remarkably easy to move around.

This seemingly simple, largely intractable philosophical problem—are “we” something separate from flesh? Are our “selves” different from our brains?— dates all the way back to Plato (whose Phaedrus is an extended argument for the immortality of the soul), but it finds its most common form in the work of Rene Descartes. Like Chappie, Cartesian mind-body dualism posits the complete separation of mind and body as separate “substances.”

Opposition to Descartes came from writers like Friedrich Nietzsche, who repeatedly emphasizes the people’s corporeality; according to him, it not only wouldn’t make sense to think about “minds” as something distinct from bodies, it would be a grievous mistake to try to conceive of oneself in this way. And while your instinct might be to dismiss the very idea as a purely theoretical problem, its repercussions are relevant even today, especially with regard to identity-based issues like gay and trans civil rights. (The notion of a difference between one’s gender identity and one’s physiological sex—performativity—is a key concept in understanding trans issues, one that makes a distinction that is at least implicitly Cartesian.) Chappie takes those centuries of intellectual history and hits them with a missile, building a world in which body and mind—or soul, or something resembling a soul—become modular and malleable.

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But the best science fiction doesn’t simply ask “what if the world were like this?”—It spins that premise forward to make a statement about the way we live now. And that’s something that Chappie seems utterly unconcerned with. (At least in this regard; the movie is far more agile when engaging social disorder and the privatization of law enforcement). The movie places humanity at the brink of transcendence, but it does so seemingly without considering what might happen when a mind is divorced from its bodily vessel, or how it would change the way we consider ourselves human. At one point, human characters find themselves in such a situation—yet they don’t remark on their inability to smell, taste, or touch. In Chappie’s ontology, the only relevant manifestations of the mind seem to be sight and verbal communication.

But don’t press Blomkamp on the fine points and expect a graduate-level treatise. He’s a storyteller, not an academic. In fact, trying to describe sentience during a press conference about the film, he describes sentience in the same terms Dev Patel’s scientist does: as the ability to think and act creatively. Later, in a hotel room discussing the movie, he describes Chappie’s own consciousness as “something so pure, so innocent,” that it’s a wonder it manages to “exist in such a violent and shitty world.” (Not that Chappie’s optimism is always uninteresting: One of the best things about the film is the way the police drones—which in any other American sci-fi movie would revolt against the humans—simply do their jobs, and do them well.)

And despite Chappie‘s emphasis on the nature of the mind, Blomkamp denies that the movie is really interested in those possibilities. “The core reason for making Chappie isn’t about A.I.,” he says. Instead, he claims it’s about Chappie as a being distinct from the predatory elements of organic life. “The world is a hostile and violent place,” he says. “RNA and DNA have a selfish nature”—what he describes as a constantly running string of programming—“that will deceive and manipulate and try to get what it can get from other organisms.”

How do those two sides of one picture of humanity—the computer scientist and the artist—interact? It’s a frustrating question, the sort of thing that often gets little to no treatment in films, with the possible exception of droll biopics that suggest that being really, really good at science is like art. And the grandeur of Blomkamp’s ideas (and of much of the film’s action sequences), is in sharp contrast to the ideas actually embodied in a deeply, almost painfully optimistic movie about human (and robot) potential.

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Blomkamp’s films tend to focus on moments of massive historical change: The end of District 9 sees humans’ mistreatment of the alien “prawns” exposed, while Elysium concludes with the destruction of the class system. But in both of those cases, action-movie structure–and the conventions thereof—prevent a nuanced exploration of their premises. (Blomkamp’s ambition seems perfectly suited to TV, where he would be forced to spend 10 or 20 hours in a world without blowing it up.) Thankfully, in this case Blomkamp may actually be able to pursue his ideas—he has treatments written for two Chappie sequels.

And that leeway may allow him to explore his own shifting perspective: Blomkamp changed his mind about the possibility of artificial consciousness over the course of filming, butting up against an almost religious respect for the innefability of the human mind. “There may be some natural parameters that we’re going to bump into,” he says, “that are more unexplainable than equations and CPUs.” The Singularity anxiety that seems to be gripping ethicists and AI researchers right now—that “AI is going to declare war on the human race”—doesn’t concern him. “It’s super prevalent,” he says, “but there’s a piece of me that thinks it’s wrong.”

Among currently working popular sci-fi auteurs, Blomkamp’s only competition may be the far more cerebral Christopher Nolan (sorry, Wachowskis), so it’s probably a good thing that he feels strongly about consciously rebuking the preexisting traditions of the genre. That tendency will hopefully serve Blomkamp well in his next project—a take on Alien. “I’m not pushing back against it just to push back against it because I’m, like, a sulky kid,” he protests. “I’m pushing back against it because I think that evolution always finds answers in the weirdest places. If we want to play God, things aren’t going to be as easy as we think they will be.”