by and the promised contraceptive never
appears. Why? What’s the holdup?
Maybe one problem is that people
have been using the wrong tool for the
job. Chemists in the 1950s changed society forever when they figured out how to
shut o; female ovulation with synthetic
hormones. So you’d think we’d just have
to repeat the trick with men, right?
Not quite. Many a researcher has
lamented that it’s harder to stop millions
of sperm than it is to stop one egg—a complaint that sounds intuitively logical. But
it goes beyond that. Men are not women,
and men’s anatomy is not women’s anatomy. So it doesn’t make sense to use the
same tools—hormones—that we used for
In men, all the sperm swim through
one tiny tube, the vas deferens. So rather
than shut them off at the source, we
should disrupt their transit.
Some of the most intriguing methods in
this direction make use of muscular action
to clamp down on the vas deferens. My
own group is working on something called
Vasalgel, a polymer gel that blocks or filters out sperm in the vas deferens tube. A
plant-derived compound in advanced trials
in Indonesia interferes with sperm’s ability
to penetrate the egg. These are the elegant
approaches we need to be advancing, not
hammering the entire body with hormones.
So why haven’t we yet finished the job?
For starters, clinical trials are a
multimillion-dollar process. If you’re a
researcher developing one of these meth-
ods, where do you turn? Big pharma is
not interested—the liability in treating
healthy young people for years is high,
and if you’re already the company selling
contraceptives to those men’s partners,
the payo; is low. Nonprofits try to do the
development work but are hampered by
shoestring budgets and a lack of business
savvy. Major foundations such as the Bill
& Melinda Gates Foundation are stepping
up to fill the gap for female contracep-
tive development but have determined
that men in their target areas—ultra-poor
regions such as Bihar, India, and sub-
Saharan Africa—are not ready for male
Maybe the best option is something
called social venture enterprise—turning
to social investors who would like to get
their money back if it goes well but who
are also committed to seeing an a;ordable
product reach the market.
We have a waiting list of more than
38,000 men and women hoping for news
of clinical trials for Vasalgel. There’s
clearly a market for a male contraceptive.
Now we just have to get them one.
Elaine Lissner is the founder of Parsemus
Foundation, which aims to advance low-cost evidence-based medicines.
AI’s PR Problem
The spooky-sounding name was probably
never a good idea.
Smart people like Bill Gates and Steven
Hawking have warned that artificial intelligence could threaten the human race.
And they’re not the only ones worried. The Committee on Legal A;airs of
the European Parliament recently issued
a report calling on the EU to require intelligent robots to be registered, in part so
their ethical character can be assessed. The
“Stop Killer Robots” movement, opposed to
the use of so-called autonomous weapons
in war, is influencing both United Nations
and U.S. Defense Department policy.
Artificial intelligence, it seems, has a
PR problem. While it’s true that today’s
machines can credibly perform many tasks
(playing chess, driving cars) that were once
reserved for humans, that doesn’t mean the
machines are growing more intelligent and
ambitious. It just means they’re doing what
we built them to do.
Machines have been taking over skilled
work for centuries, but the machines don’t
aspire to better jobs and higher employment. Jacquard looms replaced expert
needleworkers in the 19th century, but
they didn’t spell doom for tailors. Until
the mid-20th century we relied on our
best and brightest to do arithmetic, but
now that comparably capable devices are
given away as promotional trinkets at
trade shows, the mathematically minded
among us can focus on tasks that require
broader skills, like statistical analysis.
I’d suggest that one problem is the
name itself. Had artificial intelligence been
named something less spooky, it might
seem as prosaic as operations research or
predictive analytics. Perhaps a less provocative description would be something
like “anthropic computing,” a broad moniker that could encompass e;orts to design
biologically inspired computer systems,
machines that mimic the human form or
abilities, and programs that interact with
people in natural, familiar ways.
Yes, we should be careful about how
we deploy AI, but not because we are summoning some mythical demon. Instead, we
should accept these remarkable inventions
for what they really are—potent tools that
promise a more prosperous and comfortable future.
Jerry Kaplan teaches at Stanford
University. His latest book is Artificial
Intelligence: What Everyone Needs to
Know, from Oxford University Press.
Big pharma is not interested. If you’re already selling
contraceptives to women, the payo; for a male pill is low.