Ten interesting things that we read this week

Some of the most interesting topics covered in this week's iteration are related to 'Hotstar's viewership pattern', 'the cultivation of human organs in animals', and 'quantum computing — inching towards reality'

Published: Mar 3, 2018

g_103909_reading_280x210.jpgImage: Shutterstock

At Ambit, we spend a lot of time reading articles that cover a wide gamut of topics, including investment analysis, psychology, science, technology, philosophy, etc. We have been sharing our favourite reads with clients under our weekly ‘Ten Interesting Things’ product. Some of the most interesting topics covered in this week’s iteration are related to ‘Hotstar’s viewership pattern’, ‘the cultivation of human organs in animals’, and ‘quantum computing – inching towards reality’.

 Here are the ten most interesting pieces that we read this week, ended March 1, 2018.  

1)    Hotstar’s hidden data revealed: Here’s what Indians watched in the last 12 months [Source: trak.in] Star India’s on-demand video streaming app, Hotstar is India’s largest such app with 75 million active monthly subscribers and 170 million downloads in 2017. Streaming of IPL and other major cricket events no doubt helped Hotstar to ramp up the numbers, but their entertainment shows and exclusives too helped them to make a mark, and attract more subscribers. For the first time ever, Hotstar has revealed their data, showcasing what Indians watched in the last 12 months on their app; and more importantly, what are the hottest trends which their video streaming app witnessed. These insights are relevant for video bloggers, video content curators and entertainment startups.

Data consumption increased 5x in India: An average Hotstar user consumes a massive 3 GB of data per month; whereas 1.6 GB is the average data consumed by an Indian. This means that the average Indian is not afraid to watch videos now, as the fear of data consumption has vanished due to cheaper data rates. Kerala, UP and Bihar witnessed maximum data consumption.

Virality is now faster and swifter: The virality factor has now become even swifter and faster. As per Hotstar’s data, India-Pakistan cricket match of Champions Trophy Final was viewed 113 million times within 8 hours – a new record for Hotstar. 4.7 million people watched the match live on Hotstar.

Samsung, Xiaomi most popular smartphones: While Google’s ChromeCast has emerged as the most favorite device to watch Hotstar content on TV, Samsung and Xiaomi emerged as the most popular smartphones, followed by Oppo, Vivo and Lenovo. Amazon Fire TV, Android TV and Apple TV were other popular connecting devices. However, mobile is the #1 choice for watching content as 90% of all active Hotstar users opted for mobiles to watch content.

Small towns driving more viewership: Although Hotstar’s users are spread all over India, the maximum viewership comes from small towns, having population between 1 lakh and 10 lakh. Small cities in Assam, Nagaland, Himachal Pradesh and Odisha witnessed maximum growth (6x) in viewership, followed by cities in Rajasthan, Bihar, Jharkhand. Another interesting fact: women from these Tier2, 3 cities came online faster than men in these cities, and women in Metro cities!

Indians have strange video watching habits: It appears that Indian men love to watch drama - 50% of all men watched “Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai”! On the other hand, women loved action - 18% of all women watched “Baahubali: A Conclusion”. Youngsters too love drama as well - 63% of all youngsters watched Ishqbaaz. There is a criss-cross of viewer habits as well, seldom seen anywhere else in the world.

2)    Breakthrough over growing human organs in animals
   [Source: Financial Times]
Scientists have created hybrid embryos containing both human and sheep or pig cells in an early step toward growing human organs in farm animals before transplanting them into patients. Researchers from the US and Japan have succeeded in using stem cell and genomic editing technologies to transfer human cells into freshly generated sheep and goat embryos. They told the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Austin that the chimeras, which contain cells from both species, developed for up to three weeks. Hiro Nakauchi, who pioneered the research at the University of Tokyo, grew a mouse with a rat pancreas and a rat with a mouse pancreas. When cells from the rat-grown mouse pancreas were transplanted into a diabetic mouse, they made enough insulin to cure the condition without being rejected.

Dr. Nakauchi’s rodent work has demonstrated that you can “grow organs in a different species and cure a disease without [suppressing the immune system],” said Prof Pablo Ross, who is based at the University of California, Davis. “We are working together to translate the technology into humans, to solve the terrible shortage of organs for transplantation. In the US, 20 people die every day because they cannot get the organs they need.” The research could breathe new life into the decades-old idea of xenotransplantation — growing organs such as hearts and kidneys in animals, particularly pigs, which would be harvested for human transplants.

That idea was based on producing essentially porcine organs genetically engineered to make them acceptable to the human immune system. The new approach aims to create essentially human organs within animals, which should reduce the risk of rejection. It works by using new DNA editing technology, Crispr, to produce animal embryos that are genetically incapable of growing a particular organ — say, a pancreas. Then the embryos are injected with human stem cells. While the overall proportion of human cells in the chimeric embryo may be small, as it develops in the womb, the human cells fill the gap and produce the missing organ that the animal’s own genes cannot create.  “We have chosen to work with pigs and sheep because their organs are a similar size and shape to those of humans, and they grow quickly,” said Prof Ross. Development from new embryo to fully grown animal takes just nine months.

Daniel Garry, professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota, is using a similar approach to tackle cardiovascular disease. Working with human-pig chimeras, he aims to create pigs that cannot make their own vasculature (heart and blood vessels). They would grow an equivalent system from human cells that could be harvested for transplantation. All this suggests that in principle it would be possible to make organs genetically identical to patients, by converting their cells into an embryo-like state with “induced pluripotent stem cell” technology and then injecting them into a sheep or pig embryo. Or animals could be created with a genetically diverse range of human organs to match individual patients’ immune systems as closely as possible.

3)    Inside Ontario’s big, bold basic income experiment
[Source: fastcompany.com]
The Canadian province is giving some citizens a base salary–and measuring how much it helps keep people out of poverty, improve their health, and give back to their community. Alana Blatzer, 28, a Hamilton resident, part of Ontario’s basic income experiment, grew up in poverty and has been on disability support since 2008. She received $722 CAD a month before enrolling in the trial last year (that’s $571 USD; all the dollar figures here will be in Canadian dollars). Now she gets $1,915 a month, and she says the extra money is a “life changer.” The pilot, one of several now starting around the world, stretches across three metro areas of Ontario: Hamilton, Thunder Bay, and Lindsay. Single recipients, like Baltzer, get up to $16,989 per year. Couples get up to $24,027 annually. If people choose to work as well, that’s fine, but you’ll be taxed at a 50% rate for anything over $200 you earn working. The stipends are roughly 75% of Canada’s official poverty line, which is about 50% of median incomes.

Kathleen Wynne, Ontario’s premier says, “In our social assistance system, there is not enough focus on enabling and there’s too much focus on holding people to account for the money that they get. I believe we need to inject more respect into the system. We need to believe that people want to work and be part of society in a respectable way. They don’t want to be looked down on and seen as not useful parts of society.” Like many other places in the developed world, including the U.S., Ontario moved away from unconditional welfare in the 1990s to a system predicated on encouraging people into work. It now has the Ontario Works program, which gives financial support while people search for jobs, as well as a disability support program. Ontario Works sounds like a reasonable social contract, trading the right to public support for the responsibility to look for work.

Moreover, programs like Ontario Works have a limited conception of what work is, something that basic income advocates are keen to expand. “I’ve met lots of people on social assistance who give a lot to the community and I have often thought ‘why aren’t we paying you to do this?'” Wynne says. “I envision a world where we help people to do the work that they can do. By work, I mean involvement in human society. I hope that, as we go through this project, we will see how that will work better.” “Hamilton is a generous community, but it takes hours in a day to live at subsistence levels,” says Dave Cherkewski, another Hamilton resident. “Basic income frees up personal time to think about the contribution I can give back to the community.” For example, he no longer has to wait in line at the local food bank, or prove to anyone he’s still worthy of disability support. Cherkewski and Baltzer say signing up for the trial was easy. Baltzer took an introductory class about basic income, filled in a baseline survey (which took about 45 minutes), gave her bank details, and signed a couple of consent forms.

The $50 million pilot, which finishes enrollment in May, will run for three years. Researchers plan to track each participant and measure the impact of the basic income on their lives compared to a control group. It will also look at community-wide effects, comparing Lindsay with the other two areas. “Does it take your life on a different trajectory and increase your capacity to work? Does it improve your health and decrease your use of health services? Does it improve your mental health? We’ll be looking at all those things by surveys, but we’ll also be linking people’s names to other data, like their tax records,” says Kwame McKenzie, who leads the research and evaluation group for the project. At a recent event in New York City, the Toronto-based urbanist Richard Florida, who was interviewing Wynne, said she was setting an example for American progressives to emulate. “You are one of the few political leaders in this world who says ‘we don’t want to destroy capitalism, we’re here to make it work equitably and inclusively.’ That ball has to get rolled in this country not just by projecting hopes and dreams on the next presidential candidate but by doing it locally and state [by] state,” he said.

4)    The psychology of outrage [Financial Times]
British economist Tim Harford says that he overheard someone describing Oxfam - a confederation of 19 independent charitable organizations around the world, as “all a bit Jimmy Savile”. He says that when the UK’s most prominent development charity finds itself being compared to the UK’s most infamous sex offender, it’s safe to say that Oxfam has had a bad week. The allegations are clearly disturbing: that senior Oxfam staff made liberal use of prostitutes in the wake of the catastrophic Haiti earthquake of 2010 — a crime, as well as an abuse of trust — and that Oxfam quietly showed them the door rather than take a blow to its reputation.

Harford then talks about the other recent outrage to break in the UK. Before Oxfam there was the Presidents Club dinner - a men-only fundraiser at which waitresses were treated as sex objects. There was Harvey Weinstein and the emergence of the #MeToo movement from niche to mainstream. There was the UK parliamentary expenses scandal. The question then is - where does the outrage come from, and why does it seem to emerge so suddenly? Media reporting is often a trigger, but for every hard-hitting investigation that unleashes a sustained storm, a dozen squalls blow over swiftly.

One clue comes from a large research study of jury-style deliberations, conducted by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and David Schkade, along with Cass Sunstein, who has recently been exploring the dynamics of outrage. This study looked at debates over punitive damage awards against corporations. When individual jurors felt a corporate crime was outrageous, the group displayed a “severity shift”. The group’s verdict could be more severe than any individual’s initial impression. The jurors egged each other on. But juries could also display a “leniency shift”; if individuals thought the crime was trivial the jury as a whole would often feel even less worried. Sometimes we don’t know how to feel until we see how other people feel. We are, rightly, much more relaxed about gay cabinet ministers than we used to be, and this is partly because everyone sees that everyone else feels there is nothing shameful about it. The severity shift and the leniency shift contribute to outrage being unpredictable. Our initial impressions are reinforced once we see what other people think. But not all of these shifts are in favour of progressive causes.

One experiment — conducted by economists Leonardo Bursztyn, Georgy Egorov, and Stefano Fiorin - examined people’s willingness to support an apparently xenophobic organization. In 2016, people often wanted anonymity before they were willing to back the xenophobes. US president Donald Trump changed that. When people were reminded that Mr. Trump was leading in the polls in their state, anonymity no longer mattered. When the experiment was rerun after his election victory, the result was the same: some people were xenophobes and some were not, but in the Trump era, nobody kept their xenophobia in the closet. [It would be interesting to run a similar experiment in India about Indians’ views regarding religious minorities.]

Over the past year, it has become safer to speak out about sexual harassment, but it has also become riskier to make light of it. This reinforces the trend. One woman tells her story of sexual assault at the hands of a famous man, and other women come forward to say that he’s done the same thing to them. Journalists ask questions that could not have been asked a decade ago. Regulators open investigations. Other charities scramble to get ahead of the story. The self-reinforcing dynamics mean that unpredictability is a feature of the outrage system. They also suggest that we need to learn two lessons: a) ask ourselves whether there’s anything in our profession, industry or community that is taken for granted, but that the wider world might view with sudden outrage? The in-crowd may lure each other into viewing transgressions with a leniency-shifted forgiveness. When everyone else pays attention, the leniency shift may flip to a severity shift; and b) beware tribalism. Outrage may be unpredictable, but once it has grown it is easy to manipulate for political ends.

5)    Why Apple is world’s most innovative company [Source: fastcompany.com]
For a company routinely slagged for not having had a hit since 2010’s iPad, Apple, which as of mid-January was valued at more than $900 billion, had a remarkable 2017. Its wireless AirPods became ubiquitous, and can now be paired with the best-selling Apple Watch Series 3, which has GPS and cellular connectivity, for a meaningful, new consumer experience. In this exclusive interview with Apple CEO Tim Cook, he explains the culture and approach that led to iPhone X, Air Pods, Apple Watch 3, and HomePod. When asked what matters for Apple, Tim Cook said that it’s always products and people. The question at the end of every year, or every month or every week or every day, is, did Apple make progress on that front?

On prioritizing Apple’s time, he says, “there is more noise in the world than change. One of my roles is to try to block the noise from the people who are really doing the work. That’s tougher and tougher in this environment. The priorities are about saying no to a bunch of great ideas. We can do more things than we used to do because we’re a bit bigger. But in the scheme of things versus our revenue, we’re doing very few things. I mean, you could put every product we’re making on this table, to put it in perspective. I doubt anybody that is anywhere near our revenue could say that.” On asked what keeps him going, the CEO of Apple says, “what drives us is making products that give people the ability to do things they couldn’t do before. Take iPhone X, the portrait-lighting feature. This is something that you had to be a professional photographer with a certain setup to do in the past. Now, iPhone X is not a cheap product, but a lighting rig–these things were tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Also, Tim Cook says that they definitely listen to outsider opinions, but because they know what’s happening inside the company, they just have to find another channel to listen to and tune out the noise. On asking what do people misunderstand or underappreciate about Apple, he says, “For a casual observer who hasn’t been a user of our products, the thing that they might miss is how different Apple is versus other technology companies. A financial person just looking at revenues and profits may think, ‘They’re good [at making money]’. But that’s not who we are. We’re a group of people who are trying to change the world for the better, that’s who we are. For us, technology is a background thing. We don’t want people to have to focus on bits and bytes and feeds and speeds. We don’t want people to have to go to multiple [systems] or live with a device that’s not integrated. We do the hardware and the software, and some of the key services as well, to provide a whole system.”

6)    Asma Jahangir, 1952-2018, human rights activist and lawyer [Source: Financial Times]
Even in death, Asma Jahangir, the Pakistani human rights lawyer and activist, challenged her Muslim country’s conservative social norms. Typically, Pakistani funerals, like other Muslim religious gatherings, are strictly gender segregated. But as thousands gathered at a Lahore stadium to mourn the loss of Jahangir, who died last weekend at the age of 66, women in the crowd slowly pushed their way forward, until they were standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the men.

In the courts and on the streets, Jahangir - known for her unwavering courage and her core liberal, democratic principles, spent a lifetime fighting for the disempowered and against conservatives trying to mould Pakistan into an authoritarian, Islamic society. Women seeking to escape unhappy marriages; bonded labourers toiling in brick kilns; religious minorities accused of insulting Islam; or activists who crossed the military establishment, all found their champion in Jahangir, for whom no case was too daunting, too unpopular or too dangerous. “If you take the breadth of causes she supported, it was more than any normal human could undertake,” says Ahmed Rashid, her close friend and author of books on Pakistan and central Asia. Jahangir was also a passionate advocate of peace with neighbouring India. Such was her influence as a south Asian feminist icon that Indian women held their own remembrance for her in New Delhi this week.

Her forceful interventions earned her the wrath of powerful forces in Pakistani state and society, particularly during periods of military rule. In the 1980s she was jailed. In 2007 she was placed under house arrest for opposing the former president, General Pervez Musharraf. Death threats came often. “There have been times I have been scared,” she told the BBC in 2010. “There have been times that I have cried. But does that mean you give up in the face of brute force? No, never!” Born Asma Jilani in 1952, the straight-talking lawyer inherited her fighting spirit from her revered father, the prominent opposition politician, Malik Ghulam Jilani, who was in and out of jail throughout her childhood. At 18, she was a plaintiff in a legal challenge to his arrest in 1971 under General Yahya Khan’s martial law. In a landmark judgment, Pakistan’s Supreme Court not only overturned Mr. Jilani’s detention, but also ruled that martial law itself was illegitimate — paving the way for the restoration of democracy and a new constitution.

It was after marrying into a conservative family that Jahangir decided to study law. She and her sister, Hina Jilani, also a lawyer, and two friends established Lahore’s first all-female law firm, which specialised in women’s rights. Clients included women trying to marry against their parents’ wishes, and women seeking to divorce their violent husbands. In 1981, she co-founded the Women’s Action Forum to mobilise against the notorious 1979 Hudood Ordinance, by which the then military ruler General Zia ul-Haq replaced many British colonial-era laws with those drawn from sharia — much to Pakistani women’s detriment. In 1987, she co-founded the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to promoting human rights and keeping track of violations. She was a fierce critic of Pakistani support for the Taliban.

7)    Olympic’s curling doesn’t only stump viewers- it confuses scientists too! [Source: WSJ]
In an upset win over Canada in the men’s Olympic curling semifinal on Thursday, U.S. captain John Shuster glided across the ice pushing 42 pounds of Scottish granite. He gave the curling stone a clockwise turn that made it curve slightly right as it slid toward its target, the curl the sport is named for. As the stone traveled, two teammates raced in front, furiously scrubbing the ice in its path with brooms. This is a puzzling sport to play—and so far impossible for scientists to explain. Spin an overturned glass clockwise on a smooth countertop and it drifts to the left. Spin it counterclockwise and it drifts to the right. A curling stone in play does the opposite. Spin that glass harder and it makes a sharper turn. In curling, the faster the stone spins, the more straight it goes.

Nina Roth, U.S. women’s curling team captain says, “we have no idea why a rock curls.” Neither do scientists, who have been stumped for close to a century. “Anything unusual gets us excited, and a curling rock has that,” says Ray Penner, an astrophysicist at Vancouver Island University, who also studied the physics of golf. He took up curling and got hooked on finding an explanation. The curling stone is completely smooth except for a raised ring on the bottom called the running band. That is where the mystery’s rubber hits the road. University of Saskatchewan physicist Ertle Harrington attributed it to friction differences between the stone’s right and left sides as it moved on ice. University of Northern British Columbia physicist Mark Shegelski recently teamed up with Edward Lozowski, an emeritus professor at the University of Alberta, to arrive at the stick-slip friction theory. Messrs. Shegelski and Lozowski say parts of a stone’s running band briefly sticks—for billionths of a second—to the pebbles. But the right side of a clockwise turning stone is a bit stickier than the left. Going back to the overturned glass, it is as if the right side of the rim gets stuck on a bit of jam on the table; the glass would rotate around the sticky spot to the right.

In the mathematical model Messrs. Shegelski and Lozowski developed to describe this action, slow and fast spinning rocks curl the same amount. The stick-slip friction theory hasn’t gained traction with some scientists. Former aerospace engineer Mark Denny says the model doesn’t properly account for how the theory would work in practice. If stick-slip was really happening, he said, a faster spinning stone would curl more. “I have come up with similar curling theories and they have fallen down for similar reasons,” he says. Mr. Denny and Mr. Shegelski have been dueling in scientific papers over curling theories since the late 1990s, around the time curling officially joined the Olympics program in the Winter Games in Nagano, Japan.

The inquiries have since spread among scientists in Scotland, Japan and Russia. Harald Nyberg was doing graduate work on industrial friction at Uppsala University in Sweden when a World Curling Association ice expert introduced him to the puzzle. Mr. Nyberg, who now conducts research on friction for parts used by heavy-duty truck maker Scania, says he and his grad-school colleagues “got stuck on this question.” The problem with Mr. Shegelski’s theories, including the latest one, he says, is that “they are nice and accurate math models for how a rock would move, but never really get into where those forces come from.” Solving that question led to Mr. Nyberg’s own aha! moment. He and his team found that curling stones left behind tiny scratches on the ice pebbles. Those scratches cause the curl, the Swedish researchers say. Here’s how: The leading edge of a rotating stone engraves curved scratches on the ice. As the back edge passes over the scratches, the etched grooves gently push the stone in the direction it is rotating.

The Swedish theory may have contributed to a minor scandal. Not long after their research was published in 2013, curling team sweepers started using brooms that scratched the ice, giving more control over the direction of the stone’s travel. Those brooms were banned in 2016, but elite curlers still sweep differently than they used to. The news that Russian curler Aleksandr Krushelnitckii had failed a doping test drew some snickers. But the sport’s new appreciation for the role of sweepers has put a premium on fitness and endurance. “How you sweep can definitely affect the rock in a pretty amazing way,” says Mr. Shuster, the U.S. men’s team skipper, who won a bronze medal in 2006 and is competing in his fourth Olympics. For athletes, the why of it all seems best left to scientists or theologians. “I don’t know,” Mr. Shuster says. “I just throw the rocks, man.”

8)    City universities are the new global brands
  [Source: Financial Times]
When University College London was founded in 1826, it was pilloried in John Bull, a Sunday newspaper, as “a humbug joint-stock subscription school for Cockney boys . . . got up in the bubble season”. Elitist scorn was inevitable, given that UCL was among the first universities founded in England since Cambridge, six centuries earlier. Mutterings about UCL’s risk-taking and expansionism are still with us, despite it now being one of the world’s top 10 universities, according to the QS rankings. Notably, UCL is not alone in seeking to expand to secure its place in the world’s premier league of universities. New York University, founded at about the same time, has opened a technology hub in Brooklyn, and Columbia is thrusting into West Harlem as part of a $6bn growth plan.

It is natural to fear that growth will be accompanied by an erosion of the intimacy between town and gown embodied by Oxbridge colleges and universities such as Princeton, which has 8,000 students compared with UCL’s 41,500, or École Polytechnique near Paris, with just 3,000. A campus where students and professors mingle easily feels ideal. But some universities have little choice. They lack the historical status of Harvard or Oxford and the cushion of big endowments or buildings that were paid off in the Middle Ages. Admitting more students is the only way to defray the expense of a global brand. The rumpus at UCL is a symptom of wider turbulence affecting universities as mass tertiary education spreads around the world, and demand for entry to elite colleges rises. The market is globalising in the same way as industries such as finance and carmaking, forcing universities to keep pace or find a niche.

College attendance of at least two years has grown from 10% of the world’s school-leavers in 1971 to 33% in 2013, with millions crossing borders to study. This makes admission to world-ranked universities especially desirable. The paradox of institutions such as UCL and NYU is that they are becoming more elite despite their growth, because student demand is expanding even faster. Getting into top colleges was always tough, and families tussle fiercely for their children to obtain coveted places, but cross-border competition for globally-ranked universities has become similarly intense. This is reinforced, as with investment banking, by international rankings. Universities now compete globally, particularly on depth of world-class research. To top tables, they must not only be good in some subjects, but have breadth across disciplines.

UCL ranks highly in subjects including social sciences and medicine, but wants to raise its standing in engineering and maths. Harvard, which is already one of the top research universities, is expanding into Boston to build a new campus including a school of engineering, a traditional speciality of its old Cambridge competitor, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This leads to a phenomenon familiar in both finance and football: the emergence of global leagues and the reduced role of national rankings. Nearly half of UCL students come from outside the UK, meaning its peers include Tsinghua in Beijing, ETH Zurich and National University of Singapore. It piles pressure on organizations such as the Russell Group, comprising the top 24 UK universities, including Oxford and Cambridge. One unspoken motive behind the expansion of UCL is that the top tier of the Russell Group may need to pull away from the rest, putting the laggards at risk of relegation.

The problem is that it is unclear how large universities should be, and how much growth is too much. The university category is becoming stretched; even direct rivals vary greatly in size. In the Ivy League, for example, Dartmouth has 6,400 students, while Columbia is five times bigger at 32,400. Perhaps a better way to regard urban institutions such as UCL is not as universities but “citiversities” — the core industry of city states in a globalised world. Attending them, for better and worse, is quite different from going to a little liberal arts college such as Oberlin in Ohio.

9)    Why men don’t live as long as women  [nautil.us ]
Years ago when Richard Bribiescas, a professor of Anthropology and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology and Deputy Provost for Faculty Development and Diversity, at Yale University, was conducting his doctoral research on the evolutionary history of men among a remote indigenous community of hunter-gatherers living in the forests of South America, he came across a man donning a well-worn baseball cap likely donated by missionaries. The cap read, “There are three stages to a man’s life: Stud, Dud, Thud.” It is somewhat sobering to see one’s life’s research summarized on a piece of headwear that can probably be found for a few dollars at a roadside truck stop. But such is the elegance of interesting science. It’s no secret that mortality due to accidents and risky behavior is much higher in young men, particularly those in their late teenage years and early 20s. This, by the way, is not news to insurance companies. It’s also true that men die earlier than women, regardless of their environment or lifestyle, and are often more susceptible to some cancers and heart disease at an earlier age.

As it turns out, shorter lifespans and higher male mortality risk are quite common in many species. Natural selection doesn’t necessarily favour traits commonly associated with health, vigor, and longevity. Instead, it promotes characteristics that provide greater lifetime reproductive success, or in the parlance of evolutionary biology, fitness. If the benefits of increased fitness are greater than the cost of a shorter lifespan or poor health, biology will prioritize those traits. In essence, sex trumps birthday candles. This tradeoff between longevity and reproduction takes an obvious form in women: pregnancy, childbirth, and lactation are all physically taxing and energetically costly. Research has shown that bearing more children is associated with higher oxidative stress, which can in turn lead to accelerated ageing in post-menopausal women. But what about men? While they obviously don’t bear the costs of pregnancy, they do still allocate a great deal of energy—also to their own detriment later in life—to improve their chances of reproduction. This “reproductive effort” takes place through engagement in riskier behavior and the accumulation of greater body mass, particularly sexually dimorphic skeletal muscle mass, the extra male-specific muscle in the shoulders, back, and arms.

Hormones are one of the most vital agents in managing these tradeoffs. In men, testosterone regulates investment in muscle and reproductive behavior. But like everything else, it, too, has its price. Aside from its sexual effects such as stimulating beard growth and deeper voices, testosterone is an important anabolic hormone that has a significant impact on the energetic costs in men. The effects of testosterone on longevity and ageing in humans are more nuanced and challenging to assess, but given men’s shorter lifespans, an analogous situation could very well be at play. Since it would be unethical to experimentally manipulate testosterone in men to determine effects on lifespan, researchers have to look for more subtle clues, often in historical data. To get a better picture, then, scientists have had to examine the effects of testosterone supplementation in “intact” males as well. Ornithologists have shown that experimentally increasing testosterone levels often improves a male bird’s ability to establish multiple nests, ward off competitors, and father more offspring compared to unsupplemented males.

Testosterone doesn’t just cause metabolic changes: It’s also responsible for significant immunological effects during a man’s lifetime. Testosterone and other sex hormones are also associated with greater cancer risk, particularly when it comes to prostate cancer. Populations with higher testosterone levels, for example, tend to also exhibit higher incidence of prostate cancer. So why do males tolerate the negative effects of testosterone? The Darwinian explanation is that the potential reproductive payoffs are huge in mammalian males compared to females. Mating opportunities are an important constraint for male fitness. Hypothetically, a male mating with 100 different females in a year could potentially father 100 offspring or more. The same is not true for females. Mr. Richard doubts that natural selection is done with men, or humans, in general. We may still endure shorter lifespans and worse health due to our evolutionary history, but the essence of evolution is change over time. Humans are incredibly malleable. The physiology that supports this malleability is probably why our species has evolved the traits that define us: big, expensive brains; long lives; extended childhood; offspring that require lots of care. It might also help explain why there are over 7 billion of us. That is a lot of reproductive fitness.

10)    Serious quantum computers are finally here: What are we going to do with them?
[Source: MIT ]
Quantum computers promise to run calculations far beyond the reach of any conventional supercomputer. They might revolutionize the discovery of new materials by making it possible to simulate the behavior of matter down to the atomic level. Or they could upend cryptography and security by cracking otherwise invincible codes. There is even hope they will supercharge artificial intelligence by crunching through data more efficiently. Yet only now, after decades of gradual progress, are researchers finally close to building quantum computers powerful enough to do things that conventional computers cannot. Google has been leading the charge toward this milestone, while Intel and Microsoft also have significant quantum efforts. And then there are well-funded startups including Rigetti Computing, IonQ, and Quantum Circuits. However, no other contender can match IBM’s pedigree in this area.

Charles Bennett of IBM Research is one of the founding fathers of quantum information theory. When Bennett joined IBM in 1972, computing still relied on classical physics and the mathematical theory of information that Claude Shannon had developed at MIT in the 1950s. It was Shannon who defined the quantity of information in terms of the number of “bits” required to store it. Those bits, the 0s and 1s of binary code, are the basis of all conventional computing. A year after arriving at Yorktown Heights, Bennett helped lay the foundation for a quantum information theory that would challenge all that. It relies on exploiting the peculiar behavior of objects at the atomic scale. At that size, a particle can exist “superposed” in many states (e.g., many different positions) at once. Two particles can also exhibit “entanglement,” so that changing the state of one may instantaneously affect the other. Bennett and others realized that some kinds of computations that are exponentially time consuming, or even impossible, could be efficiently performed with the help of quantum phenomena.

IBM’s quantum computer is designed to create and manipulate the essential element in a quantum computer: the qubits that store information. The machine exploits quantum phenomena that occur in superconducting materials. The superconducting approach has key advantages. The hardware can be made using well established manufacturing methods, and a conventional computer can be used to control the system. The qubits in a superconducting circuit are also easier to manipulate and less delicate than individual photons or ions. At present, IBM is theoretically approaching the point where a quantum computer can solve problems a classical computer cannot: in other words, quantum supremacy. But quantum supremacy is an elusive concept. You would need all 50 qubits to work perfectly, when in reality quantum computers are beset by errors that need to be corrected for. It is also devilishly difficult to maintain qubits for any length of time; they tend to “decohere,” or lose their delicate quantum nature, much as a smoke ring breaks up at the slightest air current.

There are other practical problems too. It isn’t obvious how useful even a perfectly functioning quantum computer would be. It doesn’t simply speed up any task you throw at it; in fact, for many calculations, it would actually be slower than classical machines. Only a handful of algorithms have so far been devised where a quantum computer would clearly have an edge. This is why, even as they near the 50-qubit milestone, IBM’s own researchers are keen to dispel the hype around it. As an engineer at IBM put it “We have this device that is more complicated than you can simulate on a classical computer, but it’s not yet controllable to the precision that you could do the algorithms you know how to do.”

What gives the IBMers hope is that even an imperfect quantum computer might still be a useful one. Researchers have zeroed in on an application that Richard Feynman envisioned back in 1981. Chemical reactions and the properties of materials are determined by the interactions between atoms and molecules. Those interactions are governed by quantum phenomena. A quantum computer can—at least in theory—model those in a way a conventional one cannot. Last year, IBM used a seven-qubit machine to simulate the precise structure of beryllium hydride. At just three atoms, it is the most complex molecule ever modeled with a quantum system. Ultimately, researchers might use quantum computers to design more efficient solar cells, more effective drugs, or catalysts that turn sunlight into clean fuels. Engineers however believe that the real revolution will not really begin until a new generation of students and hackers get to play with practical machines. Quantum computers require not just different programming languages but a fundamentally different way of thinking about what programming is.

- Saurabh Mukherjea is CEO, and Prashant Mittal is Strategist, at Ambit Capital. Views expressed are personal.

Show More
Forbes India Leadership Agenda: Corporate honchos discuss all things leadership
Torchbearers of hope: These women persuade others to dream bigger, climb higher