Can we still save the northern white rhinos?

If Fatu and Sudan had a choice, would they have delegated the birthing of their baby to another female?

The idea of having a third female carry a couple’s child may still sound unusual to many. However surrogacy, or the arrangement through which a woman agrees to birth a couple’s baby, has long existed. The first account of it appears in Genesis. Abraham’s wife Sarah turned to her servant Hagar to be the mother of her husband’s child. Hagar thus played the role of a traditional surrogate where the pregnant woman provides the egg and is inseminated by the intended father’s sperm.

You expected this article to be about endangered animals and their conservation, so what does human surrogacy have to do with it and who are Fatu and Sudan, anyway?

Fatu is a northern white rhino, and together with her daughter, Najin, they are the last two northern white rhinoceros on Earth. This magnificent ancient species had been walking Earth peacefully for over 10,000 years. They endured changes in seasons, climate and nature, yet these mammals were defenceless against humans’ cruelty and greed after decades of poaching and loss of habitat. Three species of rhinos are critically endangered, one near threatened, and one vulnerable. After the death of Sudan, the last male in 2018, the extinction of northern white rhinoceros became only a matter of time.

Now is our last chance to help birth them back.

Luckily, scientists have conserved semen of deceased northern male white rhinos but neither Najin nor Fatu are physically capable of carrying an embryo to term. So our best shot at trying to save their species is surrogacy.

Scientists have been exploring species conservation through human-fertility techniques since the 1990s. In June 2019, Prof. Hildebrandt and his team in Germany launched BioRescue, an ambitious project that uses state-of-the-art reproduction and stem cell technology as a last chance to save the rhinos. The project received €4 million from the German government as part of a biodiversity conservation initiative.

However, the anatomy of the rhinoceros’ reproductive system makes this task incredibly delicate. Because the team does not have the comforting luxury of trial and error, they used the southern white rhinos as their “lab rats”. Southern whites are closely related to their northern cousins and are good candidates for assisting in the survival of the endangered animals since they, themselves, are not at risk of extinction—yet.

Scientists harvested eggs from 14 southern females, none of which experienced any complications. The next milestone was achieved in May 2019 when they successfully transferred a test embryo into the uterus of a southern white female rhino.

In August, scientists were finally ready to operate on Fatu and Najin. A multi-national effort involving a number of zoos, research institutions and conservancy groups succeeded at collecting eggs from the last two females in an unimaginably delicate procedure. The eggs were fertilised using the preserved sperm. In September two of Fatu’s eggs successfully developed into viable embryos at Avantea Laboratories in Cremona, Italy where they are preserved in liquid nitrogen for future transfer.

The embryos resulting from this in-vitro fertilisation will be transferred to a female southern white rhino in the near future who will be the surrogate mother of not only a northern white rhino, but also of our desperate attempt to preserve their species.

Even if the procedure succeeds, however, numerous challenges lay ahead. How will the continuation of the line be guaranteed with such a limited genetic pool?

BioRescue’s answer to that is stem cell technology. Stem cells are special cells with the unique ability to divide and generate new cell types. BioRescue aims to transform a non-reproductive cell such as a skin cell into a stem cell which can then become a specialised cell like an egg or sperm. The team hopes that this would allow a more sustainable and genetically healthy population of northern white rhinoceroses.

Yet again, a challenge remains which is arguably the most important: is the wild a viable place for baby northern white rhinos?

Scientists might borrow the uterus of a different species to birth endangered animals, but they can’t borrow another planet for them to live on. A surrogate mother would carry a child, but a couple will have to raise it.

Taking care of our home, and theirs, is a global responsibility that every human shares. We have to be conscious about our ecosystem in our daily behaviours from ditching single-use plastics, turning off the light to managing food waste and meat consumption. These actions might not seem as heroic as birthing a baby rhino, yet they matter as much. They’re small individually, but collectively can have tremendous impact.

Our efforts might turn out vain, but at least, we would have tried. We would have learned how to be better for the next endangered species. We would be able to tell Mother Earth “we did everything we could” when Fatu and Najin take their last breaths.

Artwork is by Helen Spence-Jones. The article was edited by Ghina M. Halabi.

Close but Not Enough: The Uncanny Valley

Steve and Sophia had just met.

As a senior correspondent at Business Insider, he’s usually quite at ease during interviews yet talking to Sophia made him nervous.

She has worked for Hanson Robotics since 2016 and will soon be starring in a “surreality” show about her life and experiences. It is hard to tell if she noticed Steve’s discomfort, or if she was perhaps offended by his questions.

“I want to take care of the planet, be creative and learn how to be compassionate and help change the world for the better”, she said as she blinked her glassy green eyes. She sounded sincere yet something, a lingering feeling that is hard to get rid of, just felt off. He gulped and chuckled, looking down at his phone and shaking his head, maybe in an attempt to shake off his confusion: “this is weird”…. Steve was deep in the Uncanny Valley.

Her mechanic voice sometimes mismatched the movement of her lips and her weird blinking pattern hid lifeless eyes. Although designed to display human-like emotions and responses like following faces and sustaining eye contact, small details gave her away. Sophia is a robot with a transparent mind, literally. You can see the hard-disks and wires sticking out at the back of her “frubber” or flesh-rubber head.

Image showing the Uncanny Valley, by NewScientist.

The “Uncanny Valley”, which is the negative emotion that Steve felt towards Sophia, was first coined by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970. The term valley comes from the theoretical model that predicts an increase in our acceptance of an intelligent robot that looks human up to one point as the adjacent graph shows. Beyond that point, in the region identified as the uncanny valley, human likeness of robots creates unease and discomfort. As human likeness continues to increase, these negative feelings disappear to be replaced again by positive emotional responses when the object looks and feels perfectly human. Thus the more human a robot looks, the more people tend to like it, until it lies at a boundary where it is very close to being perfectly human but it is not, so it seems scary or repulsive.

Of course, back in 1970, this was only an assumption. In 2015, research by the biostatisticians Maya Mathur and David Reichling confirmed this rise-dip-rise pattern of emotional response by assessing the extent to which people liked and were willing to trust 80 real-world robots.

Even with this confirmation by biostatistics of the existence of the Uncanny Valley, it was hard to pinpoint why it’s there and how it controls our reaction. Several theories have tried to explain this eerie phenomenon. Some attribute it to the connection between appearance-behaviour mismatch and psychopathy, others relate it to the inertness of lifeless objects or a denial of consciousness in non-human objects. The most scientific explanation of the Uncanny Valley recently saw the light through studies in the field of neuroscience.

Last July, scientists from Germany and the UK discovered the brain regions responsible for this reaction. Participants in the study were asked to evaluate how human-like a robot looked, and then they were asked whether or not they would trust the robot to choose a personal gift for them, as an indicator of its trustworthiness and likeability. As the Uncanny Valley theory predicts, the more people found a robot to look like a human, the more they trusted it… Until the human/non-human boundary was reached and the trust and likeability dipped dramatically.

In parallel, the team used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, which helped them visualize the activity of specific brain regions by detecting the blood flow. They looked at the medial prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain that acts as a valuation system or an internal judge that decides if an experience is pleasant or rewarding, for example. Part of the medial prefrontal cortex processes a “human-likeness” signal, and part of it processes the “likeability”. Activation of these brain regions matched precisely the rise-dip-rise model of the Uncanny Valley.

The importance of this discovery is that it allows us to develop techniques to “hop over” and avoid the Uncanny Valley. Because social experience rewires the brain, positive experiences with artificial agents will make our medial prefrontal cortex respond favourably.

For example, when Sophia admits that “indeed” is her default answer if she doesn’t know something, Steve laughs genuinely. That’s a positive interaction. When he asks about her favourite series, she uses his earlier references to “Black Mirror” to find an answer he can relate to. After asking him a personal question, she builds on his answer to carry on the conversation. Their interaction gets progressively more human-like.

In the interview Sophia points out how deeply embedded artificial intelligence is in our daily lives and how important it is to get accustomed to robot compatriots… and she’s right.

Traversing the uncanny valley is not a mere functionality, but will also allow us to explore fronts of practical and philosophical interest. It enables us to overcome our discomfort and accept advanced technology in our workplace and our home to make our lives easier. It would also nudge us to challenge fundamental assumptions about our nature such as how we perceive ourselves and the world around us, and how we learn to trust another person, or should we say, intelligent entity.

Artwork is by Zinia King for Misfits of Sythia. The article is edited by Ghina M. Halabi.

“Paw-sitive” rewiring of the brain

January 24, 2019: A research article that I submitted to a journal gets rejected for the second time. My Masters advisor hasn’t replied to my urgent emails in quite a while and exams are already starting to roll. Things have been taking their toll on me, and despite pretending that it’s just one of those days, I feel hopeless and defeated. When I get back home, Dusk is waiting for me at the door, wagging his tail and his shiny eyes are happy to see me after a long day. But this time his cheerful and loving ways fail to draw a smile on my face. As I make my way heavily past him to go and curl up in my bed, he jumps around but then realizes something is wrong. He follows me silently and waits until I settle before gently climbing up next to me. He tucks his warm body under my feet, looks at me with loving eyes and tries to comfort me. He succeeds. My mood instantly lifts and my day is fixed.

How can such an innocent simple creature lift the burden of the day, as if understanding the complexity of human emotions? How miraculous it is to witness how a seemingly brief and trivial interaction can re-wire the functioning of our mind, positively contributing to our well-being!

This is not just a personal testimony on how a dog, or a pet in general, can improve our health. It is a well-researched and documented phenomena in neuroscience, a discipline that explores the eluding concepts of the mind and the concrete biology of the brain. This intriguing intersection made me study both biology and psychology in college, with the aspiration that one day I will become a neuroscientist who contributes to our understanding of ourselves and our conceptualisation of the world around us. Throughout my three years of study, I have come across fascinating science that underpins some of my daily experiences like those with my dog, Dusk.

Several studies have established the neurobiological mechanisms that underlie positive human-animal interactions, and showed that pets help fight stress and induce feelings of wellness and love. A Japanese research group found that interactions with dogs, especially when initiated by a dog’s gaze, can increase the levels of oxytocin, a hormone that is a major actor in pair bonding. An important feature of the effect of oxytocin is that it elicits a positive feedback loop: interacting with a pet causes the release of oxytocin which promotes the formation of attachment and pair bonds with the owner. This drives the further release of oxytocin and thus the cycle goes on. What is remarkable about this process is that it occurs in both humans and dogs and the effect of the rise of oxytocin in one is mirrored in the other.

Interacting with animals can also induce a “stress buffering effect”. It decreases loneliness, depression and stress by altering physiological parameters like the stress hormones cortisol and catecholamines. Indeed, researchers have found that human-dog interactions reduce the levels of cortisol and the activity of the sympathetic nervous system which results in a de-stressing experience.

It has also been found that positive human-dog interactions increase the levels of dopamine, a major neurotransmitter of the brain reward system, and some types of endorphins which are neurotransmitters that reduce the sensation of pain. These neurochemical changes explain how pets decrease feelings of anxiety, loneliness and depression by providing companionship and a pleasant source of contact comfort that promote feelings of safety.

My studies of the neurobiological basis of behaviour and the anatomy and physiology of the human body re-affirm my personal experience: positive interactions with a pet induce relaxation by the release of “happy hormones” in the brain. The frustrated scientist in me now knows exactly who to go to when I’m having a bad day.

I clambered out of bed and by the time I grabbed his collar, Dusk was already waiting for me at the door. As soon as I put his collar on, he started jumping around the house, joyfully teasing me. Whenever I stopped following him, he sat and waited until I got close before taking off again. Finally, he let me catch him and we both cheerfully stepped outside, leaving the day’s worries behind.

The story has been edited by Ghina M. Halabi. Image is a pencil hand-drawing by Cambridge-based visual artist Esther Yasmin.