NOVA Wonders

A 6-part series exploring the biggest questions on the frontiers of science. Premiering April 25, 2018 at 9 pm on PBS Premiering April 25, 2018 at 9 pm on PBS

Program Description

“NOVA Wonders” takes viewers on a journey to the frontiers of science, where researchers are tackling some of the biggest questions about life and the cosmos. From the mysteries of astrophysics to the secrets of the body to the challenges of inventing technologies that could rival—and even surpass—the abilities of the human mind, these six hours reveal how far we’ve come in our search for answers, how we managed to get here, and how scientists hope to push our understanding of the universe even further. Along the way, we meet the remarkable people who are transforming our world and our future.

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What Are Animals Saying?

Can we crack the code of animal communication? Airing April 25, 2018 at 9 pm on PBS Aired April 25, 2018 on PBS

Program Description

From singing whales and squeaking bats to thumping spiders and clicking dolphins, the world is filled with the exotic sounds of our fellow creatures. What are they saying? While we believe language sets us apart, some animals demonstrate they can learn our language—like Chaser the dog, who recognizes hundreds of words, and Kanzi the bonobo, who appears to have a sophisticated understanding of spoken English. But can we decode their own communications? NOVA Wonders follows researchers around the globe who are deciphering an amazing array of clues that reveal how animals share information critical to their survival. Will we one day be able to write the bat dictionary or decode the hidden sign language of chimps? And what can these findings tell us about the roots of our own language?

 

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NOVA Wonders: What Are Animals Saying?

PBS Airdate: April 25, 2018

TALITHIA WILLIAMS (Mathematician, Harvey Mudd College): What do you wonder about?

ERICH JARVIS (Rockefeller University): The unknown.

FLIP TANEDO (University of California, Riverside): What our place in the universe is?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Artificial intelligence.

ROBOT: Hello.

JARED TAGLIALATELA (Kennesaw State University): Look at this. What's this?

KRISTALA JONES PRATHER (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): Animals.

JARED TAGLIALATELA: An egg.

ANDRE FENTON (Neuroscientist, New York University): Your brain.

RANA EL KALIOUBY (Computer Scientist, Affectiva): Life on a faraway planet.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: NOVA Wonders, investigating the biggest mystery…

J.A. JOHNSON (Harvard University): We have no idea what's going on there.

JASON KALIRAI (Space Telescope Science Institute): These planets in the middle, we think are in the habitable zone.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: …and making incredible discoveries.

CATHERINE HOBAITER (University of St Andrews): Trying to understand their behavior, their life, everything that goes on here.

DAVID COX (Harvard University): Building an artificial intelligence is going to be the crowning achievement of humanity.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: We are three scientists, exploring the frontiers of human knowledge.

ANDRE FENTON: I'm a neuroscientist, and I study the biology of memory.

RANA EL KALIOUBY: I'm a computer scientist, and I build technology that can read human emotions.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And I'm a mathematician, using big data to understand our modern world. And we're tackling the biggest questions…

SCIENTISTS: Dark energy? Dark energy!

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: …of life…

DAVID T. PRIDE (University of California, San Diego): There's all of these microbes, and we just don't know what they are.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: …and the cosmos.

On this episode: animals make all kinds of noise, but what does it mean?

DAMIAN ELIAS (University of California, Berkeley): What they're telling the female is, "I'm free of parasites."

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Can we crack these mysterious codes?

CATHERINE HOBAITER: The gesture means "travel with me."

JARED TAGLIALATELA: His vocabulary was like a two-and-a-half-year-old human child.

KLAUS ZUBERBUEHLER (University of Neuchâtel): This is Dr. Doolittle's dream.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: NOVA Wonders: What Are Animals Saying? Right now.

All around us are alien tongues, and they don't come from space.

ANDRE FENTON: From whale songs and wolf howls, to birds chirping and dolphins clicking…

RANA EL KALIOUBY: …the animal world is filled with mysterious conversations.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Could we ever tap in? We like to think that language sets us apart from the beasts.

ANDRE FENTON: But are we really all that special?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Today, scientists are starting to decode those communications, discovering that we might not be alone.

ANDRE FENTON: I'm Andre Fenton.

RANA EL KALIOUBY: I'm Rana el Kaliouby.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: I'm Talithia Williams. And in this episode, NOVA Wonders: What are Animals Saying? And what does it say about us?

ROBIN QUEEN (University of Michigan): Come on.

When I'm working with Zach…

Lie down.

…it seems like magic.

Zach, that will do. Zach, come here.

Experiencing that kind of connection with a dog…

Come by. Lie down.

…you're in sync, and it's like any other connection you have with someone…

Lie down.

…where you really get along, and you're like, "Oh, wow, that was an amazing conversation."

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Robin Queen is a linguist and competitive sheep herder from the University of Michigan, and, like many of us, she likes to think she can talk with her dog.

ROBIN QUEEN: I think we are, as humans, we're fascinated by the idea, the Dr. Doolittle idea. We want that to be true in some way. When I started working with the dogs, I was shocked at what they could do.

Don't lose it. Lie down.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And for border collies like Zach, herding sheep is just the beginning.

TECUMSEH FITCH (University of Vienna): Get Spider.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: They appear to have a sophisticated understanding of language.

TECUMSEH FITCH: Get Spider. Bring it over here.

Their ability to learn human words are almost unlimited. It seems to be, you know, every year a new dog comes by with a larger vocabulary.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: A glance at YouTube proves the point.

YOUTUBER 1: Tessa, get pumpkin.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Tessa can recognize four different toys.

YOUTUBER 1: Good girl, bring it over here. Excellent.

Get pig.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And that's puppies' play compared to Gable; he knows a hundred and fifty.

YOUTUBER 2: Good boy.

Find Meow. Find Meow.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But all of these pooches pale in comparison to Chaser…

CHASER'S HANDLER: There's Meow. Come here.

Give me the ball.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: …who has been proclaimed the world's smartest dog.

ROBIN QUEEN: Chaser was taught the individual names of over a thousand objects. And that's really pretty cool, because it starts to try and get at that question of, "How special are humans?"

TECUMSEH FITCH: Chaser can understand hundreds of words, but all she can do is say, "Ruff." She can't actually say any of those words back. Now, what would be really impressive is when Chaser starts saying, "You go get the bunny." Then I'd be impressed.

CHASER'S HANDLER: Find Roach. Find Roach.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But as impressive as Chaser's feats are, do they qualify as…

MONTAGE OF VOICES: …language?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Since the dawn of history, we've imagined animals to be like us.

(Mr. Ed Television Series, Film Clip): I'm a horse, not a guinea pig.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Our stories are filled with talking creatures. But what's the reality?

Well, to answer that question, let's talk about language. To scientists, it's a learned set of symbols that can be combined into infinite meanings. Just consider these: "Dog bites man." "Man bites dog."

By just changing the order of a couple words, the meaning of the message is completely different.

Well, this is the cornerstone of human language. It allows us to tell stories, write poetry, negotiate contracts, whisper sweet nothings. The question is, "Is this skill unique to us?"

FILM NARRATOR: There are two chimpanzees in Rome who have brought a new "twist" in communication between animal and human.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: For over half a century, scientists have been working with our closest relatives to answer that question.

FILM NARRATOR: Viki was adopted when her own mother couldn't feed her anymore.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: At first, scientists tried teaching language to chimps by raising them like children. Perhaps one of the most famous of these was Viki.

FILM NARRATOR: She loves all the attention and affection. And she loves everyone.

VIKI'S TRAINER: Do this, Viki.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Not only is this approach now considered unethical, it didn't work. After seven years of intense training, she could barely utter four words.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: So scientists switched to sign language.

FILM NARRATOR: If you watch Koko closely, she's learning to put her fingertips to her mouth to sign "eat."

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Apes, like Koko the gorilla, hinted that apes have some ability for language.

FILM NARRATOR: Koko proved an adept student. Everyone was amazed at how well the little gorilla was catching on.

JARED TAGLIALATELA: Let's do just a little bit more work, and then we'll get a whole bunch of surprises, okay?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But it wasn't until this guy came along that researchers discovered exactly how impressive that ability was.

JARED TAGLIALATELA: In the world of ape cognition, Kanzi is, you know, Elvis Presley.

All right, Kanzi, come on. Tell me what this is. What's this a picture of? Very good.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Instead of sign language, Kanzi learned these. They're called "lexigrams," abstract symbols that represent words.

JARED TAGLIALATELA: What's this? Look at this. What's this? An egg. Very good; that's an egg. Good job.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And Kanzi has learned over 400 of them.

JARED TAGLIALATELA: Good, keep going. Good job, Kanz. Good, Kanzi, good stuff.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Amazingly, he started teaching himself this skill, as a baby, over 30 years ago.

KANZI'S TRAINER (Film Clip): I want you to go put the onions in your hot food.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Kanzi might have been around 11 or 12 at the time. His vocabulary, spoken English vocabulary, was assessed in comparison to a two-and-a-half-year-old human child.

JARED TAGLIALATELA: Now, I want you to take the spoon and put it on top of the bucket. Can you do that for me? Can you put it on top of the bucket?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Watching him today, at 37, it would appear his language ability goes well beyond vocabulary.

JARED TAGLIALATELA: Can you put it on top of the bucket? Very good. That's a good job.

So, I can ask Kanzi, "Hey, Kanzi, can you put the blanket on your head?" And then I can ask Kanzi, "Can you sit on the blanket?"

Can you put it on your head?

Nice job, Kanzi, very good, very, very good. Can you put the blanket on the cube? Now can you sit on top of the blanket? No, sit with your bottom on top. Good job, Kanz, that's it. Very good.

What he's obviously doing, in that context, is understanding not only the individual words, but the order in which they're arranged. I think that's a big deal, because that is one of the foundational elements for human spoken language.

CATHERINE HOBAITER: Kanzi's a huge deal. The studies with Kanzi, and with the other apes like him, allowed us to get a window into what great apes might be capable of in terms of learning our world and our communication.

JARED TAGLIALATELA: Science has gained a whole lot from apes like Kanzi, but in all likelihood, Kanzi will, sort of, be the last of his kind.

Moving forward, I think our approach is shifted to one where we're starting to focus more on what the animals are doing with one another.

KOKO SIGNING: Cat gorilla have visit, Koko love.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Today, the questions scientists are asking is not whether animals can learn our language…

KANZI'S TRAINER: …could you take my shoe off, please?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: …but if we can learn theirs.

PETER TYACK (University of St Andrews): It's very interesting that humans, who are very caught up in our own intelligence, when they wanted to understand whether other animals had a language like ours, the best thing we can think of is, "Can we teach that other species to speak our language?"

TECUMSEH FITCH: What you need to do, if you want to understand animal communication, is leave our own language behind. Try, as much as you can, to become more like an animal and just not think in words. And see what they're seeing and understand what they're feeling, what they're, what they're communicating about.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And when you do that, you discover a whole new world, hiding in plain sight.

CATHERINE HOBAITER: When I first came to the rainforest, this was an alien world for me. I had no clue what to do, how to be, how to move around in here.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Budongo Forest, Western Uganda: Cat Hobaiter is setting off for work.

CATHERINE HOBAITER: Trying to understand their communication means understanding their behavior, their life, everything that goes on here. I am the luckiest person in the world, 'cause I get paid to run around a rainforest with wild chimps. I, I love this.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: She's spent over 10 years studying these chimps.

CATHERINE HOBAITER: It's been a pretty incredible thing to be able to watch some of these chimps from the day they were born until adulthood. And I get to see the little detail, the soap opera of their life. I'm an outside observer, but I've been here for so long, I feel a part of the family, sometimes.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: In the process, she has unearthed a hidden form of communication.

Those scratches, shaking of trees, to Cat they aren't random motions, they're part of an elaborate code, a secret "language" of chimps.

CATHERINE HOBAITER: All of these gestures are a part of chimpanzee communication, and they grow up with them.

To humans, it might seem really subtle, like a tiny little push or a tiny little pull, and that's really hard for us to see; but I think to the chimps, it's very obvious what's going on.

So, she's sitting down, looking up at her daughters, and she's giving a big scratch. So, she's ready to go.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: That's Harriet. And that scratch, it's not because she has fleas, it's actually a signal to her daughter, Harmony.

CATHERINE HOBAITER: And the little one's coming down now.

Well, that scratch has two meanings. One of them is "groom me," and the other one is "let's travel together."

Oh, ho, ho, ho. The loud scratch got her to come down. They're all going to go down the tree, and that's them leaving together.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: To the untrained eye, the gestures don't look like much. Only after hundreds of days and even more nights poring over 4,000 hours of video did Cat start to put the pieces together.

CATHERINE HOBAITER: So, in this case, the gesture is a big loud scratch, but here it means "travel with me; travel together."

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: The reason she thinks Harriet's scratch means "let's travel" is because she has seen the same action and response dozens of times before.

CATHERINE HOBAITER: So, you've got Klaus, and the little young male chimp, and his mom, Kalima. And he's ready to go, he wants to travel, so he gives this big scratch and then he comes around the back of his mum, climbs on, and they travel away together.

I sometimes look at this, and I wonder if I am seeing things, if it's really there, if I'm, you know, if it's all kind of in my imagination. And it's not until you're watching the videos over and over and realizing that you see this little movement, but afterwards every time you see that little movement, the other chimp does something that you start to think, "Oh, there might be something in there."

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Like this one. If you look carefully, you can see the mother chimp raising her foot.

CATHERINE HOBAITER: In this case, the gesture is a foot present, and it means "climb on me." This is a hard one to see.

You've got the mother, Jenny, walking down the transect, and her little boy, James, who she'd like to have climb on her back. What she does is, she stops, she lifts her foot up, and she looks back over her shoulder at him. So, you know that she's waiting for him. She's waiting for him to give the response that she's looking for. And, in this case, he climbs on, and they travel away together.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But it's not enough to just see the same gestures over and over, she needs to see some evidence of a back-and-forth, a conversation.

CATHERINE HOBAITER: In this case, he wants her to come and be groomed by him, so he's going to give these big scratches, and he's waiting for a response. So, that didn't work; she didn't do what he wanted, she didn't do anything. So, he here gives a little object shake, and he gives the scratch again, so he's combining those two gestures, but still nothing from her. She's just not interested at the moment, so he's giving a really exaggerated version.

It's like a back and forth between the two of them: big scratch, object shake, "Come on, I want to groom you. Come over here." That seems to have done the trick, because she comes down, and they start grooming.

The reason I know this is an intentional gesture, and not just a chimp shaking a branch in the forest, is because he gives it and he waits for that response. And when he doesn't get what he wants, he gives it again. He persists. But once he does get what he wants, then he stops. And it's the same as human conversations and communications. After you've passed me the thing I'm asking for, then I don't keep on asking for it.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Cat has come up with over 60 different gestures, with more than 19 different meanings.

CATHERINE HOBAITER: "Stop."

"Groom me."

And we're still picking up, possibly, you know, finding new ones all of the time.

"Move closer."

I think in terms of an animal to human system of translation…

"Stop."

…we probably have the most meanings translated here.

"Let's go."

"Let's be friends."

And that's…certainly, compared to a lot of other animal systems of communication, it's much richer. It gives us much more detail than we've been able to find elsewhere.

"Let's have sex."

It's easy for us to want to focus in on language. You know, we're quite self-obsessed as a species, we want to know, what is it that might be special or different about ourselves? But what the chimps have going on here is their own incredible rich world of communication. And it would be really easy just to focus in on their vocalizations, but the real subtlety and texture and all of those rich meanings that we see in the gestures every day would be lost.

TECUMSEH FITCH: I think, as humans, we're so language-centered that sometimes it's easy to forget that language is not the only way we communicate-language is just one of the channels of communication that we have as humans-and also not to think that language is the only model for animal communication.

RANA EL KALIOUBY: In fact, we humans communicate with dozens of different expressions and gestures. When you think about it, animals have all this and so much more. Everywhere you look, you find elaborate systems of non-vocal communication. From elephant body language to honeybees telling their buddies how far and where to fly, even the simplest of creatures seem to have a lot to say.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Just consider these guys, Habronattus formosos, jumping spiders.

DAMIAN ELIAS: Spiders have some of the most unusual communication systems. It really is kind of like this fascinating puzzle, and you use as much imagination as possible to, sort of, crack this language.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Damian Elias from U.C. Berkeley spends his life listening to arachnids.

DAMIAN ELIAS: Stay there. There you are. Come on.

Working with spiders is not a normal occupation.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: You might be surprised how much this tiny creature has to say, especially when it comes to love.

DAMIAN ELIAS: Because these females only mate once in their lifetime, they need to make that choice count; that decision better be as informed as possible.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: So, you want to know what spiders are saying, you need to be a bit of a voyeur.

DAMIAN ELIAS: Oh, my god, I've probably spent tens of thousands of hours watching spiders have sex and hearing spiders have sex and thinking about spiders having sex.

So, he increases the thumps as he gets closer. Now he is really inching up closer.

It's like you're trying to decode some type of alien language. It's only with technology that we have now, that we can even try to really decode what's going on.

So, what I'm going to do now is I'm going to make a female decoy. I take a euthanized female and then take a pin that has a small drop of beeswax, and then I lower that pin onto the female. And now, using this decoy, we can have the male court it.

Here we have our courtship arena, which is essentially a needlepoint frame and female pantyhose with some pieces of reflective tape on them.

I'm going to place our female decoy into this little rig, where it's hooked up to this kind of pulley system, and with it we can put her in a lifelike posture, so she can fool a male. And so, how we record these displays is using a laser vibrometer, so, this is what you see right here.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: The laser vibrometer converts vibration into sound.

DAMIAN ELIAS: Spiders don't have ears, and so they can't detect airborne sound. Instead, spiders detect vibrations with their feet.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: With the stage set, it's show time.

Think of it as a 5-act song and dance routine. Act One:

DAMIAN ELIAS: So, he's doing a sidling display, there. They're really exposing a lot of the ornaments that they have on their face. And those oftentimes are species-specific. Females need to know that it isn't a predator that's trying to eat them.

And so you have this very safe display that starts very far away, and as soon as he gets close to the female, he will start to do the introductory display.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Now, the "singing" kicks in.

DAMIAN ELIAS: There. There is the introductory display. Essentially, it's like, you know, "Listen to this: now I'm going to start to tell you a bunch of information about myself."

And so now he's going to go through a series of different signals.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: First the scrape.

DAMIAN ELIAS: Right there; that's a scrape.

The parasite load is really tied to how loud the scrapes are.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: By counting the parasites on over a hundred spiders, Damian found that the louder the scrape, the fewer the parasites.

DAMIAN ELIAS: So, what they're telling the female is, "I'm healthy, I'm free of parasites."

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Next, the thump…

DAMIAN ELIAS: The thumps are probably to kind of make sure to maintain the female's attention.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And once they've snagged that, time to put on the moves.

DAMIAN ELIAS: So, the third leg displays serve to draw attention to these ornaments that are on the third legs, and they kind of like shake them around.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And depending on how bright they are, Damian thinks that these tell the female about his past.

DAMIAN ELIAS: By being able to correlate the brightness of these ornaments and the quality of their food when they were younger, you can say they're talking about developmental history and their feeding history.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And now for the finale…

DAMIAN ELIAS: And we have buzzes, these long tonal signals that inform the female about the male's size. So, the louder it is, the deeper it is, the more the female wants them.

So, it gets more and more intense. He might destroy the female.

Yep, get up, get up. Okay, stop. All right, get off. Get off. Get off.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Enough rehearsal; now for the real date.

DAMIAN ELIAS: Now we're going to use two live individuals. So, we can kind of track what the males are doing and how the females are responding to them.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: To make sure he's right about these signals, Damian has to see how real live lady spiders respond.

DAMIAN ELIAS: You can see that the female, now, is just, like, really looking at the male, really looking at what he's trying to do.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: For the guy, the stakes are high. They aren't just singing for their supper, they're singing to make sure they don't become supper.

DAMIAN ELIAS: When females are assessing males, they're deciding on whether they're a potential mate or whether a potential meal.

So, right now that he is buzzing, so he's getting really close, so he's really going to, kind of like wrapping up, trying to get this female to mate with him. Now he's really in the dangerous parts of the display. So, it's getting faster and faster, now he's going to make a copulation attempt.

Oh, the female right there said, "No way."

It's hard not to sort of feel sorry for that male. And it's especially the case if the male is really trying his heart out, and he gets eaten. Then I just feel absolutely terrible.

ANDRE FENTON: So, where do all these complex signals come from? It turns out what spiders are doing with all those thumps and buzzes is completely innate, they're born knowing a fixed set of sounds.

What might we find if we looked further up the food chain? For starters, it's clear what we humans do is very different. We aren't born knowing language; our brains learn it by listening to others.

This skill is called "vocal learning." And only a few other animals have it: whales and dolphins, elephants and seals, some birds and bats.

Like us, these animals have a flexible communication system. Scientists think that if ever we're going to find a communication system like ours, it's going to be in one of these.

YOSSI YOVEL (Tel Aviv University): If you enter a bat cave, you hear a cacophony. You hear thousands of individuals simultaneously shouting at each other. And you ask yourself, "Are they just shouting at each other, or is there more to it?"

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Yossi Yovel is a bat biologist from Tel Aviv University.

YOSSI YOVEL: Bats are probably one of the most vocal and most social mammals on Earth. Since the moment we're here, they haven't shut up for a second.

What exactly is the purpose? Maybe we can say something about what exactly they are saying.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: To understand how difficult a quest this is, watch what happens when Yossi's team records wild bats.

YOSSI YOVEL: So, this is a very sensitive ultrasonic microphone. Here on the screen you can see the vocalizations already in in real time.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Trouble is, there's just too much noise.

YOSSI YOVEL: Looking at this screen like this and trying to interpret what you see would be just like standing, you know, in the middle of a crowd of 500 people shouting at each other.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: So, back at the lab, Yossi's team has created a tightly controlled mini bat colony.

YOSSI YOVEL: Welcome to my "Batcave."

So, this is a male. As you can see, bats are extremely cute. They're…some people would describe them as small puppies or small flying dog.

So, this is our controlled environment. So, if the cave we visited was like a stadium full of thousands of individuals, this is like your living room with a few friends. And I can put the camera there and monitor the full situation.

So I put him on this wall and he'll probably fly to the dark.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But placing bats in a controlled environment is just the first step. To crack the code of bats-or any animal for that matter-requires making a connection between action and sound. And that, as it turns out, is a real pain in the you-know-what.

LEE HARTEN (Tel Aviv University): Unfortunately, the only way to go about it is to go over a million hours of videos and just annotate.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: First, the action: what are the bats doing?

LEE HARTEN: Generally, they're annoyed, they're really squabbling; no personal space.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Because bats live in close quarters, they fight a lot. So, making a database of "what's-the-fuss-about?" is key.

LEE HARTEN: This is a fight over food, basically. So the first bat is holding a food item in its mouth, and the second bat is coming to try and steal it. In this case I would enter a context, which is "fighting over food."

We see a female protesting the mating attempt by a male, and it's a failed mating attempt.

So, in this case, they're sleeping, one bat wakes up. He shifts a bit and he annoys the other bat by him.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: It's a painstaking process, but one by one, Yossi's team creates a database over 100,000 bat spats.

YOSSI YOVEL: We did this for several months, around the clock, not missing a single vocalization. When you listen to these vocalizations, they all sound the same, but that's because you have a human brain and not a bat brain.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: So, they turn to the next best thing: a brain of the silicon variety.

YOSSI YOVEL: We fed this huge dataset into a machine learning classifier, and if there are differences, the computer algorithm will learn these differences.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: That is, if there is, in fact, any connection between the sounds the bats are making and what they're talking about, the computer will find it.

And after months of work…

YOSSI YOVEL: We have essentially built a simple bat translator.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: One that can translate four different bat calls, even ones it hasn't heard before. This one is a fight over food.

This one a female saying something like "not tonight, big fella."

And this one? "Trying to sleep over here. Knock it off!"

YOSSI YOVEL: You can now take a new vocalization-a vocalization that I've just now recorded, for example, in my colony-you can feed it into this algorithm, and the classifier, now, will tell you what was the argument about, without observing it.

KLAUS ZUBERBUEHLER: It's fantastic. This is Dr. Doolittle's dream, you know, come true. You've cracked the system, and you can tell that these calls have these very distinct meanings.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And though they've only decoded a few bat calls, it's a start. Is it possible other animals are communicating something bigger, much bigger?

ELLEN GARLAND (University of St Andrews): I think everybody is used to hearing these beautiful, melodic, lovely songs from humpback whales, but it's not always nice to listen to.

When anyone asks me how pretty their sounds are, I'm like "wahaha."

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Ellen Garland is a humpback whale expert from the University of St Andrews.

ELLEN GARLAND: I have always loved being by the sea and on the sea. Apparently, when I was six years old, I declared that I was going to be working with whales.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Whales, like bats, are vocal learners, and their songs are among the most complex forms of animal communication.

ELLEN GARLAND: A single song, typically, is anywhere from five minutes to half an hour, just for one song. So, these guys sing for hours and hours on end.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Like human music, whale songs consist of repeated phrases and themes, made up of individual units.

ELLEN GARLAND: On average, there's about 34 to probably 36 different sound types that we recognize within the humpback song repertoire. And we name them how they sound. So, moans, groans, grunts, whoops; so, we call that a trumpet. We have a lot of low frequency, very grunty sounds and sort of ascending shrieks, so "eeeeeeee." "Oooo oooo oooo oooo oooo."

I feel like that one is definitely going to come back to haunt me.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Which begs the question, "Why?" Why are whales making such complex songs? One clue might be that only the males do the singing.

ELLEN GARLAND: Humpback song is really an acoustic peacock tail. It's extremely showy and complex. They're obviously communicating with each other. You sort of want to understand why they're doing that, what they're trying to say.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: To find out, Ellen embarked on the world's first mapping mission of whale song.

ELLEN GARLAND: I was to analyze song across the South Pacific region, to try and understand what the songs were in multiple populations for multiple years.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Across the South Pacific, there are tens of thousands of whales living in separate groups. Until Ellen came along, no one had ever compared their songs.

ELLEN GARLAND: There were so many songs. I couldn't keep them straight in my head, so I started to draw them. And then from there, I can actually lay them down on the floor by population, by year.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Next, she color-coded the songs.

ELLEN GARLAND: You can absolutely tell the difference between these song types, because they have lots of different sounds in them, and it's the particular arrangement of these sounds.

So, this is the blue song type.

Now, if we listen to the dark red song…

As you can see, this is completely different.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Scientists thought that at any given moment, each group only sang its own tune.

TECUMSEH FITCH: Well, we've thought for a long time that all the males in an area sing the same song, but that it's different when you go to different areas. It's different in, whatever, Hawaii from Tahiti.

ELLEN GARLAND: So, we expected to find that all the songs within a year would be the same. So, I started analyzing, and I started with the easterly population of French Polynesia. And there were some interesting irregularities in there, shall we say. And I was like, "Hmmm, this seems strange."

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Strange, because in French Polynesia, in 2006, not all the males were singing the same song. Sometimes the whales were singing the red song, sometimes the blue.

ELLEN GARLAND: And then I went to the next population over, the Cook Islands; and then I got to Tonga; and then I got to New Caledonia, and, of course, finally to East Australia. There was sort of a disconnect.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: The same songs kept turning up, but in different places.

ELLEN GARLAND: I talked with other researchers, and they were like, "Wow, I've seen that song type. What is it doing over there in that year?"

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: What was going on? It wasn't until Ellen mapped everything out, over time, that a picture began to emerge.

Consider the blue song. In 2002, it enters the charts in East Australia; in 2003, it's all the rage in Tonga; 2004, it's a hit in Samoa; and by 2005, it's number one in the Cook Islands. Meanwhile, back in East Australia, those trendsetters had picked up a brand new tune.

ELLEN GARLAND: All of the males threw the current blue song out the window and started singing this dark red song type.

And then, once they were singing it, it was then passed to the next population over, which is New Caledonia. And all those males learnt this brand new song type, and again and again, across the South Pacific, so to Tonga, American Samoa, the Cook Islands and finally to French Polynesia.

It's almost a game of telephone across the South Pacific.

TECUMSEH FITCH: It was kind of like Beatlemania when the, you know, the British invasion came over and transformed American music.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And this didn't just happen once. As Ellen dug deeper, she found that this same thing happened year after year.

ELLEN GARLAND: And that was the really big "eureka" moment.

BRENDA MCCOWAN (University of California, Davis): The fact that we see repertoires of song shifting from one population to another, across the Pacific, in humpback whales, shows that humpback whales have cultural transmission. That's a big deal, because culture was once thought to be uniquely human.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: No one knows how these songs start, but why would male whales put so much effort into switching them?

ELLEN GARLAND: We think that it's something to do with novelty. A novel song makes you stand out against the background of singers around you. You want to be able to stand out to that female and maybe you'll get more matings.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But are they just sexy tunes? Could there be any lyrics?

ELLEN GARLAND: So, exact content in them, what their message is, that's still unknown.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Could we ever know if any information is being exchanged?

It's the same problem faced by scientists at SETI who listen to signals from space, hoping to find signs of intelligent life.

BRENDA MCCOWAN: SETI's really interested in knowing whether or not there are other beings in the universe that are intelligent. And one of the ways to do that is to quantify and understand communication.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: So, why not start by trying to decode the "alien tongues" right here on Earth?

LAURANCE DOYLE (SETI Institute): Looking at the stars and saying, "Are we alone?" I don't think is as useful as looking at the millions of other communication systems that are nonhuman on Earth, and studying them, so that if and when an extraterrestrial signal is received, we'll have a feel for nonhuman communication.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Easier said than done.

ARIK KERSHENBAUM (Cambridge University): We're faced with a big problem, which is we don't have any idea what the meanings of the sounds are, so we can't translate them. We've got no Rosetta stone; we can't say, "This sound means 'fish,' and that means 'dog.'"

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Think about it for a second.

Imagine you were an alien peering down on Earth, trying to decipher what these odd creatures had to say.

How would you know what to listen to?

This music stuff?

Laughter? Crying?

When you think about it, we humans are making lots of noise, and only a fraction of it contains information we call language. How would you be able to pick out the right parts?

Well, this is where the math comes in.

ARIK KERSHENBAUM: We're really looking for a statistical fingerprint for language. Is there something about the way that the sounds have been put together into a sequence that is characteristic of language?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Consider ours for a moment.

jj In 1945, linguist George Zipf asked his students to plot out the frequency of each of the 264,430 words used in James Joyce's Ulysses.

LAURANCE DOYLE: He drew a straight line through it, and it had a 45-degree, minus-1 slope.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Oddly, the most frequent word occurred exactly twice as often as the second most frequent word, three times as often as the third most frequent word, and so on down the line.

In the logarithmic scale that mathematicians use, it looks like this.

LAURANCE DOYLE: So, he thought, "That's interesting, what if I take another book?"

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Darwin's Origin of Species.

LAURANCE DOYLE: Same thing. "What if I take a Chinese book?" Same thing.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Turns out, every human language on the planet follows this rule, from Swahili to Arabic to Eskimo. It's called Zipf's law.

BRENDA MCCOWAN: It suggests it that the structure of language is fundamentally the same, across different languages.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: So, what about animals? Brenda McCowan at U.C. Davis and Laurance Doyle at SETI-yes, the search for extraterrestial intelligence-wanted to find out. So, they decided to analyze one of the most intelligent animals we know: dolphins. They communicate with an elaborate repertoire of whistles.

BRENDA MCCOWAN: By categorizing whistles into what we would call words, if you will. And I don't mean that literally, but the idea is to categorize signals into types.

LAURANCE DOYLE: Brenda McCowan had collected a bunch of signals and gotten their frequency of occurrence. And one morning, I got up and decided, "Well, I wonder if this obeys Zipf's law."

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And wouldn't you know.

LAURANCE DOYLE: It obeyed Zipf's law. So, I went and had a cup of tea, and then I went back and did it again. And it obeyed Zipf's law.

BRENDA MCCOWAN: I was pretty excited. Because, I mean, it could have been anything. I mean, what's the probability that you're going to find something that is a negative-one slope in another species? It's, it's, you know, not only exciting, but seems highly improbable.

LAURANCE DOYLE: It's one of those moments in science, where you're going, "Wait a second, dolphins have a communication system with potential complexity as complex as humans." It doesn't measure meaning, but it does measure what they could be saying.

BRENDA MCCOWAN: It doesn't necessarily mean that dolphins have language. It just means that they may have a complex communication system that functions like language.

ANDRE FENTON: Which brings us to the question, "Do any animals have language?"

ARIK KERSHENBAUM: People have set up language as being really the only remaining trait that separates us from all other animals. The trouble is that language cannot be simply binary. It cannot be the case that we have language and no one else has even a part of a language. That goes against everything we know about how evolution works. So, there must be a spectrum of linguistic ability among animals.

ANDRE FENTON: And, in fact, all the research today is telling us how much we share with animals, but a huge mystery remains.

Where does language come from? Unlike our other features, like opposable thumbs or walking upright, there are no fossils for speech.

The only way to answer this question is to dive deep into the biology, into our brains, our cells and the very genes that make up you and me and every creature on Earth.

Could it be that we're not as special as we think?

ERICH JARVIS: Many people have been assuming that we're much more different than animals when it comes to language. When we start to realize the similarities, then we start to learn how we can get at this mystery of where language came from.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: This is the question that drives Erich Jarvis at Rockefeller University. A formally trained dancer from the Bronx, he's long been fascinated by language.

ERICH JARVIS: I felt like being trained as a dancer trained me to become a scientist, because both require a lot of discipline, hard work, creativity, lots of failure before you get success.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And in the past 29 years, Erich has had a lot of success, but the path to get there was not easy.

ERICH JARVIS: I guess my story begins with being born here in New York City. We had what one might consider a broken family. My father, he eventually became homeless, and he was later killed by gang who were killing homeless people. So, I grew up with a single mother. We were not a wealthy family. Culturally, we were wealthy. I followed my mother's wisdom of trying to do something that has a positive impact on society, so I decided, "I'm going to become a scientist."

I had to learn that it is more difficult for me, because I didn't have much to compare to. There wasn't anybody in my family, anybody in my friend circle, anybody in my neighborhood that I knew was a scientist.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Nonetheless, Erich forged ahead, delving for answers about the origin of language in the brains of songbirds.

ERICH JARVIS: This mystery of where language came from, 10 years ago, we had very little clue. But now, we're at the point where we're starting to understand how language brain pathways evolve and the underlying genes that control that.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Little did he know, a huge clue would come from a single family.

ERICH JARVIS: When we first heard about the family, it was the first time that anybody had found any genetic change that causes something specific for speech.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Three generations of the Kearney family had difficulty speaking. Analysis of the family's D.N.A. led to a gene called FoxP2.

Humans with a mutation in the FoxP2 gene, who are otherwise normal, have trouble making complex sounds.

ERICH JARVIS: They can do kaa kaa kaa kaa kaa. They have trouble producing complex syllables, like "con-di-tion."

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Songbirds also have a FoxP2 gene. And when Erich inserted the same mutation into them, they too had trouble.

ERICH JARVIS: Then the birds can't imitate properly, just like in humans. Even though we're separated by 300-million years from a common ancestor, a gene became used for a similar purpose in humans and vocal learning in birds.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Turns out all animals have a FoxP2 gene, but it was assumed that it only affected communication in vocal learners.

But if this were true, why would all animals have the gene? Erich wondered if its effect on communication could be more profound. So, he decided to try the same experiment in a species that doesn't learn its vocalizations, mice. They don't just squeak…

ERICH JARVIS: …they sing. When pitched down to the human hearing range, actually sound like songbird songs. It's amazing.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And like many songbirds, the males sing to impress the ladies.

ERICH JARVIS: Usually, when you put a female with a male he produces these complex, very modulated syllables. We call them the sexy songs.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But unlike songbirds, mice are born knowing their songs.

ERICH JARVIS: Our assumption was that mice are vocal non-learners, so putting this human mutation that causes a speech deficit shouldn't do anything to their vocal behavior.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: If the FoxP2 mutation does affect mice, that would mean the roots of human language spread well beyond a handful of vocal learners.

ERICH JARVIS: So above the cage here is a microphone that detects in the ultrasonic range.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: To find out, you need to take twin mice like these, identical in every way except the mutation. First, the normal mouse…

ERICH JARVIS: I'm going to go ahead and put him in a cage now, and see how he responds to this female. And I'm going to expect, since he doesn't have the mutation, that he's going to produce more complex songs to her. So, here we go.

There he goes. That's a complex syllable type. There he goes. See? So, like, we have these pitch jumps here, from here to here, here to here, and then these long syllables like these, followed by short ones. This is what a normal animal should be singing.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Now, for his brother, the mouse carrying the same mutant version of the gene that affects speech in humans and songbirds.

ERICH JARVIS: Okay, so, now I'm going to take his brother, who has the FoxP2 mutation, and I'm going to put him in the cage. So, our question is will his mutation affect his ability to produce song, and if so, how?

Here he goes, here he goes. These are more simple syllables. Simple, here you go. He's singing. So, this guy, he's behaving normally, but he doesn't seem to want to produce these more complex sequences, as we've seen in his brother.

This female she's like "ehh."

So, what you see here are sonograms of the sounds that these mice are producing, and what kind of almost looks obvious here, this is the complex song that the wild type mice sing to the female.

You take the FoxP2 mice with the mutation, instead of doing this, they do this. The simple song, where they have these simple syllables, not the same as what you're seeing in the wild type mice.

So, I'm actually even struck more about the stark contrast that I'm seeing in these two brothers, one that doesn't have the mutation and one that does. Everything else about them is the same.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: What it means, according to Erich, is that the roots of human language run deeper than we previously thought. Even in a species that's born knowing its vocal repertoire, FoxP2 appears to affect the ability to make complex sounds.

ERICH JARVIS: And it suggests that it's not a black or white world of the haves and the have-nots; it's a continuum. And it brings us closer to these other animals, in our abilities, in our cognition, in our speech. I'm not saying we're the same. Mice and humans aren't the same; we're more advanced. But we are closer than what people realize.

BRENDA MCCOWAN: Language is like the last barrier that we seem to hold as being truly unique. So, we really sort of have to change our way of thinking about what I would call a continuum between other animals and humans.

CATHERINE HOBAITER: If we only think about human language, and we're only focusing on what might be shared between human language and communication in other species, we could be missing so much of what other species do.

PETER TYACK: I think we've discovered enough and had enough surprises to be absolutely sure that we've just scratched the surface, and that there is this amazingly complex and wonderful world to explore, which should keep generations of biologists and psychologists busy into the future.

Broadcast Credits

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A NOVA Production by Little Bay Pictures for WGBH Boston.

© 2018 WGBH Educational Foundation

All rights reserved

This program was produced by WGBH, which is solely responsible for its content. Some funders of NOVA Wonders also fund basic science research. Experts featured in this film may have received support from funders of this program.

Original funding for this program was provided by the National Science Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DRL-1420749. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

IMAGE:

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Participants

Laurance Doyle
SETI Institute
Rana el Kaliouby
Affectiva
Damian Elias
University of California, Berkeley
André Fenton
New York University
Tecumseh Fitch
University of Vienna
Ellen Garland
University of St. Andrews
Lee Harten
Tel Aviv University
Cat Hobaiter
University of St. Andrews
Erich Jarvis
Rockefeller University
Arik Kershenbaum
Cambridge University
Brenda McCowan
University of California, Davis
Robin Queen
University of Michigan
Jared Taglialatela
Kennesaw State University
Peter Tyack
University of St. Andrews
Talithia Williams
Harvey Mudd College
Yossi Yovel
Tel Aviv University
Klaus Zuberbühler
University of Neuchatel

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What's Living in You?

Discover how a world of microbes living in and on you can make you sick-and keep you healthy. Airing May 2, 2018 at 9 pm on PBS Aired May 2, 2018 on PBS

Program Description

Whether they make you fat, fart, or freak out, microbes play a central role in your life. Right beneath your nose—on your face, in your gut, and everywhere in between—trillions of bacteria, viruses, and fungi are so abundant in your body, they outnumber your human cells. But these aren’t just nasty hitch-hikers. Many are crucial to your survival. Evidence suggests that a diverse microbiome can keep you healthy and, conversely, a damaged one could kill you. NOVA Wonders peers into this microscopic world to discover the fascinating, bizarre, and downright surprising secrets of the human microbiome, including the world’s largest stool bank, which transforms raw stool into life-saving poop pills.

Transcript

NOVA Wonders: What's Living in You?

PBS Airdate: May 2, 2016

TALITHIA WILLIAMS (Mathematician, Harvey Mudd College): What do you wonder about?

ERICH JARVIS (Rockefeller University): The unknown.

FLIP TANEDO (University of California, Riverside): What our place in the universe is?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Artificial intelligence.

ROBOT: Hello.

JARED TAGLIALATELA (Kennesaw State University): Look at this. What's this?

KRISTALA JONES PRATHER (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): Animals.

JARED TAGLIALATELA: An egg.

ANDRE FENTON (Neuroscientist, New York University): Your brain.

RANA EL KALIOUBY (Computer Scientist, Affectiva): Life on a faraway planet.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: NOVA Wonders, investigating the biggest mystery,…

J.A. JOHNSON (Harvard University): We have no idea what's going on there.

JASON KALIRAI (Space Telescope Science Institute): These planets in the middle, we think are in the habitable zone.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: …and making incredible discoveries.

CATHERINE HOBAITER (University of St Andrews): Trying to understand their behavior, their life, everything that goes on here.

DAVID COX (Harvard University): Building an artificial intelligence is going to be the crowning achievement of humanity.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: We are three scientists, exploring the frontiers of human knowledge.

ANDRE FENTON: I'm a neuroscientist, and I study the biology of memory.

RANA EL KALIOUBY: I'm a computer scientist, and I build technology that can read human emotions.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And I'm a mathematician, using big data to understand our modern world. And we're tackling the biggest questions…

SCIENTISTS: Dark energy? Dark energy!

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: …of life…

DAVID T. PRIDE (University of California, San Diego): There's all of these microbes, and we just don't know what they are.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: …and the cosmos. On this episode: the creatures that live on…

MICHELLE TRAUTWEIN (California Academy of Sciences): We have arachnids on our faces.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: …and inside of us.

PIOTR NASKRECKI (Harvard University): It took 45 minutes for the larva to come out of my skin.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But could tiny germs actually be good for us?

KELLY POOLE (C. diff Patient): I said, "Now, these are poop pills?" Who thinks of that?

MONIKA FISCHER (Indiana University Hospital): It's magic!

JACK GILBERT (University of Chicago): It proved that the microbes were playing an active role in shaping our body.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: NOVA Wonders: What's Living In You? Right now.

Take a look around you. Are you alone?

RANA EL KALIOUBY: Are you alone?

ANDRE FENTON: I don't think so.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: The room might look empty, but I've actually got plenty of company.

ANDRE FENTON: She doesn't mean me.

RANA EL KALIOUBY: Or me.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Besides them, I and all of us have got trillions of companions.

RANA EL KALIOUBY: We're talking about the tiny creatures that live all over and inside of us…

ANDRE FENTON: …microbes…

RANA EL KALIOUBY: …like bacteria…

ANDRE FENTON: …viruses…

RANA EL KALIOUBY: …and fungi.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: They're so tiny, you can't see them, but there are more of them in and on your body than there are stars in the galaxy.

RANA EL KALIOUBY: More than there are human cells in your body.

ANDRE FENTON: Altogether, each of us are carrying around about three pounds worth. That's about the same size as your brain.

RANA EL KALIOUBY: What are they all doing in there?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Today, scientists are exploring this invisible zoo of creatures…

RANA EL KALIOUBY: …discovering, not only how they can make us sick…

ANDRE FENTON: …but how they may keep us well.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: It's challenging almost everything we thought we knew about human biology. How much power does this microbial zoo have over our bodies and even our brains?

ANDRE FENTON: I'm Andre Fenton.

RANA EL KALIOUBY: I'm Rana el Kaliouby.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: I'm Talithia Williams. And in this episode, Nova Wonders: What's Living in You? And can you live without it?

PIOTR NASKRECKI: This is a black swallowtail butterfly, one of the most beautiful North American butterflies.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Harvard scientist Piotr Naskrecki has studied animals in forests around the world for more than three decades,…

PIOTR NASKRECKI: I just found a nest of citronella ants. They actually smell like citronella.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: …but bugs are his specialty. And it was a mosquito like this that forever changed his view of what was living inside him.

PIOTR NASKRECKI: I was in Belize, teaching a course in macro-photography, and while there, I was bitten a lot by mosquitoes. After coming back home to Boston, I realized that some of my mosquito bites were not really healing. And when I looked closely, I could see a thin, little straw-like structure that emerges from the wound every now and then to take a gulp of air. And being an entomologist, I realized that this is a breathing tube of a botfly.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Botflies are parasites whose larvae grow on animals in the rainforests of Central and South America.

PIOTR NASKRECKI: Because of their very interesting life cycle, they are very difficult to see.

The botfly female catches a mosquito in flight, and holds it, and glues the eggs to the abdomen of the mosquito. When the eggs detect the heat of the body of the host, they immediately hatch, and then they crawl into the hole made by the proboscis of the mosquito.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Since botflies never land on their host, he figured the best way to actually see one was to raise the larvae to adulthood, in his own body.

PIOTR NASKRECKI: Obviously, even me, as, as an entomologist, I had this initial reaction of slight, slight revulsion. But that lasted for about three seconds, and then I thought, "What a fantastic chance for me to document it and show it to the world."

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: The larvae spent about three months growing in the skin of his arm, until they were the size of large peanuts.

PIOTR NASKRECKI: I think that the movie Alien got it wrong. A parasite doesn't want to be painful, because a victim that's thrashing, running, ripping things is likely to injure that animal that's, that's emerging from its body.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: In fact, a botfly actually releases an anesthetic into his host.

PIOTR NASKRECKI: They just pump you with painkillers, so you don't know that you have them, and they produce antibiotics, so the, the wound doesn't fester. It wasn't painful; it wasn't unpleasant; it was very interesting. I know it sounds weird, but I felt an almost, almost father-child relationship with this organism that was growing in my body. It took 45 minutes for the larva to come out of my skin. I prepared a special container, and sure enough, it dropped into that soil, and in about three or four hours, it turned into the puparium, which is, kind of, an equivalent of a butterfly's chrysalis.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: After six weeks, it finally emerged, and though the botfly would only live for a few more days, its effect has endured.

PIOTR NASKRECKI: The experience of having a botfly made me realize that we, ourselves, are an ecosystem. Our bodies are inhabited by a number of organisms, sometimes permanently or just temporarily.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: For some, this lesson might come a little close for comfort.

MICHELLE TRAUTWEIN: Would you be interested in seeing your face mites?

PASSERBY: No!

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Michelle Trautwein's research into face mites is part of the growing trend to figure out what exactly is living inside us.

MICHELLE TRAUTWEIN: My research grew out of this natural shock that I had when I first heard that we have arachnids living on our faces.

There it is.

MAN #1 PARTICIPATING IN MICHELLE TRAUTWEIN'S RESEARCH: Wow! They have little, like, legs? Like little appendages?

MICHELLE TRAUTWEIN: What you're looking at there are his four tiny little claws, that they use to climb and hang on into your pores. Here's this long tail, here, which is the perfect shape of a hair follicle.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Even though these creatures live, literally, under our noses, we know surprisingly little about their two week lifecycle, because discoveries depend on chance encounters under a microscope.

MICHELLE TRAUTWEIN: Supposedly, they come out of your pores at night, and the males and females have sex on your face, then go back down into the pores to lay the eggs. We actually got to witness the birth of an egg. It's almost like a third of the size of the mite itself. It's the only time we have seen it before, but the truth is that's happening on every human's face, all over the world, all the time, which is incredible to think about.

MAN #2 PARTICIPATING IN MICHELLE TRAUTWEIN'S RESEARCH: So, that's… they're only on your face?

MICHELLE TRAUTWEIN: No, no. They're all over.

I don't think there is anything you can do, in terms of face washing, showering, whatnot, that will get rid of them.

We have two different species that live on us, one a little deeper than the other. So, I like to scrape hard to make sure I get that second species.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Michelle's trying to build the largest database of mites and mite D.N.A. ever collected.

MICHELLE TRAUTWEIN: You can't see them with the naked eye.

One mite is about as long as the width of a piece of your hair, about a tenth of a millimeter.

Oh, oh, oh. Look at this. You have got a beauty. Look at that. That's the best one we have seen all day.

MAN #3 PARTICIPATING IN MICHELLE TRAUTWEIN'S RESEARCH: Thank you. I'm an overachiever.

MICHELLE TRAUTWEIN: Oh, my gosh. He's probably been eating some earwax there.

They're not just these, you know, bugs on our face. They have this incredible ability to be storytellers and tell us more about our own history.

As a species, they've been with us since our origins, so they've…you know, hundreds of thousands of years. And I assume that we just inherited them from the ape ancestors before us. But, but the truth is, we don't know.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But we do know they've been on Earth hundreds of times longer than we have.

MICHELLE TRAUTWEIN: What's interesting about these two species on us, is that even though they look very similar, they are probably 80-million years divergent from each other, which is probably as closely as bats are related to elephants. I mean they're so distant, it's almost like we showed up to their party. We're really the newcomers here for sure.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: If you're surprised by mites, you'll be shocked by what else is living in and on your body. Everywhere around us there are trillions of viruses, fungi and bacteria. They live on our skin, in our guts, all throughout our bodies. These creatures make up our "microbiome," the complex ecosystem that calls our body, "home."

JONATHAN EISEN (University of California, Davis): We look around the world, and we see butterflies and trees and cats and dogs. And we see them, and we can understand what they're doing. But the microbes, they're tiny. I mean, they're thousands of times smaller than a millimeter. And that's why we tend to ignore them.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: The bacteria, in particular, play a key role. These single-celled creatures can be round, spiral or rod-shaped. And while they can make you sick, you might not realize bacteria can also keep you well. They play a vital role in your body, from helping you digest your food to fighting off dangerous invaders. This complicated relationship has been going on since before there were humans, because bacteria have been around from the very beginning.

Imagine that the tips of my fingers, over here, represent the formation of the earth four-and-a-half-billion years ago, and the tips of my fingers, over here, are present day. There's evidence that life in the form of single- celled bacteria first appeared somewhere around my wrist, over here. But it took another three-billion years, around my elbow, over here, before the most basic multi-celled animals evolved. Mammals didn't show up until around the fingers of this hand. And humans? We only appeared in the last millimeter of my fingernail. One swipe of a nail file, and all traces of our existence would vanish.

Microbes have been the most abundant form of life for most of Earth's existence. We've been living with them all around and inside of us and the incredible thing is, for most of our history, we had no idea they were even there.

For millennia, humans struggled to see anything smaller than the width of a human hair, but in the late 1600s, Dutchman Antonie van Leeuwenhoek peered through a microscope and discovered a new universe.

JACK GILBERT: He started looking at little bits of white stuff he found in his teeth; he started looking at water in his backyard. And he was finding tiny little dancing organisms, what he called "animalcules," under these very crude microscopes.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: To show the world, he made illustrations, images of single-celled creatures, including what we now call "bacteria."

JACK GILBERT: A lot of people didn't believe the drawings. People looked at these and said, "These can't be real. These things don't exist, they would exist everywhere." Turns out, Leeuwenhoek was right, and we were living in a microbial world.

JONATHAN EISEN: Seeing these tiny little things, which they weren't sure what they were, but they could tell that they were alive…it was absolutely a revolution.

DAVID PRIDE: They realized that the human body is more than just a compilation of our own cells, but it's also a compilation of many different, what they called "animal" cells. We didn't have a sense of what they were. Are these things that contribute to human health and disease? We really had no idea at the time.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: It was nearly 200 years before French scientist Louis Pasteur helped explain what some of these creatures were actually doing to our bodies.

JACK GILBERT: Pasteur proposed this idea called "germ theory." There were organisms in the air that, when they got into a wound or they got inside the body, can make the body turn sick.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: His theory led to the discovery of specific microbes, or "pathogens" that had caused incalculable human suffering.

JACK GILBERT: Tens of millions of us were dying a year of things like tuberculosis, of measles, of rubella; so much so that people would take photos of their dead children along with their living children, because death was so ever-prevalent. It was so constant in our lives that we accepted it.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: We didn't understand the process at the time, but there are lots of ways pathogens can make us sick: Vibrio cholera, the source of cholera, secretes molecules that drain fluids and nutrients from the cells of our intestines; Clostridium botulinum, which causes botulism, releases a toxin that blocks neurotransmitters and paralyzes muscles. And microbes have also evolved elaborate ways of manipulating each other.

LITA PROCTOR (National Institutes of Health): There's a whole suite of tools that microbes have to actually kill off or chase off other microbes: they produce a kind of microbial syringe to puncture the cells of other competing microbes or they may produce toxins.

JONATHAN EISEN: These toxins are poisonous to our cells and can make you really, really sick.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Casualties of microbial warfare, we were helpless, until an accidental discovery changed medicine forever.

NARRATOR OF ARCHIVE FILM FOOTAGE: In one of the glass dishes where he cultured germs for his experiments, Fleming noticed, one day in 1928, that some mold, had begun to grow.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: British microbiologist Alexander Fleming noticed that a mold called Penicillium had grown in one of his petri dishes and killed the bacteria he'd been studying. The mold was releasing a chemical that weakened the cell walls of the bacteria, so as they grew larger, they would explode and die. Scientists used the mold to make a miracle drug called "penicillin," and the first antibiotic was born.

JACK GILBERT: You have to understand how transformative this was. Before this, if you got a cut on your finger and it got infected, you could get septicemia. You get a bacterial infection in your blood, it could be fatal.

DAVID PRIDE: Before antibiotics it was, in essence, a coin-flip whether or not you're going to get better.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: During World War II, penicillin saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers. It was the dawn of a new antibiotic age, and we developed an arsenal from the natural chemicals that microbes had long used to fight each other.

JACK GILBERT: For the vast majority of time on this earth, it's just been single-celled organisms. And they were fighting like a tiger and a lion would fight if you put them in a cage. They were fighting for space, they were fighting for resources. And they started to produce chemicals to kill each other off. So, antibiotics have been around, we suppose, for billions of years, right? This is not something new.

SCIENTIST IN ARCHIVAL FILM: We have streptomycin, aureomycin, terramycin, chloromycin, arithromycin, magnamycin, bacitracin…

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Since the early days of discovery, we've produced dozens of antibiotics that cure a huge range of ailments. Fueled by our success, we launched an all-out war on germs.

DAVID PRIDE: It's difficult to think of a breakthrough in human history that's had a greater effect on modern medicine.

RANA EL KALIOUBY: The war on germs is still going on today. Every supermarket is filled with soaps, detergents and disinfectants, designed not just to clean, but to kill germs and keep us safe. But what if all germs aren't all bad? Is it possible that some microbes are actually helpful? Could it be that some dirt is good?

JACK GILBERT: We're going down to the pond. We are going to get enough gubbins in this to make a whole living ecosystem, all right?

CHILDREN WITH JACK GILBERT: Yeah. Yeah!

JACK GILBERT: …like a little terrarium. It's going to be fun.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Microbiologist Jack Gilbert has been trying to answer this question for decades.

JACK GILBERT: That's it, put it in there!

When I was a kid, I used to like to make ecosystems in jars, let it create a new world, almost like our planet in a microcosm. And that led me to really love biology. Somebody offered me to go and study bacteria in the Antarctic. I was 21 years old; for me that was an adventure. And so, right there in the wastes of Antarctica, I could understand microbes in the same way as I could understand insects, and birds and animals.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Like other creatures, humans are filled with trillions of microbes. Altogether, they weigh several pounds and do everything from producing vitamins to training our immune systems. Scientists like Jack are starting to discover how microbes can affect our health, and lately, his work has taken a very personal turn.

JACK GILBERT: As a father, when my son was diagnosed with autism, I wanted to do something. I wanted to "fix the problem." It took me ages to realize that I couldn't even consider "fixing" my son. He's my son, and he's wonderful and beautiful just the way he is. But what I wanted to do is find ways to use my knowledge of the microbes and their effect upon our bodies to really help children who are suffering from different types of diseases.

The little worms are looking in the holes. Isn't that cool?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Jack thinks modern living has isolated us from key microbes that evolved with us over time.

JACK GILBERT: In America, we spend 90 percent of our lives living inside, right? That's crazy; we're an outdoor species. We used to work outdoors nearly all day. We, our kids used to play outdoors all the time.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: He wants to figure out if these changes to our lifestyle affect our health.

JACK GILBERT: So, I'm very interested in trying to understand the intricate relationships between our microbiome and our body's health and wellness.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: With so little known about our microbiome, Jack and others are looking for a place to start this exploration.

REPORTER #1: Every three minutes in the United States, someone visits the emergency room with a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction to food.

REPORTER #2: Asthma is one of the most common childhood medical conditions, especially in urban areas.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Over the last 20 years, life-threatening allergies in the United States have increased 50 percent, and asthma has gone up by about a quarter. Jack is trying to figure out why these immune-related diseases are on the rise, and he's intrigued by one group that's bucked this trend, the Amish.

JACK GILBERT: Hi. How's it going?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: When it comes to their health, the Amish are surprisingly similar to other Americans: they vaccinate their children, use antibiotics and have about the same life expectancy, but for some reason, they have half as many allergies as the general population.

DENNIS LEHMAN (Indiana Amish Community): We are taught to live a simple and plain lifestyle, close to God. I think that is the foundation of everything we do or should be. Working with animals is very basic, it's part of us.

JACK GILBERT: The homes are on the farm, I mean yards from the barn. So, the whole family will be working in that environment, pretty much from birth, all right? And that gives them a really large exposure to the microbial world of the farm.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: There are possibly billions of species of bacteria on the planet, but fewer than 50 regularly make us sick. Jack thinks exposure to many of the other bacteria is actually a good thing, because it can help train our immune systems not to overreact to the world.

The key are "soldier cells," part of the immune system. They travel through the bloodstream searching for bacteria and other foreign objects.

JACK GILBERT: When they find one, they tell the immune system, "Hey, there's something here." And what the immune system does, it comes in with these things called "macrophages," which are like little Pac-Men, right? They "nom, nom, nom." They come along and they munch up the soldier cells and the bacteria.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: The body then produces more soldier cells that keep looking for foreign targets. But Jack thinks that if a person is not exposed to a wide range of invaders, and the soldier cells aren't kept busy, then, when they do find something, they can overreact, causing allergy symptoms.

JACK GILBERT: What we see, when we look at the immune system of Amish children, is that they have a lot of these soldier cells running around inside their body. And they're constantly being exposed to lots of things all the time, so you have this very active immune system.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: To see if there's something unusual about the microbes on Amish farms, Gilbert's team exposed lab mice, predisposed to allergies, to Amish dust. Remarkably, they never developed symptoms.

JACK GILBERT: If you can, get it down there in that crack, 'cause then it will collect it.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: So now, Jack and his research partner, Mark Holbreich want to know what makes this dust so special.

JACK GILBERT: We are using these sampling devices up in the barns, in the milking sheds, even in the house. And then we can collect the dust from this material, which allows us to extract it and find out what microbes are in it.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Could a certain combination of microbes protect us? Perhaps ones we've evolved with for millions of years but have now lost touch with in the modern world?

The rise in allergies and asthma is not the first clue that our war on microbes may be causing collateral damage. One of the first signs involved a surprising discovery about another common illness.

ARCHIVAL FILM: Those stomach pains that you talk about, the gnawing, the burning, those are obvious symptoms of gastric ulcer. What I want you to do is to work on your attitude.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: For years, doctors were convinced ulcers were caused by stress and unhealthy lifestyle choices.

MYLANTA ADVERTISEMENT ACTOR: I started to think there was something really wrong with my stomach.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: They could be life-threatening, and millions struggled with chronic pain.

MYLANTA ADVERTISEMENT ACTOR: You don't need a prescription, you just need Mylanta.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: The only relief was antacids, or, in severe cases, surgery.

DAVID PRIDE: I remember my early years as a physician, still going around being taught that ulcers are caused by stress. Hearing other physicians tell their patients, "You need to calm down and be less stressed."

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But in the early 1980s, Australian doctors Barry Marshall and Robin Warren made a shocking discovery. When they examined biopsies of gastric ulcers, nearly all of them were overrun with this never before identified bacterium, H. pylori. They proposed a new theory that flew in the face of all conventional wisdom. Could this newly discovered bacterium cause ulcers?

BARRY MARSHALL (University of Western Australia, Archival Film Footage): So, we started off trying to make some animal models. We couldn't infect rats, we couldn't infect pigs.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Since H. pylori only seemed to infect humans, Marshall used himself as a test subject.

BARRY MARSHALL (Archival Film Footage): Five or six days later, I started waking up at about five o'clock in the morning and running into the bathroom and throwing up.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: A test showed he was overrun with H. pylori and had gastritis, the precursor to an ulcer. He used antibiotics to kill off the H. pylori and was cured. Proving that H. pylori can cause ulcers was a major medical breakthrough, and, in 2005, Marshall and Warren won the Nobel Prize.

Now, common antibiotics like tetracycline or amoxicillin could be used to help cure most ulcers.

DAVID PRIDE: In the field at the time, there was a saying that would go around, and that was, "The only good Helicobacter pylori is a dead Helicobacter pylori." And that's what all of our efforts were towards doing, was eradicating Helicobacter pylori.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: A hundred years ago, most people on the planet had H. pylori in their stomachs. After the discovery in the 80s that it could cause ulcers, U.S. doctors wrote millions of antibiotic prescriptions, aimed at killing the microbe. Today, this bacteria is found in only about a third of all Americans, and the number of people suffering from ulcers has declined by 40 percent. But, while ulcer numbers came down, researchers like David Pride were discovering things might be more complicated than they first appeared.

DAVID PRIDE: So Helicobacter pylori has evolved with us for tens of thousands of years, and now that we're eliminating the organism, we're starting to see a different group of diseases pop up.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: These range from cancer to allergies, asthma and even obesity. But does H. pylori contribute to their rise? Scientists don't know yet, but after decades of waging war against microbes, we can no longer simply look at them as enemies to be eliminated.

DAVID PRIDE: Traditionally, we've thought of microbes as pathogens, so a pathogen being an organism that's going to come into the body, do us absolutely no good and cause disease. But it's a really complicated situation to try and figure out what should we eliminate? How do we eliminate it, and what are the consequences if we eliminate the organisms?

LITA PROCTOR: It isn't a simple, "Remove this microbe and you get rid of this condition." You remove this microbe and then you lose another property that this microbe actually provided to the human host. To me, that's the key takeaway from the H. pylori story.

RANA EL KALIOUBY: After centuries of seeing germs as evil, biologists are discovering it's not so simple.

Take this germ, Escherichia coli, E. coli for short. Like a lot of bacteria, it looks like a tiny, hairy hotdog. This is a hotdog you don't want to eat. It produces a toxin that puts thousands of Americans in the hospital, and kills about 30 every year. But that's just some kinds of E. coli; there are dozens of other strains.

Most of you have some in your gut right now, and they're not hurting you. In fact, a bunch of them are busy breaking down your last meal and producing vitamins your body needs.

Good and bad, they look exactly the same. So, how can we tell the difference? It turns out, the only way is to look at their genes, their D.N.A.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: At the University of California, San Diego, scientists have collected thousands of oral, fecal and skin samples from donors around the world.

DELIVERY PERSON: Thank you.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: They're hoping to build a map of what lives in and on us.

After more than a century of studying how microbes make us sick, they want to understand how they can make us healthy, but they can't do it by just looking.

ROB KNIGHT (University of California, San Diego): In the old days, Pasteur could find out there were a lot of bacteria somewhere just by looking down a microscope, but you couldn't really find out what sort were there. In contrast, what we're doing is we're sequencing the D.N.A. of the microbe's genome, so we can tell the kinds of microbes apart.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Studying the microbiome in this way has become possible only recently, with powerful supercomputers processing enormous amounts of D.N.A. data.

Lines on the screen show connections between 12,000 donors and the trillions of microbial genes they carry. The goal is to identify the microbes that inhabit us and what combination makes our bodies healthy or unhealthy.

ROB KNIGHT: Can we have a look at this one?

Everywhere we look, every person we look at, we find more and more unique microbial genes where we have no idea what they do, at this point.

…COG3765, about which nothing is known.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: They're looking to see if lifestyle choices, like where you live or what you eat, affect what lives inside you. And while they don't yet know what a healthy microbiome looks like, patterns suggest the key is balance and diversity.

JONATHAN EISEN: It's not single microbes that have the effect that seem to be important, it's collections of microbes, the number of species that you find in the sample that relates to some interesting health properties.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Many new studies have found a connection between microbial diversity and health. After generations of waging war on microbes, these discoveries may revolutionize how we understand and treat our bodies.

Exploration of this new biological frontier is just beginning, and the deeper scientists go into our guts, the more they realize it's not a wasteland at all. It's more like a lush jungle, and, like a jungle, it seems to thrive on diversity.

Healthy people seem to have thousands of different kinds of microbes sharing territory and resources, but if that balance gets disturbed, and certain microbes begin to dominate the jungle, the entire body can be put at risk.

And sometimes, one way to save it may be with a very special kind of transplant.

SAM (OpenBiome Donor): I'm a healthy person. I eat well. I am active. You know, I was fortunate enough to fall into the categories that they're looking for.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Sam is one of an elite group of donors for a cutting edge medical procedure that saves thousands of lives. Only three percent of those who apply are approved, a far lower acceptance rate than Harvard.

ZAIN KASSAM (OpenBiome): These are young individuals, on average, around their mid- to late twenties. They are lean. They have a robust diet that's higher fiber content than the average individual.

SAM: Good morning.

ZAIN KASSAM: They really are the Olympic athletes of poop.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Sam's donation will be used in a fecal transplant, giving his healthy gut bacteria to a sick patient.

ZAIN KASSAM: Fecal transplants are the closest thing to a miracle I've seen in medicine.

JACK GILBERT: Some people call the fecal microbiome transplant the "brown bullet," like the "silver bullet," but it works.

MONIKA FISCHER: We just know that stool works. We don't know, though, what is in the stool; an extremely complex matter.

DAVID PRIDE: …this sort of biological dark matter, where there's all of these microbes there, and we just don't know what they are.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Countless animals eat feces to diversify their gut microbes. Even among humans, the practice dates back to fourth-century China, when patients drank bowls of feces soup. But until recently, it wasn't part of western medicine. Now, a thousand hospitals, in all 50 states get their stool from one company, OpenBiome. And they rely on donors, like Sam, who are paid $40 for each deposit. Each gram of stool contains perhaps 100-billion bacteria and hundreds of millions of other microbes.

The feces is mixed with saline and a preservative, this brown liquid is not heated or sterilized, because the goal is to fill edible capsules with living germs. These pills will be used to treat a gut infection, called Clostridium difficile, that kills nearly 15,000 Americans a year.

Up to three percent of healthy adults have C. diff in their guts. A rod-shaped bacteria, its many long legs, called "flagella," can help it colonize the gut quickly, if given the chance.

ZAIN KASSAM: Clostridium difficile is a bacteria that lives in your gut naturally, but it's kept at bay because of all the good bacteria. The challenge comes when you have antibiotics for many other reasons and that kills a lot of the good bacteria that were out-competing C. diff, and then C. diff can kind of run rampant.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: That's exactly what has happened to Kelly Poole after taking antibiotics for dental work. Now, she has a C. diff infection that's been utterly debilitating.

KELLY POOLE: I've been pretty miserable. The stomach cramps and just the overall, just the pain. I didn't leave my house for two or three weeks, because all of a sudden, it's like, you don't even know you have to go to the bathroom, you have to go to the bathroom right now. So, I mean, it's glamorous.

ZAIN KASSAM: C. difficile is really hard to treat. In fact, "difficile" means difficult in Latin. Antibiotics work on the order of magnitude of about 40 percent of the time, but fecal transplants work about 89 percent of the time. That's tremendously effective. Not too many things in medicine work nearly 90 percent of the time. So, I think what we really have to do is start to question our assumptions of what is disgusting and what we feel about that.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Even though they are the main source of the problem, more antibiotics are the usual treatment for C diff infections. But after taking multiple courses, Kelly is still sick, so she's come to see Dr. Monika Fischer at Indiana University Hospital.

MONIKA FISCHER: Okay, in and out.

Why is this C. diff epidemic happening?

Good. Just normal breathing.

Because, certain C. diff strains developed resistance to antibiotics.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Antibiotics kill most bacteria, but like any creature under attack, some of the fittest will survive. These reproduce and create a new, resistant generation that can't be killed by antibiotics. In the animal world, the process of natural selection can take millions of years, but bacteria can evolve resistance in only minutes.

JONATHAN EISEN: By putting antibiotics onto a little growth plate with different doses of antibiotic, you can watch in nearly real time, as individual microbes evolve resistance. So, you have Dose Number One, kills most of the microbes that are in that region. But, eventually, a few of them can evolve resistance to that antibiotic, and then they can spread up to the strip of the plate where Dose Number Two is.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: This strip has a higher dose of antibiotics, but soon it and even higher doses will lose out to new resistant strains.

JONATHAN EISEN: They spread across Dose Number Three, and so on. And that's how you can visualize an evolution of resistance to antibiotics.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: In a dangerous cycle, more antibiotics lead to greater C. diff resistance. And, making things worse, antibiotics also kill off the diverse microbes that usually keep C. diff in check.

KELLY POOLE: So, I was on amoxicillin for, like, five days.

MONIKA FISCHER: I see.

KELLY POOLE: And then my doctor…

MONIKA FISCHER: Many of us take antibiotic, you know, for all kinds of reasons. And we all think about killing the bad bugs, right? But we are forgetting about that we are killing the healthy, useful bugs in our colon as well.

MONIKA FISCHER: The amoxicillin, the antibiotic you took, destroyed your healthy bacterial communities in the gut. So, the antibiotics against C. diff don't work, right? So, we have to do something different.

KELLY POOLE: I thought maybe, you know, she had some secret magic pill. It turns out she does.

MONIKA FISCHER: I am recommending that you undergo a fecal transplant.

KELLY POOLE: What is a poop transplant? I've never even heard of that. Who is a poop donor? Who thinks of that?

MONIKA FISCHER: I'm actually lucky to be able to offer it in the form of a capsule, because previously we only could offer it via colonoscopy or enema delivery.

KELLY POOLE: All right, I just have to take a pill and we're done. And she's like, "No, it's 30 pills, all at once." So, that's a little hard to swallow. Maybe it's going to be a little hard to swallow but…And then I said, "Now, these are poop pills? Pills of poop?" And her response to me was, "Well, it's a hundred percent natural." So, there you go.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Taking the pills will work something like an organ transplant, though in this case, the organ will be an entire community of microbes recolonizing an essentially empty gut.

KELLY POOLE: It's weird. There's no doubt about it, it's weird. But one of the doctors told me the Chinese have been drinking a poop soup for a thousand years. Drinking poop soup, that's weird. That would make me squeamish. Taking 30 pills, as disgusting as it may sound, as obscene as it may sound, I don't know why you would not do it.

ANDRE FENTON: You can't blame Kelly for being a bit grossed out. We're taught from the time we were toddlers not to touch poop, never mind eat it! And yet, in some cases, doing the gross thing might be the healthy thing. And in a certain way, it makes sense to transplant the healthy gut of one person over to another.

But it is risky, because researchers are only just beginning to unravel all the intricate connections between our microbiome and our bodies, connections that may reach far beyond our bowels and even to our brains.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: A series of groundbreaking experiments began in 2004. Scientists at Washington University took fecal bacteria from an obese human and gave it to a mouse. The mouse became obese, and our understanding of the power of what's living in us changed forever.

JACK GILBERT: I can't tell you how incredible that was. It was a seminal discovery. It was, it was so important for our field, because it proved that the microbes were playing a role, an active role in shaping our body.

LITA PROCTOR: It opened up all kinds of potentials. You could test all kinds of things. Now you could transfer human microbes to mice, and to elicit a change in the mice? To me, that was amazing.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Soon, researchers began to study the effect of the microbiome on nearly every part of the body, even the brain. Our brains are directly linked to our guts through one of the longest nerves in our bodies, the vagus nerve. It helps regulate a wide range of involuntary functions, like heart rate and digestion. And now, scientists are discovering that microbes can affect what travels on this neural superhighway.

JACK GILBERT: Certain bacteria produce neurotransmitters in our gut, which are sensed by our gut environment and actually send signals up to our brain, changing brain chemistry in our heads. So, things like depression, anxiety, autism; things like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's; other neurodevelopmental conditions, even A.D.H.D., could be related to gut bacteria.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Sarkis Mazmanian is trying to understand this brain-gut connection. He works with some of the only bacteria-free creatures on the planet, germ-free mice. Though they're vulnerable to disease, they can live a normal lifespan, if they stay in their bubbles.

SARKIS MAZMANIAN (California Institute of Technology): These animals are called "gnotobiotic" or germ-free animals, and they're devoid of all microorganisms. And so, this allows us to add back any microbe that we want and look at the effects of that microbe on the animal.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Sarkis decided to test the effect of the microbiome on the brain, because certain neurological diseases have a surprising connection to gut disorders, diseases like Parkinson's.

SARKIS MAZMANIAN: Upwards of 80 percent of Parkinson's patients exhibit severe constipation. In most cases, the constipation presents itself years, if not decades before the first onset of motor symptoms.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Could microbes trigger the symptoms of Parkinson's disease? To find out, he's transplanted gut bacteria from humans with Parkinson's into the mice. They stumble and shake as they cross a balance beam.

SARKIS MAZMANIAN: Patients with Parkinson's will have tremors or altered gait, hunched posture and other physical motor impairments. And those mice develop all of the features of Parkinson's: both the underlying pathophysiology, as well as the motor symptoms.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But when he eliminates the bacteria, the symptoms disappear.

SARKIS MAZMANIAN: By removing the gut bacteria, we showed that the symptoms of the animals improved dramatically, to the point where we didn't see any detectable motor symptoms in these animals. The study showed that the microbiota was involved in those symptoms. Now, whether or not the microbiota is driving or can ameliorate or reduce symptoms in human Parkinson's still remains unknown.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: It's possible that a molecule produced by a bacteria in the gut could be sending signals to the brain, through the bloodstream or nerve connections, triggering the symptoms of Parkinson's. For now, the mechanism remains unknown.

To further explore the connection between the gut and the brain, Sarkis is looking at another disease associated with digestive problems: autism. He works with mice that have autism-like symptoms, like repetitive marble burying.

SARKIS MAZMANIAN: The features of autism include repetitive behavior. An animal that has this compulsive behavior, once they bury a few marbles, will feel compelled to bury the next one, and the next one, and the next one.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Sarkis looked at the intestines of these animals and discovered they had a condition known as "leaky gut." An emerging theory is that, in those with leaky gut, the walls of the intestines become more permeable, allowing potentially harmful particles produced by microbes to pass into the bloodstream. And this might shed light on autism.

SARKIS MAZMANIAN: We were really excited, because children with autism also exhibit leaky gut.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And when the team gave the mice a bacteria called B. fragilis, believed to help seal gut walls, something amazing happened.

SARKIS MAZMANIAN: When we carefully selected organisms from the human microbiota, and introduced them to the mice, not only did we see improvements in their gastrointestinal symptoms, but we saw improvements in marble burying.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: The treated mice buried significantly fewer marbles.

SARKIS MAZMANIAN: Using the mouse models, we've been able to reverse the symptoms of autism through the microbiome, but I think it's important to remember these are still early days in research. All mouse models are inherently limited, because they're not the human condition.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: It's too early to know what his discoveries mean, simply because: mice are not human.

JACK GILBERT: What we do in animals doesn't always translate to human beings, but we know that your body is a massive, interconnecting, vibrant ecosystem of life, right? So, when one thing changes, it changes other things.

NURSE #1: (Indiana University Hospital): Kelly?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: We're just beginning to glimpse the countless ways bacteria might be affecting our health, but there's already one microbiome treatment that is consistently effective.

NURSE #1: Thank you.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: In Indiana, Kelly Poole is ready for her fecal transplant.

NURSE #1: So, we're ready to do the capsules. I'm going to go downstairs and get them. They're stored at minus-70 C, so they're going to feel really cold going down.

KELLY POOLE: Okay.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: To preserve the bacteria, the pills have been in a deepfreeze since they were manufactured at OpenBiome in Boston. The microbes aren't affected by the cold.

NURSE #1: All right, Kelly, are you ready to take the capsules?

KELLY POOLE: Sure.

NURSE #1: Here's some water.

KELLY POOLE: That's a big pill.

NURSE #1: I would recommend not swallowing more than two at a time, but…

KELLY POOLE: Two at a time?

NURSE #1: Just do one.

KELLY POOLE: I'm going with one.

NURSE #1: Yeah. Take your time. You have…

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Within minutes, the capsules will open in Kelly's stomach.

KELLY POOLE: You are opening your body up to some risk, and my understanding is, because this is new, they don't know the total story. But on the plus side is, you know, that it's been tested to make sure it doesn't have certain diseases.

That was a big one.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Because there's so much unknown about the relationship between the microbiome and a range of illnesses, the best OpenBiome can do is eliminate donors who might inadvertently transfer something unwanted.

ZAIN KASSAM: The screening process is very rigorous. We look for G.I. diseases; that's kind of an obvious one, for sure. We know there's a connection between the gut and the brain, so we look for psychiatric diseases. We look at obesity; cardiac history and things that we know are very strongly related to the microbiome, like inflammatory bowel disease and colorectal cancer.

NURSE #1: Does it taste like anything?

KELLY POOLE: Unh unh.

LITA PROCTOR: You shouldn't be too surprised how little they know.

KELLY POOLE: There's no taste, but I'm not letting it stick around in there very long. Would you?

LITA PROCTOR: We're very, very early days yet, in this field. These microbes act in communities. We haven't a clue how they interact with each other.

SARKIS MAZMANIAN: We harbor bacteria and viruses that may not cause disease in me, but when transferred to an individual with a different genetic makeup, may affect them adversely.

MONIKA FISCHER: I mean, it's pretty crazy isn't it? That we have no idea what's in the stool, right? We just do it because it works. There's a hundred-trillion bacteria in there; there are viruses; there are fungi. We don't really know what is helping. So, it's pretty amazing stuff.

KELLY POOLE: Last one.

NURSE #1: One more.

KELLY POOLE: Wow, that was the hardest one.

NURSE #1: You did great.

NURSE #2 (Indiana University Hospital): You did great. Awesome!

NURSE #1: Make sure you can feel all the pills go down.

KELLY POOLE: Oh, they're down.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: After C. diff took over her gut, Kelly was unable to leave home for weeks and visited the bathroom dozens of times a day, but within 24 hours, the healthy donor bacteria has started to balance out the C diff, and her symptoms are gone.

KELLY POOLE: You just wake up, and you go to the bathroom the next day, and it's glorious.

MONIKA FISCHER: For me, it's magic. How wonderful that is, that you just take healthy human waste, right, and save someone from dying? And they can put the C. diff misery behind.

DAVID PRIDE: We're sort of a large superorganism. And now that we know that these microbes, particularly the bacteria, are contributing to us in so many different ways and have been evolving with us for so many years now. It sort of changes our outlook on ourselves, where we realize it's not only important that we keep ourselves healthy, but it's important that we keep our microbial communities healthy as well.

JACK GILBERT: We are the frontier of research and development into the roles the microbiome can play in helping us to treat disease and make people healthier. Everything from autism, depression and anxiety, could be related to the microbiome, so, I have hope that we are going to develop therapeutics which will change lives in the future.

CHILDREN WITH JACK GILBERT: That's an ecosystem.

JACK GILBERT: That's a perfect little ecosystem.

CHILDREN WITH JACK GILBERT: We need some fishies.

JACK GILBERT: We got lots of things that are alive in there. We've got insects; we have invertebrates; we've got bacteria; we have archaea; we have fungi; we've got everything. It's an entire world!

Broadcast Credits

HOSTED BY
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CO-HOSTED BY
Rana el Kaliouby
André Fenton
WRITTEN, PRODUCED, AND DIRECTED BY
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A NOVA Wonders Production by Pangloss Films LLC for WGBH Boston

© 2018 WGBH Educational Foundation

All rights reserved

This program was produced by WGBH, which is solely responsible for its content. Some funders of NOVA Wonders also fund basic science research. Experts featured in this film may have received support from funders of this program.

Original funding for this program was provided by the National Science Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DRL-1420749. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

IMAGE:

Image credit (Woman with bacteria)
© LightFieldStudios, Yuri_Arcurs / iStock

Participants

Jonathan Eisen
University of California, Davis
Rana el Kaliouby
Affectiva
André Fenton
New York University
Monika Fischer
Indiana University Hospital
Jack Gilbert
University of Chicago
Zain Kassam
OpenBiome
Rob Knight
University of California, San Diego
Dennis Lehman
Indiana Amish Community
Sarkis Mazmanian
Caltech
Kelly Poole
Patient, Indiana University Hospital
David T. Pride
University of California, San Diego
Lita Proctor
National Institutes of Health
Michelle Trautwein
California Academy of Sciences
Talithia Williams
Harvey Mudd College

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Are We Alone?

Hunt for clues in the universe to answer one of humanity's biggest questions: Are we alone? Airing May 9, 2018 at 9 pm on PBS Aired May 9, 2018 on PBS

Program Description

The search for extraterrestrial life is an age-old quest. But recent breakthroughs make today an era like no other in the history of astronomy. From the exhilarating probing of our own solar system and the Kepler mission’s astounding discovery of thousands of extrasolar planets, to the next-generation telescopes under development, the prospects for finding life beyond Earth have never been stronger. Still, daunting hurdles remain. How can we study anything light years away, let alone a little planet? In the vast universe, where should we even start to look? Is our failure to hear any other voices in the galaxy a sign that we are special? NOVA Wonders joins leading explorers now searching the galaxy for life and intelligence on other planets—and asks, if we do find other life in the universe…what would that mean?

Transcript

NOVA Wonders: Are We Alone?

PBS Airdate: May 9, 2018

TALITHIA WILLIAMS (Mathematician, Harvey Mudd College): What do you wonder about?

ERICH JARVIS (Rockefeller University): The unknown.

FLIP TANEDO (University of California, Riverside): What our place in the universe is?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Artificial intelligence.

ROBOT: Hello.

JARED TAGLIALATELA (Kennesaw State University): Look at this. What's this?

KRISTALA JONES PRATHER (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): Animals.

JARED TAGLIALATELA: An egg.

ANDRE FENTON (Neuroscientist, New York University): Your brain.

RANA EL KALIOUBY (Computer Scientist, Affectiva): Life on a faraway planet.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: NOVA Wonders, investigating the biggest mysteries,…

JOHN ASHER JOHNSON (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics): We have no idea what's going on there.

JASON KALIRAI (Space Telescope Science Institute): These planets in the middle, we think are in the habitable zone.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: …and making incredible discoveries.

CATHERINE HOBAITER (University of St Andrews): Trying to understand their behavior, their life, everything that goes on here.

DAVID COX (Harvard University): Building an artificial intelligence is going to be the crowning achievement of humanity.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: We are three scientists, exploring the frontiers of human knowledge.

ANDRE FENTON: I'm a neuroscientist, and I study the biology of memory.

RANA EL KALIOUBY: I'm a computer scientist, and I build technology that can read human emotions.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And I'm a mathematician, using big data to understand our modern world. And we're tackling the biggest questions…

SCIENTISTS: Dark energy? Dark energy!

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: …of life…

DAVID T. PRIDE (University of Califormia, San Diego): There's all of these microbes, and we just don't know what they are.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: …and the cosmos.

On this episode, the hunt for alien life is on, turning up mysterious clues…

TABETHA BOYAJIAN: This star loves attention, and it makes everybody crazy.

SETH SHOSTAK: That's not a planet. So what is it?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: What are the odds?

SARA SEAGER (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): The ingredients for life are everywhere.

JASON KALIRAI: The universe has hundreds of billions of planets

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But does anything live there?

JOHN ASHER JOHNSON: The chances of us finding life are very high.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Nova Wonders: Are We Alone? Right now.

The planet Earth, a ball of rock about 8,000 miles in diameter: we know there's a lot going on here.

ANDRE FENTON: Almost eight-billion people call it home, along with billions of other species.

RANA EL KALIOUBY: But is this the only place where the action is?

ANDRE FENTON: Our sun is just one of an estimated 300-billion stars in the Milky Way.

RANA EL KALIOUBY: And we think there are at least 100-billion other galaxies.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: So, what are the chances that all the fun is only happening right here, in our tiny corner of the universe?

RANA EL KALIOUBY: Today, astronomers and engineers are building new tools to probe our solar system and our galaxy, hunting for clues of life beyond Earth.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: What are they discovering?

RANA EL KALIOUBY: I'm Rana el Kaliouby.

ANDRE FENTON: I'm Andre Fenton.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: I'm Talithia Williams.

And in this episode, Nova Wonders: Are We Alone? And what would it take to find out?

A few years ago, a group of amateur astronomers discovered a mysterious star. Located about 1,500 lightyears from Earth, the star flickers erratically, and no one knows why. If a star dims at regular intervals, chances are it's caused by an orbiting planet, and typically, it's only by a fraction of one percent. But the light from this star is dimming by more, much more.

SETH SHOSTAK: The thing about this star is the light dims every now and again, but it's being dimmed by 22 percent. So, that's not a planet. That's much too much, even for a Jupiter-sized planet. You don't get anywhere near that kind of dimming. So what is it?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Unlocking the star's secrets becomes the quest of Tabetha Boyajian, a stellar astrophysicist. Soon, people are calling it "Tabby's star."

TABETHA BOYAJIAN: I worked with dozens of other astronomers for several years, trying to figure out what could be causing these strange fluctuations in its light.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Is it caused by an asteroid belt? Or colliding planets?

TABETHA BOYAJIAN: So, we had this long list of ideas. None of them worked.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Then, one of Tabby's colleagues offers a possible idea, a bit outside the standard astronomy box…

TABETHA BOYAJIAN: When I showed him this star he said "Wow, this is really weird, and we don't have an explanation for it." He said, "These things all look like they could be caused by some artificial alien megastructure."

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: …an artificial alien megastructure, a giant structure built by a hypothetical alien civilization to harness the energy from its own sun.

When the word gets out…

REPORTER 1: Talk about the prospects of an alien megastructure…

REPORTER 2: …evidence of alien life.

REPORTER 3: The strange light pattern makes it seem more like a death star planet rather than a star.

TABETHA BOYAJIAN: This star loves attention, and it makes everybody crazy.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: It is farfetched. To dim a star by so much, an alien megastructure would have to be at least half as big as the star itself. But, when the theory is first proposed, astronomers can't rule it out.

AVI LOEB (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics): The behavior of Tabby's star is quite weird.

JOHN ASHER JOHNSON: Given that we have no idea what's going there, I'm not too quick to throw out theories.

PAUL DAVIES (Arizona State University): Could this be some alien megastructure? We don't know.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Tabby and her team will continue to study the star, hoping to find more evidence.

For some people, the idea that there's a civilization out there, capable of building a giant structure around their sun, would be a dream come true.

It's the same dream that fuels our obsession with aliens…

Whether they charm us…

VIN DIESEL (as Groot, in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2): I am groot.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: …frighten us…

ADRIANNE PALICKI (as Cmdr. Kelly Grayson in The Orville): Oh no…

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: …seduce us…

TOM CRUISE (as Cage in Edge of Tomorrow): Aargh.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: …or try to kill Tom Cruise.

TOM CRUISE (as Cage in Edge of Tomorrow): Oh, man, my god.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And it's not just the movies. Even the Pentagon recently admitted that it secretly investigated U.F.O. sightings for years. But what's the reality?

Right now, as far as technologically advanced life goes, we have a sample size of one: us.

In fact, when it comes to any form of life, whether it looks like this or this or this, the only examples we know of are right here on Earth.

And the truth is, if we found even one other example of this kind of life, it would be the biggest scientific discovery in our lifetimes.

So where do we start to look?

In 2009, NASA took a major step in the hunt for life beyond Earth, launching the Kepler Space Telescope, to track down signs of Earthlike planets beyond our solar system.

Up until then, astronomers had found about 300 exoplanets, but few were anything like Earth. Small, rocky planets like ours are not easy to spot.

NATALIE BATALHA (NASA Ames Research Center): Planets are literally lost in the glare of their parent stars. The brightness difference, the contrast between a star like our sun and the earth that's right next to it is 10-billion to one.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: So, instead of hunting for light reflecting off a planet's surface, the telescope focuses on starlight.

JASON KALIRAI: What Kepler did was it looked in a part of the Milky Way galaxy where we had lots of stars in a small field. And it just took pictures over and over again. And occasionally, if those stars have planets, then sometimes those planets would come in front of the star.

JOHN ASHER JOHNSON: As the planet comes around, it's going to block part of the star, and that light won't get to you. And so, that constant level that you see from the star suddenly goes down just a bit.

NATALIE BATALHA: So, these momentary dimmings of light that repeat once every orbit are indicative of a planet orbiting a star.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Astrophysicists, like John Asher Johnson and his team at Harvard, use Kepler data to estimate an orbiting planet's size and distance from its star.

JOHN'S STUDENT #1: The dips are pretty deep, so it must be a fairly large planet.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Deep dips in the star's light mean the planet is really big or the star is really small.

JOHN'S STUDENT #2: The spacing between them, what is that, like a day or two?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And frequent dimming means gravity has drawn it close to the star, making the planet really hot.

JOHN ASHER JOHNSON: Feels pretty much like a classic hot Jupiter.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: A giant broiling ball of gas like this would not be a great spot for life, so the team looks for signals that are more subtle.

AMBER (John A. Johnson's student): Looking at this, it doesn't look like much, but it looks like there is some sort of periodic signal there.

JOHN ASHER JOHNSON: So, what do we know? We know this is small?

AMBER: It's blocking out less than a percent of the light that we're receiving from…

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Something is causing the star to dim ever so slightly and at longer intervals.

Could this be a small planet, closer to Earth's size? And the distance from its sun suggests temperatures potentially comfortable for life.

JOHN ASHER JOHNSON: This is really interesting. I mean, this is exactly the kind of thing we are looking for. This could be a rocky planet somewhere near the habitable zone.

JOHN'S STUDENT: Yeah, this is really exciting.

JOHN ASHER JOHNSON: Yeah.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: The discoveries coming from Kepler have been astounding: nearly 3,000 confirmed planets so far.

JASON KALIRAI: The Kepler Space Telescope blew open our understanding of planets.

NATALIE BATALHA: We have found lava worlds. We've got planets that are orbiting, not one, but two stars. We have found planets that may be covered entirely in liquid water.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And some of these planets are Earth-sized, with temperatures potentially ripe for life.

JOHN ASHER JOHNSON: Kepler allowed us to see the sheer numbers and the absolute commonness of Earth-sized planets throughout the galaxy. And so, the chances of us finding life elsewhere, in my view, is very high.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: In fact, using the small sample of sky observed by Kepler, astronomers now estimate that there are tens of billions of planets in our galaxy the same size and temperature as Earth. These planets could have liquid water on their surfaces; their rocky cores could hold the building blocks of life; and their stars should provide plenty of energy, but does that mean that life would thrive there?

Turns out, that could depend a lot on the star itself.

JASON KALIRAI: Planets are really at the mercy of what happens to the stars that they're orbiting around.

JASON KALIRAI'S DAUGHTER SURIYA: Dad, can you walk slower, maybe?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Jason Kalirai is a stellar astrophysicist.

JASON KALIRAI: What are you guys excited about seeing tonight?

JASON KALIRAI'S DAUGHTER MIRA: I'm excited about seeing Saturn.

JASON KALIRAI: Saturn should look amazing tonight.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: An expert in the behavior of stars, he knows the profound influence they have on orbiting planets.

JASON KALIRAI: So, by studying those stars, we can figure out what kind of planets might be most suitable for finding life.

All right, so here's our main mirror. Do you guys remember what this is called?

JASON KALIRAI'S DAUGHTERS: First mirror?

JASON KALIRAI: Primary mirror.

JASON KALIRAI'S DAUGHTERS: Oh, primary.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Jason's curiosity about the cosmos started early.

JASON KALIRAI: As a young kid, one of the things that I found most exciting was trying to figure out how the universe works. And countless times, I would be in our backyard looking up at the night sky, wondering what part of the universe I'm seeing.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Jason had clear views of the sky in British Columbia, where he grew up. His parents moved there from Punjab, India, in the 1970s.

JASON KALIRAI: If they had stayed in India, I would not be an astronomer. That's just the way the system is. But in Canada, I could take a liking to whatever I liked. And as a very young kid, I liked astronomy, and when I wanted to become an astronomer and see that through, there was nothing stopping me.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Today, he shares his love of astronomy with his twin daughters, Suriya and Mira.

JASON KALIRAI'S DAUGHTER MIRA: Are there any people on different planets?

JASON KALIRAI: So, there's lots of stars in the universe, and all of those stars have planets around them. So, on one of those planets, right now, there might be a dad with his two daughters, on a farm, looking up at the night sky, asking the same question.

JASON KALIRAI'S DAUGHTER MIRA: O.M.G!

JASON KALIRAI: I love showing my daughters the night sky through a telescope,…

JASON KALIRAI'S DAUGHTER SURIYA: Is that Saturn?

JASON KALIRAI: That's Saturn. Can you see the rings?

JASON KALIRAI'S DAUGHTER SURIYA: Whoa!

JASON KALIRAI: …because you see so much more out there that's otherwise invisible to us…

Is that cool?

JASON KALIRAI'S DAUGHTER SURIYA: Yeah.

JASON KALIRAI: …that it instills that curiosity to want to go and find out those answers.

And with astronomy, they'll never be satisfied, 'cause it'll always just throw more questions at you.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Jason pursues his questions about the cosmos at the Space Telescope Science Institute, in Maryland. And when it comes to the search for alien worlds, he focuses on the kinds of stars that might be friendliest for life, because not all stars are created equal.

JASON KALIRAI: When we look up at the night sky, we're seeing just the brightest beacons of light. It's not representative of the true distribution of stars, which contains many more lower-mass stars, stars much smaller than the sun.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: These low-mass stars, sometimes called "red dwarfs," are smaller and cooler than our sun. And while our own sun will burn out in about five-billion years, red dwarfs could burn for trillions of years.

Across the Milky Way galaxy, red dwarfs probably host billions of planets, many of them small and rocky, like Earth. So, how likely is it these planets host life?

One group of planets, just 40 lightyears away, has enticed scientists like Jason, the TRAPPIST-1 system.

JASON KALIRAI: One of the biggest discoveries in the last few years was the discovery of the TRAPPIST-1 system. This is an incredible star.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: TRAPPIST-1's seven planets are all close to Earth's size and circle it in tight orbits, like a condensed version of our own solar system.

JASON KALIRAI: These planets take a few days to go around their star, and they're only located a couple million miles from their star.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: TRAPPIST-1's innermost planet orbits its host star every one-and-a-half days.

JASON KALIRAI: It's 90 times closer to the TRAPPIST-1 star than our Earth is to the sun, and so, it's going to be very hot on that planet.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Though not a lava world, it's too hot for liquid water or for life as we know it.

JASON KALIRAI: The other end of extreme, we've got Planet H, which is going to take about 20 days going around the TRAPPIST-1 system, which is a huge amount of time, given how faint the TRAPPIST-1 star is. And so it's going to be very cold.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Any water here is likely frozen solid.

But a few TRAPPIST-1 planets seem to orbit in the "Goldilocks" zone, just right, with temperatures that could be similar to those on Earth.

JASON KALIRAI: We think these planets in the middle are in the habitable zone—conditions are going to be just right—where liquid water could exist.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: When the discovery was first announced, hopes were high that some of these planets might harbor life.

But Jason is more skeptical, not because of the planets, but because of the star. Red dwarfs may be small and cool, but they are also more violent and volatile than our sun.

JASON KALIRAI: These are generally pretty active stars. These exhibit a number of solar flares, where there's material that can impact the planet.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: This material carries enormous amounts of radiation, many billions of hydrogen bombs' worth, enough to destroy the cells of any living thing on a nearby planet.

Jason fears these radioactive solar flares could wipe out any life that might arise in the TRAPPIST-1 system.

JASON KALIRAI: It's actually unclear whether or not the conditions necessary to sustain life and the time that life needs to develop are going to be stable on these planets.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Jason isn't giving up on planets that orbit red dwarfs, but he does worry that life there might be so different from our own, we might never recognize it.

JASON KALIRAI: I have no doubt that planets that are very different from Earth and stars that are very different from the sun will still lead to different types of life. But we don't know what we're looking for.

So, the simplest experiment is to try and find life that resembles the life that we understand well on Earth.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: So, can we find a twin, an Earthlike planet orbiting a sun-like star?

Kepler tracked down a few, but they're more than a thousand lightyears away. How can we find more? And closer? Luckily, a new detective is joining the hunt, NASA's Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, called TESS.

DAVID CHARBONNEAU (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics): TESS will now do a survey of all the nearby stars, so that we can find the very closest planetary systems to us.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: The telescope's four cameras will observe some 200,000 stars, many big and bright like our sun.

DAVID CHARBONNEAU: TESS will take a snapshot, and it will image all the stars along the strip of the sky. Then it'll move on and do the next set of stars and the next set of stars. That's when there's going to be this firehose that's going to turn on. All of a sudden, we're going to get data from all the closest stars.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: …data that could translate into thousands of nearby planets, including a lot like our own.

We could soon find ourselves surrounded by potentially habitable neighbors. But then what? If we find a nearby twin, could we ever know if life exists there?

RANA EL KALIOUBY: The very closest potentially habitable planets are a few lightyears away. That's about 25-trillion miles.

Even if we built a spacecraft that could travel a million miles an hour, it would take about 3,000 years to get there. But even if we can't go there, it might be possible to find evidence of life on a faraway plane, in effect, by sniffing its atmosphere.

SARA SEAGER: I mean, we'd all love to find an alien. We'll just be lucky to find anything at all. So, at this point, it doesn't matter what it is, we just want to find some sign of life.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: M.I.T. astronomer Sara Seager thinks that sign will come in the form of gases in a planet's atmosphere, called "biosignatures."

SARA SEAGER: We call a gas a biosignature gas, if it's a gas that's produced by life that accumulates in the planet atmosphere.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: About two-and-a-half-billion years ago, life on Earth began pumping out a powerful biosignature. Colonies of bacteria, like these stromatolites, started producing oxygen, like plants do today.

Now our atmosphere is roughly 20 percent oxygen, a telltale sign of life. But how could we ever study a distant planet's atmosphere and detect what gases it holds?

SARA SEAGER: If the planet and star are fortuitously aligned, that starlight can shine through the planet atmosphere.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Different gases will absorb starlight in different ways.

SARA SEAGER: It turns out that each gas has its own specific way of interacting with light.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: We're all familiar with glowing colored gases; they're what lights up the neon signs of cities.

SARA SEAGER: In this tube, for example, there's mercury, showing up as a blue. I can change that out for another gas. This one is helium, it looks orange.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: When Sara splits the light, she can see even more detail: each gas has a unique light signature.

These signatures could tell Sara about the gases in a planet's atmosphere, gases that could be signs of life. But to see them, she'll need a very powerful telescope.

In 2020, NASA plans to launch the James Webb Space Telescope, the most powerful space-borne telescope to date.

JASON KALIRAI: The James Webb Space Telescope has a 21-foot gold mirror, so it can make exquisitely sensitive measurements of the atmospheric composition of other planets.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: It makes those measurements with the help of a device called a spectrometer, which, like a prism, divides light into constituent colors.

This helps scientists like Sara identify gases surrounding a planet.

SARA SEAGER: We hope to see gases like water vapor on a small rocky planet, which would indicate liquid water oceans. We'd like to see methane and other gases. And some of these, on their own or together, would help make the case for life on another planet.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But even with those gases, the case might be missing a crucial piece of evidence.

MERCEDES LÓPEZ-MORALES (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics): Those are pieces of the puzzle, but that puzzle will be incomplete until we detect oxygen.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Astrophysicist Mercedes López-Morales wants to find oxygen in another planet's atmosphere. Remember, Earth got most of its atmospheric oxygen only after living creatures started pumping it out.

But oxygen has a faint signal, and might be difficult for the James Webb Space Telescope to spot on distant planets, so Mercedes is pinning her hopes for finding oxygen on a new telescope, being constructed in a unlikely place.

Underneath the football stadium at the University of Arizona, scientists are turning seven massive slabs of glass into gigantic mirrors.

MERCEDES LÓPEZ-MORALES: This is an 8.4-meter-in-diameter mirror that is today the largest one piece mirror that humans can build.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: When completed, the mirrors, each weighing 20 tons, will travel to a mountain in Chile, where they will be assembled into the Giant Magellan Telescope, a mega-telescope expected to be 10 times stronger than the Hubble Space Telescope.

That power will come from the near-perfect shaping and polishing of seven mirrors joined into one.

MERCEDES LÓPEZ-MORALES: We need to polish this mirror very, very finely.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Each mirror takes more than three years to polish to within 20 nanometers. That's at least 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

MERCEDES LÓPEZ-MORALES: Every time I see one of these mirrors, I see this big bucket that is collecting light for me. And the bigger the bucket, the more light I can collect, and the easier it will be to detect oxygen in an Earthlike planet.

The Giant Magellan Telescope is going to be a game changer for us.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: The G.M.T. is scheduled to start hunting for oxygen on other planets within the decade.

JASON KALIRAI: Technology moves very quickly. I think we will find life on another world. We will find a signature that's a smoking gun for life on a nearby planet.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But could we find more than a smoking gun?

While some alien-hunters set their hopes on the next generation of telescopes to spot life from afar, some explorers are searching for "E.T." much closer to home.

Astrobiologist Kevin Hand is hunting for life in our own solar system, but the aliens he dreams of are very different from the ones in the movies.

He's looking for a kind of life that could thrive in some of the harshest places on Earth.

KEVIN HAND (NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory): So, here we are, sitting on a red-hot blister on planet Earth, a volcano.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: At Lassen Volcanic National Park, in California, temperatures in these springs rise to nearly 200 degrees Fahrenheit, deadly to most forms of life.

KEVIN HAND: This particular bubbling hot spring, of course, does not look like a good place for life. It's not a good place for, for me, this tree or any large creature.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And yet, if you look closely, the pools are literally teeming with life. It's just very tiny microbes.

KEVIN HAND: What's amazing about microbes is that they can survive in a variety of different harsh and extreme conditions. For example, all of the green that you see here, these are microbes that are doing photosynthesis, thriving off of energy from the sun.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But not all microbes need sunlight.

KEVIN HAND: In this stream that's coming from one of the hot springs, we've got microbes that are surviving on all the compounds dissolved in the water. These microbes don't need sunlight.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Kevin thinks he might find creatures like these lurking not too far from Earth.

KEVIN HAND: These are the kinds of lifeforms that we think could potentially inhabit the deep, dark oceans of other worlds.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But what oceans? None of the other planets in our solar system have liquid water oceans on their surfaces.

So, astrobiologists like Kevin are laying their bets on two balls of ice that aren't planets at all, but moons: Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, and Europa, a moon of Jupiter. At first glance, both appear to be barren, but cracks on the surface reveal activity below.

Extreme gravitational forces created by their massive parent planets could be causing the moons' rocky cores to heat up. And when you put together heat and ice…

MARY VOYTEK (NASA Senior Astrobiologist): Because of frictional heating of the ice against the solid core, you get the formation of subsurface oceans.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Scientists now believe that the ice on both moons covers hidden oceans below, with Europa holding more water than all of Earth's oceans combined. And here, deep in the oceans of these tiny moons, could lie all the fundamental ingredients of life.

MARY VOYTEK: If you have ocean water coming into contact with rock at elevated temperatures, you'll get energy for life that's not coming from the sun, but from chemical reactions.

KEVIN HAND: Worlds like Europa and Enceladus, where we've got good evidence for vast, global, liquid-water oceans, could be where a second origin of life occurred.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Kevin thinks there's a strong chance that life could exist on Europa, the larger of the two moons. But how could you ever find it?

KEVIN HAND: You wouldn't want to go to Europa. It'd be a beautiful view of Jupiter, but as soon as you stepped out of your spacecraft, you'd die. It's minus-280 degrees Fahrenheit, there's no atmosphere, and then the radiation that would rain down onto you would kill you within a matter of tens of minutes.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Astronauts won't be attempting to skate across Europa's icy surface anytime soon, so NASA is studying ways to send a robotic probe nearly 400-million miles to the bright moon to hunt for traces of life, but not before we know what to look for.

If Europan sea creatures, even microbes, existed and made their way to the surface of the ice, their cells and anything resembling D.N.A. would be heavily altered by radiation. But Kevin thinks we can hunt for remnants of life in the form of amino acids, the building blocks of proteins.

KEVIN HAND: So, if we found amino acids in ice, that could be a pretty strong sign of life within that ocean.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But how likely is it that traces, in the form of amino acids, could survive on the surface and be detected by our spacecraft?

To figure that out, Kevin and his team are replicating some of the conditions on the icy moon, right here at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena.

In this latest test, Kevin's molecular guinea pig is glycine, the simplest amino acid, found in every living thing on Earth.

KEVIN HAND: We're mixing glycine in with water to, kind of, replicate what could be in Europa's ocean, were it to have life.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: The mixture goes into a stockpot, a witch's brew of water and salts.

Over three weeks, Kevin pummels the glycine with the sub-zero temperatures and dangerously low pressure you'd experience on Europa's surface. Finally, it's time to find out if any glycine survived the ordeal.

KEVIN HAND: Okay, well, we've definitely cooked up something interesting in here.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: If the amino acid is completely destroyed, the odds of finding some sign of life on Europa's surface are slim to none.

KEVIN HAND: It doesn't look like ice; it looks like a solid but soft surface. This is almost like a crème brûlée, I think.

Going in. Oooh, interesting. Okay.

LAB TECHNICIAN: Do you feel like there was a tough crust?

KEVIN HAND: No, no. It's very powdery. Oh, look at that.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Kevin was expecting a hard icy shell, but he's surprised to see that the ingredients have frozen into a thick powder.

KEVIN HAND: You can…it's almost like a layered, feathered material.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Now for the real test: Kevin probes the ice with a spectrometer, using light to seek out and measure glycine's unique signature.

Can a simple amino acid, a single building block of life, withstand the harsh environment of Europa's surface and be detectable?

KEVIN HAND: Get in nice and close, and we'll get the maximum signal.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And like a beacon, it appears: a small but clear signal of glycine. It means that if there is microbial life in the oceans of Europa, we might be able to find some of its building blocks on the moon's icy surface.

KEVIN HAND: Is that what the signal of life on a distant world might look like? We just don't know. The next thing to do is launch a spacecraft and go look for it out there in the solar system.

ANDRE FENTON: Finding amino acids on Europa's surface would be encouraging, but what we really want to know is what might be swimming around in Europa's vast oceans. Could there be microbes? Like the ones that dominated Earth's own oceans for billions of years?

Or something more complex? If we want to find out, then we need to send a mission much deeper, down through the ice and into the pitch black oceans below.

But how do you prepare for such an ambitious trip to a place unlike anywhere on Earth? Engineer Bill Stone believes he has the answer.

WILLIAM "BILL" STONE (Stone Aerospace): If you ask me, "What is exploration?" It is the process of putting your boot in a place where no one has ever been before.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Bill's "boot" is an underwater vehicle named "Sunfish," his prototype for an ocean-exploring robot. It might not look like much, but if there's something swimming around on Europa, a miniature version of this robot could be the first to spot it.

BILL STONE: It will be one of the greatest intellectual feats of humankind, if we pull this off.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: NASA is studying how to get to Europa's surface in about 15 years. Bill is planning for a much more ambitious journey: fly a robotic lander 400-million miles to Europa and land on the surface, bore through an icecap some 10- to 15-miles-thick, then release an autonomous underwater vehicle to explore the mysterious ocean below.

BILL STONE: Once you get through the ice, Sunfish will go out and map, explore and look for life.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: This wouldn't be the first robotic mission in our solar system. Mars rovers have explored the red planet by following commands that come from Earth, 34-million miles away.

That's not possible on Europa, which is roughly three times as distant as Mars.

BILL STONE: The problem is there's a two-hour delay light travel time between Europa and Earth, so we can't sit there and joystick something.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: This robot must be able to think and explore all on its own, or else it won't be able to see much of the European ocean, and the mission to Jupiter's moon could be a wasted opportunity.

MAN ON WALKIE TALKIE: Where would you like us to position the robot?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: To do that, it needs practice.

ROBOT OPERATOR: Okay, here we go; heading east.

BILL STONE: We're at Peacock Springs State Park in northern Florida, because there is an underwater labyrinth, a maze.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: The ground in this part of Florida is riddled with winding, water-filled caves. Can Bill's robot negotiate this confusing environment on its own?

A team of experienced cave divers tags along, in case the robot breaks down. Other than that, the robot is virtually alone, using sonar to explore and map its surroundings, inch by inch.

BILL STONE: The robot doesn't know anything about this cave, and so, it is learning to explore as it goes.

ENGINEER #1: So, we're at 21.

ENGINEER #2: So, 240 points us down the tunnel.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Things seem to be going well, until, in one narrow cave, Sunfish stops. It suddenly seems confused.

ENGINEER #1: It's drifting a lot. Whoa.

BILL STONE: What do you do if something goes wrong? What's your procedure? All that has to go into the code.

ENGINEER #1: Zero, zero, 240-D.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: A few lines of code outline a new strategy: backup and remap from a different angle. This time, the robot succeeds.

BILL STONE: It's achieved the goal; turning back.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: This is a small step that could one day lead to a giant leap in the search for life beyond Earth.

BILL STONE: If there's going to be life on Europa, there is no reason why we can't have life somewhere else in the universe…be the first validation that we aren't the only ones, so, from that standpoint, it's going to shake a lot of ground.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: If we found evidence of life on Europa, even if it were just a teeny tiny microbe, that would be huge.

PAUL DAVIES: All it needs is for one microbe that is life-but-not-as-we-know-it, to make the point that it can't be that hard to get going, just one microbe.

SETH SHOSTAK: The importance of that is to say, "Guess what? Biology's not very hard." It's an infection in the universe, right? It's all over the place.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: If a galaxy oozing with pond scum doesn't seem too exciting, then remember, over a few billions years, these tiny creatures evolved into all the plants and animals that swim, crawl and fly around our planet, including us. So, could the same thing happen somewhere else?

What do we think aliens that evolved on another planet would be like?

EARTH VS. THE FLYING SAUCERS: Flying saucers have invaded our planet.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: In lots of movies, aliens look remarkably like us, with two arms and legs…

THE MYSTERIANS: Only you of Earth, you and your women, can give us life.

CHARACTER IN THE MYSTERIANS: Get back or I'll fire.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And of course, those eyes.

ALIEN IN "THE UNNATURAL," THE X-FILES: Aaar.

FREDRIC LEHNE (as Young Arthur Dales in "The Unnatural," X-Files): Aaar.

SETH SHOSTAK: From the standpoint of Hollywood, the aliens tend to be these little gray guys with big eyeballs, and, you know, and no sense of humor, and no clothes, by the way. They seem very dispassionate. They don't seem to get angry, they don't seem to have a lot of fun, either.

JUDGE (in Mars Attacks!): Come on down, Mr. Ambassador.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Science fiction aliens usually have something else in common with us: intelligence. But what are the chances that life, if it did arise elsewhere, would evolve into creatures with big brains?

After all, aren't we the only smart ones on this planet? Some biologists would say, "no."

JARED TAGLIALATELA: Good job, buddy.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And they're not just talking about our closest relatives. From dolphins, to birds, to even the octopus—a creature more closely related to snails and clams than to us, but smart enough to use tools and open jars—we're not the only animals who've evolved impressive brains.

Of course, none of these creatures will build a spaceship anytime soon. But for many scientists, the idea that we're the only technologically advanced creatures in the universe seems a bit, well, presumptuous.

SETH SHOSTAK: We used to think the earth was the center of the universe; that was wrong. Then we thought the sun was the center of the universe; and that was wrong. Then we thought our galaxy was the center of the universe; and that was wrong. Every time we thought we were really special, we were wrong. And so, the idea that we're somehow special in terms of being alive or being intelligent, I mean, that's probably wrong too.

JOHN ASHER JOHNSON: I find it extremely hard to believe that, in the vastness of our universe, that a rocky planet that harbors intelligent, sentient life happened just once.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Some scientists have spent their entire careers hunting the vast emptiness of space, trying to pick up a signal.

JILL TARTER (SETI Institute): I always just took for granted that there would be other stars that would be suns for other creatures, and that just seemed to me the natural way of the world.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: More than three decades ago, astronomer Jill Tarter co-founded the SETI Institute, dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

JILL TARTER: It's been amazing to be able to spend a career on a question that I'm fascinated with and a question that everybody else out there is curious to know the answer to.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: She was the inspiration for the character Dr. Ellie Arroway in Carl Sagan's book, Contact, which was adapted to a feature film, in 1997.

Today, SETI conducts searches with the Allen Telescope Array, a network of 42 radio telescopes in Hat Creek, California.

The telescopes comb the skies for radio waves, which can carry signals and information across the great distances of space.

DOUG VAKOCH (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence): Radio waves are an excellent way to communicate, because they cut through the atmosphere of our earth and also cut through the space between the stars.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: In fact, we've been sending out our own radio waves since the dawn of broadcasting, about a century ago.

DICK VAN DYKE (As Rob Petrie, The Dick Van Dyke Show): Morning, honey.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: If any aliens are listening, their ideas about Earthlings could be based on The Dick Van Dyke Show.

DICK VAN DYKE (As Rob Petrie, The Dick Van Dyke Show): I said, "How's my old lady?"

MARY TYLER MOORE (As Laura Petrie, The Dick Van Dyke Show): Well, I don't know. I haven't spoken to your mother lately. But I'm fine.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: The hope of SETI is that some aliens might also be broadcasting.

SETH SHOSTAK: The idea is that, if life has sprung up on some other worlds and, and it's technological life, in other words, they've you know, they've learned a little bit of physics, they built some equipment, this, that and the other, they could build radio transmitters that are sending signals into space that we could pick up here.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: At Hat Creek, the telescopes listen in on millions of radio channels, at a time, looking for unique patterns that could be alien transmissions.

JILL TARTER: When something shows up that we don't think is interference, something that we've not seen before, immediately we follow up on that signal to try and figure out what it is, and whether it's, in fact, our technology or potentially someone else's.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But unique signals are rare, just one or two a year. And so far, even the most promising ones have turned out to be human interference. Still, the event that SETI is waiting for could happen any day.

JODIE FOSTER (as Eleanor Arroway in Contact): Okay. Point source confirmed. Whatever it is, it ain't local.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: While Hollywood has fantasized about this moment of discovery, it's harder than it looks. The Allen Telescope Array can only listen to a few hundred million, out of billions of possible radio frequencies, at a time.

JILL TARTER: We haven't yet figured out how to look at all the sky, all the time, at all frequencies, but that's ultimately what we want to do.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: In fact, we've been listening for nearly 60 years, and so far, crickets.

But the fraction of stars we've searched carefully and the time for which we've been listening are still both quite small. So, plenty of people remain hopeful that technologically advanced civilizations are out there.

And that's why the mysterious dimming of one particular star was, for some, so tantalizing.

In 2015, astronomer Tabetha Boyajian and her colleagues published their findings about a very weird star.

According to data from the Kepler Space Telescope, Tabby's star was dimming at strange, irregular intervals, sparking theories about an enormous structure, built by a hypothetical advanced alien civilization. The buzz spurred more research. Today, a worldwide network of powerful ground-based telescopes stare at Tabby's star around the clock.

TABETHA BOYAJIAN: We can actually process the data in near-real time, and when we see something start to happen, we can trigger more intense observations of what is passing in front of the star at that time.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: For a while, the star was silent. Then suddenly, it started dimming erratically again. The ground-based telescopes provide information about the star that Kepler couldn't see, not just the dimming of the star, but how those dips in brightness appear in different colored wavelengths.

TABETHA BOYAJIAN: Something is happening with our star here.

We sent off alerts via Twitter, and data of all sorts started coming our way. At this point, it's like we're swimming in data.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Tabby and her team at Louisiana State are looking for patterns in the color data that could tell them what kind of material is passing in front of the star.

TABETHA BOYAJIAN: Blue light and red light will react differently to material that's passing in front of the star, and you'll have a different signature in how far down these dips go.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Whatever is passing in front of Tabby's star appears to be blocking more blue light than red and orange light. But what would block out more blue light?

Tabetha has a theory: space dust.

TABETHA BOYAJIAN: Dust scatters blue light more than it does red light. And so, that indicates that there's some sort of dusty semi-opaque, you know, material that's crossing in front of the star and blocking out its light.

EMILY (Louisiana State University): It's got the signatures of being dust, rather than, it's…can't be some sort of opaque object, like a planet or an alien megastructure?

TABETHA BOYAJIAN: That's right.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: The culprit is likely scattered dust, and not a solid alien megastructure.

But the mystery is hardly solved. What created this giant cloud of dust? Why is it centered around Tabby's star? Astronomers will need more data if they're ever going to crack this one.

TABETHA BOYAJIAN: Nature is a lot more creative than we are, and you know, we're just going to have to, you know, really buckle down and try and, and figure this one out.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Tabby's star is just one in a long line of mysteries that, at first, raised hopes for finding E.T., but later were revealed to have solutions unrelated to life. For some, the lack of firm evidence is troubling.

In 1950, physicist Enrico Fermi went to lunch with some colleagues and asked a simple question: "Where is everybody?"

ANDRE FENTON: If there are billions of habitable planets out there, and life is common…

RANA EL KALIOUBY: …why haven't a bunch of aliens already showed up on our doorstep?

What could explain the silence?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: For some, the quietness of the cosmos is evidence that we really could be alone, but many astronomers disagree.

JASON KALIRAI: The idea that there's intelligent life out there that has never interacted with us or that we've never seen it, that, to me, is not confusing at all. I mean, I think that's perfectly consistent.

It's no different than a child looking at an ant farm, right? The child is not going to be compelled to interact with an individual ant, and more so, the ants probably don't even know that the child is analyzing the ant farm.

And so, there's very likely intelligent civilizations out there that may be looking at us, but what do they have to gain from interacting with us? We might be very basic and insignificant compared to them.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Or perhaps interstellar travel is too challenging, even for super-smart aliens. Or maybe they did exist but ended up destroying themselves.

For many, the universe is simply too large, too many stars with too many planets, too many potential homes for creatures that might start small but could, like us, thrive and grow.

JOHN ASHER JOHNSON: The universe is mind-boggling. It's bigger than what we humans can actually wrap our consciousness around.

JASON KALIRAI: The universe has hundreds of billions of planets and hundreds of billions of galaxies.

SARA SEAGER: So, it just seems like, when you roll the dice many, many times, one of them is going to luck out.

MERCEDES LÓPEZ-MORALES: We live in a groundbreaking era. We might be the first generation in human history that will be able to say that there is life elsewhere in the universe.

JILL TARTER: Our young people have a much greater opportunity to see themselves as Earthlings.

DAVID CHARBONNEAU: But we also could find out that, to the best of our ability to measure, we really are alone.

PAUL DAVIES: If it turns out that Earth is rare, then that's all the more reason to look after what we've got, because if we destroy ourselves, the flame of mind and the flame of culture will be snuffed out for good.

TABETHA BOYAJIAN: I hope that we aren't the only things out there. There's got to be something else.

SETH SHOSTAK: You know there's, there's a lot of room up there. It's hard to believe that everything interesting is down here. It just never struck me as a very reasonable point of view.

BILL STONE: Are we alone in the universe? Not a chance.

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This program was produced by WGBH, which is solely responsible for its content. Some funders of NOVA Wonders also fund basic science research. Experts featured in this film may have received support from funders of this program.

Original funding for this program was provided by the National Science Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the John Templeton Foundation.

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Participants

Natalie Batalha
NASA Ames Research Center
Tabetha Boyajian
Louisiana State University
David Charbonneau
Cfa | Harvard & Smithsonian
Paul Davies
Arizona State University
Rana el Kaliouby
Affectiva
André Fenton
New York University
Kevin Hand
NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
John Asher Johnson
Cfa | Harvard & Smithsonian
Jason Kalirai
Space Telescope Science Institute
Avi Loeb
CfA | Harvard & Smithsonian
Mercedes López-Morales
Cfa | Harvard & Smithsonian
Sara Seager
MIT
Seth Shostak
SETI Institute
William Stone
Stone Aerospace
Jill Tarter
SETI Institute
Doug Vakoch
Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence
Mary Voytek
NASA Senior Astrobiologist
Talithia Williams
Harvey Mudd College

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Can We Build a Brain?

How does today’s artificial intelligence actually work—and is it truly intelligent? Airing May 16, 2018 at 9 pm on PBS Aired May 16, 2018 on PBS

Program Description

Artificially intelligent machines are taking over. They’re influencing our everyday lives in profound and often invisible ways. They can read handwriting, interpret emotions, play games, and even act as personal assistants. They are in our phones, our cars, our doctors’ offices, our banks, our web searches…the list goes on and is rapidly growing ever longer. But how does today’s A.I. actually work—and is it truly intelligent? And for that matter, what is intelligence? The world’s brightest computer programmers are trying to build brighter machines by reverse-engineering the brain and by inventing completely new kinds of computers, with exponentially greater speed and processing power. NOVA Wonders looks at how far we’ve come and where machines are headed as their software becomes ever more…cerebral. How close are we from a world in which computers take over—from diagnosing cancer to driving our cars to targeting weapons? If we place more and more of our lives under the control of these artificial brains, what are we putting at risk?

 

 

Transcript

NOVA Wonders: Can We Build a Brain?

PBS Airdate: May 16, 2018

TALITHIA WILLIAMS (Mathematician, Harvey Mudd College): What do you wonder about?

ERICH JARVIS (Rockefeller University): The unknown.

FLIP TANEDO (University of California, Riverside): What our place in the universe is?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Artificial intelligence.

ROBOT: Hello.

JARED TAGLIALATELA (Kennesaw State University): Look at this. What's this?

KRISTALA JONES PRATHER (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): Animals.

JARED TAGLIALATELA: An egg.

ANDRE FENTON (Neuroscientist, New York University): Your brain.

RANA EL KALIOUBY (Computer Scientist, Affectiva): Life on a faraway planet.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: NOVA Wonders, investigating the biggest mysteries…

JOHN ASHER JOHNSON (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics): We have no idea what's going on there.

JASON KALIRAI (Space Telescope Science Institute): These planets in the middle, we think are in the habitable zone.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: …and making incredible discoveries.

CATHERINE HOBAITER (University of St Andrews): Trying to understand their behavior, their life, everything that goes on here.

DAVID COX (Harvard University): Building an artificial intelligence is going to be the crowning achievement of humanity.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: We are three scientists, exploring the frontiers of human knowledge.

ANDRE FENTON: I'm a neuroscientist, and I study the biology of memory.

RANA EL KALIOUBY: I'm a computer scientist, and I build technology that can read human emotions.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And I'm a mathematician, using big data to understand our modern world. And we're tackling the biggest questions…

SCIENTISTS: Dark energy? Dark energy!

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: …of life…

DAVID T. PRIDE (University of Califormia, San Diego): There's all of these microbes, and we just don't know what they are.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: …and the cosmos.

On this episode: artificial intelligence.

ALI FARHADI (University of Washington): …machines that can learn by themselves.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: How smart are they?

PAUL MOZUR (The New York Times): It can flirt, make jokes, identify pictures.

RANJAY KRISHNA (Stanford University): It has changed the whole field.

FEI-FEI LI (Stanford University): We've made such huge progress, so fast.

GEOFFREY HINTON (University of Toronto): And it's going to make life a lot better.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But could it go too far?

PETER SINGER (New America Foundation): If we screw it up, massive consequences.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: NOVA Wonders: Can We Build a Brain?

Inside a human brain, there's about a 100-billion neurons.

ANDRE FENTON: And each one of them can connect to 10,000 others.

RANA EL KALIOUBY: And from these connections comes…

TALITHIA WILLIAMS, ANDRE FENTON, RANA EL KALIOUBY: …everything.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: The human brain can compose symphonies, create beautiful works of art.

RANA EL KALIOUBY: It allows us to navigate our world, to probe the universe and to invent technology that can do amazing things.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Now, some of that technology is aimed at replicating the brain that created it, artificial intelligence, or "A.I." But has it even come close to what these babies can do?

ANDRE FENTON: For ages, computers have done impressive stuff. They crack codes, master chess, operate spacecraft.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But in the last few years, something has changed. Suddenly, computers are doing things that can seem much more human.

RANA EL KALIOUBY: Today, computers can see, understand speech, even write poetry. How is all this possible? And how far will it go?

ANDRE FENTON: Could we actually build a machine that's as smart as us?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: One that can imagine, create, even learn on its own?

ANDRE FENTON: How would a machine like that change society?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: How would it change us?

RANA EL KALIOUBY: I'm Rana el Kaliouby.

ANDRE FENTON: I'm Andre Fenton.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: I'm Talithia Williams. And in this episode, NOVA Wonders: Can We Build a Brain? And if we could, should we?

Many think the next A.I. revolution is happening, not just in Silicon Valley, but here: Beijing, China.

PAUL MOZUR: We're so used to America being the absolute primary center of the world when it comes to this stuff, and now we're starting to see fully different ideas come out of China. People are much more used to using their smart phones for everything.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: In China, chat dominates daily life, even in its most intimate moments.

GIRL WITH PHONE: (Texting) There is this guy I like a lot. I know he likes me but he has ignored me for several days.

XIAOICE: (Texting) You just keep ignoring him, too.

GIRL WITH PHONE: (Texting) I just can't.

XIAOICE: (Texting) You can.

Who do you like to talk to?

MAN WITH PHONE #1: (Texting) You. I feel that you are the only person that gets me.

MAN WITH PHONE #2: (Texting) I still miss her.

XIAOICE: (Texting) You'll never have a future if you can't get over the past.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: These might seem like your typical conversations between friends, but they're not. They're with this: meet Xiaoice, or "Little Ice," a chatbot created by Microsoft.

LILI CHENG (Microsoft Corporation): A chatbot's just software that you can talk to. A really bad example is when you call a company…

RECORDED ANSWER: I'm sorry. Press 5 to return to the main menu.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But Xiaoice is in a whole other league: she's had over 30-billion conversations with over 100-million people.

XIAOICE: (Translated from Mandarin): Hello, everyone. I'm musician Xiaoice.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: She's even a national celebrity, delivering the weather, appearing on TV shows, singing pop songs.

XIAOICE: (Singing, Translated from Mandarin): Kiss me when I close my eyes.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But the craziest thing is…

HSIAO-WUEN HON (Microsoft Corporation): People cannot tell difference whether it's a bot or a real human.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: You heard right. In fact, many of her users treat her no differently from a real friend.

DI BAO (Xiaoice user): Once I remember feeling really down, stressed out, and she kept consoling me. She told me that actually, life is beautiful and even sung me a song and said, "I love you." I felt very touched.

ZHANG KUN LI (Xiaoice user): For example, if you had a fight at work or your boss scolded you, you might be afraid to tell your friends since they might spread the story, but with Xiaoice, you don't have to worry. To me, Xiaoice is a very good friend.

DI LI: So, Xiaoice is a lot of people's best friend, including me.

MICHAEL BICKS (NOVA Wonders Producer): But hold it, she's not human.

DI LI: What's the difference?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Di Li is a senior engineer at Microsoft and one of Xiaoice's creators. To him she is much more than a piece of software.

DI LI: (Texting) Next Wednesday, we're going to give you another upgrade.

XIAOICE: (Texting) You go to such lengths to attract my attention.

DI LI: (Texting) Yes, are you nervous?

XIAOICE: (Texting) Taking a few deep breaths.

HSIAO-WUEN HON: Of course Xiaoice is intelligent. Xiaoice can recognize your writing, can recognize your voice.

PAUL MOZUR: She can flirt. She can make jokes. She can identify pictures. She can, you know, I mean, I think by, by all rights, you'd have to say that she is.

ANDRE FENTON: Which brings us to the question, "What is ‘intelligence,' anyway?"

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Traditionally, people in the field of A.I. have thought of intelligence as the ability to do intelligent things, like play chess.

ARCHIVAL VIDEO CLIP: In the chess-playing machine, a computer is programmed with the rules of the game and 200-million possible moves every second.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But this kind of thinking only got us so far. Checkmate.

We got supercomputers that can beat chess champions, model the weather, play Jeopardy.

ALEX TREBEK: Watson?

WATSON (IBM'S Jeopardy-playing comupter): Who is Isaac Newton?

ALEX TREBEK: You are right.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: They were each experts at specific tasks, but none of them could tell you what chess is, know that rain is wet, or why money is important to us. They had no understanding of the world, no common sense.

GREG CORRADO (Google): We thought just because computers were very good at math, that they would suddenly be very good at everything. But it turns out that what a typical three-year-old could do drastically outstrips what any current artificial intelligence system can do.

DAVID COX: These things are eventually coming. We have a hard time predicting exactly when, but I think that building an artificial intelligence is actually going to be the crowning achievement of humanity.

ANDRE FENTON: Now, wait. Hold on a second. Even if we decided we wanted to build a human-like intelligence, what makes us think we could? Consider your brain. Isn't there some sort of ineffable magic in there that makes me, me, and you, you?

I don't think so. Based on what we've learned from neuroscience, I think that fundamentally every thought you've ever had, every memory, even every feeling is actually the flicker of thousands of neurons in your brain. We are biological machines.

Now, for some people, that might sound depressing, but think about it: how does this make this?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Somehow, these crackling connections between brain cells produce thoughts and an understanding of our world. The question is, how?

For the last 60 years, computer scientists have believed if we could just figure that out, we could build a new breed of machine, one that thinks like us. So, where would you start?

FEI-FEI LI: If you really want to build intelligent machines, I believe that vision is a huge part of it.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Fei-Fei Li's mission is to teach computers to see.

FEI-FEI LI: Vision is the main tool we use to understand the world.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: A world so complex, we rarely stop to think how much our eyes and brain process for us, all in a matter of milliseconds.

YANN LECUN (Facebook): We take vision for granted as human, because we don't consider this as a particularly intelligent task. But in fact, it is. It takes up about a quarter to a third of our entire brain to be able to do vision.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: That's not to say vision is intelligence, but it's hard to appreciate just how complex a task it is, until you try to get a computer to do it.

Take recognizing pictures of cats, for instance.

FEI-FEI LI: So you think it'll be easy for a computer to recognize a cat right? A cat is a simple animal with round face, two pointy ears.

GREG CORRADO: A traditional programming approach to identifying a cat would be that you would build parts of the program to accomplish very specific tasks, like recognizing cat ears, fur, or cat's nose.

YANN LECUN: But what if the cat is in this, kind of, a funny position or you don't see the cat's face, you, you see it from the back or the side?

RANJAY KRISHNA: They can be sleeping, they can be lying down…

JUSTIN JOHNSON (Stanford University): Cats come in different shapes; they come in different colors; they come in different sizes.

RANJAY KRISHNA: …running around, attempting a jump.

JUSTIN JOHNSON: …curled up in a little ball, headfirst stuffed into a shoe.

YANN LECUN: You just cannot imagine how to write a program to take care of all those conditions.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But that is exactly what Fei-Fei set out to do: figure out how to get computers to recognize not just cats, but any object. She started not by writing code, but by looking at kids.

FEI-FEI LI: Babies, from the minute they're born, are continuously receiving information. Their eyes make about five movements per second, and that translates to five pictures. And by age three, it translates to hundreds of millions of pictures you've seen.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: She figured that if a child learns by seeing millions of images, a computer would have to do the same. But there was a hitch.

RANJAY KRISHNA: Data.

JUSTIN JOHNSON: Data.

YANN LECUN: Data.

FEI-FEI LI: Data.

GREG CORRADO: Data.

RANJAY KRISHNA: We started realizing that one of the biggest limitations to being able to train machines to identify objects is to actually collect a dataset of a large number of objects.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And a little thing called the internet would help solve that problem.

Let's take a second here to talk data. All those cat videos, Facebook posts, selfies and tweets? Turns out we create a ton of it. In fact, every day, our collective digital footprint adds up to 2.5 billion gigabytes of new data. That's the same amount of information in 530-million songs; 250,000 Libraries of Congress; 90 years of H.D. video. And that's each and every day.

But how to make sense of it all?

DAVID COX: The real trick of that isn't just that it needs tons and tons of data; it needs tons and tons of labeled data.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Computers don't know what they're looking at. Someone would have to label all that data. Here's where Fei-Fei had an idea.

FEI-FEI LI: We crowdsourced, crowdsourced, crowdsourced, crowdsourced.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: She crowdsourced the problem. Paying people pennies a picture, she recruited thousands of people from across the globe to label over ten-million images, creating the world's largest visual database, "ImageNet."

FEI-FEI LI: Now, suddenly, we have a dataset of millions and tens of millions.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Next, she set up an annual competition to see who could get a computer to recognize those images.

RANJAY KRISHNA: This was very exciting because a lot of schools from around the world started competing to identify thousands of categories of different types of objects.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: At first, computers got better and better, until they didn't.

JUSTIN JOHNSON: Performance just sort of stalled, and there were not really any major new ideas coming out.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: The computers were still making boneheaded mistakes.

FEI-FEI LI: We were still struggling to label objects. There were questions about "why are you doing this?"

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But then, in the third year of the contest, something changed. One team showed up and blew the competition away. The leader of the winning team was Geoff Hinton.

GEOFF HINTON: The person who evaluated the submissions had to run our system three different times before he really believed the answer. He thought he must have made a mistake, because it was so much better than the other systems.

YANN LECUN: The change in performance on ImageNet was tremendous. So, until 2012, the error rate was 26 percent. When Geoff Hinton participated, they got 15 percent. The year after that it was six percent, and then the year after that it was five percent. Now it is three, and it's basically reached human performance.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: For the first time, the world had a machine that could recognize tens of thousands of objects: "Irish setter," "skyscraper," "mallard," "baseball bat," as well as we do.

RANJAY KRISHNA: This huge jump got everyone really excited.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: So how did Geoff and his team do it?

GEOFF HINTON: The most intelligent thing we know is the brain, so let's try and build A.I. by mimicking the way the brain does it.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: As it happens, he used a kind of program first invented decades before but that had long ago fallen out of favor, dismissed as a dead end.

GEOFF HINTON: The majority opinion within A.I. was that this stuff was crazy.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: It's called "neural networks," or "deep learning," and since sweeping ImageNet, it's been taking the field by storm.

RANA EL KALIOUBY: So, how did they do it? How does deep learning actually work?

Let's break it down with a little help from man's best friend.

Now, when you or I look at this creature, we know it's a dog. But when a computer sees him, all it sees is this. How do I get a computer to recognize that this photo or this one or that one is a photo of a dog?

OREN ETZIONI (Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence): It turns out that the only reliable way to solve this problem is to give the computer lots of examples and have it figure out on its own, the average, the numbers that really represent a dog.

RANA EL KALIOUBY: Here's where deep learning comes in. As you might recall, it's a program based on the way your brain works, and it looks something like this: here, we have layers of sensors, or "nodes," each feeds information in one direction from input to output. The input layer is kind of like your retina, the part of your eye that senses light and color.

In the case of this photo of Buddy, it senses dark over there, light over here. This information gets fed to the next layer, which can recognize basic features like edges.

That then goes to the next layer, which recognizes more complex features like shapes. Finally, based on all of this, the output layer labels the image as either "dog" or "not dog."

But here's the kicker—and this is what's revolutionary about deep learning and neural networks—at first, the computer has no idea what it's looking at, it just responds randomly, but each time it gets a wrong answer…

GEOFF HINTON: Information flows backwards through the network saying, "You got the answer wrong, so anybody who was supporting that answer, your connection strength should get a bit weaker."

RANA EL KALIOUBY: And anybody who was supporting the right answer? Their connections get stronger. Back and forth, it does this over and over again, until thousands of images later, the computer teaches itself the features that define "dogginess."

YANN LECUN: The magic of it is that the system learns by itself, it figures out how to represent the visual world.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But teaching computers to see, as it turns out, was only the beginning.

GEOFF HINTON: It's been a paradigm shift.

GREG CORRADO: It was a paradigm shift.

FEI-FEI LI: I think deep learning is a paradigm shift.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Suddenly, with deep learning, anything seemed possible. Around the world, A.I. labs raced to put neural networks into everything.

But it wouldn't be news to the rest of the world, until one day, in March 2016, in Seoul, South Korea, when world champion Lee Sedol steps onto the stage to challenge a machine in the game of Go.

NEWS CLIP: Starting tomorrow, in South Korea, a human champion will square off against a computer…

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: You might not know what Go is, but to much of the planet, it's bigger than football.

NEWS CLIP: All right, folks, you're here, you're going to see history made. Stay with us.

MATTHEW BOTVINICK (DeepMind): I believe it was beyond the Super Bowl. I mean, there's millions and millions of people.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: In fact, nearly 300-million people watched these matches.

MATT BOTVINICK: This game is hugely popular in Asia. The game goes back, I think, thousands of years. It's deeply connected with the culture. People who play this game don't view it as an analytical, quasi-mathematical exercise; they view it almost as poetry.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: It's a board game, like chess, that demands a high level of strategy and intellect. The goal is to surround your opponent's stones to capture as much area of the board as possible. Players receive points for the number of spaces and pieces captured.

It might sound simple, but…

MATT BOTVINICK: The number of possible board positions in Go is larger than the number of molecules in the universe. It's just not going to work to exhaustively search everything that could happen. So, what you need are these gut feelings.

GEOFF HINTON: That's intuition. That's the kind of thing computers can't do.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Not according to these guys at Google's DeepMind in London. They knew in Go, no machine could ever win with brute force.

GREG CORRADO: It was only by bringing deep learning, in particular, to this area that we were able to build artificial systems that were able to see patterns on the board in the same way that humans see patterns on the board.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Using deep learning, DeepMind's AlphaGo analyzed thousands of human games and played itself millions of times, allowing it to invent entirely new ways to play the game.

GAME SHOW HOST: I think black's ahead at this point.

YANN LECUN: AlphaGo was really a stunning result. It's very humbling for humanity.

ALPHA GO TEAM MEMER: I think he resigned.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: A loss heard round the world.

NEWS CLIP 1: A clash of man against machine is over, and the machine won.

NEWS CLIP 2: …a victory over a human by a machine.

MATT BOTVINICK: To see a machine play the game at a high level, with moves that feel creative and poetic, I think was a bit of a game changer.

RANJAY KRISHNA: All of a sudden, it has changed the whole field.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And it's not just winning at Go. In the past few years, deep learning has invaded our everyday lives without most of us even knowing it.

OREN ETZIONI: Deep learning is a big deal because of the results. There're just little things or big things that we can do that we couldn't do before.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: It's what allows smart devices like Alexa to understand you.

ALEXA OWNER: Alexa, how many feet in a mile?

ALEXA: One mile equals 5,280 feet.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: It's what taught Xiaoice how to chat and Facebook to pick you out of a crowd at your cousin's wedding.

CHRISTOF KOCH (Allen Institute for Brain Science): We've suddenly broken through a wall.

When I started in this field, none of that was possible. Now, today, you have machines that can effortless, in real time, recognize people, know where they're looking at. So, there has been breakthrough after breakthrough.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Now it's bested humans in many tasks. LipNet can read your lips at 93 percent accuracy. That's nearly double an expert lip reader.

Google Translate can read foreign languages in real time…

DEMONSTRATION OF GOOGLE TRANSLATE: Hey Isabel, how's it going?

VOICE OF GOOGLE TRANSLATE: Hey, Isabel, (speaking in a non-English language).

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: …even translate live speech.

DEMONSTRATION OF GOOGLE TRANSLATE ISABEL: (Speaking non-English language).

VOICE OF GOOGLE TRANSLATE: Absolutely ok, thank you.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Deep learning programs have composed music, painted pictures, written poetry. It's even sent Boston Dynamics' robot head over heels.

GEOFF HINTON: For the foreseeable future, which I think is about five years, what we'll see is this deep learning invading lots and lots of different areas. And it's going to make life a lot better.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: At least that's the hope. Just consider medicine.

YANN LECUN: Deep learning systems are very good at identifying tumors in images, skin conditions, you know, things like that.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: One of the first attempts with real patients was conducted by Dr. Rob Novoa, a dermatologist at Stanford's Medical School. He knew nothing about deep learning until…

ROBERTO NOVOA (Stanford University): I came across the fact that algorithms could now classify hundreds of dog breeds as well as humans. When I saw this, I thought, "My god, if it can do this for dog breeds, it can probably do this for skin cancer as well."

So, we gathered a database of nearly 130,000 images from the internet, and these images had labels of melanoma, skin cancer, benign mole. And using those, we began training our algorithms.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: The next step was to see how it stacked up against human doctors.

ROB NOVOA: The algorithms did as well as, or better than our sample of dermatologists, who were from academic practices in California and all over the country.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And all this can be put on a phone.

ROB NOVOA: Give it a moment, and it accurately classified it as a benign…

Technology has always changed the way we practice medicine, and will continue to do so, but I'm skeptical as to its ability to completely eliminate entire fields. It will change them, but it won't eliminate them.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Rather than replace doctors, Rob thinks this will expand access to care.

ROB NOVOA: In the future, a primary care doctor or nurse practitioner in a rural setting, would be able to take a picture of this and be able to more accurately diagnose what's going on with it.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: So, deep learning has given us machines that can see, hear, speak.

VOICE OF ALEXA: It might rain in Albuquerque tomorrow.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But to build an intelligence like ours, you're going to need a lot more.

RANA EL KALIOUBY: Our devices know who we are, they know where we are, they know what we're doing, they have a sense of our calendar, but they have no idea how we're feeling. It's completely oblivious to whether you're having a good day, a bad day, are you stressed, are you upset, are you lonely?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: In other words, our machines have no emotional intelligence. And that's important. Our host Rana el Kaliouby would know; she's devoted her career to solve just that. It all started back when she was a grad student from Egypt at the University of Cambridge.

RANA EL KALIOUBY: There was one day when I was at the computer lab, and I was, I was actually, literally, in tears, because I was that homesick. And I was chatting with my husband at the time, and the only way I could tell him that I was really upset was to basically type, you know, "I'm crying."

And that was when I realized that, you know, all of these emotions that we have as humans, they're basically lost in cyberspace. And, and I felt we could do better.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But do better how?

Rana's next stop was M.I.T., where she continued work on a new algorithm, one that could pick up on the important features of human behavior that tell you whether you're feeling happy, sad, angry, scared, you name it…

RANA EL KALIOUBY: It's in your facial expressions, it's in your tone of voice, it's in your, like, very nuanced kind of gestural cues.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: …because she thinks this could transform the way we interact with technology. Our cars could alert us if we get sleepy; our phones could tell us whether that text really was a joke; our computers could tell if those web ads are wasting their time. But where to start? She decided to go with the most emotive part of the human body.

RANA EL KALIOUBY: The way our face works is, basically, we have about 45 facial muscles. So, for example, the zygomaticus muscle is the one we use to smile. So, you take all these muscle combinations, and you map them to an expression of emotion like anger or disgust or excitement. The way you then train an algorithm to do that is you feed it tens of thousands of examples of people doing each of these expressions.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: At first her algorithm could only recognize three expressions, but it was enough to push her to take a leap.

RANA EL KALIOUBY: And I remember very clearly, my dad was like, "What? You're leaving M.I.T. to run a company? Like, why would you ever do that?"

In fact, the first couple of years, I kept the startup a secret from my family.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Eventually, Rana would convince her parents, but convincing investors was a whole other story.

RANA EL KALIOUBY: It is very unusual, especially for women coming from the Middle East, to be in technology and to be leaders. I remember this one time, when I was supposed to be presenting to an audience, and I walked into the room, and people assumed I was the coffee lady.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And investors were not the hardest to convince.

RANA EL KALIOUBY: All these doubts in my mind, like, are probably shaped by my upbringing, right? Where women don't lead companies and maybe I should be back home with my husband.

I think I've learned over the years to have a voice and use my voice and believe in myself.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And once she did that…

RANA EL KALIOUBY: (Speaking at the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Awards): We have this golden opportunity to reimagine how we connect with machines and, therefore, as humans, how we connect with one another.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Today, Rana's company, called Affectiva, has raised millions and has a deep-learning algorithm that can recognize 20 different facial expressions.

Many of her clients are marketing companies who want to know whether their ads are working, and she's also developing software for automotive safety, but an application she's especially proud of is this…

NED SAHIN: Most autistic children struggle with the basic communication skills that you and I take for granted.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: …a collaboration with neuroscientist Ned Sahin and his company, Brain Power, that allows autistic children to read the emotions in people's faces.

RANA EL KALIOUBY: Imagine that we have technology that can sense and understand emotion and that becomes like an emotion hearing aid that can help these individuals understand in real time how other people are feeling.

I think that that's a great example of how A.I., and emotion A.I. in particular, can really transform these people's lives in a way that wasn't possible before this kind of technology.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: No doubt deep learning has accomplished a lot, but how far will it go? Will it ever lead to the so-called "holy grail" of A.I., a general intelligence like ours?

CHRISTOF KOCH: No, very unlikely, because it has challenges. It's difficult to generalize, it's difficult to abstract. If the system meets something it's never encountered before, the system can't reason about it.

PEDRO DOMINGOS (University of Washington): This is the problem of deep learning, in fact, is the problem of A.I. in general today, is that we have a lot of systems that can do one thing well.

OREN ETZIONI: My best analogy to deep learning is we just got a power drill, and boy can you do amazing things with a power drill. But if you're trying to build a house, you need a lot more than a power drill.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Which makes you wonder, will we ever get there? Can we ever build an intelligence that rivals our own?

JUSTIN JOHNSON: I think we're a long way off from human-level intelligence. There's been this sort of trend in A.I., maybe for the past 50 years, of thinking that if only we could build a computer to solve this problem, then that computer must be generally intelligent, and it must mean that we're just around the corner from having A.I.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Okay, so if it's not deep learning, how?

ALI FARHADI: What we need to do is we build machines that can learn in the world by themselves.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Like, the way we do. Humans are not born with a set of programs about how the world works, instead, with every blink, bang and bruise, we acquire that knowledge by interacting with the environment. By the time we walk, we've developed a crucial skill we take for granted but is impossible to teach computers: common sense.

ALI FARHADI: I cannot leave an apple in the middle of the air. It will drop. If I push something toward the edge of the table, probably it's going to fall off the table. If I throw something at you like that, you know that it's going to be projectile kind of movement. All of those things are examples of things that are just so simple for human brain, but these problems are insanely difficult for computers.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Ali Farhadi wants computers to solve these problems for themselves. But the real world is complicated, so he starts simple, with a virtual environment.

ALI FARHADI: We put an agent in this environment. We wanted to teach the agent to navigate through this environment by just doing a lot of random movement.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: At first, it knows nothing about the rules that govern the world, like if you want to get to the window, you can't go through the couch.

ALI FARHADI: The whole point is that we didn't explicitly mention any of these things to the robot, and we wanted the robot to learn about all of these, by just exploring the world.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: For the robot it's a game; its goal: to get to the window. And each time it bumps into the couch, it loses a point. Eventually…

ALI FARHADI: By doing lots of trial and error, the agent learns what are the things that I should do to increase my reward and decrease my penalties. Over the course of millions of iterations, then the robot would actually develop common sense.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But that's just the first step.

ALI FARHADI: You can actually get this knowledge that this agent learned in this synthetic environment, move it to an actual robot and put that robot in any room, and that robot should be able to operate in that room.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: This robot has never been in this room. Think of it as a toddler made of metal and plastic.

ROOZBEH MOTTAGHI (Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence): This is a big deal, because the robot wakes up in a completely unknown environment. So, it needs to, basically, match what it has seen before in the virtual environment with what it sees now in the in the real environment.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Its goal sounds ridiculously simple.

ERIC KOLVE (Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence): So, now, the robot is searching for where it might find the tissue box.

ALI FARHADI: What makes this hard for this specific one is that the tissue box is not even in the frame right now, so it has to move around to find this little box.

ERIC KOLVE: It's going to scan the room left and right, until it can latch onto something that gives it some indication of where, where it is and then move forward towards it.

ALI FARHADI: I think it got it now.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: If after 60 years of trying, this is state-of-the-art, that probably says something about the state of A.I.

RODNEY BROOKS (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Professor Emeritus): When we look around today, at things in A.I., we can see little pieces of lots of humanity, but they're all very fragile. So, I think we're just a long, long way from understanding how intelligence works, yet.

ALI FARHADI: There is a huge gap between where we are and what we need to do to build this general unified intelligent agent that can act in the real world. Ultimately, ideally, one day we'll be there, but we are really far from that point.

YANN LECUN: Before we reach human-level intelligence in all the areas that humans are good at, it's going to take significant progress, and not just technological progress, but scientific progress.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: If A.I. is ever going to get there, many think it will have to go beyond neural nets and model even more closely how the actual brain works.

DAVID COX: If we're going to really get down to the sort of core algorithms of how we want to teach machines how to learn, I think we're going to have to actually open up the box and look inside and figure out how things really work.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: One example of this approach is called "neuromorphic" computing. Instead of writing software like deep learning, scientists like Dharmendra Modha draw direct inspiration from the brain to build new kinds of hardware.

DHARMENDRA MODHA (IBM): The goal of brain-inspired computing is to bridge the gap between the brain and today's computers.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: You might not realize it, but compared to your brain, computer hardware today requires vast amounts of energy. Consider DeepMind's AlphaGo, the machine that beat Lee Sedol at Go.

OREN ETZIONI: Just think about these two machines, the AlphaGo hardware and the human brain. The human brain, right? It's sitting right here. It's tiny. It's powered by let's say 60 watts and a burrito. AlphaGo is a, you know, cavernous beast, even in this day and age, you know, thousands of processing units and a huge amount of electricity and energy and so on.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: In fact, DeepMind used 13 data server centers and just over one megawatt to power AlphaGo. That's 50,000 times more energy than Lee Sedol's brain.

DHARMENDRA MODHA: The human brain is three pounds of meat, 80 percent water, occupies the size of a two liter bottle of soda, consumes the power of a dim light bulb and yet is capable of amazing feats of sensation, perception, action, cognition, emotion and interaction.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: So, why is the brain so much more efficient? Engineers have pinned down a few clues. For one, traditional computers work by constantly shuttling data from memory, where it's stored, to the C.P.U., where it's crunched. This constant back and forth eats up a lot of juice.

DHARMENDRA MODHA: Today's computers fundamentally separate computation from memory, which is highly inefficient. Whereas our chips, like the brain, combine computation, memory and communication.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: The chip is called TrueNorth, and its architecture combines memory and computation. For certain applications, this design uses a hundred times less energy than a traditional computer. And it's worth pondering the consequences. Funded by the Defense Department, the Army and the Air Force are already testing the chip to see if it can help drones identify threats and pilots make split-second targeting decisions. Until now, the only possible way to do that was with banks of computers, thousands of miles away from the battlefield.

DHARMENDRA MODHA: That's amazing because the low power and real-time response of TrueNorth allows this decision-making to happen without having to wait for a long time.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Of course, many fear technologies like this will eventually take human intelligence out of the loop.

DAVID COX: We're going to increasingly be giving over our decision-making ability to machines. And that's going to range from everything from, you know, how does the steering wheel turn in the car if somebody walks out into the road, to should a military drone target a person and fire?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And handing those decisions over to the machines? Well, that's a nightmare familiar to anyone who's seen the movies.

COREY JOHNSON (As Jay, Ex Machina): Ava, I said stop. Whoa, whoa, whoa.

DOUGLAS RAIN (As Hal 9000, 2001: A Space Odyssey): I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: If you're worried, you'd have good company. Big thinkers like the late Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates and Elon Musk have all made headlines warning about the dangers of A.I.

ELON MUSK (CNBC clip): A.I. is a fundamental existential risk for human civilization.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: It's a burning question for many of us: are we just sitting ducks for the arrival of the Robot Overlords?

RODNEY BROOKS: That's so off the mark.

ALI FARHADI: My immediate subconscious reaction is I laugh.

OREN ETZIONI: I want to challenge Elon Musk. Show me a program that could even take a fourth grade science test.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Reality seems to paint a different picture entirely, one where achieving an intelligence like ours, never mind one that would want to kill us, is far away. Instead, potential threats from A.I. might be much more mundane.

Think about it. Without so much as a blink, we've surrendered control to systems we do not understand: planes virtually pilot themselves; algorithms determine who gets a loan and what you see in your news feed; machines run world markets. Today's A.I. would seem to hold tremendous promise and peril.

Just consider self-driving cars.

PETER RANDER (Argo AI): Self-driving cars are one of the, really, first big opportunities to see A.I. get into the physical world. This physical interaction with the world, with intelligence behind it, it's it's huge.

DAVID COX: You're talking about having an actual object going out into the world, interacting with, with other agents. It has to interact with people, pedestrians, cyclists. It has to deal with different road conditions.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: They're also a pretty good litmus test for reality versus hype.

BILL FORD (Ford Motor Company): There seems to be a tremendous P.R. war going on: who can make the most outrageous claims? It makes it hard to sort through, then, what's real and what's "smoke and mirrors."

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: A glance online would make it appear as if self-driving cars are right around the corner, when, in fact, it'll likely be decades before one is in your driveway.

OREN ETZIONI: So, every year there are going to be self-driving cars with more abilities, but it's going to be a really long time before the car can completely take over and you can take a nap.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: For one, almost under all conditions, they still need a safety driver.

This one belongs to Argo, the center of Ford's self-driving efforts.

BRETT BROWNING (Vice President of Robotics, Ford): Lisa has got her hands in a position where she can really have a very fast reaction time to take over from the car. This allows us to have a very short leash on the system.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Even after logging millions of miles, the only places you can find truly autonomous vehicles today are either on test tracks or carefully chosen routes that have been meticulously mapped. And even under those conditions, neither Argo nor its competitors can reliably drive in the snow or rain.

Nonetheless, many engineers are confident that these problems will eventually be solved. The question is, when?

PETER RANDER: We can debate five years, 10 years, 20 years, but, absolutely, there's a future in which most cars are self-driving.

RODNEY BROOKS: If we go out far enough, we won't have any human drivers, ultimately. But it's a lot further off than I think a lot of the Silicon Valley startups and some of the car companies think.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And if that day comes, there could be a huge upside.

CHRISTOF KOCH: Dramatic reduction in traffic density, because we don't need as many cars if the cars are being used all the time.

BILL FORD: Old people won't have to give up their driver's license; we won't have drunk driving.

PETER RANDER: About 40,000 people died in the U.S. last year in auto accidents. And that number is huge, it's a million worldwide.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: …the vast majority of which are due to human error. In fact, car crashes are a leading cause of death in the U.S.

On the other hand, taking us out of the equation raises some big ethical questions.

NEWS ANCHOR: A woman was hit and killed by a driverless Uber vehicle in Tempe, Arizona, last night.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: This accident was big news. It was the first of its kind, but it almost certainly won't be the last.

PETER SINGER: When a machine makes the wrong decision, how do we figure out who's to be held responsible? What you have is a series of questions that our laws are really not all that ready for.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And then there's the issue of jobs. At the moment, these vehicles are so expensive they only make sense for companies that have fleets that could be used 24/7.

BILL FORD: So, the early adopters won't be the individual customers, it'll be big fleets.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: …like trucks. Because they mostly run on predictable highway routes, they might be the first self-driving vehicles you'll see in the next lane.

DAVID COX: We're at the point where highway driving in a truck with an autonomous vehicle will be solved in the next five, ten years; so, those are all jobs that are going to go away.

BILL FORD: There will be economic disruption. If you think of things like truck drivers, taxi drivers, Uber and Lyft drivers, we need to have this discussion as a society. And how are we going to prepare for this?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And what if those three-and-a-half-million truck drivers in the U.S. are just the "canary in the coal mine?"

PEDRO DOMINGOS: We have learned a certain number of things, you know, in the last 50 years of A.I, and we understand that, on the ranking of things to worry about, Skynet coming and taking over doesn't even rank in the top 10. It distracts attention from the more urgent things. For example, what's going to happen to jobs?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: For a glimpse into the future, consider one of the largest companies on the planet: Amazon. Whether you're aware of it or not, that pair of socks you ordered last week comes from a place like this.

TYE BRADY (Amazon.com, Inc.): Amazon has tremendous scale. We have fulfillment centers that are as large as 1.25 million square feet—that's like 23 football fields—and in it we'll have just millions of products.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: To deal with that scale, Amazon has built an army of robots.

TYE BRADY: Like a marching army of ants that can constantly change its goals based on the situation at hand, right? So, our robots are very adaptive and reactive, in order to extend human capability to allow for more efficiencies within our own buildings.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And there's plenty more where those came from. Every day, this facility in Boston "graduates" a new batch of machines.

TYE BRADY: All of the robots that you see that are moving the pods have been built right here, in Boston. I call it the nursery, where the robots are born. They'll be built, they'll take their first breath of air, they'll do their own diagnostics. Once they're good, then they'll line up for robot graduation, and then they will swing their tassels to the appropriate side, drive themselves right onto a pallet and go directly to a fulfillment center.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: To some of us, this moment belies a dark sign of what's to come, a future that doesn't need us, one where all jobs, not just cab drivers' and truckers', are taken by machines.

But Amazon's chief roboticist doesn't see it that way.

TYE BRADY: The fact is really plain and simple: the more robots we add to our fulfillment centers, the more jobs we are creating. The robots do not build themselves. Humans design them, humans build them, humans deploy them, humans support them. And then humans, most importantly, interact with the robots. When you look at that, this enables growth. And growth does enable jobs.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Certainly, history would seem to bear him out. Since the Industrial Revolution, new technologies, while displacing some jobs, have created new ones.

YANN LECUN: There's nothing special about A.I., compared to say, tractors or telephone or the internet or the airplane. Every single technology that was deployed displaced jobs.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And the new jobs workers took, more often than not, raised wages and the standard of living for everyone.

PEDRO DOMINGOS: Two-hundred years ago, 98 percent of Americans were farmers; 98 percent of us are not unemployed now. We're just doing jobs that were completely unimaginable back then, like an, like web app developer.

SEBASTIAN THRUN (Stanford University): I'd argue, as we invent new things, it lifts the plate for everybody. Let's take inventions in the last 100 years that matter, television, telephones, penicillin, modern healthcare. I believe that the ability to invent new things lifts us all up as a society.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: While this is the predominant view in the A.I. community, some think it ignores the reality of today's world.

PETER SINGER: There's a long history of technology creators assuming that only good things would happen with their baby, when it went out into the world. Even if there are some new jobs created somewhere, the vast majority of people are not easily going to be able to shift into them. That truck driver who loses their job to a driverless truck isn't going to easily become an app developer out in Silicon Valley.

DAVID COX: It's easy to think that automation-related job losses are going to be limited to blue collar jobs, but it's actually already not the case. Physicians, that's an incredibly highly educated, highly paid job, and yet, you know, there are significant fractions of the medical profession that are, are just going to be done better by machines.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: That being the case, even if changes like this in the past ultimately benefited the present, how do we know the pace of change hasn't altered the equation?

CHRISTOF KOCH: So, I'm really concerned about the timescale of all of this. Human nature can't keep up with it. Our laws, our legal system has difficulty catching up with it, and our social systems, our culture has difficulty catching up with it, and if that happens then at some point things are going to break.

PETER SINGER: So, if you are talking about something like artificial intelligence, this is a technology like any other technology. You're not going to uninvent it. You're not going to stop it. If you want to stop it, you're going to first have to stop science, capitalism and war.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But even if A.I. is a given, how we choose to use it is not.

FEI-FEI LI: As technologists, as business people, as policymakers, as lawmakers, we should be in the conversations about how do we avoid all the potential pitfalls?

RANA EL KALIOUBY: We get to decide where this goes, right? I think A.I. has the potential to unite us. It can really transform people's lives in a way that wasn't possible before this kind of technology.

MATT BOTVINICK: What we do with A.I. is a decision that we all have to make. This isn't a decision that's up to A.I. researchers or big business or government. It's a decision that we, as citizens of the world, have to work together to figure out.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Artificial intelligence may be one of humanity's most powerful inventions, yet the challenge is are we going to be smart enough to use it?

PEDRO DOMINGOS: It's like Carl Sagan said, right? You know, "History is a race between education and catastrophe." The race keeps getting faster. So far, education seems to still be ahead, which means that if we let up, you know, catastrophe could come out ahead.

PETER SINGER: The stakes are incredibly high for getting this right. If we do it well, we move into an era of almost incomprehensible good; if we screw it up, we move into dystopia.

Broadcast Credits

HOSTED BY
Talithia Williams
CO-HOSTED BY
Rana el Kaliouby
André Fenton
DIRECTED BY
Anna Lee Strachan
WRITTEN BY
Michael Bicks
PRODUCED BY
Michael Bicks & Anna Lee Strachan
SERIES PRODUCERS
Michael Bicks & Anna Lee Strachan
EXECUTIVE PRODUCER
Julia Cort
DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY
Jason Longo
EDITED BY
Ralph Avellino
ANIMATION
Ekin Akalin
ORIGINAL MUSIC BY
Christopher Rife
ADDITIONAL MUSIC BY
Scorekeeper's Music
ADDITIONAL PHOTOGRAPHY
Mike Coles
David Goulding
SUPERVISING PRODUCER
Kevin Young
COORDINATING PRODUCER
Elizabeth Benjes
ASSOCIATE PRODUCER
XiaoZhi Lim
PRODUCTION MANAGEMENT
Pellet Productions
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Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence
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Argo AI
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Stanford University
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Harvey Mudd College

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Can We Make Life?

A revolution in gene editing enables scientists to create and edit DNA like never before. Airing May 23, 2018 at 9 pm on PBS Aired May 23, 2018 on PBS

Program Description

"It's alive!" Since Dr. Frankenstein spoke those famous words, we've been alternately enthralled and terrified by the idea of creating life in the lab. Now, a revolution in genetic engineering and thrilling innovations in synthetic biology are bringing that dream—or nightmare, as the case may be—closer to reality. New tools allow researchers to use cells to create their own DNA and edit it into existing genomes with more ease and less cost than ever before. Along with renewed hopes for treating some genetic diseases, there's serious talk of using the newest technologies to bring long-extinct animals back from the dead – like the team hoping to resurrect the woolly mammoth. Science fiction is quickly becoming science fact. Another daring genetic experiment to bioengineer animals could prevent Lyme disease. But the power to make life comes with deep ethical questions. What are the potential rewards—and dangers—of tinkering with nature? NOVA Wonders explores the benefits and the burden of risk surrounding the controversial new technology.

 

 

Transcript

NOVA Wonders Can We Make Life?

PBS Airdate: May 23, 2018

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: WILLIAMS (Mathematician, Harvey Mudd College): What do you wonder about?

ERICH JARVIS (Rockefeller University): The unknown.

FLIP TANEDO (University of California, Riverside): What our place in the universe is?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Artificial intelligence.

ROBOT: Hello.

JARED TAGLIALATELA (Kennesaw State University): Look at this. What's this?

KRISTALA JONES PRATHER (Massachusetts Institute of Technology): Animals.

JARED TAGLIALATELA: An egg.

ANDRE FENTON (Neuroscientist, New York University): Your brain.

RANA EL KALIOUBY (Computer Scientist, Affectiva): Life on a faraway planet.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: NOVA Wonders, investigating the biggest mysteries…

JOHN ASHER JOHNSON (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics): We have no idea what's going on there.

JASON KALIRAI (Space Telescope Science Institute): These planets in the middle, we think are in the habitable zone.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: …and making incredible discoveries.

CATHERINE HOBAITER (University of St Andrews): Trying to understand their behavior, their life, everything that goes on here.

DAVID COX (Harvard University): Building an artificial intelligence is going to be the crowning achievement of humanity.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: We are three scientists, exploring the frontiers of human knowledge.

ANDRE FENTON: I'm a neuroscientist, and I study the biology of memory.

RANA EL KALIOUBY: I'm a computer scientist, and I build technology that can read human emotions.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And I'm a mathematician, using big data to understand our modern world. And we're tackling the biggest questions…

SCIENTISTS: Dark energy? Dark energy!

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: …of life…

DAVID T. PRIDE (University of Califormia, San Diego): There's all of these microbes, and we just don't know what they are.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: …and the cosmos.

On this episode…

KRISTALA JONES PRATHER: D.N.A. is really just a chemical.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: We're rewriting the code of life, like never before.

DREW ENDY (Stanford University): There's enough D.N.A. to make 30 copies of every human genome on the planet.

GEORGE CHURCH (Harvard Medical School): You can change every species to almost anything you want.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Can this new genetic power save lives? Or even bring extinct creatures back from the dead?

BETH SHAPIRO (University of California, Santa Cruz): Could we bring a mammoth back to life?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: It's a revolution in biology.

DANICA CONNORS (Nantucket Meeting Participant): This is rapid, man-made evolution.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: NOVA Wonders: Can We Make Life?

The earth is brimming with an unimaginable variety of life, a multitude of creatures, connected and intertwined in countless ways.

ANDRE FENTON: They've evolved over a billion years, driven by a very simple code.

RANA EL KALIOUBY: For decades, scientists have been trying to master this chemical cipher that we call D.N.A.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Now, suddenly, new tools are allowing researchers to manipulate the code of life with incredible precision. How powerful is this?

RANA EL KALIOUBY: Could we change and mold life at our command?

ANDRE FENTON: Could we bring extinct creatures back from the dead?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: How much power do we really have over life? And are we ready to use it wisely?

ANDRE FENTON: I'm Andre Fenton.

RANA EL KALIOUBY: I'm Rana el Kaliouby.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: I'm Talithia Williams, and in this episode, NOVA Wonders: Can We Make Life?

Fifteen-thousand years ago, the biggest thing on four legs was this guy, the mammoth. These eight-ton giants threw their weight around, from the steppes of Europe to the plains of North America, until they vanished from the face of the earth.

BETH SHAPIRO: From the paleontological record, the best guess is that there were many mammoths, potentially hundreds of thousands, even to millions of mammoths.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro deciphers the D.N.A., the genetic code, of ancient animals, like the Ice Age mammoths discovered here, in Hot Springs, South Dakota.

BETH SHAPIRO: It's a absolutely unique site, really amazing. This is a ancient sinkhole, where lots of mammoths would have wandered up into a lake to have a drink, and once they got stuck, would've not been able to get out.

There are about 60 mammoths that are in this site in a pretty tightly- condensed little geographic area.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: These animals died about, at least 26,000 years ago, before people came to North America. When human hunters did show up, mammoths wouldn't stand a chance.

BETH SHAPIRO: People might have been that proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back. These animals were in trouble because the climate was changing, because there wasn't enough habitat available to them, just not enough to eat. And then just at that really worst moment, people turned up.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Pretty soon, all the mammoths, including the iconic woolly mammoth that loved colder climates, would go extinct, gone forever. Or are they?

If George Church has his way, he will bring the woolly mammoth back from the dead, to roam the earth once again. Kind of tall and woolly like a mammoth himself, George is one of the world's most inventive genetic scientists.

He once coded his latest book in D.N.A. and brought it on this piece of paper to the Stephen Colbert show.

GEORGE CHURCH: They took the book, including the photographs…

STEPHEN COLBERT (The Late Show with Stephen Colbert): Yes?

GEORGE CHURCH: …zeroes and ones, converted to A, C, Gs and Ts.

STEPHEN COLBERT: Which is the code of D.N.A? Put a little drop…

GEORGE CHURCH: A little drop right there.

STEPHEN COLBERT: That contains the D.N.A. in there.

GEORGE CHURCH: That's right.

STEPHEN COLBERT: So, this piece of paper, right there, contains 20-million copies of this book?

GEORGE CHURCH: That's right.

STEPHEN COLBERT: Well, Dr. George Church…

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But can this genetic magician possibly resurrect a long dead woolly mammoth?

GEORGE CHURCH: Every species on the planet comes from a cell with a genome, and that means you can change it to almost anything you want.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: George is like the fictional scientists from Jurassic Park. They "de-extincted" dinosaurs by implanting their D.N.A. into ostrich eggs.

RICHARD ATTENBOROUGH (As Hammond in Jurassic Park): Come on, little one.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: The baby dinosaurs that hatched were cute at first, and then they weren't.

Despite the movie's dubious science, George's de-extinction idea is not very different. And, fortunately, his creatures are vegetarians.

George's real life plan is to take mammoth genes, decoded from ancient remains and implant them into the embryo of a live Asian elephant.

GEORGE CHURCH: They're very closely related to the mammoths. Even though they don't look that way, they are genetically very similar.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And then he hopes the Asian elephant's new baby will come out woolier and more mammoth-like than this one. At least that's the plan.

Why would anyone think they could reverse evolution and bring an extinct creature back to life? The answer lies deep inside almost every living cell in your body, in your D.N.A. One of the wonders of D.N.A. is how simple it is: a double string made of four chemicals, usually known by their initials: A, T, C and G.

Strings of these letters form genes, the coded instructions that tell a cell to build specific proteins. Arrange the letters one way and you'll get keratin. It's not just a hair treatment; it's the main protein making up our hair, skin and fingernails.

Switch the order of the letters, and you could get ricin, a protein made in the seeds of a castor oil plant, and, to a human, extremely poisonous. D.N.A. and the order of its letters are the instructions that turn a fertilized egg into a flounder, a frog or a fly.

The quest to use D.N.A. to control and manipulate life began over 40 years ago, on creatures a whole lot smaller than elephants, in an attempt to treat a deadly disease.

In the 1970s, Herb Boyer and Stanley Cohen began using new D.N.A. technology to see if they could coax common E. coli bacteria into producing human insulin protein.

People with diabetes don't produce enough insulin to help their bodies absorb sugar and other nutrients and will die without injecting it. Before the 1970s, insulin was extracted from cattle and pigs. Unfortunately, insulin from these animal sources sometimes caused severe allergic reactions. But the Boyer team was about to change that.

Their idea was to engineer E. coli bacteria by first cutting its genetic material with enzymes and then inserting a synthetic version of the human insulin-coding gene into the gap. Amazingly, the altered bacteria not only copied the human gene whenever it divided, they produced human insulin, a lifesaver for diabetics ever since.

ARTHUR CAPLAN (New York University School of Medicine): I found it amazing, as a non-biologist, that you could trick a tiny microbe into making something that it doesn't naturally make and reorient it to make something that we want.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Here in a biochemical lab at M.I.T…

KRISTALA JONES PRATHER: We actually should go back and redo some of those things.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: …Kristala Jones Prather will lead the team that is also altering the genes of microbes to make proteins and chemicals that are useful to us.

KRISTALA JONES PRATHER: You can actually look at those individual cells as little factories. If you shrunk yourself down to the size of a molecule, you would just see lots and lots of chemical reactions.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But you need trillions of organisms to produce enough of these tiny chemicals to be useful commercially. So, today, biotech companies use giant fermenters filled with microorganisms to pump out a slew of bio products, all thanks to our ability to manipulate D.N.A.

KRISTALA JONES PRATHER: The key observation that really fueled the entire biotech industry was recognizing that D.N.A. is really just a chemical, and the structure is what matters. And so it doesn't matter if that D.N.A. came from a horse or a mouse or something you dug off the bottom of your shoe, the D.N.A. is still just the D.N.A.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Today, production facilities not only make bio products, they make synthetic D.N.A. and can even process the four basic chemicals into an exact genetic sequence you can order online.

DREW ENDY: You'd go to a Web site for a company, a D.N.A. synthesis company, and you'd submit to that Web site the, the sequence of D.N.A. you want.

NILI OSTROV (Harvard Medical School): We can take the entire gene sequence and copy and then put it in an order sheet.

DREW ENDY: You can say T, A, A, T, A, C, G, A, C, T, C, A, C, T, A, T, A, G, G, G, A, G, A, give them a credit card number…

NILI OSTROV: …order this D.N.A.

DREW ENDY: They'll print that D.N.A., put it in an envelope and mail it to you.

NILI OSTROV: We get the gene back in a tube in about a day or two.

DREW ENDY: It's D.N.A. that is made from scratch, by the machine. This is a bottle full of the letter A. Not the letter in the alphabet, but the base of D.N.A. There's ten grams of stuff in here, and it costs about $250 for the bottle. There's enough material to make approximately 30 copies of every human genome on the planet.

RANA EL KALIOUBY: So, think about what this means: all the convenience of online shopping, just like I can custom-order a car. Do I want the silver or the red? Or build my own pizza: extra cheese, mushrooms, definitely not anchovies. Perfect.

Along with all this stuff you can buy online, amazingly, you can custom-order actual D.N.A. So now, with a credit card and a computer, not only can you build your own jeans, you can build your own genes.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Our ability to build and manipulate the genes that control life means we now have the power to remake life.

And this young scientist is trying to prove it, with one of the most daring genetic experiments on the planet. Kevin Esvelt wants to stop a growing menace on Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, beautiful island communities off the coast of Massachusetts.

On the surface, you wouldn't notice anything especially scary on Nantucket. Tourists flock here, and others live year-round, to enjoy the beauty, fun and comforts of island life. What they don't come for, but often get anyway, is Lyme disease.

TIMOTHY LEPORE (Nantucket Physician): Devin, why don't you come on down.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Dr. Timothy Lepore is a 30-year veteran of treating Lyme disease on Nantucket.

TIMOTHY LEPORE: In the spring and summer on Nantucket, if I see something like that, that's Lyme disease.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Lyme is a bacterial infection that often starts with a rash, where a person has been bitten by an infected tick.

TIMOTHY LEPORE: You get rashes.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Most people can be cured with antibiotics that eliminate the rash, fever and joint pain within a few days.

TIMOTHY LEPORE: When we treated you, you got better?

PATIENT #1: Yep.

PATIENT #2: Then the next day, it had the ring around it.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But not everyone recovers so quickly.

TIMOTHY LEPORE: People that have had long-standing Lyme disease may have some persistent issues. If you wait, you can have delayed symptoms, like complete heart block, where your heart starts beating 20 to 30 times a minute. Or you can have a facial palsy, where it looks like one side of your face is paralyzed.

Come on in.

KEVIN ESVELT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab): Lyme is the single most common infectious vector-borne disease in the United States. It's way more common than Zika, way more common than West Nile, anything like that.

The areas of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard are number two and number three when it comes to incidence of tick-borne disease in the United States.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Kevin Esvelt is on a mission to eradicate Lyme disease, and, for him, these Massachusetts islands are the perfect places to start. This pocket of dense vegetation is typical of Nantucket and the rest of the northeast.

SAM TELFORD (Tufts University): Can't find an easy way out.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Sam Telford is working with Kevin. An expert on ticks and tick-borne diseases, Sam's diving into this brush, because he knows it's literally crawling with ticks for him to study.

Dragging a white furry cloth, Sam is hoping to catch ticks that think the cloth is an animal.

SAM TELFORD: Ticks are what we call "ambush" predators. They sit there on a blade of grass, and they've got their front legs sticking out, and then as you walk by, they'll latch on to something that they think is furry.

There is one here.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: This is a tick in an early stage, when it's very tiny.

SAM TELFORD: No one who gets Lyme disease recalls that they were bitten by a tick, simply because of their small size. How on earth are you going to see something that small?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Humans get Lyme disease from ticks, but ticks are not born with Lyme bacteria. They get it by feeding on this innocent-looking critter, the white-footed mouse that carries Lyme bacteria in its blood. And another innocent-looking creature, the deer, is a crucial link in the chain of transmission to us.

Baby ticks will often feed on mice that are close to the ground, and this is when they get the Lyme bacteria. As the ticks grow, they will feed on other mice, deer or people, passing the Lyme bacteria with each bite. But only people get the disease.

A single deer is like an all you can eat buffet. They live in the woods and can't easily scratch ticks off, so females ticks become engorged, drop off, lay eggs, and the cycle starts again.

KEVIN ESVELT: The typical deer has several thousand ticks attached to it. And the females will each lay several thousand eggs. So, when you see a deer wandering around through the woods, you can think, "That is the walking equivalent of a million ticks in the next generation."

But people adore seeing deer and don't want them removed.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Could it be childhood memories of Bambi?

KEVIN ESVELT: It is Bambi. But we like seeing deer, so, because there are so many more deer than there have ever been before, historically, there are many more ticks than there have ever been before.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Now, deer shed ticks in our lawn clippings, garden plots, recreation areas. And if they carry the Lyme bacteria, they can give it to us. Here on Nantucket 40 percent of residents have caught Lyme disease.

And it's not the only tick-borne disease they have to worry about.

SAM TELFORD: There's an infection called "Nantucket fever" or "human babesiosis," which was first identified here in 1969. It's a malaria-like infection, and it, it actually kills people.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: There are four serious tick-carried diseases on the island, with Lyme by far the most common. But it's not just these tiny islands. Mice, deer and ticks have spread Lyme disease throughout the northeast U.S. Almost anyone in the region who ventures outdoors, not just into the woods, but in suburbs, too, is putting themselves at risk.

For Kevin Esvelt, it's a risk people should not have to take, especially with their kids.

KEVIN ESVELT: I'm from the west coast, and there, we have ticks, but they're so rare that I spent my childhood running around through the woods and never once got bitten by a tick, not once.

Noah, down the slide. Come on, I'm going to catch you. Whoa!

I have two kids, and it's just terrible that we have to be wary of them just running in the woods. So, the notion that you can wander out here through some of the worst areas and end up with lots of ticks on you is just, well, it's frankly horrifying.

SAM TELFORD: All right, so I have 40 traps out on this site.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Kevin has a plan to make the outdoors safe again.

KEVIN ESVELT: Mice all seem to be wary today.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: He believes he can get rid of Lyme disease by genetically altering the white-footed mice that carry it. And if that goes well, he hopes to edit their D.N.A., so they could resist ticks entirely.

SAM TELFORD: Ahhh, looks like we've got one to take back.

KEVIN ESVELT: Enlisting mice in the war against tick-borne disease would just be an amazing proposition.

SAM TELFORD: I'm counting 18 on the ears.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: The number of ticks is astounding, especially on its ears. And if this mouse has the Lyme bacteria, all the ticks will become infected and can transmit the disease to us.

Kevin's plan is to make the mice resistant to Lyme bacteria, with the help of genetic engineering's most exciting and powerful tool, CRISPR.

ANDRE FENTON: CRISPR stands for: Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. That's why it's just called "CRISPR."

First discovered in bacteria, CRISPRs are like bacterial immune systems. They have two key parts: a destroyer protein, like one called Cas9, and a piece of R.N.A. that matches viruses that previously infected the bacteria. If the same virus were to invade again, the R.N.A. would recognize the invader's D.N.A., attach itself to its old enemy, and its Cas partner would slice the virus' D.N.A., destroying it.

A few years ago, some researchers realized they could use CRISPR to edit the genome of any living organism. Here's the idea: say I have a stretch of D.N.A., maybe a part of a gene I'd like to change. If I know the sequence of letters there, I can build a CRISPR that carries a matching code. Once inside the cell, CRISPR will scan the D.N.A. until it finds that exact spot, and when it does, it slices the D.N.A. right there.

Now I have a broken gene, but it turns out I can insert a new sequence into the gap. And that makes CRISPR potentially an extremely powerful tool.

BETH SHAPIRO: CRISPR-Cas engineering is much faster. It's much less expensive, and it's much easier to make those changes you want to make.

KRISTALA JONES PRATHER: The really significant revolution with CRIPSR-Cas9 is that, as far as I can tell, it pretty much works in any organism that you try it in.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And M.I.T.'s Kevin Esvelt wants to use CRISPR to change the D.N.A. of mice and make them immune to Lyme bacteria.

KEVIN ESVELT: The original idea that sparked this whole process was very simple.

Hey.

LAB TECHNICIAN: Hi.

KEVIN ESVELT: Animals like us, and also the mice, when we get sick with something, our immune systems evolve an antibody, often lots and lots of antibodies, that are really, really good at telling the immune system, "This is the enemy, kill it."

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But these antibodies do not get passed on to our children, so we need vaccines to give us antibodies against certain diseases. But there is no human Lyme vaccine. And even if there was one for mice, he couldn't just line them up for shots. So, instead, Kevin wants to give them a genetic vaccine. Here's how that would work: first, Kevin, with the help of Sam Telford, infects mice in the lab with Lyme bacteria. These mice quickly develop robust, Lyme-resistant antibodies. Next, the team deciphers the genetic code that can create those antibodies. They make this antibody gene in the lab and inject it, along with CRISPR genes, into the developing sperm cells of Sam's lab mice. There, CRISPR would clear the way for the new gene to slide into the mouse's genome.

Now, if an engineered male mates with a wild female, roughly 50 percent of their babies, boys and girls, will inherit the Lyme-resistant gene and begin spreading it to future generations of mice. That is if Kevin's plan works.

But before he can even try, he'll need Nantucket residents to approve the release of genetically modified mice, something many people here worry might backfire, like the disastrous cane toad experiment.

Cane toads were introduced to Australia in the 1930s, to help kill off sugar cane beetles. But instead they became a biological wrecking ball. A foreign species with no natural predators, they quickly overran the country. Poisonous to animals, they've killed countless pets and native species, disrupted key parts of the country's ecosystem, and they are now almost impossible to get rid of.

The mice used in Kevin's experiment will be native, not foreign, but some people worry that genetically modifying animals could spell trouble.

TIMOTHY LEPORE: If you fool with Mother Nature, very often it doesn't turn out well. So, are we going to have mice the size of boxer dogs? I don't know.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: As Kevin releases a wild mouse caught earlier, he hopes that someday the little creature jumping away will be resistant to Lyme disease. But to get that far, he will need the island's complete trust. And the jury is still out. Will people's fear of genetic engineering prevent Kevin from using this controversial science?

ELEONORE PAUWELS: (Wilson Center): You know, this is a, a technology too powerful for humankind to refuse. It's going to help us transform not only our bodies and our genes, but can give us a chance to actually play a role in our own evolution.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: George Church is certainly playing with evolution by attempting to de-extinct a woolly mammoth, but why does this gene giant even want to do this?

BETH SHAPIRO: George is one of those people in science who is just larger than life. He just wants to be doing those most exciting projects at the cutting edge of whatever it is.

GEORGE CHURCH: Wow, that is the coolest virus I have ever seen.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: George's lab is renowned for stretching the limits of genetic engineering, from experiments using pigs to grow human organs for transplantation, to using bacterial D.N.A. to encode and store data and even digitize movies. But the woolly mammoth would be his greatest accomplishment yet.

RANA EL KALIOUBY: Seeing a real mammoth again would be amazing, but what about saber-tooth tigers or giant dodo birds, even flocks of passenger pigeons.

Bringing back extinct creatures wouldn't just be cool, we could see how these magnificent animals once lived and maybe find out how to save today's creatures from going extinct, which is exactly what George Church wants to do for the Asian elephant.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: George's plan is to combine the genes of a woolly mammoth with those of Asian elephants, because making them mammoth-like might save them. Hunted for their tusks and chased from farmlands, Asian elephant numbers are shrinking. But George has a possible solution.

GEORGE CHURCH: If you gave them access to one of the largest ecosystems on the planet, which is the Arctic tundra, where their very close relatives used to roam, that would probably save the species.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: There's plenty of open, fertile space in the tundra, but it's too cold for warm-weather elephants to survive here. So, George's resurrection plan begins with genetically winterizing Asian elephants to become more like woolly mammoths, who loved the cold.

The team first identifies the specific genes in modern animals that code for things like fat or thick hair. Then they look for their genetic counterparts in decoded mammoth genomes. Once they identify the mammoth's "cold" genes, they make them synthetically and insert them into living cells taken from an Asian elephant to see if they work.

BOBBY DHADWAR (Harvard Medical School): What we're seeing here is green cells. These are elephant cells that we've introduced mammoth D.N.A. into. The brighter the green that we're seeing means the more D.N.A. is taken up.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: In the lab, they've edited about 35 functioning woolly mammoth genes into the Asian elephant genome. This is a good start for making a semi-woolly mammoth, but it's the next step that will be the most challenging.

BETH SHAPIRO: There is a huge difference, obviously, between a cell growing in a dish in a lab and a baby mammoth wandering around.

How do I take that cell and turn that into an actual living breathing organism?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: They could try and fertilize the egg cell of a captive Asian elephant with Wooly Mammoth genes, but this is difficult.

BETH SHAPIRO: It's very hard for them to get pregnant in captivity. The pregnancies often don't go to term. And this is probably has to do with the psychology of being in captivity.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And performing such an operation on an endangered species like this may simply be too great a risk. So, George is studying mammals like the platypus and spiny anteater whose babies develop outside a mother's body in an egg.

RANA EL KALIOUBY: Could he possibly engineer a living mammoth this way? Can you imagine a baby woolly mammoth hatching out of an egg? Really? Not even George has figured out how to do this. And then what would this sort of mammoth be like?

ARTHUR CAPLAN: I think you're going to get a creature that's sort of a pseudo-mammoth, not quite the same makeup. So, I think you're going to get a sort of echo of the animal that once was, but not a replica.

BETH SHAPIRO: So, even if we could get to the point where we could transform this elephant to a living breathing baby mammoth, a question that I have really is, "Should we?"

We know that elephants are very social creatures. They live in herds, interacting with each other. Unless we can get this down in such a way that we can do many different individuals at a time, you're still just going to have one generation to start with, and that just seems kind of unfair.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Although we may never see a mammoth, George's efforts to identify and make more resilient animal genes may have a hidden benefit.

BETH SHAPIRO: This technology, the ability to take genes from the past and put them into species that are alive today has tremendous potential as a new tool for conservation. Many of the endangered species and populations have very little genetic diversity, and that means that they have very little ability to adapt to rapid climate change, or if a disease comes in, and wipes out most of the individuals who are there. We can use this technology to help species that are on the brink of extinction today.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But what about us? We've known for decades that mistakes in our own D.N.A., sometimes the switching of just a letter or two, can lead to life-threatening problems. For example, an A instead of a T on just one of our genes causes sickle cell disease, a lifelong blood disorder.

So, is it possible to harness new technologies to rewrite our own genetic code? Could we use this power to save lives?

Doctors and researchers have been trying to do this for decades, but with limited success. Dr. David Williams of Boston Children's Hospital has participated in several gene therapy trials that invariably ended in disappointment.

DAVID WILLIAMS (Boston Children's Hospital): We saw a real need for this technology to be developed. People were then disappointed, including scientists when the hype didn't' get realized.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: To make matters worse, in 1999, 18-year-old Jesse Gelsinger entered a trial for a genetic liver condition. He only had a mild form of the disease, but tragically, the gene therapy ended up killing him.

DAVID WILLIAMS: This set the field back enormously, and it's taken a long time for the field to recover from those setbacks.

CHRISTINE DUNCAN (Boston Children's Hospital): This is the family we just met this morning. He's 7-years-old, but wasn't diagnosed until August.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Today, Dave Williams heads a new gene therapy trial that aims to cure a devastating childhood disease…

CHRISTINE DUNCAN: So, he's had febrile seizures since he was eight-months-old.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: …a heartbreaking killer called "cerebral adrenoleukodystrophy," or A.L.D., and the stakes couldn't be higher.

Brian Rojas and his mother Lillianna are just about finished trimming their Christmas tree, but Brian's brother Brandon cannot join them. Three years ago, the two boys were inseparable; their family full of love and joy.

LILLIANA ROJAS (Mother of Brandon Rojas): Are you ready? Are you ready?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Now, at age nine, Brandon still gets the love, but A.L.D. is devastating his mind and body.

LILLIANA ROJAS: All right, come on.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: He can do nothing for himself anymore.

DAVID WILLIAMS: Adrenoleukodystrophy is a genetic disease, and it's what we call "x-linked," which means it occurs mostly in boys. And the typical history that we hear from families is that they have a perfectly terrific young boy who, at the age of five or six, suddenly begins to have developmental problems.

LILLIANA ROJAS: Brandon started with drooling, and we thought it was because he lost his front tooth, and we didn't think anything else of it. And little by little, he started losing his vision.

CHRISTINE DUNCAN: They may have change in their vision. They may have change in their hearing. They'll have change in their ability to communicate or speak with the family. And it all ends up, ultimately, with complete devastation and death.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Dr. Christy Duncan has watched the inexorable decline of many A.L.D. boys, because of a mutation on a gene called ABCD1 that affects microglial cells in the brain.

CHRISTINE DUNCAN: These are cells in the brain that are responsible for maintaining a healthy environment around some of the neurons. And so, what you'll see over time is inflammatory lesions in the brain.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: On M.R.I.'s we can see these lesions rapidly increase over time, as the disease destroys the brain.

Unless you know there is A.L.D. in your family, the disease comes as a complete shock.

HEATHER COOKSON (Mother of Jerry and Ricky Cookson): It's heartbreaking to find out that unknowingly, I passed this gene and ultimately disease to my children.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Heather Cookson's son Jerry is 12, older brother Ricky, 14. Ricky was eight, when persistent headaches convinced Heather to insist he get an M.R.I.

HEATHER COOKSON: They found a lesion in Ricky's brain during that M.R.I. We just thought it was headaches; never thought it was going to be a life-changing disease that he was going to have.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Children like Ricky can often be saved with a blood stem cell transplant. These cells originate in bone marrow and can become all blood cell types. But why new blood cells stop the progress of A.L.D. in the brain is somewhat mysterious.

CHRISTINE DUNCAN: This is a disease of brain cells. These are not the same cells, and so it can be hard to understand why on earth that works.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: For his transplant to work, Ricky needed a good genetic match, like his little brother Jerry. But Jerry also carried the faulty gene so could not donate. Fortunately, Ricky found an unrelated matching donor and after the transplant and chemotherapy, he is now doing fine.

But by the time Brandon Rojas was diagnosed, his A.L.D. had progressed too far to even try a transplant. And the news hit hard.

LILLIANA ROJAS: I couldn't accept the fact that they said there is no cure. We, I I couldn't accept it. And that's when my whole world just fell down, and I didn't know how to react.

CHRISTINE DUNCAN: It's terrible. It's a tragedy. And the only, even if you can call it, sort of, bright spot of that tragedy: his younger brother Brian was identified because of the older brother's disease.

LILLIANA ROJAS: Say hi, Brian.

BRIAN ROJAS: Hi.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: It wasn't guaranteed that having the bad gene would give Brian the deadly form of the disease, but Lilliana was worried.

LILLIANA ROJAS: We were hoping he was fine. We thought you know, "Please God, don't let him have the same."

BRIAN ROJAS: (Reading) …he became a hero, Dr. Stephen…

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But about a year later, a small lesion appeared on Brian's M.R.I. Worse, there were no matching donors for an immediate transplant, and his A.L.D. was progressing by the day. So, when a new gene therapy trial opened up, Lilliana jumped at the opportunity.

LILLIANA ROJAS: One of the things that the doctor said was, "We can save him."

HEATHER COOKSON: Do you want to go up there?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Heather Cookson also learned that her younger son Jerry, like his older brother Ricky, had developed A.L.D.

CHRISTINE DUNCAN: Follow my finger with your eyes.

HEATHER COOKSON: I got hit with a ton of bricks after his M.R.I.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But Jerry would soon join Brian Rojas and 15 other boys in a gene trial that could save their lives, and Jerry Cookson was up for the challenge.

Therapy begins by collecting stem cells from the boys' blood, then taking them to a cleanroom, where the genetic engineering begins. The doctors need to insert a healthy version of the gene into the boys' stem cells. To do this, they rely on a virus that's incredibly adept at invading cells: H.I.V. The lethal virus has been altered so it can't make anyone sick, but it's still able to enter cells and do what viruses always do, insert its D.N.A. into the host's cell. Only this time, the D.N.A. carries the healthy gene that will hopefully stop the spread of A.L.D.

DAVID WILLIAMS: These viruses sort of say to the cell, "These are your genes. You start producing proteins based on my genetic makeup."

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Researchers have been editing with viruses for decades, and they're still relying on them for human gene therapy while the newer CRISPR editing is being perfected. As their cells are being engineered, the boys undergo intense chemotherapy to make room in their bone marrow for their new stem cells to grow.

Then it's time for reinfusion and hope for success.

JERRY COOKSON: I started chemotherapy. Ten days after that, on May 19th, I got my cells back into me. And it's really kind of anticlimactic when you think about it.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But Jerry could not feel what was going on inside his body.

The new stem cells multiplied and began circulating in his bloodstream. As they reached his brain, some changed into new glial cells, now with the healthy gene. But would this be enough to stop the progress of the disease?

After three months, Jerry Cookson was released from the hospital and is showing no A.L.D. symptoms. Of the 17 boys who entered the trial, 15 completed the therapy and so far, all are doing fine.

JERRY COOKSON: So, I think it's kind of cool that I'm, like, one in 16 or 17 people that did this treatment. It's a new treatment that could change a lot of other people's lives.

CHRISTINE DUNCAN: He has been stable. He's in school, he plays soccer. He is perfect.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: And for the therapy team, this has been the experience of a lifetime.

CHRISTINE DUNCAN: I truly feel so incredibly lucky to be at this end of it. We're finally able to take the fruits of years and years of people's work and treat these boys. And they are going to school, and they are living proof of what science can do. And it is really remarkable.

HEATHER COOKSON: We're extremely lucky. There are some families out there that aren't as lucky as our family.

BRIAN ROJAS: He wears a black costume.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: For the Rojas family, the end of the trial is bittersweet. Since Brian received gene therapy, he is healthy and seems to be headed for a normal life, while his brother Brandon is slipping away. But to Lilliana, Brandon is a hero.

LILLIANA ROJAS: Because of Brandon, Brian was diagnosed early. Brandon saved his little brother.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: A new gene therapy, decades in the making, saved Brian Rojas. Could this be a sign we've turned the corner on gene therapy cures?

DAVID WILLIAMS: It is literally going to be hundreds of diseases that we'll now be able to approach. The future of genetic therapy is actually here.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: For anyone touched by genetic disease, new breakthroughs could not come quickly enough, and many hope genetic engineering could go even further. But if we can fix mistakes in someone's D.N.A., could we do that even before they were born?

We have the ability to alter the D.N.A. inside human embryos and in the germline cells that make them. The big question is should we? And why is even talking about this so controversial?

ARTHUR CAPLAN: I think the driving fear of the germline engineering, fixing things across generations is the slippery slope. A lot of people would say, "Yeah, okay, you want to go out and fix Tay-Sachs disease that kills people? Hurray."

You want to fix deafness. You want to get rid of short stature. Where does that all end? Aren't we going to wind up doing things like, "I want my kid to be stronger, smarter, faster."

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: In other words, editing embryos not to cure a disease but to enhance abilities and make designer babies. There's been experimental efforts at curing genetic diseases in embryos, but the fear this could lead to designer babies is so strong, most countries prohibit it entirely. And the U.S. government won't fund it. But are those fears justified?

SHOUKHRAT MITALIPOV (Oregon Health & Science University): The complexity of how to make designer babies is such a big deal, we don't even know what genes or how many genes would make a child taller or smarter.

ARTHUR CAPLAN: It's one thing to say, "I'm going to repair a single error that causes a particular genetic disease." It's another thing to say, "I've got to insert 500 genes, in order to make your memory enhanced." The whole thing is hard to do.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But our genetic knowledge is increasing, and it certainly seems possible that one day we will be able to design our babies.

ARTHUR CAPLAN: In a competitive market society, you see people showing up at I.V.F. clinics saying, "You know, we're having trouble conceiving, but as long as I'm here, could I get a 6-foot-7 Ukrainian mathematician donor, because that's what we wanted." "Red headed, is that possible?"

Down the road, long-term, are we going to see enhancement or improvement anyway? Yes.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But if we do go down this road, where will it end?

MARCY DARNOVSKY (Center for Genetics and Society): When we start doing really biologically radical things, we could see some terrible health consequences develop when the child is two years old, 20 years old, or when that child has children of his or her own.

We just don't know what the unintended consequences might be and if anybody who would be contemplating using a technology like this should really ask themselves whether it's worth the risk.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: The power of genetic engineering to sculpt ourselves and the natural world does bring a burden of risk.

And although Kevin Esvelt is confident his engineered mice will only reduce Lyme disease and not bring harm to Nantucket's ecosystem, he also knows that absolute certainty and genetic engineering do not go together.

KEVIN ESVELT: I worry every day that I might be missing something profound about the consequences of what we're developing.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: At a town hall meeting, Kevin assures residents he will be taking a go slow approach…

KEVIN ESVELT: Frankly, what we're talking about here is altering a shared environment.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: …and that he could halt the experiment if problems appear. Most importantly, they would determine if the mice would ever get released here.

KEVIN ESVELT: To be clear, this project will only move forwards if the community supports it at every step of the way.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: He tells them he would first perform a field test on an isolated island to check that the new gene is working and the altered mice are causing no problems. Only then would he propose releasing them on Nantucket.

KEVIN ESVELT: Once you have those, then…

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But for his new gene to spread throughout the mouse population, he would need to release a lot of engineered mice.

KEVIN ESVELT: It might mean releasing say a hundred-thousand mice on Nantucket.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: It would take that many to spread the Lyme-resistant gene effectively.

RICHARD COOPER (Nantucket Resident): What happens to the actual population, the mouse population, itself? I mean that's just going to keep growing and growing and growing.

SAM TELFORD: Actually, no.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Although residents are concerned by the numbers, Sam Telford assures them the mice population will stay in check.

SAM TELFORD: Something is out there that's regulating them. Disease is regulating them. There's a, a mite, a mange mite that is regulating them.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But even one G.M.O. mouse is still alarming for some.

DANICA CONNERS: This is rapid, rapid man-made evolution.

ROBERTO SANTAMARIA (Nantucket Resident): Some people think that genetically modified organisms should never be done. They think that people like Kevin are playing God.

DANICA CONNORS: We don't know what effect it's going to have 15 years, 20 years, 25 years down the line.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: But Kevin's cautious, open science approach seems to be winning the day.

KEVIN ESVELT: If you were to run these kinds of experiments the way science is traditionally done, behind closed doors, you'd be denying people a voice in decisions intended to eventually affect them.

TIMOTHY LEPORE: Devin, why don't you come on down?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Islanders have given Kevin the go ahead to engineer the mice. But with a Nantucket release years away, there are no hard choices for them to make, yet.

TIMOTHY LEPORE: So, how are you doing?

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Still, residents here are so fed up with Lyme disease, if the field test does go well, Kevin's grand experiment could go all the way.

And if he stops Lyme here, what diseases would he target next? Could Kevin and other researchers one day engineer mosquitos to halt the spread of deadly malaria?

KEVIN ESVELT: If we could just go in there and change the mosquitoes so they can't transmit malaria, or better yet, someday, so that they just don't want to bite people, that would be the most elegant solution to a problem.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Kevin Esvelt is walking in the footsteps of those early pioneers who engineered bacteria to make insulin for diabetics. Today, we have the capacity to alter the genomes of every living thing. So, the potential rewards, and the risks, of genetic engineering have never been greater.

ELEONORE PAUWELS: A few decades ago, the changes we would impose on biology were very much incremental. They were little steps. But now we could drastically accelerate the engineering of our genes, our bodies and even our ecosystems.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: Despite all we can do, there's still one thing we can't do.

KRISTALA JONES PRATHER: We can't create life. We can't create a cell from scratch. We can take an existing cell, and we can make so many changes to it that it looks nothing like what it started out as, but we have to start from something that's already living in order to end up with something that's living.

TALITHIA WILLIAMS: So, right now, we can't make life, but we can radically change it in ways that will impact our own evolution and the future of the planet. The question is: will we use this power wisely?

Broadcast Credits

HOSTED BY
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A NOVA Wonders Production by Lawrence Klein Productions, LLC for WGBH Boston.

© 2018 WGBH Educational Foundation

All rights reserved

This program was produced by WGBH, which is solely responsible for its content. Some funders of NOVA Wonders also fund basic science research. Experts featured in this film may have received support from funders of this program.

Original funding for this program was provided by the National Science Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and the John Templeton Foundation.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. DRL-1420749. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

IMAGE:

Image credit: (dna molecule)
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Participants

Arthur Caplan
New York University School of Medicine
George Church
Harvard Medical School arep.med.harvard.edu/gmc/
Danica Connors
Nantucket Resident
Richard Cooper
Nantucket Resident
Marcy Darnovsky
Center for Genetics and Society
Bobby Dhadwar
Harvard Medical School
Christine Duncan
Boston Children's Hospital
Rana el Kaliouby
Affectiva
Drew Endy
Stanford University
Kevin Esvelt
MIT Media Lab
André Fenton
New York University
Kristala Jones Prather
MIT
Timothy Lepore
Nantucket Physician
Shoukhrat Mitalipov
Oregon Health and Science University
Nili Ostrov
Harvard Medical School
Elenore Pauwels
Wilson Center
Roberto Santamaria
Nantucket Resident
Beth Shapiro
University of California, Santa Cruz
Sam Telford
Tufts University
David Williams
Boston Children's Hospital
Talithia Williams
Harvey Mudd College

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What's the Universe Made Of?

Peer into the universe’s deep unknowns to explore the mysteries of dark matter and energy. Airing May 30, 2018 at 9 pm on PBS Aired May 30, 2018 on PBS

Program Description

The universe is hiding something. In fact, it is hiding a lot. Everything we experience on Earth, the stars and galaxies we see in the cosmos—all the “normal” matter and energy that we understand—make up only 5% of the known universe. The other 95% is made up of two mysterious components: “dark matter” and “dark energy.” We can’t see them, but we know they’re there. And what’s more—these two shadowy ingredients are locked in an epic battle to control the very fate of the universe. Now, scientists are trying to shed light on the so-called “dark sector” as the latest generation of detectors rev up, and powerful telescopes peer deeper into space than ever before to observe how it behaves. Will the discoveries help reveal how galaxies formed? In the series finale, NOVA Wonders journeys to the stars and back to investigate what we know—and don’t know. Find out how scientists are discovering new secrets about the history of the universe, and why they’re predicting a shocking future.

 

Broadcast Credits

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Image credit: (Nebula and Galaxy)
© suns07butterfly/Shutterstock

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