M. Ehsan Hoque and Kevin Esvelt named to 2016 list of 35 Innovators Under 35


Kevin Esvelt: A scientist who is developing new gene-editing techniques also warns of their potential.

His Job: Works at MIT’s Media Lab to develop ways of influencing how ­ecosystems evolve.

The Back Story: Visited the Galápagos Islands at age 10. “I knew evolution would impact what I wanted to do.”

His Burning Issue: Gene drives, a new technology that could be used to quickly spread traits among wild creatures such as mosquitoes.

What’s at Stake: Wiping out ­mosquitoes, and maybe malaria. “Unimaginable amounts of suffering occur in the wild, and evolution doesn’t care,” he says.

The Dilemma: Are gene drives safe enough to ever use in the open, or will they have ­dangerous ­unintended ­consequences?

Esvelt’s Take: No gene drive able to spread globally should be released, he argues. Or even tested. Scientists need to ­disclose their plans.

His Solution: He’s designed safer gene drives that can be controlled.

The Reviews: Raising awareness about the potential threats of gene drives is “a home run for ­bio­security,” says the FBI.

Hobbies: Risky ones. Unicycling and hang-gliding.

By Antonio Regalado


Ehsan HoqueIf you want to be the life of the party, practice by talking to a machine first.

Can computers teach us to be our best selves? Ehsan Hoque, a researcher at the University of Rochester, believes so. He has created two computer systems that train people to excel in social settings.

One program has a virtual businesswoman that can recognize your expressions and statements so she can nod, smile, and prompt you with further questions as you chat with her. At the end of the conversation she’ll give you feedback about your interpersonal performance, including your body language, intonation, and eye contact.

Hoque also designed a pared-down mobile version, free for anyone with Internet access to use. There’s no animated character; instead, it records video and sends you a write-up about your social skills, noting the speed of your speech, the pitch and loudness of your voice, the intensity of your smiles, and whether you overused certain words.

All of Hoque’s research comes back to his brother, a teenager with Down syndrome. Hoque is his brother’s primary caretaker and has seen how difficult social interactions of any kind can be for him, especially in school. But Hoque hopes his tools will be useful to all kinds of people—individuals with Asperger’s, customer service representatives, nervous students with looming class presentations, or even just someone gearing up for a date or an interview.

by Julia Sklar

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