Antibiotic Awareness, Bee Blunders, and Barbie Becomes a ‘Chatty Cathy’

12:19 minutes

Under a magnification of 6836x, this colorized scanning electron micrograph (SEM) depicted a number of Gram-negative Escherichia coli bacteria of the strain O157:H7, which is one of hundreds of strains of this bacterium. Image by Janice Haney Carr, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
At a magnification of 6,836x, this colorized scanning electron micrograph depicts a number of gram-negative “Escherichia coli” bacteria of the strain O157:H7. Image by Janice Haney Carr/Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The World Health Organization launched its first World Antibiotic Awareness Week this past Monday. (The campaign runs until November 22, 2015.) The idea behind the initiative is to help the general public, as well as health workers and government agencies, understand how to prevent “the further emergence and spread of antibiotic resistance.” But do people even understand what “antibiotic resistance” is in the first place? Science writer Ed Yong explores this very question in a recent article for The Atlantic. Examining a report from The Wellcome Trust—a foundation in London—he describes how most people interviewed did not know what the term “antimicrobial resistance” means (one respondent said, “I need a dictionary for that”). And even worse, they fundamentally misunderstood that the bacteria—not their own bodies—are what develop resistance to a given drug. Yong discusses these findings and how to improve the way we talk about antibiotics. He also shares other selected short subjects in science, including how common insecticides may be turning bees into bad pollinators.

Plus, if you played with Barbies growing up, did you ever chat with or confide in your plastic, smiling pal, wishing she could talk back? If so, Mattel’s recently released Hello Barbie (developed in conjunction with the company ToyTalk) is an answer to that childhood wish. The Wi-Fi enabled doll is programmed with 8,000 lines of dialogue, including positive statements about science (“The study of physics is incredible,” she exclaims). But its ability to record conversations is raising concerns about privacy, among other things. James Vlahos, a contributor to the New York Times Magazine who took an in-depth look at this artificially intelligent toy, joins Ira Flatow to discuss the good and bad of conversing with Barbara Millicent Roberts.

Segment Guests

Ed Yong

Ed Yong is a science writer for The Atlantic based in London, England.

James Vlahos

James Vlahos is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and Popular Science. He’s based in Berkeley, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is “Science Friday.” I’m Ira Flatow. On Monday, the World Health Organization launched the first World Antibiotic Awareness Week. The whole idea behind the campaign is to help the public and even health workers and government agencies to better understand how we end up with bacteria that cannot be treated with even our strongest available drugs. It turns out a lot of people might not even understand what antibiotic resistance is. And how can you confront something that you don’t understand?

Well, here to talk us through the confusion surrounding antibiotic resistance, as well as other selected short subjects in science, is Ed Yong. He’s a science writer for “The Atlantic,” based in London. Welcome back, Ed.

ED YONG: Hi, Ira. Good to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, let’s talk about what you disc– what are some of the misconceptions surrounding antibiotic resistance?

ED YONG: Well, so the Wellcome Trust, a British charity, did this survey with these focus groups. And they found that people just don’t understand how antibiotics work. They assume that they need antibiotics when they are very sick. So it’s the severity of the illness that matters. It doesn’t matter whether they have a bacterial illness, which these drugs might work for, or a viral illness, which they almost certainly won’t do. It’s how bad they feel.

And this problem of bacteria becoming stronger and being able to resist all drugs, people just don’t understand that at all. When you talk to them about antibiotic resistance, they assume that it’s the people, it’s them who are becoming resistant to the drugs, not the bacteria. And it’s such an intuitive idea, isn’t it? That you take a substance and your body becomes tolerant of it. But it leads them to very bad decisions because they think, OK, if I don’t take the full course of antibiotics, I’m not going to build up this tolerance. I’m not going to become resistant, so I should stop. And that actually, ironically, that means they’re more likely to accrue a drug resistant infection.

IRA FLATOW: So maybe they have to rebrand it, somehow, give it another name?

ED YONG: Well, so the Wellcome Trust have stopped saying antibiotic resistance altogether. They’ve just simply flipped the word order, and they’re talking about drug resistant infections or antibiotic resistant bacteria. And they’re talking about specific things, like MRSA, or E. coli. And they’re showing people pictures of these microbes so that they can really get a sense of what the enemy is. You’re foregrounding the bacterias as the things that matter, not this abstract concept of resistance.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. Let’s also talk about something you’re working on, that kids around the world, do they have the same or a similar idea of what fairness is?

ED YONG: All right, so this is really interesting. People, in general, care about fair play, and we care about equality. But it turns out that the way we learn about that differs from country to country, and depending on age, and the type of fairness. So this study of seven societies around the world found that everywhere, kids care about getting less than their peers. So if you give one kid one piece of candy and another kid four, the kid with one will say no one should get any candy, even if they stand to lose their one piece.

But the flip side of that is that only kids in some countries care about getting more than their peers. So if they stand to get more candy, it’s only ones in the USA, Canada, and Uganda that cared about that. Whereas people in, say, India, Peru, Mexico and Senegal didn’t mind. And this aversion to an advantage, to getting more than your peers, only happened at a much later age. So it’s suggested that these types of reactions to fairness really are very different, and that they’re very subject to social and cultural norms.

IRA FLATOW: Well, that’s quite interesting. Also, it sounds like you’ve got some more bad news for bees, a common pesticide’s affecting their ability to pollinate.

ED YONG: I do. It’s a bit of a buzzkill, I’m sorry.

IRA FLATOW: So to speak, yes.

ED YONG: So the world’s most popular insecticides are called neonicotinoids or neonics. And they affect all the tissues of the plants within which they’re used. They spread everywhere, including nectar and pollen, where they can be exposed to bees and other pollinators. And many studies over the last few years have shown that bees are affected by sublethal doses, doses that don’t kill them but can affect their behavior, the health, and the viability of their colonies. And this latest study shows that that has trickle-on effects to the plants they pollinate. And the bees become more incompetent pollinators. And the plants– in this case, apple trees– produce fruits with fewer seeds in them.

And this matters because it’s estimated that something like one in three bites of food that we eat come from plants that are pollinated by bees. And something like seven in eight species of flowering plants rely on bees and other insects to pollinate them. So the fact that these very widespread insecticides are affecting the quality of pollination services that bees and probably other insects are delivering is a cause for concern.

IRA FLATOW: Is that because of the possible health effects of the pesticides?

ED YONG: So its not clear. So the pesticides affect the nervous system of insects. So you could understand how, say, by affecting their ability to remember where they’ve been and to find their way home, it changes their ability to act as effective pollinators. Whether these insecticides have any health effects for humans, I know, is unclear. But I think by affecting the health of bees, they’re indirectly affecting our health by changing the behavior of these incredibly important pollinators.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, absolutely. And last, but not least, you’re bringing us a quirky story about a mollusk with a shell that’s kind of an eyeful.

ED YONG: [CHUCKLES] That’s right, very good. So chitons are a group of little known mollusks. They’re related to snails and octopuses and clams. They look a little bit like, imagine a wood louse with a skirt, like a fringe around it. And the chitons are covered in these hard shells, these armor plates. But the plates have eyes in them. They have hundreds of tiny little black eyes embedded in the plates. And this has been known for the better part of a century, but what’s really astonishing is during the last few years, scientists have shown that the lenses on the eyes are made of aragonite, which is a type of limestone. So these animals, they’re seeing the world through eyes that are made of rock.

And the latest study on chiton eyes asks, why are there so many? Why so many tiny little eyes? If each eye was much bigger, these animals could see much crisper, sharper resolution images. And they think it’s because the eyes are embedded in the armor. Now if the eyes were bigger, they would create weaknesses in the chiton’s shell, which would make it more vulnerable. So the shells, with the armor, because it has to provide a compromise between vision and defense, ends up with this setup with lots of tiny low resolution eyes.

IRA FLATOW: As they say, nature will find a way. Thank you, Ed.

ED YONG: It will, indeed.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, Ed Yong, science writer for “The Atlantic,” based in London. Now it’s time to play “Good Thing, Bad Thing.”


Because every story has a flip side, and with the Internet of Things WiFi-ing all of our intelligent gadgets to the web, it was only a matter of time until our toys got the digital treatment too. So get ready this holiday season to say hello to Hello Barbie. This Barbie 2.0 from Mattel and the San Francisco based toy company, ToyTalk, is a Wi-Fi enabled artificially intelligent chatterbox. She has more than 8,000 lines of dialogue. Barbie can ask you what your favorite color is, and even get you pumped up about science, like she does in this video from CNET.

HELLO BARBIE DOLL: The study of physics is incredible. Take gravity, you can’t see it, but the second you trip, it’s right there to pull you down.

IRA FLATOW: There you go. [CHUCKLES] Enough hyping Hello Barbie. Now for the tough question, is this a good way for kids to play? Joining me to talk about the good and bad of this artificial intelligent doll is a journalist who took an extensive look at Hello Barbie’s development. James Vlahos is a contributor to “New York Times Magazine” and “Popular Science,” based in Berkeley, California. Welcome to the program, James.

JAMES VLAHOS: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us about the good thing about this Barbie.

JAMES VLAHOS: The good thing is this Barbie is allowing kids to achieve a timeless dream with toys, which is kids have always talked to their toys, whether it’s a doll or a train or whatever it is. And this, finally, is a doll that actually talks back. And not only does it talk back, the conversation is all pre-scripted by a creative team that’s led by two former very high up technologists from Pixar.

So it’s kind of like having the special sauce of the Pixar Animation Studio inside the brain of your little Barbie. Being able to talk to Buzz Lightyear, and Buzz Lightyear talks back, only it’s Barbie. So they’ve come up with all these conversations that a kid can have with a doll, from obvious stuff like favorite colors and fashion and pets, to less obvious ones, like science, as you point out, careers, even discussions about feelings. So it’s quite a technological feat.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, so what could be the bad news about this?

JAMES VLAHOS: Well, probably the headline on that, and certainly the thing that has made this doll somewhat controversial, are privacy concerns. There is a Wi-Fi enabled doll in England called My Friend Kayla that hackers were able to get into and get the doll to say rather dirty and inappropriate things for children. And so people here are concerned that the same thing possibly could happen with Hello Barbie.

They’re also concerned, as part of this process, when you are playing with your Hello Barbie, you talk to Hello Barbie. There’s a microphone. There’s a Wi-Fi transmitter. It goes out over the internet. It goes to the servers of ToyTalk in San Francisco. And those little conversations with kids, some of them are actually stored. And ToyTalk does this so they can figure out what content is working, what’s not working and improve it. And they also do it so they can work on the speech analytics. Because the voices of kids are among the hardest for a computer to decipher. So that’s why they do it, but it certainly has some parents and a consumer group concerned. Hey, you’re eavesdropping on my kid, and you’re storing it. What’s going to happen with this?

IRA FLATOW: Well, if we’ve seen Hello Barbie coming, is there a doll like What’s Up, Ken? Something like that in the works?

JAMES VLAHOS: I’m sure if this is a success as a product, more will follow.

IRA FLATOW: And maybe even ones you can program yourself someday, put your own stuff in there, I would imagine.

JAMES VLAHOS: Yeah, well, what’s interesting about this doll, they’ve got 8,000 lines of dialogue already written for Hello Barbie. But theoretically, there’s no limit. They can keep writing more and more, and they can write more dialogue based on what kids seem to want to talk about with the doll. So her little brain can grow. And the other thing, I mean, relative to the–

IRA FLATOW: James, I’ve got to go. So we’ll talk more about it maybe after the holidays, see how it worked out. James Vlahos, contributor to the “New York Times Magazine” and “Popular Science.”

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Meet the Producer

About Becky Fogel

Becky Fogel is a newscast host and producer at Texas Standard, a daily news show broadcast by KUT in Austin, Texas. She was formerly Science Friday’s production assistant.