EXCLUSIVE: Nat Geo Breakthrough, Showrunner Kurt Sayenga says, “We are a society of beta testers”

Kurt Sayenga Photo by Bret Curry

Premiere of season two, scientific discoveries that will for good or ill will change the world, on May 2nd, 2017, at 7pm PT, 10pm ET on DirecTV

By Gabrielle Pantera

HOLLYWOOD, CA (Hollywood Daily Stars) 2017/5/2 – “After working on the Big Data and Cyber Terror films, I gave up social media,” says National Geographic Breakthrough showrunner Kurt Sayenga. “The Cyber Terror film taught me to never, ever sign onto a public WiFi network. And don’t trust people who say they’re, ‘Here to check the server’.”

Sayenga says producing the series has changed his overall view of our civilization. “It reinforced my belief that we are a society of beta testers, happily embracing technology with no thought of how that technology will affect us. For example, small commercial drones are a great example of technology that poses a very real threat. Those package-delivering drones could just as easily drop explosives on crowds.”

In Breakthrough, the world’s leading scientists show how their innovations and advancements will change our lives in the future. The series brings to life the stories, people and technology behind these breakthroughs. It shows how they are reshaping our world. Season two continues the tradition of tackling topics with a scientific perspective.

“We live in a quantum state,” says Sayenga. “The future is uncertain. I had the pleasure of interviewing Nate Silver at length about a month before the election, and his very careful comments about the nature of probability and how people don’t really understand it was brought home in a big way on election night. All you can do is invest in index funds and hope for the best.”

Sayenga says he encountered surprises. :I was very skeptical about the efficacy of using psychedelics to treat addicts. But, it does appear that treatments conducted by medical professionals in controlled environments can essentially reboot the addicted brain. It surprised me to learn that medical researchers found a way to fight cancer by taking a deactivated piece of the HIV virus and coupling it to a supercharged killer T-Cell. A virus that typically destroys the immune system can be hijacked and used to save the immune system.”

Sayenga curated several dozen ideas for season two that producers had brainstormed. National Geographic chose the six they liked the best.

“I then rounded up a crew of directors to tackle each topic,” says Sayenga. “Last season we worked with Hollywood figures like Brett Ratner, Akiva Goldsman, Angela Bassett, Paul Giamatti, and Ron Howard, whose company Imagine co-produces the series. This season we went for indie directors like Ana Lily Amirpour, David Lowery and Shane Carruth.”

“Each director saw something in their topics that resonated with them on a personal level,” says Sayenga. “David Lowery was first in and had first pick, so he took the topic that several directors wanted: Addiction: A Psychedelic Cure? Lily Amirpour took Curing Cancer, a topic that had personal meaning for her. I took Predicting the Future because I wanted to work with Shane. I thought it would be the most challenging subject to visualize, and as showrunner, it’s kind of my job to do the hard stuff. Shalini Kantayya had a longstanding interest in energy issues, so she was a natural for Power to the People. Steve Hoggard has a track record of making hard-hitting reportorial films, so I knew he would be able to crack the closed world of terrorists and hackers chronicled in Cyber Terror. The Malloys took on Game of Drones because it offered a chance to apply their kinetic style to long-form documentary.”

“In the case of Predicting the Future, I have a longstanding interest in Big Data and the development of Artificial Intelligence. The advent of Deep Learning Neural Networks is the biggest breakthrough in that field in decades. What that means for the human race, though, is an open question. Through social media, we are feeding an enormous amount of personal information to governments and corporations. The powerful new AIs have the ability to sift through that information and provide personal details to potential employers, law enforcement, credit bureaus, insurance companies, and so on. It would be nice to think they will use that data wisely, but I have my doubts.”

“People who work with potentially dangerous and disruptive technologies will inevitably utter the phrase, ‘With great power comes great responsibility’,” says Sayenga. “It happened again and again this season. They usually attribute it to Spider-man.”

Upcoming Episodes:

May 2nd, at 7pm PT. 10pm ET

  • A Phsychedelic Cure?

Amanda Feilding is the founder of the Beckley Foundation. She and her team are fighting the medical establishment by exploring a cure for our vices: psychedelic drugs.

Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris from The Imperial College London. They are reviving long-suppressed research into the therapeutic value of psychedelic drugs.

Dr. Matthew Johnson, he works at Johns Hopkins University. Brain scans reveal that medically supervised trips may reboot the brains of addicts.

Mike Colter is the narrator of this episode.

May 9th, at 7pm PT. 10pm ET 

  • Cyber Terror

Jayson Street is a white-hat hacker. He along with two others give a look inside the world of hackers. Here, the security of the world is at stake.

Darren Kitchen is a white-hat hacker They are security specialists.  They combine coding with social engineering.

Khalil Sehnaoui is also a hacker. They have been hired to plan and execute a hack: getting behind the teller wall and compromising the computers at five branches of a large bank. Meanwhile,

Nafees Hamid is a social psychologist. He tracks down a black-hat ISIS hacker. The hacker is trying to recruit suicide bombers to attack a tourist destination.

Junaid Hussain is a young British man. He went from prankster to the leader of ISIS’s recruiting and cyber operations. He uses the internet to coordinate terror attacks and wage psychological war on the digital battlefield. The hacker Hamid is tracking follows his footsteps.

Barry Pepper is the narrator of this episode.

May 16th, at 7pm PT. 10pm ET

  • Curing Cancer

Dr. Carl June is a cancer researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. Maverick doctors on different continents are reinventing the way cancer is treated, re-engineering our immune cells to target and destroy the renegades within us.

Dr. David Porter is researching about cancer at the University of Pennsylvania

Dr. Bruce Levine also works at the University of Pennsylvania with Dr. June and Dr. Porter. They have pioneered an extraordinary treatment that combines T cells taken from cancer patients with a deactivated HIV virus, creating supercharged killer T cells that have saved the lives of stage 4 cancer patients thought to be beyond hope.

In France, Dr. Andre Choulika and his team at Cellectis have created “universal donor” T cells from healthy donors, cells that won’t be rejected by a different host. This could revolutionize cancer therapy as we know it.

Sheila Vand is the narrator of this episode.

May 23rd, at 7pm PT. 10pm ET

  • Game of Drones

Small, cheap commercial drones are being used for anything you can imagine. They could be weapons of mass destruction. Governments and the defense industry are looking for ways to protect civilians from the current threat. They are preparing for when the machines are able to fly in swarms.

In the Counter Unmanned Aerial Systems Challenge or the Game of Drones different experimental drone-killing systems try to fend off waves of drone attacks.

J.K. Simmons is the narrator of this episode.

May 30th, at 7pm PT. 10pm ET

  • Predicting the Future

Nate Silver is a statistician editor-in-chief of FiveThirtyEight. He relies on data and a solid knowledge of probability to see into the future. He may be the last of his breed. Increasingly, we turn to big data and computers powered by a new form of artificial intelligence called Deep Learning Neural Networks. This technology is transforming how we live, work and think.

Bill Lapenta is the director of NOAA’s nine weather prediction centers. He thinks it’s a revolutionary tool in the never-ending quest to accurately forecast the weather.

Rutgers University and the Atlantic City Police Department say it’s the power behind predictive policing software that predicts what areas will become hot spots for crime.

Pavlos Protopapas is a Harvard University professor. Deep Learning Neural Networks gives him the ability to predict the path of every asteroid in space that could potentially hit the earth and wipe out the human race.

Dr. Eric Siegel thinks this technology can easily be turned against us. It creates a world where your every move is calculated with no forgiven mistakes.

Aaron Eckhart is the narrator of this episode.

June 6th, at 7pm PT. 10pm ET

  • Power to the People

Worldwide consumption of electricity grows. There are still 1.3 billion people on earth who have never had access to power. Those who do have power face the reality of aging and vulnerable electrical grids that can’t keep up with the increasing demand. Mass blackouts are increasingly common around the world.

Mike Wilson is the senior program manager at IEEE Smart Village. He is working to bring power to the people with self-contained power systems called microgrids that collect energy from the sun and store it in batteries.

Meera Tandon is the energy program manager. She is one of the engineers, along with Wilson, in the team that treks across the high Himalayas to install a microgrid in a remote monastery.

Paras Loomba is the founder of the Global Himalayan Expedition. It has brought light to thousands who lived in darkness

Steve Bolze is the President and CEO of GE Power. He is also contributing to solve this problem back in the U.S.

Richard Kauffman is the Chairman of Energy & Finance for New York. They plan for a future in which digital technology and alternative energy sources help us avoid total blackout devastation.

Chris Pine is the narrator of this episode.

Breakthrough  cast:

An Imagine Entertainment and Asylum Entertainment production. Executive Produced by Brian Grazer and Ron Howard. Each episode is directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, David Lowery, Shane Carruth and Emmett and Brendan Malloy, Kurt Sayenga and Steven Hoggard.

National Geographic Partners LLC (NGP), a joint venture between National Geographic and 21st Century Fox. It reaches over 730 million people in 172 countries and 43 languages every month.

Twitter: @BeckleyResearch@cellectis@sehnaoui@NateSilver538@RKauffmanEnergy, @ChrisPineActor, @aaroneckhart@JKSimmcns, @BarryPepper, @sheilaYvand

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