Edward You: Supervisory Special Agent, FBI
Paul Dabrowski: CEO, Synthego
George Church: Professor of Genetics, Harvard Medical School; author, Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves
Noah Davidsohn: Biological Engineer, Harvard
Michael Solana: VP, Founders Fund
Solana: In 1974 Rudolf Jaenisch bred the first genetically modified animal. It was a mouse. Since then the genome of hundreds of plants and animals have been sequenced, including the human being, and tools like ZFN, Talen, and CRISPR/Cas9 have made it far easier to edit, while the leveraging of technology in the biological sciences has dramatically reduced the cost of both sequencing and editing. We’re quickly approaching a world of biological malleability, in which the natural world and the organisms within it, including ourselves, can be whatever we want them to be.
But pop culturally, in our film and in our literature, the entire branch of the sciences is pretty much reduced to two things: one, we’re going to create or alter an organism, a virus, or something larger that we can’t control. And, two, the boons to synthetic biology: in cures to diseases, curbs to the aging process, and to the amplification of natural human ability will only be available to the richest men and women on the planet, creating a technologically entrenched, insurmountable class divide.
Last week on Anatomy of Next, we talked about nuclear energy, which is a very different story than bio. In nuclear we saw an early period, in which our culture embraced the technology, followed by a period of real fear, and then, a corresponding slowdown of nuclear development. Today, we have an excellent nuclear plan forward, which fixes the problems of the 1940s and 1950s and really the trick now is just to get going again.
But in bio, and with a lot of the technology we’ll be talking about in the weeks to come, there’s no historical precedent for this stuff. It’s all new. So, the fictional stories we tell ourselves about the science are, in many ways, our primary source material for thinking about the future.
This week, on Anatomy of Next, as we transition from the nuclear sciences to the biological sciences, and while we dig into the perils and incredible promises the technology presents, also think about the most popular works of fiction on the topic.
Jurassic Park clip: The lack of humility before nature that’s being displayed here staggers me.
I don’t think you’re giving us our due credit. Our scientists have done things which nobody’s ever done before.
Yeah, yeah. But your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.
Solana: Ring any bells? Here, let me give you one more hint:
Jurassic Park clip: Crashing. Screaming. Snarling. Dinosaur roaring.
Solana: Jurassic Park is probably the most important film about genetic engineering in history. And it would be very foolish to underestimate the impact that that film has had on the way our culture and the younger generation, in particular, thinks about the future of biology.
A quick Google search of “bringing back the wooly mammoth” pulls up ten results on page one and five of them either make reference to or directly quote Spielberg’s famous creature feature. And when it’s not giant monsters, it’s zombie plaques and super viruses. Have you ever seen a movie about genetic engineering that didn’t end in total disaster?
The story set in cultural stone is: man is given fire and, with it, he wages war. We leverage advances in biotechnology to create viruses and we wipe people off the face of the planet. Or, we find some creative new way to oppress a vast minority of people.
Gattaca clip: My father was right. It didn’t matter how much I lied on my resume. My real resume was in my cells.
Solana: In 1997’s Gattaca, the lower class, in a rigid class system, is comprised of the genetically mundane, or, people born the old-fashioned way. While the upper ruling class is comprised of the genetically designed, people engineered to be super-healthy, super-smart, and, I mean, look at these people they’re super-hot.
Setting aside for just a moment the obvious fact that Ethan Hawke’s own equally super-hotness, there is the depiction of a very real and deeply entrenched class fear here.
And yes, there is no getting around it: competition with a super human would be very difficult. But why in a world of superhumanity, does there need to be competition?
A world of superhumanity sounds a lot to me like a world of superabundance. And, in a world of superabundance, does class even matter in the way that it does today?
You have to wonder, “why in Gattaca’s world of genetic superintelligence has no one figured out a better way of cleaning bathrooms than violently oppressing a minority of people?”
We’ll talk more about the equality piece in next week’s Robotics episode. And a big part of it’s going to be thinking about this stuff outside of the context of our current reality and in the context of a technologically mature world.
This week, I want to focus on the anxiety concerning scientists creating organisms. What does it mean to be—and let’s invoke the language here—playing God?
I don’t think anyone is really afraid of curing cancer or blindness, regenerating the human body, or increasing the global food supply. All of which comprise, at least in part, that broader utopian goal that synthetic biologists are working towards right now.
Before we get to that, let’s navigate through some of this fear. I wanted to know how people in the field were thinking about the worst case scenario: a mad-scientist or bioterrorist builds some kind of perfect virus and unleashes it on humanity. So I called up the FBI.
You: My name is Ed You. I’m a Supervisory Special Agent at the FBI’s Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate in the Biological Countermeasures Unit.
Solana: I’ll be honest. I walk into the conversation with Special Agent You under a pretty rash assumption. I was curious how the Bureau was thinking about a potential attack. And I assumed, in general, whatever the particulars were, the government was probably doing something in the name of protecting us that was impeding progress in the field and ultimately leaving us less safe because of it. But, I was way off.
You: When you think of chemical weapons or radiological and especially nuclear weapons, you’re talking about very specific, highly-regulated materials and a very narrow slice of the community that have the expertise to exploit these technologies and materials. When you compare that to the life sciences, it’s completely different.
The life sciences have always been open-source. You can’t get more open source than biology. Especially in the scientific arena, in research, it’s all about looking at peer review. So, it’s publishing your findings, your capabilities in the interest of replication and just furthering the research enterprise.
So you’re looking at two very different cultures, two different worlds. And from our perspective, we have to strike a balance. In the interest of security, unlike the nuclear realm where there is complete lockdown on the materials and expertise, that does not work in the life sciences. The very nature of life sciences being open is its strength. That’s how you get rapid applications of very beneficial technologies and medicines and countermeasures, vaccines and biodefense.
So, you run the real risk if, in the name of security, you then lock down everything. You derive a whole new security risk, because how you’re handicapping really important progresses that’s needed.
Solana: Special Agent You fell back on this point again and again: our life scientists, and especially our biologists, had to be encouraged, because we are actually right to be afraid. The human population is at incredible risk, but not necessarily from ourselves.
You: If you look at the history of synthetic biology, just look at media. Look at some of the policy discussions that have occurred up until now. They’re almost solely based on pathogens and toxins. Like, “who’s going to create the next world-ending virus?” or, something along those lines. The fact is, yes, that is a possibility. But, in the grand scheme of things, if you really think about where we are, the world’s ultimate bioterrorist is Mother Nature.
If you look at emerging or reemerging infectious disease, look at H1N1, MERS, and SARS. Nature already throws a whole slew of very dangerous things at us.
And in those instances, synthetic biology could actually save the world.
Solana: This was almost kind of a letdown. I’d really been getting into the idea of uncovering some kind of insane X-Files conspiracy: the government either controlling the science itself or, in the name of protecting us, inhibiting scientists from doing their jobs.
But Special Agent You was talking about man versus nature. He was talking about making the world a better place by empowering scientists.
So I tried again. I launched into my very favorite kind of speculation, which is wild, insane speculation. I created crises scenarios. I imagined lone-wolf sociopaths in their basement. I imagined rogue terrorist states. I imagined giant agri-corporations making catastrophic mistakes, letting malicious organisms into the wild and devastating our food population.
You: In the name of security, what can we do about it? In the best way, especially if you’re dealing with a technology in a field that is inherently wide open, is to enlist the support of the community members themselves.
The position for us is: we’re going to be blindsided. We’re going to be surprised. There’re going to be some really cool advances coming out of this field that we may not even think about. We’re going to have all kinds of powerful applications where we may not know what the dual use aspect of it is, meaning the exploitation of a beneficial application for criminal terrorist use. In order to counter that, the best thing that we can do is proactively and as broadly as we can engage with the scientific community now.
Because if I’ve done my job right, if the FBI has done its job effectively in empowering the amateur community to be on the lookout for the fact that there are these outside forces that may misuse what they’re developing, then they are in the best position to do their own assessments. Identifying, “okay, here’s a vulnerability; here’s where the system could be exploited,” and then, immediately hopefully, turn that around and educate us, because although Hollywood might portray us as Big Brother, we don’t have the bandwidth or the resources to be able to future-scope everything that’s going to happen out there.
The best way to do it is get an informed citizenry to be on the lookout for what they’re doing and educate us in how best to address security.
Solana: Agent You proceeded to illustrate a network of WMD coordinators around the country charged with getting to know scientists in the field, building community, and keeping open channels of communication. This way, if while working on something that could be potentially harmful, a scientist or technologist could go to the FBI, warn them about it, and continue working on their project unencumbered.
But that couldn’t be it, could it? There had to be one case at least of someone creating something for the purposes of hurting us, and then the FBI came in and crashed the place, right?
Solana (to You): I guess I’m still having a hard time understanding. Are we approaching an area where there’s maybe classified information? And you can’t quite tell us?
You: No, the reason why I can’t give you a full answer is because, as I said, our expectation is that we’re going to be blindsided.
Solana: So what happens when we are?
You: That’s the reason why we are engaged now. So, if you want an example, here’s one: one aspect of synthetic biology which is very important is not only the ability to sequence or read DNA, but also the ability to write it, synthesize, or manufacture DNA.
There are several companies that are really good at doing that. If you submit a DNA sequence order via email, and you have your series of A’s, C’s, G’s, and T’s, you just email it to the company and they’ll chemically synthesize the DNA sequence for you.
Back in 2006, a reporter for The Guardian in the United Kingdom, he took it up on himself to use his personal credit card, a personal email address, and a residential address, and emailed a DNA sequence order to a company. And, to his shock and dismay, within a month or two, he got actually his product in the mail in a plastic vial.
And inside the vial was a DNA sequence for smallpox.
Solana: All right. Found the terrifying worst-case scenario.
Solana (to You): What were the steps that were taken after that?
You: As I mentioned, I should caveat by saying, that although the reporter did get the DNA sequence for us, it was only 86 bases worth of it. The genome for the smallpox virus is over 200,000 bases long. So, what he got was completely harmless, but it was enough to cause a whole firestorm of response.
And, as I mentioned, the entire DNA synthesis sector, self-imposed due diligence screening processes.
They wanted us to make sure that they understood what it was that they were manufacturing and whom they were selling it to. And these screening procedures are still being done today.
Solana: In other words, I heard a scary story produced by a media with a powerful economic incentive to tell scary stories and attract as much attention as possible. And I was ready to ask the FBI to do the very thing I considered myself primarily opposed to at the start of the conversation. The real story was nothing like my fantasy of an evil government controlling or impeding science. And it was nothing like the media’s version, either: careless or greedy companies selling smallpox to people who are potentially terrorists.
The real story is this: a community of scientists empowered by a thoughtful and, for lack of a better word, kind, Special Agent, slow to impose potentially stifling regulations, as the men and women working in the field of biology prepare for the big bad that will undoubtedly happen.
There will be a disease that emerges that catches off guard. And the best defense against that is the scientific work too often demonized in popular culture. Hollywood might not know it, and the media might not know it. But scientists and, to his credit, Edward You and the FBI are acutely aware of the fact.
So, with a bit of a better understanding of how we were thinking about defense in case of a worst case scenario, a nightmare Hollywood scenario, I wanted to know more about the scenario itself from someone who’s working on the kinds of things that, at least according to the predominant media narrative, are going to make it possible.
Dabrowski: I’m Paul Dabrowski. I’m CEO of Synthego Corporation.
Solana: Synthego is building tools that reduce the cost and lower the barrier of entry to modern scientific work. The main reason I wanted to talk to Paul is he’s thought a lot about the central question of this entire podcast: what is the future that we want to exist, and how do we build it?
In particular, he has a really exciting vision for the future of biology. We’re going to get to that in a minute. First, Outbreak, in real life: What are the like mechanics of making that happen?
Dabrowski: It’s hard to bring it back to a specific concrete example, because in some sense, a lot of the fears that we have are, I would say, decades away from being able to happen unless there’s a huge investment by a sophisticated group of people who are intent on doing harm.
If we could just create an organism to do whatever we want, I wouldn’t have to be like working on Synthego and the company that we’re building with these tools.
In some sense, it’s still incredibly hard to have success. So, if we’re talking about the specifics of someone creating a designer virus that can potentially kill off half the world’s population or, something to that effect, the actual tangibles of how you’d make that happen seem pretty difficult to me.
You’d need a lot of access to really smart people, to really good facilities. You’d need to have a way of testing this to make sure it works. And, realistically, it probably still wouldn’t work when you actually release it out into the world.
Because, if you want to design something like this, nature seems to do the best job it possibly can with millions and millions of variant genes happening simultaneously all over the world. Yet, it doesn’t crack that nut of being able to kill a significant portion of the population.
Solana: So our big bad killer virus maker has to have access to vast resources, a larg, brilliant team that is also single-mindedly dedicated to evil and an overall stated purpose of killing tons of people? This is literally the plot of Resident Evil. This super evil corporation dedicated seemingly to one purpose, which is to murder everyone on the planet. I mean, it’s like this giant underground base, thousands of people around the world. All they do is design viruses that turn people into zombies.
And so, I had this question, “Why are they doing this?”
Dabrowski: Yeah, what’s the motivation? That goes back to like what is society actually like?
Solana: Right? If they’re just these evil capitalists, where’s the money in murdering the entire planet? I would love to know what the end game is.
Dabrowski: So there’s a whole bunch of different realms and areas that we could get into here, but I think three that are particularly interesting have to do with upgradable immune systems, biological factories, and artificial intelligence.
Solana: Well, let’s take one step back, because we don’t have a framework for thinking about any of that stuff yet. There are a lot of things that scientists, including Paul, are working on today that are going to help us kind of point in the direction of the world that’s going to come into greater clarity by the end of the episode.
So, let’s talk about some of those questions we raised earlier, the stuff that no one’s afraid of – curing cancer, curing blindness, regenerating the human body, extending the human lifespan.
Scientists around the world are working on all these problems. At one laboratory in Cambridge, they work on these problems under one roof.
George Church is Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and the author of, Regenesis: How Synthetic Biology Will Reinvent Nature and Ourselves. His 1984 Harvard Ph.D. included the first methods for direct genome sequencing, molecular multiplexing, and barcoding. These led to the very first genome sequence in 1994.
His book introduced me to a lot of the work that’s currently shaping the field. And for a look at what people are doing today with the science, there’s no better guide in the world.
Church: I think now, more than ever before, we’re getting into a realm where biological engineering is molecular engineering. It’s the nanotechnology that really works where you can have extraordinarily complex devices, entities, organisms that are atomically precise. Biology’s always done that, but we’re now getting much, much better at designing and altering. Hence, we’re entering an era where we can eliminate essentially all disease.
The major diseases that affect developing nations are things like TB, HIV, malaria, nematode diseases, guinea worm—these can become extinct or at least relegated down to the point where they are in the United States where they’re essentially nonexistent.
Then, in developed nations, the major diseases are diseases of aging. And we have lots of examples of aging reversal now in animals or extension of life for two to tenfold the natural lifespan.
So these would completely alter both our economy and many aspects of our culture and the way that we do long-term planning.
Solana: How do you go about making extinct diseases such as malaria or HIV?
Church: You start with the ones that we’ve already made extinct. So smallpox was a worldwide disaster and is now extinct. Guinea worm has gone from about three million cases worldwide to a hundred. Polio is almost extinct. These are via vaccine or public health, hygiene, keeping water clean, programs.
Then, there are some for which that does not work like HIV, TB, and malaria. So there’s multidrug resistant HIV. It is very changeable, mutable. Vaccines have not yet been successful. But those are drugs and vaccines.
A third way that’s looking promising is gene editing and knocking out the HIV receptor on the T cells, if the price of that can be brought down. Another thing that’s happening in this era that we’re in the last few years is our extraordinary ability to bring down prices. Anything that can be miniaturized and mass-produced by replication, which is true of computers and biology especially, you can drop the price down pretty close to zero, or at least by six orders of magnitude. So that’s one possibility for HIV.
For malaria, a new prospect is coming. It’s not gene editing per se, but gene drives. Both of them can use CRISPR, which is an amazing new technology.
The CRISPR gene drives can be used to either globally eradicate a species, make a species resistant to the malaria parasite. You can make the white-footed mouse resistant to the Lyme disease bacterium, and then essentially lead to the extinction or huge reduction of those pathogens.
Solana: The gene drive is a practice for manipulating genetic inheritance in an organism. You can imagine a mosquito, for example, genetically altered in such a way that it’s no longer capable of carrying malaria.
And that trait is dominant. Introduced into the wild, that gene would rapidly spread until the species is no longer a threat. Or, at least, it brings with it no threat of malaria.
Pushed a little bit further, you can also imagine the mosquito genetically altered in such a way that it can only give birth to females. As the species procreates, that gene is driven through the population—with a gestation period of only 24 to 48 hours, mosquitos would likely vanish pretty fast. Now, it’s not only malaria you’ve cured. West Nile Virus, Yellow Fever, Dengue Fever, Zika. These are all things of the past.
There are obviously some pretty complicated safety and moral questions here. But, in the very near future, this is the way that we are going to be thinking about the world. Not what is and how to respond to what is, but, what do we want the natural world to look like?
Solana (to Church): What about the process of antiaging? Is this going to be targeting things like age-related diseases or afflictions? Or, is it going to be unlocking the keys to what it means to be a human? Stopping the aging process completely.
Church: I think we can approach both. The ideal is prevention. Reversal is quite attractive, in that you can get rapid biomedical research feedback. To extend longevity, especially from birth, is a very long feedback loop. While reversal of aging, you can have a whole variety of biomarkers ranging from the molecular ones like methylation of DNA, or physiological ones like grip strength, reaction time, cardiovascular fitness, and so on.
In principle, these can be reversed in weeks rather than a decade-long readout it might take to look at longevity effects. There are numerous examples in animals, worms and fruit flies and mice, where you can get either longevity effects or aging reversal.
One example is impact on mitochondrial function. Another example is so-called heterochronic parabiosis where you take blood from young mice and put it in old mice and you get restoration of the physiological status of at least five major organ systems including skeletal muscle, cardiac muscle, blood vessels, neurons, and so on.
Solana: So the future of biology becomes a little more clear: first, we’re going after disease. And there are, of course, potential solutions in targeting the disease itself. But there are also potential solutions in altering the creatures that carry disease. And then as we approach and really see, in the antiaging question, there are solutions in the human being.
What can we do to our own genome to guard against infectious disease? To not only treat but to literally remove from our body the possibility of developing the kinds of ailments associated with shorter lifespans such as Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, obesity? Identifying and manipulating the genetic markers associated with longevity and increasing the natural human lifespan. How do we redesign the human biology to make us better?
This is the point where some people get a little nervous. Shortly after the development of CRISPR/Cas9, a group of prominent scientists attracted a lot of attention when they called for a moratorium on its use across the germline, which is to say, editing the human blastocyst and creating changes that can be passed on from one generation to the next.
As the New York Times quoted one of the scientists, “It raises the most fundamental of issues about how we are going to view our humanity in the future, and whether we are going to take the dramatic step of modifying our own germline and, in a sense, take control of our genetic destiny, which raises enormous peril for humanity.”
I found the juxtaposition of that piece of language, “take control of our genetic destiny,” with the word “peril” really shocking. What is the implicit assumption there about human nature? Why would we ever value a genetic role of the dice over thoughtful exploration, deduction, and design?
Let’s just ask the question: what would the world look like if we did take control of our genetic destiny?
Davidsohn (to Solana): There’s a movie, it’s not a very good movie, but it kind-of paints the picture the way I might see it—In Time, with Justin Timberlake, where the entire society doesn’t age. They age until they’re 25, and they stay 25.
Solana: That’s Noah Davidsohn, a biological engineer at Dr. Church’s lab, Harvard’s Wyss Institute. He’s working on a whole suite of therapeutics targeting age-related diseases.
It’s sort-of crazy that Noah, a scientist working in the field, who knows this technology is not only possible but safe and important, really only has one movie he can reach for to try to explain the kind of work he does.
That move, In Time, accomplishes the spectacular feat of making the prospect of not dying scary. It imagines a world where people can live for however long they want, but they have to pay for every minute of their life. But, is that the way it’s going to be? Why, in a world decades ahead of our own world of already rapidly falling costs in computing and genomics, would any of these therapies cost more than a few dollars?
Davidsohn: There are some other flaws in the movie, but that’s kind of how in envision humanity going forward, at some point we’ll be able to control the biological clock and keep you whatever age you want.
Everything around us ages and dies. So we’re just kind of ingrained with this understanding that you develop into an adult, and then adults get older, and then adults die. And, you have to age. And that’s just kind of the natural order of things.
But, science has accumulated a lot of data that suggest a large amount of plasticity. And we can extend the life of a mouse and lower organisms to a much larger extent. We can make a little nematode, a worm, live 500% longer than its natural lifespan. We can make mice live twice as long than its natural lifespan.
We’ve accumulated a lot of data, and I don’t think it’s been disseminated enough. And people don’t believe that it’s possible for humans. It’s like, “oh, it’s in the lab. That’s fine.”
Solana: We talked a lot about CRISPR/Cas9, an inexpensive and highly precise tool for gene editing. The popularization of the tool and recent experiments in China that have crossed the germline have catalyzed a lot of public fear.
There’s this question of whether or not people should be designing human beings. Publicly, at least, it seems like most people are landing pretty firmly on the no side of this debate.
What you probably haven’t been hearing a lot about are the applications of CRISP/Cas9 in genetic therapeutics.
The tools has only existed for about three years, and in that time, researchers have already used it to reverse things like Retinitis Pigmentosa: cure blindness. They’ve developed methods to knock out the HIV receptors in cells, in a sense clearing the path for HIV immunity. And they’ve modified a whole host of crops in such a way that makes them completely invulnerable to certain kinds of pests and pathogens.
I think the germline debate is something we should have. I’d be lying if I said didn’t think it was our destiny to claim our own genetic code.
But, that kind of total understanding of genetics and control is still a long way off. In the short term, today, there’s a lot we can do without crossing the germline.
Davidsohn: So CRISPR is one of the new more powerful tools to manipulate DNA. Most of the press surrounds CRISPR as a molecular scissor. So it goes in there and you can very precisely target different parts of your DNA and cut them in specific places and then either delete DNA nearby or insert DNA to add a gene in.
A lot of the news doesn’t really cover the fact that CRISPR actually can be used as a modulation. Instead of a scissor, it can just go in and bind to a very specific place in the DNA. It can recognize a very specific location in the DNA very easily with a very small piece of RNA. Then, you can manipulate the DNA however you want.
The news covers the cutting part most of the time. But, we can actually turn genes on. We can turn genes off. And we can theoretically modulate the epi-genic state as well. So the way we’re working on that is to figure out the differences between young and old and try to kind of reverse the different proteins and signatures that would say that, okay, if this protein increases as you get older, we probably want to decrease that and keep it the way it was when you were younger.
Solana: So how do you do that?
Davidsohn: There’re lots of ways. With CRISPR, you would actually go in there, take control over the cellular processes and revert them to the younger signature.
For instance, sequencing, you sequence the actual DNA. But, the DNA doesn’t change over time. Now your epigenome, the marks on top of the DNA, they change as you get older. And, they change the way genes are expressed as you age.
If you could control the epigenetic state, and make it so that the genes that are expressed when you’re 25 are exactly the same genes that are expressed when you’re 85, you probably wouldn’t look 85 anymore.
Solana: No more aging. No more disease. No more hunger. The goal here, unapologetically, is a world without death. And, that’s just baseline.
Earlier, we talked to Paul Dabrowski. And, I cut him off just when he was getting to the really far out stuff: upgradable immune systems, biological factories, and artificial intelligence.
Dabrowski: …which has to be defined quite accurately in order to mean anything. For upgradable immune systems, what this means is, basically, whenever there’s a new disease that’s found, within a matter of hours, people all over the world would be able to upgrade their physical biological response to that and shut it out.
We could envision cellular instrumentation that has a path for easy upgrades, that has been secured in similar ways that computer systems are secured, where people can basically go to their local pharmacy and get a pill that is now a new upgrade.
So instead of vaccinations, getting a new shot, you just take a pill. And not only would it cover one disease, but it might cover many diseases. We’re talking about extending healthy human lifespans through biological machinery that has an upgraded path.
Biological factories is another interesting topic. If you have a great understanding of how biology works, you can start implementing all sorts of methods of construction, whether it’s something like 3D printing or, in my favorite scenario you would basically have a vial with some cells that you can put in an open field, and those cells would start doing their work, which would mean setting up an infrastructure to bring minerals out of the ground, to build a foundation for, let’s say, a house. And then, start actually building, excreting the materials and build the structures down to a molecularly accurate representation of what you want.
So, no more material scarcity, basically anyone being able to create the structures they want. I propose that perhaps, in the future, some of the first megastructures that we build in space may, in fact, be created by biological means, perhaps mining off of astroids or something to this effect.
Then, I think the third topic of artificial intelligence. This one needs to really be carefully dissected, because even just the definition of what artificial and what intelligence means, are very skewed in the general mainstream.
I think a lot of people are talking about artificial consciousness when they say artificial intelligence, and that in itself is a loaded term.
But, I propose that some of the interesting aspects of getting intelligence that’s, let say, a hundred or a thousand times more understanding of its environment and what can be done in the world—that’s going to come through biological means.
Whether it’s augmentation of what we have as humans or an independent system, I can’t say for sure. But, I think one of the interesting things that will come in the next couple decades is much improved brain-computer interfaces, also biologically inspired. Ed Boyden has had amazing progress with optogenetics.
I think we can go even further. Ultimately, I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the most successful brain-computer interfaces was actually suited to the individual and personalized. Basically, you’d take some neural cells out of a person’s brain, and you might modify them so that they actually are a co-brain, that lives with your brain, that’s actually just the interface to the outside world.
That’s a very interesting scenario where, combined with the upgradable immune systems, we’re talking about really improving the quality of life, improving the extent of life for pretty much everyone.
Solana: We talked a little bit about the biological singularity, and you just spoke about it briefly before. Let’s just kind of unpack that a little more, and think about it. Why do we think it might happen in biology before it even happens in computer science?
Dabrowski: So what do you mean by singularity specifically?
Solana: When I think about AI, in the computer science world, I think about an intelligence that is so smart that it can make itself smarter rapidly. And then, it becomes inconceivable. In bio, maybe what I’m thinking about is something that is super intelligent, an order of magnitude smarter than people, so that it’s a paradigm shift. Things are suddenly just completely different for humanity, even if one superintelligence exists.
When you think about amplifying intelligence, leaping evolution forward, is that going to happen before any kind of sentient super-computer?
Dabrowski: I put myself firmly in the camp that, yes, there is greater likelihood that in biology we’ll come up with something like this. But I would also put the caveat in that I strongly believe that it’s going to be through augmentation of our own intelligence.
Again, it keeps getting back to this point, what’s someone’s motivation for creating a superintelligence? If it’s to bring a lot of good into the world and unify the world, then I think there’s a lot of value. And, I think a lot of people end up getting brought along for the singularity.
I think the independent consciousness happening in computers? It seems like a really difficult problem. There are a few things that I want to work on in my life, including moving biology to the next level, fusion, quantum computing, and one of them is artificial intelligence. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this: it seems like we’re pretty far away from being able to create a somewhat conscious, independently experiencing entity that seems to have some sort of value system and perception of the world that’s relevant to us.
What I mean by that is. if you created a computer that seems to be thinking on its own, it probably wouldn’t have very similar values to us. In fact, it might just ignore us.
We were talking a little bit ago, and you mentioned that maybe the Internet’s already conscious. But, it seems to be quite happy because people are feeding it more bits and that’s all it cares about.
I think that’s something along the lines of where I think. And, why I might be either more concerned or more excited about the biological artificial intelligence is because it already comes with a value system. It comes with a grounding. And it comes with a perceptive interpretation of the experiential world that’s relevant to us as humans.
I think we are going to become the superintelligence. I strongly believe that. And I think perhaps even if you don’t agree with me, you might start placing the bet that we should start improving our biological tools just in case there is a superintelligence that’s purely computationally based in logic. That might be an evil thing. A lot of people have been talking about that. So, we might want to put more investment into the biological world and augmenting our own intelligence that’s grounded in the values that we have.
Solana: From one apocalypse to the next, in robotics and machine intelligence. For the next two weeks we’re going to talk about these two different but very closely related dystopias. On the one hand automation and on the other a synthetic machine superintelligence: two of what are probably the biggest fears currently guiding the way we thing about the future.
At the top of this cast, biology. We talked about a fear of wild pathogens escaping into the world, creating something that is unnatural, that can’t be controlled, that decimates the human population. And then we also talked about inequality. We’ll talk more about inequality next week when we get into automation, because the arguments are similar and the answers largely lie in the computer sciences, in education and reskilling, and in the drop of prices afforded by an automation economy.
But, on the biological fear that stems from the idea that manipulating the natural world is inherently dangerous and leads inevitably to some much darker end for humanity, it’s most helpful to start first with acknowledging our lives are not safe. In the developed world, it’s easy to forget that much of the developing world is still plagued by disease and hunger, problems that our biologists are thinking about in labs across the world today.
And then, to think about the much more honest shadow of the story we tell ourselves about the lone-wolf terrorist in his basement who creates a virus that ends the world. That virus is coming, and it’s not going to be manmade.
The natural world is not a static thing that we can change to our own peril only. It evolves. And, with changes to the natural world come new challenges for our race, new challenges, the best hope for which we have of overcoming lie in technology and science.
But then, beyond that, beyond pushing back against the diseases that currently exist, beyond enriching the food supply, beyond extending the human lifespan—in genetics we find a set of instructions written in a language we are finally beginning to understand. And just beyond comprehension is creation.
Imagine manmade structures not built but grown. Imagine the human body adaptable to any environment. Imagine amplified intelligence and the next evolutionary leap forward, not a thing that happens to humanity, but a thing that humanity does to the world.
Why do we think this is important?