We can program humans like computers, argue futurist Amy Webb. The co-author of the book “The Genesis Machine: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology” explores the fascinating and frightening fusion of tech and biology. What does this great transformation mean for us?
Synthetic biology is a field of science that “involves redesigning organisms for useful purposes by engineering them to have new abilities.” What fascinates you most in this multidisciplinary branch of science?
The biggest and most durable innovations of the 21st century will be at the nexus of biology and technology. For humans, animals, plants, viruses—on Earth and off-planet. The opportunity to retool biological code gives us great optionality across virtually every field imaginable.
Your new book “The Genesis Machine: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology” was published just a year after the invention of mRNA vaccines. This breakthrough advancement in life sciences enabled the reprogramming of human immunity. Is it the beginning of the new era in medicine?
Well, mRNA vaccines weren’t discovered a year ago—the technology had already been invented, and research had been underway for a decade. The application of mRNA to mitigate Sars-CoV-2 provided a scalable use case, which in some ways catalyzed a new era in programmable medicine. mRNA technology is now being investigated for lots of things, including a universal flu vaccine.
Everybody wants a healthy and long life. Will hacking biological age be the next dream to fulfill? Is canceling aging possible? Assuming it will be costly and thus not available for everybody, isn’t “hacking biological age” a potential accelerator of social inequalities with an impact we can’t even predict?
Within the next 30 years, we will start to see aging as a treatable pathology. We could live longer, healthier lives, free of degenerative illness. Ideally, we’d have a healthy life with one bad last day. The technology to make this possible should be evenly distributed, as should preventative care and wellness. Given our current path in the US, it’s unlikely that 30 years from now, everyone will have access to great, realistically affordable healthcare.
This implies that we’ll see a further divide, pitting much older, healthy people against younger people in the workforce—if leaders refuse to retire, they won’t make space for others, which could have a chilling impact on the economy.
On the other hand, if healthcare is realistically affordable and accessible to everyone, then we have a different potential problem where our social services can’t accommodate a larger-than-forecasted population. Pension fund models, which are already broken, would implode. People who’d saved for retirement would find that they may not have enough to cover a longer life span, while those who could not or chose not to save would need government benefits to survive.
What are the key risks of synthetic biology?
In the book, we identify nine critical risks for synthetic biology. I’ll highlight three for you here, starting with a gain of function research. In 2011, a researcher in Rotterdam announced that he augmented the H5N1 bird flu virus so it could be transmitted from birds to humans, and then between people, as a deadly new strain of the flu. Pre-Covid, H5N1 was the worst virus to hit our planet since the Spanish flu, and it had a high mortality rate. This work is unnecessary and obviously dangerous.
Google’s DeepMind division just cracked the code on protein folding using AI—there just isn’t a need for human researchers to intentionally modify viruses for the sake of developing a future vaccine, especially when viruses tend to mutate on their own. But GoF research isn’t banned in many countries.
Second, DNA is a security risk. The largest holder of human DNA is the Chinese government, but after that, the second and third largest DNA repositories are held by 23andMe and Ancestry.com. In the future, our most worrying data security breaches could involve DNA. That means that biology, in the era we are entering, may become a major information security problem. Third, we will likely see new geopolitical conflicts involving synthetic biology. The next war could be a biological one—we must prepare for the threat of bioescalation.
You have outlined five possible scenarios for the future. Which one do you consider as most likely?
These aren’t probabilistic scenarios, so I hesitate to place a bet on which one is most likely. These are speculative scenarios, which are based on present-day signals and data. They’re all plausible. The fifth scenario, which is “The Memo,” is the most concerning to me because we are the least prepared for that future. It involves an accident in a lab and the beginning of a widespread cyber-biological malware attack. What we describe in that chapter is already possible today.
Three years ago, you wrote a book about big tech and its primarily negative influence on humanity. Since then, Facebook announced metaverse and COVID-19 pandemic speeded up the shift towards virtual life – from ZOOM meetings to shopping online. So how different will the world be after the pandemic?
In some ways, not different at all. But in other ways—especially those involving surveillance—we will be worse off. Covid acted as a positive catalyst for big tech companies, and in our effort to get back to work, we submitted ourselves to biometric surveillance with very little transparency and no real accountability.
In “The Genesis Machine”, Amy Webb and Andrew Hessel claim that we can now program biological systems like we program computers.
You point out that technology evolves faster than ethics and governance. Can we fix it to ensure that every breakthrough innovation will be made for the good of humankind, available and accessible for all?
I believe we can, but it will take coordinated work. This is the basis for the fourth part of The Genesis Machine, where we describe a plan to ensure good governance, a proposed set of global guard rails, and a system modeled on Bretton Woods to share data and enforce safety measures worldwide. We have some time now to develop global plans. I say some, not infinite. We need to get to work now, with a sense of urgency.
“The Genesis Machine: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology” shows us possible scenarios of the future, including risks that human engineering pose. What should we do to make the best of synthetic biology to create a better future?
We need to start by keeping our minds open—and to be willing to allow our cherished beliefs to be challenged. Synthetic biology will result in solutions in ways that are hard to conceive of today but will meet the global challenges we face in feeding, clothing, housing, and caring for billions of humans.
Life is becoming programmable, and synthetic biology makes a bold promise to improve human existence. Consumers need to be vigilant about misinformation or simply assuming that this technology is the same thing as a GMO and therefore explicitly bad. Policymakers need to develop and stick to a long-range strategic plan, which includes collaborating with other countries. Investors need to be patient. But what we really need is alignment on a shared global vision on how life can evolve at a planetary scale.
Could you please share with my readers one positive thing we should be excited about in the near future?
Synthetic biology gives us optionality in food. Cultured meats (creating meat from cells rather than plants) are coming. They’re better for the planet, better for us to eat, and arguably a heck of a lot better for the animals themselves.
The first CRISPR-edited tomatoes went on sale in 2021—they stay fresher longer. There are now dairy products—yogurt, cheese, and ice cream––that were cultured, taste the same as what you’re used to, but didn’t require a giant commercial farm to produce. As this scales, we can help mitigate global food crises around the world.
What will be your next book about?
The future, of course.
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