2 November 2012

The future of human enhancement

Is it ethical to put money and resources into trying to develop technological enhancements for human capabilities, when there are so many alternative well-tested mechanisms available to address pressing problems such as social injustice, poverty, poor sanitation, and endemic disease? Is that a failure of priority? Why make a strenuous effort in the hope of allowing an elite few individuals to become “better than well”, courtesy of new technology, when so many people are currently so “less than well”?

These were questions raised by Professor Anne Kerr at a public debate earlier this week at the London School of Economics: The Ethics of Human Enhancement.

The event was described as follows on the LSE website:

This dialogue will consider how issues related to human enhancement fit into the bigger picture of humanity’s future, including the risks and opportunities that will be created by future technological advances. It will question the individualistic logic of human enhancement and consider the social conditions and consequences of enhancement technologies, both real and imagined.

From the stage, Professor Kerr made a number of criticisms of “individualistic logic” (to use the same phrase as in the description of the event). Any human enhancements provided by technology, she suggested, would likely only benefit a minority of individuals, potentially making existing social inequalities even worse than at present.

She had a lot of worries about technology amplifying existing human flaws:

  • Imagine what might happen if various clever people could take some pill to make themselves even cleverer? It’s well known that clever people often make poor decisions. Their cleverness allows them to construct beguiling sophistry to justify the actions they already want to take. More cleverness could mean even more beguiling sophistry.
  • Or imagine if rapacious bankers could take drugs to boost their workplace stamina and self-serving brainpower – how much more effective they would become at siphoning off public money to their own pockets!
  • Might these risks be addressed by public policy makers, in a way that would allow benefits of new technology, without falling foul of the potential downsides? Again, Professor Kerr was doubtful. In the real world, she said, policy makers cannot operate at that level. They are constrained by shorter-term thinking.

For such reasons, Professor Kerr was opposed to these kinds of technology-driven human enhancements.

When the time for audience Q&A arrived, I felt bound to ask from the floor:

Professor Kerr, would you be in favour of the following examples of human enhancement, assuming they worked?

  1. An enhancement that made bankers more socially attuned, with more empathy, and more likely to use their personal wealth in support of philanthropic projects?
  2. An enhancement that made policy makers less parochial, less politically driven, and more able to consider longer-term implications in an objective manner?
  3. And an enhancement that made clever people less likely to be blind to their own personal cognitive biases, and more likely to genuinely consider counters to their views?

In short, would you support enhancements that would make people wiser as well as smarter, and kinder as well as stronger?

The answer came quickly:

No. They would not work. And there are other means of achieving the same effects, including progress of democratisation and education.

I countered: These other methods don’t seem to be working well enough. If I had thought more quickly, I would have raised examples such as society’s collective failure to address the risk of runaway climate change.

Groundwork for this discussion had already been well laid by the other main speaker at the event, Professor Nick Bostrom. You can hear what Professor Bostrom had to say – as well as the full content of the debate – in an audio recording of the event that is available here.

(Small print: I’ve not yet taken the time to review the contents of this recording. My description in this blogpost of some of the verbal exchanges inevitably paraphrases and extrapolates what was actually said. I apologise in advance for any mis-representation, but I believe my summary to be faithful to the spirit of the discussion, if not to the actual words used.)

Professor Bostrom started the debate by mentioning that the question of human enhancement is a big subject. It can be approached from a shorter-term policy perspective: what rules should governments set, to constrain the development and application of technological enhancements, such as genetic engineering, neuro-engineering, smart drugs, synthetic biology, nanotechnology, and artificial general intelligence? It can also be approached from the angle of envisioning larger human potential, that would enable the best possible future for human civilisation. Sadly, much of the discussion at the LSE got bogged down in the shorter-term question, and lost sight of the grander accomplishments that human enhancements could bring.

Professor Bostrom had an explanation for this lack of sustained interest in these larger possibilities: the technologies for human enhancement that are currently available do not work that well:

  • Some drugs give cyclists or sprinters an incremental advantage over their competitors, but the people who take these drugs still need to train exceptionally hard, to reach the pinnacle of their performance
  • Other drugs seem to allow students to concentrate better over periods of time, but their effects aren’t particularly outstanding, and it’s possible that methods such as good diet, adequate rest, and meditation, have results that are at least as significant
  • Genetic selection can reduce the risk of implanted embryos developing various diseases that have strong genetic links, but so far, there is no clear evidence that genetic selection can result in babies with abilities higher than the general human range.

This lack of evidence of strong tangible results is one reason why Professor Kerr was able to reply so quickly to my suggestion about the three kinds of technological enhancements, saying these enhancements would not work.

However, I would still like to press they question: what if they did work? Would we want to encourage them in that case?

A recent article in the Philosophy Now journal takes the argument one step further. The article was co-authored by Professors Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson, and draws material from their book “Unfit for the Future: The Need for Moral Enhancement”.

To quote from the Philosophy Now article:

For the vast majority of our 150,000 years or so on the planet, we lived in small, close-knit groups, working hard with primitive tools to scratch sufficient food and shelter from the land. Sometimes we competed with other small groups for limited resources. Thanks to evolution, we are supremely well adapted to that world, not only physically, but psychologically, socially and through our moral dispositions.

But this is no longer the world in which we live. The rapid advances of science and technology have radically altered our circumstances over just a few centuries. The population has increased a thousand times since the agricultural revolution eight thousand years ago. Human societies consist of millions of people. Where our ancestors’ tools shaped the few acres on which they lived, the technologies we use today have effects across the world, and across time, with the hangovers of climate change and nuclear disaster stretching far into the future. The pace of scientific change is exponential. But has our moral psychology kept up?…

Our moral shortcomings are preventing our political institutions from acting effectively. Enhancing our moral motivation would enable us to act better for distant people, future generations, and non-human animals. One method to achieve this enhancement is already practised in all societies: moral education. Al Gore, Friends of the Earth and Oxfam have already had success with campaigns vividly representing the problems our selfish actions are creating for others – others around the world and in the future. But there is another possibility emerging. Our knowledge of human biology – in particular of genetics and neurobiology – is beginning to enable us to directly affect the biological or physiological bases of human motivation, either through drugs, or through genetic selection or engineering, or by using external devices that affect the brain or the learning process. We could use these techniques to overcome the moral and psychological shortcomings that imperil the human species.

We are at the early stages of such research, but there are few cogent philosophical or moral objections to the use of specifically biomedical moral enhancement – or moral bioenhancement. In fact, the risks we face are so serious that it is imperative we explore every possibility of developing moral bioenhancement technologies – not to replace traditional moral education, but to complement it. We simply can’t afford to miss opportunities…

In short, the argument of Professors Savulescu and Persson is not just that we should allow the development of technology that can enhance human reasoning and moral awareness, but that we must strongly encourage it. Failure to do so would be to commit a grave error of omission.

These arguments about moral imperative – what technologies should we allow to be developed, or indeed encourage to be developed – are in turn strongly influenced by our beliefs about what technologies are possible. It’s clear to me that many people in positions of authority in society – including academics as well as politicians – are woefully unaware about realistic technology possibilities. People are familiar with various ideas as a result of science fiction novels and movies, but it’s a different matter to know the division between “this is an interesting work of fiction” and “this is a credible future that might arise within the next generation”.

What’s more, when it comes to people forecasting the likely progress of technological possibilities, I see a lot of evidence in favour of the observation made by Roy Amara, long-time president of the Institute for the Future:

We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

What about the technologies mentioned by Professors Savulescu and Persson? What impact will be possible from smart drugs, genetic selection and engineering, and the use of external devices that affect the brain or the learning process? In the short term, probably less than many of us hope; in the longer term, probably more than most of us expect.

In this context, what is the “longer term”? That’s the harder question!

But the quest to address this kind of question, and then to share the answers widely, is the reason I have been keen to support the growth of the London Futurist meetup, by organising a series of discussion meetings with well-informed futurist speakers. Happily, membership has been on the up-and-up, reaching nearly 900 by the end of October.

The London Futurist event happening this weekend – on the afternoon of Saturday 3rd November – picks up the theme of enhancing our mental abilities. The title is “Hacking our wetware: smart drugs and beyond – with Andrew Vladimirov”:

What are the most promising methods to enhance human mental and intellectual abilities significantly beyond the so-called physiological norm? Which specific brain mechanisms should be targeted, and how?  Which aspects of wetware hacking are likely to grow in prominence in the not-too-distant future?

By reviewing a variety of fascinating experimental findings, this talk will explore:

  • various pharmacological methods, taking into account fundamental differences in Eastern and Western approaches to the development and use of nootropics
  • the potential of non-invasive neuro-stimulation using CES (Cranial Electrotherapy Stimulation) and TMS (Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation)
  • data suggesting the possibility to “awaken” savant-like skills in healthy humans without paying the price of autism
  • apparent means to stimulate seemingly paranormal abilities and transcendental experiences
  • potential genetic engineering perspectives, aiming towards human cognition enhancement.

The advance number of positive RSVPs for this talk, as recorded on the London Futurist meetup site, has reached 129 at the time of writing – which is already a record.

(From my observations, I have developed the rule of thumb that the number of people who actually turn up for a meeting is something like 60%-75% of the number of positive RSVPs.)

I’ll finish by returning to the question posed at the beginning of my posting:

  • Are these technological enhancements likely to increase human inequality (by benefiting only a small number of users),
  • Or are they instead likely to drop in price and grow in availability (the same as happened, for example, with smartphones, Internet access, and many other items of technology)?

My answer – which I believe is shared by Professor Bostrom – is that things could still go either way. That’s why we need to think hard about their development and application, ahead of time. That way, we’ll become better informed to help influence the outcome.

16 September 2012

Transcending the threat of the long emergency

The not-so-distant future (2030-2045) may turn out very different from how we commonly imagine. It may turn out very different from what we desire.

At that time, those of us who remain alive and who still have the faculty to think critically, may well bemoan the fact that we didn’t properly anticipate the intervening turn of events, and didn’t organise ourselves effectively to enable a better future to unfold. We may bitterly regret our present-day pre-occupations with celebrity gossip and 24×7 reality TV and rivalries between the latest superphones and by bickering over gullible interpretations of antiquated religious folk tales.

Why did we fiddle why Rome burned? Why did we not see the likelihood of Rome burning? Why were we so enthralled to the excitements of consumer goods and free-market economics and low-cost international travel and relentless technology innovation that we failed to give heed to the deeper stresses and strains portending what writer James Howard Kunstler has termed “The Long Emergency“?

The subtitle of Kunstler’s The Long Emergency book is “Surviving the end of oil, climate change, and other converging catastrophes of the twenty-first century“. His writing style is lively and unapologetic. He pays little respect to political correctness. His thesis is not just that supplies of oil are declining (despite vigorously growing demand), but that society fails to appreciate quite how difficult it’s going to be to replace oil with new sources of energy. Many, many aspects of our present-day civilisation depend in fundamental ways on by-products of oil. Therefore, we’re facing an almighty crisis.

Quoting Colin Tudge from The Independent, The Long Emergency carries an endorsement on its front cover:

If you give a damn, you should read this book

I echo that endorsement. Kunstler makes lots of important points about the likely near-future impact of diseases, shortages of fresh water, large multinationals in their runaway pursuit of profits and growth, the over-complexity of modern life, and the risks of cataclysmic wars over diminishing material resources.

I agree with around 80% of what Kunstler says. But even in the 20% where we part company, I find his viewpoint to be illuminating.

For example, I regard Kunstler’s discussion of both solar and wind energy as being perfunctory. He is too quick to dismiss the potential of these (and other) alternative energy sources. My own view is that the same kinds of compound improvements that have accelerated the information and communications hi-tech industries can also apply in alternative energy industries. Even though individual companies fail, and even though specific ideas for tech improvement are found wanting, there remains plenty of scope for cumulative overall improvement, with layers of new innovations all building on prior breakthroughs.

Kunstler’s first reply to this kind of rejoinder is that it confuses technology with energy. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, “James Howard Kunstler on Why Technology Won’t Save Us“, he responds to the following observation by journalist Jeff Goodell:

You write about visiting the Google campus in Silicon Valley, and how nobody there understood the difference between energy and technology.

Kunstler’s reply:

They are not substitutable. If you run out of energy, you can’t plug in technology. In this extremely delusional society right now, one of the reigning delusions is that if you run out of energy, you can just turn to technology. We completely don’t understand that. And the tragic thing is, the people who ought to understand it don’t get it. And if the people at Google don’t know the difference between energy and technology – well, then who does?

My own comment: the world is not facing a shortage of energy. An analysis published recently in Nature shows that wind energy could provide 20-100 times current global power demand. And as for solar energy, National Geographic magazine reports

Every hour the sun beams onto Earth more than enough energy to satisfy global energy needs for an entire year.

So the problem isn’t one of lack of energy. It’s a problem of harvesting the energy, storing it, and transporting it efficiently to where it needs to be used. That’s a problem to which technology can apply itself with a vengeance.

But as I said, Kunstler is insightful even when he is wrong. His complaint is that it is foolish to simply rely on some magical powers of a free-market economy to deliver the technology smarts needed to solve these energy-related problems. Due to the dysfunctions and failures of free-market economies, there’s no guarantee that industry will be able to organise itself to make the right longer-term investments to move from our current “local maximum” oil-besotted society to a better local maximum that is, however, considerably remote from where we are today. These are as much matters of economics and politics as they are of technology. Here, I agree with Kunstler.

Kunstler’s second reply is that, even if enough energy is made available from new sources, it won’t solve the problem of diminishing raw materials. This includes fresh water, rare minerals, and oil itself (which is used for much more than a source of energy – for example, it’s a core ingredient of plastics). Kunstler argues that these raw materials are needed in the construction and maintenance of alternative energy generators. So it will be impossible to survive the decline in the availability of oil.

My comment to this is that a combination of sufficient energy (e.g. from massive solar generators) and smart technology can be deployed to generate new materials. Fresh water can be obtained from sea water by desalination plants. Oil itself can be generated in due course by synthetic biology. And if it turns out that we really do lack a particular rare mineral, presently needed for a core item of consumer electronics, we can change the manufacturing process to swap in an alternative.

At least, these transformations are theoretically possible. But, again, they’ll probably require greater coordination than our present system of economics and politics enables, with its over-emphasis on short-termism.

Incidentally, for a particularly clear critique of the idea that untramelled free market economics is the best mechanism to ensure societal progress, I recommend “23 things they don’t tell you about capitalism“, by Cambridge University economics professor Ha-Joon Chang. This consists of 23 chapters which each follow the same form: a common tenet of free-market economics is presented (and is made to appear plausible), and then is thoroughly debunked, by means of a mixture of data and theory. Professor Chang isn’t opposed to markets, but he does believe in the necessity for key elements of state intervention to steer markets. He offers positive remedies as well as negative criticisms. Alternatively, you might also enjoy “What money can’t buy: the moral limits of markets“, by Harvard professor Michael J. Sandel. That takes a complementary path, with examples that are bound to make both proponents and opponents of free markets wince from time to time. They really get under the skin. And they really make you think.

Both books are (in my viewpoint) brilliantly written, though if you only have time to read one, I’d recommend the one by Ha-Joon Chang. His knowledge of real-world economics is both comprehensive and uplifting – and his writing style is blessedly straightforward. Being Korean born, his analysis of the economic growth in Korea is especially persuasive, but he draws insight from numerous other geographies too.

Putting the future on the agenda

As you can tell, I see the threat of self-induced societal collapse as real. The scenarios in The Long Emergency deserve serious attention. For that reason, I’m keen to put the future on the agenda. I don’t mean discussions of whether national GDPs will grow or shrink by various percentage points over the next one or two years, or whether unemployment will marginally rise or marginally fall. Instead, I want to increase focus on the question of whether we’re collectively able to transition away from our profligate dependence on oil (and away from other self-defeating aspects of our culture) in sufficient time to head off environmental and economic disaster.

That’s the reason I’m personally sponsoring a series of talks at the London Futurists called “The Next Golden Age Of Technology 2030-45“.

The first in that series of talks took place on Saturday at Birkbeck College in Central London: “Surfing The Sixth Wave: Modelling The Next Technology Boom“, with lead speaker Stephen Aguilar-Millan. Stephen is is the Director of Research at the European Futures Observatory, a futures think tank based in the UK.

The different talks in the series are taking different angles on what is a complex, multi-faceted subject. The different speakers by no means all agree with each other. After all, it’s clear that there’s no consensus on how the future is likely to unfold.

Rather than making specific predictions, Stephen’s talk focused more on the question of how to think about future scenarios. He distinguished three main approaches:

  1. Trends analysis – we can notice various trends, and consider extrapolating them into the future
  2. Modelling and systems thinking – we seek to uncover underlying patterns, that are likely to persist despite technology changes
  3. Values-based thinking – which elevates matters of human interest, and considers how human action might steer developments away from those predicted by previous trends and current models.

Stephen’s own approach emphasised models of change in

  • politics (a proposed cycle of concerns: community -> corporate -> individual -> atomistic -> community…),
  • economics (such as the Kondratieff Cycle),
  • and social (such as generational changes: boomer -> generation X -> millennial -> homeland -> scarcity),
  • as well as in technology per se.

For a model to understand long-term technological change, Stephen referred to the Venezuelan scholar Carlota Perez, whose book “Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital: The Dynamics of Bubbles and Golden Ages” is held in high regard. Perez describes recent history as featuring five major technical-economic cycles:

  1. From 1771: The First Industrial Revolution (machines, factories, and canals)
  2. From 1829: The Age of Steam, Coal, Iron, and Railways
  3. From 1875: The Age of Steel and Heavy Engineering (electrical, chemical, civil, naval)
  4. From 1908: The Age of the Automobile, Oil, Petrochemicals, and Mass Production
  5. From 1971: The Age of Information Technology and Telecommunications.

In this analysis, each such cycle takes 40-60 years to spread across the world and reach maturity. Each techno-economic paradigm shift involves “a change in the direction of change” and brings:

  • New industries
  • New infrastructure
  • New ways of transport and communication
  • New ways of producing
  • A new way of working
  • A new way of living.

Golden ages of technology – insight from Carlota Perez

Stephen’s slides will shortly be posted onto the London Futurist website. The potential interplay of the different models is important, but in retrospect, the area that it would have been good to explore further was the analysis by Carlota Perez. There are a number of videos on YouTube that feature her presenting her ideas. For example, there’s a four-part presentation “Towards a Sustainable Global Golden Age” – where she also mentions a potential sixth technical-economic wave:

  • The Age of Biotech, Bioelectronics, Nanotech, and new materials.

Unlike Kunstler, Perez offers an optimistic view of the future. Whereas Kunstler in effect takes wave four as being irretrievably central to modern society, Perez argues that the technology of wave five is already in the process of undoing many of the environmental problems introduced by wave four. This transformation is admittedly difficult to discern, Perez explains, because of factors which prolong the “energy intensive” culture of wave four (even though the “information intensive” wave five already enables significant reductions in energy usage):

  • The low price of oil in the 1980s and 1990s
  • The low price of labor in China and Asia
  • The persistence of “the American way of life” as the “model of well-being” that the world wishes to emulate.

On the other hand, a paradigm change in expectation is now accelerating (see slide 20 of the PDF accompanying the video):

  • Small is better than big
  • Natural materials are better than synthetic
  • Multipurpose is better than single function
  • ‘Gourmet’ food is better than standard
  • Fresh organic fruit and vegetables are healthier
  • Exercise is important for well-being
  • Global warming is a real danger
  • Not commuting to work is possible and preferable
  • Solar power is luxurious
  • Internet communications, shopping, learning and entertainment are better than the old ways.

Nevertheless, despite her optimism that “a sustainable positive-sum future is possible”, Perez states clearly (slide 23):

  • But it will not happen automatically: the market cannot do it alone
  • The state must come back into the picture

Her analysis proceeds:

  • Each technological revolution propagates in two different periods
  • The first half sets up the infrastructure and lets the markets pick the winners
  • The second half (“the Golden Age” of the wave) reaps the full economic and social potential
  • Each Golden Age has been facilitated by enabling regulation and policies for shaping and widening markets.

Scarcity resolved?

The next London Futurist talk in this series will pick up some of the above themes. It will take place on Saturday the 20th of October, with independent futures consultant Guy Yeomans as the lead speaker. To quote from the event page:

Many people regard technological invention as not just a key driving force in human evolution but as the primary source of historical change, profoundly influencing wider economic and social developments. Is this perspective valid? Does it enable us to fully explain the world we live in today, and may actively occupy tomorrow?

Specifically, will technological invention be the ‘saviour’ some believe for our collective future challenges? Can we rely on technology to resolve looming issues of scarcity?

To answer these questions, this talk re-examines the emergence of technology and its role in human affairs. It does this by reviewing the history of the discipline of futures thinking, including techniques such as trend analysis themes.

The talk begins by considering the conditions under which futures thinking formed in North America in the aftermath of World War II. From this, we’ll assess what contributions the methods and techniques created during this period have made to contemporary strategic planning. Using parts of this framework, we’ll formulate a perspective on the key issues likely to affect future technological needs, and assess the dynamics via which technologies may then emerge to meet these needs.

Crucial to all this will be our ability to identify and reveal the core assumptions underpinning such a perspective, thereby providing a more robust footing from which to investigate the ways in which technology might actually evolve over the coming decades. From this, we’ll finally ask:Will scarcity even emerge, let alone need to be overcome?

Later talks in the same series will be given by professional futurists Nick Price, Ian Pearson, and Peter Cochrane.

24 December 2009

Predictions for the decade ahead

Before highlighting some likely key trends for the decade ahead – the 2010’s – let’s pause a moment to review some of the most important developments of the last ten years.

  • Technologically, the 00’s were characterised by huge steps forwards with social computing (“web 2.0”) and with mobile computing (smartphones and more);
  • Geopolitically, the biggest news has been the ascent of China to becoming the world’s #2 superpower;
  • Socioeconomically, the world is reaching a deeper realisation that current patterns of consumption cannot be sustained (without major changes), and that the foundations of free-market economics are more fragile than was previously widely thought to be the case;
  • Culturally and ideologically, the threat of militant Jihad, potentially linked to dreadful weaponry, has given the world plenty to think about.

Looking ahead, the 10’s will very probably see the following major developments:

  • Nanotechnology will progress in leaps and bounds, enabling increasingly systematic control, assembling, and reprogamming of matter at the molecular level;
  • In parallel, AI (artificial intelligence) will rapidly become smarter and more pervasive, and will be manifest in increasingly intelligent robots, electronic guides, search assistants, navigators, drivers, negotiators, translators, and so on.

We can say, therefore, that the 2010’s will be the decade of nanotechnology and AI.

We’ll see the following applications of nanotechnology and AI:

  • Energy harvesting, storage, and distribution (including via smart grids) will be revolutionised;
  • Reliance on existing means of oil production will diminish, being replaced by greener energy sources, such as next-generation solar power;
  • Synthetic biology will become increasingly commonplace – newly designed living cells and organisms that have been crafted to address human, social, and environmental need;
  • Medicine will provide more and more new forms of treatment, that are less invasive and more comprehensive than before, using compounds closely tailored to the specific biological needs of individual patients;
  • Software-as-a-service, provided via next-generation cloud computing, will become more and more powerful;
  • Experience of virtual worlds – for the purposes of commerce, education, entertainment, and self-realisation – will become extraordinarily rich and stimulating;
  • Individuals who can make wise use of these technological developments will end up significantly cognitively enhanced.

In the world of politics, we’ll see more leaders who combine toughness with openness and a collaborative spirit.  The awkward international institutions from the 00’s will either reform themselves, or will be superseded and surpassed by newer, more informal, more robust and effective institutions, that draw a lot of inspiration from emerging best practice in open source and social networking.

But perhaps the most important change is one I haven’t mentioned yet.  It’s a growing change of attitude, towards the question of the role in technology in enabling fuller human potential.

Instead of people decrying “technical fixes” and “loss of nature”, we’ll increasingly hear widespread praise for what can be accomplished by thoughtful development and deployment of technology.  As technology is seen to be able to provide unprecedented levels of health, vitality, creativity, longevity, autonomy, and all-round experience, society will demand a reprioritisation of resource allocation.  Previous sacrosanct cultural norms will fall under intense scrutiny, and many age-old beliefs and practices will fade away.  Young and old alike will move to embrace these more positive and constructive attitudes towards technology, human progress, and a radical reconsideration of how human potential can be fulfilled.

By the way, there’s a name for this mental attitude.  It’s “transhumanism”, often abbreviated H+.

My conclusion, therefore, is that the 2010’s will be the decade of nanotechnology, AI, and H+.

As for the question of which countries (or regions) will play the role of superpowers in 2020: it’s too early to say.

Footnote: Of course, there are major possible risks from the deployment of nanotechnology and AI, as well as major possible benefits.  Discussion of how to realise the benefits without falling foul of the risks will be a major feature of public discourse in the decade ahead.

2 December 2009

The next IT industry: Synthetic biology

Filed under: risks, Singularity University, Synthetic biology — David Wood @ 2:30 am

Synthetic biology will be “the next IT industry”, and will even be “more important than the last one”.  These are two of the claims in the extraordinary video from the Singularity University featuring Andrew Hessel.

The video lasts nearly one hour, and is full of thought-provoking material.  The subtitle of the video is “hacking genomes”.

Here are just a few of the highlights and topics I noted while watching it:

  • Cells inside organisms are in many ways akin to computers inside networks
  • People with engineering backgrounds are bringing engineering ideas into biology
  • push-button biology: “dream is to design … press a button, and have the design translated to DNA sequences that can be synthesised and put to work in living cells”
  • “DNA printers” will become better and better
  • iGEM: international genetically engineered machines
  • DIYbio: “an organization dedicated to making biology an accessible pursuit for citizen scientists, amateur biologists, and DIY biological engineers”
  • Developing a genetic programming language
  • Creating the conditions for the emergence of a new generation of “computing whiz kids” – the synthetic biotech equivalents of Steve Wozniak, Steve Jobs, Paul Allen, and Bill Gates
  • “We’ll soon see molecular biological labs on iPhones”
  • Cost decrease curve for DNA synthesis (“writing DNA”) is tracking that for DNA sequencing (“reading DNA”), lagging it by around 8 years
  • “The human genome synthesis project is coming”

This is the same field where Craig Venter (famous from the first human genome project) is now working.  To quote from the website of his company, Synthetic Genomics:

The Global Challenge: Sustainably meeting the increasing demand for critical resources

The world is facing increasingly difficult challenges today. Population growth resulting in the growing demand for critical resources such as energy, clean water, food and medicine are taxing our fragile planet. To fulfill these needs we need disruptive technologies. We believe genomic advances offer the world viable, sustainable alternatives.

At Synthetic Genomics Inc. we are creating genomic-driven commercial solutions to revolutionize many industries. We have started by focusing on energy, but we imagine a future where our science could be used to produce a variety of products, from synthetically derived vaccines to prevent human diseases to efficient cost effective ways to create clean drinking water. The world is dependent on science and we’re leading the way in turning novel science into life-changing solutions.

Three possible reactions to the idea of synthetic biology

One reaction to the idea of synthetic biology is to say, “Wow – I’d love to become involved!”

A second reaction is to point out the potential huge risks if the process creates dangerous new life forms, such as a fast-spreading new virus.  One of the audience members in the video lecture asked about this; I wasn’t fully convinced by the answer Andrew Hessel gave.

A third reaction is to say that it’s very unlikely that we will, in fact, be able to improve on nature.  This is similar to a comment made by Mark Wilcox in response to my previous blogpost, “The single biggest problem”.  I wrote that:

rather than seeing “natural” as somehow akin to “the best imaginable”, we must be prepared to engineer solutions that are “better than natural”

Mark replied:

I actually find it rather arrogant given millions of years of evolution and our relatively short spell of technological development that any of us presume to know what “better than natural” actually is

This last point in turn poses two questions:

  • Is the outcome of millions of years of evolution” the best outcome possible?
  • If not, is there any reliable way to try to do better than evolution?

For a discussion of the imperfect output of evolution, see (for example) my earlier blogpost, “The human mind as a flawed creation of nature“.

It’s also well worth reading the paper by Nick Bostrom and Anders Sandberg, “The Wisdom of Nature: An Evolutionary Heuristic for Human Enhancement” (PDF).  Here’s a copy of the abstract of that paper:

Human beings are a marvel of evolved complexity. Such systems can be difficult to enhance. When we manipulate complex evolved systems, which are poorly understood, our interventions often fail or backfire.

It can appear as if there is a ‘‘wisdom of nature’’ which we ignore at our peril. Sometimes the belief in nature’s wisdom—and corresponding doubts about the prudence of tampering with nature, especially human nature—manifest as diffusely moral objections against enhancement. Such objections may be expressed as intuitions about the superiority of the natural or the troublesomeness of hubris, or as an evaluative bias in favor of the status quo. This chapter explores the extent to which such prudence-derived anti-enhancement sentiments are justified. We develop a heuristic, inspired by the field of evolutionary medicine, for identifying promising human enhancement interventions. The heuristic incorporates the grains of truth contained in ‘‘nature knows best’’ attitudes while providing criteria for the special cases where we have reason to believe that it is feasible for us to improve on nature.

In conclusion, I personally see this emerging field as being full of tremendous promise, though I will seek to ensure that it is approached with great care and thoughtfulness (as well as excitement).

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