“The power to control our species’ genetic future is awesome and terrifying. Deciding how to handle it may be the biggest challenge we have ever faced.” –Jennifer Doudna
The promise and perils of biotech – Silicon Valley Examined 32
In this episode of Silicon Valley Examined, Don Watkins and Yaron Brook discuss the exciting potential of CRISPR and other biotech breakthroughs, as well as how to think about the potential risks of these revolutionary technologies.
The case for intelligent design
James Pethokoukis argues that, if you’re trying to figure out the Next Big Thing in technology, what you want to look for is a General Purpose Technology (GPT).
These are the game-changers, what Northwestern University economist Robert Gordon calls the Great Inventions. Commonly identified GPTs include the steam engine, electrification, the combustion engine, computers, and the internet.
In an interview with Morning Brew, Amy Webb explains why synthetic biology is likely to be the next great General Purpose Technology.
So, what does it look like for synthetic biology to actually become one of those technologies, like electricity?
My thinking is that at some point in the future, synthetic biology—which is really an umbrella term for different technologies—will just be part of our lives. Gene-editing, before babies are born, will no longer be scary. We won’t have to debate the ethics of whether or not to optimize embryos; it will just be something we do.
As Morning Brew points out, some of the use-cases are already here or in progress: “resurrecting woolly mammoths, reversing disease, growing meat in a lab, editing genes, producing waste-free materials.”
But I think Webb is too dismissive of the barriers to a synthetic biology future. Whether or not this kind of biotech will become “part of our lives” depends on whether we allow these technologies to develop. Technology is not a self-fulfilling prophecy: see the history of nuclear power.
So what’s the best way to ensure we do allow synthetic biology to develop? To develop it intelligently.
For simple systems and low-stakes situations, the best way to promote progress is to leave the road open to trial-and-error exploration. Once you develop electricity, there’s no special problem in whether you should use electricity to power vacuum cleaners or cars. You just let creators experiment to see whether electricity is the best solution for house cleaning and ground transportation.
But when it comes to biotech, the systems we’re dealing with are incredibly complex and the stakes are enormous. Simply put, if we go around changing altering genes in human beings without a far clearer picture of how genes work and interact with the rest of human biology, the results could be catastrophic.
That doesn’t mean progress has to stop. What it does mean is that ingenuity has to be aimed at gathering the knowledge we need to use our tools intelligently: knowledge about human biology, about the full ramifications for removing or altering particular genes.
And that’s what scientists have actually been doing. In 2015, the International Summit on Human Gene Editing outlined guidelines for scientists that would promote exploration and learning without blindly and unethically experimenting on human beings.
The summit statement concluded that gene-editing technology shouldn’t be used to modify human embryos intended for pregnancy. However, it went on to call for:
cautious development of medical applications that cannot be passed on to offspring — such as correction of the mutations that cause sickle-cell disease or modification of immune cells to target cancer.
But the summit statement, authored by a 12-member organizing committee, cautioned that many technical and ethical issues should be settled before anyone attempts ‘germline’ editing — the deletion of a gene prenatally in an effort to erase an inherited disease from an embryo and prevent it from being passed on to future generations.
“It would be irresponsible to proceed with any clinical use of germline editing unless and until (i) the relevant safety and efficacy issues have been resolved … and (ii) there is broad societal consensus about the appropriateness of the proposed application,” the statement said.
The organizing committee stopped short of calling for a ban on editing human embryos and germ cells for basic research. “We don't want to slam the door on this idea forever,” said biochemist Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley.
Contrast this approach to intelligent progress with precautionary principle thinking that would block biotech from becoming the next GPT. What the precautionary principle ignores is the risks of not innovating. It would be tragic if we allow concerns about “playing God” to force people to suffer and die needlessly.
The right approach is to pursue knowledge intelligently. This is something we’re good at. Even with our limited understanding of human biology, we still know how to develop drugs that are by and large safe and effective. There is no reason we can’t do the same with more powerful tools.
War of the web
Whitney Merrill has a very long (and very viral) thread highlighting the ways the internet has impacted the invasion of Ukraine. A few highlights:
In a similar vein, Stephen Miller argues that “The Ukraine invasion is the first social media war.” Which in this case turns out to be an advantage for Ukraine, since its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, “has a background in media and entertainment. He knows how to use these formats better than world leaders twice his age: better than Putin or even the current White House occupant.”
It remains to be seen how useful that advantage is.
“It’s like being born again”
Here’s some uplifting news. Jimi Olaghere is one of the first patients to receive a new gene-editing treatment for sickle-cell disease.
The treatment involves replacing the stem cells in a patient’s bone barrow, which produce diseased hemoglobin, with genetically engineered stem cells that make healthy hemoglobin.
And the results so far have been incredible.
Jimi Olaghere thought he would have to wait decades to be freed from his sickle cell disease - but now scientists have engineered his blood to overcome the disease which left him in constant pain.
"It's like being born again," says Jimi, one of the first seven sickle cell patients to have benefited from a revolutionary new gene-editing treatment being trialled in the US. He says it has changed his life.
"When I look back, it's like, 'Wow, I can't believe I lived with that.'"
So far only a handful of patients have received the treatment. Assuming the results hold up, hopefully many more will be able to get it soon.
One of the problems with most funding of basic research is that there are strong incentives to be overly conservative: you’ll never get fired if you fund ideas that everyone agrees are promising, even if what they promise are only incremental gains.
On the other hand, trying to pick high-risk but potentially game-changing ideas? You’re mostly going to fail. Without the upside enjoyed, say, by venture capitalist investors, outside-the-box ideas go woefully underfunded.
Here’s one proposal from the Institute for Progress that tries to address that problem: lotteries!
Our nation’s methods of supporting new ideas should evolve alongside our knowledge base. Science lotteries — when deployed as a complement to the traditional peer review grant process — could improve the systems’ overall efficiency-cost ratio by randomly selecting a small percentage of already-performed, high quality, yet unfunded grant proposals to extract value from. Tested with majority positive feedback from participants in New Zealand, Germany, and Switzerland, science lotteries would introduce an element of randomness that could unlock innovative, disruptive scholarship across underrepresented demographics and geographies.
Much more at the link.
The solution to fusion confusion
We recently talked about the promise of fusion. James Pethokoukis has a short but jam-packed interview with nuclear fusion expert Arthur Turrell that clarifies exactly where we are and the steps we’ll need to achieve in the years ahead to make commercial fusion a reality.
1/ There seems to be a lot of fusion-related news of late. Let me highlight just two: Earlier this month, scientists at the Joint European Torus fusion experimental facility located in the UK announced that they had generated “the highest sustained energy pulse ever created by fusing together atoms, more than doubling their own record from experiments performed in 1997,” as Nature described it. In addition, an AI system owned by Google-back Deep Mind has just "learned" how to control a magnetic field in a tomak fusion reactor — and it could help could pave the way for new reactor designs. How significant are these developments?
JET’s breakthrough is significant for two reasons, even though it only produced 0.3 units of energy out for every unit of energy put in. First, it takes fusion a step closer to industrial scale: the power output was equivalent to 4 wind turbines and the energy from reactions, although modest, was a world record for controlled fusion. Second, it ran for five seconds — now, I realise this doesn’t seem very impressive. But five seconds is a long time in nuclear physics and, here comes the key point, the experiment didn’t stop because the hot fuel went unstable and cooled down (a problem that is common but also hard to fix); it stopped because the equipment around the reactor became too hot (a problem that is easy to fix). This experiment demonstrated stable operation at scale and means that the next generation of similar machines is likely to be able to make the leap from five seconds to five minutes, and even to continuous operation.
No, fusion is not just around the corner. But it’s slowly moving from the category of “speculative” to “promising.”
In case you’re in too good a mood
Patrick Collison asks Twitter: where are we seeing technology regress?
Unfortunately, the answer seems to be: lots of places. From nuclear to supersonic air travel to…toilets.
Seems like it would be useful if there was a moving dedicated to promoting progress.
Until next time,
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