Blogging live from Washington, D.C., the site of a two-day Future Tense event on “Governing a Technologically Uncertain Future.”
Here is how the organizers describe the topic of this meeting:
How does a democratic society both nurture and regulate - and find the right balance between those two imperatives - fast-evolving technologies poised to radically alter life?
Synthetic biology, with its potential to engineer and manipulate living organisms, and the Internet, which continues to alter how we live and relate to each other, offer two compelling cases in point.
Future Tense is convening at Google DC a number of leading scientists, Internet thinkers, governance experts, and science fiction writers to grapple with the challenge of governing an uncharted future.
As I look over the agenda, I can’t help but notice that out of 26 confirmed speakers, only 2 are women. This is a common problem, of course, for those of us who have been involved in organizing transhumanist and technoprogressive events; it’s very difficult to reach anything close to a balance between male and female presenters. Some people tell me I should be “gender blind” and not worry about this. But I can’t help it - it bothers me.
Anyway, it looks like we have a really interesting set of speakers here today and tomorrow, regardless of their sex.
People are coming in now, getting their coffee and bagels, and the event will get underway in 15 or 20 minutes.
Okay, our first speaker of the first day is Andrew Hessel, co-chair of bioinformatics and biotechnology at Singularity University, and the founding director of Pink Army Cooperative.
His role here is to give us an introduction to the subject of synthetic biology. He begins by saying that biology itself is an exponential technology—meaning that the rate of acceleration in technology that many tout is not limited to the so-called emerging technologies, but to older ones as well.
He gives us a brief review of the history of electronic computing and of garage inventing in the field. He’s covering Radio Shack, Dell, Apple, Cisco, and on up to Google and Facebook. Now he says that our current plethora of small electronic devices is a good analog to the world of cells, and that bacteria are actually “biological computers.” This, he says, is what synthetic biology is about, that one cell can turn into billions, overnight. What if we could design those, with purpose?
The human body is actually a network of cells, like the Internet. DNA is software. Our genome is the hard drive of living cells. We’ve learned how to read DNA code, but we’re still working on comprehending it, fully understanding what it says. And the next step beyond that is writing the code, once we’ve understood how it works. That’s what synthetic biology is aiming toward.
Hessel says that some of the most interesting stuff in the field is being done by young people, even a few in their teens, working in an open-source model. He compares this to the grassroots computer revolution of the 1970s. A big shout-out to DIYBio, the “home-brew club” of synthetic biology. Not very sophisticated yet, but growing fast, and the level of passion in this community is unmatched.
This is “Post-Darwinian Biology.” A totally new space, as big as walking on the Moon. The FBI is watching, Hollywood is watching, even the Pope is watching events in this field. It’s an exponential technology, one that will catch most people off-guard.
Next we have a four-person panel to discuss “The Promise and Perils of Synthetic Biology Today.”
Speakers are George Church, professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and director of the Center for Computational Genetics; Robert J. Sawyer, best-selling author of Flashforward, Mindscan, Factoring Humanity, and many other novels; Dan Sarewitz, associate director of the Center for Nanotechnology in Society at Arizona State University and co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes; and the panel moderator is Robert Wright, author of Nonzero, The Moral Animal, and The Evolution of God.
Wright, Sawyer, and Sarewitz are on stage. Church is on-screen, teleporting.
Church is asked by Wright, “What new things can we expect from synthetic biology in the next five, ten, or fifteen years?” Church says costs will drop rapidly, which could mean that some foods, fuels, and drugs will become much less expensive. Better access to clean water, clean transportation, faster communication. Improved agriculture and medicine too.
Now Sawyer is asked about the long view, the plausible but fantastic far-future speculations. He says that before the end of this century, essentially anything that is doable will be available to everyone, even individuals, at minimal costs, making life “utterly malleable and reconfigurable.”
Is that alarming? Sawyer recounts the Frankenstein story and admits that the scary stuff sells best, but he says that there is no point in fearing the future, because it’s going to come anyway. Wright and Sawyer briefly debate the virtues (or vices) of trying to slow down potentially dangerous science. Sawyer says if you try to limit progress in on place or country, it will happen anyway somewhere else. Wright says that is a god argument, in his opinion, for some form of global governance.
Sarewitz is asked about the value of setting up a promise-or-peril dichotomy with regard to emerging technologies. He says it is so hard to know in advance where the benefits will come from in new tech that we may not have enough wisdom to be able to decide where we should accelerate and where to hold back.
Church actually says that we need to have “active surveillance” of everyone who is working in the field of synthetic biology. Wright questions the premise of trying to oversee the work that everyone is doing. Sawyer says there has to be oversight, but how to do it is still an open question. Church says we shouldn’t restrict innovation, but we need to be aware of what everyone is doing. But he also says that until we get a better idea of what the risks and benefits are, it would be worth adding regulation on the kinds of equipment that are made available, perhaps based on some kind of licensing.
Sarewitz adds that setting up either totally utopian or totally dystopian scenarios probably is not useful, because a complex mix is actually what we’ll see. And he says that the kind of thing we are doing here today, casting a look forward and holding open debates about pros and cons is highly important.
Wright turns the conversation from regulation to encouragement. Are there areas where increased government funding could help move forward potentially beneficial research? George Church thinks governments could do more to assist in making pharmaceuticals available to the world’s poorest people. Sarewitz reminds us that in trying to apply technology to huge problems like poverty or, for another example, climate change, we have to realize that not only tech solutions are needed, but also social and economic changes. He also notes that moral debates about what is right and wrong in science make science better, because it is how improved answers are found.
Looking a little further into the future, Wright asks about the possibility—and the wisdom—of building entirely new organisms from scratch. Could we create whole new animals and/or chimeras? Sawyer says it likely will be extremely difficult for a long time, so most of what we will see is modification of existing organisms. Wright wonders about putting a piece of one animal, so to speak, into another, is feasible. Sarewitz says the complexities involved are far more than what is understood by the general public. Church says creating entirely new genomes from scratch is not that valuable, but that making just a few changes in existing genomes can have radical effects.
Now Wright asks about transhumanist bodily enhancements that science may make available within the next few years or decades. Church answers that our machines already are providing many things for us—fast travel, communication, extended ranges of sight—but that what people really will demand is longer, healthier lives and perhaps also some mental augmentations, such as better memories. Sawyer says vanity is the #1 driver of human enhancement, but he also says a major secondary driver is to slow the aging process, to let us retain much longer the vigor and sharpness of our youth.
A questioner from the audience brings up the issue of the digital divide and asks about the potential for a new biological divide between the privileged classes and the rest of humanity. All the panelists respond that, yes, it is a major concern and events like this one should help to focus the spotlight on that disconnect between the haves and the have-nots.
Our next speaker is Bruce Gottlieb, general counsel for Atlantic Media Company and former chief counsel to the chairman of the FCC. His topic is “Groping for the Online Master Switch: The Elusive Quest to Govern the Internet.”
He begins by noting the historical differences, back in the 1830s, in the number of newspapers in the United States compared to Europe. He says the US also was more aggressive than other countries in providing free public education. Then he does a quick review of copyright law and “fair use” law in the United States. This is all background for the issue of regulating Internet content.
Turning to television, he says that although cable TV content in the US is completely unregulated by the FCC, due to pressure from advertisers the large majority of cable programs subscribe to essentially the same guidelines as those required for broadcast TV.
Now he reminds us of the early government-created monopoly on the phone system—AT&T—in the United States. Moving ahead, we look at the breakup of AT&T in the 1980s, which led indirectly to the wireless telecommunications revolution and even the explosion of Internet usage.
Efforts at Internet content regulation thus far have mostly related to materials considered inappropriate for minors, i.e., explicit sex. But as we all know, it’s mostly just an honor system. Are you 18? You say you are? Okay.
On the Internet, regulations are basically reactive rather than pro-active. Content providers just go ahead and do what they want, uncertain of potential future regulations or litigation. That trend may change, though.
In our final session of the morning, Bruce Gottlieb and Andrew Hessel will discuss “Connecting the Genes and the Bytes.” The conversation is being moderated by Jacob Weisberg, chairman and editor-in-chief of Slate magazine and Slate.com.
Weisberg begins by asking a question: “In shaping the development of new technologies, how can government help, and how can government hurt?”
Gottlieb says his biggest concern is overregulation, that informed, coordinated, and wise government oversight tends not to be the norm. His attitude apparently is the reverse of Church, Sarewitz, and Sawyer from the previous panel.
Hessel also takes a “fairly libertarian” viewpoint on the development of synth bio. He believes the template of Internet development, mostly unregulated (at least in the last few years) is one we should learn from and follow. Make it more of a monitoring and responding system rather than a gated, regulated system. He says that biological life itself is constantly changing and creating new or modified organisms, and that almost all of that is either beneficial to the biosphere or, if not, it is effectively self-regulating.
Gottlieb says the more important thing for government to do is ensure a level playing field for new entries, for the “garage startups” that may be the Googles of tomorrow. Hessel agrees, saying that novices coming into synth bio are broadening the creativity of the field. He compares this, again, to the early days of personal computing and to the creative grassroots invention of new devices and systems over the last 30 years.
Weisberg asks if government investment in the most promising startups in these new fields could be helpful. Gottlieb responds that the example of the Internet, originally created by DARPA, is a rare exception and should not be thought of as the best template to follow. Better to promote and fund basic research and let technology companies develop and innovate on their own.
Hessel says no matter how much we try to anticipate what is going to happen, we just have to prepare to be surprised. His main message is to focus on education and communication instead of preemptive regulation. We also need to create, he suggests, more “play spaces” in the field for kids, along with more “play money” for young companies.
We’re taking a short break before enjoying box lunches at our seats. Lunchtime also will include another panel discussion. I’ll close this entry now and open a new one for the afternoon session.