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As if stand-alone technologies weren’t advancing fast enough, we’re in age where we must study the intersection points of these technologies. How is what’s happening in robotics influenced by what’s happening in 3D printing? What could be made possible by applying the latest advances in quantum computing to nanotechnology?
Along these lines, one crucial tech intersection is that of artificial intelligence and genomics. Each field is seeing constant progress, but Jamie Metzl believes it’s their convergence that will really push us into uncharted territory, beyond even what we’ve imagined in science fiction. “There’s going to be this push and pull, this competition between the reality of our biology with its built-in limitations and the scope of our aspirations,” he said.
Metzl is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and author of the upcoming book Hacking Darwin: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Humanity. At Singularity University’s Exponential Medicine conference last week, he shared his insights on genomics and AI, and where their convergence could take us.
Life As We Know It
Metzl explained how genomics as a field evolved slowly—and then quickly. In 1953, James Watson and Francis Crick identified the double helix structure of DNA, and realized that the order of the base pairs held a treasure trove of genetic information. There was such a thing as a book of life, and we’d found it.
In 2003, when the Human Genome Project was completed (after 13 years and $2.7 billion), we learned the order of the genome’s 3 billion base pairs, and the location of specific genes on our chromosomes. Not only did a book of life exist, we figured out how to read it.
Jamie Metzl at Exponential Medicine
Fifteen years after that, it’s 2018 and precision gene editing in plants, animals, and humans is changing everything, and quickly pushing us into an entirely new frontier. Forget reading the book of life—we’re now learning how to write it.
“Readable, writable, and hackable, what’s clear is that human beings are recognizing that we are another form of information technology, and just like our IT has entered this exponential curve of discovery, we will have that with ourselves,” Metzl said. “And it’s intersecting with the AI revolution.”
Learning About Life Meets Machine Learning
In 2016, DeepMind’s AlphaGo program outsmarted the world’s top Go player. In 2017 AlphaGo Zero was created: unlike AlphaGo, AlphaGo Zero wasn’t trained using previous human games of Go, but was simply given the rules of Go—and in four days it defeated the AlphaGo program.
Our own biology is, of course, vastly more complex than the game of Go, and that, Metzl said, is our starting point. “The system of our own biology that we are trying to understand is massively, but very importantly not infinitely, complex,” he added.
Getting a standardized set of rules for our biology—and, eventually, maybe even outsmarting our biology—will require genomic data. Lots of it.
Multiple countries already starting to produce this data. The UK’s National Health Service recently announced a plan to sequence the genomes of five million Britons over the next five years. In the US the All of Us Research Program will sequence a million Americans. China is the most aggressive in sequencing its population, with a goal of sequencing half of all newborns by 2020.
“We’re going to get these massive pools of sequenced genomic data,” Metzl said. “The real gold will come from comparing people’s sequenced genomes to their electronic health records, and ultimately their life records.” Getting people comfortable with allowing open access to their data will be another matter; Metzl mentioned that Luna DNA and others have strategies to help people get comfortable with giving consent to their private information. But this is where China’s lack of privacy protection could end up being a significant advantage.
To compare genotypes and phenotypes at scale—first millions, then hundreds of millions, then eventually billions, Metzl said—we’re going to need AI and big data analytic tools, and algorithms far beyond what we have now. These tools will let us move from precision medicine to predictive medicine, knowing precisely when and where different diseases are going to occur and shutting them down before they start.
But, Metzl said, “As we unlock the genetics of ourselves, it’s not going to be about just healthcare. It’s ultimately going to be about who and what we are as humans. It’s going to be about identity.”
Designer Babies, and Their Babies
In Metzl’s mind, the most serious application of our genomic knowledge will be in embryo selection.
Currently, in-vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures can extract around 15 eggs, fertilize them, then do pre-implantation genetic testing; right now what’s knowable is single-gene mutation diseases and simple traits like hair color and eye color. As we get to the millions and then billions of people with sequences, we’ll have information about how these genetics work, and we’re going to be able to make much more informed choices,” Metzl said.
Imagine going to a fertility clinic in 2023. You give a skin graft or a blood sample, and using in-vitro gametogenesis (IVG)—infertility be damned—your skin or blood cells are induced to become eggs or sperm, which are then combined to create embryos. The dozens or hundreds of embryos created from artificial gametes each have a few cells extracted from them, and these cells are sequenced. The sequences will tell you the likelihood of specific traits and disease states were that embryo to be implanted and taken to full term. “With really anything that has a genetic foundation, we’ll be able to predict with increasing levels of accuracy how that potential child will be realized as a human being,” Metzl said.
This, he added, could lead to some wild and frightening possibilities: if you have 1,000 eggs and you pick one based on its optimal genetic sequence, you could then mate your embryo with somebody else who has done the same thing in a different genetic line. “Your five-day-old embryo and their five-day-old embryo could have a child using the same IVG process,” Metzl said. “Then that child could have a child with another five-day-old embryo from another genetic line, and you could go on and on down the line.”
Sounds insane, right? But wait, there’s more: as Jason Pontin reported earlier this year in Wired, “Gene-editing technologies such as Crispr-Cas9 would make it relatively easy to repair, add, or remove genes during the IVG process, eliminating diseases or conferring advantages that would ripple through a child’s genome. This all may sound like science fiction, but to those following the research, the combination of IVG and gene editing appears highly likely, if not inevitable.”
From Crazy to Commonplace?
It’s a slippery slope from gene editing and embryo-mating to a dystopian race to build the most perfect humans possible. If somebody’s investing so much time and energy in selecting their embryo, Metzl asked, how will they think about the mating choices of their children? IVG could quickly leave the realm of healthcare and enter that of evolution.
“We all need to be part of an inclusive, integrated, global dialogue on the future of our species,” Metzl said. “Healthcare professionals are essential nodes in this.” Not least among this dialogue should be the question of access to tech like IVG; are there steps we can take to keep it from becoming a tool for a wealthy minority, and thereby perpetuating inequality and further polarizing societies?
As Pontin points out, at its inception 40 years ago IVF also sparked fear, confusion, and resistance—and now it’s as normal and common as could be, with millions of healthy babies conceived using the technology.
The disruption that genomics, AI, and IVG will bring to reproduction could follow a similar story cycle—if we’re smart about it. As Metzl put it, “This must be regulated, because it is life.”
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From a first-principles perspective, the task of feeding eight billion people boils down to converting energy from the sun into chemical energy in our bodies.
Traditionally, solar energy is converted by photosynthesis into carbohydrates in plants (i.e., biomass), which are either eaten by the vegans amongst us, or fed to animals, for those with a carnivorous preference.
Today, the process of feeding humanity is extremely inefficient.
If we could radically reinvent what we eat, and how we create that food, what might you imagine that “future of food” would look like?
In this post we’ll cover:
CRISPR engineered foods
The alt-protein revolution
Let’s dive in.
Where we grow our food…
The average American meal travels over 1,500 miles from farm to table. Wine from France, beef from Texas, potatoes from Idaho.
Imagine instead growing all of your food in a 50-story tall vertical farm in downtown LA or off-shore on the Great Lakes where the travel distance is no longer 1,500 miles but 50 miles.
Delocalized farming will minimize travel costs at the same time that it maximizes freshness.
Perhaps more importantly, vertical farming also allows tomorrow’s farmer the ability to control the exact conditions of her plants year round.
Rather than allowing the vagaries of the weather and soil conditions to dictate crop quality and yield, we can now perfectly control the growing cycle.
LED lighting provides the crops with the maximum amount of light, at the perfect frequency, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
At the same time, sensors and robots provide the root system the exact pH and micronutrients required, while fine-tuning the temperature of the farm.
Such precision farming can generate yields that are 200% to 400% above normal.
Next let’s explore how we can precision-engineer the genetic properties of the plant itself.
CRISPR and Genetically Engineered Foods
What food do we grow?
A fundamental shift is occurring in our relationship with agriculture. We are going from evolution by natural selection (Darwinism) to evolution by human direction.
CRISPR (the cutting edge gene editing tool) is providing a pathway for plant breeding that is more predictable, faster and less expensive than traditional breeding methods.
Rather than our crops being subject to nature’s random, environmental whim, CRISPR unlocks our capability to modify our crops to match the available environment.
Further, using CRISPR we will be able to optimize the nutrient density of our crops, enhancing their value and volume.
CRISPR may also hold the key to eliminating common allergens from crops. As we identify the allergen gene in peanuts, for instance, we can use CRISPR to silence that gene, making the crops we raise safer for and more accessible to a rapidly growing population.
Yet another application is our ability to make plants resistant to infection or more resistant to drought or cold.
Helping to accelerate the impact of CRISPR, the USDA recently announced that genetically engineered crops will not be regulated—providing an opening for entrepreneurs to capitalize on the opportunities for optimization CRISPR enables.
CRISPR applications in agriculture are an opportunity to help a billion people and become a billionaire in the process.
Protecting crops against volatile environments, combating crop diseases and increasing nutrient values, CRISPR is a promising tool to help feed the world’s rising population.
The Alt-Protein/Lab-Grown Meat Revolution
Something like a third of the Earth’s arable land is used for raising livestock—a massive amount of land—and global demand for meat is predicted to double in the coming decade.
Today, we must grow an entire cow—all bones, skin, and internals included—to produce a steak.
Imagine if we could instead start with a single muscle stem cell and only grow the steak, without needing the rest of the cow? Think of it as cellular agriculture.
Imagine returning millions, perhaps billions, of acres of grazing land back to the wilderness? This is the promise of lab-grown meats.
Lab-grown meat can also be engineered (using technology like CRISPR) to be packed with nutrients and be the healthiest, most delicious protein possible.
We’re watching this technology develop in real time. Several startups across the globe are already working to bring artificial meats to the food industry.
JUST, Inc. (previously Hampton Creek) run by my friend Josh Tetrick, has been on a mission to build a food system where everyone can get and afford delicious, nutritious food. They started by exploring 300,000+ species of plants all around the world to see how they can make food better and now are investing heavily in stem-cell-grown meats.
Backed by Richard Branson and Bill Gates, Memphis Meats is working on ways to produce real meat from animal cells, rather than whole animals. So far, they have produced beef, chicken, and duck using cultured cells from living animals.
As with vertical farming, transitioning production of our majority protein source to a carefully cultivated environment allows for agriculture to optimize inputs (water, soil, energy, land footprint), nutrients and, importantly, taste.
Vertical farming and cellular agriculture are reinventing how we think about our food supply chain and what food we produce.
The next question to answer is who will be producing the food?
Let’s look back at how farming evolved through history.
Farmers 0.0 (Neolithic Revolution, around 9000 BCE): The hunter-gatherer to agriculture transition gains momentum, and humans cultivated the ability to domesticate plants for food production.
Farmers 1.0 (until around the 19th century): Farmers spent all day in the field performing backbreaking labor, and agriculture accounted for most jobs.
Farmers 2.0 (mid-20th century, Green Revolution): From the invention of the first farm tractor in 1812 through today, transformative mechanical biochemical technologies (fertilizer) boosted yields and made the job of farming easier, driving the US farm job rate down to less than two percent today.
Farmers 3.0: In the near future, farmers will leverage exponential technologies (e.g., AI, networks, sensors, robotics, drones), CRISPR and genetic engineering, and new business models to solve the world’s greatest food challenges and efficiently feed the eight-billion-plus people on Earth.
An important driver of the Farmer 3.0 evolution is the delocalization of agriculture driven by vertical and urban farms. Vertical farms and urban agriculture are empowering a new breed of agriculture entrepreneurs.
Let’s take a look at an innovative incubator in Brooklyn, New York called Square Roots.
Ten farm-in-a-shipping-containers in a Brooklyn parking lot represent the first Square Roots campus. Each 8-foot x 8.5-foot x 20-foot shipping container contains an equivalent of 2 acres of produce and can yield more than 50 pounds of produce each week.
For 13 months, one cohort of next-generation food entrepreneurs takes part in a curriculum with foundations in farming, business, community and leadership.
The urban farming incubator raised a $5.4 million seed funding round in August 2017.
Training a new breed of entrepreneurs to apply exponential technology to growing food is essential to the future of farming.
One of our massive transformative purposes at the Abundance Group is to empower entrepreneurs to generate extraordinary wealth while creating a world of abundance. Vertical farms and cellular agriculture are key elements enabling the next generation of food and agriculture entrepreneurs.
Technology is driving food abundance.
We’re already seeing food become demonetized, as the graph below shows.
From 1960 to 2014, the percent of income spent on food in the U.S. fell from 19 percent to under 10 percent of total disposable income—a dramatic decrease over the 40 percent of household income spent on food in 1900.
The dropping percent of per-capita disposable income spent on food. Source: USDA, Economic Research Service, Food Expenditure Series
Ultimately, technology has enabled a massive variety of food at a significantly reduced cost and with fewer resources used for production.
We’re increasingly going to optimize and fortify the food supply chain to achieve more reliable, predictable, and nutritious ways to obtain basic sustenance.
And that means a world with abundant, nutritious, and inexpensive food for every man, woman, and child.
What an extraordinary time to be alive.
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The key difference between science fiction and fantasy is that science fiction is entirely possible because of its grounding in scientific facts, while fantasy is not. This is where Black Mirror is both an entertaining and terrifying work of science fiction. Created by Charlie Brooker, the anthological series tells cautionary tales of emerging technology that could one day be an integral part of our everyday lives.
While watching the often alarming episodes, one can’t help but recognize the eerie similarities to some of the tech tools that are already abundant in our lives today. In fact, many previous Black Mirror predictions are already becoming reality.
The latest season of Black Mirror was arguably darker than ever. This time, Brooker seemed to focus on the ethical implications of one particular area: neurotechnology.
Warning: The remainder of this article may contain spoilers from Season 4 of Black Mirror.
Most of the storylines from season four revolve around neurotechnology and brain-machine interfaces. They are based in a world where people have the power to upload their consciousness onto machines, have fully immersive experiences in virtual reality, merge their minds with other minds, record others’ memories, and even track what others are thinking, feeling, and doing.
How can all this ever be possible? Well, these capabilities are already being developed by pioneers and researchers globally. Early last year, Elon Musk unveiled Neuralink, a company whose goal is to merge the human mind with AI through a neural lace. We’ve already connected two brains via the internet, allowing one brain to communicate with another. Various research teams have been able to develop mechanisms for “reading minds” or reconstructing memories of individuals via devices. The list goes on.
With many of the technologies we see in Black Mirror it’s not a question of if, but when. Futurist Ray Kurzweil has predicted that by the 2030s we will be able to upload our consciousness onto the cloud via nanobots that will “provide full-immersion virtual reality from within the nervous system, provide direct brain-to-brain communication over the internet, and otherwise greatly expand human intelligence.” While other experts continue to challenge Kurzweil on the exact year we’ll accomplish this feat, with the current exponential growth of our technological capabilities, we’re on track to get there eventually.
As always, technology is only half the conversation. Equally fascinating are the many ethical and moral questions this topic raises.
For instance, with the increasing convergence of artificial intelligence and virtual reality, we have to ask ourselves if our morality from the physical world transfers equally into the virtual world. The first episode of season four, USS Calister, tells the story of a VR pioneer, Robert Daley, who creates breakthrough AI and VR to satisfy his personal frustrations and sexual urges. He uses the DNA of his coworkers (and their children) to re-create them digitally in his virtual world, to which he escapes to torture them, while they continue to be indifferent in the “real” world.
Audiences are left asking themselves: should what happens in the digital world be considered any less “real” than the physical world? How do we know if the individuals in the virtual world (who are ultimately based on algorithms) have true feelings or sentiments? Have they been developed to exhibit characteristics associated with suffering, or can they really feel suffering? Fascinatingly, these questions point to the hard problem of consciousness—the question of if, why, and how a given physical process generates the specific experience it does—which remains a major mystery in neuroscience.
Towards the end of USS Calister, the hostages of Daley’s virtual world attempt to escape through suicide, by committing an act that will delete the code that allows them to exist. This raises yet another mind-boggling ethical question: if we “delete” code that signifies a digital being, should that be considered murder (or suicide, in this case)? Why shouldn’t it? When we murder someone we are, in essence, taking away their capacity to live and to be, without their consent. By unplugging a self-aware AI, wouldn’t we be violating its basic right to live in the same why? Does AI, as code, even have rights?
Brain implants can also have a radical impact on our self-identity and how we define the word “I”. In the episode Black Museum, instead of witnessing just one horror, we get a series of scares in little segments. One of those segments tells the story of a father who attempts to reincarnate the mother of his child by uploading her consciousness into his mind and allowing her to live in his head (essentially giving him multiple personality disorder). In this way, she can experience special moments with their son.
With “no privacy for him, and no agency for her” the good intention slowly goes very wrong. This story raises a critical question: should we be allowed to upload consciousness into limited bodies? Even more, if we are to upload our minds into “the cloud,” at what point do we lose our individuality to become one collective being?
These questions can form the basis of hours of debate, but we’re just getting started. There are no right or wrong answers with many of these moral dilemmas, but we need to start having such discussions.
The Downside of Dystopian Sci-Fi
Like last season’s San Junipero, one episode of the series, Hang the DJ, had an uplifting ending. Yet the overwhelming majority of the stories in Black Mirror continue to focus on the darkest side of human nature, feeding into the pre-existing paranoia of the general public. There is certainly some value in this; it’s important to be aware of the dangers of technology. After all, what better way to explore these dangers before they occur than through speculative fiction?
A big takeaway from every tale told in the series is that the greatest threat to humanity does not come from technology, but from ourselves. Technology itself is not inherently good or evil; it all comes down to how we choose to use it as a society. So for those of you who are techno-paranoid, beware, for it’s not the technology you should fear, but the humans who get their hands on it.
While we can paint negative visions for the future, though, it is also important to paint positive ones. The kind of visions we set for ourselves have the power to inspire and motivate generations. Many people are inherently pessimistic when thinking about the future, and that pessimism in turn can shape their contributions to humanity.
While utopia may not exist, the future of our species could and should be one of solving global challenges, abundance, prosperity, liberation, and cosmic transcendence. Now that would be a thrilling episode to watch.
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