Tag Archives: CrisprCas9

Corporate Sci-Fi.

Note: Also published on LinkedIn

 

Why your company needs to play in the future.

As a professor of design and a design fiction researcher, I write academic papers and blog weekly about the future. I teach about the future of design, and I create future scenarios, sometimes with my students, that provoke us to look at what we are doing, what we are making, why we are making it and the ramifications that are inevitable. Primarily I try to focus both designers and decision makers on the steps they can take today to keep from being blindsided tomorrow. Futurists seem to be all the rage these days telling us to prepare for the Singularity, autonomous everything, or that robots will take our jobs. Recently, Jennifer Doudna, co-inventor of the gene editing technique called CrisprCas9 has been making the rounds and sounding the alarm that technology is moving so fast that we aren’t going to be able to contain a host of unforeseen (and foreseen) circumstances inside Pandora’s box. This concern should be prevalent, however, beyond just the bioengineering fields and extend into virtually anywhere that technology is racing forward fueled by venture capital and the desperate need to stay on top of whatever space in which we are playing. There is a lot at stake. Technology has already redefined privacy, behavioral wellness, personal autonomy, healthcare, labor, and maybe even our humanness, just to name a few.

Several recent articles have highlighted the changing world of design and how the pressure is on designers to make user adoption more like user addiction to ensure the success of a product or app. The world of behavioral economics is becoming a new arena in which we are using algorithms to manipulate users. Some designers are passing the buck to the clients or corporations that employ them for the questionable ethics of addictive products; others feel compelled to step aside and work on less lucrative projects or apply their skills to social causes. Most really care and want to help. But designers are uniquely positioned and trained to tackle these wicked problems—if we would collaborate with them.

Beyond the companies that might be deliberately trying to manipulate us, are those that unknowingly, or at least unintentionally, transform our behaviors in ways that are potentially harmful. Traditionally, we seek to hold someone responsible when a product or service is faulty, the physician for malpractice, the designer or manufacturer when a toy causes injury, a garment falls apart, or an appliance self-destructs. But as we move toward systemic designs that are less physical and more emotional, behavioral, or biological, design faults may not be so easy to identify and their repercussions noticeable only after serious issues have arisen. In fact, we launch many of the apps and operating systems used today with admitted errors and bugs. Designers rely on real-life testing to identify problems, issue patches, revisions, and versions.

In the realm of nanotechnology, while scientists and thought leaders have proposed guidelines and best-practices, research and development teams in labs around the world race forward without regulation creating molecule-sized structures, machines, and substances with no idea whether they are safe or what might be long-term effects of exposure to these elements. In biotechnology, while folks like Jennifer Doudna appeal to a morally ethical cadre of researchers to tread carefully in the realm of genetic engineering (especially when it comes to inheritable gene manipulation) we do not universally share those morals and ethics. Recent headlines attest to the fact that some scientists are bent on moving forward regardless of the implications.

Some technologies such as our smartphones have become equally invasive technology, yet they are now considered mundane. In just ten years since the introduction of the iPhone, we have transformed behaviors, upended our modes of communication, redefined privacy, distracted our attentions, distorted reality and manipulated a predicted 2.3 billion users as of 2017. [1] It is worth contemplating that this disruption is not from a faulty product, but rather one that can only be considered wildly successful.

There are a plethora of additional technologies that are poised to refine our worlds yet again including artificial intelligence, ubiquitous surveillance, human augmentation, robotics, virtual, augmented and mixed reality and the pervasive Internet of Things. Many of these technologies make their way into our experiences through the promise of better living, medical breakthroughs, or a safer and more secure life. But too often we ignore the potential downsides, the unintended consequences, or the systemic ripple-effects that these technologies spawn. Why?

In many cases, we do not want to stand in the way of progress. In others, we believe that the benefits outweigh the disadvantages, yet this is the same thinking that has spawned some of our most complex and daunting systems, from nuclear weapons to air travel and the internal combustion engine. Each of these began with the best of intentions and, in many ways were as successful and initially beneficial as they could be. At the same time, they advanced and proliferated far more rapidly than we were prepared to accommodate. Dirty bombs are a reality we did not expect. The alluring efficiency with which we can fly from one city to another has nevertheless spawned a gnarly network of air traffic, baggage logistics, and anti-terrorism measures that are arguably more elaborate than getting an aircraft off the ground. Traffic, freeways, infrastructure, safety, and the drain on natural resources are complexities never imagined with the revolution of personal transportation. We didn’t see the entailments of success.

This is not always true. There have often been scientists and thought leaders who were waving the yellow flag of caution. I have written about how, “back in 1975, scientists and researchers got together at Asilomar because they saw the handwriting on the wall. They drew up a set of resolutions to make sure that one day the promise of Bioengineering (still a glimmer in their eyes) would not get out of hand.”[2] Indeed, researchers like Jennifer Doudna continue to carry the banner. A similar conference took place earlier this year to alert us to the potential dangers of technology and earlier this year another to put forth recommendations and guidelines to ensure that when machines are smarter than we are they carry on in a beneficent role. Too often, however, it is the scientists and visionaries who attend these conferences. [3] Noticeably absent, though not always, is corporate leadership.

Nevertheless, in this country, there remains no safeguarding regulation for nanotech, nor bioengineering, nor AI research. It is a free-for-all, and all of which could have massive disruption not only to our lifestyles but also our culture, our behavior, and our humanness. Who is responsible?

For nearly 40 years there has been an environmental movement that has spread globally. Good stewardship is a good idea. But it wasn’t until most corporations saw a way for it to make economic sense that they began to focus on it and then promote it as their contribution to society, their responsibility, and their civic duty. As well intentioned as they may be (and many are) much more are not paying attention to the effect of their technological achievements on our human condition.

We design most technologies with a combination of perceived user need and commercial potential. In many cases, these are coupled with more altruistic motivations such as a “do no harm” commitment to the environment and fair labor practices. As we move toward the capability to change ourselves in fundamental ways, are we also giving significant thought to the behaviors that we will engender by such innovations, or the resulting implications for society, culture, and the interconnectedness of everything?

Enter Humane Technology

Ultimately we will have to demand this level of thought, beginning with ourselves. But we should not fight this alone. Corporations concerned with appearing sensitive and proactive toward the environment and social justice need to add a new pillar to their edifice as responsible global citizens: humane technology.

Humane technology considers the socio-behavioral ramifications of products and services: digital dependencies, and addictions, job loss, genetic repercussions, the human impact from nanotechnologies, AI, and the Internet of Things.

To whom do we turn when a 14-year-old becomes addicted to her smartphone or obsessed with her social media popularity? We could condemn the parents for lack of supervision, but many of them are equally distracted. Who is responsible for the misuse of a drone to vandalize property or fire a gun or the anticipated 1 billion drones flying around by 2030? [4] Who will answer for the repercussions of artificial intelligence that spouts hate speech? Where will the buck stop when genetic profiling becomes a requirement for getting insured or getting a job?

While the backlash against these types of unintended consequences or unforeseen circumstances are not yet widespread and citizens have not taken to the streets in mass protests, behavioral and social changes like these may be imminent as a result of dozens of transformational technologies currently under development in labs and R&D departments across the globe. Who is looking at the unforeseen or the unintended? Who is paying attention and who is turning a blind eye?

It was possible to have anticipated texting and driving. It is possible to anticipate a host of horrific side effects from nanotechnology to both humans and the environment. It’s possible to tag the ever-present bad actor to any number of new technologies. It is possible to identify when the race to master artificial intelligence may be coming at the expense of making it safe or drawing the line. In fact, it is a marketing opportunity for corporate interests to take the lead and the leverage their efforts to preempt adverse side effects as a distinctive advantage.

Emphasizing humane technology is an automatic benefit for an ethical company, and for those more concerned with profit than ethics, (just between you and me) it offers the opportunity for a better brand image and (at least) the appearance of social concern. Whatever the motivation, we are looking at a future where we are either prepared for what happens next, or we are caught napping.

This responsibility should start with anticipatory methodologies that examine the social, cultural and behavioral ramifications, and unintended consequences of what we create. Designers and those trained in design research are excellent collaborators. My brand of design fiction is intended to take us into the future in an immersive and visceral way to provoke the necessary discussion and debate that anticipate the storm should there be one, but promising utopia is rarely the tinder to fuel a provocation. Design fiction embraces the art critical thinking and thought problems as a means of anticipating conflict and complexity before these become problems to be solved.

Ultimately we have to depart from the idea that technology will be the magic pill to solve the ills of humanity, design fiction, and other anticipatory methodologies can help to acknowledge our humanness and our propensity to foul things up. If we do not self-regulate, regulation will inevitably follow, probably spurred on by some unspeakable tragedy. There is an opportunity, now for the corporation to step up to the future with a responsible, thoughtful compassion for our humanity.

 

 

1. https://www.statista.com/statistics/330695/number-of-smartphone-users-worldwide/

2. http://theenvisionist.com/2017/08/04/now-2/

3. http://theenvisionist.com/2017/03/24/genius-panel-concerned/

4. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-31/world-of-drones-congress-brisbane-futurist-thomas-frey/8859008

Bookmark and Share

On utopia and dystopia. Part 1.

A couple of interesting articles cropped up in that past week or so coming out of the WIRED Business Conference. The first was an interview with Jennifer Doudna, a pioneer of Crispr/Cas9 the gene editing technique that makes editing DNA nearly as simple as splicing a movie together. That is if you’re a geneticist. According to the interview, most of this technology is at use in crop design, for things like longer lasting potatoes or wheat that doesn’t mildew. But Doudna knows that this is a potential Pandora’s Box.

“In 2015, Doudna was part of a broad coalition of leading biologists who agreed to a worldwide moratorium on gene editing to the “germ line,” which is to say, edits that get passed along to subsequent generations. But it’s legally non-binding, and scientists in China have already begun experiments that involve editing the genome of human embryos.”

Crispr May Cure All Genetic Disease—One Day

Super-babies are just one of the potential ways to misuse Crispr. I blogged a longer and more diabolical list a couple of years ago.

Meddling with the primal forces of nature.

In Doudna’s recent interview, though she focused on the more positive effects on farming, things like rice and tomatoes.

You may not immediately see the connection, but there was a related story from the same conference where WIRED interviewed Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy co-creators of the HBO series Westworld. If you haven’t seen Westworld, I recommend it if only for Anthony Hopkins’ performance. As far as I’m concerned Anthony Hopkins could read the phone book, and I would be spellbound.

At any rate, the article quotes:

“The first season of Westworld wasted no time in going from “hey cool, robots!” to “well, that was bleak.” Death, destruction, android torture—it’s all been there from the pilot onward.”

Which pretty much sums it up. According to Nolan,
“We’re inventing cautionary tales for ourselves…”

“And Joy sees Westworld, and sci-fi in general, as an opportunity to talk about what humanity could or should do if things start to go wrong, especially now that advancements in artificial intelligence technologies are making things like androids seem far more plausible than before. “We’re leaping into the age of the unfathomable, the time when machines [can do things we can’t],”

Joy said.

Westworld’s Creators Know Why Sci-Fi Is So Dystopian

To me, this sounds familiar. It is the essence of my particular brand of design fiction. I don’t always set out to make it dystopian but if we look at the way things seem to naturally evolve, virtually every technology once envisioned as a benefit to humankind ends up with someone misusing it. To look at any potentially transformative tech and not ask, “Transform into what?” is simply irresponsible. We love to sell our ideas on their promise of curing disease, saving lives, and ending suffering, but the technologies that we are designing today have epic downsides that many technologists do not even understand. Misuse happens so often that I’ve begun to see us a reckless if we don’t anticipate these repercussions in advance. It’s the subject of a new paper that I’m working toward.

In the meantime, it’s important that we pay attention and demand that others do, too.

There’s more from the science fiction world on utopias vs. dystopias, and I’ll cover that next week.

 

 

Bookmark and Share

Invalid?

In a scene from the 2007 movie Gattaca, co-star Uma Thurman steals a follicle of hair from of love-interest Ethan Hawke and takes it to the local DNA sequencing booth (presumably they’re everywhere, like McDonald’s) to find out if Hawke’s DNA is worthy of her affections. She passes the follicle in a paper thin wrapper through a pass-through window as if she were buying a ticket for a movie. The attendant asks, “You want a full sequence?” Thurman confirms, and then waits anxiously. Meanwhile, others step up to windows to submit their samples. A woman who just kissed her boyfriend has her lips swabbed and assures the attendant that the sample is only a couple of minutes old. In about a minute, Thurman receives a plastic tube with the results rolled up inside. Behind the glass, a voice says, “Nine point three. Quite a catch!”

 

In the futuristic society depicted in the movie, humans are either “valid” or “invalid.” Though discrimination based on your genetic profile is illegal and referred to as “genoism,” it is widely known to be a distinguishing factor in employment, promotion, and finding the right soul-mate.

Enter the story of Illumina, which I discovered by way of a FastCompany article earlier this week. Illumina is a hardware/software company. One might imagine them as the folks who make the fictitious machines behind the DNA booths in a science fiction future. Except they are already making them now. The company, which few of us have ever heard of, has 5,000 employees and more than $2 billion in annual revenues. Illumina’s products are selling like hotcakes, in both the clinical and consumer spheres.

“Startups have already entered the clinical market with applications for everything from “liquid biopsy” tests to monitor late-stage cancers (an estimated $1 billion market by 2020, according to the business consulting firm Research and Markets), to non-invasive pregnancy screenings for genetic disorders like Down Syndrome ($2.4 billion by the end of 2022).”

According to FastCo,

“Illumina has captured more than 70% of the sequencing market with these machines that it sells to academics, pharmaceutical companies, biotech companies, and more.”

You and I can do this right now. Companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe will work up a profile of your DNA from a little bit of saliva and sent through the mail. In a few weeks after submitting your sample, these companies will send you a plethora of reports on your carrier status (for passing on inherited conditions), ancestry reports that track your origins, wellness reports, such as your propensity to be fat or thin, and your traits like blue eyes or a unibrow. All of this costs about $200. Considering that sequencing DNA on this scale was a pipe dream ten years ago, it’s kind of a big deal. They don’t sequence everything; that requires one of Illumina’s more sophisticated machines and costs about $3,000.

If you put this technology in the context of my last post about exponential technological growth. Then it is easy to see that the price of machines, the speed of analysis, and the cost of a report is only going to come down, and faster than we think. At this point, everything will be arriving faster than we think. Here, if only to get your attention, I ring the bell. Illumina is investing in companies that bring this technology to your smartphone. With one company, Helix, “A customer might check how quickly they metabolize caffeine via an app developed by a nutrition company. Helix will sequence the customers’ genomic data and store it centrally, but the nutrition company delivers the report back to the user.” The team from Helix, “[…]that the number of people who have been sequenced will drastically increase […]that it will be 90% of people within 20 years.” (So, probably ten years is a better guess.)

According to the article, the frontier for genomics is expanding.

“What comes next is writing DNA, and not just reading it. Gene-editing tools like CRISPR-Cas9 are making it cheaper and faster to move genes around, which has untold consequences for changing the environment and treating disease.”

CRISPR can do a lot more than that.

But, as usual, all of these developments focus on the bright side, the side that saves lives and not the uncomfortable or unforeseen. There is the potential that you DNA will determine your insurance rates, or even if you get insurance. Toying around with these realms, it is not difficult to imagine that you can “Find anyone’s DNA,” like you can find anybody’s address or phone number. Maybe we see this feature incorporated into dating sites. You won’t have to steal a hair follicle from your date; it will already be online, and if they don’t publish it, certainly people will ask, “What do you have to hide?”

And then there’s the possibility that your offspring might inherit an unfavorable trait, like that unibrow or maybe Down Syndrome. So maybe those babies will never be born, or we’ll use CRISPER to make sure the nose is straight, the eyes are green, the skin is tan, and the IQ is way up there. CRISPER gene editing and splicing will be expensive, of course. Some will be able to afford it. The rest? Well, they’ll have to find a way to love their children flaws and all. So here are my questions? Will this make us more human or less human? Will our DNA become just another way to judge each other on how smart, or thin, or good looking, or talented? Is it just another way to distinguish between the haves and have-nots?

If the apps are already in design, Uma Thurman may not have long to wait.

 

Bookmark and Share

It will happen this way… part II

Last week I discussed the future of “self”, and the proliferation of the “look at me” culture. To recap,

“Already there are signs that the ‘look at me’ culture is pervasive in society. Selfies, Sexting, a proliferation of personal photo and social media apps and, of course, the ubiquitous tattoo (the number of American’s with at least one tattoo is now at 45 million) are just a few of these indications.”

Then I posed the question, “What new ways will we find to stand out from the crowd?” In my future hypotheses, these could include:

Genetic design. With CrisprCas9, the basics such as skin and eye color will be entirely possible, and probably less volatile to ethical controversies than breeding for intelligence or battleground efficiency. The fashion angle, much like cosmetic surgery, will make the whole idea more palatable. Eventually, these color choices could be selected from the Pantone® library.

Tattoo II will likely take on a human augmentation future. Advancements in OLED technology, wafer-thin implants, and eventually nanotechnology could permit insertion or construction of a sub-dermal grid that displays full color, motion tattoos. The implant could grab imagery from a wearable app, hand-held device, or even The Cloud.

Transpeciation. Gradually, the idea of meddling with nature will become more acceptable. Society will begin to warm to the notion of more complicated DNA trickery. I don’t think it is a stretch to see people signing up for transpeciation: that would be tails, claws, fur, and the like.

Already we see parents actively engaged in choosing the sex of their child. In countries like India and China pregnancies are monitored to abort a fetus of the “wrong” sex. Today, gender selection is being performed in the lab. When genetic manipulation becomes more mainstream, new options will arise. For example, parents may want to save their child from rigors of sexual decision-making and choose a genetic intersexual child who would have both sex organs. I’m sure that designers will be able to figure out a non-sex option, too.

It all sounds fantastic or wildly speculative, but these things don’t happen overnight. Changes occur incrementally. Society will become more accustomed to departures from the norm and more accepting of things that were once taboo. History supports this. Technology just makes it weirder.

 

Bookmark and Share

“It will happen this way:”

 

One of my favorite scenes in cinema comes from Sidney Pollack’s Three Days of the Condor, loosely based on James Grady’s novel Six Days of the Condor. The film stars Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway and Max von Sydow. The movie site IMDb gives this tidy synopsis:

“A bookish CIA researcher finds all his co-workers dead, and must outwit those responsible until he figures out who he can really trust.”

The answer is probably: nobody. If you have not seen the movie, you should check it out. The premise of an all-knowing, all-powerful, intelligence agency that plays fast-and-loose with the constitution and human life is all too real even 41 years later. There is a scene near the end of the movie where the hitman Joubert (played by Sydow) tells CIA researcher Joe Turner (Redford) that he may never be safe again. The script for this film is outstanding. The character Joubert knows his profession and the people that hire him so well that he can predict the future with high confidence.

 

In many ways, that is what futurists and those in foresight studies attempt to do. Know the people, the behaviors, and the forces in play, so well, that they can make similar predictions. My variation on this, which I have written about previously, is called logical succession. I have used this technique extensively in crafting the story and events of my graphic novel The Lightstream Chronicles.

In previous blogs, I have explained why my characters have perfect bodies and why they show them off in shrink-wrapped bodysuits that leave little to the imagination. As technology moves forward, it changes us. Selfies have been around since the invention of the camera. Before that, it was called a self-portrait. But the proliferation of the selfie, the nude selfie, and sexting, for example, are by-products of the mobile phone and social media—both are offspring of technology.

With genetic editing already within reach via CrisprCas9, the notion of a body free of disease is no longer a pipe dream. Promising research into manipulating gut hormones could mean the end of obesity. According to livescience.com:

“The endocrine system is the collection of glands that produce hormones that regulate metabolism, growth and development, tissue function, sexual function, reproduction, sleep, and mood, among other things.”

No wonder medical technology is working hard to find ways to hack into the body’s endocrine system. When these technologies become available, signing up for the perfect body will undoubtedly follow. Will these technologies also change behaviors accordingly?

Psychologists point to a combination of peer pressure, the need for approval, as well as narcissism to be behind the increase in selfie-culture but will that only increase when society has nothing to hide? Will this increase the competition to show off every enhanced detail of the human body? In my future fiction, The Lightstream Chronicles, the answer is yes.

Already there are signs that the “look at me” culture is pervasive in society. Selfies, Sexting, a proliferation of personal photo and social media apps and, of course, the ubiquitous tattoo (the number of American’s with at least one tattoo is now at 45 million) are just a few of these indications.

If this scenario plays out, what new ways will we find to stand out from the crowd? I’ll continue this next week.

Bookmark and Share

Logical succession, the final installment.

For the past couple of weeks, I have been discussing the idea posited by Ray Kurzweil, that we will have linked our neocortex to the Cloud by 2030. That’s less than 15 years, so I have been asking how that could come to pass with so many technological obstacles in the way. When you make a prediction of that sort, I believe you need a bit more than faith in the exponential curve of “accelerating returns.”

This week I’m not going to take issue with an enormous leap forward in the nanobot technology to accomplish such a feat. Nor am I going to question the vastly complicated tasks of connecting to the neocortex and extracting anything coherent, but also assembling memories, and consciousness and in turn, beaming it to the Cloud. Instead, I’m going to pose the question of, “Why we would want to do this in the first place?”

According to Kurzweil, in a talk last year at Singularity University,

“We’re going to be funnier. We’re going to be sexier. We’re going to be better at expressing loving sentiment…” 1

Another brilliant futurist, and friend of Ray, Peter Diamandis includes these additional benefits:

• Brain to Brain Communication – aka Telepathy
• Instant Knowledge – download anything, complex math, how to fly a plane, or speak another language
• Access More Powerful Computing – through the Cloud
• Tap Into Any Virtual World – no visor, no controls. Your neocortex thinks you are there.
• And more, including and extended immune system, expandable and searchable memories, and “higher-order existence.”2

As Kurzweil explains,

“So as we evolve, we become closer to God. Evolution is a spiritual process. There is beauty and love and creativity and intelligence in the world — it all comes from the neocortex. So we’re going to expand the brain’s neocortex and become more godlike.”1

The future sounds quite remarkable. My issue lies with Koestler’s “ghost in the machine,” or what I call humankind’s uncanny ability to foul things up. Diamandis’ list could easily spin this way:

  • Brain-To-Brain hacking – reading others thoughts
  • Instant Knowledge – to deceive, to steal, to subvert, or hijack.
  • Access to More Powerful Computing – to gain the advantage or any of the previous list.
  • Tap Into Any Virtual World – experience the criminal, the evil, the debauched and not go to jail for it.

You get the idea. Diamandis concludes, “If this future becomes reality, connected humans are going to change everything. We need to discuss the implications in order to make the right decisions now so that we are prepared for the future.”

Nevertheless, we race forward. We discovered this week that “A British researcher has received permission to use a powerful new genome-editing technique on human embryos, even though researchers throughout the world are observing a voluntary moratorium on making changes to DNA that could be passed down to subsequent generations.”3 That would be CrisprCas9.

It was way back in 1968 that Stewart Brand introduced The Whole Earth Catalog with, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.”

Which lab is working on that?

 

1. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/ray-kurzweil-nanobots-brain-godlike_us_560555a0e4b0af3706dbe1e2
2. http://singularityhub.com/2015/10/12/ray-kurzweils-wildest-prediction-nanobots-will-plug-our-brains-into-the-web-by-the-2030s/
3. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/02/health/crispr-gene-editing-human-embryos-kathy-niakan-britain.html?_r=0
Bookmark and Share