Tag Archives: CrisprCas9

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.

 

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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“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.

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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
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