This is my second article on Brazil’s second forum on Bioeconomics, so you may wish to read the first article first – Brazil’s Second Forum on Bioeconomics. In this article I will just focus on the keynote presentation by Juan Enríquez, one of the most important global players in biotechnology research and business. In his keynote speech at the same event last year Juan focussed on how the next industrial revolution would be in terms of code, and those who understood “code” would be the financial winners.
In this keynote presentation Juan moved from revolution to evolution, evolution of a very different order to how we imagine it to be. Whereas the previous 30 years has been about mastering code written in 1s and 0s, the next revolution is going to be in “life code”:
Life code will probably become the single biggest driver of the global economy in the future.
Whereas the forum would discuss biotechnology in the present day, Juan took the opportunity to take a look at what is coming in the near future.
For this reason his first slide simply stated:
An Open Mind…
as he told us that the presentation would be “interesting, difficult and controversial” and which for those with strong beliefs, may find “a little jarring.” His objective was to present “with a great deal of respect” and so he wished that his presentation would make us think in a different way.
The opening, which lasted quite a few minutes, was designed to place modern biotechnology within a context, and this context was no less than the history of the universe, from the Big Bang around 14.7 billion years ago. Juan showed us a galaxy, and then a close up of a galaxy with columns made from dust which were something like 3 trillion miles in length. I don’t know about you, but no matter how many times I hear about the universe in numbers alone, my brain can not contain it all in a single thought, it can’t comprehend the dimensions.
Our galaxy was born around 4.6 billion years ago, around two thirds of the history of universe had occurred before our sun appeared. Following the birth of Earth a primordial soup emerged, out of which emerged organic life. As Juan continued the story, there were a number of near extinctions, at least five times, after which new forms of life emerged. But as this happened, the “life code” left behind combined in ever more complex ways. And then humans turn up:
99.96% of the entire history of the universe took place before the first hominids, never mind the first humans, showed their ugly mugs.
The first controversial aspect of Juan’s talk was that he now proposed two theories for this story. The first was that “We are the be all and end all of evolution.” But as he asked “might this just be a little arrogant?”
His second theory was more of a question: “Is an upgrade possible?” There have been at least 30 versions of humans he noted, many of which have lived concurrently. We take it for granted that there is just one human species, but we do not think in this way for other species such as birds for example.
In terms of genetic code, there is less than .004% difference between us and Neanderthals. We continue to “mutate” and so blue eyes emerged just 10,000 years ago due to the HERC2 gene. Juan therefore suggested that we may wish to ask “what might be next?”
There are now many new ethical issues we face this year, since we will now have “10,000 new genomes as human genomes are about to become really cheap”. We can now have our genomes sequenced for around $10,000 US. In two years, the cost will be around $1,000 US and the cost will keep falling.
The big issue is now “what happens if we find differences?” So far we have assumed we are all one species. As one example, Juan asked “what if we have the ACE gene?” This matters, because no one has climbed an 8,000 m peak without oxygen with it.
The second example he gave was in athletics, where “Every male Olympic power athlete tested carries at least one copy of the 577R genotype.” (In fact, Juan did note that one single Spanish athlete did not have this genotype, which led to a huge amount of testing on him.)
Here was the next question:
If this is true, what are you going to do with the Olympics?
Juan gave three options:
1) The Olympics becomes a showcase for really really hardworking mutants.
2) We will play it like sailing and golf, so those without the right genes get a head start.
3) As long as it is medically safe, we will not penalise you for having picked the wrong parents. You will be allowed to upgrade so everyone competes on an equal basis. If you do not have a 577R, put it in.
“Sports is going to become a much more interesting issue” as Juan suggested.
The forum was mainly discussing technologies such as biofuels, biochemicals, rapid gene sequencing, storage of information in bacteria. But as Juan warned, “this is already happening, growing, and moving very quickly”. There are also other things happening in which “Brazil might want to be a part of the debate.”
One of these things relates to stem cell research. In China, researchers have been able to take cells from the skin of a mouse, and by putting four chemicals on it, and turn it into an undifferentiated stem cell. (Stem cells are the first cells produced when an animal is born – all are the same, and have not yet become differentiated into say skin cells, muscle cells, blood cells etc.). What the researchers are then able to do is to grow an identical copy of that mouse. See the article Scientists Create Mice from Reprogrammed Skin Cells for more information.
This is not just for mice. It can be done with flies. It can also be done with human skin cells to make embryonic stem cells. Juan did say that this was “one of the reasons why we are not hearing about this anymore, because you can now take skin cells, stomach cells, bone cells, program new stem cells, and oh by the way, you can begin to take skin, turn it into a stem cell, and then turn it into a full organ. In essence it means that we are learning about our bodies, and how to make copies of things in our bodies. We already do this, by growing more teeth, growing new skin when we get sunburnt. We are just learning how to do this in a more advanced way.”
And then this is the interesting thing for Juan, plastic surgery:
In 2008, U.S. “Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons” carried out 10.2 million procedure. Today’s plastic surgery, corrections, deletions, augmentations, and enhancements are soon going to seem most tame. For the first time the cosmetics industry can now deliver what it has been promising for 10,000 years. We are beginning to see diagrams in the cosmetics industry that start to look an awful lot like what we have just seen in the biochem industry or in the algae industry because some of the mechanisms are similar.”
There is now therefore a “really interesting intersection between the mechanical and the human”. The next example Juan showed was cochlear ear implants.
Here is the issue we need to think about. We can take an implant and put it into the ear of a person who is deaf. Sometime in the next 5 – 6 years the hearing of someone who is deaf is going to be equal to that of a person with normal hearing. And 18 months after that paradigm, someone who has a chochlear implant will be able to hear better than we do. Maybe after that they may have perfect pitch. So “will you be hired by a symphony orchestra in 20 years if you are not surgically enhanced. The whole disabled issue will flip on us in interesting ways. Implants for the blind are 10 or fifteen years behind. Eventually they will see in ultraviolet, or infrared, or will be able to ultra focus.”
We will be able to take any cell in our body and make a photocopy of ourselves. We can’t do it safely right now. We don’t want to do it right now. We’ve done it with cats, we’ve done it with dogs, we’ve done it with cows, we’ve done it with flies, we’ve done it with a whole series of species including monkeys, and as this technology gets safe, standard and reproducible, there will be interesting questions if you want to have an identical twin who is maybe thirty or fifty years younger than you – every century.
How are you feeling on thinking about these issues. Juan was moving at quite a pace and we immediately went into neuroscientist Edward Boyden’s work on optogenetics (the realm of The Martrix).
This work is looking at how to download brain directly activity into a computer. The question Juan posed was “if you can download your memories, could you some day find a way to upload your memories directly. Or someone else’s memories. Which might just have one or two small moral and ethical implications.” When we mix this technology with the ability to reproduce ourselves, we then have the ability to create identical copies. “This might have some impact on what human beings are and how long they will live.” These technologies are probably 100 years away, or “maybe shorter”.
The very huge implication for all of this is that not only will we see a new form of human, but we are actually creating it. Juan calls this:
Homo evolutis … For better and for worse… a hominid who directly and deliberately controls the evolution of its own and of other species.
We have already been doing this in many different ways, such as “turning a wolf into a tame dog, a wild poisonous berry into many varieties of tomato, the Incas too some varieties of natural potato and engineered new potatoes before the Spanish turned up. Most corn is completely unnatural.”
As I mentioned in my first article on this forum, Juan gave us an update on more current technological business developments he is involved in, such as his work in antibiotics and Tetraphase Pharmaceuticals which has doubled in value since going public, Aileron Therapeutics which “continues to grow in very interesting ways” and Synthetic Genomics which aims to “sustainably meeting the increasing demand for critical resources”. Monsanto he announced bought 3% of one of his companies involved in biofuels.
A more recent investment Juan has made is in a cloud data company which is focusing on the storage of medical records, due to the sheer volume of information now being generated. “The average data file has 100,000 data points per patient.” And that was that, the end of Juan’s presentation.
Juan began his presentation asking us to leave it by thinking in new ways. In my prior article I talked about the question I asked during the panel session, which was about the impact that revelations about government spying by the NSA in the US and by GCHQ in the UK would impact on the dynamics of the global bioeconomics industry. You can now see why there are many dimensions to this question. Bioeconomics relates not just to organic technological developments, but to technology in all its guises. There is a huge issue of trust, not just say between Brazilian commercial businesses and the Brazilian government who have been spied upon, but also personally since all our medical data will be uploaded to the cloud, a cloud which we now know is anything but secure.
This article I hope has raised many issues for you to think about. While Juan certainly raised many moral and ethical issues, one word I did not hear any mention of was consciousness. It may be that technology is progressing, but is there also a parallel evolution in our consciousness, in the path from ego to eco-awareness? A great big elephant in the room which was not mentioned was the weaponisation of this technology, with only medical benefits being discussed, but of course this is a huge dimension which needs to be examined. Given our various governments obsessions with controlling every aspect of our lives, and knowing every single byte and bit of data we generate, who then controls who has access to the new technology? Only people who conform to the desires of the very few? These questions need to be asked.
Technology is only an arms race in a competitive world which is nasty, brutish and short when not accompanied by a transition of consciousness. It is the transition and evolution of our consciousness that I am interested in, and it will be in forums such as this organised by CNI and Harvard Business Review Brasil that this conversation can take place. Again, I would like to thank CNI, Harvard Business Review Brasil and Infinity Conferences and Events for my invitation to this quite remarkable forum. We have some talking to now do, don’t we?