The enhanced human: Risks and opportunities



George Church

... equitable access, that everyone benefits, that there's sufficient access because inequal access causes unrest. They do not consider very very long-term of new technologies. They do not consider cultural conflicts that might arise, conflicts that occur with our accepted way of life or religion. And you don't pay attention to the commerical effects in terms of fads or marketing. Just accepting something is not necessarily in our best interest, such as 32 oz sugary drink which has had an interesting history in this city.

Nevertheless, we accept that radical enhancements on a relatively routine basis without recognizing it. I think we draw too much of a distinction between DNA and cultural inheritance. They are both inherited surely by our children. You can say, that's not my DNA. Or you can say, I have a cell phone and s odoes my daughter and my daughter's daughter and that's surely inherited perhaps more surely than your DNA. I think we need to consider and broaden our scope.

One of the examples of enhancements- or the one that we worry about- what are we really worried about? People paint this scary nightmarish scenario of people having blond hair and blue eyes as if that's really threatening our society. But what we have, in practice, most of the things ythat are enhnacements ythat are inherited are physics and chemistry and not genetics. We'll have super athletes that will be able to run at 60 mph but actually we have cars, jets and rockets that already do that. We can see the entire spectrum from radio waves to gamma rays and everything in between we're not limited to red through blue anymore. That's not genetic, and it doesn't need to be. We don't get a huge advantage from that.

When we talk about some of the exceptional people in the world, naturally enhanced individuals like Hellen Keller and Stephen Hawking come to mind. Hellen Keller could not hear or see and yet she was a remarkable individyual and inspired my wife to go to college. Stephen Hawking inspired me- I will retire when I can move fewer muscles in my body than Stephen could. So what are we actually concerned about? I think we are mainly concerned about inequitable distribution. It's okay for us to be enhanced compared to our ancestors. For example, we don't have to care about smallpox, and it was equitably distributed throughout the entire planet, and we don't even have to do vaccines anymore. We don't need healthcare workers to find every village and find all smallpox everywhere--- we're still doing that with polio actually, it's spreading around the world again and we're going to get rid of it again just like with smallpox it didn't get killed the first one. So we can make these extinct. This is an enhancement compared to our ancestors, but it's not an enhnacement that differentiates humans alive today.

Often in enhancement we convolute it and we mix it up with germline genetic enhancement. There's not 1-to-1 relationship. It could be inherited, my daughter could get the same enhancement I get as an adult, and her daughter could get it as an adult. And to me that's more scary because if I want to engineer sperm or other germ cells, it takes 20 years to debug that, another 20 years for it to go viral and for everyone to use it even if it's a big fad. But if we come up with an adult enhancemen,t it could spread as fast as the internet and everyone will say here's $5 please enhance my brain. Let's not too be concerned about germline. Cultural evolution and spread is so much faster and so much more possibly less expensive for adults.

So how do we-- what happens? What is the slippery slope? I think one of the possibilities that we can't do in machines necessarily already, and I mentioned machines is how we get enhancement right now, is cognitive and aging. I briefly mentioned aging as well. I think that the way that we might get cognitive enhancement-- a lot of these things are we aim for being a new normal or just normal, and we overshoot. We look into fixing a disease, and we overshoot slightly. Someone has muscular dystrophy and the physician says I could give you the same muscles as your brother, but why not I aim higher so that if I fall short I still hit the average. It's easy to overshoot. If you consider cognitive decline a disease, which I think many people do- it's one of the most heartwrenching things to see your loved ones lose their ability to recognize you and care for themselves-- that we might overshoot slightly or provide something that prevents cognitive decline or when used off-label by younger people might cause cognitive enhancement.

Another example is organ transplants. My lab works on almost everything I'm talking about here today. We recently had some breakthroughs in organ transplants. If you are going to transplant an organ, then you might want that organ to be better than average. We're transplanting from pigs into humans. So you might want that organ to not get cancer when you transplant it. If you're dying, if you're having trouble with some pathogen like hepatitis virus, you don't want to bring in a fresh liver and get hepatitis again. You might want that organ to be resistant to viruses or senescence. Pig organs naturally die a bit faster, you might want them to die slower. You might want them to be resistant to freezing so that you can cryo-preserve the organs and have them readily available.

You might alternatives to anesthesia-- or to the kind of drugs that are reducing pain but also addictive. There are humans that actually have chronic insensitivity to pain. This is a genetic problem they have. But imagine you could turn that on and off, wouldn't that be great? You could take organs out of your freezer and put them in yourself without anesthesia since you are pathogen resistant. I think I will finish and give my remaining 18 seconds to Jake.


Thanks, George.

I will use the 18 seconds wisely. I'm thrilled to be here with all of you and 3 wonderful organizations. George said he takes science fiction and turn it into science fact. As a science fiction writer, I look at research that George and others are doing, and I ask myself, what are the implications of these technologies as we move into the future? My new book is a non-fiction book. In my book tours for scifi books, I was spending 90% of my time explaining the real science to people. Their eyes were so big and wide, and at the end I would say I wrote some scifi books and they are available in the lobby. At the moment, what feels like science fiction, is already real. It's becoming real at a much faster rate than our limited brains are prepared to internalize. The reason is that when we think backwards in time, we thin kabout 10 years ago, we remember the world in 2008 compared to 2018, and that's one ten year unit of change. But because these technologies influence each other and the information tech revolution inspires the biotech revolution which folds together and the speed of change is on an exponential curve. That one-x unit of change back 10 years, that could be the next 5 years, and then we could have the same amount in the next 2 years after that, and the next 6 months after that. The world is going to change at a much faster rate than what we're used to.

One of the ways I like to help people thin kabout where we're going, if we had a time machine and traveled 1000 years into the past, kidnapped a baby, and placed that child with a family, and that child would grow up and be indistinguishable from the rest of us. If we brought a baby back from 1000 years in the future, and brought it back to today, that baby would be a superhuman by today's standards- they would live longer, they would have immunity to viruses, they might have capabilities that now animals now, and they might have new capabilities created from biobricks or created from synthetic biology components that we have yet to invent. How do we get from here to there?

As a scifi author, it would be easy for me to say we're going to have a magical machine that is going t odo it for us. But really all the tech that we will need or would need to fundamentally transform our species, already exists. That's the incredible time that we're living in, because when Watson and Crick and Rosalind Franklin and Wilkins identified the double helix structure of DNA, what they were essentially doing was saying that the code of life has a structure which is the double helix. Sequencing the genome, as Church and others did, culiminating in 2003 with the hunman genome project, was figuring out the first steps in how to read the code of life. Now with gene editing tools, we're at the phase of being able to write the code of life. When we think about tech that is readable, writable and hackable, we think about information technology.

The primary insight of where we're going is not only will our IT tools empower our genetics revolution...

Josephine Johnston