Gregory Stock on the Uses of Future Technologies

Here is an older, short talk by Greg Stock, from 2003–How Biotech Will Drive Our Evolution–on uses of present and future biotechnologies for human betterment that has recently been posted on TED Talks.

One of the interesting things is that while Stock presents a dismissive view of past hype about future technologies–e.g., the Human Genome Project and curing all ailments–there is also much more uplifting and positive talk about the uses of technology in medicine in 5-10 years, i.e., about the period that we’re almost in the middle of now. It’s nice to have predictions whose test conditions are now in place so we can, well, see how they have fared. I guess you can decide how much difference there is between the past and the present.

A transcript follows the cut.

Gregory Stock: The future of life, where the unraveling of our biology… and bring up the lights a little bit, I don’t have any slides, I’m just going to talk… uh, but where that’s likely to carry us. And, you know, I saw all of the visions of the first couple of sessions and it almost made me feel a little bit guilty about having an uplifting talk about the future. It felt wrong to do that in some way, and yet I don’t really think it is, because when it comes down to it, it’s this larger trajectory that is really what is going to remain, what people in the future are going to remember about this period. And so I want to talk to you a little bit about why the visions of Jeremy Rifkin, who would like to ban these sorts of technologies, or of the Bill Joys, who would like to relinquish them, are actually… to follow those paths would be such a tragedy for us. And I’m focusing on biology, the biological sciences. And the reason I’m doing that is because those are going to be the areas that are the most significant to us. And the reason for that is really very simple-it’s because we’re flesh and blood! We’re biological creatures! And what we can do with our biology is going to shape our future and that of our children and that of their children. Whether we gain control over aging, whether we learn to protect ourselves from Alzheimer’s and heart disease and cancer.

And I think that Shakespeare really put it very nicely. And I’m actually going to use his words in the same order he did, uh, he said, “and so from to hour, we ripe and ripe, and then from hour to hour we rot and rot, and thereby hangs the tale.” Life is short, you know, and we need to think about playing a little bit. And we’re all going to eventually, even in the developed world, have to lose everything that we love. And when you’re beginning to rot a little bit, all of the videos crammed into your head, all of the extensions that extend your various powers, are going to begin to seem a little secondary. And, you know, I’m getting a little bit gray, so it Ray Kurtzweil, so is Eric Drexler, this is what’s really central to our lives.

And I know there’s been a whole lot of hype about our power to control biology. You just have to look at the human genome project. It wasn’t two years ago that everybody was talking about “we found the Holy Grail of biology, we’re deciphering the code of codes, we’re reading the book of life.” You know, it’s a little bit reminiscent of 1969 when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and everybody was about to race out towards the stars, and we’ve all seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, and you know it’s 2003 and there is no Hal, and there is no odyssey to our own moon, much less the moons of Jupiter, and we’re still picking up pieces of the Challenger. So it’s not surprising that some people would wonder maybe 30 or 40 years from now, we’ll look back at this instant in time and all of the sort of talk about the human genome project and what all of this is going to mean to all of us, it’ll really mean precious little.

And I just want to say that that is absolutely not going to be the case, because when we talk about our genetics and our biology, and modifying and altering it, and testing these kinds of things, we’re talking about changing ourselves. I mean, this is very critical stuff. And if you have any doubts about how technology affects our lives, you just have to go to any major city. This is not the stomping ground of our Pleistocine ancestors. And what’s happening is we’re taking this technology, it’s becoming more precise, more potent, and we’re turning it back upon ourselves. And before it’s all done, we are going to alter ourselves every bit as much as we have changed the world around us. And it’s going to happen a lot sooner than people imagine. On the way there, it’s going to completely revolutionize medicine and health care, that’s obvious. It’s going to change the way we have children. It’s going to change the way we manage and alter our emotions. It’s going to probably change the human life-span. It will really make us question what it is to be a human being.

And the larger context of this is that there are two unprecedented revolutions that are going on today. The first of them is the obvious one-the silicon revolution-which you all are very, very familiar with. It’s changing our lives in so many ways and it will continue to do that. What the essence of that is, is that we’re taking the sand at our feet, the inert silicon at our feet and we’re breathing a level of complexity into it that rivals that of life itself and may even surpass it. As an outgrowth of that, as a child of that revolution, is evolution in biology: the genomics revolution, proteomics, metabolomics, all of these -omics that sound so terrific on grants and on business plans. And, you know, what we’re doing is we are seizing control of our evolutionary future. I mean, we’re essentially using technology to just jam evolution into fast-forward, and it’s not at all clear where it’s going to take us. But in five to ten years, we’re going to start to see some very profound changes. The most immediate changes that we’ll see are things like in medicine, there’s going to be a big shift towards preventative medicine as we start to be able to identify all of the risk factors that we have as individuals.

But, who’s going to pay for all this? And how we going to understand of this complex information? That is going to be the IT challenge of the next generation, is communicating all this information. There’s pharmacogenomics, the combination of pharmacology and genetics: tailoring drugs to our individual constitutions that Juan talked about a little bit earlier. And that’s going to have amazing impacts and it’s going to be used for diet, as well and nutritional supplements and such. But it’s going to have a big impact because we’re going to have niche drugs and we aren’t going to be able to support the kinds of expenses that we have to create blockbuster drugs today. The approval process is going to fall apart, actually. It’s too slow, it’s too risk averse, and it is really not suited for the future that we’re moving into.

Another thing is we’re just going to have to deal with this knowledge. It’s really wonderful when we hear “oh 99.9% of the letters in the code are the same, we’re all identical to each other, isn’t it wonderful” and look around you and you know what we really care about is that little bit of difference. We look the same to a visitor from another planet, maybe, but not to each other, because we compete with each other all the time and we’re going to have to come to grips with the fact that there are differences between us as individuals that we will know about and between subpopulations of humans, as well. And to deny that that’s the case is not a very good start on that.

A generation or so away, there are going to be even more profound things that are going to happen and that’s that we’re going to begin to use this knowledge to modify ourselves, and I don’t mean extra gills or something, something we care about, like aging. What if we could unravel aging and understand it, begin to retard the process or even reverse it. It would change absolutely everything and it’s obvious to anyone that if we can do this we absolutely will do this, whatever the consequences are.

The second is modifying our emotions. I mean, Ritalin, Viagra, things of that sort, Prozac, you know, this is just clumsy little baby steps. What if you could take a little concoction of pharmaceuticals that would make you feel really contented, just happy to be you. Are you going to be able to resist that, if it doesn’t have any overt side-effects? Probably not. And if you don’t, who are you going to be, why do you do what you do? We’re sort of circumventing evolutionary programs that guide our behavior. It’s going to be very challenging to deal with.

And, the third area is reproduction: the idea that we’re going to choose our children’s genes as we begin to understand what genes say about who we are. That’s the focus of my book, Redesigning Humans, where I talk about the kinds of choices we’ll make and the challenges that it’s going to present to society. There are three obvious ways of doing this: the first is cloning. It didn’t happen, it’s a total media circus, and, you know, it will happen in five to ten years, and when it does, it’s not going to be that big a deal. The birth of a delayed identical twin is not going to shake western civilization. But there are more important things that are already occurring. Embryo screening. You take a six to eight cell embryo, you tease out one of the cells, you run a genetic test on that cell, and depending on the results of that test, you either implant that embryo or you discard it. It’s already done to avoid rare diseases today and pretty soon it’s going to be possible to avoid virtually all genetic diseases in that way.

And, as that becomes possible, this is going to move from something that’s used by those who have infertility problems and are already doing in vitro fertilization, to the wealthy who want to protect their children, to just about everybody else. And in that process, that’s going to morph from being just for diseases to being for lesser vulnerabilities like risk of manic depression or something, to picking personalities, temperaments, traits, these sorts of things.

And of course, there’s going to be genetic engineering, directly going in-it’s a little bit further away, but not that far away-going in and altering the genes of the first cell in an embryo. And, the way I suspect it will happen is using artificial chromosomes and extra chromosomes-so we go from 46 to 47 or 48-and one that’s not heritable. Because who would want to pass onto their children the archaic enhancement modules that they got 25 years earlier from their parents. It’s a joke! Of course they wouldn’t want to do that. And they’ll want the new release. And those kinds of loose analogies with computers and with programming are actually much deeper than that. They are really going to come to operate in this realm.

Now, not everything that can be done should be done, and it won’t be done. But when something is feasible in thousands of laboratories all over the world, which is going to be the case with these technologies, when there are large numbers of people who see them as beneficial, which is already the case, and when they’re almost impossible to police, it’s not a question of if this is going to happen, but when and where and how it’s going to happen. And humanity is going to go down this path and it’s going to do so for two reasons: the first is that all of these technologies are just a spin-off of mainstream medical research that everybody wants to see happen, and that is being funded very, very… in a big way. The second is: we’re human! That’s what we do! We try and use our technology to improve our lives in one way or another and to imagine that we’re not going to use these technologies when they become available is as much a denial of who we are as to imagine that we’ll use these technologies and not fret and worry about it a great deal.

The lines are going to blur, and they already are, between therapy and enhancement, between treatment and prevention, and between need and desire, that’s really the central one, I believe. And people can try and ban these things, they undoubtedly will, they have, but ultimately all this is going to do is just shift development elsewhere, it’s going to drive these things from view, it’s going to reserve the technology for the wealthy, because they’re in the best position to circumvent any of these sorts of laws, and it’s going to deny us the information that we need to make wise decisions about how to use these technologies. So, sure, we need to debate these things, and I think it’s wonderful that we do. But, we shouldn’t kid ourselves and think that we’re going to reach a consensus about these things. That is simply not going to happen. They touch us too deeply and they depend too much upon history, upon philosophy, upon religion, upon culture, upon politics, and some people are going to see this as an abomination, as the worst thing, as just awful. And other people are going to say, “this is great, this is the flowering of human endeavor.”

And the one thing, you know, that is really dangerous about these sorts of technologies is that it’s easy to become seduced by them and to focus too much on all the high-technology possibilities that exist and to lose touch with the basic rhythms of our biology and our health. There are too many people think that high-technology medicine is going to keep them, save them from overeating, from eating a lot of fast-foods, from not getting any exercise… it’s not going to happen.

And in the midst of all this amazing technology, all these things that are occurring, it’s really interesting because there is kind of a counter-revolution that’s going on, a resurgence of interest in remedies from the past, in nutriceuticals, in all of these sorts of things that some people in the pharmaceutical industry particularly like to brand as non-science. But this whole effort is generated, is driven by IT, as well, and because that’s how we’re gathering all this information and linking it and integrating it together. And there’s a lot in this rich biota that is going to serve us well, and that’s where about half of our drugs come, and so we shouldn’t dismiss this, because it’s an enormous opportunity to use these sorts of results of these random loose trials from the last thousand years about what has impacts on our health and to use our advanced technologies to pull out what is beneficial from this sea of noise, basically. And, in fact, this isn’t just the abstract, I just formed a biotechnology company that is using this sort of an approach to develop therapeutics for Alzheimer’s and other diseases of aging, and we’re making some real progress.

So, here we are. It’s the beginning of a new millennium. And, if you look forward, I mean future humans, far before the end of this millennium, a few hundred years, they’re going to look back at this moment and from the beginning of today’s sessions, you’re going to think that they’re going to see this as this horrible, difficult, painful period that we struggled through. And I don’t think that’s what’s going to happen. They’re going to do like everybody does, they’re going to forget about all that stuff and they’re actually going to romanticize this moment in time. They’re going to think about it as this glorious instant when we laid down the very foundations of their lives, of their society, of their future. And you know, it’s a little bit like a birth, where there’s this bloody, awful mess that happens and then, what comes out of it? New life. And actually, as was pointed out earlier, we forget about all the struggle that was a means of getting there.

And so to me, it’s clear that one of the foundations of that future is going to be the reworking of our biology. And it’s going to come gradually at first, it’s going to pick up speed, we’re going to make lots of errors-that’s the way these things work-and to me, it’s an incredible privilege to be alive now and to be able to witness this thing, it is something that is a unique instant in the history of life. It will always be remembered. And what’s extraordinary is that we’re not just observing this, we are the architects of this and I think that we should be proud of it. And what is so difficult and challenging is that we are also the objects of these changes. It’s our health. It’s our lives. It’s our future. It’s our children. And that’s why they’re so very troubling to so many people, who would pull back in fear. And I think that our choice and the choice of life is not whether we’re going to go down this path-we are, definitely. It’s how we hold it in our hearts, it’s how we look at it. And I think Thucydides really spoke to us very clearly in 430 BC, he put it nicely, and again, I’ll use the words in the same order he did. He said: “The bravest are surely those who have the clearest vision of what is before them, both glory and danger alike, and yet notwithstanding they go out and they meet it.” Thank you.

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