"And I am very much a skeptic in regards to technology being able to save us from killing ourselves as a species."
A recent email exchange with a new friend contained the previous quote from my friend. It inspired me to finally write out what I'd been saying in bits and pieces to people on Facebook for quite some time.
As for the question, will technology be our saving grace? I am still somewhat ambivalent about it myself, the current time of rapid developments in genetics and biology have me terrified and amazed. Terrified because as a software and hardware engineer I am well aware of the history of change that attended certain technological developments in both areas in the past and how those changes revolutionized human productivity in two phases. The first was the invention of the semiconductor transistor in 1947 by Shockley and Bardeen. The second was the invention of the integrated circuit and soon after photo-lithography that led to the astounding miniaturization of components that made the pc revolution (not to mention the DSP revolution that made possible useful cell phones and other digital devices) of the 80's and 90's possible.
Here we are, 10 years after the grand success of having sequenced a first human genome on the verge of figuring out life from the opposite direction which we took to figure out electronics.
It is quite an interesting story and one filled with amazing parallels that are difficult to see as coincidence but upon closer analysis show their fibers of similar construction in the inevitability of the physical laws that makes both realms possible.
I am talking specifically of conservation of energy and how abeyance to it, makes possible discrete atoms, which makes possible discrete molecules with specific atomic affinity for other atoms or molecules. Which makes possible specific amino acids, which make possible a specific dna and rna family , with make specific enzymes and proteins, which makes possible specific combination's of said enzymes , proteins and nucleotides in the form of living beings. In hardware and software , conservation of energy yet again is the mother of the massive landscape of combinations possible at the circuit level and in software how I chose to write a bit of code can significantly impact it's speed and its usefulness for a given problem domain. The codes that I write are symbolic representations of a designed function space inside the memory space of the computer the code eventually runs on. My applications are alive in the same sense as you, both sense input from the environment, but produce output in response to that input, both require resources to survive (you food, air, water...application, memory and data) up to now...few would have dared to think that life and programs were so similar but now that we approach a time when we can actually code new life functions from scratch (see Craig Venter's recent announcement of synthetic life) that analogy has become starkly real.
But what does this have to do with my fear, now that we know how molecules have come together to create living things we are not only creating our own codes but are figuring out how the extant codes work. The great process of deciphering the book of our genes and how they are expressed into tissues, hormones, organs and bones has now been enabled. The last 5 years have been particularly astounding...I could barely contain my dread and excitement when I read of the successful creation of induced pluripotent stem cells in 2007. I was not expecting that advance for at least another 10 years...but there it was. Then about a year later more advances came as iPSC's were produced by other teams and new methods were invented to get around inefficiencies (like the accidental triggering of cancer) in the old methods. Then more advances came in 2008 and 2009...all far ahead of the schedule I had set in my mind for when I was expecting them. I am an optimist and yet I misjudged the pace of advance...iPSC is important because what it does is it levels the playing field for the process of determining exactly WHERE the genetic sheet music for specific processes exist in our genes and how to play those genes to create the "music" of a growing lung or a cornea or a heart or a femur...you get the picture now?
If I were tasked to write a program that encoded an audio file from .wav to .mp3 I could do it, I would have to consult the specs. for both file formats and then knowing their functioning write code that performed the specific transformations or compositions using various tools available to me in the language I chose to write the program of conversion in..but it would be done. The mystery of doing so would have simply been in the specifications or specs. of the two formats.
The invention of iPSC's allows us to in detail figure out not just the specs. behind expressed biological functions but also to see the code that is known to create those biological functions. The lung grows, the heart beats...we only need "listen" to the regions of dna that are "playing" to see how the keys are pushed. As you would inspect the keys of a player piano to extract the sheet music for a given piece.
And thus comes our big problem, once we've extracted all the sheet music...for lungs, for hearts, for brains, for pisiform bones, for skin, for hair , for blue eyes or green or gray ...we will have the components necessary to write life from scratch or modify existing life by point changes to our dna.
In the classic science fiction film "Blade Runner" a scene has the renegade "replicant" Roy meet his maker, the rich and aristocratic bio geneticist that "invented" the replicants and grew rich selling these artificial people for use in various ways. Some were made strong to serve as labor on off world farms, others were trained to be skilled fighters and warriors, others were made to be "pleasure models". In the film the year is 2015...which considering where we are today in the technology is astonishingly prescient of Philip K Dick the original writer of the piece "Do Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?" from which the movie was made. Roy is dying because though the geneticists were able to make him faster, smarter and stronger than ordinary humans...they could not make his life longer, he only had a 4 year life span. He found his way to the corporate headquarters to plead with the maker for more life. The maker tells him that it is impossible to make an in vivo genetic change to an organism without killing it. Now though this was true in 1981 it is no longer true today...we are on the verge of going far beyond he replicants of that film in ways that scare me. (For completion of the story of Roy, if you are not familiar with the film ...rent it as soon as possible...you'll see the end result of Roy's conversation with his maker.)
First, just after the human genome was sequenced it was believed that it would be extremely difficult to find out how to express the proteins and enzymes of the genetic code. The number of genes were first believed to be high but consensus put the number at around 100,000...when the genome was actually sequenced however the real number came out closer to 25,000.
25,000 genes and the song of you and me is sung.
This includes all the variation that exists between you , me and every human on Earth ....the problem should dawn on you now. How are those genes "played" differently per person? I find the musical analogy most apt. Though it is true that between human populations there are different genes, these differences are minor ...insignificant, making up fractions of a percent difference between all human lineages...far too few to account for why we are so different. Thus there must be some modulation mechanism that exists outside of the known genes that allows them to flower the diversity of forms that can result when they are expressed in the life of a human being. This modulation mechanism has only just recently been identified and exists in several areas of the cell. First, we now know that genetic expression can be modulated by other genes, so genes can constrain other genes expression of various enzymes and proteins but the greater question is how, the answer to this question was found in the recent discovery that the padding between genes...up until recently actually called "junk Dna" was serving quite a non junk role. This DNA is in fact the developmental modulation mechanism for the play back of genes to specific expression pathways that ensure the growth of a heart, or a lung or a kidney ...or that guide the development of breasts or a face in relation to a head. A third set of controls lies in the use of functional RNA's that perform specific gene activating and silencing functions within the nucleus of the cell but these are also triggered by either other genes or activity in "junk DNA" regions.
So now the puzzle is complete, we have the genes , we have the modulation mechanism(s) and we have an ability to observe expression in any cell type (iPSC)...every thing that follows will be book keeping. The next 20 years will be a race between competing teams of geneticists as they try to identify key developmental pathways about important genes to figure out precisely how to control modulation of those genes within specific cell types. In individuals that have genetic diseases owing to the fault of a gene or genes they will repair them in the person and cure them, for individuals that wish to have a new capability that they were not born with, it can be added...just as I write code to spec. living beings will be able to have their code tweaked, adapted, modified to suit a personal aim.
Soon the resources for creating living things will be just as ubiquitous and any one with a desire to learn will be able to "write" new organisms in their basement labs. Imagine, just as 10 years ago rash teens were writing computer viruses and worms to infect computers and cause crashes...in another 15 to 20 years similarly rash teens will be able to write super pathogens that infect people in various frightening ways. The democratization of the power of computer code will be followed by the democratization of the power of the genetic code and unless humanity radically shifts its nature in this time we are as dead as the dodo. Imagine what Bin Laden would whip up if he had such technology at his disposal today?
This is why I feel it is critical that we use the technology to help move us away from the selfish and xenophobic past that made the horrors that we've visited upon one another in the past *less likely*. I am not so naive as to think we would ever eliminate all sociopathic tendency in time but our control of the genes holds the answer to that question as well. We will soon be able to determine those with sociopathic tendency to absolute clarity and rectify cures that will not require the permanent incarceration of the individuals. The question is which will come first?
A pathology free human family with all members fully cognizant of the sanctity of all life and with no desire to invent superbugs that kill unlike anything ever before possible?
Will we move so quickly into the future, before we've unfettered ourselves of the stone age ignorance of hard religious belief and ingrained xenophobia, that some one will create such a beast and in a short moment end life on Earth?
Now it is possible that my fear under estimates the importance of opposing forces, in a world where a super bug can kill you in 2 hours...that bug will be able to be isolated, analyzed and a counter to its effects created also in a short period of time but would that time be short enough to prevent the disruption of entire human societies?
Thus I see it as critically important to foster any effort to connect people to people, to mollify xenophobic tendencies based on ignorance with fact, to obliterate religious ignorance with reason and yet more fact. To help us connect with one another without the barrier of language (a critical problem in this time), far flung across the globe in the emotional ways that will make all humans more human to each of us. It's a small step that just may take us from the brink and the ability to attempt it is provided by internet, which shares the same mother(technology) as our potential doom...how ironic is that?