Welcome to episode 285 of The Digital Life, a show about our insights into the future of design and technology. I’m your host Jon Follett, and with me is founder and co-host Dirk Knemeyer.
This week we’ll be talking about the somewhat startling, scary, scientifically significant news out of Hong Kong that the first babies whose germline has been edited using the CRISPR technique have been born. These babies have been … their genome has been edited in such a way that they are immune to HIV. That was the purpose of the experiment conducted by a Chinese scientist in secret over the course of two years.
It is causing a tremendous uproar in the scientific community at the moment. The sort of story is unfolding right now, but there’s been much objection as to the way in which the science was done, how it proceeded, how it wasn’t transparent, and sort of the rather dangerous consequences and precedence that this experiment has set. In fact, this morning, it was noted that there could be a third baby also, a third CRISPR altered human being coming into the world potentially. So, this experiment continues, and the world is just reacting to it at this point.
For our listeners, what is CRISPR? What is CRISPR alteration? Very specifically, what is it that we’re talking about, Jon?
Right. You can think of CRISPR as an editing tool, like a pair of scissors that can go in and cut out a specific area of a gene and enable that gene to be edited changing the sequence so that perhaps a genetic abnormality could be edited in such a way that it is returned to a normal state. It was discovered probably, say, within the past three years. I’m going to get the date wrong, so I’m just going to be somewhat vague about that. Ever since the discovery, the science has proceeded a pace, and there’s been tremendous excitement about the potential of this technology.
Obviously, these types of edits can be conducted in sort of any kind of living thing, whether you’re talking about plants and animals all the way up to human beings. The progression has been surprisingly fast moving from, like I said, the plants and animals stage to now living human beings is quite surprising. Dirk, I would be interested in your thoughts as to the pace of this change, to me, is kind of scary. How are you looking at it?
Yeah, it’s a little scary. For me, it’s not surprising at all. I mean, we’ve talked about CRISPR on the show a few times, and I’ve been pretty consistent in saying there will be human babies that are CRISPR modified. They will come from China. In terms of timeframe, I didn’t really think about that or have a sense. So, I don’t know if I’m surprised one way or the other about time, but I’m certainly not surprised that it’s happened. Not surprised it came from China, but a little concerned about the lack of due diligence and plunging with still a lot of unknowns, but not surprised.
I mean, CRISPR has actually, from a conceptual standpoint, been around for 30 years. The sort of technology stack that’s lead us to where we are today is something called Cas9, which is just from this decade essentially. So, like you mentioned, it’s really new. Yeah, I’m just not the least bit surprised it’s happened, not the least bit surprised it’s from China. I’m a little uncomfortable that it’s here.
Yeah. I think the doors that this opens are ones that I don’t think we’re fully prepared to sort of understand the implications and the consequences. So, there’s been quite a bit of protest coming from this second annual human genome editing conference that’s taking place in Hong Kong right now. Part of that is because the ethical boundaries that are intended to check to sort of hold in place the progression of science in this area have clearly been breached.
I think even the university where the scientist is working is surprised and instigating their investigation as well. I think it’s something that was bound to happen just given the level of importance of this technology. It was bound to happen, and I think the human hubris, sort of this desire for being first, I don’t know what it is, this combination of things-
It’s power, Jon, it’s power.
Yeah. I mean, what we’ve learned in the last 100 or so years of science and technology have barrelled forward at a breakneck pace as if there’s no limits, there’s no limits. It’s endemic to large powerful societies. I mean, to me this is very similar to the develop of the atomic bomb.
Once we had the knowledge on creating these reactions and theoretically could see the path to the atomic bomb, once we reached that point, it was inevitable and indeed proved to be the case that the bomb was developed, that it was developed first by the United States. Other nations were trying to develop it at the same time. Lookey there, not only did we develop it, but we were dropping the thing.
There’s historical arguments in both directions about that, but it certainly was a contentious decision and this is very similar. When you talk about the dropping of the atomic bomb, that part of it was a part that you can’t say, “Oh, it’s about Nazi Germany. It’s about Imperial Japan.” That’s about power. That’s about whipping it out and throwing it on the table and saying, “Look how big we are.” It started a whole new reality. Thankfully since then a lot of atomic bombs aren’t being dropped outside of testing context, but they’re there.
We now have a world full of atomic weapons that could create a situation that is catastrophic at any time. Here we have the Chinese who are intent on becoming the preeminent world power and, over a course of decades, have a strategic plan and have very successfully executed it. Going back to World War II again, there was the project in the United States called Operation Paperclip bringing scientists over from Germany to gain an advantage over their antagonists. This, what’s done with CRISPR, came out of a similar project in China where China is luring back the scientists that-
… who have gone around the world, gotten educated at the best universities, in the past would have stayed in the West. China is enticing them back. Now I’m going to go into the realm of speculation a little bit. In this story, in the reality of what’s happened, there’s currently a Kabuki theater going on where China is acting shocked and saying, “Oh my God, we wouldn’t have allowed this. We wouldn’t have advocated for this,” that the project is frozen at the moment from a public facing perspective because the scientific community’s reaction to it is so negative, is so alarmist.
So, China’s going through the motions of shock and outrage, but the reality is they are bringing back cats like He to China with promises of being able to do exactly this kind of thing. In the United States and in the scientific community in general, if you’re participating in that community, that’s not going to be allowed. That’s not going to be accepted. Because China isn’t the sort of international hub of the bureaucracy and the leadership of these kind of things, they’re the upstart, they’re trying to bring people back and incentivize them with the opportunity to conduct research such as this that is on the fringes or outside the bounds of what the international scientific community would allow or advocate.
We are watching the playbook run out step-by-step. This is just the beginning. There’s not a lot of stories … I mean, CRISPR/Cas9 was so monumental that when they did the X-Files reboot, they were talking about it on the X-Files reboot. So, that tells you there’s something here that is sort of so profound that it’s permeating into stupid popular culture as almost a meme. There’s not a lot of moments like this. It’s not like we’re going to have just shocking reality out of shocking reality coming out of China, but there’s just no denying the fact that they’re pulling in great minds, really talented ambitious people who in some cases, like the case here with Professor He, who want to go beyond the bounds of what the scientific community will allow.
Again, going back to the atomic bomb, it’s just sort of the biggest example of if we can do it, we will do it. It might be sooner, it might be later, but it will happen. It will likely happen as part of an assertion of power, an attempted expansion of power. Going back to when Jason Grant was on the show and talking about human development models, until we develop a little bit more and get out of this nationalistic, tribalistic, power acquisition mindset, which was necessary when we had to fight bears to survive but is not necessary in the 21st Century, then the advances that we have in science, such as CRISPR/Cas9, such as atomic power and energy, will be perverted to their extreme and ultimate consequence.
So, the moment we have right now is saying … In reality, what Professor He is doing is a tiny step. He’s not doing with the technology some of the things that we might find most alarming, such as trying to create, let’s say, going to another sci-fi meme, trying to create super soldiers. Professor He, as far as we know, is not in the lab engineering the future super soldiers of China to take over the world. He’s playing with just one little modification, particularly aimed at a blocking the HIV virus in particular. Although, it has other positive impacts on preventative health as well.
So, this is just teeny, but we inevitably will get to the point where someone is creating the super soldier. That might be happening by the stewardship of the Chinese Government, of another government. Certainly the United States is not above bad behavior, so I don’t just want to put a scarlet letter on China here even though I do think China, given the geopolitics, is going to be sort of driving and spearheading a lot of the dark stuff. More is on the way.
Yeah, I guess that was a lot, but I’m not at all surprised. I think history let us know that this was going to happen. It’s going to continue to happen. There will be more. The more will start to alarm us and get into the boundaries of where … Whereas we can say, if we can be genetically modified to never get HIV, that’s just sort of a good thing, forgetting the fact that of course it will be limited to the wealthy, the class issues that we continue to struggle with and are foolish about.
In theory, the idea that we could block that disease is a good thing. We’re just going to careen though into more contentious and ambiguous moral grounds in the years ahead, and there’s just no stopping it. This moment and the fact that the scientific community reacted so strongly will slow it down. It will certainly push it farther underground, but it sure as hell isn’t going to stop it, Jon.
Yeah. I agree with that statement. I think that when I’m considering my initial statement around, I’m surprised by the speed of the technological adoption. You’ve rightly pointed out this is coming out of, whether overtly being sponsored by the Chinese Government or covertly, there’s funding behind this effort that accelerated it. My concern perhaps is in the way that technologies roll out and get sort of adopted in a wider sense. I see in, CRISPR especially, but also other implementations of biotech sort of this progression forward that perhaps is abandoning caution and leaving us exposed to, as we’ve talked about before, the unintended consequences of new technologies.
Now, we are living with the leftover unintended consequences of the Industrial Age. We’re steeped in it. Our climate is changing massively because of the unintended consequences of the Industrial Age. In fact, we may have sent the planet into some awful scenario that we can’t recover from, and that is from something perhaps much more simple, which is the internal combustion engine, which we all have in our garages.
So, to think about the way in which we’re moving into this biotech age sort of this recreating the same types of mistakes that we started with during the Industrial Age, which is this pursuit of the technology and implementation without very much thought to the consequences. So, I don’t know that there’s … Far be it from to understand what kinds of speed bumps need to be in the way. Clearly, the scientific community didn’t have enough of those barriers or speed bumps in place.
There are no speed bumps. There are no speed bumps. There’s no way to stop it. The technology is … it’s pretty easy actually. You and I as laymen couldn’t figure it out, but for any geneticist, it’s trivial. So, anyone who can make a lab and get these relatively available tools and resources can do this. The genie’s out of the bottle. There are no speed bumps. The answer truly is one of human development.
If you think about from like 1820 or the 1820s, how far has technology come from the 1820s? We were still on horse and buggy. The idea of flying was pure science fiction. I mean, computers, give me a break. The technology was so far behind where we are now, but the President of the United States was a thug and an ignorant similar to the President of the United States today. We have not evolved. We have not developed. We have created this technology that’s incredibly powerful, but we collectively in terms of our development as a social species are very little far better collectively than we were in the 1820s. We just haven’t progressed.
In order to keep up with the technology, we need to be progressing. We need to be developing so that we are more self-confident, that we are more self-possessed, that we are not tribalistic in our we’re structured and how we frame and think about the world. We need to be more holistic thinkers and see ourselves as part of cooperative social systems.
We’re not there. We’re not close to there. I mean, in the United States, the world socialism to some majority remains like the third rail. We aren’t developing, and we need to because it’s the only speed bump. The only speed bump is that we get smarter collectively, not an elite but collectively, the masses, the group of us. We’re so far away from that as to be ridiculous. I love the idea of we need speed bumps. They’re not going to happen until the scientists, the people that access the technology themselves are self-possessed enough to say, “There’s just no need to do this. There’s no point. The gains are gains that don’t matter, and the downsides are downsides that would be horrific.”
Right now the gains do matter. They matter big. It’s big stakes. We’re still caught in these weird, old … I used 1820 just because I like the Andrew Jackson to Donald Trump parallel, but we’re still mucking around in the same bullshit that they were in the Roman Empire. I mean, we’re still in those days from the standpoint of power and structure. I mean, Putin marching around and doing the things that he’s doing. We have not advanced. We have not developed, become collectively more mature, collectively wise. We’re sort of the same, ignoramuses that we were even thousands of years ago. It could end up being our undoing, because the technology is hurdling at such a fast rate, and we aren’t keeping up with it, Jon.
Listeners, remember that while you’re listening to the show, you can follow along with the things that we are mentioning here in real-time. Just head over to thedigitalife.com, and that’s just one L in The Digital Life, and go to the page for this episode. We’ve included links to pretty much everything mentioned by everyone, so it’s a rich information resource to take advantage of while you’re listening or afterward if you’re trying to remember something that you liked.
You can find The Digital Life on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher, Player FM and Google Play. If you’d like to follow us outside of the show, you can follow me on Twitter at jonfollett, that’s J-O-N F-O-L-L-E-T-T. Of course, the whole show is brought to you by GoInvo, a studio designing the future of healthcare and emerging technologies, which you can check out at goinvo.com, that’s G-O-I-N-V-O.com. Dirk?
You can follow me on Twitter at dknemeyer, that’s @D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R. Thanks so much for listening.
That’s it for Episode 285 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.