SynBio round 1

My Take

C-PET’s Synthetic Biology Roundtable, first round

Nigel M. de S. Cameron

I’ve had a couple of encounters with synthetic biology before. The National Science Foundation invited me to join a site visit to the main federally funded synbio research project, with a mandate to review all the non-technical aspects (ethics, security, law, and so on); and Nature Biotechnology asked me along with the University of Pennsylvania’s Arthur Caplan, doyen of contemporary bioethicists, to write commentaries for a special number back in 2009. So I’ve thought about what’s going on, and was very pleased to host and moderate round 1 of C-PET’s synbio process.

As those who were there (from think tanks, universities, a slew of embassies, federal agencies, the House science committee, and elsewhere) will recall, the discussion took off in some fascinating directions. C-PET is, of course, a think tank. But think tanks come in various shapes and sizes. Unlike most, we are non-partisan. We like process. We see ourselves as helping build a collaborative knowledge network. We don’t believe naively in win-win, but we do work for outcomes with a net benefit to everyone in the room. And our roundtables are designed to engage. Short presentations, not least as many in the room could readily be on the panel and probably everyone has relevant expertise. Short presentations, because engagement in the knowledge network is the key. And while some of our longer events have formal keynotes, our roundtable panels are designed for process. No PowerPoint. Plenty of exchanges, as the knowledge network builds and deepens. Not so much Q and A as participation. Having a large conference table at the center of things certainly helps. It may not be circular, like King Arthur’s (and, as it happens, the cabinet table of 19th century British leader Benjamin Disraeli, around which I recently dined in the basement of a London club), but it is rounder than most Washington tables.

We decided to take at least two bites at this cherry. Next up is November 5. Round 1 was a scoping exercise. And the scope of synbio is hard to grasp. It ranges from industrial process and a concern about over-regulation (Rina Singh from the trade group BIO’s focus) to the ethics of “playing God” (raised by Penn’s Jonathan Moreno) to security scenarios of unimaginable scariness (“what if the Unabomber had been a biologist?” asked security expert Jonathan Tucker from the Monterey Institute, after stating that the #1 synbio anxiety of security experts is that smallpox could become the WMD of choice). From that we got into the problem of silo-ing individual technologies (and is “bioethics” becoming yet another silo, I asked?), the deep lack of long-term tech policy interest in the DC community, and the problem of policy driven by press release – as happened back in 1997 with Dolly the Sheep. Craig Venter’s latest announcement of his work in synthetic biology led to a presidential letter to the current bioethics commission to come up with a quick report and recommendations (though Penn’s Amy Gutmann, chair of the Obama commission, has six months for hers; back in 1997, Bill Clinton demanded that Dolly’s implications be clarified within three).

From around the table, perhaps the most perceptive of many shrewd observations came from Martin Apple, President of the Council of Scientific Society Presidents. As technologies develop, he averred, we need to ensure that, in parallel, we see the negatives and threats even as we focus on the benefits. When I pressed him, he distinguished this approach from the common European “precautionary principle,” which is more cautious in its method and would hog-tie (my term!) innovation and the development of tomorrow’s technologies. Jonathan Tucker’s emphatic statement of the scary possibilities that could flow from synbio (scary is also my term, though was synbio guru Drew Endy’s word in the New Yorker piece a year ago that brought this stuff to the attention of the cognoscenti) led to reflection on the emergence of asymmetric threats, and the fact that (as he noted) a smart teen will soon be able to go bio rogue. How are we to contain such a situation? Moreno set context by drawing us back to Plato and the eugenics of Sparta and the relations of politics and biology in every age. Yet the terms of trade have changed, the stakes are raised: what is the emerging biopolitics of tomorrow? The discussion also focused on the international arena. One of BIO’s concerns is that the strong US focus on biosecurity is not matched by equivalent approaches from Europe, and especially not Asia. Regulatory regimes can have the effect of curtailing U.S. competitiveness.

I pressed the issue of asymmetry. While the 21st century tends to be defined in tech terms (“Biotech Century,” as Jeremy Rifkin titles one of his books; “Nano Century,” as I did one of mine), it might make more sense to see it as the asymmetric century. We don’t need to wait for biosmart rogue teens. Competence in QWERTY, that 19th century skill, recently enabled Wikileaks to publish tens of thousands of secret files, and a hacker to share 200 million sets of Facebook info. I shared a recent book purchase, a new study of the Battle of Cannae (perhaps Imperial Rome’s greatest defeat). Rome raised a huge army to bring Hannibal, the Carthaginian general, to his knees. Hannibal, the man who wrote his name in history by bring elephants over the impassable Alps in winter, was a master of asymmetric tactics, like bin Laden in our day. He trapped this great army and killed probably half its men. My point: today, all he would have needed was a keyboard. The 21st century has given asymmetry its head. Synbio offers asymmetric tools that lie far beyond the imagining of former generations.

There is of course disagreement among the most expert of experts as to the real significance of Venter’s latest move. But our panel was unanimous that while press releases are given to exaggeration, what Venter has accomplished is a big deal, and has handily set in motion a serious engagement with its implications.

C-PET’s round 2 will, we hope, bring us nearer some sort of conclusion. We look forward to being joined by Venter’s colleague Robert Friedman. By then perhaps the President’s bioethics commission will have written a draft report. My personal hope is that they will venture far beyond bioethics, assess synbio in its wider possibilities, and perhaps even urge our short-term, technology-unfocused Washington culture into a far wider engagement with the 21st-century implications of these explosive developments.

Back in the early 2000’s, the National Science Foundation hosted a series of events under the banner “Converging Technologies.” They (conferences and books) had something of a “transhumanist” flavor (“enhancing human performance”), which seemed to me unfortunate as it distracted from what they were really saying: that, as it were, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Driven by extraordinary advances in science, technology is set to reshape the human experience over and over. The digital revolution has hardly begun. And what awaits us in nano, bio, IT and cognitive science (NBIC, the NSF watchword for these events) – and, perhaps especially, the development of Artificial Intelligence – is vast, if impossible to predict. The marriage of engineering and biology which is synbio is set to cut a vast swathe through the experience of the human community, for good and for ill. In parallel, the AI/robotics discussion takes a different but no less potentially transformative approach.

Meanwhile, the prophets of risk continue in their labor. Stephen Hawking, who some claim is Newton’s equal, tells us to evacuate the earth within 100 years. Martin Rees, cosmologist and top UK scientist (president of the Royal Society which essentially founded modern science in the 18th century) tells us in his book Our Final Century (ridiculous and demeaning U.S. title, Our Final Hour) that the odds are against our survival on planet Earth. And Bill Joy, uber-technologist and guru at Sun in its heyday, famously told us back in 2000 “Why the Future doesn’t need us.” (Answer for those too young to be reading Wired 10 years ago: because we make a ghastly mistake, or (more subtly) because we make seemingly sensible choices that add up to the voluntary extinction of Homo sapiens sapiens.)

In his presentation, Moreno had suggested that he would not be alive in 100 years’ time to see what might eventuate. I reminded him that Ray Kurzweil, prophet of an AI-driven future and for all his (perhaps undue) optimism respected as thinker and inventer by some of the smartest minds on the planet, not only believes he has a shot at living for ever but is a year or two older than both Moreno and me.

My take? I’m concerned about “bioethics” as yet another silo, but hopeful that Amy Gutmann will take on a wider range of issues and be heard. Concerned that because “playing God” language doesn’t play with the cognoscenti that over-reaching claims of some bioscientists will go unchallenged (I’ve never liked the “playing God” way of playing, though probably all of us know what it means and find its implications intuitively disturbing). Concerned that asymmetry could doom us to an either/or between an Orwellian/Kafkan state and a situation of constant and dire threat from smart sociopath teens and QWERTY-certified Mullahs.

But come join us at 10, G Street NE (tucked away behind the Post Office for those who know DC) on November 5. Perhaps all will be resolved, as the C-PET knowledge network brings yet more smart minds into collaborative engagement and takes forward this global conversation.

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