Rob Reid: The Dark Side of Gene Editing and Synthetic Biology – The Kevin Rose Show

Key Takeaways

  • Synthetic biology involves the artificial manipulation of DNA to make novel/non-natural viruses that have unique powers and capabilities
  • Synthetic biology will be first to deliver world-ending capability to individuals
    • Just think forward – it’s probably safe to say that a desktop DNA synthesizer from the year 2038 will be capable of things that the entire synthetic biology project is capable of today
    • A single individual, if they chose to do so, would be able to wipe out the entire species
  • In 2003, the Human Genome Project ended
    • We sequenced a single haploid genome over a 13 year span – it cost $3 billion
    • NOW – a single haploid genome can be sequenced for <$1k by someone like a well-trained high school grad
  • The force multiplier of mass terrorism is technology – terrorists/mass shooters tend to go for the most lethal items they can get their hands on
    • Imagine what’s going to happen when deadly synthetic biology weapons become widely available?
  • At this point, there are probably a handful of borderline geniuses that could make a “doomsday bug”
    • But as technology improves – THOUSANDS of life science researchers/students/grad students will have this capability
    • And realize – “When you start getting into groups that big, some tiny percentage of a very large group will reliably do something awful eventually”
  • We NEED to start imagining these worst-case synthetic biology related scenarios NOW and how we can go about preventing them

Intro

  • Rob Reid (@Rob_Reid) is the host of the After On Podcast
  • Rob recently gave a TED Talk on innovations in synthetic bio and how they could one day wipe out humanity
    • (Rob put the talk together with just 11 days notice)
    • Rob also got deep on this subject (the darker side of it) with Naval Ravikant in these Podcast Notes
  • Check out Rob’s novel – After On
    • It’s about a diabolical social media company based in San Francisco
  • Kevin has been supplementing with lion’s mane mushrooms
    • They’re good for brain health and improve response times

Rob’s New TED Talk – How synthetic biology could wipe out humanity (and how we can stop it)

  • This talk began as a set of essays on Medium about existential risk
    • Existential risk covers a broad range of topics, but Rob focused most on synthetic biology risk
  • What is synthetic biology (SynBio)?
    • The artificial manipulation of DNA to make novel/non -natural “critters” that have unique powers and capabilities
    • It has potential for good – SynBio will probably end the organ shortage and reduce a huge about of suffering
    • BUT – there can be a dark side to its application if it falls into malevolent (or incompetent) hands

What could go wrong?

  • Let’s use an example:
    • To modify something like the bird flu virus to make it a highly lethal pathogen a decade ago, you would have had to be an incredibly credentialed and well-supplied scientist (but we’re moving further and further away from this reality)
  • “What’s interesting about synthetic biology and also potentially dangerous is it’s moving forward at a rate that’s far faster than Moore’s Law… the rate at which we’re able to synthesize base pairs and the rate at which breakthroughs like CRISPR are coming onto the gene editing scene goes far beyond the rate of development we saw with computing”
  • There are things world-class synthetic biology labs couldn’t possibly do today that will probably be very easy to do in a community college or high school biology lab 20 years from now
  • In 2003, the Human Genome Project ended
    • We sequenced a single haploid genome over a 13 year span – it cost $3 billion
    • NOW – a single haploid genome can be sequenced <$1k by someone like a well-trained high school grad

What is gene sequencing?

  • It’s just a fancy word for “reading”
    • This is what 23andMe does – they read the base pairs of your DNA to understand how your genes are laid out and what mutations you have

Let’s Get Dark

  • Take the H5N1 flu strain
    • 60% of the people who contract it die
      • But it’s not very contagious – it’s killed <50 people since 2015
    • In 2011, two separate research teams modified the H5N1 genome to make it just as deadly AND wildly contagious
    • Here’s the kicker – Rob estimates that the instructions to modify the H5N1 genome to make it highly contagious could fit on ONE single Post-it note
  • Since 2011, CRISPR has come along, making it radically easier to edit genomes (it’s also reduced the cost of reading genes)
  • Just imagine the year is 2026:
    • A viralogist, for a PhD thesis, makes something as deadly as Ebola, as contagious as chickenpox, AND it incubates in the human body for a full year before showing any symptoms (and the modifications are contained within a single data file)
      • The whole world could be inflicted before the first sign of trouble
    • Think – what if the university gets hacked? (it happens all the time)
      • Then the data file spreads to the internet’s darkest corners – who knows where that might lead?
        • As time goes on, it’ll just get easier and easier to actually create the “critter” on something like a desktop DNA synthesizer
        • “Once a genius has made a data file, any idiot can distribute it worldwide and eventually, when the printers exist, print it”

Technology is the Force Multiplier

  • There were 323 mass shootings in the U.S. last year (the “bad actors” are out there)
    • But realize – the force multiplier is technology. These bad actors tend to go for the most lethal items they can get their hands on.
      • In China, for example – the most lethal items people can get their hands on are hammers and knives
      • But in the U.S. – we have guns
      • Imagine what’s going to happen when deadly synthetic biology weapons become widely available?
  • “The worse the technology gets, when you have one of these people who detonate, the more casualties there will be”
    • At this point, there are probably a handful of borderline geniuses that could make a “doomsday bug”
    • But as technology improves – THOUSANDS of life science researchers/students/grad students will have this capability
      • And realize – “When you start getting into groups that big, some tiny percentage of a very large group will reliably do something awful eventually”
  • Look at the Vegas killer – he killed 58 people
    • He only stopped because he ran out of bullets – these types of deranged people are out there

How can we prevent these doomsday scenarios? – The “Immune System”

  • Imagine ubiquitous pathogen detectors/sensors
    • Today they’re primitive, but with a little bit of R&D muscle, we could push them onto their own Moore’s Law Curve where they become as widespread as smoke detectors and as networked as smartphones
    • How do they work?
      • Simply – They continuously sample air molecules
    • These already exist at airports, but they need to be much more ubiquitous, distributed, and networked (they need to be in constant dialogue with a central repository of pathogens)
      • There’s no reason they couldn’t one day be part of a smartphone
  • A distributed biomanufacturing base (printer technology for vaccines and medicines)
    • Imagine being able to print vaccines in your own home at a moment’s notice
  • “We need to start worrying about all this now… we can’t start worrying about this in 30 years. Think of all the billions of dollars spent on digital security and the number of viruses that still get through. The human body is so much more complex than Windows OS.”
    • We NEED to start imagining these worst-case scenarios NOW and how we can go about preventing them

Wrapping Up

  • “These extensional outcomes are OPTIONAL not destiny”
Bookmark

FREE! THE TOP 10 PODCASTS OF 2018, AND WHAT WE LEARNED

You'll also get our weekly newsletter with the takeaways from our curated list of top podcasts. Unsubscribe anytime.