Progress in synthetic biology and genetic engineering promise to bring advancements in human health sciences by curing disease, augmenting human capabilities, and even reversing aging. At the same time, such technology could be used to unleash novel diseases and biological agents which could pose global catastrophic and existential risks to life on Earth. George Church, a titan of synthetic biology, joins us on this episode of the FLI Podcast to discuss the benefits and risks of our growing knowledge of synthetic biology, its role in the future of life, and what we can do to make sure it remains beneficial. Will our wisdom keep pace with our expanding capabilities?
Topics discussed in this episode include:
- Existential risk
- Computational substrates and AGI
- Genetics and aging
- Risks of synthetic biology
- Obstacles to space colonization
- Great Filters, consciousness, and eliminating suffering
3:58 What are the most important issues in the world?
12:20 Collective intelligence, AI, and the evolution of computational systems
33:06 Where we are with genetics
38:20 Timeline on progress for anti-aging technology
39:29 Synthetic biology risk
46:19 George’s thoughts on COVID-19
49:44 Obstacles to overcome for space colonization
56:36 Possibilities for “Great Filters”
59:57 Genetic engineering for combating climate change
01:02:00 George’s thoughts on the topic of “consciousness”
01:08:40 Using genetic engineering to phase out voluntary suffering
01:12:17 Where to find and follow George
This podcast is possible because of the support of listeners like you. If you found this conversation to be meaningful or valuable consider supporting it directly by donating at futureoflife.org/donate. Contributions like yours make these conversations possible.
Lucas Perry: Welcome to the Future of Life Institute Podcast. I’m Lucas Perry. Today we have a conversation with Professor George Church on existential risk, the evolution of computational systems, synthetic-bio risk, aging, space colonization, and more. We’re skipping the AI Alignment Podcast episode this month, but I intend to have it resume again on the 15th of June. Some quick announcements for those unaware, there is currently a live survey that you can take about the FLI and AI Alignment Podcasts. And that’s a great way to voice your opinion about the podcast, help direct its evolution, and provide feedback for me. You can find a link for that survey on the page for this podcast or in the description section of wherever you might be listening.
The Future of Life Institute is also in the middle of its search for the 2020 winner of the Future of Life Award. The Future of Life Award is a $50,000 prize that we give out to an individual who, without having received much recognition at the time of their actions, has helped to make today dramatically better than it may have been otherwise. The first two recipients of the Future of Life Institute award were Vasili Arkhipov and Stanislav Petrov, two heroes of the nuclear age. Both took actions at great personal risk to possibly prevent an all-out nuclear war. The third recipient was Dr. Matthew Meselson, who spearheaded the international ban on bioweapons. Right now, we’re not sure who to give the 2020 Future of Life Award to. That’s where you come in. If you know of an unsung hero who has helped to avoid global catastrophic disaster, or who has done incredible work to ensure a beneficial future of life, please head over to the Future of Life Award page and submit a candidate for consideration. The link for that page is on the page for this podcast or in the description of wherever you might be listening. If your candidate is chosen, you will receive $3,000 as a token of our appreciation. We’re also incentivizing the search via MIT’s successful red balloon strategy, where the first to nominate the winner gets $3,000 as mentioned, but there are also tiered pay outs to the person who invited the nomination winner, and so on. You can find details about that on the page.
George Church is Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and Professor of Health Sciences and Technology at Harvard and MIT. He is Director of the U.S. Department of Energy Technology Center and Director of the National Institutes of Health Center of Excellence in Genomic Science. George leads Synthetic Biology at the Wyss Institute, where he oversees the directed evolution of molecules, polymers, and whole genomes to create new tools with applications in regenerative medicine and bio-production of chemicals. He helped initiate the Human Genome Project in 1984 and the Personal Genome Project in 2005. George invented the broadly applied concepts of molecular multiplexing and tags, homologous recombination methods, and array DNA synthesizers. His many innovations have been the basis for a number of companies including Editas, focused on gene therapy, Gen9bio, focused on Synthetic DNA, and Veritas Genetics, which is focused on full human genome sequencing. And with that, let’s get into our conversation with George Church.
So I just want to start off here with a little bit of a bigger picture about what you care about most and see as the most important issues today.
George Church: Well, there’s two categories of importance. One are things that are very common and so affect many people. And then there are things that are very rare but very impactful nevertheless. Those are my two top categories. They weren’t when I was younger. I didn’t consider either of them that seriously. So examples of very common things are age-related diseases, infectious diseases. They can affect all 7.7 billion of us. Then on the rare end would be things that could wipe out all humans or all civilization or all living things, asteroids, supervolcanoes, solar flares, and engineered or costly natural pandemics. So those are things that I think are very important problems. Then we have had the research to enhance wellness and minimize those catastrophes. The third category or somewhat related to those two which is things we can do to say get us off the planet, so things would be highly preventative from total failure.
Lucas Perry: So in terms of these three categories, how do you see the current allocation of resources worldwide and how would you prioritize spending resources on these issues?
George Church: Well the current allocation of resources is very different from the allocations that I would set for my own research goals and what I would set for the world if I were in charge, in that there’s a tendency to be reactive rather than preventative. And this applies to both therapeutics versus preventatives and the same thing for environmental and social issues. All of those, we feel like it somehow makes sense or is more cost-effective, but I think it’s an illusion. It’s far more cost-effective to do many things preventatively. So, for example, if we had preventatively had a system of extensive testing for pathogens, we could probably save the world trillions of dollars on one disease alone with COVID-19. I think the same thing is true for global warming. A little bit of preventative environmental engineering for example in the Arctic where relatively few people would be directly engaged, could save us disastrous outcomes down the road.
So I think we’re prioritizing a very tiny fraction for these things. Aging and preventative medicine is maybe a percent of the NIH budget, and each institute sets aside about a percent to 5% on preventative measures. Gene therapy is another one. Orphan drugs, very expensive therapies, millions of dollars per dose versus genetic counseling which is now in the low hundreds, soon will be double digit dollars per lifetime.
Lucas Perry: So in this first category of very common widespread issues, do you have any other things there that you would add on besides aging? Like aging seems to be the kind of thing in culture where it’s recognized as an inevitability so it’s not put on the list of top 10 causes of death. But lots of people who care about longevity and science and technology and are avant-garde on these things would put aging at the top because they’re ambitious about reducing it or solving aging. So are there other things that you would add to that very common widespread list, or would it just be things from the top 10 causes of mortality?
George Church: Well infection was the other one that I included in the original list in common diseases. Infectious diseases are not so common in the wealthiest parts of the world, but they are still quite common worldwide, HIV, TB, malaria are still quite common, millions of people dying per year. Nutrition is another one that tends to be more common in the four parts of the world that still results in death. So the top three would be aging-related.
And even if you’re not interested in longevity and even if you believe that aging is natural, in fact some people think that infectious diseases and nutritional deficiencies are natural. But putting that aside, if we’re attacking age-related diseases, we can use preventative medicine and aging insights into reducing those. So even if you want to neglect longevity that’s unnatural, if you want to address heart disease, strokes, lung disease, falling down, infectious disease, all of those things might be more easily addressed by aging studies and therapies and preventions than by a frontal assault on each micro disease one at a time.
Lucas Perry: And in terms of the second category, existential risk, if you were to rank order the likelihood and importance of these existential and global catastrophic risks, how would you do so?
George Church: Well you can rank their probability based on past records. So, we have some records of supervolcanoes, solar activity, and asteroids. So that’s one way of calculating probability. And then you can also calculate the impact. So it’s a product, the probability and impact for the various kinds of recorded events. I mean I think they’re similar enough that I’m not sure I would rank order those three.
And then pandemics, whether natural or human-influenced, probably a little more common than those first three. And then climate change. There are historic records but it’s not clear that they’re predictive. The probability of an asteroid hitting probably is not influenced by human presence, but climate change probably is and so you’d need a different model for that. But I would say that that is maybe the most likely of the lot for having an impact.
Lucas Perry: Okay. The Future of Life Institute, the things that we’re primarily concerned about in terms of this existential risk category would be the risks from artificial general intelligence and superintelligence, also synthetic bio-risk coming up in the 21st century more and more, and then accidental nuclear war would also be very bad, maybe not an existential risk. That’s arguable. Those are sort of our central concerns in terms of the existential risk category.
Relatedly the Future of Life Institute sees itself as a part of the effective altruism community which when ranking global priorities, they have four areas of essential consideration for impact. The first is global poverty. The second is animal suffering. And the third is long-term future and existential risk issues, having to do mainly with anthropogenic existential risks. The fourth one is meta-effective altruism. So I don’t want to include that. They also tend to make the same ranking, being that mainly the long-term risks of advanced artificial intelligence are basically the key issues that they’re worried about.
How do you feel about these perspectives or would you change anything?
George Church: My feeling is that natural intelligence is ahead of artificial intelligence and will stay there for quite a while, partly because synthetic biology has a steeper slope and I’m including the enhanced natural intelligence in the synthetic biology. That has a steeper upward slope than totally inorganic computing now. But we can lump those together. We can say artificial intelligence writ large to include anything that our ancestors didn’t have in terms of intelligence, which could include enhancing our own intelligence. And I think especially should include corporate behavior. Corporate behavior is a kind of intelligence which is not natural, is wide spread, and it is likely to change, mutate, evolve very rapidly, faster than human generation times, probably faster than machine generation times.
Nukes I think are aging and maybe are less attractive as a defense mechanism. I think they’re being replaced by intelligence, artificial or otherwise, or collective and synthetic biology. I mean I think that if you wanted to have mutually assured destruction, it would be more cost-effective to do that with syn-bio. But I would still keep it on the list.
So I agree with that list. I’d just like nuanced changes to where the puck is likely to be going.
Lucas Perry: I see. So taking into account and reflecting on how technological change in the short to medium term will influence how one might want to rank these risks.
George Church: Yeah. I mean I just think that a collective human enhanced intelligence is going to be much more disruptive potentially than AI is. That’s just a guess. And I think that nukes will just be part of a collection of threatening things that people do. Probably it’s more threatening to cause collapse of a electric grid or a pandemic or some other economic crash than nukes.
Lucas Perry: That’s quite interesting and is very different than the story that I have in my head, and I think will also be very different than the story that many listeners have in their heads. Could you expand and unpack your timelines and beliefs about why you think the\at collective organic intelligence will be ahead of AI? Could you say, I guess, when you would expect AI to surpass collective bio intelligence and some of the reasons again for why?
George Church: Well, I don’t actually expect silicon-based intelligence to ever bypass in every category. I think it’s already super good at storage retrieval and math. But that’s subject to change. And I think part of the assumptions have been that we’ve been looking at a Moore’s law projection while most people haven’t been looking at the synthetic biology equivalent and haven’t noticed that the Moore’s law might finally be plateauing, at least as it was originally defined. So that’s part of the reason I think for the excessive optimism, if you will, about artificial intelligence.
Lucas Perry: The Moore’s law thing has to do with hardware and computation, right?
George Church: Yeah.
Lucas Perry: That doesn’t say anything about how algorithmic efficiency and techniques and tools are changing, and the access to big data. Something we’ve talked about on this podcast before is that many of the biggest insights and jumps in deep learning and neural nets haven’t come from new techniques but have come from more massive and massive amounts of compute on data.
George Church: Agree, but those data are also available to humans as big data. I think maybe the compromise here is that it’s some hybrid system. I’m just saying that humans plus big data plus silicon-based computers, even if they stay flat in hardware is going to win over either one of them separately. So maybe what I’m advocating is hybrid systems. Just like in your brain you have different parts of your brain that have different capabilities and functionality. In a hybrid system we would have the wisdom of crowds, plus compute engines, plus big data, but available to all the parts of the collective brain.
Lucas Perry: I see. So it’s kind of like, I don’t know if this is still true, but I think at least at some point it was true, that the best teams at chess were AIs plus humans?
George Church: Correct, yeah. I think that’s still true. But I think it will become even more true if we start altering human brains, which we have a tendency to try to do already via education and caffeine and things like that. But there’s really no particular limit to that.
Lucas Perry: I think one of the things that you said was that you don’t think that AI alone will ever be better than biological intelligence in all ways.
George Church: Partly because biological intelligence is a moving target. The first assumption was that the hardware would keep improving on Moore’s law, which it isn’t. The second assumption was that we would not alter biological intelligence. There’s one moving target which was silicon and biology was not moving, when in fact biology is moving at a steeper slope both in terms of hardware and algorithms and everything else and we’re just beginning to see that. So I think that when you consider both of those, it at least sows the seed of uncertainty as to whether AI is inevitably better than a hybrid system.
Lucas Perry: Okay. So let me just share the kind of story that I have in my head and then you can say why it might be wrong. AI researchers have been super wrong about predicting how easy it would be to make progress on AI in the past. So taking predictions with many grains of salt, if you interview say the top 100 AI researchers in the world, they’ll give a 50% probability of there being artificial general intelligence by 2050. That could be very wrong. But they gave like a 90% probability of there being artificial general intelligence by the end of the century.
And the story in my head says that I expect there to be bioengineering and genetic engineering continuing. I expect there to be designer babies. I expect there to be enhancements to human beings further and further on as we get into the century in increasing capacity and quality. But there are computational and substrate differences between computers and biological intelligence like the clock speed of computers can be much higher. They can compute much faster. And then also there’s this idea about the computational architectures in biological intelligences not being privileged or only uniquely available to biological organisms such that whatever the things that we think are really good or skillful or they give biological intelligences a big edge on computers could simply be replicated in computers.
And then there is an ease of mass manufacturing compute and then emulating those systems on computers such that the dominant and preferable form of computation in the future will not be on biological wetware but will be on silicon. And for that reason at some point there’ll just be a really big competitive advantage for the dominant form of compute and intelligence and life on the planet to be silicon based rather than biological based. What is your reaction to that?
George Church: You very nicely summarized what I think is a dominant worldview of people that are thinking about the future, and I’m happy to give a counterpoint. I’m not super opinionated but I think it’s worthy of considering both because the reason we’re thinking about the future is we don’t want to be blind sighted by it. And this could be happening very quickly by the way because both revolutions are ongoing as is the merger.
Now clock speed, my guess is that clock speed may not be quite as important as energy economy. And that’s not to say that both systems, let’s call them bio and non-bio, can’t optimize energy. But if you look back at sort of the history of evolution on earth, the fastest clock speeds, like bacteria and fruit flies, aren’t necessarily more successful in any sense than humans. They might have more bio mass, but I think humans are the only species with our slow clock speed relative to bacteria that are capable of protecting all of the species by taking us to a new planet.
And clock speed is only important if you’re in a direct competition in a fairly stable environment where the fastest bacteria win. But worldwide most of the bacteria are actually very slow growers. If you look at energy consumption right now, which both of them can improve, there are biological compute systems that are arguably a million times more energy-efficient at even tasks where the biological system wasn’t designed or evolved for that task, but it can kind of match. Now there are other things where it’s hard to compare, either because of the intrinsic advantage that either the bio or the non-bio system has, but where they are sort of on the same framework, it takes 100 kilowatts of power to run say Jeopardy! and Go on a computer and the humans that are competing are using considerably less than that, depending on how you calculate all the things that is required to support the 20 watt brain.
Lucas Perry: What do you think the order of efficiency difference is?
George Church: I think it’s a million fold right now. And this largely a hardware thing. I mean there is algorithmic components that will be important. But I think that one of the advantages that bio chemical systems have is that they are intrinsically atomically precise. While Moore’s law seem to be plateauing somewhere around 3 nanometer fabrication resolution, that’s off by maybe a thousand fold from atomic resolution. So that’s one thing, that as you go out many years, they will either be converging on or merging in some ways so that you get the advantages of atomic precision, the advantages of low energy and so forth. So that’s why I think that we’re moving towards a slightly more molecular future. It may not be recognizable as either our silicon von Neumann or other computers, nor totally recognizable as a society of humans.
Lucas Perry: So is your view that we won’t reach artificial general intelligence like the kind of thing which can reason about as well as about humans across all the domains that humans are able to reason? We won’t reach that on non-bio methods of computation first?
George Church: No, I think that we will have AGI in a number of different substrates, mechanical, silicon, quantum computing. Various substrates will be able of doing artificial general intelligence. It’s just that the ones that do it in a most economic way will be the ones that we will tend to use. There’ll be some cute museum that will have a collection of all the different ways, like the tinker toy computer that did Tic Tac Toe. Well, that’s in a museum somewhere next to Danny Hillis, but we’re not going to be using that for AGI. And I think there’ll be a series of artifacts like that, that in practice it will be very pragmatic collection of things that make economic sense.
So just for example, its easier to make a copy of a biological brain. Now that’s one thing that appears to be an advantage to non-bio computers right now, is you can make a copy of even large data sets for a fairly small expenditure of time, cost, and energy. While, to educate a child takes decades and in the end you don’t have anything totally resembling the parents and teachers. I think that’s subject to change. For example, we have now storage of data in DNA form, which is about a million times denser than any comprable non-chemical, non-biological system, and you can make a copy of it for hundreds of joules of energy and pennies. So you can hold an exabyte of data in the palm of your hand and you can make a copy of it relatively easy.
Now that’s not a mature technology, but it shows where we’re going. If we’re talking 100 years, there’s no particular reason why you couldn’t have that embedded in your brain and input and output to it. And by the way, the cost of copying that is very close to the thermodynamic limit for making copies of bits, while computers are nowhere near that. They’re off by a factor of a million.
Lucas Perry: Let’s see if I get this right. Your view is that there is this computational energy economy benefit. There is this precisional element which is of benefit, and that because there are advantages to biological computation, we will want to merge the best aspects of biological computation with non-biological in order to sort of get best of both worlds. So while there may be many different AGIs on offer on different substrates, the future looks like hybrids.
George Church: Correct. And it’s even possible that silicon is not in the mix. I’m not predicting that it’s not in the mix. I’m just saying it’s possible. It’s possible that an atomically precise computer is better at quantum computing or is better at clock time or energy.
Lucas Perry: All right. So I do have a question later about this kind of thing and space exploration and reducing existential risk via further colonization which I do want to get into later. I guess I don’t have too much more to say about our different stories around here. I think that what you’re saying is super interesting and challenging in very interesting ways. I guess the only thing I would have to say is I guess I don’t know enough, but you said that the computation energy economy is like a million fold more efficient.
George Church: That’s for copying bits, for DNA. For doing complex tasks for example, Go, Jeopardy! or Einstein’s Mirabilis, those kinds of things were typically competing a 20 watt brain plus support structure with a 100 kilowatt computer. And I would say at least in the case of Einstein’s 1905 we win, even though we lose at Go and Jeopardy!, which is another interesting thing, is that humans have a great deal more of variability. And if you take the extreme values like one person in one year, Einstein in 1905 as the representative rather than the average person and the average year for that person, well, if you make two computers, they are going to likely be nearly identical, which is both a plus and a minus in this case. Now if you make Einstein in 1905 the average for humans, then you have a completely different set of goalpost for the AGI than just being able to pass a basic Turing test where you’re simulating someone of average human interest and intelligence.
Lucas Perry: Okay. So two things from my end then. First is, do you expect AGI to first come from purely non-biological silicon-based systems? And then the second thing is no matter what the system is, do you still see the AI alignment problem as the central risk from artificial general intelligence and superintelligence, which is just aligning AIs with human values and goals and intentions?
George Church: I think the further we get from human intelligence, the harder it is to convince ourselves that we can educate, and whereas the better they will be at fooling us. It doesn’t mean they’re more intelligent than us. It’s just they’re alien. It’s like a wolf can fool us when we’re out in the woods.
Lucas Perry: Yeah.
George Church: So I think that exceptional humans are as hard to guarantee that we really understand their ethics. So if you have someone who is a sociopath or high functioning autistic, we don’t really know after 20 years of ethics education whether they actually are thinking about it the same way we are, or even in compatible way to the way that we are. We being in this case neurotypicals, although I’m not sure I am one. But anyway.
I think that this becomes a big problem with AGI, and it may actually put a damper on it. Part of the assumption so far is we won’t change humans because we have to get ethics approval for changing humans. But we’re increasingly getting ethics approval for changing humans. I mean gene therapies are now approved and increasing rapidly, all kinds of neuro-interfaces and so forth. So I think that that will change.
Meanwhile, the silicon-based AGI as we approached it, it will change in the opposite direction. It will be harder and harder to get approval to do manipulations in those systems, partly because there’s risk, and partly because there’s sympathy for the systems. Right now there’s very little sympathy for them. But as you got to the point where computers haven an AGI level of say IQ of 70 or something like that for a severely mentally disabled person so it can pass the Turing test, then they should start getting the rights of a disabled person. And once they have the rights of a disabled person, that would include the right to not be unplugged and the right to vote. And then that creates a whole bunch of problems that we won’t want to address, except as academic exercises or museum specimens that we can say, hey, 50 years ago we created this artificial general intelligence, just like we went to the Moon once. They’d be stunts more than practical demonstrations because they will have rights and because it will represent risks that will not be true for enhanced human societies.
So I think more and more we’re going to be investing in enhanced human societies and less and less in the uncertain silicon-based. That’s just a guess. It’s based not on technology but on social criteria.
Lucas Perry: I think that it depends what kind of ethics and wisdom that we’ll have at that point in time. Generally I think that we may not want to take conventional human notions of personhood and apply them to things where it might not make sense. Like if you have a system that doesn’t mind being shut off, but it can be restarted, why is it so unethical to shut it off? Or if the shutting off of it doesn’t make it suffer, suffering may be some sort of high level criteria.
George Church: By the same token you can make human beings that don’t mind being shut off. That won’t change our ethics much I don’t think. And you could also make computers that do mind being shut off, so you’ll have this continuum on both sides. And I think we will have sympathetic rules, but combined with the risk, which is the risk that they can hurt you, the risk that if you don’t treat them with respect, they will be more likely to hurt you, the risk that you’re hurting them without knowing it. For example, if you have somebody with locked-in syndrome, you could say, “Oh, they’re just a vegetable,” or you could say, “They’re actually feeling more pain than I am because they have no agency, they have no ability to control their situation.”
So I think creating computers that could have the moral equivalent of locked-in syndrome or some other pain without the ability to announce their pain could be very troubling to us. And we would only overcome it if that were a solution to an existential problem or had some gigantic economic benefit. I’ve already called that into question.
Lucas Perry: So then, in terms of the first AGI, do you have a particular substrate that you imagine that coming online on?
George Church: My guess is it will probably be very close to what we have right now. As you said, it’s going to be algorithms and databases and things like that. And it will be probably at first a stunt, in the same sense that Go and Jeopardy! are stunts. It’s not clear that those are economically important. A computer that could pass the Turing test, it will make a nice chat bots and phone answering machines and things like that. But beyond that it may not change our world, unless we solve energy issues and so. So I think to answer your question, we’re so close to it now that it might be based on an extrapolation of current systems.
Quantum computing I think is maybe a more special case thing. Just because it’s good at encryption, encryption is very societal utility. I haven’t yet seen encryption described as something that’s mission critical for space flight or curing diseases, other than the social components of those. And quantum simulation may be beaten by building actual quantum systems. So for example, atomically precise systems that you can build with synthetic biology are quantum systems that are extraordinarily hard to predict, but they’re very easy to synthesize and measure.
Lucas Perry: Is your view here that if the first AGI is on the economic and computational scale of a supercomputer such that we imagine that we’re still just leveraging really, really big amounts of data and we haven’t made extremely efficient advancements and algorithms such that the efficiency jumps a lot but rather the current trends continue and it’s just more and more data and maybe some algorithmic improvements, that the first system is just really big and clunky and expensive, and then that thing can self-recursively try to make itself cheaper, and then that the direction that that would move in would be increasingly creating hardware which has synthetic bio components.
George Church: Yeah, I’d think that that already exists in a certain sense. We have a hybrid system that is self-correcting, self-improving at an alarming rate. But it is a hybrid system. In fact, it’s such a complex hybrid system that you can’t point to a room where it can make a copy of itself. You can’t even point to a building, possibly not even a state where you can make a copy of this self-modifying system because it involves humans, it involves all kinds of fab labs scattered around the globe.
We could set a goal to be able to do that, but I would argue we’re much closer to achieving that goal with a human being. You can have a room where you only can make a copy of a human, and if that is augmentable, that human can also make computers. Admittedly it would be a very primitive computer if you restricted that human to primitive supplies and a single room. But anyway, I think that’s the direction we’re going. And we’re going to have to get good at doing things in confined spaces because we’re not going to be able to easily duplicate planet Earth, probably going to have to make a smaller version of it and send it off and how big that is we can discuss later.
Lucas Perry: All right. Cool. This is quite perspective shifting and interesting, and I will want to think about this more in general going forward. I want to spend just a few minutes on this next question. I think it’ll just help give listeners a bit of overview. You’ve talked about it in other places. But I’m generally interested in getting a sense of where we currently stand with the science of genetics in terms of reading and interpreting human genomes, and what we can expect on the short to medium term horizon in human genetic and biological sciences for health and longevity?
George Church: Right. The short version is that we have gotten many factors of 10 improvement in speed, cost, accuracy, and interpretability, 10 million fold reduction in price from $3 billion for a poor quality genomic non-clinical quality sort of half a genome in that each of us have two genomes, one from each parent. So we’ve gone from $3 billion to $300. It will probably be $100 by the middle of year, and then will keep dropping. There’s no particular second law of thermodynamics or Heisenberg stopping us, at least for another million fold. That’s where we are in terms of technically being able to read and for that matter write DNA.
But the interpretation certainly there are genes that we don’t know what they do, there are disease that we don’t know what causes them. There’s a great vast amount of ignorance. But that ignorance may not be as impactful as sometimes we think. It’s often said that common diseases or so called complex multi-genic diseases are off in the future. But I would reframe that slightly for everyone’s consideration, that many of these common diseases are diseases of aging. Not all of them but many, many of them that we care about. And it could be that attacking aging as a specific research program may be more effective than trying to list all the millions of small genetic changes that has small phenotypic effects on these complex diseases.
So that’s another aspect of the interpretation where we don’t necessarily have to get super good at so called polygenic risk scores. We will. We are getting better at it, but it could be in the end a lot of the things that we got so excited about precision medicine, and I’ve been one of the champions of precision medicine since before it was called that. But precision medicine has a potential flaw in it, which is it’s the tendency to work on the reactive cures for specific cancers and inherited diseases and so forth when the preventative form of it which could be quite generic and less personalized might be more cost-effective and humane.
So for example, taking inherited diseases, we have a million to multi-million dollars spent on people having inherited diseases per individual, while a $100 genetic diagnosis could be used to prevent that. And generic solutions like aging reversal or aging prevention might stop cancer more effectively than trying to stop it once it gets to metastatic stage, which there is a great deal of resources put into that. That’s my update on where genomics is. There’s a lot more that could be said.
Yeah. As a complete lay person in terms of biological sciences, stopping aging to me sounds like repairing and cleaning up human DNA and the human genome such that information that is lost over time is repaired. Correct me if I’m wrong or explain a little bit about what the solution to aging might look like.
George Church: I think there’s two kind of closer related schools of thought which one is that there’s damage that you need to go in there and fix the way you would fix a pothole. And the other is that there’s regulation that informs the system how to fix itself. I believe in both. I tend to focus on the second one.
If you take a very young cell, say a fetal cell. It has a tendency to repair much better than an 80-year-old adult cell. The immune system of a toddler is much more capable than that of a 90-year-old. This isn’t necessarily due to damage. This is due to the epigenetic so called regulation of the system. So one cell is convinced that it’s young. I’m going to use some anthropomorphic terms here. So you can take an 80-year-old cell, actually up to 100 years is now done, reprogram it into an embryo like state through for example Yamanaka factors named after Shinya Yamanaka. And that reprogramming resets many, not all, of the features such that it now behaves like a young non-senescent cell. While you might have taken it from a 100-year-old fibroblast that would only replicate a few times before it senesced and died.
Things like that seem to convince us that aging is reversible and you don’t have to micromanage it. You don’t have to go in there and sequence the genome and find every bit of damage and repair it. The cell will repair itself.
Now there are some things like if you delete a gene it’s gone unless you have a copy of it, in which case you could copy it over. But those cells will probably die off. And the same thing happens in the germline when you’re passing from parent to kid, those sorts of things that can happen and the process of weeding them out is not terribly humane right now.
Lucas Perry: Do you have a sense or timelines on progress of aging throughout the century?
George Church: There’s been a lot of wishful thinking for centuries on this topic. But I think we have a wildly different scenario now, partly because this exponential improvement in technologies, reading and writing DNA and the list goes on and on in cell biology and so forth. So I think we suddenly have a great deal of knowledge of causes of aging and ways to manipulate those to reverse it. And I think these are all exponentials and we’re going to act on them very shortly.
We already are seeing some aging drugs, small molecules that are in clinical trials. My lab just published a combination gene therapy that will hit five different diseases of aging in mice and now it’s in clinical trials in dogs and then hopefully in a couple of years it will be in clinical trials in humans.
We’re not talking about centuries here. We’re talking about the sort of time that it takes to get things through clinical trails, which is about a decade. And a lot of stuff going on in parallel which then after one decade of parallel trials would be merging into combined trials. So a couple of decades.
Lucas Perry: All right. So I’m going to get in trouble in here if I don’t talk to you about synthetic bio risk. So, let’s pivot into that. What are your views and perspectives on the dangers to human civilization that an increasingly widespread and more advanced science of synthetic biology will pose?
George Church: I think it’s a significant risk. Getting back to the very beginning of our conversation, I think it’s probably one of the most significant existential risks. And I think that preventing it is not as easy as nukes. Not that nukes are easy, but it’s harder. Partly because it’s becoming cheaper and the information is becoming more widespread.
But it is possible. Part of it depends on having many more positive societally altruistic do gooders than do bad. It would be helpful if we could also make a big impact on poverty and diseases associated poverty and psychiatric disorders. The kind of thing that causes unrest and causes dissatisfaction is what tips the balance where one rare individual or a small team will do something that otherwise it would be unthinkable for even them. But if they’re sociopaths or they are representing a disadvantaged category of people then they feel justified.
So we have to get at some of those core things. It would also be helpful if we were more isolated. Right now we are very well mixed pot, which puts us both at risk for natural, as well as engineered diseases. So if some of us lived in sealed environments on Earth that are very similar to the sealed environments that we would need in space, that would both prepare us for going into space. And some of them would actually be in space. And so the further we are away from the mayhem of our wonderful current society, the better. If we had a significant fraction of population that was isolated, either on earth or elsewhere, it would lower the risk of all of us dying.
Lucas Perry: That makes sense. What are your intuitions about the offense/defense balance on synthetic bio risk? Like if we have 95% to 98% synthetic bio do gooders and a small percentage of malevolent actors or actors who want more power, how do you see the relative strength and weakness of offense versus defense?
George Church: I think as usual it’s a little easier to do offense. It can go back and forth. Certainly it seems easier to defend yourself from a ICBM than from something that could be spread in a cough. And we’re seeing that in spades right now. I think the fraction of white hats versus black hats is much better than 98% and it has to be. It has to be more like a billion to one. And even then it’s very risky. But yeah, it’s not easy to protect.
Now you can do surveillance so that you can restrict research as best you can, but it’s a numbers game. It’s combination of removing incentives, adding strong surveillance, whistleblowers that are not fearful of false positives. The suspicious package in the airport should be something you look at, even though most of them are not actually bombs. We should tolerate a very high rate of false positives. But yes, surveillance is not something we’re super good at it. It falls in the category of preventative medicine. And we would far prefer to do reactive, is to wait until somebody releases some pathogen and then say, “Oh, yeah, yeah, we can prevent that from happening again in the future.”
Lucas Perry: Is there a opportunity for boosting or beefing a human immune system or a public early warning detection systems of powerful and deadly synthetic bio agents?
George Church: Well so, yes is the simple answer. If we boost our immune systems in a public way — which it almost would have to be, there’d be much discussion about how to do that — then pathogens that get around those boosts might become more common. In terms of surveillance, I proposed in 2004 that we had an opportunity and still do of doing surveillance on all synthetic DNA. I think that really should be 100% worldwide. Right now it’s 80% or so. That is relatively inexpensive to fully implement. I mean the fact that we’ve done 80% already closer to this.
Lucas Perry: Yeah. So, funny enough I was actually just about to ask you about that paper that I think you’re referencing. So in 2004 you wrote A Synthetic Biohazard Non-proliferation Proposal, in anticipation of a growing dual use risk of synthetic biology, which proposed in part the sale and registry of certain synthesis machines to verified researchers. If you were to write a similar proposal today, are there some base elements of it you would consider including, especially since the ability to conduct synthetic biology research has vastly proliferated since then? And just generally, are you comfortable with the current governance of dual use research?
George Church: I probably would not change that 2004 white paper very much. Amazingly the world has not changed that much. There still are a very limited number of chemistries and devices and companies, so that’s a bottleneck which you can regulate and is being regulated by the International Gene Synthesis Consortium, IGSC. I did advocate back then and I’m still advocating that we get closer to an international agreement. Two sectors generally in the United Nations have said casually that they would be in favor of that, but we need essentially every level from the UN all the way down to local governments.
There’s really very little pushback today. There was some pushback back in 2004 where the company’s lawyers felt that they would be responsible or there would be an invasion of privacy of their customers. But I think eventually the rationale of high risk avoidance won out, so now it’s just a matter of getting full compliance.
One of these unfortunate things that the better you are at avoiding an existential risk, the less people know about it. In fact, we did so well on Y2K makes it uncertain as to whether we needed to do anything about Y2K at all, and I think hopefully the same thing will be true for a number of disasters that we avoid without most of the population even knowing how close we were.
Lucas Perry: So the main surveillance intervention here would be heavy monitoring and regulation and tracking of the synthesis machines? And then also a watch dog organization which would inspect the products of said machines?
George Church: Correct.
Lucas Perry: Okay.
George Church: Right now most of the DNA is ordered. You’ll send on the internet your order. They’ll send back the DNA. Those same principles have to apply to desktop devices. It has to get some kind of approval to show that you are qualified to make a particular DNA before the machine will make that DNA. And it has to be protected against hardware and software hacking which is a challenge. But again, it’s a numbers game.
Lucas Perry: So on the topic of biological risk, we’re currently in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. What do you think humanity should take as lessons from COVID-19?
George Church: Well, I think the big one is testing. Testing is probably the fastest way out of it right now. The geographical locations that have pulled out of it fastest were the ones that were best at testing and isolation. If your testing is good enough, you don’t even have to have very good contact tracing, but that’s also valuable. The longer shots are cures and vaccines and those are not entirely necessary and they are long-term and uncertain. There’s no guarantee that we will come up with a cure or a vaccine. For example, HIV, TB and malaria do not have great vaccines, and most of them don’t have great stable cures. HIV is a full series of cures over time. But not even cures. They’re more maintenance, management.
I sincerely hope that coronavirus is not in that category of HIV, TB, and malaria. But we can’t do public health based on hopes alone. So testing. I’ve been requesting a bio weather map and working towards improving the technology to do so since around 2002, which was before the SARS 2003, as part of the inspiration for the personal genome project, was this bold idea of bio weather map. We should be at least as interested in what biology is doing geographically as we are about what the low pressure fronts are doing geographically. It could be extremely inexpensive, certainly relative to the multi-trillion dollar cost for one disease.
Lucas Perry: So given the ongoing pandemic, what has COVID-19 demonstrated about human global systems in relation to existential and global catastrophic risk?
George Church: I think it’s a dramatic demonstration that we’re more fragile than we would like to believe. It’s a demonstration that we tend to be more reactive than proactive or preventative. And it’s a demonstration that we’re heterogeneous. That there are geographical reasons and political systems that are better prepared. And I would say at this point the United States is probably among the least prepared, and that was predictable by people who thought about this in advance. Hopefully we will be adequately prepared that we will not emerge from this as a third world nation. But that is still a possibility.
I think it’s extremely important to make our human systems, especially global systems more resilient. It would be nice to take as examples the countries that did the best or even towns that did the best. For example, the towns of Vo, Italy and I think Bolinas, California, and try to spread that out to the regions that did the worst. Just by isolation and testing, you can eliminate it. That sort of thing is something that we should have worldwide. To make the human systems more resilient we can alter our bodies, but I think very effective is altering our social structures so that we are testing more frequently, we’re constantly monitoring both zoonotic sources and testing bushmeat and all the places where we’re getting too close to the animals. But also testing our cities and all the environments that humans are in so that we have a higher probability of seeing patient zero before they become a patient.
Lucas Perry: The last category that you brought up at the very beginning of this podcast was preventative measures and part of that was not having all of our eggs in the same basket. That has to do with say Mars colonization or colonization of other moons which are perhaps more habitable and then eventually to Alpha Centauri and beyond. So with advanced biology and advanced artificial intelligence, we’ll have better tools and information for successful space colonization. What do you see as the main obstacles to overcome for colonizing the solar system and beyond?
George Church: So we’ll start with the solar system. Most of the solar system is not pleasant compared to Earth. It’s a vacuum and it’s cold, including Mars and many of the moons. There are moons that have more water, more liquid water than Earth, but it requires some drilling to get down to it typically. There’s radiation. There’s low gravity. And we’re not adaptive.
So we might have to do some biological changes. They aren’t necessarily germline but they’ll be the equivalent. There are things that you could do. You can simulate gravity with centrifuges and you can simulate the radiation protection we have on earth with magnetic fields and thick shielding, equivalent of 10 meters of water or dirt. But there will be a tendency to try to solve those problems. There’ll be issues of infectious disease, which ones we want to bring with us and which ones we want to quarantine away from. That’s an opportunity more than a uniquely space related problem.
A lot of the barriers I think are biological. We need to practice building colonies. Right now we have never had a completely recycled human system. We have completely recycled plant and animal systems but none that are humans, and that is partly having to do with social issues, hygiene and eating practices and so forth. I think that can be done, but it should be tested on Earth because the consequences of failure on a moon or non-earth planet is much more severe than if you test it out on Earth. We should have thousands, possibly millions of little space colonies on Earth since one of my pet projects is making that so that it’s economically feasible on Earth. Only by heavy testing at that scale will we find the real gotchas and failure modes.
And then final barrier, which is more in the category that people think about is the economies of, if you do the physics calculation how much energy it takes to raise a kilogram into orbit or out of orbit, it’s much, much less than the cost per kilogram, orders of magnitude than what we currently do. So there’s some opportunity for improvement there. So that’s in the solar system.
Outside of the solar system let’s say Proxima B, Alpha Centauri and things of that range, there’s nothing particularly interesting between here and there, although there’s nothing to stop us from occupying the vacuum of space. To get to four and a half light years either requires a revolution in propulsion and sustainability in a very small container, or a revolution in the size of the container that we’re sending.
So, one pet project that I’m working on is trying to make a nanogram size object that would contain the information sufficiently for building a civilization or at least building a communication device that’s much easier to accelerate and decelerate a nanogram than it is to do any of the scale of space probes we currently use.
Lucas Perry: Many of the issues that human beings will face within the solar system and beyond machines or synthetic computation that exist today seems more robust towards. Again, there are the things which you’ve already talked about like the computational efficiency and precision for self-repair and other kinds of things that modern computers may not have. So I think just a little bit of perspective on that would be useful, like why we might not expect that machines would take the place of humans in many of these endeavors.
George Church: Well, so for example, we would be hard pressed to even estimate, I haven’t seen a good estimate yet, of a self-contained device that could make a copy of itself from dirt or whatever, the chemicals that are available to it on a new planet. But we do know how to do that with humans or hybrid systems.
Here’s a perfect example of a hybrid system. Is a human can’t just go out into space. It needs a spaceship. A spaceship can’t go out into space either. It needs a human. So making a replicating system seems like a good idea, both because we are replicating systems and it lowers the size of the package you need to send. So if you want to have a million people in the Alpha Centauri system, it might be easier just to send a few people and a bunch of frozen embryos or something like that.
Sending a artificial general intelligence is not sufficient. It has to also be able to make a copy of itself, which I think is a much higher hurdle than just AGI. I think AGI, we will achieve before we achieve AGI plus replication. It may not be much before, it will be probably be before.
In principle, a lot of organisms, including humans, start from single cells and mammals tend to need more support structure than most other vertebrates. But in principle if you land a vertebrate fertilized egg in an aquatic environment, it will develop and make copies of itself and maybe even structures.
So my speculation is that there exist a nanogram cell that’s about the size of a lot of vertebrate eggs. There exists a design for a nanogram that would be capable of dealing with a wide variety of harsh environments. We have organisms that thrive everywhere between the freezing point of water and the boiling point or 100 plus degrees at high pressure. So you have this nanogram that is adapted to a variety of different environments and can reproduce, make copies of itself, and built into it is a great deal of know-how about building things. The same way that building a nest is built into a bird’s DNA, you could have programmed into an ability to build computers or a radio or laser transmitters so it could communicate and get more information.
So a nanogram could travel at close the speed of light and then communicate at close the speed of light once it replicates. I think that illustrates the value of hybrid systems, within this particular case a high emphasis on the biochemical, biological components that’s capable of replicating as the core thing that you need for efficient transport.
Lucas Perry: If your claim about hybrid systems is true, then if we extrapolate it to say the deep future, then if there’s any other civilizations out there, then the form in which we will meet them will likely also be hybrid systems.
And this point brings me to reflect on something that Nick Bostrom talks about, the great filters which are supposed points in the evolution and genesis of life throughout the cosmos that are very difficult for life to make it through those evolutionary leaps, so almost all things don’t make it through the filter. And this is hypothesized to be a way of explaining the Fermi paradox, why is it that there are hundreds of billions of galaxies and we don’t see any alien superstructures or we haven’t met anyone yet?
So, I’m curious to know if you have any thoughts or opinions on what the main great filters to reaching interstellar civilization might be?
George Church: Of all the questions you’ve asked, this is the one where i’m most uncertain. I study among other things how life originated, in particular how we make complex biopolymers, so ribosomes making proteins for example, the genetic code. That strikes me as a pretty difficult thing to have arisen. That’s one filter. Maybe much earlier than many people would think.
Another one might be lack of interest that once you get to a certain level of sophistication, you’re happy with your life, your civilization, and then typically you’re overrun by someone or something that is more primitive from your perspective. And then they become complacent, and the cycle repeats itself.
Or the misunderstanding of resources. I mean we’ve seen a number of island civilizations that have gone extinct because they didn’t have a sustainable ecosystem, or they might turn inward. You know, like Easter Island, they got very interested in making statutes and tearing down trees in order to do that. And so they ended up with an island that didn’t have any trees. They didn’t use those trees to build ships so they could populate the rest of the planet. They just miscalculated.
So all of those could be barriers. I don’t know which of them it is. There probably are many planets and moons where if we transplanted life, it would thrive there. But it could be that just making life in the first place is hard and then making intelligence and civilizations that care to grow outside of their planet. It might be hard to detect them if they’re growing in a subtle way.
Lucas Perry: I think the first thing you brought up might be earlier than some people expect, but I think for many people thinking about great filters it is not like abiogenesis, if that’s the right word, seems really hard getting the first self-replicating things in the ancient oceans going. There seemed to be loss of potential filters from there to multi-cellular organisms and then general intelligences like people and beyond.
George Church: But many empires have just become complacent and they’ve been overtaken by perfectly obvious technology that they could’ve at least kept up with by spying, if not by invention. But they became complacent. They seem to plateau at roughly the same place. We’re plateauing more or less the same place the Easter Islanders and the Roman Empire plateaued. Today I mean the slight differences that we are maybe space faring civilization now.
Lucas Perry: Barely.
George Church: Yeah.
Lucas Perry: So, climate change has been something that you’ve been thinking about a bunch it seems. You have the Woolly Mammoth Project which we don’t need to necessarily get into here. But are you considering or are you optimistic about other methods of using genetic engineering for combating climate change?
George Church: Yeah, I think genetic engineering has potential. Most of the other things we talk about putting in LEDs or slightly more efficient car engines, solar power and so forth. And these are slowing down the inevitable rather than reversing it. To reverse it we need to take carbon out of the air, and a really, great way to do that is with photosynthesis, partly because it builds itself. So if we just allow the Arctic to do the photosynthesis the way it used to, we could get a net loss of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and put it into the ground rather than releasing a lot.
That’s part of the reason that I’m obsessed with Arctic solutions and the Arctic Ocean is also similar. It’s the place where you get upwelling of nutrients, and so you get a natural, very high rate of carbon fixation. It’s just you also have a high rate of carbon consumption back into carbon dioxide. So if you could change that cycle a little bit. So that I think both Arctic land and ocean is a very good place to reverse carbon and accumulation in the atmosphere, and I think that that is best done with synthetic biology.
Now the barriers have historically been release of recombinant DNA into the wild. We now have salmon which are essentially in the wild, the humans that are engineered that are in the wild, and we have golden rice is now finally after more than a decade of tussle being used in the Philippines.
So I think we’re going to see more and more of that. To some extent even the plants of agriculture are in the wild. This is one of the things that was controversial, was that the pollen was going all over the place. But I think there’s essentially zero examples of recombinant DNA causing human damage. And so we just need to be cautious about our environmental decision making.
Lucas Perry: All right. Now taking kind of a sharp pivot here. In the philosophy of consciousness there is a distinction between the hard problem of consciousness and the easy problem. The hard problem is why is it that computational systems have something that it is like to be that system? Why is there a first person phenomenal perspective and experiential perspective filled with what one might call qualia. Some people reject the hard problem as being an actual thing and prefer to say that consciousness is an illusion or is not real. Other people are realists about consciousness and they believe phenomenal consciousness is substantially real and is on the same ontological or metaphysical footing as other fundamental forces of nature, or that perhaps consciousness discloses the intrinsic nature of the physical.
And then the easy problems are how is that we see, how is that light enters the eyes and gets computed, how is it that certain things are computationally related to consciousness?
David Chalmers calls another problem here, the meta problem of consciousness, which is why is it that we make reports about consciousness? Why is that we even talk about consciousness? Particularly if it’s an illusion? Maybe it’s performing some kind of weird computational efficiency. And if it is real, there seems to be some tension between the standard model of physics, being pretty complete feeling, and then how is it that we would be making reports about something that doesn’t have real causal efficacy if there’s nothing real to add to the standard model?
Now you have the Human Connectome Project which would seem to help a lot with the easy problems of consciousness and maybe might have something to say about the meta problem. So I’m curious to know if you have particular views on consciousness or how the Human Connectome Project might relate to that interest?
George Church: Okay. So I think that consciousness is real and it has selective advantage. Part of reality to a biologist is evolution, and I think it’s somewhat coupled to free will. I think of them as even though they are real and hard to think about, they may be easier than we often lay on, and this is when you think of it from an evolutionary standpoint or also from a simulation standpoint.
I can really only evaluate consciousness and the qualia by observations. I can only imagine that you have something similar to what I feel by what you do. And from that standpoint it wouldn’t be that hard to make a synthetic system that displayed consciousness that would be nearly impossible to refute. And as that system replicated and took on a life of its own, let’s say it’s some hybrid biological, non-biological system that displays consciousness, to really convincingly display consciousness it would also have to have some general intelligence or at least pass the Turing test.
But it would have evolutionary advantage in that it could think or could reason about itself. It recognizes the difference between itself and something else. And this has been demonstrated already in robots. There are admittedly kind of proof of concept demos. Like you have robots that can tell themselves in a reflection in a mirror from other people to operate upon their own body by removing dirt from their face, which is only demonstrated in a handful of animal species and recognize their own voice.
So you can see how these would have evolutionary advantages and they could be simulated to whatever level of significance is necessarily to convince an objective observer that they are conscious as far as you know, to the same extent that I know that you are.
So I think the hard problem is a worthy one. I think it is real. It has evolutionary consequences. And free will is related in that free will I think is a game theory which is if you behave in a completely deterministic predictable way, all the organisms around you have an advantage over you. They know that you are going to do a certain thing and so they can anticipate that, they can steal your food, they can bite you, they can do whatever they want. But if you’re unpredictable, which is essentially free will, in this case it can be a random number generator or dice, you now have a selective advantage. And to some extent you could have more free will than the average human, though the average human is constrained by all sorts of social mores and rules and laws and things like that, that something with more free will might not be.
Lucas Perry: I guess I would just want to tease a part self-consciousness from consciousness in general. I think that one can have a first person perspective without having a sense of self or being able to reflect on one’s own existence as a subject in the world. I also feel a little bit confused about why consciousness would provide an evolutionary advantage, where consciousness is the ability to experience things, I guess I have some intuitions about it not being causal like having causal efficacy because the standard model doesn’t seem to be missing anything essentially.
And then your point on free will makes sense. I think that people mean very different things here. I think within common discourse, there is a much more spooky version of free will which we can call libertarian free will, which says that you could’ve done otherwise and it’s more closely related to religion and spirituality, which I reject and I think most people listening to this would reject. I just wanted to point that out. Your take on free will makes sense and is the more scientific and rational version.
George Church: Well actually, I could say they could’ve done otherwise. If you consider that religious, that is totally compatible with flipping the coin. That helps you do otherwise. If you could take the same scenario, you could do something differently. And that ability to do otherwise is of selective advantage. As indeed religions can be of a great selective advantage in certain circumstances.
So back to consciousness versus self-consciousness, I think they’re much more intertwined. I’d be cautious about trying to disentangle them too much. I think your ability to reason about your own existence as being separate from other beings is very helpful for say self-grooming, for self-protection, so forth. And I think that maybe consciousness that is not about oneself may be a byproduct of that.
The greater your ability to reason about yourself versus others, your hand versus the piece of wood in your hands makes you more successful. Even if you’re not super intelligent, just the fact that you’re aware that you’re different from the entity that you’re competing with is a advantage. So I find it not terribly useful to make a giant rift between consciousness and self-consciousness.
Lucas Perry: Okay. So I’m becoming increasingly mindful of your time. We have five minutes left here so I’ve just got one last question for you and I need just a little bit to set it up. You’re vegan as far as I understand.
George Church: Yes.
Lucas Perry: And the effective altruism movement is particularly concerned with animal suffering. We’ve talked a lot about genetic engineering and its possibilities. David Pearce has written something called The Hedonistic Imperative which outlines a methodology and philosophy for using genetic engineering for voluntarily editing out suffering. So that can be done both for wild animals and it could be done for the human species and our descendants.
So I’m curious to know what your view is on animal suffering generally in the world, and do you think about or have thoughts on genetic engineering for wild animal suffering in places outside of human civilization? And then finally, do you view a role for genetic engineering and phasing out human suffering, making it biologically impossible by re-engineering people to operate on gradients of intelligent bliss?
George Church: So I think this kind of difficult problem, a technique that I employ is I imagine what this would be like on another planet and in the future, and whether given that imagined future, we would be willing to come back to where we are now. Rather than saying whether we’re willing to go forward, they ask whether you’re willing to come back. Because there’s a great deal of appropriate respect for inertia and the way things have been. Sometimes it’s called natural, but I think natural includes the future and everything that’s manmade, as well, we’re all part of nature. So I think it’s more of the way things were. So if you go to the future and ask whether we’d be willing to come back is a different way of looking.
I think in going to another planet, we might want to take a limited set of organisms with us, and we might be tempted to make them so that they don’t suffer, including humans. There is a certain amount of let’s say pain which could be a little red light going off on your dashboard. But the point of pain is to get your attention. And you could reframe that. People are born with chronic insensitivity to pain, CIPA, genetically, and they tend to get into problems because they will chew their lips and other body parts and get infected, or they will jump from high places because it doesn’t hurt and break things they shouldn’t break.
So you need some kind of alarm system that gets your attention that cannot be ignored. But I think it could be something that people would complain about less. It might even be more effective because you could prioritize it.
I think there’s a lot of potential there. By studying people that have chronic insensitivity to pain, you could even make that something you could turn on and off. SCNA9 for example is a channel in human neuro system that doesn’t cause the dopey effects of opioids. You can be pain-free without being compromised intellectually. So I think that’s a very promising direction to think about this problem.
Lucas Perry: Just summing that up. You do feel that it is technically feasible to replace pain with some other kind of informationally sensitive thing that could have the same function for reducing and mitigating risk and signaling damage?
George Church: We can even do better. Right now we’re unaware of certain physiological states can be quite hazardous and we’re blind to for example all the pathogens in the air around us. These could be new signaling. It wouldn’t occur to me to make every one of those painful. It would be better just to see the pathogens and have little alarms that go off. It’s much more intelligent.
Lucas Perry: That makes sense. So wrapping up here, if people want to follow your work, or follow you on say Twitter or other social media, where is the best place to check out your work and to follow what you do?
George Church: My Twitter is @geochurch. And my website is easy to find just by google, but it’s arep.med.harvard.edu. Those are two best places.
Lucas Perry: All right. Thank you so much for this. I think that a lot of the information you provided about the skillfulness and advantages of biology and synthetic computation will challenge many of the intuitions of our usual listeners and people in general. I found this very interesting and valuable, and yeah, thanks so much for coming on.
George Church: Okay. Great. Thank you.