Hacking Darwin: Interview with Futurist Jamie Metzl

For those who may not know you and your background, how would you describe yourself and your place in the world right now?

I’m a technology futurist and a geopolitical expert. Those two pieces are really important—now more than ever—because they go together. What we’re experiencing in the world is a governance crisis because we didn’t have a fully empowered World Health Organization and the governments of China, the United States and elsewhere totally failed, which has morphed into a health crisis, which then turned into an economic crisis, which over the coming months will transform into a series of national political crises, then a global geopolitical crisis. So, my world as a technology futurist, and my other world as a geopolitical expert and former member of the US national security combatant, former staff of the US National Security Council, and as a China expert, are all intersecting at this moment. But technically, my background is as a JD, PhD. I’m a member of the World Health Organization international advisory committee on human genome editing, a Senior Fellow of the Atlantic Council, and of course, a member of the Singularity University Exponential Medicine faculty.

And you are re-launching your book, Hacking Darwin?

Yes it’s the highly revised paperback edition that updates on a lot of things, but the most significant update is the full story of the world’s first three CRISPR babies who were born in China over the past 18 months. It’s also that the world of genetics and biotech is moving so incredibly rapidly that a year is a very, very long time. When we think back, it was only in 2012 that Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier had the seminal paper on CRISPR-Cas9, and it was only six years later when the world’s first genome edited human baby was born. The science is moving at warp speed, and that speed is only getting faster.

That is the definition of exponential. 

That’s what we’re experiencing right now. It’s not just that one technology is exponential. It’s that multiple technologies are, and because we’re seeing a super convergence of the technologies, these spur on accelerations elsewhere. That’s the essence of exponential realities. Everything is speeding up, and as one thing gets faster, it makes another thing faster, which makes the first thing faster, and it levers up.

Your initial point has become apparent—that perhaps the biggest need for the world right now is in governance and how we create or adapt systems that can actually keep up with the pace of change. Even before COVID-19, I think we could see some of the slow fracturing of different geo-political systems. Now it’s being accelerated and illuminated.

Governance is the foundation of everything. The reason why the world’s best science is coming out of the United States isn’t that people in America are smarter than people in any other country. It’s that we have a governance system—and a scientific and academic and intellectual and societal infrastructure—that allows people’s talents to be realized.

So, governance is the foundation for all of our societies. Within that context, though, science has become truly revolutionary, and scientists and technologies span national boundaries. That’s become a force in and of itself.

Now there’s a race because science is advancing exponentially, but our governance and regulatory infrastructures are not only not able to keep up, they’re also being burdened and pulled down under the waste of their own inefficiency. This mismatch is really dangerous because science and technology alone could solve some of our problems, but they could also exacerbate our problems. Governance creates a framework in which we can do our best to make sure that our most sacred ethics guide the application of our most powerful technologies.

With that in mind, the CRISPR babies being born in China—what are the implications of that?

I’m a member of the World Health Organization international advisory committee on human genome editing. Our committee was established in the aftermath of the announcement by He Jiankui in November 2018 that the world’s first genome edited babies had been born. It immediately became clear that the regulatory infrastructure within countries and internationally had not kept up with the needs of this rapidly advancing technology. So there is a big gap between our technological capability and the governance infrastructure that we must have to help ensure that these technologies are used wisely for the common good.

Do you see that solution being more global, or existing within each country’s borders? 

It has to be both. Every country needs to have a regulatory system for governing—not just genetic technologies, but all of these revolutionary technologies—that aligns with both that country’s values, traditions and customs, and international best practices. On top of that, we need a global layer of governance, particularly when the issues that are being considered touch the core of our very humanity, as do genetic technologies.

Now that the use of CRISPR is a reality, what are the immediate and long-term impacts on people’s lives?

We’ve already begun our journey forward. The first area is the transition from generalized healthcare to precision and predictive healthcare. We are moving very quickly toward precision healthcare based on each person’s individual biology, but once we have very large data sets of millions and ultimately billions of people’s genotypic and phenotypic information, we’re going to be able to use predictive analytics to make very well-informed guesses about how certain aspects of peoples’ lives are more or less likely to play out.

This will allow us to be much more proactive in our application of healthcare to prevent terrible risks from being realized. But it will also change the way we think about parenting and identity because we are going to know more—never everything, but more—about peoples’ range of capabilities from soon after, or even before their birth.

The other application of these technologies is going to be in human reproduction. One of the reasons why I write about the coming end of procreative sex is that we are going to increasingly use IVF embryo screening and limited genome editing of embryos, and it will change the way we think about how humans pass our inheritance to the next generation.

What are the ethical implications of that? What do you say to people who feel uncomfortable with that concept? 

Science brings us to the conversation, but this is not ultimately a conversation about science. This is ultimately a conversation about ethics. The technologies we are describing touch the very core of what it means to be a human being, and no group of scientists, however well intentioned, have the right to make big decisions on behalf of our entire species. That’s why in this book, and in my life, I’m spending so much of my energy calling for what I’m calling a species-wide dialogue on the future of human genetic engineering, because we as a species have some very fundamental decisions to make.

We are not a species that just accepts nature as it found us. That’s why we developed agriculture, and medicine, and cities, and all of these things that are not natural compared to how our ancestors lived. We now have the ability to use our almost godlike technologies to remove some very terrible risks of genetic disorders that nobody wants for themselves or for their children. But these powers come with great responsibilities, so we need to have inclusive processes that allow us to move forward in a careful way that considers risks and rewards.

What’s your prediction for a realistic timeline of this becoming part of everyday life?

The genetics revolution is not coming, it’s already here. It’s already fundamentally transforming our healthcare system and the way we’re responding to the current Coronavirus crisis because the viral genome was sequenced within two weeks. It’s changing the way we’re thinking about identity through our direct to consumer genetics and how people are using that information. And it’s already here in the growing number of people who are using IVF and genetically informed embryo selection to make procreative decisions. If anyone thinks this is sci fi, the existence of three genome edited humans in this world ought to dispel that notion.

Many of our Singularity community members are leading large organizations, or creating new ones. Genetic technologies could have a massive impact across a variety of industries. What are the main impacts you foresee?

Genetic technologies, and the biotech revolution more broadly, will fundamentally transform the way we do healthcare, and the way we procreate. But the transition that we are all going through now is even more profound. One of the things that the coronavirus crisis has done is it has massively accelerated trends that may have taken much longer to be realized. Our lives are going to go virtual faster than they otherwise would have, and we’re going to deploy genetic technologies faster than we otherwise might have. That’s what wars do. When we look back at the second world war and how many innovations came out of that experience, that’s the magnitude of the change that we’re now living in.

There are many people who compare 2020 with 2001, the year of the 9/11 attacks. I believe the real parallel with 2020 is 1941, when the war was just beginning and there was a huge fight ahead, but already people like FDR and Churchill were imagining and articulating the contours of a better world. Amidst all the pain and destruction that’s happening now, the Singularity community has an essential role: coming together, not just in an imagined way, not just in imagining a better world, but in working together to help build a road from here to there.

For people who want to get involved in building the future and educating themselves on the impacts of genetic technologies, no matter what their background is, what’s the best way to get started?

I’ve certainly written my book, Hacking Darwin, for people with exactly that aspiration, and there are lots of other great resources. I included a reader’s guide in my book that can help inform conversations we all need to be part of. More broadly, our entire world is being reborn, and this is an awesome hands-on-deck moment for all of us and for our species. So I’ve also drafted a global declaration of interdependence, and I’m working with many other people to launch an initiative that’s seeking to bring people together from all countries in a political process designed to help address these shared global challenges that our governments and international institutions have so far been unable to address. If you go to the blog on my website there’s a post called declaration of global interdependence. That’s a good place to start. I’m also doing a livestream with Harvard Geneticist George Church on Genetic Technologies vs. The Coronavirus on Tuesday, April 7th at 5pm eastern time, so I recommend people join if they find this topic interesting.

Is there anything else you wanted to add?

What we’re trying to do is spark a massively inclusive movement. Members of the Singularity community understand what it means to scale technologies and scale businesses. Now we need to all come together to scale consciousness and ideas, and to lay the foundations for a better world. In the 1940s, we had leaders like Roosevelt, FDR and Churchill who could guide us. We don’t have those people today, so we need to distribute that function among all of us. We now have tools to do this that our ancestors could never have imagined, so if we bring our ideals and the power of the networks and the technologies that we’ve built together, there’s no limit to what we can do.

 

Jamie’s website: www.jamiemetzl.com

Jamie’s book: www.hackingdarwin.com

April 7th Livestream: Genetic Technologies vs. The Coronavirus