‘Synthetic biology and other benign technologies that could have a dark side’ – interview with Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh


Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh
Academic Project Manager at the Oxford Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology

This interview with Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh, Academic Project Manager at the Oxford Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology, takes place in a series of discussions with the keynote speakers of An Interesting Afternoon – The world in 50 years and how do we get there? This event by the Dutch Future Society takes place at April 11, 2014 in Amsterdam. For registrations, follow this link.

How do you see the future in fifty years?
Fifty years is a long time frame. If we looked forward to the present day from 50 years in the past, there are some things that we could have predicted. For instance, global population growth and pressure on natural resources, water in particular. However, we couldn’t have predicted the global impact of the internet. My view is that there is likely to be something like that which will change things so predominantly – a potential technological wildcard.

First, let’s mention some things we can anticipate. There will be so many more people in the world; a peak of ten billion is being projected later this century, with a small drop following that. We’ll need all sorts of technologies for more efficient resource use, for instance in freshwater use, renewable energy and materials. We can say that humanity is at a crossroads. We can solve these problems – and if we do, we’ll create a better future – but if we don’t, it will create a lot of pressures for the worse.

But there are things we can’t anticipate; wildcard events. Artificial intelligence is likely to be one of them. It is a general purpose technology that may impact all areas of science, technology and the economy.. Everything could be faster, better and cheaper. This has tremendous benefits. However, there are also huge challenges. Unemployment is one of the major issues; automation means replacing jobs, while it is uncertain if new types of jobs will pop up. With increasing use of AI, would there still be jobs? There are also risk and safety concerns that relate to advanced artificial intelligence. We will continue to develop faster, more general problem-solving algorithms with the ability to manipulate virtual and real-world resources. There is a risk that unintended consequences of the rules or goals of the algorithms, or errors in our programming, could cause major harm. Algorithms that are “super-human” in speed and general problem-solving could be quite difficult to control.

Which innovations would probably generate the biggest change?

Synthetic biology could become a hugely disruptive technology. Some experts describe it as a combination of biology and the use of engineering principles. Others talk about designing life forms from scratch. And some describe it as “genetic modification (GM) on steroids”. Currently, we are at the proof of principle stage. Researchers have built on-off switches, simple circuits and things like that. Take it together and this could be the first step in building a synthetic organism designed specifically for our purposes. The benefits are tremendous; we could have organisms designed for waste management, or targeted therapies in health and medicine. As these organisms would be completely designed by humans, we should know exactly how all the genetic components making up the organism interact with each other. . This can be contrasted with current GM, where humans introduce single genes to what are essentially natural organisms, and where our understanding of how the entire genome and proteome functions is more limited. So there is the potential for more control and fine-tuning. However, we may not always predict how synthetic organisms will interact with natural ones and the environment.

Risks related to synthetic biology are also related to the speed of technological development. The technology needed to create results with high impact is getting cheaper and more widespread. That poses a risk and a regulatory challenge that is entirely new. We are already familiar with biohacking and the Do-It-Yourself community. At the moment this is all very small scale and encourages a lot of people to become interested in science. When it matures, there is the risk of letting organisms out in the wild. For example, take the hypothetical example of organisms that transform waste products into useful products like hydrocarbons. In the wild it may out-compete natural organisms, or interact with the environment in other unexpected ways.

Furthermore, what seem like benign technologies could have a dark side. People who deliberately want to cause a lot of harm in a bioterrorist attack could also have easy access to these technologies. Innovations with a positive world-bettering intention could do harm in the wrong hands. For instance, the digital biological converter, a technology a little like a “3D printer for biological organisms” under development by Craig Venter, would be beneficial to preventing disease as it allows people to print vaccines tailored to the disease remotely. It is easy to imagine how this technology could be negatively used by terrorists.

What can we do to anticipate the future and make it a better future? Which issues should we address?

The most robust way of making the future better is by combining a number of approaches. It is important to look at the trends and try to figure out clever ways to prevent the problems we anticipate. We know interventions that seem to work and we need to apply them. This approach needs to be combined with a broad way of looking at wild cards. Engage with thought leaders in different fields, combine their insights and look at the broader picture. Be flexible enough to integrate what may happen and have a transformative effect. It is important to think about the potential consequences of important new scientific developments and technologies ahead of time, even if we don’t have 100% certainty about when – or – if – they will happen.

What does it ask from futurists?

Not enough people are thinking outside the box; thinking about how much a new development could change anything. Futurists are flexible and open to new things. This mindset is very useful in anticipating future change. However, it is valuable for futurists to be careful not to confuse thinking about possibilities and uncertainties with fantasy. This means being severely rigorous and following the rules of physics. It is important to clearly distinguish between sci-fi and science. If we know with 99.9% certainty that this cannot be done without a change in how we understand the laws of physics, it is probably not worthwhile to dedicate a lot of scientific research to it. It is also important to consider insights from engineering on what is feasible, what can be practicably designed and what can not. For instance, in nanotechnology and synthetic biology, if we see similar structures in biology, it can provide good evidence that  it is possible. There are many “proofs of principle” in biology and the natural world.

Predictions are often wrong. What is a sensible way to say things about the future? How to navigate between confidence and uncertainty?

It is dangerous to make strong and precise predictions about what will happen in the future and when it will happen, when most often we cannot have this level of certainty. Unfortunately, such strong statements are often what the media and public wish to hear.

The difficulty about talking about uncertainty is a general problem in science. When it comes to conveying scientific outcomes to the public it is always difficult to communicate uncertainty. This can be interpreted as a lack of knowledge or incompetence, when in fact the opposite is true. Figuring out how to communicate on these topics better is a challenge. Science journalism is improving, and good journalists try to shy away from or qualify strong soundbites. The website “The Conversation” is a nice example of this. As a general principle, there needs to be a two-way dialogue between scientists and the public. With a lot of these controversial technologies, researchers need to engage with the public, include them in plans and work together to solve the world’s problems. Scenarios can be valuable tools, as they allow us to consider the impact of different possible developments in depth. But you have to be careful as scenarios can introduce biases of their own and act as a primer for a limited set of solutions.

About Freija Van Duijne

Twitter: @FreijavanDuijne Futuring is my passion. I am fascinated about what the future might bring. Always looking around for leads about the future and open for new insights. I am futurist, trendwatchter and strategist at the The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, a thinktank in the Netherlands. My background is in Human factors psychology. I did my Masters at Leiden University and I did a PhD in Delft University at the faculty of Industrial design engineering. I have been involved in foresight studies since 2006. I am frequently asked as an expert for future studies in area of food, natural resources, health and governance. I am also a speaker and workshop facilitator on futures studies, trend presentations and the many topics that I blog about. My contributions to Futuristablog represent my own personal opinion and is never a statement of the Ministry of Economic Affairs.
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