Bioprogramming, Tech and Business

Future Scenario: 120-year-old youths

Death is the great equalizer, and one of the two aspects of God in most religious systems. Some, like Singularity University expert Jose Luis Cordeiro, are claiming that the “death of death” is near. We don’t need to go so far. What if we could reach 120 years old with reasonable health and well-being? Wouldn’t that be great?

Life expectancy from antiquity to the current today hasn’t really changed but has changed very much at the same time. It hasn’t really changed in the sense that a genetically and environmentally lucky human specimen could reach 90 years in Ancient Greece, today that same specimen might reach 100+, not much of a change. At the same time, the average lifespan has multiplied. In the past most humans were unlucky and they died as infants, children or adults, mainly through infectious disease. The 20th century decisively won the battle against infectious disease and now life expectancies routinely match that of the lucky Athenian.

However, we seem to have hit a stumbling block in terms of maximum life expectancy and, even more importantly, quality of old age. Our main killers nowadays are dependent on lifestyle and decay, and they are mostly chronic. Our health system and technology are much less capable of dealing with them. Cancer, the other main killer, is a product of decay but looks more like an infectious disease in terms of its severity and outcomes. We are getting better with cancer but it is still much beyond our control.

Being able to achieve the dream of being 120-year-olds with significant life quality requires that we are able to overcome both. It probably also requires that we somehow reverse cellular decay processes that seem to take place throughout the body and take to the grave even the luckiest of us. There are only between 150 and 600 supercentenarians alive that have lived beyond 110, and the oldest women alive just got to 122 years old. 120-year-old youths would be really a transformation as a species.

If we start with our chronic diseases, taking care of those could be embarrassingly easy. Books like Ray Kurzweil’s Transcend cover the 9 steps required to overcome most of the current killers. They are fairly low tech: talking to your doctor regularly, relaxation, regular health assessments, nutrition, calory reduction, exercise, some new technologies, and detoxification. Mostly common sense backed by truckloads of scientific evidence. Still, most of us don’t exercise, live stressed-out lives, don’t do health-assessments, eat too much and too bad, and don’t play to our genetic weaknesses. This first step might be more about Neurogamification than Bioprogramming.

The results from a regimen like the one prescribed by the one above would result in a step improvement from current health challenges. The top 10 causes of disease in high-income countries today according to the WHO are: Ischaemic heart disease, Stroke, Alzheimer’s and other dementias, Trachea, bronchus and lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lower respiratory infections, colon and rectal cancer, diabetes mellitus, kidney disease and breast cancer. From the list, more than half have a majority of attribution to lifestyle choices (lack of exercise, obesity, smoking, drinking, pollution) and breast cancer has an important genetic component. Only colon and rectal cancer can be considered a true “non-lifestyle non-genetic” killer.

If next, we look at cancer, it is tougher but we are making progress. First, we have traditional treatments like chemo and radiotherapy which have progressively improved survival rates. Second, genomics-based treatments covered earlier have much potential in terms of reducing overall impact from rarer cancers. Third, new treatments are coming out all the time, like a soon to be approved by the FDA cancer treatment that uses the body own immune system. Finally, either very precise artificial life or nanobots will be designed at some point that can detect and eliminate cancer right away. We might be still decades away, but after all most of us are decades away from being 120.

The final frontier is cell degeneration. Cells are programmed to die and they degenerate. Our genes don’t care much about us once we have outlived our reproductive capability, so we decay and die. This is not true with all organisms. Single cell organisms like bacteria continue endlessly, it could even be argued that the original bacteria might live on, even if in a highly mutated state, after close to three billion years. Replicating this in the human cell requires a lot of basic science work. Silicon Valley billionaires are helping here as they are donating significant amounts to research and creating a new industry dubbed the “Immortality Industry”.

Considering all of this getting to 120-year-olds in a quite healthy status might require some work, but for those who value their time on Earth highly, it might be feasible. The impact of 120 healthy year-olds would require us to change many of our ways of organizing society. If 65 starts to be when you get your midlife crisis it might be a little earlier for retirement. Healthcare costs might rise to 20, 30 or 40% of total GDP. After all, there is little more precious than life. Finally, inheritance might take a fully new concept when you can expect to reasonably be a great-great-grandfather.

If you want to try to get there you just need to start changing your habits in very common sense ways. Think that cigarette, that rerun of Game of Thrones that kept you out of the gym, or those extra pounds might cost you decades of healthy living.

Bioprogramming, Tech and Business

Exponential Revolution #5 – Bioprogramming

Bioprogramming is the capacity to understand, modify, and create from scratch the functioning of living organisms manipulating their underlying genetic code as if it was digital code. It will allow reprogramming of existing organisms or the creation ex-novo of new ones. This reprogramming and creation will be potentially as easy and fast as with digital code. The reprogrammed life forms will to heal, fabricate, and much more.

Now we enter a completely different terrain and one that impinges one step further into what we consider our core. Bioprogramming doesn’t only have great economic impact, it also touches the substrate of our own bodies. It promises to change our relationship with them, giving us knowledge that seemed an unattainable mystery and perhaps impacting some of the deepest human mysteries like health, disease, reproduction, or death itself.

Like the New Energy Matrix, Bioprogramming combines digital technologies with very physical and “wet” technologies. It is based strongly on the breakthroughs in genetic engineering and biology that have allowed us to improve our understanding of how living organisms are coded and work. It has also required substantial advances in chemistry and physics to create the physical capability of manipulating micro scale genetic material at a very low cost. The latest in a long list of advances is the CRISPR/CAS9 technology, which allows permanent modification of the genetic information of organisms. Of course, it has also required the advance of digital technology to allow to do all this in an automated and cost-effective way.

Bioprogramming allows reading, writing and modifying genetic instructions in living cells. This can be used in mainly three ways: read the genetic instructions of existing organisms, write new genetic organisms ex-novo based on previously understood genetic sequences, and modify genetic instructions of existing individuals. This can be done in micro-scale organisms, in human-scale animals and plants, or in our own genetic information.

Manipulation of microscale organisms can be used for several purposes. On the one side, it can be used to create natural “fabrication” organisms that create a given compound that is difficult or expensive to create through non-organic means. On the other side of applications, it can be used to understand and control dangerous bacteria or virus.

Manipulation of human scale animals and plants can be used to improve agricultural output, although it is increasingly being used to add new functionality to organisms for new uses. The level of manipulation available goes far beyond what can be achieved through previous methods of genetically-modified organisms as it can be done from almost scratch.

Finally, manipulating human genetic information is useful to reduce the incidence of known genetic disease. And is increasingly being used beyond that to understand and improve some diseases like cancer. Eventually, it could also be used to improve humans dramatically by eliminating shortcomings (e.g. aging) or adding new functionalities.

Overall, Bioprogramming will have a tremendous and transformative impact on our lives and it brings forth deep and worrisome ethical challenges. However, in terms of sectors of economic activity, it will impact only some sectors. It will probably change healthcare and agriculture completely. It might also have an impact in other industries in which some organic use case can be found. But most industries will not have much direct impact from bioprogramming.

Even though most sectors will not change, we should all be concerned about bioprogramming. The changes we will see in humans could be breathtaking and the potential for change in our society is massive. Receding old age, important healthcare differences between haves and haves nots, designer babies, eugenics and re-genics, super-cattle and super dogs… The decisions we need to take as a society are innumerable and they deal with the core of our legends and myths, life, death, and rebirth.

We are seeing the dawn of the bioprogramming revolution with innovations that seemed beyond science fiction not so long ago:

Facts

  • Artificial Organisms. Creating new organisms
  • Targeted medicine. Medicines for individuals
  • Improved animals and plants. Superfarming.
  • Genetic therapy. Getting the bugs out of the (genetic) code.
  • Protein drugs. Taking pharma research to the next level down.

Speculations

  • Leather and meat fabrication. No cow was hurt preparing this hamburger.
  • Genetic modification. Designer babies.
  •  Genetic mapping. Decoding the spaghetti code of life.

Future scenario: 120-year-old youths

Bioprogramming, Digital Governance, Neurogamification, Tech and Business

3 More stories about the 6 exponential revolutions

More stories about how I got to understand and get deep in the 6 exponential revolutions.

Digital Governance.

My journey down the Digital Governance rabbit hole started with a random conversation with an innovation executive at a large multinational bank in mid-2015. He told me he was working on Blockchain, I had barely heard about it so I asked if it had something to do with Bitcoin. He answered with the phrase that would become stock later, “It is not about Bitcoin, it is about Blockchain”. In those days Bitcoin was in the mid-hundreds, about 10x below this writing.

That conversation got me exploring in 2016 and I started to find out that some of the smartest and most innovative people I knew were involved in this world. Some of them staking their careers on this new and unknown technology. The “Blockchain rather than Bitcoin” bunch was more focused on Ethereum and enterprise applications. There had to be something to it. I got familiar with the technology and started to read on it. I even started speaking about it, realizing the great degree of ignorance there was out there about the technology.

My real involvement with blockchain, cryptocurrencies, and the impact of Digital Governance was in 2017. There I made my first cryptocurrency investments and discovered that several groups of my acquaintances were already deep into it. People in the online sports betting world had been using bitcoin as a payments utility for some years already. Now they were considering it and other cryptos as an alternative investment. The San Francisco tech scene was also quite into cryptocurrencies, with a different set of favorite coins.

From there, it went quickly. Clients started wanting to get deep in Blockchain. I started to follow the ICO scene, see it climb over two billion in 2017, and met random people in Madrid who were participating in ICOs in New Zealand and getting to know the founders through the Slack channels. Even one of my portfolio companies decided to do an initial coin offering. The animal spirits of the internet boom were present with a vengeance in the ICOs and cryptocurrency investments, heralding a crash at some point. At the same time, the technology was incredibly powerful and flexible, a real general purpose technology. A new paradigm that could be game-changing in many use cases.

Bioprogramming.

Bioprogramming became real for me in two separate events. The first one was during 2016. I had always been interested in the Maker movement, and there had always been a “bio-maker” side to it. So I wasn’t surprised when I learned reading Singularity University materials that several software IDEs were available to design the DNA. I installed GenomeCompiler to try it out and was promptly shocked. Of course GenomeCompiler is just one of the options, a long list including uGene, GeneStudio, and Gene Beans is out there.

It fulfilled the promise of allowing you to design the DNA of an organism, but it went far beyond it. First, it allowed you to use existing organisms as a base for the design. This included bacteria (Lactobacillus, Escherichia Coli, Clostridium Botulinum), viruses (HIV1, Enterobacteria phage) and Eukaryotes (Saccharomyces). This meant you could try out subtle or not so subtle changes to an existing organism and see what happened. The potential for a bio-engineering golden age was obvious, as was the dangers of its potential nefarious uses.

What really made this real for me was the fact that you could actually order your redesigned samples over the internet. There are a variety of companies (Twist Bioscience, Gene Universal, GenScript, and many more) that are happy to fabricate it for you for a fee (some sites start as low as 25€). While it is not as fast as a software engineer deploying her code to the cloud, it is way faster than evolution by mutation and reproduction. I never got to order a sample to see if it really works. My wife is a doctor and she told me that in her mind it was too dangerous and potentially illegal.

That first experience made it clear to me that there was an amateur biohacking scene and that it was technically feasible. In early 2017 I learned there was a real industrial one also. We were looking for ways to reduce the environmental footprint for a fashion retailer. Surprisingly to many, Fashion is one of the most environmentally impactful industries. Its footprint is very large especially because of its materials like cotton, leather, or silk.

We explored some alternative suppliers and discovered there was a complete world of companies working on creating new materials through biofabrication. Bioengineered leather had several alternatives, it didn’t need cows and could have its leather precisely tuned to the characteristics a company needed. Everything was accomplished through cell cultures. Modern Meadow is an example of a company working on this and also on artificial meat. Another favorite is silk. The material that allegedly bankrupted the Roman Empire, silk is extremely intensive in resources, with 1kg requiring over 5000 silkworms. AMSilk is producing silk through bioengineering for textiles, medical devices, and the cosmetics industry.

Neurogamification

I have always been shocked by the low levels of work and school engagement in the world. I have been lucky enough that for me work and learning have been for the most part exciting and fun. However, I could see how many around me, and most in the world, according to statistics, were totally disengaged. For me, this is a disaster and a huge lost opportunity. It is a real pity that most of the population passes most of their waking hours in activities they find boring and unappealing.

Games have always been the opposite. Whether card games, physical games, or computer games, I have always seen people enthralled by games. Many of these games involve strenuous physical exertion, deep mental concentration, or complex social interactions with empathy and listening playing a large role. Why couldn’t the same principles that make games fascinating be applied to work and study so that everyone could be totally fascinated with his or her day to day?

Digital and the other Exponential Revolutions will enable this to a large extent, by eliminating thankless repetitive work. However, what really convinced me was seeing what the computer games by Blizzard, probably the most successful games studio of the last two decades, did to people.

I saw my friends, some more workaholic others more laid back, dedicate hours on end to these games. Their activities included intense study of how to perform certain tasks and deliberate practice to improve (leveling and tournament training), complex social negotiations and practice to get large groups (20-40 person guilds) to execute complex tasks (raids and instances), execution of repetitive tasks to gather resources (farming or grinding), and many others. Getting them to do this required very much ingenuity from Blizzard, and a level of understanding of how the brain works far beyond common sense. If this could be made for a game that actually cost money to play, I became conviced that it is doable for an activity you get paid for.