Worlds Set Free

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2011 cover of Time…2045 is just about the time in which Ramez Naam’s novel Nexus unfolds.

When NPR made its Best Books of 2013 list, I was happily surprised to find Ramez Naam’s debut novel Nexus on it. Subtitled, Mankind Gets an Upgrade, the book’s back matter describes its author as a “professional technologist,” a former CEO of “Apex Nanotechnologies” who “holds a seat on the advisory board of the Institute for Accelerating Change” and other Silicon Valley-based tech affiliations.

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Naam giving a public talk, 2012.

Given my experience in writing about visioneers, Ramez Naam seemed like my kind of person. Moreover, Naam was born in Cairo before coming to the U.S. when he was three. The visioneers I’ve written about fit a standard (and too restricted) demographic – white males who attended elite American schools – so Naam’s background was all the more intriguing. So – I bought the book and took the wild ride.

The world that Naam constructs in Nexus sits on the verge of a dystopian future. But it never quite falls into the abyss. At its heart is the question of whether humans should be allowed to augment themselves with chemical, nanomachines, computer implants, and so forth. Those who choose to do so will emerge from the crucible as a posthuman. As Naam defines it, via a fictional entry from the 2036 edition of the OED, a posthuman is a “being which has been so radically transformed by technology that it…can no longer be considered human at all.”

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Cover of Naam’s 2013 book

From this stems much of the novel’s tension. On one hand, there those people who wish to hack their own biology (and perhaps that of others around them) so as to transcend their humanity. A few of these characters are unsavory, venal people who only seek profit and power. The majority are well-meaning, good-looking people in their mid-20s with superior intellects who see the passage to posthumanism as a form of evolution, augmented and accelerated to be sure.

Not surprisingly, those opposing them – to the extent of stripping posthumans of legal and human rights – are shadowy government agencies who see people augmented with emerging technologies as an emerging threat. Naam’s exposition reflects current oppositional views toward trans/posthumanism which is, as I’ve remarked, one of the relatively few areas in contemporary science where the left and the right-wing agree.

The basic plot: It’s 2040 and new technologies for human augmentation include cloning, mind control software, nanotechnologies, and drugs that allow the creation of a hive mind. (Naam’s scenes fell somewhere between a vigorous tantric yoga system and a molly-fueled rave at Burning Man). Central to this is the drug Nexus which, thanks to the efforts of Kaden Lane, a smart but naive doctoral student (is there any other kind?), has been upgraded into a form of mind-linking technology. Lane imagines the new Nexus will make a path to enlightenment, societal understanding, human enhancement (and perhaps an enhanced ability to bed sexy nerds)…but the duplicitous Emerging Risks Directorate sees only an unacceptable threat. Add to the mix some omnipresent surveillance, biologically improved martial arts fighters, and a cloned army of elite Chinese soldiers.1 

Nexus isn’t a bad book. Some of the dialogue is quite anodyne and readers might be put off by the level of tech speak that permeates the book. (Others might find this gives an even thicker veneer of verisimilitude.) The plot chugs right along though, enough to entertain me for a flight between JFK and LAX.

At the book’s end, however, what made Nexus worth reading wasn’t so much Naam’s prose but his plumbing of prevailing ideas about technology today. Good sci-fi offers a window into the time in which it’s written and Naam succeeds at this. His exploration of the implications that the technologies undergirding posthumanism might bring were provocative without veering off (at least not too often) into waters that were over-churned with philosophical musings. The plot and characters serve more as vehicles for Naam to put forth his own ideas about the risks and benefits of human enhancement technologies. Not surprisingly, given his profession of technologist and futurist, he is enthusiastic. But it’s an excitement tempered with some severe reservations.

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What Nexus reminded me most of all was H.G. Wells’ classic 1914 book The World Set FreeLike Naam’s book, Wells’ was inspired by rapid advances in technoscience – in Wells’ case, these were the recent discoveries in physics. Wells dedicated his book to British chemist Frederick Soddy who, along with Ernest Rutherford, had discovered atomic transmutation. Soddy popularized his musings on what the new sciences of radioactivity and nuclear physics might be able to do in his 1909 book The Interpretation of Radium. 

Wells’ book was especially prescient for its prediction of the first nuclear weapons. Fueled by something Wells called “Carolinium” these “atomic bombs which science burst upon the world that night,” Wells wrote, “were strange even to the men who used them.” Carnage ensues.2

Like Wells’ The World Set Free, Nexus is a cautionary tale. But what is it cautioning us about? Yes, Naam presents the dangers of rampant human enhancement via chemical, computer, and nanotechnologies are there. Their most damning capacity is not their ability to destroy but to coerce and Naam conjures some chilling scenes to depict this. Naam’s thriller clearly extrapolates existing techno-trends and his depiction of a pervasive and intrusive surveillance state is all the more relevant given the near-daily revelations about years of National Security Agency abuses, on-going debates about autonomous vehicles et al.. One doesn’t have to be some wild-eyed futurist to see some merit in the warnings Nexus sounds. Five years ago, my colleague Michael Bess, a historian at Vanderbilt University, published an excellent article that detailed the challenges that human enhancement technologies pose, not in 2040, but now.3

Naam wrote Nexus a century after Wells’ composed The World Set Free. But what and who is being set free? Wells’ ended his book by having the world spared through the actions of enlightened scientists who form a one-world government. A new social order, an all-encompassing but benevolent one based on technocratic rationalism would free the world from conflict.

At the end of Nexus, however, the techno-geeks – loosely connected members of an atomized society who espouse a pretty standard sort of techno-libertarian-utopianism – appear triumphant. Unfettered to evolve onward and upward, the Nexus-eaters have been set free from themselves. But – more revealing – they have freed themselves from government. They have improved themselves…but did society as a whole benefit?4

  1. Much of the book unfolds in Thailand, an unconventional move in terms of setting that was perhaps inspired by Paolo Bacigalupi’s excellent The Windup Girl. []
  2. Wells’ book is also famous for helping, in 1932, inspire the Hungarian émigré physicist Leo Szilard conceptualize the possibilities and dangers of nuclear energy. []
  3. Michael D. Bess, “Icarus 2.0: A Historian’s Perspective on Human Biological Enhancement,” Technology and Culture, 2008, 49, 1: 114-26. Bess has a new book soon to appear entitled Superhuman Civilization: Justice and Identity in a Bioengineered Society. According to his web site, it “explores the ethical and social implications of new technologies for human biological enhancement. These technologies, which reconfigure or boost our physical and mental capabilities, are developing rapidly in three distinct but interconnected domains: pharmaceuticals, bioelectronics, and genetics.” []
  4. For curious readers, Naam has a sequel. Crux picks up the story roughly where Nexus left us and follows the characters and the implications of their actions. []

The Church of Synthetic Biology

 

Screen-Shot-2012-12-03-at-7.06.34-AMAlexander Pope once said, “Who builds a church to God and not to fame, will never mark the marble with his name.” When it comes to making a mark in the molecular genetics community, Harvard scientist George Church has already done it. In the acknowledgements of his new, co-authored book, Regenesis, Church tells us that some 400 journalists have interviewed him; that he has written papers with 1,274 other scientists (he might know them all personally because, he also says, his dissertation thanked 258 people); and that he played a key role in creating many biotech start-up companies (his Harvard web page claims 12). Regenesis offers a glimpse, often seen at a gallop, of how today’s scientist-celebrities engage, often simultaneously, in research, self-promotion, and entrepreneurship.

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George Church; image taken from his personal Twitter page

In Regensis, Church – abetted by science writer Ed Regis – explains how the practitioners of “synthetic biology will reinvent nature and ourselves.” Note the choice – future tense – of verb. More on this in a minute. Throughout this often meandering and sometimes maddening book, Church and Regis give a personal account of the emergence of synthetic biology (which they define as “the science of selectively altering the genes of organisms to make them do things that they wouldn’t do in their original, natural, untouched state.”) This was once called selective breeding. Later, scientists, journalists, and writers termed it genetic engineering. Now it has a new name, a new wreath of hyperbole, and bold new practitioners with grand designs.

The Church of syn bio is a big building with many rooms, all of them bustling with activity. He positively bounds off the pages as a star scientist – an entrepreneur who starts companies, a researcher who has helped author hundreds of papers, and a presence at TED and Davos. He has two personal assistants to manage “one of the most complicated and jam-packed schedules known to humankind.”

Regis’s role in this project intrigued me. In the Acknowledgements, Regis says that the collaboration between Church and him was brokered by their agent, John Brockman. Brockman has a long history of publishing books and promoting stories that sit on the “bleeding, screaming thrilling edges” of new technoscience.1 In the 1970s, he tried to get Gerard O’Neill’s book on space colonies published and later provided writing forums for nanotech pioneer K. Eric Drexler. Regis, meanwhile, has authored two trade books – one dealing with radical technologies of all kinds (1990’s The Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition: Science Slightly Over the Edge) and another specifically on nanotech and Drexler (Nano! The True Story of Nanotechnology – the Astonishing New Science that Will Transform the World from 1997).

Regis’s earlier writing often had a breathless, “can you believe this stuff I’m telling you?” quality to it. His approach to writing – call it a style or a tic – isn’t often present in Regenesis. But, like renegade bamboo shoots, every so often statements gilded in prolepsis and inevitability punch up throughout the text. The reader is told how synthetic biology will, for example, “blur the distinction between life and nonlife” and will “produce a synthetic, self-replicating, and self-sustaining” cell (my emphases). The disjointed nature of the book also comes, I think, from the union of Regis and Church – the book is chock full of so many lists that I sometimes wondered if Church donated some PowerPoint slides to Regis who then tried to “prose-ify” them.

Given Regis’s other books, I found myself asking, Clara Peller-style, all the way through Regenesis: “Where’s the nano?” The original formulation for nanotechnology – or, as it was first called, “molecular engineering” – was deeply rooted in biological thinking. It assumed that researchers’ would master protein engineering to develop novel organic molecules – “protein machines” – which, in turn, would be able to manipulate non-organic  molecules into complex structures.2 This version of nanotech is the precursor, at least in terms of vision, for today’s syn bio. Instead of using genetic engineering to direct the manufacture of novel proteins de novo, the engineers of synthetic biology take standardized biological parts (“BioBricks”) off the shelf, so to speak, and put them together in new ways so as to do some sort of chore. Church & Regis analogize this to electrical engineers taking standard electronic components to configuring them to make a radio or some other device. (“The dream was to do for biology what Intel had done for electronics.”) But, other than a few mentions, yesterday’s nanotech appears largely divorced from today’s syn bio.

Given the considerable national investment in bio-nanotechnology, this relation deserves attention along at least two axes. One is in terms of community – how much of the syn bio research community overlaps or self-identifies with nanotech? Another is in terms of public presentation – nanotech (like biotech) arrived on the scene with a considerable amount of hype and speculation. Syn bio is showing up at the party wearing similar duds. Venture capitalists have expressed interest in synthetic biology’s commercial possibilities while non-governmental groups like ETC have prepared reports opposing “extreme genetic engineering” and “syndustry.” In almost every way one looks at it, synthetic biology’s emergence (or “re-identification”) looks strikingly similar to paths that nanotechnology took.3 Although Syn Bio practitioners might claim “We didn’t even know our field had a history!” its links to molecular biology, electrical engineering, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and genetic engineering make it an especially loded vein to mine.4  Looking more broadly, syn bio has generated a level of concern and protest rivaling that which accompanied the efflorescence of nanotech as a national research program c. 2000.

Both nanotech as well as syn bio should prompt important questions about ethics. Church & Regis admirably alight on these issues but never give an explication that fully satisfies. In one passage, Regenesis discusses how one might use DNA technology to bring extinct species back to the world. Their best example is the mammoth (although they also speculate that one might be able to bring back Neanderthal hominids). They describe scientists’ attempts to capture DNA and freeze it so rare species might one day be rescued. Nowhere, however, do they mention that not having species go extinct in the first place (better conservation, less poaching, etc.) might be a good idea. Of course, it’s not hard to jump from resurrecting the charismatic mega-fauna of the Pleistocene to modifying our own genome so as we live longer. Here, in discussion about immortality and the Singularity, ethical depths are noted but not plumbed.

The same goes for history as off-kilter historical analogies are sometimes used. Church & Regis describe how a cloned burcado – a type of mountain goat once found in Spain – died after only living seven minutes. Be not despondent, for the Wright brothers’ first flight lasted only 12 seconds…and 66 years later, we were queuing up to see the moon rocks. One is left to presume that in six decades, we might regularly be cloning mountain goats, mammoths, our pets, and ourselves. [followup note – a week after I posted this entry, my colleague David Brock clued me into a post on Gawker in which Church apparently told Der Spiegel that he’s ready to clone a Neanderthal, assuming he can find a suitable surrogate…] —  [second follow up note (22 January 2013): in a posting on Forbes.com, writer Alex Knapp points out the various technical reasons why cloning a Neanderthal isn’t likely to happen anytime soon]5

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The once and future mammoth?

The history of electronics also appears in some contradictory ways. Church notes several times the exponential progress made in DNA sequencing, likening it to Moore’s eponymous law. At the same time, when discussing the prohibitive cost of algae-derived biofuels, he concludes that only the military could afford these – this ignores the fact that, when they first appeared, transistor-based electronics were also prohibitively expensive. It was the initial purchases by the Pentagon (and the Cold War) that drove the cost down such that consumers could afford by transistor radios.

Finally, the end of Regenesis its authors discuss how attempts to ban certain technologies have failed, citing 20’s-era Prohibition as proof that moratoriums don’t work. However, one could argue that the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty hasn’t been a total failure so maybe prohibitions have some merit. The larger problem here is the cherry picking of examples and analogies. Sure, DNA sequencing has followed an exponential path à la Moore’s law. But there are far more examples of technologies that are non-exponential in nature…otherwise, “my car would go 100 miles on a teaspoon of petrol”, etc. etc..

Regenesis is best when it gives us insights into the personal worlds of the synthetic biologists. Church, for example, tells of the Personal Genome Project which sequenced the genome of many volunteers – Church, not surprisingly, was the first candidate – so as to publish the information on the Internet.6 We learn a little about the two consent forms Harvard required as well as the IDs of other participants such as cognitive scientist Steven Pinker and Esther Dyson. But what intrigued me most was the membership of this cohort – a molecular geneticist, a cognitive scientist, and an entrepreneur/cyber-libertarian. Maybe I’m fishing here but can we anything deeper from this roster? How were they selected? Was there a PR angle for the choice of people? Church was also involved with start ups that didn’t fly – I mean no disrespect here – and he candidly admits when a venture didn’t work out. But some discussion of why they failed would have gone a long way to tying to help the reader understand not just the science of syn bio but the border between commerce and academia where its researchers and boosters live.

A novice would not find Regenesis an easy introduction to molecular genetics. Passages such as “…the anticodon for one of the tRNAs for valine (v) specifically binds to the mRNA codons GUU, GUA, GUG, and the other valine tRNA binds to GUU and GUC (in order to add a valine to the growing protein chain)” had me reaching for my copy of Essential Cell Biology by Alberts et al. (which I’m pretty sure the average owner of this book doesn’t have on their bedside table.). So, as a tool to explain the science of synthetic biology, Church & Regis have some successes but many failures as well.

Although it’s nowhere near as revealing as Watson’s account in The Double Helix, Regenesis hints at the competition within the syn bio and genetics communities as egos collide. Church’s treatment of bio-entrepreneur J. Craig Venter, for example, is especially fascinating. (Venter, it should be noted, has also blurbed the book for Amazon). Throughout Regenesis, I thought I detected subtle jabs at Venter. Given their status, visibility, and accomplishments, it’s not surprising that might be some ego friction between the two. Church’s narration of Venter’s 2010 reengineering of the M. mycoides genome so as to include a snippet of text from James Joyce and a misquote from Feynman is great stuff. This gets even richer when Church brags about having once slipped some “synthetic codes” into a plasmid prep line of Venter’s The Institute for Genomic Research (yes, TIGR) as a “youthful prank.” Like many scientists, Church critiques Venter’s claim that his 2010 re-jiggering of the M. mycoides had in fact created “artificial life” or a “synthetic cell.”

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Poster from the ETC Group that offers a different view of the syn-bio crowd

The real value of Regenesis is as a historical document. Here, c. 2012, we get a picture of how one of the leading players in the field saw his role in the community along with his interpretation of what and who was important. The fact that there are few women in the book as leading scientists is telling as is the “Cambridge, MA”-centric narrative that Church weaves. The assumptions he makes about the casual links between the academy and the start-up are notable. Here, there is no questioning whether a professor should patent her research or whether he should start a company. These are presented as normative attitudes. Church’s account will be, I think, valuable to historians in terms of helping them see the assumptions and attitudes researchers had toward synthetic biology today. As time goes by, maybe we will see more evidence to reveal the tangled relations between syn bio and its progenitors. But for now, we have a compelling if only partial picture of the field as filtered through the competitive and/or collaborative relationships between syn bio’s alpha males.

[Author’s note: Now that the holidays are over and class is back in session, I’m going to hew to a more regular blog writing regime, hopefully with Leaping Robot posts on Fridays 2-3 times a month as my teaching/travel schedule permits.]

 

 

 

  1. The quote comes from Stewart Brand, one of the people whose blurb for Regenesis graces its dust jacket. []
  2. A good overview of the relation between biology and nanotechnology is Richard A.L. Jones, Soft Machines: Nanotechnology and Life (London: Oxford University Press, 2008 []
  3. In March 2011, Luis Campos, now at the University of New Mexico, explored this feature in a great talk at UCSB called “Next Generation Nano? Narratives of Synthetic Biology.” []
  4. Luis Campos, “That Was the Synthetic Biology That Was,” in Synthetic Biology:The Technoscience and Its Societal Consequences,  edited by Markus Schmidt  (London: Springer, 2009 []
  5. “Church speaks of having an “extremely adventurous female” give birth to a Neanderthal. But the reality is that success would require dozens of women – many of whom would almost certainly go through the trauma of miscarriage and stillbirths that appear to be inevitable when it comes to cloning. The ethical implications of just this simple aspect of the process are pretty damning.” []
  6. Interested readers might like to check out Nathaniel Comfort’s new book The Science of Human Perfection on this score. []