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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

The Viruses That Could Cure Cancer (or Wipe Out Humanity)

ON THIS WEEK’S episode of Have a Nice Future, Gideon Lichfield and Lauren Goode talk to Andrew Hessel, a scientist, writer, and entrepreneur, who is working to push forward the field of synthetic biology—the science of genetically modifying organisms for everything from vaccines to food production. They discuss how modified viruses can be used to treat a range of cancers, plus the wide ranging, science-fiction-like implications of the field.

Show Notes

Learn more about synthetic biology, from gene-edited yeast in beer to efforts to live forever.

Lauren Goode is @LaurenGoode. Gideon Lichfield is @glichfield. Bling the main hotline at @WIRED.

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Transcript

Note: This is an automated transcript, which may contain errors.

Lauren Goode: You are gonna hear the loudest stomach growl just now.

[Laughter]

Lauren Goode: OK. [laughter]

Gideon Lichfield: Are you hungry?

Lauren Goode: I'm so hungry. I've been—yes, I'm not gonna get into it. OK.

[Music]

Lauren Goode: Hi, I'm Lauren Goode.

Gideon Lichfield: And I'm Gideon Lichfield. And this is Have a Nice Future, a show about how terrifyingly fast everything is changing.

Lauren Goode: Each week we talk to someone with big, audacious, and sometimes unnerving ideas about the future, and we ask them how we can all prepare to live in it.

Gideon Lichfield: Our guest this week is Andrew Hessel, a scientist, entrepreneur, and writer who works on synthetic biology—an emerging field that could have some really weird consequences.

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Andrew Hessel (audio clip): I absolutely would like to be serially cloned for as long as that's viable, and I expect if that happens, I—I fully expect that at some point we'll start doing editing and additions and upgrades as those become accepted, uh, safe and legal.

[Music]

Lauren Goode: OK, so this is another one of those weeks where you've picked out somebody who I happen to not have heard of before—who works on something that is very interesting but I know very little about. And you said, “No, we really need to talk to him on the show.” Why Andrew Hessel?

Gideon Lichfield: So the first time I encountered Andrew, he was telling me that millions of people might have to die because of synthetically generated viruses.

Lauren Goode: And was he saying this with a sense of foreboding or concern, or was this just kind of like a hand-wavy, like "Yeah, so millions of people, collateral damage?"

Gideon Lichfield: It was kind of, “Yeah, this is probably just gonna happen and there's not much we can do about it.”

Lauren Goode: OK, all right. And where did this conversation take place?

Gideon Lichfield: So he was talking on a panel with a guy called Pablos Holman, who is a tech investor who invests in deep tech, far out, long-term speculative things. And they were talking about synthetic biology. So, to back up, Andrew is a geneticist, a microbiologist. He's founded a bunch of biotech startups, and one of his more recent companies is called Humane Genomics. And they design oncolytic viruses, so cancer killing viruses that are genetically tailored to each individual person's cancer, which is—

Lauren Goode: OK, that sounds promising.

Gideon Lichfield: Yeah. Potentially very promising use of synthetic biology. And someone at this talk said, "OK, well, if you can design viruses to kill cancer, you can design viruses to kill humans. What happens if somebody gets their hands on this technology and designs a lethal virus?" And they said, "Yeah, that would be a problem. That would be something to worry about." So then I asked, "Do investors and entrepreneurs like yourselves have any responsibility to prevent killer viruses from getting into people's hands?" And they said the very typical Silicon Valley thing of, "No, of course not. This is—government and society has to decide how it wants to constrain and regulate." So then I asked, "Do you see any sign that governments and society knows how to prepare for a world in which killer viruses are available from anybody's home lab bench?" And they said, "No, probably not. It's probably the case that millions of people are going to have to die first, and then that will shock us into passing some kind of regulation."

Lauren Goode: OK, this seems a little less promising when you consider that some of our regulators don't understand that Facebook makes money off of ads.

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[Laughter]

Gideon Lichfield: Right, exactly.

Lauren Goode: OK, but let's try to find a way to govern synthetic viruses that could kill millions of people. OK, I'm getting the less promising vibes now.

Gideon Lichfield: Right. So that made me very curious, because he seemed kind of blasé about this. And this is coming from a guy who is obviously not a monster. I mean, he spent most of his life trying to work on lifesaving treatments of one kind or another. I was curious about this mindset, which you also hear a lot around the subject of AI. Here are very powerful technologies that could be extremely widely used. And there are so many potential uses of them that it's almost fruitless to try to imagine what those users could be or to try to regulate them in advance. We just have to put them into practice, let people use them, let people make mistakes, let terrible things happen, and then we'll figure out what we want to prohibit.

Lauren Goode: Did you walk away from the conversation feeling optimistic about this?

Gideon Lichfield: I did leave feeling a little more optimistic. I also wanted to bring him onto the podcast because I feel like a lot of people don't really know that much about synthetic biology and what it's going to be capable of, and I think it actually could be as transformative a technology as AI. And I thought Andrew would be as good a person as any to explain that. So our conversation covers a lot of the bases, but, as you'll see, he's someone who's really not afraid to talk about some really far out things.

Lauren Goode: Such as?

Gideon Lichfield: I'm just gonna let you listen to the conversation and see where it goes. And that's coming up right after the break.

[Music]

Gideon Lichfield: Andrew Hessel, thank you very much for joining me on Have a Nice Future.

Andrew Hessel: Thank you for having me. It's my pleasure to be here.

Gideon Lichfield: Are you having a nice future?

Andrew Hessel: I live a few minutes in the future, and—

Gideon Lichfield: Just a few minutes?

Andrew Hessel: Yeah, I'm having a nice one. Yeah, well, I try and keep it within a few years. Your projections start to go pretty wild further out, but I really don't pay any attention to the past, and of course, the present is fleeting. So I live in the future, and it's pretty good from what I've been experiencing.

Gideon Lichfield: Alright. I wanted to talk to you because it seems to me that everyone is talking about AI now taking over the world, and it seems as if synthetic biology could ultimately become almost as big a revolution as AI, at least I hear some people in the field talk about it. But if you ask the average person on the street what synthetic biology is, they probably couldn't even define it. So maybe I'm gonna start just by asking you to define it.

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Andrew Hessel: I'll use the definition that's kind of become the consensus one in the field, and it's a suite of tools that make biology easier to engineer. With this suite of tools, it basically takes a lot of the laboratory work that we've developed for doing genetic engineering to modify the activity of living cells, and kind of digitizes it start to finish, which is making it more powerful and more accessible, and just is a game changer.

Gideon Lichfield: How did you get into synthetic biology?

Andrew Hessel: Oh, I just love technologies. Ever since I was a kid, I pulled everything apart that I was ever given. Would buy old broken machines and like cars and put them back together. And then I got my first computer in my teens and it was like, "Wow, this is amazing." It does exactly what I tell it to do and really works as a great check on one's thinking process. So I just fell in love with computing. But there was a turning point. One day I woke up and I realized that just about everything that I had ever been taking apart or repaired or used in computing, all these things have a really short lifespan. Most of the stuff that humanity makes ends up in landfill very quickly. I wanted to work with something that was really important and durable. And I realized that life is a technology. I could see the comparisons between a computer and software and a cell and its genome very clearly. And so I just said, "That's it. I'm gonna learn how life works and how it can be programmed." And so I switched all of my education to cell and molecular biology and genetics.

Gideon Lichfield: I sometimes hear a comparison drawn between the web and synthetic biology in the sense that we had Web 1.0, which was the web you read, and then we got Web 2.0, which is user generated content—people writing stuff online. And with biology, we had the era of being able to read genomes, and now we're in the era of being able to write genomes.

Andrew Hessel: I think that's a really fair summary. I actually want to take it back a little earlier. The early days of film or even working with sound, often we actually had to physically cut the material and splice it together to do editing. Today it's all done with digital tools. That's kind of the transition we're seeing with some of these laboratory procedures. And yes, we're moving away from just reading the DNA molecule now, and now we're learning how to write. That's where it gets creative.

Gideon Lichfield: Alright, so let's talk about what we do with that. I met you last year when you were giving a talk in San Francisco and you were discussing the work of your company, Humane Genomics, which designs viruses with the aim of curing cancer. So first of all, that's obviously counterintuitive to a lot of people, that a virus which they think of as a pathogen is gonna actually help cure a disease. So just describe how that works in basic terms.

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Andrew Hessel: Sure. Cancer, of course, remains one of the biggest challenges in human health. We've got trillions of cells. They never turn off, they corrupt. It's amazing we don't have more cancers than we do. Over 15 years ago, almost 20 years ago, I learned about something called oncolytic viruses, and that just means cancer breaking viruses. And it turns out that, because cancer cells are broken, sometimes they have really weakened viral defenses. And they found that, sometimes, just an everyday infection, a flu, could cause tumors to shrink. Because they couldn't—literally, they would catch the flu, whereas normal cells could defend against those viruses. And so as people started to study that, the field of oncolytics kind of grew, and they were tinkering with these viruses in various ways to improve the anti-cancer activity. And it turned out that there was a really wide spectrum of viruses that could display some of this oncolytic activity. So then I just came along and said, "Look, we've got the technology now to build viruses from scratch, let's start doing that." So we have full control over the program of that virus, and oncolytic viruses are extremely safe because, by definition, they shouldn't infect normal cells.

Gideon Lichfield: Meaning they are targeted to only attack the cancer cells?

Andrew Hessel: If they start to grow in a normal cell, they replicate in a normal cell, that's not an oncolytic virus, that's an infection. But if you're only infecting cancer cells, it's an anti-cancer agent.

Gideon Lichfield: So when you say designing a virus from scratch, do you literally mean writing the whole DNA of it from scratch? Or are you taking kind of an existing virus and making some modifications to it?

Andrew Hessel: We're taking an existing virus and heavily modifying it, because we have full bit level control over its entire program. So we can modify it a little, we can modify it a lot. Think of viruses as kind of a USB stick, just for loading new programs into cells. And there's a number of groups now that are doing this type of virus engineering, and our library of engineered viruses is growing considerably. Once you start putting in AI tools for this, coupled with deep analytics of particular cancer cells or other diseases, I think our capability of being able to program these USB sticks is going to increase pretty significantly.

Gideon Lichfield: This may be a bit of a silly question, but I have to say your work sounds like the plot of I Am Legend, the Will Smith movie where they cure cancer with a virus and then that cure turns people into zombies and causes the apocalypse. So how do works like that inform what you’re doing?

Andrew Hessel: Not a silly question, not a silly question. It's real fears. Remember, these movies plant these ideas in our minds and it ends up being points of discussion. I think AI is going through this maturity, this dynamic right now. I fully expect synthetic biology will get there too, because one of the big existential risks apparently with AI is that they'll start to design viruses that wipe us out.

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Gideon Lichfield: Right. I remember this moment from the talk that you gave last year. You were speaking with another investor, Pablos Holman. And at some point, I think someone said something like, "Well, what happens if someone just unleashes a deadly virus that we're not prepared for and we don't have any of the systems in place for preventing it?" And I think maybe it was him, or maybe it was you, I don't remember, somebody said, "Well, maybe millions of people just have to die and then we'll figure out how to get the technology and the infrastructure in place to prevent that happening again." Do you feel like it needs to be a catastrophe before we get our act together?

Andrew Hessel: I didn't feel that way before Covid. I thought we could actually organize and build those defenses appropriately. After Covid, I think it's gonna take a bigger shock to the system than Covid, and that could mean a lot more casualties. I don't know what it is. I don't want to see us test those limits. I personally think that public health needs to be just part of national defense. We need to take care of the people in our nations. And more than that, we have to work collaboratively as a species, because viruses don't care about politics or lines on maps. And I said it might take a very bottom-up technologically driven solution that's universal, but we've done that before with the internet, so.

Gideon Lichfield: Do you worry about the possibility of lots of people getting their hands on synthetic biology tools and creating killer viruses or other organisms that would cause us a lot of problems?

Andrew Hessel: I do. When we have the ability to design and build viruses, yeah, that's a new risk factor. We know that when computers became widely accessible and people started programming, malware was created. It would be naive to think that we're not going to get that with synthetic biology. I think the problem of defending our biology from nefarious attacks looks the same, whether it's an engineered virus or nature producing something new. But I don't think there's been enough attention paid to that particular area of biodefense and biosecurity.

Gideon Lichfield: Do you have a sense of what it even looks like to do that kind of defense? Because we have conventions for dealing with weapons, whether nuclear or biological, but those conventions tend to assume that only a small number of organizations have the capacity to build those kinds of weapons. Now we're looking, potentially, at synthetic biology tools becoming available to a lot more people, so you have this distributed threat. How do we even think about how to deal with that?

Andrew Hessel: The closest example that I've been able to find is just the internet and our computing architectures. We think we need to really jump forward if we're gonna do a good job with synthetic biology and stay ahead of the curve of nefarious actions. We need to jump to where our cyber defenses are today, which are always on, dynamic, constantly learning. They're basically AI defenses. And we have the capabilities to make those systems today. I think they are being made today. I think there's a lot of people trying to figure out where the best place to apply them is, 'cause it really has to cover everything from the digital design side to the printing and manufacturing side—often done in robotic labs—all the way to the real world, and being able to sense problems.

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Gideon Lichfield: But I guess I'm having trouble thinking about how that would actually look. Because in cybersecurity, you have things like a firewall or an antivirus program that you can put on your network and it detects nefarious activity and stops it or alerts you to it. What is the equivalent of that in biology?

Andrew Hessel: Well, I think we saw it play out with Covid. We had a detection system. Unfortunately, it's often people getting sick and showing up at hospitals that kind of activates that. That's a little too late. I think we can do better than that. And then once we recognized what the threat was and we started tracking it—and we do that with sequencing technologies and other reporting infrastructure—we immediately built antiviruses. It took nine months to get those pushed out the door, which was record-breaking. But I think as we automate this process and make it more intelligent, I think we can actually produce the antivirus within hours of detection of the virus itself, which is going to be the biggest improvement in epidemic disease and public health that we've ever seen.

Gideon Lichfield: Right. I mean, the Covid vaccine was developed in just I think a matter of days in fact. What took time was obviously figuring out how to manufacture it at scale, and also doing the testing to make sure it was safe and effective and getting the approvals. Do you feel—

Andrew Hessel: My understanding—oh, sorry to interrupt. My understanding was it was designed in less than 48 hours. The companies made the decision to go right to clinical-grade manufacturing, which was a big leap of faith, but that's gotten less expensive over time. And then, really, most of the time period was going through the regulatory process and the trials process.

Gideon Lichfield: Let's talk about a couple of other risks that come up when people talk about synthetic biology. In the book, The Genesis Machine, that you co-wrote with Amy Webb, you talk about how synthetic biology could help create healthier offspring. You mentioned things I think like genetic surgery or helping couples have more embryos so that they have a bigger range of embryos to choose from. It starts to feel an awful lot like eugenics, or sound like it. Is that where we're headed to?

Andrew Hessel: I reject the idea of eugenics as kind of a monocropping of people. I certainly believe that we're going to use these genetic engineering tools on ourselves as we become more comfortable with them. I don't think it's—I think it's not appropriate to use them on people first. Unless there is—the downside is you're not gonna be born or you're gonna die immediately. There's certain scenarios where I can see it being ethical and moral to use these technologies right away.

Gideon Lichfield: There's a criticism that's sometimes made of synthetic biology that it's like people are playing God, and I think the obvious response to that is we've been playing God since we started breeding crops and livestock thousands of years ago. But is there a line that could be crossed at which intervention and biology becomes somehow unethical?

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Andrew Hessel: I always say, look, I'm not an ethicist. I'm not trained in that. My arguments are very simplistic. I try and do good things. But for me, I think my ethical line there is pushed pretty far. I would totally support the type of work that the Chinese scientist did that got him in prison.

Gideon Lichfield: The Crispr babies.

Andrew Hessel: The embryos. The Crispr babies. I would totally support that work if it allowed people that couldn't have kids to have kids. If the embryos were just, 100% of them were just miscarrying and they could identify the genetic error and fix it, I would support that work in the same way that IVF allowed me to have kids that I couldn't otherwise have. And I like the idea of being cloned.

Gideon Lichfield: You do?

Andrew Hessel: I love that. I love it.

Gideon Lichfield: Say more.

Andrew Hessel: I turned 60 years old this year, so I'm entering what I call the last quarter of my life. I believe that life is essentially divided up into four quarters, give or take. The last quarter is increasing decline. But all it takes is to bank a few cells, put them in a freezer and put some money in a growth account and leave some instructions with a lawyer or a group, and you could potentially have another go around. An identical twin, in my case, brother born somewhere down the line when the conditions are right and it's legal. I'm not out to push human cloning today, but I absolutely would like to be serially cloned for as long as that's viable. And I expect, if that happens, I fully expect that at some point we'll start doing editing and additions and upgrades as those become accepted, safe and legal.

Gideon Lichfield: It surprises me to hear that, because the clone is not going to be you. They're gonna be born in a different time. They're gonna have different experiences. Obviously it's gonna be a different person and it won't be you anymore than, let's say, a twin brother would be you, an identical twin brother. And so why have a clone? Why not just have a child?

Andrew Hessel: Oh, they're not mutually exclusive, and I have two children. I would have more if I had started younger. I would probably have 10. For me, it's really about the idea of, I've had a great life. My body works really well. It's been largely maintenance free. I'm an autodidact. I love learning. I'm really independent. I just think I'd make a great clone. If my twin is anything like me—and in general, statistically, twins are more similar than non-identical babies—I think I would just like to give another go around. I think they'll be happy and healthy just like my children. They'll still be connected to family. It'll produce some strange loops in the genealogical tree. I also just by—no one accidentally has a clone, so I think that you can put the right runway in place in terms of finances, which is kind of fun. Again, the cells are in stasis. They can sit there for 200 years. You should play with the compound interest calculations for what $1,000 would do over time [chuckle]. It's really quite interesting. And the real challenge at the end of the day with cloning is who's going to do the work of parenting that clone? But the real challenge is who's going to raise these kids that aren't gonna have the conventional biological parents? They might have a conventional biological mother as a surrogate, but the real fun is thinking about the family structure that comes out of this. I wrote an essay on this recently and people are coming out of the woodwork and writing me and then sharing different stories. But it's just part of what I plan to do as I prepare for the end of my life, and over the next, who knows, tomorrow or the next few decades statistically.

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Gideon Lichfield: Alright. You've given us a lot of reasons to feel optimistic about the future with synthetic biology. What worries you? What keeps you up at night?

Andrew Hessel: Synthetic biology is, in my opinion, the most powerful and useful technology for humanity. Life is the only thing we all have in common, and now that we can put our intentions into it, into directing where we go, I think that's totally awesome. The only thing I worry about biologically are these replicators, these viruses, some sporulating bacteria. But I really worry about just this window of time where it's easier to make a virus than it is to defend against a virus, whether it's nature or whether it's a nation, state, or a terrorist, or just a crazy person. I think that risk period is short. I think we'll figure this out pretty quickly. I would like to see us do that without a big mass casualty event. Once we get through that, I think things get really interesting.

Gideon Lichfield: Alright.

[Music]

Gideon Lichfield: Andrew, thank you for joining us on Have a Nice Future.

Andrew Hessel: Thank you for having me.

[Music]

Lauren Goode: So cloning as an investment vehicle [laughter]. That is what I took away from this conversation. It went really quickly from let's cure cancer, to OK IVF, to I would clone myself, and imagine if you just invested $1,000 now and then 200 years from now, you unfroze this code, and voila, look, you have a—

Gideon Lichfield: Right, it's like, you know—

Lauren Goode: You have a rich twin 200 years in the future.

[Laughter]

Gideon Lichfield: Right. It's like the ultimate college fund, except who knows in 200 years if there'll even be such a thing as a college.

Lauren Goode: What did you make of that?

Gideon Lichfield: What did I make? Well, like you, my first reaction was, what on earth is he talking about? Why would you clone yourself? Because you can have kids, and kids have half of your DNA, and why would you want to create a genetic copy of yourself anyway? Because they're going to live a completely different life from what you had. And I guess I wasn't entirely convinced but I also wasn't entirely unconvinced. What he said was, yeah, I have kids already and I could have a clone, and I have pretty good genes and they've produced a pretty good body and a pretty good mind, and I wouldn't mind giving those genes another chance, and I can take the time to set that future copy of my genes up for success by giving them the 200 year college fund or whatever it is. So it didn't seem quite as crazy as all of that at the end to me.

Lauren Goode: But you bring up a great point which is that this is not extending your own lifespan. You are not having the same human experience. You don't have the same set of feelings or emotions, or—if you believe in a soul—a soul. It is a twin, and it's just a twin of you floating around at some point in the future. This strikes me as a bit of narcissism fueling this.

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Gideon Lichfield: OK, but let me play the synthetic biology devil's advocate for a second.

Lauren Goode: OK, OK.

Gideon Lichfield: When you have kids, you are throwing the genetic dice, you are mixing your DNA and that of your partners, and—

Lauren Goode: Oh, is that how you have kids? [laughter] Should we get into the birds and the bees here? You're my boss. Would you like to explain the birds and the bees to me? How does this work exactly? [laughter]

Gideon Lichfield: Are you being sassy?

[Laughter]

Lauren Goode: We should also probably let the audience know that we both happen to be child-free people.

Gideon Lichfield: That is true.

Lauren Goode: So please do not come for us with the pitchforks if we talk about what it must be like to have children. OK, so yes, so you are rolling the—

Gideon Lichfield: But let's get back to it.

Lauren Goode: You're rolling the genetic dice, correct. Like, a lot of things could go wrong, and particularly if you have children when you are at advanced age for reproducing.

Gideon Lichfield: And if you know exactly what DNA is going into your offspring, you're taking less of a gamble. Is it narcissistic? Sure, or certainly—let's put it this way—a lot of very narcissistic people will probably want to have kids that way, and maybe a lot of those offspring will not be such boons to humanity. And frankly, for that matter, Andrew doesn't know that the genetic copy of himself that's born in 200 years will be a nice well-meaning scientifically minded person who's trying to cure humanity's ills. They might be a monster.

Lauren Goode: Right, and I don't wanna conflate having children with cloning. I think the cloning thing is really what's stuck in my brain right now. Although he did say, you asked him about children and he said, well, they're not mutually exclusive. He would like to have had 10 children but also he would like the idea of a clone in the future.

Gideon Lichfield: Right. So, again, to play devil's advocate, if you are willing to say that it's OK to have kids, then what is wrong with having clones? It feels weird and icky and it's narcissistic and all those things, and yet I think when you pull it apart, I find it hard to make an argument against it.

Lauren Goode: OK, interesting. Would you clone yourself?

Gideon Lichfield: That's an interesting question. I've never had a strong desire to have kids, and I feel like, for the same reason, I should not have a strong desire to have a clone. In other words, the argument I'm making is that I think these are basically the same thing. You are causing another human being to be born, and you have a certain responsibility to that human being, I think, if you do that. If I were to set up a clone with a fund 200 years from now, maybe the biggest ethical argument against that is I have no idea what the world is gonna be like 200 years from now. And the present me transported 200 years into the future might look at that world and say, "Hell no. I don't want any child born into this world, at least I don't want to have the responsibility for bringing a child into this world." Then there's a whole other problem which is, the way we bring up children right now is they are born into a family, and so they have a structure around them, and they have relatives, and they have all of that. And if you simply seed a test tube baby to be born 200 years from now, they may have all the money in the world, but if they don't have a family around them, what does that mean for their upbringing? Of course, maybe the world of 200 years from now will have solved that problem too.

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Lauren Goode: Wow, OK. I feel like that's a whole other podcast. That's really—

Gideon Lichfield: I told you Andrew was gonna take us in interesting directions, didn't I?

Lauren Goode: Yeah. It's sort of like, we may solve so many things with synthetic biology, but also that means that our future generations of so-called perfect people are born into alternating seasons of floods and fires or whatever it is. Also, I mean, you did ask the very important question of, OK, at what point does this just become eugenics?

Gideon Lichfield: Right. So, I thought his answer on that was interesting, because he didn't directly answer the question of whether it's OK to give your baby blue eyes or higher intelligence or certain physical characteristics, but he basically implied that it was OK, because he said he doesn't believe that there's going to be what he called monocropping. He didn't think that if we give everyone the capability of designing their babies, that everyone's gonna design the same babies. He said we're still gonna get diversity because people are gonna prioritize different things. I don't know if I buy that. Do you buy that?

Lauren Goode: Well, seeing it's the rich and powerful who tend to get access to these technologies first, I don't—I'm super skeptical that it would be something that would be totally democratized that everyone would be able to use this technology to prevent congenital diseases in babies and make clones of themselves. We would just end up with, I don't know, 500 Peter Thiel clones in the future, which is, I don't know how I feel about that frankly. I feel a lot better hearing your interpretation of what Andrew said about cloning in the future.

Gideon Lichfield: Than you did hearing Andrew's own version of it?

Lauren Goode: I think so, yes. I think so. It was really kind of surprising to hear someone who sounded so professorial and even-keeled and talking about synthetic biology 101 and then all of a sudden like, bam, cloning, yes.

Gideon Lichfield: I think it's my—

Lauren Goode: Me, 200 years in the future [chuckle].

Gideon Lichfield: I think it's my British accent. It makes even the unspeakable sound acceptable.

[Laughter]

Lauren Goode: It's quite soothing. Well, we've joked before that this podcast really is kind of therapy for these topics, so thank you for this therapy session. Please send me the bill.

Gideon Lichfield: OK. You feel more comfortable about cloning now? Would you clone yourself?

Lauren Goode: I still probably wouldn't clone myself. One, because I just, I know hands down that would be the evil Lauren. I am the good Lauren. Literally, my last name is Goode.

Gideon Lichfield: Oh, you are [laughter].

Lauren Goode: I'd like to consider myself a pretty decent human being, all things considered, in like, if I made another me 200 years in the future, it would be like Ava from Ex Machina getting loose in the world. Like, what is she gonna do? Plus, to your point, we just don't know what the world is actually going to be like in 200 years, and I probably wouldn't do that to someone.

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Gideon Lichfield: Alright, so if I clone myself, you're saying that's also gonna be evil Gideon. What do you think evil Gideon would be like?

Lauren Goode: I don't know. What do you think their podcast would be like?

Gideon Lichfield: It would be interviews with dictators—How I Conquered the World.

Lauren Goode: It'd be, a Have a Nice Future, Hahaha.

Gideon Lichfield: Hahaha.

Lauren Goode: Evil laugh. My evil clone would absolutely be named Lauren Badde with an E at the end.

Gideon Lichfield: Lauren B-A-D-D-E?

[Laughter]

Lauren Goode: Yes, a Badde.

Gideon Lichfield: Or Lauren Eville, E-V-I-L-L-E, Eville.

[Laughter]

Lauren Goode: Eville. It's Italian. What did you make of his response to your question that I'll just call the I Am Legend question?

Gideon Lichfield: All right.

Lauren Goode: This idea that we're running headlong into a movie plot where an evil virus is unleashed onto the world.

Gideon Lichfield: Even as I was asking him that question, I was wondering if it was the right one to ask, because my original question to him at that panel that he spoke about was, what if somebody creates a killer virus deliberately? And in the plot of I Am Legend, a scientist creates a virus to cure cancer, which is actually exactly what Andrew's company Humane Genomics is trying to do. And then that virus mutates and turns everybody into zombies. So is it even a fair comparison? And I think what he said in response was that movies like this plant ideas in our minds about the possible risks. But then his response was, it doesn't really matter whether it's created in a lab or whether it's created in nature, whether it mutates or not. The point is, we're gonna have to develop defenses for dealing with viruses that emerge one way or another, and hopefully synthetic biology gives us the tools to do that better than we do today.

[Music]

Gideon Lichfield: That's our show for today.

Lauren Goode: Thank you for listening. Have a Nice Future is hosted by me, Lauren Goode.

Gideon Lichfield: And me, Gideon Lichfield. If you like the show, you should tell us. Leave us a rating and a review wherever you get your podcasts.

Lauren Goode: And don't forget to subscribe so you can get new episodes each week. You can also email us at nicefuture@wired.com.. Tell us what you're worried about, what excites you, any questions you have about the future, and we'll try to get some answers from our guests.

Gideon Lichfield: Have a Nice Future is a production of Condé Nast Entertainment. Danielle Hewitt from Prologue Projects produces the show. Our assistant producer is Arlene Arevalo.

Lauren Goode: See you back here next Wednesday, and until then, have a nice future.

[Music]


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