The new Walter Isaacson book “The Code Breaker” will be raising a whole lot of interesting questions about the soon-to-be extremely interesting future that we’re all going to experience. It certainly has raised quite a few for me personally as I listened to Isaacson’s interview on the Tim Ferriss Show.
The book follows Dr. Jennifer Doudna, a Nobel Prize Winner in chemistry along with Emmanuel Charpentier for their role in developing the CRISPR genome-editing technique. As of the time I have written these words, the book hasn’t been released yet, and I am patiently waiting for my copy to devour the whole thing. But the discussion between Walter and Tim on the podcast had my mind whirring all day long thinking of the repercussions of accessible gene-editing technology.
The technology itself is based on a bacterial anti-viral defense system that allows genes to be cut at a specific location and then removed or replaced, and the consequences and the possibilities are endlessly promising and frightening.
Tim was right to highlight a phrase coined by Issacson: “The three fundamental kernels of our existence: the atom, the bit, and the gene.” Walter expanded on these thoughts quite eloquently during the interview to which I highly recommend you give a listen. The discovery of the atom was an important leap in human scientific knowledge, followed by an even bigger leap by the new language of electronics and binary code, and the more gargantuan leap will be gene editing.
The biggest looming shadow over the development of such a revolutionary technology is that at its early stages of development it is bound to be extremely expensive. This will automatically self-select the demographic with the means to afford such an advanced therapy: the wealthy and powerful.
It’s not a secret that many of the world’s wealthiest individuals are funding scientific research in longevity and other elixirs of youth technologies, one of which undoubtedly will be gene-editing if it’s not already.
And the issues of ethics, government legalization, and oversight are not going to be easy to figure out. The possible benefits clearly outweigh the expected horrors.
Imagine that we can eradicate all genetic diseases from birth. The moment a parent finds out that they can choose their baby to be born completely healthy without any hereditary diseases from either or both parents, they’re going to opt for it without a microsecond of consideration.
Designer babies can be born with full immunity to all known human diseases. And the bar can be set unfathomably higher if parents can decide the eye color, hair type, how tall and strong, their IQ, agility, and the list is simply endless.
Further along the line, perhaps the technology could be used to edit the genes of fully grown human beings, and that’s when all bets are off. Humankind will be able to engineer its own evolution.
Anyone can turn themselves into Olympic athletes with unbelievable strength, speed, agility, or hand-eye coordination. Possibly even dictating the specs based on a specific record they want to break.
Governments will finally get their way to build Jean-Claude Van Dam-style super soldiers.
Countries with extreme weather conditions will be able to make use of it to program their population to withstand extreme conditions. and who knows, this could even lead to the colonization of Antarctica or the depths of the ocean.
And obviously, those who want to live forever, will!
Trust me, if people get the choice, they will have superpowers!
And don’t even try to think of the implications this will have on gender transformation and plastic surgery. No more messy knives and unfortunate accidents with gene therapy, people can literally transform their bodies and looks, cleanly, permanently, and without pain.
This will usher in the age of self-deign.
It’s mind-boggling potential, especially to someone who is an avid science fiction fanboy like myself who’s been rummaging through all the Alastair Reynolds novels he can find.
Alastair Reynolds builds rich and quite complicated worlds in thousands and millions of years in the future where people are literally immortal and can hop through the galaxy over thousands of years.
The gene-editing technology could herald the first transhumanism trend in the accelerating human evolution. But more importantly, it could have a fundamental role in the human race being multi-planetary, and one day, a starfaring species.
With a successful test flight for the second-stage SN10 Space-X Starship literally a couple of days ago, the countdown towards the colonization of Mars is drawing nearer. But that is only half the battle because human beings are not built to handle long exposure to space. NASA has been doing lots of experimentation in the ISS to study the effects of long-term exposure to space. One of the best documentaries about the topic is “A Year in Space” about the astronaut Scott Kelly’s experiment staying abroad the ISS for a full year.
It is not pretty. Astronauts get back with bad eyesight, issues with bone density, and unknown effects from long-term exposure to cosmic radiation.
So what if we can send people in starships who have gone through gene therapy to make them immune to such adverse effects of space travel, and even the ability to physically adapt to whatever harsh conditions on other distant planets.
When Elon Musk speaks about Mars, there are extensive plans and thoughts about terraforming and making the planet hospitable to human beings.
But what if by the time Musk perfects his planet-hopping spaceships, human beings are adaptable to any and all conditions, by choice? It’s a huge question!
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